Like the United States and Great Britain, France was an early proponent of naval aviation. In 1912, in fact, the French navy modified the old cruiser Foudre into a seaplane depot ship. The following year a hangar was added, transforming the old warhorse into the nation’s first seaplane carrier. The ship served throughout World War I before being decommissioned in 1921.
In addition to their own sea trials, the French were keen observers of developments in other navies. They took particular interest in the Royal Navy’s wartime experiments with operating land-based planes from the decks of warships. Even with constrained defense budgets, the French began construction of their first real flush-deck aircraft carrier. Although built entirely in France, that ship, christened Béarn, was developed with British assistance, and its design owed a great deal to the results of the Royal Navy’s early carrier experiments.
Béarn was constructed on the hull of an uncompleted battleship. Many early aircraft carriers were built that way at the time, including Britain’s Eagle and Japan’s Kaga and Akagi. The U.S. Navy’s Lexington and Saratoga also began their lives as capital ships.
Laid down at La Seyne as a Normandieclass battleship in January 1914, construction of Béarn was suspended that August with the beginning of World War I. Construction resumed at an unhurried pace after the Armistice in 1918, the ship eventually being launched in April 1920. Work was halted again in 1923 when the French admiralty decided to redesign the incomplete battlewagon as an aircraft carrier, a metamorphosis that took another four years. The ship was finally commissioned in 1927.
Although the British carrier Hermes was also commissioned that year, Béarn was more closely analogous to Eagle, which had been commissioned in 1924. Béarn and Eagle were both built on the hulls of uncompleted pre–World War I dreadnoughts, and they shared all the strengths and weaknesses associated with such a conversion. They were well-built ships, with strong, massively constructed hulls. On the other hand, the carriers’ battleship origin meant they were relatively slow, and that the shape and structure of their hulls made them less efficient aircraft carriers than ships designed specifically for the purpose.
Béarn was 599 feet long, with a beam of 115 feet, and displaced 28,400 tons when fully loaded. The ship carried a complement of 865 officers and men, and had a maximum speed of 21.5 knots. Producing 36,200 shaft horsepower, Béarn’s power plant was unusual in that it was fitted with two types of engines. The ship had four propeller shafts, the outer two powered by triple-expansion engines and the inner two by steam-geared turbines.
The carrier was designed to operate 40 aircraft from a full-length flight deck supported fore and aft of the hangar by heavy steel stanchions. The width of the flight deck tapered fore and aft of the hangar, and the after end was angled slightly downward aft. After a 1935 refit, the forward end of Béarn’s flight deck slanted downward as well. The ship’s 405-footlong hangar had three aircraft lifts.
In addition to its complement of aircraft, Béarn was armed with eight 6.1-inch guns mounted in casemates. For anti-aircraft protection, the carrier had six 75mm and 16 13.5cm guns. The vessel was also equipped with four torpedo tubes, though what use those would have been to an aircraft carrier seems unclear.
Béarn was not a particularly successful carrier design because it had not been conceived for the task from the outset. Its hull, for one, was too cramped to provide adequate hangar space. Unlike the United States, Britain and Japan, however, the French navy did not invest a great deal of money or effort into improving its carrier program between the world wars. Béarn was still the only operational carrier the French fleet possessed when German tanks rumbled across its border in May 1940.
With France once again at war, any attempts to modernize Béarn would have to wait. The carrier spent the early months of the conflict serving in the unglamorous but vital role of aircraft transport, carrying much-needed American-built combat planes across the Atlantic Ocean to France. On June 16, 1940, it sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, carrying 44 Curtiss SBC-4 Helldiver carrier-based dive bombers. Curtiss-Wright had originally been contracted to build Helldivers for the French government, but the Third Republic’s need for warplanes was so acute that the American government had been prevailed upon to supply existing bombers from U.S. Navy stocks.
The Americans’ largess was for naught. The French army capitulated while the carrier was en route to France, so the ship was diverted with its load of warplanes to the West Indies island of Martinique.
Years before, the American naval theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan had propounded the principle of the strategic importance of maintaining a “fleet in being.” With its home ports occupied, Béarn now became a prime example of this principle. Without ever actually engaging in battle, the mere presence of such a ship in an important location was enough to impact an enemy’s strategic decisions.
After the fall of France, both Martinique and the French fleet were regarded as Vichy, which essentially meant proNazi. For the Allies, that meant a potential enemy aircraft carrier was within striking distance of the United States, with a deck-load of American-built dive bombers of a type that was still in firstline service with the Navy.
Since France was technically no longer a belligerent, the U.S. State Department tried to negotiate the return of the 44 Helldivers. Those planes, which the United States had provided for the defense of France, had suddenly become a matter of serious concern to officials in Washington. Each was capable of carrying a 1,000-pound bomb over a range of 400 miles, and had a top speed of 234 mph. The Vichy ambassador informed U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull that because of the terms of its armistice with Germany his government could not return the aircraft.
When diplomatic discussions in Washington hit a brick wall, the Navy dispatched Rear Adm. John W. Greenslade to Martinique in August 1940 to try to reach some sort of rapprochement with Admiral Georges Robert, the high commissioner of the French West Indies.
Admiral Robert explained that duty compelled him to observe the terms of the armistice to the letter. Nevertheless, the French admiral managed to work out a solution that satisfied U.S. concerns while preserving France’s honor. Robert agreed to unload the planes onto the island, which had no airfield, and park them on an exposed hillside. Left unprotected from the weather, he explained, they would soon deteriorate and would be incapable of posing any kind of threat.
The deactivation of Béarn’s aircraft was not the end of the problem, however. The possibility that major French naval units might fall into German hands was still a serious concern to the Allies. In July 1940, at Mers el Kebir near Oran, the Royal Navy fired at French naval vessels that had refused either to continue the fight against Germany or to submit to disarmament and internment. Combined Royal Naval and Free French forces engaged Vichy naval units again the following September at Dakar. In November 1942, U.S. warships also exchanged fire with French naval ships while landing in North Africa. As a result, many in the Vichy navy regarded the Allies in general, and Britain in particular, as more immediate enemies than the Germans.
Although Béarn was not the newest or most capable carrier in the world, it was still a valuable asset. The German navy, which had no operational aircraft carriers of its own, would have loved to get its hands on Béarn. The German admirals were well aware of the importance of carrier airpower. Although their navy had begun building two carriers of its own in 1936, only one them, Graf Zeppelin, was ever actually launched—and it was never made operational.
It is true that the Germans lacked suitable aircraft to operate from Béarn had they gained possession of the ship, but carrier-based versions of the Messerschmitt Me-109 fighter and Junker Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber were under development. Clearly, if the admirals possessed a carrier of their own, there would be much greater impetus to develop planes that could fly off its deck.
After the invasion of French North Africa in November 1942, and the subsequent occupation of Vichy France by Germany, Martinique switched allegiance to Free France. With it went the naval units based in the port of Fort de France, including Béarn. At the end of June 1943, the ship was officially transferred to the Free French. Its Vichy captain replaced by a new Free French commanding officer, Béarn sailed to New Orleans, La., for a refit. No longer considered viable as an aircraft carrier, the old ship was modified to serve as an aircraft transport. When it emerged from the shipyard, Béarn’s fore and aft flight deck extensions had been removed, as well as its battery of 155mm guns, and the number of anti-aircraft batteries on board was increased. For the remainder of the war, Béarn transported U.S. aircraft across the Atlantic for use in the European theater.
Although the elderly carrier did not engage in combat during its service as an aircraft transport, it was involved in a serious accident. On March 13, 1945, Béarn was in the middle of the Atlantic leading one of nine columns of ships in a 45-vessel convoy bound for Europe. The old carrier had a load of 88 aircraft, as well as spare parts and other materiel. Suddenly, its steering gear malfunctioned, causing Béarn to turn hard to port. Passing astern of the commodore’s ship, it struck the starboard bow of the next vessel in the column—the U.S. Army transport Joseph C. McAndrew, which was carrying 1,974 U.S. troops. The 7,997-ton transport did not sink, but 68 of its officers and sailors were killed. Many of those lost on Joseph C. McAndrew were swept overboard through the gaping hole punched in the ship’s hull by Béarn’s massive bow. In addition, four men were killed aboard the French carrier. Too badly damaged to continue with the convoy, the two damaged ships struggled into Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel for temporary repairs. Later, Béarn disembarked its aircraft at Casablanca before proceeding to Gibraltar for more significant maintenance.
In April 1945, the French received a new aircraft carrier, christened Dixmude. Formerly the escort carrier HMS Biter, Dixmude had scarcely greater operational value than the obsolete Béarn. After the war, Béarn supported French military operations in Indochina. Although the ship was finally retired as an aircraft transport in 1948, it remained in service with the French navy for another 18 years. Transformed into a submarine tender, Béarn was a useful part of the French fleet until it was finally retired once and for all in 1966. By then, it could claim to be one of the oldest commissioned warships in the world. Fifty-three years after being laid down as a battleship, it was finally scrapped in Italy in 1967.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.