The French submarine Surcouf was a technological marvel of the 1930s. If H.G. Wells had tried to imagine a futuristic submarine, it might have looked rather like this. The largest submarine ever built when she was launched, Surcouf was equipped not just with torpedoes and two eight-inch guns but also with a hanger, a seaplane and even a prison capable of holding forty captives. With a range of over 10,000 miles and a crew of over 120, Surcouf was intended to be the first of a new breed of submarine cruisers, capable of approaching a target undetected and then surfacing and attacking with gunfire and torpedoes.
Sadly, the truth was less impressive. Surcouf turned out to be unreliable, slow, complex, difficult to maintain in trim when submerged and she was so low in the water that the effective range of her main guns was less than seven miles. Although she continued in service, she was mainly used to “show the flag” overseas and plans for two sister submarines were quietly dropped. After the fall of France to Nazi Germany, Surcouf transferred to forces under General De Gaulle but her brief career under the Free French flag was dogged by controversy and antagonism with the allies. In February 1942 Surcouf disappeared without trace in circumstances that have never been satisfactorily explained leading to speculation on what may have happened to her ranging from a simple accident to deliberate destruction by the allies.
HMS M1, 1917
The British Navy was the first to experiment with large submarines armed with naval guns. The first such submarine, HMS M1, was launched in July 1917 and equipped with a single 12” gun. However, M1 was plagued by technical issues, proved to be a disappointment in terms of performance and never saw active service during World War One. M1 was finally lost with all hands in an accident 1925 but that didn’t stop the Admiralty commissioning another submarine cruiser, HMS X1 in 1925. X1 was even larger than M1 and equipped with four 5.2” guns in two turrets. However, just like M1 she was plagued by technical problems which were never fully resolved and she was laid up in 1930 and scrapped in 1936. The problems with M1 and X1 convinced the Royal Navy that the theory of the submarine cruiser was not practicable and they built no more submarines of this type.
However Jean Roquebert, the Chief of the Submarine Section in the French Bureau of Naval Construction, was an enthusiast for the submarine cruiser. Roquefort pointed to the havoc caused by the German light cruiser Emden during World War One. Just imagine, he said, if the Emden could have submerged to remain undetected and either then could have attacked with torpedoes or surfaced to use naval guns, “What greater destruction could she have caused?”The French Navy agreed and plans were drawn up to build three French submarines even larger than the X1. In December 1927 work commenced on the first of these ships, Surcouf (named after Robert Surcouf, a French privateer who fought against the British during the Napoleonic wars).
Surcouf during a visit to Casablanca, 1938
The 3,304 ton, 361 foot long Surcouf was launched in October 1929 and commissioned in May 1934. From the beginning it was clear that she had problems. It was very difficult to keep her trimmed underwater, she took more than two minutes to crash dive to forty feet (making her very vulnerable to attack by aircraft), she rolled so badly in rough seas that her main guns were effectively useless and her novel and complex systems were plagued by minor faults. Despite these problems Surcouf went on a number of foreign tours, covering more than 16,000 miles in the next five years (though almost all this on the surface).
When World War Two began in September 1939, Surcouf was in the French Antilles. She returned to France immediately, but was forced to put into Brest for urgent repairs. She was still in harbour when Germany invaded France in May 1940 and as the panzers approached Brest, she limped across the channel on one engine and one rudder to Plymouth where a number of French warships were already anchored. On June 30th French forces surrendered to the Nazis and in Britain there was extreme nervousness that French naval vessels might fall in to the hands of the Germans. In July 1940 Winston Churchill ordered Operation Catapult which involved an attack on French naval units abroad and the seizure of all French ships in British and commonwealth ports. Over 1000 French sailors were killed when British warships attacked in the Mediterranean but the seizure of French ships in British ports went peacefully, apart from on Surcouf. When British naval personnel tried to board the submarine there was an armed confrontation which left three British Marines and one French sailor dead.
Operation Catapult led to a huge amount of bad feeling between the British and French navies and this was exacerbated when many of the remaining sailors from Surcouf were killed when the British hospital ship on which they were being sent for repatriation was sunk by a German U-Boat. In August 1940 Surcouf was handed over to the control of Free French forces under the command of General De Gaulle. Capitaine de Frégate (Commander) Georges Louis Blaison, one of only two officers not repatriated from the original crew, became the new commanding officer of Surcouf. A new crew was recruited from Frenchmen on British territory, though many of these were completely inexperienced in submarine operations. A British officer and two signalmen were added to the crew as liaisons. This was common practice in ships from foreign navies serving with the Royal Navy and generally worked well. This was not so on Surcouf where there was constant tension between the French crew and the British liaisons.
The acrimony following the deaths of many of the original crew meant that it wasn’t only on-board that relations between British and French were marked by distrust and suspicion. Many on the British side believed that the crew of Surcouf were sympathetic to Vichy France and perhaps even to Germany. This, combined with the ineffectiveness and unreliability of Surcouf as a combat unit meant that there was little enthusiasm for using her as an allied naval unit. However, for De Gaulle, Surcouf represented the pride of the tiny Free French Navy and he was clear that a combat role must be found for the submarine.
Surcouf heads towards Halifax, Nova Scotia
In October 1940 Surcouf made her first voyage with her new crew, revealing many problems. Despite this, she continued to train and in February 1941 Surcouf transferred to Halifax, Nova Scotia where she would act as an escort for Atlantic convoys. It quickly became apparent that Surcouf was fundamentally unsuited to the role of convoy escort in the North Atlantic. Not only were her inherent technical limitations an issue, her inexperienced crew also caused problems. It was claimed that she often took up wrong positions and even that she represented a hazard to the convoys she was supposed to be protecting. On one occasion it was said that she mistakenly attempted a (luckily botched) attack on an American Task Force including the aircraft carrier USS Wasp and the heavy cruiser USS Quincy.
In May 1941 it was decided to send her to Bermuda where she would act as a local escort and undertake patrols to search for U-Boats. Surcouf undertook just one patrol from Bermuda. It was a complete disaster. The submarine suffered from repeated electrical problems: at one point chlorine gas leaked into the crew quarters and twice while diving she almost went out of control. Without even encountering the enemy, Surcouf was fortunate to survive this patrol and it was clear that she was in need of an extensive overhaul if she was to continue in the war.
Surcouf in dry dock, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, September 1941
In late July 1941 Surcouf entered dry dock in the naval yard in Portsmouth, New Hampshire where her re-fit began. This was illegal – at this time the USA still maintained friendly relations with both Germany and Vichy France and had not recognized the Free French State. Despite this, Surcouf remained in the yard in New Hampshire for more than three months and extensive repair and renovation work was undertaken. This work was very difficult: Surcouf was one-of-a-kind and spares for many of her systems simply were not available in a US naval yard. Despite a huge amount of largely improvised work, it was only possible to address some of the most serious problems before the partially repaired Surcouf left the naval yard on November 11th 1941. She returned briefly to Bermuda before being ordered once again to Halifax, Nova Scotia. On 8th December, as Surcouf was en-route to Halifax, the Norwegian tanker Atlantic reported being pursued by a large submarine flying the French flag 546 miles south of Halifax. The tanker reported being chased by the submarine before it made off to the north.
On December 7th 1941 Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war against Japan and Germany. When she arrived at Halifax on December 10th, Surcouf rendezvoused with three Free French corvettes, the Mimosa, Alysse, and Aconit. This small group was joined by Admiral Muselier, commander of the Free French Navy who took Surcouf as his flagship and all four ships left Halifax on 20th December on a “training exercise”. However, this was just a cover and on December 24th the group landed 360 sailors on the Vichy-controlled islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off the southeastern coast of Newfoundland and claimed these islands for Free France. Roosevelt and Churchill were infuriated. Roosevelt in particular felt that the US should try to prop up the Vichy regime and try to encourage it to rebel against the Germans. Numerous diplomatic and political negotiations had been on-going between the Vichy regime and the US including the conclusion of an agreement that all Vichy possessions in the Western Hemisphere would remain neutral. At that point St. Pierre and Miquelon were invaded with the assistance of a Free French submarine which had been illegally repaired in a US naval yard a short time before! The political repercussions of this raid soured relations between the Free French and the allies for some time. After the raid on the islands, Surcouf returned to Halifax and awaited further orders.
Roosevelt, De Gaulle and Churchill, Casablanca, 1943
There is little doubt that, by this time, both the British and the Americans regarded Surcouf as a liability and a potential loose-cannon. Not only did Surcouf suffer from extensive technical issues but reports from the senior British Naval Liaison Officer (BNLO) aboard spoke of incompetence, drunkenness and disaffection amongst the crew. Even the captain was said to be incapable of distinguishing between friendly and enemy ships. So, it probably came as a relief to the allies when the Commissioner in Nouméa, the capital of the Free French territory of New Caledonia in the Pacific, registered his concerns about the possibility of an invasion by Japan and requested naval support. New Caledonia is a group of islands in the South Pacific around one thousand miles east of the west coast of Australia. Sending Surcouf to patrol a remote group of islands far from the main events of the war would end concerns about her capabilities and intentions.
On January 16th Surcouf received orders to travel initially to Tahiti via the Panama Canal. Unfortunately, Surcouf once again had a list of faults and defects that needed to be addressed. After the St. Pierre and Miquelon affair, no American yard would work on her. So, although she was ordered to sail directly from Halifax to Tahiti, instead she called in at Bermuda on 7th February 1942. The captain of Surcouf had a long list of urgently required repairs which he hoped would be undertaken at the Royal Naval dockyard there. It was estimated that these repairs would take at least three months to complete. Instead, the dockyard was instructed to undertake only the most urgent repairs and Surcouf was ordered to be ready to sail for Tahiti on February 12th.
In his final report on February 10th the BNLO reported even more dismal conditions than usual on Surcouf. Morale amongst the crew was at an all-time low and relations between the British Naval Liaison Officers and the French crew were extremely difficult. Drunkenness was said to be so prevalent that some men were incapable of undertaking their duties and some were speaking openly of mutiny and defecting to Vichy controlled Martinique in the Caribbean. The overall condition of Surcouf was also very poor. Defects which had not been addressed included the failure of one of the two electric motors which powered the submarine when submerged and this meant that there was a real possibility of losing control of the submarine if she was to travel underwater. Even the main diesel engines had issues which meant that her top speed on the surface was reduced to just 13 knots. Amongst a host of other technical problems, Surcouf had only 150 rounds for her main guns with no suitable additional ammunition supply available.
The disaffected and possibly mutinous crew added to these technical problems meant that Surcouf was almost completely ineffective as a combat unit. Some people even questioned whether it was safe to send her on such a long journey and suggested paying off the crew in Bermuda. It is certainly difficult to imagine that anyone seriously expected her to counter potential Japanese action in the Pacific. Sending her to New Caledonia seems to have been a politically expedient way of getting her out of the way of other allied shipping. On the morning of 12th February 1942 Surcouf limped out of Bermuda with 130 men onboard and headed for the Panama Canal. She never arrived.
On the evening of February 18th an American freighter, the 6,762 ton Thompson Lykes owned by the Lykes Brothers Steamship Company of New Orleans, was steaming from the Panama Canal to Cuba. Several German U-Boats were known to be operating in the area and as darkness fell the ship continued without running lights and with all internal lights shielded. At 10:28pm the ship was making around thirteen knots and was about eighty miles north of the entrance to the Panama Canal when the helmsman spotted something in the water ahead of the ship and the Captain ordered right full rudder. It was too late and moments later the Thompson Lykes hit something. There was an explosion and flames briefly lit the water on either side of the bow. The flames quickly died away and the freighter’s momentum carried her forwards. Several crewmen claimed later that as they passed the point of the collision, they heard voices calling for help in English from the water below.
Not the Thompson Lykes but an identical sister ship
The Thompson Lykes immediately stopped, returned and used searchlights to search for survivors in the area of the collision, but none were found. Her Captain broke radio silence to report the incident to the naval authorities at Cristobal. He was ordered to remain in the vicinity and continue the search. At 10.45am next morning the Thompson Lykes was joined by the USS Tatnall and the destroyer USS Barry. All three ships searched the area but no wreckage or survivors were found and the only sign of the collision was an oil slick.
When Surcouf failed to arrive at the Panama Canal it was assumed that it was the object with which the Thompson Lykes had collided and that the submarine had subsequently sunk with all hands. This was also the finding of a later allied enquiry into the loss of Surcouf. The loss of the Surcouf was publically announced on April 18th, 1942.
On March 12th 1942 FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent a memo to the chief of U.S. Naval Intelligence in which he stated that a “highly confidential source” had informed him that Surcouf had not been sunk after the collision with the Thompson Lykes but instead had sunk near St. Pierre, though he didn’t explain whether this was the island near Newfoundland which the Surcouf had helped to invade or the city in Martinique to which some of the crew were have alleged to have wanted to defect. Both locations are some distance from where Surcouf is thought to have been run down by the Thompson Lykes.
On September 23rd, 1951, Charles De Gaulle unveiled a memorial on the quayside at Cherbourg to the 130 men who are presumed to have died when Surcouf was lost.
In 1962 composer Benjamin Britten completed his masterpiece “War Requiem”, first performed during the consecration of Coventry Cathedral. War Requiem is dedicated to Roger Burney, Britten’s former lover. Sub Lieutenant Burney was the senior British Naval Liaison Officer on Surcouf at the time of her disappearance.
In 1965 an amateur scuba diver, Lee Prettyman, Jr., reported finding the wreck of Surcouf in Long Island Sound. Long Island Sound runs from the mouth of the East River in New York City to the north shore of Long Island, 110 miles away. Prettyman’s discovery was reported in an article in the January 1967 edition of Argosy magazine and there was also an article about it in the Hartford Courant. However, the story was retracted a few weeks later and no other divers have been able to find this wreck since.
There have been persistent rumours that French dive expert Jacques Cousteau found and entered the wreck of Surcouf somewhere north of the Panama Canal in 1967. Cousteau always denied this, pointing out that the water in the presumed location of the wreck of Surcouf is too deep to be reached even using his diving saucer Calypso.
Throughout 1941, while Surcouf was operational in the Free French Navy, rumours abounded that she was spying for the Vichy regime and/or the Germans, that she had on occasion attacked allied shipping and that she was engaged in communicating with and perhaps re-supplying U-Boats. One particular rumour claimed that Surcouf had fired upon an American destroyer which was visiting the port of St. Pierre in January 1942, killing two US sailors. These rumours were very specific to Surcouf: other Free French ships and submarines operated with allied forces with no such doubts about their loyalty. Was there any factual basis for these rumours? Logically, it is difficult to see how there could have been. Surcouf carried three Royal Navy Liaison Officers at all times. While these three men might well have been powerless to prevent Surcouf from undertaking such actions, they would certainly have reported them to the Admiralty afterwards and there is no evidence that they ever did so.
Inside the Control Room of Surcouf
Surcouf was a large submarine, but still a fairly small warship and it is not possible that any attack using guns or torpedoes could have been undertaken without the knowledge of the BNLOs on-board. Likewise rendezvousing with and re-supplying a U-Boat in the North Atlantic. There is no doubt that the crew of Surcouf was inexperienced and many of them were unhappy. This, combined with mistakes such as the aborted attack on American ships in early 1941 and incidents such as the apparent pursuit of the Norwegian tanker by Surcouf, gave rise to rumours of her disloyalty. I do not believe that there is any evidence that Surcouf acted against the interests of the Free French Navy at any time.
The disappearance of Surcouf also gave rise to a number of rumours which claimed that the accident with the Thompson Lykes was a cover story used to conceal the fact that the submarine had been deliberately destroyed by the allies. Persistent scuttlebutt claimed that Royal Naval Marine divers placed mines on the hull of Surcouf while she was in harbor in Bermuda in early February, and that these were timed to detonate after she had sailed. It was also claimed that Surcouf was attacked and sunk by the American submarines USS Marlin and USS Mackerel in Long Island Sound. Or that Surcouf was caught re-supplying a U-Boat somewhere south of Cape Cod and attacked and destroyed by a US Navy blimp. Or by a US Navy aircraft. Or that the ramming by the Thompson Lykes was deliberate: the Lykes received a coded communication instructing it to change course around 1½ hours before the collision, this was seen by some as evidence that the Thompson Lykes was deliberately routed towards Surcouf.
Unloading Surcouf’s floatplane from its hanger
Another theory is that Surcouf survived the collision with the Thompson Lykes and continued to head for Panama where it was attacked and destroyed by US aircraft which mistook it for a U-Boat. The activity of a U-Boat group in the area meant that there were certainly large numbers of anti-submarine patrols at the time, mainly conducted by Northrop A-17 Nomad and Douglas B-18 Bolo aircraft from the 6th Heavy Bombardment Group operating out of Rio Hato, Panama. One researcher, James Rusbridger, claimed that the operational records for this unit include details of an attack on a “large submarine” in the area to the north of the Panama Canal on the morning of February 19th 1941. Two A-17 and one B-18 aircraft were said to have dropped eight bombs on the submarine. No U-Boats were attacked on this date and no other submarines were known to be in the area. If this is accurate, is it possible that this was Surcouf and that it was accidentally sunk by US aircraft looking for U-Boats and unaware that it was in the area? James Rusbridger certainly believed so and went on to write a book, Who Sank the Surcouf? in which this theory is related in depth.
Douglas B-18 Bolo
Yet another theory is that Surcouf was not involved in a collision with the Thompson Lykes at all and was instead sunk by a U-Boat. The U-502 under the command of Kapitan Jurgen von Rosenstiel reported sinking seven ships in February 1942 in the Caribbean. The problem is, only six of the ships reported sunk by U-502 have been positively accounted for. On the night of 14th February, Von Rosenstiel reported an attack on a “2,400 ton tanker” in Square EC9436 (southwest of the island of Aruba and north of the Peninsula de Paraguana, Venezuela). Von Rosenstiel claimed that he watched his target burst into flames and sink rapidly after the attack but this ship has never been identified. All the other reports of sinkings by U-502 are accurate and can be equated with allied losses, but not this one. Some people have suggested that, in the darkness, Von Rosenstiel misidentified Surcouf as a tanker and attacked and sank her.
Then we come to the message sent by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to the chief of U.S. Naval Intelligence in which he stated that a “highly confidential source” had informed him that Surcouf had been sunk near St. Pierre. Although he doesn’t specify, I think we can assume that he is referring to St. Pierre in Martinique here. For Surcouf to travel north to St. Pierre off Newfoundland doesn’t make any kind of sense whereas the BNLO had already reported some crew members discussing the possibility of taking her to Vichy French Martinique in order to defect. Unverified speculation suggests that Hoover’s source may have been Sir William Stephenson, Head of British counter-intelligence in North America.
At this time Hoover was certainly very keen to see the FBI more involved in intelligence and counter-intelligence operations. Under Roosevelt several intelligence units came into being in addition to the existing military and naval intelligence operations. Hoover was concerned that these new units might erode the power and influence of the FBI and tried to persuade Roosevelt (unsuccessfully) that there was no need for these new and competing organizations. Because of this, Hoover was generally very careful during the early war period to ensure that any intelligence he passed on came from reliable sources. So, while we will never be certain who gave Hoover this information, it is probably safe to assume that Hoover was sufficiently impressed with his source that he felt that his prestige would be enhanced by passing it on.
Three possible locations for the destruction of Surcouf:
- Approximate location of collision of Thompson Lykes with unknown vessel, February 18th, 1942.
- Approximate location of sinking of mystery ship by U-502, February 14th, 1942.
- St. Pierre, Martinique where Hoover’s source claimed that the Surcouf was sunk, date unknown.
And finally we have the theory that Surcouf managed to successfully defect to Martinique and was subsequently attacked and sunk by US aircraft operating from St. Lucia as she tried to make a run for France while being escorted by U-69 and carrying some of the bullion reserves from Fort Desaix. Most versions of this story have Surcouf finally sinking sometime in May 1942. While this makes a good story, I have not found any evidence to support it at all. It seems unlikely that Surcouf and her crew could have remained in Martinique for three months without someone noticing and talking about it, either then or later. And frankly, if you were looking to transport something as precious as national gold reserves across the Atlantic, it seems very unlikely that you would choose a vessel as unreliable and defective as Surcouf.
You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the strange and mysterious Bermuda Triangle as a factor in the disappearance of Surcouf here. That’s because there isn’t such a thing. Read The Flight 19 Mystery elsewhere on this site if you need to be convinced.
I have not found any evidence to support the theory of the deliberate destruction of Surcouf by the allies. Even the idea that the Thompson Lykes could somehow have deliberately rammed and sunk Surcouf doesn’t stand up to a moment’s examination: Just finding a submarine in the dark on the open ocean would be almost impossible (the Lykes was not equipped with radar) and anyway, ramming a submarine with a surface ship only rarely results in the sinking of the submarine as was discovered on a number of occasions when surface ships rammed U-Boats during World War two. While the deliberate, clandestine destruction of Surcouf by British or American forces might just possibly have made some sort of sense if the submarine was attacking allied ships, it was not doing so. Consider this Most Secret message sent by the Flag officer, Submarines to the Admiralty on 6th February (the day before Surcouf arrived in Bermuda for the last time) regarding the proposed transfer of Surcouf to Tahiti:
I adhere to my previous opinion. The C.O. of Surcouf is a seaman who knows his job and his ship well. The First Lieutenant is a good officer and experienced in submarines. The Engineer and key ratings are well experienced. The crew have suffered inaction and anti-British propaganda in Canada. To get any results from these Free French they must be put in the front line and kept there. I am sure Commander Cabanier at Tahiti can make use of Surcouf and in an active war area. In defence of their own soil I consider Surcouf may be of considerable use. Surcouf occupies a peculiar position in French Naval mentality and the Free French would hate to pay her off. In any case a large crew would be required for care and maintenance and she would be a nuisance in this country. I strongly recommend Surcouf proceeding as already ordered.
This is one of the last communications sent to the Admiralty regarding Surcouf and there is no doubt that Flag Officer Submarines is putting a positive spin on things here – his assessment of the Captain, officers and ratings of Surcouf does not accord with reports from the BNLOs on-board. However, there is clearly no hint here that she is suspected of any treachery. Another Most Secret message sent on the same day from the British Commander-in-Chief (America and West Indies) at Bermuda to the Flag officer, Submarines is much more critical of Surcouf, but still it contains no suggestion that she is acting directly against allied interests:
BNLO Surcouf has given me copies of his reports dated 17th December, 1st January and 16th January addressed to you. After discussion with BNLO and from my experience of Surcouf I am convinced that this most unsatisfactory state of affairs is not in the least exaggerated.
The two main troubles are lack of interest and incompetency, discipline is bad and the officers have little control. I have no suggestions to make which are likely to assist in eliminating those defects which I am afraid are inherent.
Surcouf is a large complicated and indifferently designed submarine and in my opinion could only be of operational value if manned by an exceptionally well trained crew. Even her size places severe limitations on her sphere of usefulness. At present she is of no operational value and is little short of a menace.
So, Surcouf is a “nuisance” and “little short of a menace.” But because of lack of experience on the part of her crew, incompetence, indifferent design, complexity and a lack of operational value, not because she represents a threat to allied shipping. All the British and American communications relating to Surcouf which have been declassified since the war reflect the same view (all French Naval records relating to Surcouf during its period of service with the Free French Navy seem to have been destroyed or lost). Even the incident involving the Norwegian tanker has a reasonable explanation. The sighting made by the tanker on 8th December was almost certainly of Surcouf en-route for Halifax, but although the tanker claimed to have been chased by the submarine, there is no suggestion that an actual attack was made. I would suggest that Surcouf may have been attempting to get close enough to the Atlantic to make a positive identification. When this was achieved, Surcouf continued on her way. Had this incident involved any other allied ship, no sinister reason for her actions would have been suggested. But because it was Surcouf, some people took this as further evidence of her treachery.
I have not been able to find anything beyond rumour and supposition to support the notion that the allies ordered the deliberate destruction of Surcouf nor any reason for them to do so. Roosevelt and Churchill were certainly leaders who did not baulk at making tough decisions during World War Two. If either or both had believed Surcouf to be a threat, it is possible to imagine them ordering her destruction. However, this would have risked a huge backlash from the Free French (and from the families of the British sailors on-board) if discovered. Perhaps this might have been contemplated if Surcouf represented a real risk to allied shipping. But no such threat existed. And I think that there is an even stronger reason to disbelieve the notion of a deliberate allied attack on Surcouf. When she called in at Bermuda for the last time on February 7th 1942, her Captain presented the dockyard with a long list of urgent repairs. The dockyard assessed that at least three months would be required to carry these out. If the allies really wished to remove Surcouf from the war, how much safer and more politically expedient would it have been simply to let her enter dry dock and then to ensure that serious problems were “discovered” which would prevent her from ever leaving?
Overall, there is no real evidence of a deliberate and planned allied attack on Surcouf. The sheer variety of these tales, including attack by US Navy submarines, aircraft or a blimp or destruction due to mines placed when Surcouf called in to Bermuda for the last time makes it obvious that these aren’t a simple recounting of facts. After all, these very different accounts of the deliberate destruction of Surcouf cannot all be true, so some must be fabrications. I would suggest that there is no good evidence that any of them are true.
James Rusbridger’s claim that he found records of an attack by US aircraft on a submarine north of the Panama Canal on 19th February 1942 are interesting. If true, this would clearly indicate a “friendly fire” incident involving Surcouf, but I certainly haven’t been able to confirm this information and I’m not aware of anyone else who has. And like many other things concerning Surcouf, when you actually look into these claims, things are not what they seem. James Rusbridger has an interesting history. In the 1950s and early 1960s he was the salesman and Managing Director of a commodities company dealing in sugar and he claimed to have been paid by the CIA to weaken the international market for Cuban sugar. He was also an Eastern Europe courier for MI6 from 1962 until 1974. On retiring from MI6 he became sharply critical of British and American intelligence services and wrote more than 1,000 angry letters to the UK press on this subject.
In 1991 Rusbridger co-wrote the book Betrayal at Pearl Harbor: How Churchill lured Roosevelt into War, a book in which he claimed that Churchill deliberately withheld British intelligence information which foretold the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in order to ensure that America would be dragged into the war. However, in a television interview soon after publication his co-author Eric Nave repudiated a large part of what Rusbridger had written in that book, claiming that much of it was based on unverified speculation. Rusbridger’s assertions in Betrayal at Pearl Harbor have largely been disproven since publication and some of the sources he quotes are impossible to verify.
Rusbridger also published Who Sank the Surcouf?: The Truth About the Disappearance of the Pride of the French Navy in 1991, though this time without a co-author. The fact that we know that Rusbridger wasn’t above passing speculation off as fact in his other book makes me concerned about his assertions about the alleged attack on Surcouf in this book. Until someone else is able to independently confirm Rusbridger’s claims about the actions of 6th Heavy Bombardment Group on 19th February 1942, I think it is probably sensible to reserve judgement on this one. Rusbridger, heavily in debt and suffering from heart problems, was found dead in somewhat mysterious circumstances on 16th February 1994.
I also have serious doubts about the idea that Surcouf survived for some time after 18th February, possibly undertaking secret missions on behalf of Vichy France. The evidence strongly suggests that by February 1942, Surcouf had severe technical issues which prevented her from operating effectively and that her crew were unhappy, inexperienced and perhaps even mutinous. She seemed to have spent much of 1941 blundering from mishap to mishap and the idea that she could somehow suddenly have been transformed into the maritime equivalent of James Bond, able to operate effectively and in total secrecy after February makes no sense at all. And, more importantly, there is no evidence at all to support this idea.
What then of the possibility of Surcouf being sunk by U-502 on 14th February? The location reported by the U-502 would have required Surcouf to be hundreds of miles off-course, but let’s assume that for some reason that this was so. Most tankers of the day had their superstructure midships, so it is just conceivable that Surcouf could be mistaken for a small tanker in poor visibility or darkness. However, I simply don’t think that it’s possible for Surcouf to have been in the location reported by U-502 on the 14th February. Surcouf left Bermuda on the morning of the 12th February. The sailing distance to the location where U-502 sank the mystery ship is a little over 1,200 nautical miles. At an average speed of ten knots (the speed most often quoted for Surcouf taking into account her various defects in February 1942) it would have taken her more than five days to reach this location, meaning that she couldn’t have arrived there until the morning of 16th February at the earliest. To reach this location from Bermuda in time to be attacked by U-502, Surcouf would have to have averaged more than 19 knots, something she had never managed to achieve even when new and in fully operational condition. All things considered, whatever the U-502 did torpedo on 14th February, I don’t think that it could have been Surcouf.
Jurgen von Rosenstiel, Commander of U-502
Nor do I think that suggestions divers have found the wreck of Surcouf are credible. The story of Jaques Cousteau finding and entering the wreck in 1967 (and then being persuaded to keep quiet about it) is no more than an urban legend. Whatever it was that diver Lee Prettyman, Jr. saw in Long Island Sound in 1965, I don’t believe it was Surcouf. There are several submarine wrecks in this area including more than one U-Boat sunk during the war. This is a popular area for sport diving and many of the wrecks are in relatively shallow water. If the wreck of Surcouf really was in Long Island Sound (and I can’t think of any possible reason it would be), I think it’s fair to assume that someone else would have located it by now.
I don’t think that Hoover’s message suggesting that Surcouf was sunk near St. Pierre is helpful at all. If, as the story seems to imply, Surcouf was intending to defect to Martinique and was sunk by a British ship or ships, it is inconceivable that someone on those ships would not have spoken about this either at the time or later. Hoover may have believed this to be true, but I strongly suspect that what his “highly placed source” passed on was nothing more than one more unfounded rumour about Surcouf.
So, what really did happen to Surcouf? The Thompson Lykes certainly seems to have collided with something. On 19th February the British Consular Shipping Adviser at Colon, Panama sent the following message to the Admiralty:
French Cruiser-Sub SURCOUF not repeat not arrived.
THOMPSON LYKES USA Army Transport northbound convoy yesterday now returned after collision with unidentified vessel which apparently sank at once at 2230R 18th February in latitude 010 degs 40 north longitude 079 degs 30 West. She searched the vicinity until 0830 today 19th February but no survivors or wreckage. Only sign was oil. Considerable bow damage made to THOMPSON LYKES at fore foot.
Three days later this was followed by a second message from the British Consular Shipping Adviser at Colon after he had read statements from the crew of the Thompson Lykes and personally examined the damage to the freighter:
(a)United States Ship without lights course 356 degrees at full speed approximately 14 knots. Originally steering for Windward passage but diverted for Cienfuegos, Cuba.
(b) Other vessel not observed until white light flash seen one point to starboard bow about half minute before collision. Wheel put hard to port but before ship answered helm light again seen this time right ahead so wheel reversed hard to starboard engine still full ahead.
(c) Heavy collision very shortly afterwards. On reaching bridge after collision Master stopped engine. While still close on port beam vessel seen sinking with great disturbance of water. Gunner states bow of other vessel thrown up clear of the water before sinking. Calls in English for help were heard by witnesses but their ship carried headway lost contact. Master delayed lowering lifeboats allegedly on account of sea running intending to do so later when party of survivors were located.
(d) Meanwhile shortly after vessel sank violent underwater explosion was felt in United States ship. Having carried her way about half mile ship put back to where Master estimated other had sunk. Searchlight revealed no sign of survivors or wreckage but much oil. Weather described as rather heavy sea fresh wind; visibility not mentioned. United States Authorities informed by W/T. Search abandoned 0830, 10 hours later.”
The message also went on to note that the Consular Shipping Adviser did not believe that the collision had been with another surface vessel:
“From personal observations 15 yard distance, nature of damage to US ship points to other not being surface craft, as upper two third stem post and of pole plate not damaged.”
The crew of the Thompson Lykes believed that they had rammed and sunk a U-Boat. U-Boats were certainly operating in the area at the time – on 16th February three U-Boats (U-156, U-67 and U-129) began operations against oil tankers and shore refineries in the Caribbean. However, none of these U-Boats reported damage following a collision and none were lost. Two U-Boats were destroyed in February, one on the 2nd (the U-581) and one on the 6th (the U-82). But both were known to be destroyed by depth charge attacks in the vicinity of the Azores. No British or allied submarines were lost in February 1942 and only one American, the USS Shark which was lost while operating in the Pacific while on a patrol in the Makassar Strait between the islands of Borneo and Sulawesi. If the Thompson Lykes did indeed ram a submarine, Surcouf is the only appropriate vessel known to have been in the general area and subsequently reported lost.
However, there are some issues here. Most notably, the lack of survivors, bodies or debris. The crew present on the bridge of Surcouf would have been wearing life-jackets. Even if they were killed during the collision or drowned before they could be rescued, their bodies should have been found. The graphic and dramatic description given by the crew of the Thompson Lykes noted a violent collision followed by an underwater explosion. If this was indeed a badly damaged and sinking submarine, some debris should have been found by the search conducted during the night and at daylight the next day, but nothing was. Many experts have also questioned whether the relatively light damage to the forefoot of the 6,700 ton Thompson Lykes could be a result of a heavy collision with the 3,300 ton Surcouf. Surveyors from the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) examined the Thompson Lykes after the incident and issued a report on February 25th. They reported that the only damage was that several forward frames and plates had been distorted and a bottom fuel tank holed (which might account for the oil seen on the surface in the area of the collision). ABS recommended that, after temporary repairs, the ship was safe to proceed to New Orleans for further repairs. This certainly doesn’t sound like the sort of serious damage we might expect after a heavy collision with something as large as Surcouf.
Does the seeming lack of serious damage to the Thompson Lykes rule out the possibility of a collision with Surcouf? To help us decide, maybe we should look at the loss of a similar submarine, HMS M1, in 1925 and see if we can make any useful comparisons. Like Surcouf, the M1 was a submarine cruiser though she was equipped with only a single 12” gun. On 12th November 1925 the M1 was taking part in a Naval exercise off the south coast of Devon. A Swedish freighter, the SS Vidar, en route from Cardiff to Stockholm with a cargo of coke, was passing through the area of the exercise. At around 7:45 am the Master of the Vidar recalled feeling a double-shock, similar to what he had experienced when minesweeping in the Baltic during World War One and at the same time the helmsman said that Vidar pitched momentarily and the helm failed to respond. Captain Anell and the crew of the SS Vidar did not know that submarines were involved in the exercise and the ship continued on to Sweden.
When it became apparent that the M1 was missing, a search was carried out during the 12th February but no trace of the missing submarine was found. The SS Vidar entered dry dock in Sweden four days later and her bow and bottom plates were found to be slightly damaged and showed traces of grey/green paint – the same colour in which M1 was painted at the time. When the wreck of the M1 was discovered in 1999, it was confirmed that the collision with the SS Vidar had ruptured her pressure hull and caused her to sink. Now, we shouldn’t get too carried away by this comparison because there are significant differences: for example, the M1 was submerged at the time of the collision and was smaller than the Surcouf (around 2,000 tons for the M1 compared to 3,300 tons for the Surcouf). However, this incident does suggest that a small freighter can collide with a submarine and damage it badly enough to sink it without suffering major damage itself (and the reported damage to the Vidar even sounds similar to the reported damage to the Thompson Lykes). It’s also notable that a search after the M1 went missing did not reveal any debris.
All things considered, it seems very likely that the Thompson Lykes did collide with Surcouf. The reported location of the collision is approximately where Surcouf should have been at the time. We know this wasn’t a U-Boat and no other allied shipping in the area reported a collision or was lost. I believe that the collision was accidental because a. such a thing would be almost impossible to arrange intentionally, and b. because there is no evidence that the allies had a valid reason for destroying Surcouf. But the lack of debris, bodies or survivors suggests that the collision might have been much less serious than claimed and Surcouf may not have immediately sunk as a result. It is possible that she carried on, possibly damaged and limped towards Panama. In the absence of any other evidence, I believe that the damage that she had sustained during the collision proved serious enough that at some point, most probably later the night of 18/19 February, she sank with all hands.
The career of Surcouf in the Free French Navy was dogged by rumour and uncertainty. At the time, many people clearly questioned her loyalty, though it does not seem that there was any real basis for this or that these concerns were shared in the upper levels of command in either Britain or America. The circumstances of her disappearance have generated a huge amount of supposition and speculation, some of which is presented as fact in other websites and books. The truth is, until and unless someone finds her wreck, we will never be quite certain what happened to Surcouf. However, I strongly suspect that if she is found, it will be in the area to the north of the Panama Canal and that the cause of her sinking will be directly traceable to damage received when she collided with the Thompson Lykes.
Who Sank the “Surcouf”?: The Truth About the Disappearance of the Pride of the French Navy, 1991 by James Rusbridger. Reasonably detailed look at the disappearance of the Surcouf which supports the theory that she was accidentally attacked and sunk by US aircraft on 19th February. However, as noted in the text of this article, I have concerns about the accuracy of some information in this book.
The Surcouf Conspiracy: A Penetrating Analysis of the Worst Submarine Disaster in History, 2011 by Capt Julius Grigore Jr. US Navy. Lots of detail but a hyperbolic writing style and a tendency to focus on some rather odd aspects of the Surcouf (the involvement of supernatural forces and the influence of women on the loss of the Surcouf, for example).
What Happened To the French Undersea Cruiser Surcouf? Article about Surcouf on the War History Online website.
Mystery Of Sub Lost After Leaving Bermuda. Article on Bernews website on the Surcouf.