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French battleship Bretagne

Name: Bretagne
Namesake: Brittany
Laid down: 1 July 1912
Launched: 21 April 1913
Completed: September 1915
Commissioned: 10 February 1916
Fate: Sunk by gunfire from HMS Hood, Valiant and Resolution, 3 July 1940
General characteristics
Class and type: Bretagne-class battleship
  • Normal: 23,936 metric tons (23,558 long tons)
  • Full load: 26,000 metric tons (26,000 long tons)
Length: 166 m (544 ft 7 in)
Beam: 26.9 m (88 ft 3 in)
Draft: 9.8 m (32 ft 2 in)
Installed power:
Propulsion: 4 shafts, Parsons steam turbines
Speed: 20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph)
Range: 4,600 nmi (8,500 km; 5,300 mi) at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph)
  • 34 officers
  • 139 petty officers
  • 1,020 enlisted

Bretagne was a battleship of the French Navy built in the 1910s, and the lead ship of her class; she had two sister ships, Provence and Lorraine. The ship was laid down in July 1912 at the Arsenal de Brest, launched in April 1913, and commissioned into the fleet in February 1916, after the outbreak of World War I. She was named in honour of the French region of Brittany, and was armed with a main battery of ten 340 mm (13 in) guns.

Bretagne spent the bulk of her career in the French Mediterranean Squadron. During World War I, she was stationed at Corfu to prevent the Austro-Hungarian fleet from leaving the Adriatic Sea, but she saw no action. She remained in service during the 1920s and 1930s, while her sisters were placed in reserve. She participated in non-intervention patrols during the Spanish Civil War. Bretagne escorted convoys after the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, and was stationed in Mers-el-Kébir when France surrendered on 22 June 1940. Fearful that the Germans would seize the French Navy, the British Royal Navy attacked the ships at Mers-el-Kébir; in the attack Bretagne was hit badly and exploded, killing the majority of her crew. The wreck was eventually raised in 1952 and broken up for scrap.


Bretagne-class design as depicted by Brassey's Naval Annual 1915

Bretagne was 166 meters (544 ft 7 in) long overall and had a beam of 26.9 m (88 ft 3 in) and a full-load draft of 9.8 m (32 ft 2 in). She displaced around 25,000 metric tons (25,000 long tons; 28,000 short tons) at full load and had a crew of between 1124 and 1133 officers and enlisted men. She was powered by four Parsons steam turbines with twenty-four Niclausse boilers. They were rated at 29,000 shaft horsepower (22,000 kW) and provided a top speed of 20 knots (37 km/h; 23 mph). Coal storage amounted to 2,680 t (2,640 long tons; 2,950 short tons).[1]

Bretagne's main battery consisted of ten 340mm/45 Modèle 1912 guns mounted in five twin gun turrets, numbered from front to rear. They were placed all on the centerline; two were in a superfiring pair forward, one amidships, and the last two in a superfiring arrangement aft. The secondary battery consisted of twenty-two Canon de 138 mm Modèle 1910 guns in casemates along the length of the hull. She also carried seven 47 mm (1.9 in) Hotchkiss guns, two on the conning tower and one on the roof of each turret.[2] The ship was also armed with four submerged 450 mm (17.7 in) torpedo tubes. The ship's main belt was 270 mm (10.6 in) thick and the main battery was protected by up to 300 mm (11.8 in) of armour. The conning tower had 314 mm (12.4 in) thick sides.[1]


Bretagne was laid down at the Arsenal de Brest on 1 July 1912, launched on 21 April 1913, and completed in September 1915.[1] She was commissioned into the French Navy on 10 February 1916.[3] After entering service in 1916, Bretagne and her sisters were assigned to the 1st Division of the 1st Battle Squadron, their unit for the remainder of the war,[4] Bretagne becoming flagship of the squadron.[5] They spent the majority of their time at Corfu to prevent the Austro-Hungarian fleet from attempting to break out of the Adriatic.[6] The fleet's presence was also intended to intimidate Greece, which had become increasingly hostile to the Triple Entente. Later in the war, men were drawn from their crews for anti-submarine warfare vessels. As the Austro-Hungarians largely remained in port for the duration of the war, Bretagne saw no action during the conflict.[4] Indeed, she did not leave port at all for the entirety of 1917,[7] due to a severe shortage of coal at Corfu. Around July 1918, the ship's foremast was replaced by a tripod foremast that mounted an experimental fire-control director and her mainmast was shortened to allow the ship to fly a captive kite balloon.[5] Bretagne returned to Toulon in November 1918.[8]

The ship received a lengthy refit at Toulon from 12 June 1919 to 18 October 1920. This included modifications to her gun turrets that increased the elevation of the 340-millimeter (13 in) from 12° to 18° and thus their maximum range to 21,000 meters (23,000 yd). The four forward 138-millimeter (5.4 in) guns were removed. Both 75-millimeter (3.0 in) anti-aircraft (AA) guns and two 47-millimeter guns were replaced by four 75 mm AA guns mounted on the forward superstructure. A Vickers fire-control director replaced the experimental model and it was equipped with a 3.66-meter (12 ft 0 in) rangefinder. Two additional 2-meter (6 ft 7 in) rangefinders were installed, one on each side of the superstructure, to control the 138 mm guns.[9] Bretagne became flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet in mid-June 1921[5] and the ship accompanied Provence to Le Havre for a naval review, and were back in Toulon in September. In 1922, Provence and Lorraine were placed in reserve, leaving Bretagne the only member of her class in service. She spent the 1920s conducting periodic fleet manoeuvres and cruises around the Mediterranean and to French colonial possessions in West Africa.[8] Provence became the fleet flagship in September 1923.[5]

Bretagne received a major refit at Toulon from 1 May 1924 to 29 September 1925, during which the elevation of her main armament was increased to 23°, giving her a maximum range of 23,700 meters (25,900 yd), the forward hull armour was removed to make her less bow heavy, one group of boilers was converted to oil-firing and two 1.5-meter (4 ft 11 in) high-angle rangefinders were added for the AA guns.[9] The ship resumed her position as flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet in October after her refit was completed, but Provence assumed that role in October 1927[5] when Bretagne began another refit to repair her boilers. The navy took the opportunity to upgrade her fire-control systems; replacing her Vickers system with a French Chamond-Granat model, adding a 4.57-meter (15 ft 0 in) rangefinder at the top of the foremast and another on the conning tower.[10]

Bretagne was modernised in 1931–32; her torpedo tubes and four more 138 mm guns were removed while four more 75 mm anti-aircraft guns were added.[5] In 1934, Bretagne and Provence were assigned to the 2nd Squadron in the Atlantic. There, they joined fleet exercises off the Azores, Madeira and Morocco. The two ships took part in a cruise to Africa in 1936. In August, they were involved in non-intervention patrols after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War; these patrols lasted until April 1937.[8]

World War II

At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Bretagne was based in Toulon. At the time, Italy remained neutral, so there was no immediate threat to the Mediterranean Fleet.[8] In December, Bretagne covered convoy traffic in the Atlantic. On 4 December, she and Provence, along with the cruisers Colbert, Dupleix, and Primauguet and several destroyers and submarines operated out of Dakar. Around the middle of the month, the task force began to return to the Mediterranean.[11] After returning to Toulon, Bretagne underwent an extensive overhaul, which lasted until 3 March 1940.[8] On 11 March, she left France carrying 1,820 boxes of gold bars from the French treasury along with the cruiser Algérie, which carried another 1,179 boxes. They arrived in Halifax on 10 April. On the return voyage, they escorted two American merchant ships carrying 82 aircraft bought by France and arrived at Toulon on 10 April.[5] On 27 April, Bretagne and her two sisters were transferred to Alexandria.[12] Bretagne and Provence returned to Mers El Kébir on 18 May.[13]


The sinking of Bretagne

Following the French surrender on 22 June, the French fleet was to be disarmed under German and Italian supervision, under the terms of the Armistice. The British high command, however, was concerned that the French ships would be seized by the Axis powers and placed in service. The Axis navies would then outnumber the British Royal Navy. Prime Minister Winston Churchill therefore ordered Vice Admiral James Somerville, the commander of Force H, to neutralise the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir. He was instructed to order the French vessels to join the British with the Free French, surrender for internment, to scuttle themselves, or be sunk. On 3 July, Somerville arrived and delivered the ultimatum; the French rejected it, and so the British ships opened fire.[14]

Bretagne was hit by four 15-inch (380 mm) projectiles from HMS Hood, HMS Resolution, and HMS Valiant (no ship is individually credited). The two first shells struck simultaneously in the third British salvo. The first hit the ship below the waterline under turret IV, igniting some 340 mm shells and triggering a massive explosion. The deflagration blew up bulkheads and watertight doors and set all the stern ablaze, killing about 350 sailors. In the meantime, a hole on the starboard side of the ship allowed water (estimated at a rate of 300 tons per minute) to pour in. This flooding prevented the complete destruction of the ship: it limited the fire around the aft 340 mm magazines, which were now open to the air.

The second shell struck above the waterline, in the aft engine room, killing all the sailors inside and damaged the internal communication system of the ship.

Seven minutes later, two other high-calibre shells struck the Bretagne at the same time. The first detonated at the base of the tripod mast, igniting some ready-to-use anti-aircraft projectiles which were stored in lockers next to the anti-aircraft mounts. The second went through the central 138 mm casement, exploding deep inside the ship. A fire started, with leaking oil burning next to the ship. In about thirty seconds, the ship rolled and exploded.

The sinking killed 977 of her crew, the majority of the 1,147 French naval personnel killed in the attack.[15] Some initial salvaging work was done in the aftermath of the attack, but the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942 interrupted the work.[16] Because she was an impediment to the work of extension of the military harbour (which was now a full military complex with anti-atomic bunkers), Bretagne ultimately was salvaged from 1952 to 1954. The hull was cut into big parts, which were raised and scrapped ashore.


  1. ^ a b c Gardiner & Gray, p. 198.
  2. ^ Dumas, p. 83.
  3. ^ Dumas, p. 79.
  4. ^ a b Whitley, p. 42.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Meirat, p. 26.
  6. ^ Halpern, p. 19.
  7. ^ Whitley, pp. 42–43.
  8. ^ a b c d e Whitley, p. 43.
  9. ^ a b Dumas, p. 158.
  10. ^ Dumas, pp. 158, 163.
  11. ^ Rohwer, p. 10.
  12. ^ Rohwer, p. 21.
  13. ^ Rohwer, p. 24.
  14. ^ Robertson & Dent, p. 25.
  15. ^ Rohwer, p. 31.
  16. ^ Whitley, p. 44.


  • Dumas, Robert (1986). "The French Dreadnoughts: The 23,500 ton Bretagne Class". In Lambert, Andrew D. Warship. X. London: Conway Maritime Press. pp. 74–85, 158–165. ISBN 978-0-85177-449-7. 
  • Gardiner, Robert; Gray, Randal, eds. (1985). Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships: 1906–1921. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-0-87021-907-8. 
  • Halpern, Paul G. (2004). The Battle of the Otranto Straits. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0-253-34379-6. 
  • Meirat, Jean (1978). "French Battleships Lorraine, Bretagne and Provence". F. P. D. S. Newsletter. Akron, Ohio: F. P. D. S. VI (4): 26–27. 
  • Rohwer, Jürgen (2005). Chronology of the War at Sea, 1939–1945: The Naval History of World War Two. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-119-8. 
  • Robertson, Stuart; Dent, Stephen (2007). Conway's The War at Sea in Photographs 1939–1945. London, UK: Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 978-1-84486-045-6. 
  • Whitley, M. J. (1998). Battleships of World War II. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-55750-184-4. 

Further reading

  • Dumas, Robert; Guiglini, Jean (1980). Les cuirassés français de 23,500 tonnes (in French). Grenoble, France: Editions de 4 Seigneurs. OCLC 7836734. 
  • Hore, Peter (2006). Battleships of World War I. London: Southwater Books. ISBN 978-1-84476-377-1. 
  • Jordan, John; Dumas, Robert (2009). French Battleships 1922–1956. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-416-8. 
  • O'Hara, Vincent P.; Dickson, W. David; Worth, Richard (2010). On Seas Contested: The Seven Great Navies of the Second World War. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-646-9.