France’s early efforts at battleship construction suffered from slow building, full slips, and a concentration on the more pressing issues of World War I. Accordingly, early French battleships were not competitive with their foreign contemporaries. The Washington Naval Treaty allowed France to build 70000 tons worth of battleships, but the French wisely deferred construction during the immediate postwar period.
Germany suffered under far more serious restrictions that France. Germany was allowed to construct no battleships of over 10000 tons, which should have limited them to coastal defense vessels. The Germans, however, were not content with this plan, and developed the “pocket battleships”, a trio of cruiser size ships with battleship armament and very long ranges. Each of the pocket battleships carried 6 11″ guns in two triple turrets, could make about 29 knots, and had diesel engines that gave them ranges ideal for commerce raiding. Upon the construction of the pocket battleships, France began to design ships that could destroy the German vessels. The result was the Dunkerque class fast battleships.
The Dunkerque’s and their successors, the Richielieu class battleships, were exceptionally well designed vessels. Dunkerque and Strasbourg each carried 8 13″ guns in two quadruple turrets, could make 32 knots, and displaced 26500 tons (slightly higher for Strasbourg, due to extra armour). These ships were sometimes described as battlecruisers, but they were armored against 11″ shells, which essentially made them light battleships. Strasbourg, like the later Richielieu, also devoted an enormous percentage of her displacement to armor. Although exact figures differ a bit and depend on interpretation, Strasbourg devoted between 41% and 44% of her displacement to armor, making her one of the best armored battleships ever built, for her size. Armor took up roughly 33% of the displacement of a typical modern battleship, althought the Richielieu class also achieved a percentage in the low 40s. The French were able to achieve such numbers through excellent, efficient design work and also through the practice of quadruple turrets, which significantly reduced the weight of the main armament. The armor was well distributed, and Strasbourg also had excellent underwater protection and a fine anti-aircraft armament. Altogether the French battleship construction effort was much more impressive than that of the Germans or the Italians, and on a ton for ton basis was competitive with that of the Royal Navy.
Strasbourg’s activities at the beginning of World War II involved convoy escort and the pursuit of German commerce raiders. Strasbourg was more than capable of catching and destroying a pocket battleship, and I think she would have fared well against the German Scharnhorst class, although the latter is controversial. In any case, Strasbourg never caught a German ship, and the French surrender found her at the harbor of Mers El Kebir.
The French fleet, by and large, hoped to sit out the war following the French surrender. The Germans wanted the French fleet, and Admiral Darlan, an important naval official, had fascist sympathies, but there was considerable resistance in the French Navy to giving ships to the Germans. Winston Churchill, however, felt that the French fleet was too great of a threat to let lay, and decided to take vigorous action. He deployed a squadron including HMS Hood and two older battleships to Mers El Kebir in order to capture or destroy the French squadron. The squadron included two old battleships (Provence and Bretagne), but the main British concern was with Dunkerque, Strasbourg, and six large, modern French destroyers. The French destroyers and fast battleships could have made a significant addition to either the Italian or the British fleet, and their disposition might have had important consequences for the course of the war.
The negotiations between the French and British naval officials at Mers El Kebir went poorly, and the British ships eventually opened fire. Strasbourg was handicapped by the fact that her entire main armament (2 quadruple 13″ turrets) were forward, and could not fire to the aft, where the British happened to be. Nevertheless, Strasbourg managed to get underway, and with five of the six destroyers made a break for the open sea. The rest of the French squadron did not fare so well, with Bretagne exploding and Dunkerque and Provence beaching themselves.
HMS Hood was the only ship that could have caught Strasbourg, and a battle between the two would have been interesting. Hood was much larger and carried a heavier armament, but Strasbourg was newer and better protected. She was also faster, and Hood injured herself trying to pursue. Strasbourg and the five large destroyers made their way to Toulon, where they sat, inactive, until November 1942. They were joined by Dunkerque, which had received serious but not critical damage in the British attack.
On November 10, 1942, the Germans decided to abrogate the armistice with France, and occupied Vichy controlled areas. The French Navy decided to retain its honor, however, and on November 27, 1942, scuttled itself. Strasbourg’s military equipment was destroyed and she settled on the bottom of the harbor. Her hulk was refloated in 1943 by the Italians, and was transferred several times between Italy, Germany, and the skeleton of the Vichy state. In August 1944, Strasbourg was hit by eight American bombs, and was grounded to prevent capsizing. The French refloated her in 1946, and considered, but rejected, converting the hulk into an aircraft carrier. She was used for explosives tests before finally being scrapped in 1955.
UPDATE: Attentive reader Davida asks why the French didn’t just sail from Toulon to an Allied port instead of scuttling their ships. I don’t have a great answer; I assume that it was in part because of the bad feelings left over from Mers El Kebir, and in part because not all of the fleet was seaworthy. Any insight out there?
Trivia: What battleship holds the record for scoring the longest ranged hit on another battleship in combat?