The symbol of French naval power is the submarine "Surcouf"

History 2023

Table of contents:

The symbol of French naval power is the submarine "Surcouf"
The symbol of French naval power is the submarine "Surcouf"

Surcouf was the largest French submarine. She served in both the French Navy and the Free Naval Forces during World War II. She was lost on the night of 18/19 February 1942 in the Caribbean, possibly after a collision with an American freighter. The boat was named after the French privateer Robert Surcouf. She was the largest submarine built until it was surpassed by Japan's first I-400 class submarine in 1943.

Historical context

The Washington Naval Agreement placed strict restrictions on the naval construction of major maritime powers, as well as the movement and armament of battleships and cruisers. However, no agreements have been made to regulate the performance of light ships such as frigates, destroyers or submarines. In addition, to ensure the protection of the country and its colonial empire, France organized the constructionlarge submarine fleet (79 units in 1939). Submarine "Surkuf" was supposed to be the first in the class of submarines. However, it was the only one completed.

Role in the war

The mission of the new submarine model was as follows:

  • Establish communications with the French colonies.
  • In cooperation with French naval squadrons, search for and destroy enemy fleets.
  • Chasing enemy convoys.


The cruiser "Surkuf" had a twin-gun turret with a 203-millimeter (8-inch) gun, the same caliber as the heavy cruiser (the main reason it was called the "su-marine cruiser" - "cruising submarine") with 600 rounds.

The submarine was designed as an "underwater heavy cruiser", designed to search and engage in surface combat. For reconnaissance purposes, there was an observation float aircraft Besson MB.411 on board the ship - in a hangar built at the stern of the combat tower. However, the aircraft was also used to calibrate weapons.

Modern Surkuf

The boat was fitted with twelve torpedo launchers, eight 550 mm (22 in) torpedo tubes and four four hundred millimeter (16 in) torpedo tubes in addition to twelve spare torpedoes. The 203 mm / 50 guns of the 1924 model were located in a sealed turret. The weapon of the Surkuf boat had a magazine capacity of sixty rounds and was controlled by a mechanical instrument with a rangefinder of five meters (16 ft), set high enough to view the horizon of eleven kilometers (6.8 miles) and capable of firing within three minutes of surfacing. Using the boat's periscopes to control the fire of the main guns, the Surkuf could increase this range to sixteen kilometers (8.6 mph; 9.9 miles). The lifting platform was originally intended to lift observation decks fifteen meters (49 feet) high, but this design was quickly abandoned due to the effect of the roll.

Additional equipment

The Besson surveillance aircraft was once used to direct fire to a maximum gun range of 26 miles (42 km). An anti-aircraft gun and machine guns were installed on top of the hangar.

The submarine cruiser Surkuf also carried a 4.5 meter (14 ft 9 in) motorboat and contained a cargo hold with provisions for holding 40 prisoners or 40 passengers. The submarine's fuel tanks were very large.

The maximum safe diving depth was eighty meters, but the Surkuf submarine could dive up to 110 meters without noticeable deformation of the thick hull with a normal operating depth of 178 meters (584 feet). The diving depth was calculated to be 491 meters (1611 feet).

Other features

The first commander was frigate captain (equivalent title) Raymond de Belote.

The vessel encountered several technical problems due to the 203mm guns.

Because of the smallthe height of the rangefinder above the surface of the water, the practical range was 12,000 meters (13,000 yd) with a rangefinder (16,000 meters (17,000 yd) with periscope sighting), well below the normal maximum of 26,000 meters (28,000 yd).

Photo by Surkuf

The submarine cruiser "Surkuf" was not equipped for firing at night due to the inability to track the direction of the shot in the dark.

The mounts were designed to fire 14 shots from each gun before their power was overloaded.


Surkuf was never painted olive green as shown in numerous models and blueprints. From the moment she was launched until 1932, the boat was painted the same gray as the surface warships, then "Prussian" dark blue, which remained until the end of 1940, when the boat was repainted in two tones of gray, which served camouflage on the hull and mounted turret.

The French submarine Surcouf is often depicted in the condition of a 1932 boat, bearing the flag of the Free French Naval Forces, which was not used until 1940.

History in the context of war

Shortly after the launch of the submarine, the London Naval Treaty finally placed limits on submarine designs. Among other things, each signatory (including France) was allowed to have no more than three large submarines, the standard displacement of which would not exceed 2800 tons,with guns of caliber no larger than 150 mm (6.1 inches). The Surcouf submarine, which would have exceeded these limits, was specifically exempted from the rules at the insistence of the Minister of the Navy Georges Leig, but other large submarines of this class could no longer be built.

Floating Surkuf

In 1940, Surcouf was based at Cherbourg, but in May, when the Germans invaded, she was transferred to Brest after a mission in the Antilles and the Gulf of Guinea. Teamed with the frigate Captain Martin, unable to submerge under water and running with only one engine and a jammed rudder, the boat drifted across the English Channel and sought refuge in Plymouth.

On 3 July, the British, worried that the French fleet would be taken over by the German navy following the surrender of France, launched Operation Catapult. The Royal Navy blocked the harbors where the French warships were stationed, and the British gave the French sailors an ultimatum: join the battle against Germany, sail out of the reach of the Germans, or be scuttled by the British. The French sailors reluctantly accepted the terms of their allies. However, the North African Fleet at Mers el Kebir and ships based at Dakar (West Africa) refused. The French battleships in North Africa were eventually attacked and all but one sank at their moorings.

French ships docked in ports in Britain and Canada also took on board armed marines, sailors and soldiers, but the only serious incident was in Plymouth on boardof the Surcouf on July 3, when two Royal Navy submarine officers and a French ensign, Yves Daniel, were mortally wounded, and British sailor L. S. Webb was shot dead by an on-board doctor.

After the defeat of France

By August 1940, the British completed the conversion of the Surcouf submarine and returned it to the French allies, giving it to the Free Navy (Forces Navales Françaises Libres, FNFL) to guard convoys. The only officer not repatriated from the original crew, the frigate captain Georges Louis Blason became the new commander. Due to tense relations between England and France regarding the submarine, each state made accusations that the other side was spying for Vichy France. The British also claimed that the Surkuf boat had attacked their ships. Later, a British officer and two sailors were sent on board to maintain contact with London. One of the real disadvantages of the boat was that it required a crew of over a hundred people, which represented three crews by conventional submarine standards. This led to the reluctance of the Royal Navy to accept her again.

Surcouf in a section

The submarine cruiser then went to the Canadian base in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and escorted transatlantic convoys. In April 1941, the boat was damaged by German aircraft at Devonport.

After the Americans entered the war

On July 28, Surcouf sailed to the US Navy Yard in Portsmouth,New Hampshire, for a three-month repair.

After leaving the shipyard, the cruiser traveled to New London, Connecticut, possibly to receive additional training for her crew. The Surcouf left New London on November 27 and returned to Halifax.

In December 1941, the ship brought French Admiral Emile Muselier to Canada, arriving in Quebec. While the admiral was in Ottawa conferring with the Canadian government, the captain of the boat was approached by The New York Times reporter Ira Wolfer and asked about the rumors if it was true that the submarine would liberate Saint Pierre and Miquelon for the Free French. Wolfer escorted the submarine to Halifax, where on 20 December the Free French corvettes Mimosa, Aconite and Alysse joined them, and on 24 December the fleet took control of the Free French islands without resistance.

United States Secretary of State Cordell Hull had just struck an agreement with the Vichy government guaranteeing the neutrality of French possessions in the western hemisphere, and threatened to resign if United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to go to war. Roosevelt did so, but when Charles de Gaulle refused to accept this treaty between the Americans and the Vichys, Roosevelt shelved the issue. Ira Wulfert's stories, very favorable to the Free French, contributed to the severing of diplomatic relations between the United States and Vichy France. The entry of the United States into the war in December 1941 automatically annulled the agreement, but the United States did not break off diplomatic relations withby the Vichy government until November 1942.

In January 1942, the Free French decided to ship the submarine named after the pirate Surcouf to the Pacific theater of operations after it had re-shipped to the Royal Navy Dockyard in Bermuda. Her move south sparked rumors that she was going to liberate Martinique from the Vichy in the name of Free France.

War with Japan

After the start of the war with Japan, the crew of the submarine was ordered to go to Sydney (Australia) via Tahiti. She departed Halifax on 2 February for Bermuda, leaving on 12 February for the Panama Canal.

Surkuf submarine. Where did she die?

The cruiser disappeared on the night of February 18/19, 1942, about 80 miles (70 nautical miles or 130 km) north of Cristobal, Colón, en route to Tahiti via the Panama Canal. The US report states that the disappearance was due to an accidental collision with the US freighter Thompson Likes, sailing alone from Guantanamo Bay on that very dark night. A freighter reported a collision with an object that scratched its side and keel.

The crash killed 130 people (including four members of the Royal Navy) under the command of Captain Georges Louis Nicolas Blayson. The loss of the Surcouf was officially publicized by the Free French Headquarters in London on April 18, 1942, and was reported in The New York Times the following day. However, initially notit was reported that the cruiser was sunk as a result of a collision with an American ship, until January 1945.

Sectional model of Surkuf


The French commission's investigation concluded that the disappearance was the result of a misunderstanding. A consolidated Allied patrol patrolling the same waters on the night of February 18-19 could have attacked the submarine, believing it to be German or Japanese. This theory is supported by several facts:

  1. Evidence from the crew of the cargo ship Thompson Likes, which accidentally collided with the submarine, described it as being smaller than it actually was. These testimonies are very often referenced in all publications on the subject.
  2. The damage done to the US ship was too weak to collide with the cruiser.
  3. The position of the submarine named after Robert Surkuf did not correspond to any position of the German submarines at that time.
  4. The Germans did not register U-boat losses in this sector during the war.

The investigation into the incident was spontaneous and belated, while a later French investigation confirmed the version that the sinking was due to "friendly fire".

This conclusion was supported by Rear Admiral Aufan in his book The French Navy in the Second World War, in which he states: "For reasons that apparently were not political in nature, she was rammed at night in the Caribbean by an American freighter."

Since no one has officially checked the crash site of the cruiser, its whereabouts are unknown. Assuming that the incident with the American freighter did indeed sink the submarine, the wreckage would lie at a depth of 3,000 meters (9,800 feet).

A monument commemorating the sinking of the submarine rises in the port of Cherbourg in Normandy, France.

Speculation and conspiracy theories

With no definitive confirmation that the Thompson Likes collided with the submarine, and the site of its crash has not yet been located, there are alternative theories about the fate of the Surkuf submarine.

Despite the predictable story that it was swallowed up by the Bermuda Triangle (a fantasy zone that emerged two decades after the submarine's disappearance), one of the most popular theories is that the submarine was sunk by either the American submarines USS Mackerel and Marlin, or a US Coast Guard airship. On April 14, 1942, a ship fired torpedoes at them en route from New London to Norfolk. The torpedoes passed by, but the return fire did not give any result. Some speculated that the attack was carried out by the Surkuf, sparking rumors that the submarine's crew had defected to the German side.

In response to the above theory, Captain Julius Grigore Jr., who has researched and written a book on the Surkuf's history in detail, has offered a prize of one million dollars to anyone who can prove that the submarine was involved in damaging activities. allied cause.As of 2018, the prize has not been awarded, because such a craftsman has not yet been found.

James Russbridger laid out some of the theories in his book Who Sunk the Surcouf? He found them all easy to disprove except for one - the records of the 6th Heavy Bomber Group flying out of Panama show that they sank a large submarine on the morning of February 19. Since no German submarines were lost in the area that day boat, it could be the Surkuf The author suggested that the collision damaged the radio of the Surkuf, and the damaged boat drifted towards Panama, hoping for the best.

Pirate Robert Surcouf could not even imagine that a ship destined to give rise to such legends would be named after him.

In Christina Kling's novel Circle of Bones, the fictional story of the loss of the Surkuf is part of a Skull and Bones conspiracy. The plot was linked to the secret society's attempts to destroy the remains of the submarine before they were found in 2008. There are a lot of such speculations, because "Surkuf" is the tiger of the seven seas, and his strange disappearance was an unpleasant surprise for everyone.

The novel Strike from the Sea by Douglas Riemann tells of the fictional sister ship of the Surcouf named the Soufrière, which is handed over by a French crew to the Royal Navy and subsequently used to defend Singapore, after which it is handed over to the Free French Navy.

French love for submarines

French submarine fleet of World War IIwar was one of the largest in the world at the time. He played a significant role during World War II, but had a difficult service history due to France's strange posture during the war. During the conflict, almost sixty submarines, more than 3/4 of the total, were lost.

After the First World War, France had a fleet of almost forty submarines of various classes, as well as eleven former German submarines. They were mostly obsolete (all scrapped by the 1930s) and France was interested in replacing them.

At the same time, the major world powers were negotiating an arms limitation treaty at the 1922 Washington Naval Conference. There was talk of a complete ban on submarines, i.e. to ban their use (a course approved by the UK). France and Italy opposed this. However, the conference placed limits on the number and size of warships of various types that countries could build. The offshore submarine was limited to one and a half tons, while the coastal submarine was limited to 600 tons, although there was no limit to the number of these vessels that could be built.

Sailors on the deck of Surkuf

The first submarines built by France after World War I were three submarines. Originally built to a Romanian order, they were completed for the French Navy and commissioned in 1921.

In 1923, the French Navyplaced orders for a series of Type 2 coastal and offshore vessels. The order was placed with three different design offices, resulting in three different designs with the same specifications. Known collectively as the 600 series, these were the Sirène, Ariane and Circé classes, for a total of ten boats. They were followed in 1926 by the 630 series, three more classes from the same bureau. These were the Argonaute, Orion and Diane classes, with sixteen more boats. In 1934 the Navy chose the standardized Admir alty design, the Minerve class of six boats, and in 1939 the Aurore class, a larger, much improved version of the Minerve. And a ship with a more extended design was ordered but not built due to the defeat of France in 1940 and the subsequent armistice.

Surcouf from above

A few words in conclusion

France boldly experimented with the concept of a submarine cruiser, the best in comparison with other fleets of that time. In 1926 she built the Surcouf, for many years the largest submarine ever built. However, the ship played a small role in the French naval strategy, and the experiment was not repeated.

Thus, in 1939, France had a fleet of 77 submarines, making it the fifth largest submarine force in the world at that time. Surkuf-class destroyers played a huge role in her fleet.

Popular topic