Alsace Class Battleship - Background


In 1936, the second London naval disarmament conference failure marked the end of the international naval armament limitation policy. Japan had withdrawn from the conference on January 15. Italy also declined to sign the treaty. A so-called "escalator clause" was included at the urging of American negotiators, allowing the signatory countries of the Second London Treaty—France, the United Kingdom and the United States—to raise the battleship main artillery caliber limit from 14 inches (356 mm) to 16 inches (406mm), and the battleship Washington tonnage limit from 35,000 tons to 45,000 tons, if Japan or Italy still refused to sign after 1 April 1937. So, the U.S.A. adopted the 16-inches guns for their new fast battleship classes, the United Kingdom choose to respect the Second London Naval Treaty limitations for the King George V class battleships, Germany was not concerned as she had not been invited to the second London naval disarmament conference, but officially, the battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz did have 380 mm guns and 35,000 tons. So France decided to respect the limitation of 35,000 tons and 380 mm, as long as no continental European power had overtaken them. It was with these considerations in mind that the new Chef d'Etat-major Général de la Marine, Admiral Darlan, was ordered, in late 1937, to study new designs for two more battleships, as Dunkerque trials were starting to confirm some critical issue with her design, especially her all forward quadruple turret main artillery, and her dual purpose (anti-aircraft and anti-ship) secondary artillery of relatively light caliber.

Three projects were studied, the first (project A) with the same quadruple arrangement forward as Richelieu, but different secondary artillery dispositions, the second (project B) with one quadruple turret forward and one quadruple turret aft, the third (project C) with two fore triple turrets and one triple turret aft, in every case with a 380 mm caliber. The project C was leading to an excess of nearly 2500 tons over the limit of 35,000 tons, so it was not proposed to the Chef d'Etat-major Général de la Marine.

In June 1938, Admiral Darlan chose the project A variant 2, for the first battleship to be laid down of the second pair of Richelieu class battleships. She received the name of "Clemenceau", and he choose the project B variant 3, for the second ship with whose design he was much involved, and gave her the name of "Gascogne", the French province where he was born.

The French Admiralty choice was tightly linked with the necessity of a maximum use of shipyards where big ships might be built. The Salou graving dock, in Brest Navy Yards, was planned to be ready for a new battleship building in late 1938 – early 1939, after the Richelieu was to have been launched or floated up. It was not possible to leave the dock empty for at least six months, waiting to build a Project B design battleship, as it would have necessitated at least one year to put up definitive drawings, after it had been ordered. So, the Project A design had to be chosen necessarily for the first battleship to be laid down in the Salou graving dock, as the "Caquot dock" in Saint-Nazaire, which was building Jean Bart expected to leave it for October 1940, could be used for the second battleship to be laid down. Richelieu was floated up on January 17, 1939, and Clemenceau was laid down. Eighteen months later, Jean Bart left her berth nearly in sight of German vanguards, on June 19, 1940, so Gascogne was never laid down.

During the summer of 1939, the French intelligence services warned the French Admiralty that the keels of two German battleships, supposed to displace 40,000 tons and mount 406 mm guns, actually Plan Z H-39 class battleships, had been laid down. It was considered then that it was time to surpass the limits of 35,000 tons and 380 mm. On the basis of the 1938 studies on Project C, new battleship designs emerged, which led to the so-called "Province " or Alsace class battleships.

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