The ships of the Marine Nationale: the Dunkerque

(To Francesco Sisto)

Il Dunkirk it was the most important fast cruiser of the Marine Nationale of the class of the same name. It is good to remember that the class included – in addition to Dunkirk – too Strasbourg.

These ships were, essentially, made to compete with the German pocket battleships, the so-called Panzerschiffe (read article: The heavy cruisers of the Kriegsmarine: the Deutschland/Lutzow) and the Italian class battleships Cavour e Duilio in the thirties of the last century.

Il Dunkirk it was laid down and designed in the Brest Arsenal on 24 December 1932 and subsequently launched on 2 October 1935, entering service in the French Navy on 1937 May XNUMX. The twin Strasbourg, however, was launched in December 1936 and entered service in September 1938.

The new French units had similar characteristics to those of the battlecruisers of 1906-18, however, they were always defined as "batiment de ligne"1, with a primary armament consisting of 330 mm/50 Modèle 1931 guns.

Designed to reach high speeds, it was capable of sailing (by design) with a maximum speed of 29,5 knots.

Il Dunkirk and his twin Strasbourg, before the outbreak of the Second World War, they constituted the first line division of the Marine Nationale.

At the beginning of the war, from the autumn of 1939 to the spring of 1940, the French cruiser carried out operations in the Atlantic Ocean, escorting convoys from Canada and "hunting" Kriegsmarine privateer ships. Afterwards, she was sent to the Mediterranean Sea, and on 27 April 1940 she arrived in Mers El Kabir (Algeria).

On June 10, 1940, Italy declared war on France and the United Kingdom, and on June 22, 1940, France capitulated to Germany.2.

A few days later the ship was involved, on 3 July 1940, in the Battle of Mers El Kebir. That day the British Force H (commanded by Admiral James Fownes Somerville, as part of the Catapult, arrived near the French base in North Africa, demanding that the French warships join the British ones or scuttle themselves. The Marine Nationale, according to precise directives (see footnote) did not accept the conditions.

In the fire action that followed the French refusal to surrender, the fast cruiser Dunkerque was hit by four 381 mm shells, fired from the battlecruiser HMS Hood, which blocked its turrets. Nonetheless, the French ship was able to fire around forty shells, which hit the Royal Navy cruiser (also causing injuries).

On July 6, 1940, a group of Fairey Swordfish they attacked the fast battleship again; the raid caused such a gash that it landed on the bottom3. On February 20, 1942 Dunkirk reached the port of Toulon for repairs.

On November 27, 1942, Vichy France decided to sink the French fleet in Toulon to prevent the ships from falling into German "hands". Among the sunken ships were the Dunkirk and his twin Strasbourg.

Il Dunkirk it was – definitively – demolished on 30 September 1958.

The fast cruiser Dunkirk it had a displacement of 26.500 tons (standard). Her dimensions were 214,5 x 31,08 x 8,7 m.

The engine system was composed of 4 groups of Rateau-Bretagne turbines powered by 6 Indret boilers. Power 135585 HP. The maximum (effective) speed was 31,06 knots (57,52 km/h).

The armament consisted of 330 mm, 130 mm, 37 mm cannons and 13,2 mm machine guns.

Armor: 225 mm armored belt, 115 mm deck, 330 mm turrets and 270 mm conning tower.

The ship could count on a crew of 1381/1431 men. In addition, the ship was capable of carrying two seaplanes.

See A. Fraccaroli, The Dunkerque battleship, in Illustrated History n°197, 1974, p.110

When the fate of the French Campaign now seemed to be oriented in favor of the Germans, on 20 June 1940 the commander in chief of the French fleet, Admiral François Darlan, sent a confidential message to his Chief of Staff, Admiral Maurice Athanase Le Luc with which he provided: "In the event that military events lead to an armistice in which conditions were imposed by the Germans, and if these conditions entailed the surrender of the fleet, I have no intention of carrying out this order". Furthermore, he added a note which, in case a different order from what had been previously established, would have meant that the commanders of the ships had to act autonomously, if necessary resorting to scuttling. Between 14 and 16 June there were frantic high-level consultations between the French and the English which stated that the armistice would be accepted by the English on the condition that the fleet repaired to ports controlled by the British.

On June 24, Admiral Darlan sent his commanders a new encrypted message: "I take advantage of the latest communications that I can transmit in cipher, to let you know my thoughts on this matter:

- Demobilized warships must remain French, with a French flag, a French reduced crew, staying in a metropolitan or colonial French port.

- Secret precautions must be taken so that the enemy or foreigner who seizes a ship by force cannot make use of it.

- If the armistice commission, charged with interpreting the texts, decides otherwise than in the first paragraph, at the time of execution of the new decision, the warships, according to a new order, will be brought to the United States or sabotaged, if not something else could have been done to take them away from the enemy. Ships taking refuge abroad must not be used in war operations against Germany and Italy without an order from the Commander-in-Chief of the French Maritime Forces. Xavier-377" (Xavier-377 was Admiral Darlan's code name).

This explains the French refusal to surrender to the British.

3 Ibidem

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