The French battleship Strasbourg, a Dunkerque-class battleship, was an epitome of naval innovation and power in the interwar period.

Launched in 1936, it played a significant role in the French Navy during the tumultuous years of World War II, including the notable escape from the British Royal Navy at the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir.

Contents

Background

The conceptualization of the Strasbourg was a direct response to the evolving naval arms race in the 1930s. The rise of the German pocket battleships, along with Italy’s Littorio-class, compelled the French Navy to rethink its approach to battleship design. This period was marked by significant innovations in naval technology, as major powers sought to circumvent the limitations imposed by the Washington and London Naval Treaties.

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The design philosophy behind the Strasbourg was revolutionary for its time. The French Navy aimed to create a vessel that could outgun any ship faster than it and outrun any ship more heavily armed. This necessitated a unique balance between speed, armor, and firepower. The Strasbourg was part of the Dunkerque-class battleships, which were France’s first foray into the new category of fast battleships or battlecruisers.

The French battleship Strasbourg at an unknown port.

The Strasbourg was built at the Penhoët shipyard in Saint-Nazaire. Its construction was part of a larger naval expansion program initiated by France in response to the growing threats from Germany and Italy. The keel was laid down in 1934, and the ship was launched in 1936. The construction process involved extensive use of new welding techniques, which were relatively novel in shipbuilding at the time. This not only sped up construction but also reduced the overall weight of the ship.

The building of the Strasbourg involved numerous technical challenges, particularly in terms of integrating such a powerful armament and propulsion system into a relatively compact and fast vessel. French naval engineers and designers had to develop innovative solutions, particularly in armor distribution and internal compartmentalization, to ensure that the ship remained both resilient and agile.

Design Of The Strasbourg

The Strasbourg was notable for its considerable size. It measured 214.5 meters in length, with a beam of 31 meters, and had a standard displacement of around 26,500 tons. This made it one of the larger battleships of its time.

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One of the most distinctive features of the Strasbourg was its armament layout. The ship was equipped with eight 330mm/50 Model 1931 guns, arranged in two quadruple turrets located forward of the superstructure.

This forward placement was a strategic design choice, allowing for a reduced armor belt length and thus, a lighter and faster ship. The secondary armament consisted of thirteen 130mm anti-aircraft guns, which provided a robust defense against aerial threats.

The armor scheme of the Strasbourg was a critical aspect of its design. The ship featured a main belt of 283mm armor and had significant deck armor to protect against aerial bombings and plunging fire. The turret armor was also formidable, designed to withstand direct hits from enemy battleships.

The propulsion system of the Strasbourg was a testament to the emphasis on speed. It was powered by six Indret high-pressure, superheated boilers feeding four Rateau-Bretagne geared steam turbines. This setup enabled the ship to achieve speeds of up to 29.5 knots, making it one of the fastest battleships of its era.

Operational History

The Strasbourg was commissioned into the French Navy in the mid-1930s. Following its commissioning, the ship underwent a series of sea trials and shakedown cruises to test its capabilities. These trials were crucial in demonstrating the ship’s speed, maneuverability, and the effectiveness of its armament.

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In the late 1930s, before the outbreak of World War II, Strasbourg was primarily engaged in a range of peacetime activities. These included training exercises, naval maneuvers, and showing the flag missions. These operations were instrumental in not only testing the ship’s capabilities but also in demonstrating France’s naval power and technological advancement.

With the onset of World War II, the Strasbourg, like many other capital ships of the era, was thrust into a more active and strategic role. The French Navy was acutely aware of the need to utilize its modern battleships to counter potential threats from the Axis powers.

Perhaps the most notable event in Strasbourg’s operational history was the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir in July 1940. Following France’s armistice with Germany, the British Royal Navy launched Operation Catapult to neutralize the French fleet, fearing it might fall into German hands. At Mers-el-Kébir, off the coast of Algeria, the British fleet attacked their former allies. Strasbourg played a central role in this battle and was among the few French ships that managed to escape, despite heavy British bombardments.

Either Strasbourg or Dunkerque under fire during Operation Catapult.

After escaping Mers-el-Kébir, the Strasbourg made its way to Toulon, on the French Mediterranean coast, navigating under the threat of further British attacks. Here, it joined the rest of the Vichy French fleet and remained largely inactive due to the armistice conditions, which restricted the use of French naval forces.

The situation for the Strasbourg and the French fleet changed dramatically in November 1942. As German forces occupied Vichy France, there was a real threat that the French fleet, including the Strasbourg, would be seized by the Germans.

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The French naval command, determined not to let their ships fall into German hands, made the difficult decision to scuttle their own fleet. This decision was taken both as a tactical move to prevent the ships from being used by the Axis powers and as a symbolic gesture of defiance.

On 27 November 1942, the Strasbourg was scuttled at its moorings in Toulon Harbor. The process involved opening the ship’s seacocks and setting explosive charges. The ship sank in the shallow waters of the harbor, marking a somber end to its operational life.

Fate Of The Strasbourg

Following the end of World War II, efforts were made to raise the sunken vessels from Toulon harbor, including the Strasbourg. This was a significant undertaking due to the size and condition of the ship. The process of raising a sunken battleship involved extensive planning, engineering efforts, and specialized equipment.

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Once raised, the Strasbourg was thoroughly assessed. The extent of damage from the scuttling, combined with the deterioration it had suffered underwater, was significant. The ship, once a symbol of naval prowess, was now in a state that made any thoughts of restoration or recommissioning impractical.

The Strasbourg scuttled at Toulon in 1942.

Given the extent of the damage and the changing nature of naval warfare post-World War II (with a greater focus on aircraft carriers and nuclear technology), it was decided that the Strasbourg would be scrapped. The cost of repairing and modernizing the ship would have been prohibitive, and its design was no longer in line with contemporary naval strategic needs.

The scrapping process involved dismantling the ship and salvaging any usable materials. This was a common fate for many warships after World War II, as the demand for raw materials in post-war reconstruction efforts was high. The scrapping would have been carried out in stages, with valuable materials like steel being recycled.

While the physical ship was dismantled, the legacy of the Strasbourg lived on in naval history and memory. As a significant vessel of the interwar period and World War II, it remained a subject of study for historians and naval enthusiasts. Artifacts, photographs, and records from the Strasbourg continue to be displayed in naval museums and archives, preserving the memory of the ship and its crew.