Memorial Service for the French Submarine Surcouf
On 18 May, the branch attended a memorial service for the french submarine Surcouf and the men in her who were lost 70 years ago, at the windswept Pointe St Mathieu, west of Brest. The National Marine Memorial stands there, remembering all sailors who died for France and where, in 1847, Gustave Flaubert wrote: "Here ends the old world. There you have the most advanced point, the extreme limit. Behind you is all of Europe, all of Asia. In front of you is the all the sea; only the sea." It's a fitting site for this commemoration.
Conducted by the French Navy, the host was Pierre Léaustic, Président of the Association "Aux Marines". A delegation from our branch, headed by chairman and standard bearer, were warmly welcomed and displayed our colours. The ceremony was opened by a bugler as the Seaman’s Guard presented arms. Several wreaths, including our own, were laid at the monument to the accompaniment of naval shanties. Then the entourage descended into the crypt-like museum. Here, Surcouf and submariners in general were solemnly remembered. The names of Surcouf's 130, including 3 Britons, were read as a bell tolled.
To fully appreciate the significance of this ceremony one needs to consider the submarine remembered: Surcouf. She was truly a remarkable boat - a 'one-off' - and like no other submarine in any navy before or since. Commissioned in the early 1930s she was a bold experiment; the biggest submarine in the world and the only one ever designated a 'cruiser submarine'. With two turret-mounted 8-inch guns and a seaplane hangar aft her silhouette was unmistakable. With a length overall of 360 feet she was 150 feet longer than the U-Boats of the war. Her submerged displacement of 5,000 tons was double that of most submarines of the day. At the fall of France in 1940, Surcouf, along with other units of the Navy, joined the Free French Forces. She was visited by General Charles de Gaulle and then sailed to America to team up with the Royal Navy and US navy in the western Atlantic. In 1942, in the Caribbean, she was mysteriously lost under circumstances yet to be determined. Whether it was in a submerged collision with an American freighter, not showing navigational lights on a moonless night, or a dawn attack from a US bomber, we will never know.
Like a national myth: Surcouf submerged - and then departed on Eternal Patrol. She was the pride of the French Navy and is still remembered as such today.