French submarine Surcouf

Surcouf was the largest French cruiser submarine. 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.

Surcouf c. 1935 painted in Prussian dark blue
Name: Surcouf
Namesake: Robert Surcouf
Ordered: 4 August 1926
Builder: Cherbourg Arsenal
Laid down: 1 July 1927
Launched: 18 November 1929
Commissioned: 16 April 1934
In service: 1934–1942
Refit: 1941
Identification: Pennant number: N N 3
Honors and
Resistance Medal with rosette
Fate: Disappeared, 18 February 1942
General characteristics
Type: Cruiser submarine
  • 3,250 long tons (3,300 t) (surfaced)
  • 4,304 long tons (4,373 t) (submerged)
  • 2,880 long tons (2,930 t) (dead)
Length: 110 m (361 ft)
Beam: 9 m (29 ft 6 in)
Draft: 7.25 m (23 ft 9 in)
Installed power:
  • 7,600 hp (5,700 kW) (surfaced)
  • 3,400 hp (2,500 kW) (submerged)
  • 18.5 knots (34.3 km/h; 21.3 mph) (surfaced)
  • 10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph) (submerged)
  • Surfaced:
  • 18,500 km (10,000 nmi; 11,500 mi) at 10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph)
  • 12,600 km (6,800 nmi; 7,800 mi) at 13.5 kn (25.0 km/h; 15.5 mph)
  • Submerged:
  • 130 km (70 nmi; 81 mi) at 4.5 kn (8.3 km/h; 5.2 mph)
  • 110 km (59 nmi; 68 mi) at 5 kn (9.3 km/h; 5.8 mph)
Endurance: 90 days
Test depth: 80 m (260 ft)
Boats & landing
craft carried:
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
Aviation facilities: Hangar


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:

  • Ensure contact with the French colonies;
  • In collaboration with French naval squadrons, search and destroy enemy fleets;
  • Pursuit of enemy convoys.

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 Surcouf 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.[1] 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 10 torpedo tubes: four 550 mm (22 in) torpedo tubes in the bow, and two swiveling external launchers in the aft superstructure, each with one 550mm and two 400 mm (16 in) torpedo tubes. Eight 550mm and four 400mm reloads were carried.[2] 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 an 11 km (5.9 nmi; 6.8 mi) horizon, and able to fire within three minutes after surfacing.[3] 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.[4] 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 diving to 110 meters without notable deformations to its thick hull, with a normal operating depth of 178 m (584 ft). Crush depth was calculated at 491 m (1,611 ft).

The first commanding officer was Frigate Captain (Capitaine de Frégate, a rank equivalent to Commander), Raymond de Belot.

The boat encountered several technical challenges, owing to the 203mm guns.

  • Because of the low height of the rangefinder above the water surface, the practical range of fire was 12,000 m (13,000 yd) with the rangefinder (16,000 m (17,000 yd) with sighting aided by periscope), well below the normal maximum of 26,000 m (28,000 yd).
  • The duration between the surface order and the first firing round was 3 minutes and 35 seconds. This duration could have been longer in case the boat was going to fire broadside, which meant surfacing and training the turret in the desired direction.
  • Firing had to occur at a precise moment of pitch and roll when the ship was level.
  • Training the turret to either side was limited to when the ship rolled 8° or less.
  • Surcouf was not equipped to fire at night, due to inability to observe the fall of shot in the dark
  • The mounts were designed to fire 14 rounds from each gun before their magazines were reloaded.

To replace the hydroplane whose functioning was initially constrained and limited in use, trials were conducted with an autogyro in 1938.

Appearance of Surcouf

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.


Early career

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,[3] but other 'big-gun' submarines of this boat's class could no longer be built.

Second World War

Seizure of Surcouf
Part of World War II
Date3 July 1940
Plymouth, England, United Kingdom
Result British capture of Surcouf
United Kingdom France
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 Frigate Captain 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 Patrick Griffiths of HMS Rorqual,[5][6] and French warrant officer mechanic Yves Daniel[7] were fatally wounded, and a British seaman, Albert Webb,[5] was shot dead by the submarine's doctor.[8]

Free French naval forces

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, Frigate Captain 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.

Surcouf then went to the Canadian base at Halifax, Nova Scotia and escorted trans-Atlantic convoys. In April 1941, she was damaged by a German plane at Devonport.[7]

On 28 July, Surcouf went to the United States Naval Shipyard at Portsmouth, New Hampshire for a three-month refit.[3]

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.

Liberation of St. Pierre and Miquelon

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 The 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.

Later operations

In January 1942, the Free French leadership decided to send Surcouf to the Pacific theatre, after she had been re-supplied at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda. However, her movement south triggered rumours that Surcouf was going to liberate Martinique from the Vichy regime.

In fact, Surcouf was bound for Sydney, Australia, via Tahiti.[3] She departed Halifax on 2 February for Bermuda, which she left on 12 February, bound for the Panama Canal.[7]


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.[9][10]

The loss resulted in 130 deaths (including 4 Royal Navy personnel), under the command of Frigate Captain 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.[11] It was not reported Surcouf was sunk as the result of a collision with the Thompson Lykes until January 1945.[12]

The investigation of the French commission concluded the disappearance was the consequence of misunderstanding. A Consolidated PBY, patrolling the same waters on the night of 18/19 February, could have attacked Surcouf believing her to be German or Japanese. This theory could have been backed by several elements:

  • The witness testimonies of cargo ship SS Thomson Lykes, which accidentally collided with a submarine, described a submarine smaller than Surcouf
  • The damage to the Thomson Lykes was too light for a collision with Surcouf
  • The position of Surcouf did not correspond to any position of German submarines at that moment
  • The Germans did not register any submarine loss in that sector during the war.

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[13]. Charles de Gaulle stated in his memoirs[14] 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 10°40′N 79°32′W.[3]

A monument commemorates the loss in the port of Cherbourg in Normandy, France.[15]

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. James Rusbridger examined some of these 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.[16]


  • Médaille de la Résistance avec Rosette (Resistance Medal with rosette) - 29 November 1946
  • Cited in Orders of Corps of the Army - 4 August 1945
  • Cited in Orders of the Navy - 8 January 1947[17]

Commanding officers

  • 15 August 1930: Frigate Captain de Belot (Sea trials and armament at Cherbourg.)
  • 9 September 1933: Frigate Captain Le Portier (End of sea trials. Assigned to Brest submarine flotilla.)
  • 26 August 1935: Frigate Captain Derrien (In service in the submarine flotilla of Brest then overhaul.)
  • 29 October 1937: Frigate Captain Le Gouic (Overhaul then service in the submarine flotilla of Brest.)
  • 19 October 1939: Frigate Captain Martin (In service then in dry dock at Brest. Departed for Plymouth, Great Britain on 18 June 1940.)
  • 15 September 1940: Frigate Captain Ortoli (rearmament under the flag of the Free French Naval Forces)
  • 7 October 1941: Frigate Captain Blaison (Rallying of Saint Pierre and Miquelon. Overhaul in the United States. Disappearance of Surcouf.)

Surcouf in fiction

  • The model of the titular submarine in Lorelei is based on Surcouf. Particularly noticeable are the 8-inch guns and their housing.
  • 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.
  • A Surcouf-type submarine appears in the Destroyermen novel Deadly Shores by Taylor Anderson.
  • 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.
  • The Douglas Reeman novel Strike from the Sea involves a fictional sister ship of Surcouf called Soufrière which is surrendered by its French crew to the Royal Navy and subsequently used in the defense and evacuation of Singapore before being turned over to the Free French Navy.

See also


  1. Winchester, Clarence (1937). Shipping wonders of the world. 41–55. Amalgamated Press. p. 1431.
  2. Huan, Claude (1996). Le croiseur sous-marin Surcouf. Bourg en Bresse: Marines editions. p. 53-54.
  3. Croiseur sous-marin Surcouf, netmarine
  4. Sous-marin croiseur Surcouf: Caractéristiques principales
  5. Smith, Colin (24 June 2010). England's last war against France: Fighting Vichy 1940–42 (paperback ed.). Phoenix (paperback). p. Chapter 4. ISBN 978-0-7538-2705-5.
  6. Kindell, Don (6 December 2011), "1st – 31st July 1940", Casualty Lists of the Royal Navy and Dominion Navies, World War 2
  7. Histoire du sous-marin Surcouf (in French), netmarine
  8. Brown, David; Till, Geoffrey (2004). The Road to Oran: Anglo-French Naval Relations, September 1939 – July 1940. Routledge. p. 182. ISBN 0-7146-5461-2.
  9. Morison, Samuel Eliot; Till, Geoffrey (2001). History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: The Rising Sun in the Pacific, 1931 – April 1942. University of Illinois Press. p. 265. ISBN 0-252-06963-3.
  10. Kelshall, Gaylord; Till, Geoffrey (1994). The U-Boat War in the Caribbean. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. p. 68. ISBN 1-55750-452-0.
  11. "Free French List Surcouf as Lost". The New York Times. 19 April 1942. p. 36. Retrieved 5 July 2013.
  12. The New York Times. 29 January 1945.
  13. Auphan, Paul; Mordal, Jacques (1959). The French Navy in World War II. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.
  14. de Gaulle, Charles (1955). Mordal, Jaques (ed.). The War Memoirs of Charles de Gaulle, Vol. 1 The Call To Honour 1940–1942. Viking Press.
  16. Rusbridger, James. Who Sank the "Surcouf"?: The Truth About the Disappearance of the Pride of the French Navy. Ebury Press. ISBN 0-7126-3975-6.

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