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Surcouf c. 1935 painted in Prussian dark blue
|Ordered:||4 August 1926|
|Laid down:||1 July 1927|
|Launched:||18 November 1929|
|Commissioned:||16 April 1934|
|Identification:||Pennant number: N N 3|
|Resistance Medal with rosette|
|Fate:||disappeared, 18 February 1942|
|Length:||110 m (361 ft)|
|Beam:||9 m (29 ft 6 in)|
|Draft:||7.25 m (23 ft 9 in)|
|Test depth:||80 m (260 ft)|
|Boats & landing
|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|
Surcouf was the largest French submarine cruiser built. She served in both the French Navy and the Free French Naval Forces during the Second World War. She was lost during the night of 18/19 February 1942 in the Caribbean Sea, possibly after colliding with an American freighter. Surcouf was named after the French privateer Robert Surcouf. She was the largest submarine 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 battleships and cruisers. However, no accords was filed in motion for light ships such as frigates or destroyers or 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). Surcouf was intended to be the first of a class of submarine cruiser; however, she was the only one completed.
The missions were revolved around the following:
Surcouf had a twin-gun turret with 203 mm (8-inch) guns, the same calibre as that of a heavy cruiser (the main reason of Sourcouf being designated as croiseur sous-marin – "cruiser submarine") provisioned with 600 rounds.
Surcouf was designed as an "underwater heavy cruiser", intended to seek and engage in surface combat. 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. 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. The Besson observation plane could be used to direct fire out to the guns' 26 mi (23 nmi; 42 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 normal operating depth of 178 m (584 ft). Crush depth was calculated at 491 m (1,611 ft).
The boat encountered several technical challenges, owing to the 203mm guns.
To replace the hydroplane whose functioning was initially constrained and limited in use, trials were conducted with an autogyro in 1938.
Surcouf was never painted in olive green as shown on numerous models and drawings. From the beginning of the boat's career until 1932, the boat was painted of the same grey colour as surface warships, then in Prussian dark blue, a colour which was conserved until the end of 1940 where the boat was repainted with two tones of grey, serving as camouflage on the hull and conning tower.
Surcouf is often depicted in the boat's 1932 state, harboring the flag of the Free French Naval Forces which was not created until 1940.
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, but other 'big-gun' submarines of this boat's class could no longer be built.
|Seizure of Surcouf|
|Part of World War II|
|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 following a mission in the Antilles and Gulf of Guinea. Under command of Capitaine de Frégate Martin, unable to dive and with only one engine functioning and 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: rejoin the fight against Germany, be put out of reach of the Germans, or scuttle. Few accepted willingly; the North African fleet at Mers-el-Kebir and the ships based at Dakar (West Africa) refused. The French battleships in North Africa were eventually attacked and all but one 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, but 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, and French warrant officer mechanic Yves Daniel were fatally wounded, and a British seaman, L. S. Webb, was shot dead by the submarine's doctor.
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 Georges Louis Blaison, became the new commanding officer. Because of Anglo-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 Surcouf was attacking British ships. Later, a British officer and two sailors were put aboard for "liaison" purposes. One real drawback was she required a crew of 110–130 men, which represented three crews of more conventional submarines. This led to Royal Navy reluctance to recommission her.
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.
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 the submarine would liberate Saint-Pierre and Miquelon for Free France. Wolfert accompanied the submarine to Halifax, where, on 20 December, they joined Free French "Escorteurs" 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, Roosevelt 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.
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. She departed Halifax on 2 February for Bermuda, which she left on 12 February, bound for the Panama Canal.
Surcouf vanished on the night of 18/19 February 1942, about 80 mi (70 nmi; 130 km) north of Cristóbal, Colón, while en route for Tahiti, via the Panama Canal. An American report concluded the disappearance was due to an accidental collision with the American freighter Thompson Lykes, steaming alone from Guantanamo Bay, on what was a very dark night; the freighter 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 did not stop, thinking she had hit a U-boat, though cries for help were heard in English. A signal was sent to Panama describing the incident.
The loss resulted in 130 deaths (including 4 Royal Navy personnel), under the command of Capitaine de Frégate Georges Louis Nicolas Blaison. The loss of Surcouf was announced by the Free French Headquarters in London on 18 April 1942, and was reported in the New York Times the next day. It was not reported Surcouf was sunk as the result of a collision with the Thompson Lykes until January 1945.
The investigation of the French commission[when?] concluded the disappearance was the consequence of misunderstanding. A Consolidated PBY, patrolling the same waters on the night of February 18/19, could have attacked Surcouf believing her to be German or Japanese. This theory could have been backed by several elements:
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 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 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 .
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, or a United States Coast Guard blimp. (On 14 April 1942, Mackerel had torpedoes fired at her by a German U-boat while en route from New London to Norfolk. The torpedoes missed Mackerel which returned fire without result. It is possible some assumed this attack was made by Surcouf, fuelling rumors she was really serving the Germans.)
In response to the above theory, Captain Julius Grigore, Jr., USNR (Retired), who has extensively researched and written about Surcouf, offered a one million dollar prize to anyone who can prove Surcouf engaged in activities detrimental to the Allied cause. The prize has yet[when?] to be claimed.
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 the collision had damaged Surcouf's radio and the stricken boat limped towards Panama hoping for the best.
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.
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.
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