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Sunday Battleship Blogging: Danton

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The Dantons were the last pre-dreadnoughts constructed by the French Navy. They were also the only pre-dreadnoughts to employ turbines, and as far as I know the only 20th century battleships to have five funnels. Danton, lead ship of the class, carried 4 12″ guns in two twin turrets, 12 9.5″ guns in six twin turrets, displaced 18300 tons, and could make roughly 19.5 knots. The speed and armament made the ships a good match for the Austro-Hungarian Radetzkys, which were about a knot faster but employed reciprocating machinery.

The biggest problem with the six ships of the Danton class was that they occupied the main French building slips for about two years each, meaning that France lost critical time in the dreadnought race. It is commonly argued that they were obsolete prior to completion; in fact, they were obsolete prior to being laid down. It is unclear why the French persisted in building the Danton class given their obvious inadequacy; Dreadnought was larger, faster, and carried more guns and heavier armor. Danton was laid down in 1906, and Mirabeau, final ship in the class, was laid down in 1908. Nevertheless, France did persist in constructing the design, which left the French Navy roughly a generation behind in battleship construction; the Courbets were not competitive with American, British, or German designs when they entered service in 1913 and 1914.

Danton’s World War I career was largely uneventful. She spent most of her time protecting convoys traveling to and from North Africa. Especially in the early part of the war, the French were concerned that the Austro-Hungarian Navy would sally forth and attack the convoys. No such operation ever materialized, however. Danton also helped guard the Dardanelles in order to prevent a sortie by Yavuz Selim. She did not, however, participate in operations designed to force the Straits. On the afternoon of March 19, 1917, Danton cruised into the patrol area (just south of Sardinia) of U-64, a German submarine operating from Austria-Hungary. Danton would become one of U-64’s forty-six victims; 296 men would sink with her. U-64 was herself destroyed on June 17, 1918.

During surveys for a trans-Mediterranean pipeline, the wreck of Danton was discovered in an excellent state of preservation. Although the ship apparently rolled over several times on her way down, she landed upright, and retains many of her guns and superstructure. Plans for the pipeline have moved by about 300 meters at the request of the French government, which views the wreck of Danton as a war grave.

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