Surcouf (N N 3)

Surcouf (N N 3) was a French
The French Republic , The French Republic , The French Republic , (commonly known as France , is a unitary semi-presidential republic in Western Europe with several overseas territories and islands located on other continents and in the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans. Metropolitan France...

A submarine is a watercraft capable of independent operation below the surface of the water. It differs from a submersible, which has more limited underwater capability...

 ordered to be built in December 1927, launched
Ship naming and launching
The ceremonies involved in naming and launching naval ships are based in traditions thousands of years old.-Methods of launch:There are three principal methods of conveying a new ship from building site to water, only two of which are called "launching." The oldest, most familiar, and most widely...

 on 18 October 1929, and commissioned
Ship commissioning
Ship commissioning is the act or ceremony of placing a ship in active service, and may be regarded as a particular application of the general concepts and practices of project commissioning. The term is most commonly applied to the placing of a warship in active duty with its country's military...

 in May 1934. Surcouf—named after the French privateer Robert Surcouf
Robert Surcouf
Robert Surcouf was a famous French corsair. During his legendary career, he captured 47 ships and was renowned for his gallantry and chivalry, earning the nickname of Roi des Corsaires .- Youth :...

—was the largest submarine ever built until surpassed by the Japanese I-400
I-400 class submarine
The Imperial Japanese Navy submarines were the largest submarines of World War II and remained the largest ever built until the construction of nuclear ballistic missile submarines in the 1960s. They were submarine aircraft carriers able to carry three Aichi M6A Seiran aircraft underwater to their...

s. Her short wartime career was marked with controversy and conspiracy theories
Conspiracy theory
A conspiracy theory explains an event as being the result of an alleged plot by a covert group or organization or, more broadly, the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.-Usage:The term "conspiracy...

. She was classified as an "undersea cruiser" by sources of her time.

Early career

The Washington Naval Treaty
Washington Naval Treaty
The Washington Naval Treaty, also known as the Five-Power Treaty, was an attempt to cap and limit, and "prevent 'further' costly escalation" of the naval arms race that had begun after World War I between various International powers, each of which had significant naval fleets. The treaty was...

 had placed strict limits on naval construction by the major naval powers, but submarines had been omitted. The French Navy attempted to take advantage of this by building three "corsair submarines", of which Surcouf was the first—and only one—to be completed.

Surcouf was designed as an "underwater cruiser
A cruiser is a type of warship. The term has been in use for several hundreds of years, and has had different meanings throughout this period...

", intended to seek and engage in surface combat. For reconnaissance, she carried a Besson MB.411 observation floatplane
A floatplane is a type of seaplane, with slender pontoons mounted under the fuselage; only the floats of a floatplane normally come into contact with water, with the fuselage remaining above water...

 in a hangar built abaft of the conning tower
Conning tower
A conning tower is a raised platform on a ship or submarine, often armored, from which an officer can con the vessel; i.e., give directions to the helmsman. It is usually located as high on the ship as practical, to give the conning team good visibility....

; for combat, she was armed with eight 550 mm (21.7 in) and four 400 mm (15.7 in) torpedo tubes and twin 203 mm (8 in) gun
203mm/50 Modèle 1924 gun
The 203mm/50 Modèle 1924 was a medium naval gun of the French Navy.The type was used on the Duquesne and Suffren classes of heavy cruisers as main battery, mounted in four twin turrets weighing 180 tonnes each...

s in a pressure-tight turret forward of the conning tower. The guns were fed from a magazine holding 60 rounds and controlled by a director
Director (military)
A director, also called an auxiliary predictor, is a mechanical or electronic computer that continuously calculates trigonometric firing solutions for use against a moving target, and transmits targeting data to direct the weapon firing crew....

 with a 5 m (16.4 ft) rangefinder, mounted high enough to view a 11 km (5.9 nmi; 6.8 mi) horizon, and able to fire within three minutes after surfacing. Using her periscopes to direct the fire of her 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 (49.2 ft) high, but this design was abandoned quickly due to the effect of roll. In theory, the Besson observation plane could be used to direct fire out to the guns' 24 mi (20.9 nmi; 38.6 km) maximum range. Anti-aircraft cannon and machine guns were mounted on the top of the hangar.

Surcouf also carried a 4.5 metre motorboat, and contained a cargo compartment with fittings to restrain 40 prisoners. The submarine's fuel tanks were very large; enough fuel for a 10000 nmi (18,520 km; 11,507.8 mi) range and supplies for 90-day patrols could be carried.

Soon after Surcouf was launched, the London Naval Treaty
London Naval Treaty
The London Naval Treaty was an agreement between the United Kingdom, the Empire of Japan, France, Italy and the United States, signed on April 22, 1930, which regulated submarine warfare and limited naval shipbuilding. Ratifications were exchanged in London on October 27, 1930, and the treaty went...

 finally placed restrictions on submarine designs. Among other things, each signatory (France included) may possess no more than three large submarines, each not exceeding 2800 LT (2,844.9 t) standard displacement, with guns not exceeding 6.1 in (154.9 mm) in caliber. Surcouf, which would have exceeded these limits, was specially exempt from the rules at the insistence of Navy Minister Georges Leygues
Georges Leygues
Georges Leygues was a French politician of the Third Republic. During his time as Minister of Marine he worked with the navy's chief of staff Henri Salaun in unsuccessful attempts to gain naval re-armament priority for government funding over army rearmament such as the Maginot Line.He was born...

, but other 'big-gun' submarines of her class could no longer be built.

Despite her impressive specification, Surcouf proved to be plagued by mechanical problems: her trim was difficult to adjust during a dive, on the surface she rolled badly in rough seas, and she took over two minutes to dive to a depth of 12 m (39.4 ft), making her vulnerable to aircraft.

Second World War

In 1940, Surcouf was based in Cherbourg
-Main sights:* La Glacerie has a race track.* The Cité de la Mer is a large museum devoted to scientific and historical aspects of maritime subjects.* Cherbourg Basilica* Jardin botanique de la Roche Fauconnière, a private botanical garden.* Le Trident theatre...

, but in June, when the Germans invaded, she was being refitted in Brest
Brest, France
Brest is a city in the Finistère department in Brittany in northwestern France. Located in a sheltered position not far from the western tip of the Breton peninsula, and the western extremity of metropolitan France, Brest is an important harbour and the second French military port after Toulon...

. With only one engine functioning and with a jammed rudder, she limped across the English Channel
English Channel
The English Channel , often referred to simply as the Channel, is an arm of the Atlantic Ocean that separates southern England from northern France, and joins the North Sea to the Atlantic. It is about long and varies in width from at its widest to in the Strait of Dover...

 and sought refuge in Plymouth
Plymouth is a city and unitary authority area on the coast of Devon, England, about south-west of London. It is built between the mouths of the rivers Plym to the east and Tamar to the west, where they join Plymouth Sound...


On 3 July, the British, concerned that the French Fleet would be taken over by the German Kriegsmarine
The Kriegsmarine was the name of the German Navy during the Nazi regime . It superseded the Kaiserliche Marine of World War I and the post-war Reichsmarine. The Kriegsmarine was one of three official branches of the Wehrmacht, the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany.The Kriegsmarine grew rapidly...

 when the French surrendered, executed Operation Catapult
Destruction of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir
The Attack on Mers-el-Kébir, part of Operation Catapult and also known as the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir, was a naval engagement fought at Mers-el-Kébir on the coast of what was then French Algeria on 3 July 1940...

. The Royal Navy
Royal Navy
The Royal Navy is the naval warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Founded in the 16th century, it is the oldest service branch and is known as the Senior Service...

 blockaded the harbors where French warships were anchored and delivered an ultimatum: re-join the fight against Germany, be put out of reach of the Germans or scuttle the ships. Most accepted willingly, with two notable exceptions: the North African fleet at Mers-el-Kebir
Mers-el-Kébir is a port town in northwestern Algeria, located by the Mediterranean Sea near Oran, in the Oran Province.-History:Originally a Roman port, Mers-el-Kébir became an Almohad naval arsenal in the 12th century, fell under the rulers of Tlemcen in the 15th century, and eventually became a...

 and the ships based at Dakar
Dakar is the capital city and largest city of Senegal. It is located on the Cap-Vert Peninsula on the Atlantic coast and is the westernmost city on the African mainland...

 (see Battle of Dakar
Battle of Dakar
The Battle of Dakar, also known as Operation Menace, was an unsuccessful attempt in September 1940 by the Allies to capture the strategic port of Dakar in French West Africa , which was under Vichy French control, and to install the Free French under General Charles de Gaulle there.-Background:At...

). These condemned the British "treachery" and (in the former instance) suffered hundreds of casualties when the British opened fire
Destruction of the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir
The Attack on Mers-el-Kébir, part of Operation Catapult and also known as the Battle of Mers-el-Kébir, was a naval engagement fought at Mers-el-Kébir on the coast of what was then French Algeria on 3 July 1940...


French ships lying at ports in Britain and Canada were also boarded by armed Marines, sailors and soldiers, and the only serious incident took place at Plymouth
Plymouth is a city and unitary authority area on the coast of Devon, England, about south-west of London. It is built between the mouths of the rivers Plym to the east and Tamar to the west, where they join Plymouth Sound...

 aboard Surcouf on 3 July, when two Royal Navy officers and French warrant officer mechanic Yves Daniel were fatally wounded, and a British seaman was shot dead by the submarine's doctor.

The acrimony between the British and French caused by these actions escalated when the British attempted to repatriate the captured French sailors: the British hospital ship that was carrying them back to France was sunk by the Germans, and many of the French blamed the British for the deaths.

Free French Naval Forces

By August 1940, the British completed Surcoufs 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, Louis Blaison, became the new commander. Because of the British-French tensions with regard to the submarine, accusations were made by each side that the other was spying for Vichy France
Vichy France
Vichy France, Vichy Regime, or Vichy Government, are common terms used to describe the government of France that collaborated with the Axis powers from July 1940 to August 1944. This government succeeded the Third Republic and preceded the Provisional Government of the French Republic...

; the British also claimed that Surcouf was attacking British ships. Later, a British officer and two sailors were put on board for "liaison" purposes. One real drawback of this ship was that it 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 British base at Halifax
City of Halifax
Halifax is a city in Canada, which was the capital of the province of Nova Scotia and shire town of Halifax County. It was the largest city in Atlantic Canada until it was amalgamated into Halifax Regional Municipality in 1996...

, Nova Scotia and escorted trans-Atlantic convoys. In April 1941, she was damaged by a German plane at Devonport; on 28 July, Surcouf went to the United States Naval Shipyard
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard
The Portsmouth Naval Shipyard , often called the Portsmouth Navy Yard, is a United States Navy shipyard located in Kittery on the southern boundary of Maine near the city of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It is used for remodeling and repairing the Navy's ships...

 at Portsmouth, New Hampshire for a three-month refit. After leaving the shipyard, Surcouf went to New London, Connecticut
New London, Connecticut
New London is a seaport city and a port of entry on the northeast coast of the United States.It is located at the mouth of the Thames River in New London County, southeastern Connecticut....

. It remains unclear why the U.S. would allow a ship under a flag the U.S. did not recognise at the time (i.e. Free France) to undergo repair in the U.S. Surcouf left New London on 27 November to return to Halifax.

In December 1941, Surcouf carried the Free French Admiral Émile Muselier
Émile Muselier
Emile Henry Muselier was a French admiral who led the Free French Naval Forces during World War II. He was responsible for the idea of distinguishing his fleet from that of Vichy France by adopting the Cross of Lorraine, which later became the emblem of all of the Free French...

 to Canada
Canada is a North American country consisting of ten provinces and three territories. Located in the northern part of the continent, it extends from the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west, and northward into the Arctic Ocean...

, putting in to Quebec City
Quebec City
Quebec , also Québec, Quebec City or Québec City is the capital of the Canadian province of Quebec and is located within the Capitale-Nationale region. It is the second most populous city in Quebec after Montreal, which is about to the southwest...

. While the Admiral was in Ottawa
Ottawa is the capital of Canada, the second largest city in the Province of Ontario, and the fourth largest city in the country. The city is located on the south bank of the Ottawa River in the eastern portion of Southern Ontario...

, conferring with the Canadian government, Surcoufs captain was approached by New York Times reporter Ira Wolfert
Ira Wolfert
Ira Wolfert was an American Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent and writer.He was born and grew up in New York City. In 1930, he graduated from the Columbia University School of Journalism with a bachelors degree....

 and questioned about the rumours that the submarine would liberate Saint-Pierre and Miquelon
Saint-Pierre and Miquelon
Saint Pierre and Miquelon is a self-governing territorial overseas collectivity of France. It is the only remnant of the former colonial empire of New France that remains under French control....

 (a French archipelago 10 kilometres from Newfoundland) for Free France from Vichy control. Wolfert accompanied the submarine to Halifax, Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia is one of Canada's three Maritime provinces and is the most populous province in Atlantic Canada. The name of the province is Latin for "New Scotland," but "Nova Scotia" is the recognized, English-language name of the province. The provincial capital is Halifax. Nova Scotia is the...

 where, on 20 December, they joined the Free French corvette
A corvette is a small, maneuverable, lightly armed warship, originally smaller than a frigate and larger than a coastal patrol craft or fast attack craft , although many recent designs resemble frigates in size and role...

s Mimosa, , and Alysse, and on 24 December took control of the islands for Free France without resistance.

United States Secretary of State
United States Secretary of State
The United States Secretary of State is the head of the United States Department of State, concerned with foreign affairs. The Secretary is a member of the Cabinet and the highest-ranking cabinet secretary both in line of succession and order of precedence...

 Cordell Hull
Cordell Hull
Cordell Hull was an American politician from the U.S. state of Tennessee. He is best known as the longest-serving Secretary of State, holding the position for 11 years in the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt during much of World War II...

—who had just concluded an agreement with the Vichy government for the neutrality of French possessions in the Western hemisphere—threatened to resign unless President of the United States
President of the United States
The President of the United States of America is the head of state and head of government of the United States. The president leads the executive branch of the federal government and is the commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces....

 Franklin Roosevelt demanded a restoration of the status quo. Roosevelt did so, but when Charles de Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle
Charles André Joseph Marie de Gaulle was a French general and statesman who led the Free French Forces during World War II. He later founded the French Fifth Republic in 1958 and served as its first President from 1959 to 1969....

 refused, he dropped the matter. Ira Wolfert's stories—very favorable to the Free French (and bearing no sign of kidnapping or other duress)—helped swing American popular opinion away from Vichy.

Another rumour associated with this event is that, on 1 January 1942, Roosevelt did send an American destroyer
In naval terminology, a destroyer is a fast and maneuverable yet long-endurance warship intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet, convoy or battle group and defend them against smaller, powerful, short-range attackers. Destroyers, originally called torpedo-boat destroyers in 1892, evolved from...

 to Saint-Pierre to restore it to Vichy control and Surcouf allegedly fired on the destroyer, killing one or two American sailors. No documentation supports this rumor, and significant circumstantial evidence contradicts it. It is documented that later that January the Free French decided to send Surcouf to the Pacific theatre of war after she resupplied at Bermuda
Bermuda is a British overseas territory in the North Atlantic Ocean. Located off the east coast of the United States, its nearest landmass is Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, about to the west-northwest. It is about south of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and northeast of Miami, Florida...

. Her movement south triggered rumours that she was going to liberate Martinique
Martinique is an island in the eastern Caribbean Sea, with a land area of . Like Guadeloupe, it is an overseas region of France, consisting of a single overseas department. To the northwest lies Dominica, to the south St Lucia, and to the southeast Barbados...

 for the Free French from Vichy.

After the outbreak of war with Japan, Surcouf was ordered to Sydney, Australia via Tahiti. She departed Halifax on 2 February for Bermuda, which she left on 12 February, bound for the Panama Canal
Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is a ship canal in Panama that joins the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and is a key conduit for international maritime trade. Built from 1904 to 1914, the canal has seen annual traffic rise from about 1,000 ships early on to 14,702 vessels measuring a total of 309.6...



Surcouf was sunk on 18 February 1942 about 80 mi (69.5 nmi; 128.7 km) north of Cristóbal, Colón
Cristóbal, Colón
Cristóbal is a port in the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal. It is located on the western edge of Manzanillo Island and is part of the Panamanian city and province of Colón...

, while en route for Tahiti
Tahiti is the largest island in the Windward group of French Polynesia, located in the archipelago of the Society Islands in the southern Pacific Ocean. It is the economic, cultural and political centre of French Polynesia. The island was formed from volcanic activity and is high and mountainous...

 via the Panama Canal
Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is a ship canal in Panama that joins the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and is a key conduit for international maritime trade. Built from 1904 to 1914, the canal has seen annual traffic rise from about 1,000 ships early on to 14,702 vessels measuring a total of 309.6...

. The American freighter —steaming alone from Guantanamo Bay on what was a very dark night—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 carried on its course without stopping, as they thought that they had struck a German U-boat, though cries for help were heard in English. A signal was sent to Panama describing the incident.

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
Gabriel Auphan
Gabriel Paul Auphan was a French admiral, chief of cabinet of Admiral Darlan under Vichy France and later Secrétaire d'État à la marine of Vichy.- Early career :...

 in his book The French Navy in World War II in which he says, "for reasons which appear to have been primarily political, she was rammed at night in the Caribbean by an American freighter." Charles de Gaulle stated in his memoirs that Surcouf "had sunk with all hands".

The wreck lies 3000 m (9,842.5 ft) deep at 10°40′N 79°32′W.

There is a memorial to Surcouf in Cherbourg harbor.


Like so much else about Surcouf, there are alternate stories of her end. Disregarding the predictable ones about her being swallowed by the Bermuda Triangle
Bermuda Triangle
The Bermuda Triangle, also known as the Devil's Triangle, is a region in the western part of the North Atlantic Ocean where a number of aircraft and surface vessels allegedly disappeared under mysterious circumstances....

, one of the most popular is that she was caught in Long Island Sound
Long Island Sound
Long Island Sound is an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean, located in the United States between Connecticut to the north and Long Island, New York to the south. The mouth of the Connecticut River at Old Saybrook, Connecticut, empties into the sound. On its western end the sound is bounded by the Bronx...

 refuelling a German U-boat
U-boat is the anglicized version of the German word U-Boot , itself an abbreviation of Unterseeboot , and refers to military submarines operated by Germany, particularly in World War I and World War II...

, and both submarines were sunk, either by the American submarines and , or a United States Coast Guard
United States Coast Guard
The United States Coast Guard is a branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the seven U.S. uniformed services. The Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission and a federal regulatory agency...

A blimp, or non-rigid airship, is a floating airship without an internal supporting framework or keel. A non-rigid airship differs from a semi-rigid airship and a rigid airship in that it does not have any rigid structure, neither a complete framework nor a partial keel, to help the airbag...


Many stories add that much of the gold from the French Treasury was in Surcoufs large cargo compartment, and that the wreck was found and entered in 1967 by Jacques Cousteau
Jacques-Yves Cousteau
Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a French naval officer, explorer, ecologist, filmmaker, innovator, scientist, photographer, author and researcher who studied the sea and all forms of life in water...


Diver Lee Prettyman reported finding the Surcouf in the 1960's (1967?) and there was a newspaper article about it with his picture in the Hartford Currant newspaper. It was later retracted after threats were reportedly made.

James Rusbridger
James Rusbridger
James Rusbridger was a British author on international espionage during and after World War II.He was born in Jamaica, son of Gordon Rusbridger an Army colonel, and died in Cornwall. His career started in the naval design office of Vickers Armstrong...

 examines some of the theories in his book Who Sank Surcouf?, finding them all easily dismissed except one: the records of the 6th Heavy Bomber Group
6th Operations Group
The 6th Operations Group is the operational flying component of the 6th Air Mobility Wing, stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, Florida....

 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 only have been Surcouf. He suggested that the collision had damaged Surcoufs radio and the stricken boat limped towards Panama hoping for the best.

Surcouf in Fiction

Douglas Reeman
Douglas Reeman
Douglas Edward Reeman, born at Thames Ditton, is a British author who has written many historical fiction books on the Royal Navy, mainly set during either World War II or the Napoleonic Wars....

's novel Strike From the Sea, published in 1978, features a fictional sister ship of the Surcouf, named Soufrière (ISBN 0-688-03319-9).

See also

  • Japanese I-400-class submarine
    I-400 class submarine
    The Imperial Japanese Navy submarines were the largest submarines of World War II and remained the largest ever built until the construction of nuclear ballistic missile submarines in the 1960s. They were submarine aircraft carriers able to carry three Aichi M6A Seiran aircraft underwater to their...

  • HM Submarine X1
    HM Submarine X1
    HM Submarine X1 was conceived and designed as a submersible commerce raider for the Royal Navy; at the time of her launching she was the largest submarine in the world. The idea of a submarine cruiser had been proposed as early as 1915, but was not put into practice until 1921...

  • Submarine aircraft carrier
    Submarine aircraft carrier
    Submarine aircraft carriers are submarines equipped with fixed wing aircraft for observation or attack missions. These submarines saw their most extensive use during World War II, although their operational significance remained rather small...

External links

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