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French submarine Surcouf

Surcouf FRA.jpg
Le Surcouf circa 1935 painted in Prussian dark blue
Name: Surcouf
Namesake: Robert Surcouf
Ordered: 4 August 1926
Builder: Arsenal de Cherbourg
Laid down: July 1 1927
Launched: November 18 1929
Commissioned: April 16 1934
In service: 1934–1942
Refit: 1941
Identification: Pennant number: N N 3
Honors and
Resistance Medal with rosette
Fate: disappeared, February 18 1942
General characteristics
Type: Cruiser submarine
  • 3,250 long tons (3,300 t) (surfaced)
  • 4,304 long tons (4,373 t) (submerged)
  • 2,880 long tons (2,930 t) (dead)
Length: 110 m (361 ft)
Beam: 9 m (29 ft 6 in)
Draft: 7.25 m (23 ft 9 in)
Installed power:
  • 7,600 hp (5,700 kW) (surfaced)
  • 3,400 hp (2,500 kW) (submerged)
  • 18.5 knots (34.3 km/h; 21.3 mph) (surfaced)
  • 10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph) (submerged)
  • Surfaced:
  • 18,500 km (10,000 nmi; 11,500 mi) at 10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph)
  • 12,600 km (6,800 nmi; 7,800 mi) at 13.5 kn (25.0 km/h; 15.5 mph)
  • Submerged:
  • 130 km (70 nmi; 81 mi) at 4.5 kn (8.3 km/h; 5.2 mph)
  • 110 km (59 nmi; 68 mi) at 5 kn (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph)
Endurance: 90 days
Test depth: 80 m (260 ft)
Boats & landing
craft carried:
2 × motorboats in watertight deck well
Capacity: 280 long tons (280 t)
Complement: 8 officers and 110 men
Aircraft carried: 1 × Besson MB.411 floatplane
Aviation facilities: Hangar

Surcouf (French: Le Surcouf) was the largest French submarine cruiser having served during the Second World War. The boat was sunk by accident or misunderstanding during the night of February 19 1942 in the Caribbean Sea. In tonnage, the boat was also the largest military submarine in the world for the époque. Surcouf – named after the French privateer Robert Surcouf – was the largest submarine ever built until surpassed by the first Japanese I-400-class submarine in 1943.


The Washington Naval Treaty had placed strict limits on naval construction by the major naval powers in regards to displacements and artillery calibers of line ships (French: bâtiments de ligne) and croiseurs. However, no accords was filed in motion for light ships (French: bâtiments légers such (torpilleurs, contre-torpilleurs, frigates or destroyers) neither for submarines. In addition, to ensure the country's protection and that of the empire, France mounted the construction of an important submarine fleet (79 units in 1939). Le Surcouf was supposed to be the first of a series of the submarine cruisers; however, it was the only one produced.

The missions were revolved around the following:

Surcouf had a twin artillery turret with 203 mm (8-inch) guns, the same calibre as that of a heavy cruiser ( the main reason of Le Sourcouf being designated as croiseur sous-marin - "submarine cruiser") provisioned with 600 rounds.

Surcouf was designed as an "underwater heavy cruiser", intended to seek and engage in surface combat.[1] For reconnaissance purposes, the boat carried a Besson MB.411 observation floatplane in a hangar built abaft of the conning tower. However, the floatplane was also mainly used for gun calibration purposes.

The boat was equipped with a 12 torpedo tube launch mechanisms, eight 550 mm (22 in) and four 400 mm (16 in) torpedo tubes, in addition to 12 torpedoes in reserve. The 203mm/50 Modèle 1924 guns were in a pressure-tight turret forward of the conning tower. The guns had a 60 round magazine capacity and was controlled by a director with a 5 m (16 ft) rangefinder, mounted high enough to view a 11 km (5.9 nmi; 6.8 mi) horizon, and able to fire within three minutes after surfacing.[2] Using the boat's periscopes to direct the fire of the main guns, Surcouf could increase this range to 16 km (8.6 nmi; 9.9 mi); originally an elevating platform was supposed to lift lookouts 15 m (49 ft) high, but this design was abandoned quickly due to the effect of roll.[3]

In theory, the Besson observation plane could be used to direct fire out to the guns' 24 mi (21 nmi; 39 km) maximum range. Anti-aircraft cannon and machine guns were mounted on the top of the hangar.

Surcouf also carried a 4.5 m (14 ft 9 in) motorboat, and contained a cargo compartment with fittings to restrain 40 prisoners or lodge 40 passengers. The submarine's fuel tanks were very large; enough fuel for a 10,000 nmi (19,000 km; 12,000 mi) range and supplies for 90-day patrols could be carried.

The maximum safe diving depth was 80 meters, however, the boat was capable of reach diving 110 meters without notable deformations to the boat's thick hull, with a flambage depth (flexibility measurement factor of a structure under compression) of 178 meters. Crushing depth was calculated at 491 meters.

The first Commandant was Capitaine de frigate Raymond de Belot.

The boat did face several challenges and set-backs due to the utilization of the 203mm artillery.

To replace the hydroplane whose functioning was initially constrained and limited in use, trails were conducted on the Autogyros on board Surcouf in 1938.

Appearance of Surcouf

Surcouf was never painted in olive green as shown on numerous maquettes and drawings. From the beginning of the boat's career until 1932, the boat was painted of the same grey color as surface warships (French: bâtiments de surface), then in Prussian dark blue, a color which was conserved until the end of 1940 where the boat was repainted by two tons of grey, serving as camouflage on the hull and conning tower.

Surcouf is often depicted in the boat's 1932 state, harboring the beaupré pavilion of the Free French Naval Forces which wasn't created until 1940.

Successive configurations of Surcouf
Original configuration (1932) 
1934 configuration, with Prussian blue paintwork 
1938 configuration: radio mast removed and different conning tower 
1940 configuration, with the two-tone gray painting and the 17P identification number on the conning tower 

WWII Prelude

During the invasion of France by the German troops on May 1940, Surcouf was in a major refitting maintenance session (French: grand carénage) at Brest following a mission in the Antilles and Gulf of Guinea. To avoid capture, the submarine was activated under the orders of Capitaine de frégate Martin. With maintenance not completed and not able to dive, the boat sailed to Plymouth while surfaced. On July 3 1940, the refuged French naval vessels (French: les bâtiments français) in Great Britain were apprehended by the British, during Operation Catapult (French: Opération Catapult).

The apprehension of Surcouf was at the expense of four dead, one French (mechanics engineer Yves Daniel), and three British Royal Navy personnel (Commander Sprague, submarine Commandant Thames, Lieutenant Griffith, intelligence officer in charge of executing the apprehension, and Quartermaster Webb).

Le Surcouf was then the largest submarine in the world. The 203mm artillery cannons could each fire three rounds per minute, reaching a distance of 26 kilometers.

Despite the British lack of enthusiasm, taking into consideration the complexity, the missing parts requiring replacements and qualified submarine sailors, Surcouf was nevertheless re-armed with great difficulty. First commanded by Capitaine de Frégate Ortoli which was the boat's artillery officer during trials in 1932, the boat served in the Free French Naval Forces, after having been modernized at the arsenal of Portsmouth (United States). However, the boat was not equipped with radar. On December 24 1941, a FNFL flotilla composed of Surcouf and Corvette Flower-classes Escorteurs Mimosa, Alysse, Aconit, commanded by Vice-Admiral Émile Muselier (French: Muselier) rallied Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon to free France (French: rallia Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon à la France libre).

Le Surcouf disappeared on the night of February 18 and 19, 1942 north of the Panama Canal, at 11° north and 79° west, shortly after appearing in Bermuda on February 12. The official American report concluded the disappearing of Surcouf was due to an accidental collision with the U.S. cargo ship Thomson Lykes. Like all submarines of the time (the snorkel having not been operational until 1943), the Surcouf was navigating at night surfaced to recharge the boat's batteries, with the boat's navigation lights turned off in order to avoid detection.

Later, the investigation of the French commission concluded that the disappearance was the consequence of an accidental misunderstanding. A PBY Catalina sea plane was in charge of defending the same waters on the night of February 18 and 19 1942, could have bombarded Surcouf, mistakenly taking the large submarine for a large German or Japanese submarine. This version could have been backed by several elements:

This assumed accidental collision or misunderstanding concluded 130 deaths (out of which 4 British personnel of the Royal Navy), under the orders of Capitaine de frigate Georges Louis Nicolas Blaison.

A monument commemorates the memory of the largest submarine on the pier of the port of Cherbourg.


Early career

Soon after Surcouf was launched, the London Naval Treaty finally placed restrictions on submarine designs. Among other things, each signatory (France included) was permitted to possess no more than three large submarines, each not exceeding 2,800 long tons (2,800 t) standard displacement, with guns not exceeding 6.1 in (150 mm) in caliber. Surcouf, which would have exceeded these limits, was specially exempt from the rules at the insistence of Navy Minister Georges Leygues,[2] but other 'big-gun' submarines of this boat's class could no longer be built.

Second World War

Seizure of Surcouf
Part of World War II
Date July 3, 1940
Location Plymouth, England, United Kingdom
Result British capture of Surcouf
United Kingdom United Kingdom France France
Casualties and losses
3 killed 1 killed

In 1940, Surcouf was based in Cherbourg, but in May, when the Germans invaded, she was being refitted in Brest. With only one engine functioning and with a jammed rudder, she limped across the English Channel and sought refuge in Plymouth.

On 3 July, the British, concerned that the French Fleet would be taken over by the German Kriegsmarine at the French armistice, executed Operation Catapult. The Royal Navy blockaded the harbours where French warships were anchored and delivered an ultimatum: re-join the fight against Germany, be put out of reach of the Germans or scuttle the ships. Most accepted willingly, with two notable exceptions: the North African fleet at Mers-el-Kebir and the ships based at Dakar (West Africa). The French battleships at North Africa were eventually attacked and sunk at their moorings by the Mediterranean Fleet.

French ships lying at ports in Britain and Canada were also boarded by armed marines, sailors and soldiers, and the only serious incident took place at Plymouth aboard Surcouf on 3 July, when two Royal Navy submarine officers, Cdr Denis 'Lofty' Sprague, captain of HMS Thames and Lt Griffiths of HMS Rorqual,[4][5] and French warrant officer mechanic Yves Daniel[6] were fatally wounded, and a British seaman, L. S. Webb,[4] was shot dead by the submarine's doctor.[7]

Free French naval forces

By August 1940, the British completed Surcouf's refit and turned her over to the Free French Navy (Forces Navales Françaises Libres, FNFL) for convoy patrol. The only officer not repatriated from the original crew, Capitaine de Frégate (Commander) Georges Louis Blaison, became the new commanding officer. Because of the British-French tensions with regard to the submarine, accusations were made by each side that the other was spying for Vichy France; the British also claimed that Surcouf was attacking British ships. Later, a British officer and two sailors were put on board for "liaison" purposes. One real drawback of this submarine was that it required a crew of 110–130 men, which represented three crews of more conventional submarines. This led to Royal Navy reluctance to recommission her.

Surcouf then went to the Canadian base at Halifax, Nova Scotia and escorted trans-Atlantic convoys. In April 1941, she was damaged by a German plane at Devonport.[6]

On 28 July, Surcouf went to the United States Naval Shipyard at Portsmouth, New Hampshire for a three-month refit.[2] The U.S. was technically violating its neutrality as the U.S. had diplomatic relations with Vichy France at the time and did not recognize Free France. As Free France was allied with the United Kingdom and, therefore, a belligerent, the United States was violating neutrality by giving military assistance to a belligerent, as it had done with the Lend-Lease agreement and the neutrality patrol.

After leaving the shipyard, Surcouf went to New London, Connecticut, perhaps to receive additional training for her crew. Surcouf left New London on 27 November to return to Halifax.

Liberation of St. Pierre and Miquelon

In December 1941, Surcouf carried the Free French Admiral Émile Muselier to Canada, putting into Quebec City. While the Admiral was in Ottawa, conferring with the Canadian government, Surcouf's captain was approached by New York Times reporter Ira Wolfert and questioned about the rumours that the submarine would liberate Saint-Pierre and Miquelon (a French archipelago 10 kilometres from Newfoundland) for Free France from Vichy control. Wolfert accompanied the submarine to Halifax, Nova Scotia where, on 20 December, they joined the Free French corvettes Mimosa, Aconit, and Alysse, and on 24 December took control of the islands for Free France without resistance.

United States Secretary of State Cordell Hull had just concluded an agreement with the Vichy government guaranteeing the neutrality of French possessions in the Western hemisphere, and he threatened to resign unless President of the United States Franklin D. Roosevelt demanded a restoration of the status quo. Roosevelt did so, but when Charles de Gaulle refused, he dropped the matter. Ira Wolfert's stories – very favourable to the Free French (and bearing no sign of kidnapping or other duress) – helped swing American popular opinion away from Vichy. The Axis Powers' declaration of war on the United States in December 1941 negated the agreement but the U.S. did not sever diplomatic ties with the Vichy Government until November 1942.

Later operations

In January 1942, the Free French decided to send Surcouf to the Pacific theatre of war, after she re-supplied at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda. Her movement south triggered rumours that she was going to liberate Martinique for the Free French from Vichy.

After the outbreak of war with Japan, Surcouf was ordered to Sydney, Australia via Tahiti.[2] She departed Halifax on 2 February for Bermuda, which she left on 12 February, bound for the Panama Canal.[6]


Surcouf may have been sunk on 18 February 1942 about 80 mi (70 nmi; 130 km) north of Cristóbal, Colón, while en route for Tahiti via the Panama Canal. The American freighter Thompson Lykes, steaming alone from Guantanamo Bay on what was a very dark night, reported hitting and running down a partially submerged object which scraped along her side and keel. Her lookouts heard people in the water but the freighter carried on its course without stopping, as they thought that they had struck a German U-boat, though cries for help were heard in English. A signal was sent to Panama describing the incident.[8][9] The loss of Surcouf was announced by the Free French Headquarters in London on 18 April 1942.[10]

Inquiries into the incident were haphazard and late, while a later French inquiry supported the idea that the sinking had been due to "friendly fire"; this conclusion was supported by Rear Admiral Auphan in his book The French Navy in World War II[11] in which he states: "for reasons which appear to have been primarily political, she was rammed at night in the Caribbean by an American freighter." Charles de Gaulle stated in his memoirs[12] that Surcouf "had sunk with all hands".

As no one has officially dived or verified the wreck of Surcouf, its location is unknown. If one assumes the Thompson Lykes incident was indeed the event of Surcouf's sinking, then the wreck would lie 3,000 m (9,800 ft) deep at 10°40′N 79°32′W / 10.667°N 79.533°W / 10.667; -79.533.[2]

Theories on the loss of Surcouf

Model of Surcouf in Paris

As there is no conclusive confirmation that Thompson Lykes collided with Surcouf, and her wreck has yet to be discovered, there are alternative stories of her fate.

Disregarding the predictable story about her being swallowed by the Bermuda Triangle (a fantastical zone that would not be conceptualised until two decades after the submarine's disappearance), one of the most popular is that she was caught in Long Island Sound refuelling a German U-boat, and both submarines were sunk, either by the American submarines USS Mackerel and Marlin,[13] or a United States Coast Guard blimp.

In response to the above theory, Captain Julius Grigore, Jr., USNR (Retired) has offered a one million dollar prize to anyone who can prove that Surcouf engaged in activities which were detrimental to the Allied cause. The prize has yet to be claimed.[14]

James Rusbridger examined some of the theories in his book Who Sank Surcouf?, finding them all easily dismissed except one: the records of the 6th Heavy Bomber Group operating out of Panama show them sinking a large submarine the morning of 19 February. Since no German submarine was lost in the area on that date, it could have been Surcouf. He suggested that the collision had damaged Surcouf's radio and the stricken boat limped towards Panama hoping for the best.[15]


Commanding officers

Surcouf in fiction

In Casablanca, the member of the French Resistance shot at the beginning carries a leaflet bearing a photograph of Surcouf.

Douglas Reeman's novel Strike from the Sea (ISBN 0-688-03319-9), published in 1978, features a fictional sister ship of Surcouf, named Soufrière.

The model of the titular submarine in Lorelei is based on Surcouf. Particularly noticeable are the 8-inch guns and their housing.

A much enlarged version of Surcouf is also the school ship of Maginot in the Japanese anime Girls und Panzer. It appears briefly, along with other school ships, in one of the original video animations.

A Surcouf-type submarine appears in the Destroyermen novel Deadly Shores by Taylor Anderson, and attacks ships flying American flags. It doesn't come from our own universe, but from an alternate history in which France dominates a fascist alliance (Nazi Germany is a very subordinate partner), so there may be others of its class. The submarine displays an emblem of a red octagon with a white field and a blue cross cercelée, which one of the Americans describes as looking like a "big, fat, blue swastika."

The Christine Kling novel Circle of Bones involves a fictional account of the loss of Surcouf as part of a Skull and Bones conspiracy. It relates the secret society's attempts to destroy the submarine's remains before they could be salvaged in 2008.

See also


  1. ^ Winchester, Clarence (1937). Shipping wonders of the world. 41–55. Amalgamated Press. p. 1431. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Croiseur sous-marin Surcouf, netmarine
  3. ^ Sous-marin croiseur Surcouf: Caractéristiques principales
  4. ^ a b Smith, Colin (24 June 2010). England's last war against France: Fighting Vichy 1940–42 (paperback ed.). Phoenix (paperback). p. Chapter 4. ISBN 978-0-7538-2705-5. 
  5. ^ Kindell, Don (revised 12/6/11), "1st – 31st July 1940", Casualty Lists of the Royal Navy and Dominion Navies, World War 2  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  6. ^ a b c Histoire du sous-marin Surcouf (in French), netmarine 
  7. ^ Brown, David; Till, Geoffrey (2004). The Road to Oran: Anglo-French Naval Relations, September 1939 – July 1940. Routledge. p. 182. ISBN 0-7146-5461-2. 
  8. ^ Morison, Samuel Eliot; Till, Geoffrey (2001). History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: The Rising Sun in the Pacific, 1931 – April 1942. University of Illinois Press. p. 265. ISBN 0-252-06963-3. 
  9. ^ Kelshall, Gaylord; Till, Geoffrey (1994). The U-Boat War in the Caribbean. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. p. 68. ISBN 1-55750-452-0. 
  10. ^ "Free French List Surcouf as Lost". The New York Times. 19 April 1942. p. 36. Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
  11. ^ Auphan, Paul; Mordal, Jacques (1959). The French Navy in World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. [page needed]
  12. ^ de Gaulle, Charles (1955). Mordal, Jaques, ed. The War Memoirs of Charles de Gaulle, Vol. 1 The Call To Honour 1940–1942. Viking Press. [page needed]
  13. ^ Knoblock, Glenn A; Mordal, Jacques (2005). Black Submariners in the United States Navy, 1940–1975. McFarland. p. 78. ISBN 0-7864-1993-8. 
  14. ^ Grigore, Julius, Jr. (2011). The Surcouf Conspiracy: A Penetrating Analysis of the Worst Submarine Disaster in History. p. 35. ISBN 1-4620-3147-1. 
  15. ^ Rusbridger, James. Who Sank the "Surcouf"?: The Truth About the Disappearance of the Pride of the French Navy. Ebury Press. ISBN 0-7126-3975-6. [page needed]
  16. ^ []

External links