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Béarn in 1935
|Laid down:||10 January 1914|
|Struck:||21 March 1967|
|Length:||182.6 m (599 ft 1 in) (o/a)|
|Beam:||35.2 m (115 ft 6 in)|
|Draft:||9.3 m (30 ft 6 in)|
|Speed:||21.5 kn (39.8 km/h; 24.7 mph)|
|Range:||7,000 nmi (13,000 km; 8,100 mi) at 10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph)|
Béarn was an aircraft carrier which served with the Marine nationale (French Navy) in World War II and beyond. Béarn was commissioned in 1927 and was the only aircraft carrier produced by France until after World War II, and the only ship of its class built. She was to be an experimental ship and was slated for replacement in the 1930s by two new ships of the Joffre class. She was generally comparable to other early carriers developed by the major navies of the world. However, France did not produce a further replacement and as naval aviation lagged in France, Béarn continued to serve past her time of obsolescence. In 1939, she ended her career as an experimental ship, but after the defeat of France in June 1940 she was docked at Martinique, where she remained for the next four years. Eventually she was sent to the United States for a refit which ended in March 1945, allowing her to serve briefly before the end of the war as an aircraft transport. Her career ended in 1967 when she was finally dismantled. Over the course of her long career, Béarn never launched her aircraft in combat. She was named after the historic French province of Béarn.
Béarn was originally designed as a Normandie-class battleship; she was laid down at the Société Nouvelle des Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée shipyard in La Seyne on 10 January 1914. The outbreak of World War I in August 1914 interrupted work, which was halted for the duration of the conflict. By that time, work on Béarn had not significantly progressed: her hull was only 8–10 percent complete and her engines were only 25 percent finished. Her boilers were 17 percent assembled, and her turrets were at 20 percent completed. The incomplete hull was launched in April 1920 to clear the slipway, though the Navy had not yet decided what to do with it.
That year, a French delegation visited the British aircraft carrier HMS Argus, and out of this visit came the proposal to convert Béarn into an aircraft carrier, which was designated Project 171. On 18 April 1922, the Navy determined that Béarn was to be completed as an aircraft carrier. Her four sisters, which were at further stages of completion, were instead broken up for scrap. Much of the material from breaking up these ships was used to complete Béarn and several cruisers also ordered in 1922. Conversion work began in August 1923, and lasted until May 1927.
Béarn was 170.6 m (560 ft) long between perpendiculars and 182.6 m (599 ft) long overall. She had a beam of 27.13 m (89.0 ft) and a draft of 9.3 m (31 ft). Her standard displacement was 22,146 long tons (22,501 t), which at full load increased to 28,400 long tons (28,900 t). A retractable charthouse was installed in the flight deck toward the bow of the ship.
She was equipped with two sets of steam turbines that drove the inner pair of propeller shafts and a pair of reciprocating engines that powered the outer shafts. Steam was supplied by six Normand du Temple water-tube boilers that were trunked into a single funnel on the starboard side of the flight deck. A large vented chamber was fitted below the funnel to mix cooler air with the boiler exhaust, which was intended to reduce air turbulence over the flight deck. Béarn's propulsion system enabled her to steam at a top speed of 21.5 knots (39.8 km/h; 24.7 mph). She carried 2,160 long tons (2,190 t) of fuel oil. At a cruising speed of 10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph), the ship could steam for 6,000 nautical miles (11,000 km; 6,900 mi). She had a crew of 875 officers and men.
Béarn was originally built to accommodate up to 40 aircraft. Her initial complement consisted of a squadron of twelve torpedo bombers, twelve reconnaissance aircraft, and a squadron of eight fighters. The ship's aviation facilities consisted of a 180-meter-long (590 ft) flight deck and three electrically powered elevators; the aft and central elevators were larger and were intended to handle the larger torpedo bombers and reconnaissance aircraft, while the smaller fighters could be lifted by the smaller forward elevator. She had a pair of hangars that were 124-metre (407 ft) long. Below the hangar, there were aircraft maintenance facilities and storage for spare parts. Béarn stored up to 3,530 cubic feet (100 m3) of aviation gasoline and 530 cu ft (15 m3) of oil, which was protected by inert gas.
The ship's gun armament comprised eight 6.1 in (150 mm) /55 Mod 21 guns in casemates for defense against surface attack, and six 76 mm (3.0 in) anti-aircraft (AA) guns, eight 37 mm (1.5 in) AA guns, and sixteen machine guns. In 1944–1945, she was refitted in the United States and equipped with a new anti-aircraft battery that consisted of four 5"/38 dual-purpose guns in single mounts, twenty-four Bofors 40 mm guns in six quadruple mounts, and twenty-six Oerlikon 20 mm guns in individual mountings.
Before the decision to convert Béarn into an aircraft carrier was made, the French Navy decided to construct a mocked-up flight deck on the unfinished hull after it was launched in April 1920. The aviator Paul Teste conducted a series of landing experiments on the temporary flight deck that concluded in October. These experiments convinced the Navy to convert Béarn as a semi-experimental ship, which should be replaced by purpose-built aircraft carriers as soon as was practicable. The Joffre class, ordered in the late 1930s, were nevertheless not completed. In the meantime, Béarn was commissioned for sea trials that began on 1 September 1926, and couple with final fitting-out work, lasted to May 1928, when she joined the French fleet on active service. In the late 1920s, André Jubelin, a future admiral and pioneer of the French naval air force, served aboard the ship. In March 1936, a Potez 565 took off from Béarn, the first time a twin-engined aircraft had ever operated from an aircraft carrier.
At the French declaration of war against Germany on 3 September 1939, Béarn was assigned to the Force de Raid, under the command of Admiral Gensoul, along with the battleships Dunkerque and Strasbourg, three light cruisers, and eight destroyers. A month later, the carrier was tasked with hunting down the German cruiser Admiral Graf Spee, as part of an immense effort to destroy the commerce raider. At this time, she and Dunkerque served as the core of Force L, and along with three light cruisers, were tasked with searching the West Indies for Admiral Graf Spee.
During the German invasion of France in 1940, Béarn was ordered to Toulon, to load French gold bullion for transfer overseas. On 25 May, Béarn met up with the light cruisers Jeanne d'Arc and Émile Bertin at an Atlantic rendezvous, and the flotilla successfully carried Bank of France bullion reserves to Halifax, Canada. Béarn then went to the U.S. East Coast to load new aircraft which had been ordered from American manufacturers, including twenty-seven Curtiss H-75s, forty-four SBC Helldivers, twenty-five Stinson 105s, and also six Brewster Buffaloes intended for the Belgian Air Component. Before these aircraft could reach their destination, the armistice with Germany was signed, and Béarn instead sought harbor in Martinique, her crew showing little inclination to join the British in their continued fight against the Nazis. She was one of a number of French ships that were effectively interned at Martinique—at U.S. insistence—to prevent their use by Germany. The carrier's aircraft were unloaded ashore, where a significant number of them were destroyed either by exposure to the elements or scavenging.
On 14 May 1942, the United States pressured Martinique to demilitarize the ship due to the pro-Vichy leanings of her crew. On 30 June 1943, the ship was handed over to the Free French Naval Forces, along with Jeanne d'Arc and Émile Bertin, which had also been interned in the Caribbean. Béarn remained in Martinique until 1944, and was then sent to the United States for a major refit. The modernization, which lasted until March 1945, upgraded her anti-aircraft armament and optimized her for her role as an aircraft transport.
This role was continued after the war, as part of the French attempt to recover their possessions in Indochina. Béarn arrived in Indochina in mid-October 1945, as part of a major French effort to reassert control over the colony. Among the forces committed to the region were the battleship Richelieu, the cruisers Gloire and Suffren, and several smaller warships. In December 1945, Béarn transported fourteen LCAs and six LCVPs from Singapore to Vietnam, and contributed a shore party to man them in the Dinassauts. After returning from Indochina, the ship was used as a barracks ship for submarines based in Toulon. Béarn remained in this duty until she was sold on 31 May 1967 to shipbreakers in Italy, where she was subsequently dismantled. Over the course of her long career, Béarn never launched her aircraft in combat.