French Dreadnoughts of World War I

Courbet class    |     Bretagne class    |     Normandie class
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French Dreadnought Courbet - 1910/13

French Battleship Courbet, bristling with big guns

Intro - Read on.    |     Specifications    |     Histories

When the Courbet was laid down, it marked a rebirth of competitiveness in the French Navy after a long period of decline, political jobbery, and muddled naval strategy at the ministerial level. France was late into the dreadnought arms race, launched across the Channel with the 1906 debut of HMS Dreadnought, the first all-big-gun battleship in the world. All France's available dockyard space was taken up building the six Danton class semi-dreadnoughts through 1909. This gave the French time to assess the new models surging out of British, American, and German yards and to come up with a solution uniquely French.

The first generation of French dreadnoughts was the Courbet class, of which the name ship is seen above. The ship was named, not for the great painter Gustave Courbet, but for Admiral Amédée Courbet, who had been the French admiral in command during the Sino-French War of 1884-85, when France took over her colonies in present-day Vietnam and Cambodia. While sharp-eyed observers will note carryovers from earlier pre-dreadnought stylings (the funnels of the Liberté, the masts of the Dantons), this is a much burlier fighting ship, bristling with big guns.

Gunnery layout of battleship COURBETAt 23,100 tons these ships were just as large as contemporary battleships in the fleets of France's rivals. The class combined the all-centerline superfiring arrangement pioneered by the USS Michigan with the wing turrets used in early British and German dreadnoughts. In all the Courbets carried twelve 12" guns in 6 twin turrets, for a broadside of 10. Full plan and elevation just below. The emergence of the class signaled a ramping up of France's shipbuilding capacity, as the Courbet and Jean Bart were constructed side by side and simultaneously at the Arsenal de Brest. Ships in the class were all built in 3-to-4 years, a great improvement over the dismal performance of French yards in former times. Consequently the ships were not entirely obsolete before they were commissioned. 551' long and 91'6" wide, they marked a new phase of might for the French Navy, which had struggled with second-class status for too long. While these were good ships, neither their timeliness nor their numbers put France back among the top naval powers. New naval powers Germany, the U.S. and Japan were surpassing France.


Plans and Specifications

Schematic plan of Courbet class dreadnought of the French Navy, 1913 - from Brassey's Annual

Specifications for the Courbet class:
Dimensions: 544'7" x 88'7" x 29'   Displacement: 22,189 tons standard; 26,000 deep laden. Armament: (12) 12"/45 Modèle 1910 (6x2), (22) 5.5"/55, and (4) 2.2" guns; (4) 18" torpedo tubes. Armor: KC type. 10.6" belt; Turrets: 10.6"; Conn: 12"; deck: 2"/1.2". Propulsion: 24 coal-fired Niclausse boilers; (4) Parsons turbines developing 28,000 shp; quad screw. Speed: 20.5 kts. Endurance: 4200 nm at 10 kts. Crew: 1085 - 1100.

Ships in class: Courbet Jean Bart Paris France

Specifications for the Courbet class:
Dimensions: 166m x 17.9m x 8.8m   Displacement: 22,189 tons standard; 26,000 deep laden. Armament: (12) 305 mm/45 Modèle 1910 (6x2), (22) 140 mm/55, and (4) 47 mm guns; (4) 45 cm torpedo tubes. Armor: KC type. 270 mm belt; Turrets: 270 mm; Conn: 300 mm; deck: 50/30mm. Propulsion: 24 coal-fired Niclausse boilers; (4) Parsons turbines developing 20,879 kW; quad screw. Speed: 37 km/hr. Endurance: 7,778 km at 18.5 km/hr. Crew: 1085 - 1100.


Ships' Histories

Only Courbet and Jean Bart were in commission at the time war was declared in August 1914, but the remaining three of the class were running trials, so France had 4 first-rate dreadnoughts by year's end. Three more of an improved model -- the Bretagne class -- were building at the time, and two further classes of advanced dreadnoughts were on the drawing boards -- the Normandie and Lyon classes. The three Provence class battleships were completed, and all of the succeeding Normandie class launched in 1914-15, but further work was canceled due to wartime material shortages. Holding back the German onslaught along the 1,200-mile Western Front simply demanded all of France's resources. The romantic doctrine, popular in the prewar French military, that superior élan alone could turn back the hordes of "Huns" without having comparable armament or numbers, was quickly discredited. The Germans did not reach Paris. The land campaigns turned into a grinding war of attrition, eventually killing and disabling some 10 million persons on both sides and gravely weakening all the countries of Europe with its enormous human and financial burdens.

Battleship PARIS on trials: white foam, black smoke, bristling guns

Above, Courbet's sister Paris on trials in 1914. Sister Jean Bart was torpedoed in the Mediterranean by an Austrian submarine, but limped back for repairs and was soon back in the fight. Courbet convoyed troops back and forth from the French colonies in North Africa, and served on the Otranto Barrage during WWI; was converted to oil fuel and otherwise modernized in the '20s, receiving heavy tripod foremasts. In 1922 sister ship the France came to grief after hitting a rock in Quiberon Bay. In the 1930s Courbet served as a gunnery and navigation training ship. During the Nazi onslaught of 1940, she used her 12" guns in defense of Cherbourg, then slipped across the Channel to be interned. The British subsequently released her for the use of the Free French forces, and she served as a radar training ship until the D-Day invasion of France, when she sailed once again, covering the Sword Beach landings. During the invasion of Flanders she was expended by grounding as a part of a mulberry breakwater at Ouistreham. Her hull was later wrecked by two German Marder torpedoes. She was cut up on the spot after the War.

Battleship PARIS as refitted in 1920s

In the 1920s the Courbets and Bretagnes were refitted with heavy tripod foremasts to accommodate director firing. The surviving dreadnoughts fought WWII in this guise.


The Bretagne Class: WWI Super-Dreadnoughts - 1916

French battleship PROVENCE at anchor - B&W photo

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Above is the Provence, of the Bretagne class -- the last and most successful class of French WWI dreadnoughts. The Bretagnes borrowed the hull design of the Courbets but upsized the guns to the new 340 mm (13.4"), competitive with Britain's "fearful 13.5" used in the Iron Dukes (though Britain was already building the 15"-gunned Queen Elizabeths). The gun layout was five all-centerline turrets, not unlike the British HMS Erin or the USS Texas, though built on a more compact and symmetrical mass than the latter. As originally built these ships had standard pole masts as in the Courbets, with the foremast placed between the conning tower and No. 1 funnel. They were designed as coal burners with some oil-burning capability. The last of the class, the Lorraine was completed in 1916, when the agony of Verdun and the Somme commanded the nation's attention, and her completion was grealy delayed by wartime materials shortages. Although a further class of dreadnoughts -- the Normandie class, also mounting 13.4" artillery -- was partially completed by 1915, development was slowed and eventually crunched by dire needs elsewhere in the war industries. There was decreased will to continue funding naval construction at a time of acute military crisis.


Plans and Specifications

Deck plan of the PROVENCE, showing the all-centerline armament of 5 huge turrets

Plan © by Jean Secardin; our thanks for his permission to use it. Click here to view enlarged profile of the ship, and here for a detailed sectional view.

Specifications for the Bretagne class:
Dimensions: 551' x 88' x 29'   Displacement: 22,169 tons standard, 23,230 tons deep-laden. Armament: (10) 13.4", (14) 5.5" (340 mm), (8) 4" (100 mm), and (12) 13.2 mm machine-guns. Armor: KC type. 10.75" belt, 13.4" turrets, 6.7" casemates, 12.4" conn; (3) decks with 1.57" each. Fuel capacity: 2,680 tons coal and 300 tons oil. Propulsion: (4) Parsons turbines developing 29,000 hp, shafted to quad screw. Speed: 20 kts. Crew: 1,138.

Ships in class: Bretagne Provence Lorraine

Metric specifications:
Dimensions: 186m x 26.9m x 9.8m   Displacement: 22,169 tons standard, 23,230 tons deep-laden. Armament: (10) 340 mm, (14) 148 mm, (8) 100 mm, and (12) 13.2 mm machine-guns. Armor: KC type. 273 mm belt, 340 mm turrets, 170 mm casemates, 314 mmm conn; (3) decks with 40 mm each. Fuel capacity: 2,680 tons coal and 300 tons oil. Propulsion: (4) Parsons type turbines developing 21,625 kW, shafted to quad screw. Speed: 37 km/hr. Crew: 1,138.


Ships' Histories

The French dreadnoughts were a strong, if somewhat belated effort, coming from a long period where the French mission had been unclear. The ships that resulted were powerfully armed, but somewhat smaller and slower than their British and German counterparts. In hindsight it is probably as well the French did not participate more fully in the naval arms race, since so much of the nation's vital energies would be called upon to hold the German land armies for the four long years of WWI. It is worth noting that, as in England and Germany, the dreadnought fleet was deemed too precious to be risked in combat. The French navy deployed its pre-dreadnoughts and cruisers through the Mediterranean and Aegean, and lost many of them to subs and mines. It successfully conserved all its new dreadnoughts. A first for French battleships, in 1919-20 the Bretagnes were retrofitted with a sturdy tripod foremast like the British ships which they emulated, supporting the sophisticated spotting and fire direction equipment required to make best use of her mighty artillery while maneuvering at speed. The Courbets received similar foremasts in the 1920s. The Lorraine actually carried an abbreviated aircraft launching track on her foremast around 1920-22. The difficulties of hoisting the planes all the way up the mast and placing them precisely on the track led to the pursuit of other launching solutions, although the Lorraine's installation was practicable. Other modifications between the wars included increasing the height of the small No. 2 funnel to the same height as No. 1, installing complicated torpedo blisters, various aircraft fly-off options, and conversion to oil fuel. Despite the Washington Treaty, the WWI vintage dreadnoughts formed the core of the French fleet in the interwar years and were still important units when war broke out again in 1939. There were only a handful of new battleships and battlecruisers ordered by the MNF in the 1930s, most of which (typically) remained unfinished when Hitler's legions overran France in spring 1940.

Diagram of Mers-el-Kebir attackThe Provence and Bretagne made a run for it at this point, rendezvousing with much of the remaining French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in Algeria. The British were understandably concerned that this large fleet-in-being might be captured by the Germans and turned against Britain. The British sent a heavy task force offshore -- force H, led by HMS Hood and including two other battleships and a carrier -- and opened talks with the French commander. When negotiations bogged down, Force H launched a pre-emptive strike against the French vessels in harbor at Mers (left). In the July 3, 1940 action, the Bretagne suffered a magazine explosion and sank with the loss of 977 sailors. The new battlecruiser Dunkerque was damaged, and Provence was beached in a sinking condition after the attack, with 135 dead; total casualties from the attack were 1282 French sailors killed. Virtually all British personnel involved recorded reservations about attacking their defeated ally in this politically charged situation. Provence was later refloated and towed to Toulon. She was scuttled there in Nov. 1942 to prevent capture by the Germans, who had taken only two years to turn on their Vichy ally. This was part of a very effective general scuttle and sabotage launched while the Germans were literally at the gate. But rushed work or no, the French sank some 77 vessels, including 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, and 13 torpedo boats. Sabotage rendered possession of France's main naval base more an impediment than otherwise to the motorcycling German occupiers.

Provence's hulk was salvaged and cut up for scrap in 1952. Third sister ship Lorraine, built at St. Nazaire, served in the Mediterranean in both World Wars. Based in Alexandria in 1940, she was disarmed by the British after the French capitulation, but joined the Free French Navy in 1943. The following year she covered the landings in southern France, including bombardments of Toulon and Marseille. The only one of her class to survive the War, she led the official Free French delegation ashore to take over Toulon in the name of France. Glory days passed, Lorraine spent some years as a training hulk before being broken up in 1954.


A Bretagne Class Photo Gallery

Bow view of BRETAGNE just after WWI
Bretagne at Toulon in 1919.

Bow view of PROVENCE between the wars
Provence between the wars, anchored at Toulon in the province whose name she bore.

Battleship PROVENCE between the wars
Provence visits one of the many romantic Mediterranean ports during the Thirties.  Enlarge

Bow view of PROVENCE between the wars

Bretagne at Toulon, May 3, 1935. In her 1930s refit, No. 2 funnel was lengthened to the same height as No. 1. Click here for enlarged view.

Bow view of PROVENCE between the wars

Bretagne underway, 1938. Triangular brackets on No. 2 funnel served to spread the radio antennas. These were among the last modifications made to the class before the War.

French warships at Mers El-Kebir, Algeria, 1940

A stellar lineup of French warships lies peacefully at Mers-el-Kebir before the British attack. Top to bottom/left to right: cruiser Commandant Teste, Bretagne, battlecruiser Strasbourg, Provence, and battlecruiser Dunkerque. Bretagne and Dunkerque, nearest the entrance, took the worst of the hammering when Force H opened fire, but none escaped without damage. When the sun set on July 3, 1940, the remnant French fleet had been put out of action.

BRETAGNE exploding and during British attack, 1940

A gigantic mushroom cloud marks the end of the Bretagne. Approximately 90 percent of her crew perished in the battle.

PROVENCE burning and desperate after British attack, 1940

The remains of the Bretagne smolder after her devastating aft magazine explosion in the Mers-el-Kebir attack. Flooding and desperate, Provence beached herself for emergency repairs just across the harbor.

PROVENCE escaping after British attack, 1940

In a photo snapped moments after the one above, Provence backs across the harbor, in foreground, while Bretagne smolders noisomely behind her. The battlecruiser Strasbourg prepares to sortie at far right.

French Battleship LORRAINE fighting fascism during WWII

The Lorraine sailed under the Free French flag in the latter part of World War II. During her 1930s refit the midships turret had been removed and the area turned over to a hangar and aircraft catapult, already removed by the time this photo was taken, as she led a ceremonial return to liberated Toulon in 1944. On this one ship only, the No. 2 funnel was moved aft by 5 m to accommodate the aircraft facilities.

French fleet scuttled at Toulon, 1942

The three big ships that escaped from Mers sought refuge at Toulon, arriving separately. There they survived quietly for 2½ more years. When the Nazis betrayed their Vichy puppet and invaded the remnant territory of France in November 1942, French patriots everywhere sabotaged installations that might prove useful to the German war effort. When Wehrmacht troops entered Toulon on Nov. 27, every vessel in harbor had been scuttled. This was the desolate panorama that greeted the German occupiers. Note the tricolor waving defiantly over the scene of ruin.

PROVENCE and CONDORCET sunk side by side, 1945

Above and below: Provence at the end of WWII, scuttled at Toulon next to the pre-dreadnought Condorcet.

PROVENCE and CONDORCET scuttled side by side, 1942


The Normandie Class (Incomplete) - 1913/1927

Schematic plan of Normandie class dreadnought of the French Navy, never completed - from Brassey's Annual

The French admiralty had big plans for follow-up with the ungainly gunships of the Normandie class and the further elaboration in the Lyon. These vessels were laid down in 1913-14 but never completed as battleships. All relied on the newly designed quadruple 13.4" turret: three for the Normandies, four for the Über-normandie Lyon. With the dire emergencies of WWI, all four Normandies were launched in order to clear the slipways for higher priority projects. At war's end none of the Normandies was more than 40% complete; although several schemes were floated to use the unfinished warships, they all went to the wreckers in 1922-23 except the Béarn, which was completed as an aircraft carrier in 1927. First fleet carrier in the French navy, analogous to HMS Furious or USS Langley, she served France through WWII and the 1950s Vietnam War, albeit mostly as an airplane ferry.


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