Hobby Boss 1/350 Surcouf

KIT #: 23522
PRICE: 2400 yen from www.hlj.com  (about $31.00)
DECALS: One option
REVIEWER: Tom Cleaver
NOTES: New tool kit


            Surcouf is easily the strangest submarine to ever be operated by any Navy, and one whose career is still shrouded in mystery. Named for a famous French “privateer,” Robert Surcouf, it was more a submersible cruiser than it was a submarine, and was a one-of-a-kind in more than one way, being the only submarine ever built with a prison compartment capable of holding 40 prisoners.  When the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 failed to place any limits in submarines, the French Navy under Admiral Drujon undertook the design of an “undersea cruiser” that would operate on the high seas as a commerce raider, submerging only to creep up on an unsuspecting target or to evade surface ships sent to find it.  Her two 8-inch guns would provide her with the ability to fight it out with any warship less than a heavy cruiser.  Surcouf was the first of what was planned to be seven of these submarines, later reduced to three; at the time she was launched in 1929 she was the largest submersible warship in the world, and would only be exceeded by the Japanese I-400 class submarines in 1944.  The London Naval Treaty of 1930 finally limited the size and tonnage of submarines, insuring that Surcouf would remain one of a kind.

            The concept of an “undersea dreadnought” was first experimented with by the Royal Navy in 1916, when “M-1", armed with a single 8-inch gun, was launched in July 1918.  The submarine never saw combat, and the British realized they had more to lose by other navies adopting the concept, due to their extensive merchant marine.  The submarine “X-1,” which was to be armed with four 5.9-inch weapons in two turrets, was launched in 1921 and was also a failure. The British made sure to tell their friends the Japanese about the failed concept, to head off any developments the Imperial Navy might be planning.

            Surcouf was commissioned in 1934.  361 feet in length, she displaced 3,304 tons on the surface and was powered by two large 3,800‑horsepower diesel engines, giving her a top speed surfaced of 18 knots and 10 knots submerged. She carried sufficient fuel to give her a range of 10,000 miles and could carry enough supplies for a 90 day cruise.  Her crew numbered eight officers and 110 enlisted men.  In her intended role as a commerce raider, she had the aforementioned prison compartment, and carried a small Besson MN‑411 floatplane in a hanger aft of the tower to scout for victims and spot for her main battery.  The two 8-inch naval cannon were carried in a special watertight turret forward of the conning tower, with two 37mm anti-aircraft guns on the deck aft of the bridge.  Additionally, she was equipped with four bow tubes armed with 21.7" torpedoes and two quad-mounted tubes at the stern were armed with the fast but short‑ranged 15.7" torpedo.  She carried a total of fourteen 21.7" and eight 15.7" torpedoes.

            In operation, Surcouf quickly proved to be a failure. Her very complex design insured she was constantly plagued by mechanical troubles. Trim was difficult to adjust during a dive, which took over two minutes to get to a dept of 40 feet, making her vulnerable to searching aircraft, while on the surface she rolled badly in rough seas.

            Between 1935-39, Surcouf made several “show the flag” cruises to overseas ports of call, covering more than 16,000 miles, all on the surface.  The outbreak of war in September 1939 found her in the French Antilles.  She set out for France on September 26, 1939, as part of the escort for British convoy KJ-2, from Jamaica.  When she arrived in Brest in October, she needed repairs to the hydroplanes and rudder.  

            Surcouf was still under repair when the German blitzkrieg struck in May.  With the Germans rapidly approaching Brest, she put to sea to avoid capture and made it to Plymouth.  She was docked alongside the French battleship Paris when the British undertook Operation Catapult following the French Armistice in late June, to take over French ships in English harbors, and either neutralize the French fleet or have it come out and join the Royal Navy to continue the struggle. In the brief firefight aboard Surcouf, one French sailor and three English sailors were killed before the captain surrendered.

            Only two officers and 14 men of the crew agreed to remain as part of the Free French Navy, which meant that a new crew would have to be recruited among Frenchmen on British territory.  Given the size of the crew she needed, the British planned to leave her decommissioned, but the Free French saw her as a symbol, and persevered in re-commissioning her.  The new crew was largely inexperienced, though attempts were made to find anyone with knowledge of the sea, including a Breton fisherman.  Her first cruise with the new crew in October revealed their inexperience.  The British still distrusted the French, and placed a British officer and two signalmen aboard as liaison.  While this was standard procedure with other navies‑in‑exile serving with the Royal Navy and worked well with other crews, tensions were always high aboard Surcouf.

            Surcouf was regarded as the pride of the fledgling Free French Navy by De Gaulle, and as a joke by the Admiralty. After brief training with the Third Submarine Flotilla in the Clyde, Surcouf was sent to Halifax on February 10, 1941.  Once at Halifax, she joined other Free French ships operating as convoy escorts on the first leg of the long trans‑Atlantic journey.  Surcouf escorted convoys HX-118 and SC-27 in April, before being ordered back to Britain, where she arrived in Plymouth on April 17.  She could not operate as a commerce raider since there was no Axis commerce to raid, and her performance precluded her operation as a normal submarine on blockade duty in the North Sea or Bay of Biscay.

            Sent back to Canada, she made one more convoy escort in June, before being sent to the U.S. Navy Base at Portsmouth, N.H., in late July for further repairs that lasted until November 11, 1941.  Due to there being no spares available, only some of her problems could be addressed.

            Stopping briefly at the US Navy submarine base in New London, Connecticut, Surcouf returned to Bermuda, then went back to Halifax to operate under the command of Admiral Muselier, commander of the Free French Navy. She arrived at Halifax on December 10, with the Admiral arriving a few days later with three corvettes, Mimosa, Alysse, and Aconit.

            That evening, the captain of Surcouf was approached by New York Times reporter Ira Wolfert, who questioned him about the rumor that the submarine would liberate the small islands of Saint‑Pierre and Miquelon, the last French territory in North America about 5 miles off the coast of  Newfoundland, from Vichy control.  What happened next is in dispute, but the story was that the Captain kidnaped Wolfert to keep him from telling the story further, and took him aboard Surcouf.  What is not in dispute is that later that evening Surcouf, along with Mimosa, Alysse, and Aconit, left Halifax harbor under Muselier’s command for “maneuvers.”  On December 24, the submarine landed sailors on the islands and took control for Free France.

            Wolfert’s very positive article appeared in the New York Times, and set off a political fire storm.  The United States still recognized Vichy as the legitimate government of France; under the Monroe Doctrine only the United States could interfere in the political orientation of any country in North or South America.  In the end, DeGaulle and the Free French ignored the American protests, which was a major reason why Franklin Roosevelt spent most of the rest of the war searching to support anyone but DeGaulle as the leader of Free France, an issue that would only be resolved when Paris was liberated in August 1944 and DeGaulle was installed as the first President of the Fourth Republic.  With the islands under Free French control, Surcouf returned to Halifax on January 11, 1942.

            And now the story becomes even stranger.

            Despite the fact that Surcouf was not totally seaworthy, she was ordered to the Pacific, to operate from Tahiti.  She made a brief stopover in Bermuda on February 7, 1942, where it was obvious she had serious engine problems and was unable to dive, being capable of only 13 knots.  There was no possibility of receiving further repairs in the United States, so she set sail for Panama on February 12.

            Surcouf never arrived.  The American freighter S.S. Thompson Lykes reported striking what was assumed to be a German U-boat east of Panama on February 18.  While the officially-recognized account of Surcouf’s demise is that she sank as a result of this collision, many investigators since have seen this as unlikely, since Thompson Lykes wasn’t big enough to sink a ship as large as Surcouf, though she would have damaged her.

            Other tales include Surcouf operating from New London and being suspected of supplying German U-boats, with the submarine supposedly caught in the act in Long Island Sound and subsequently sunk by an American Submarine.  Another one has her carrying the Free French gold supply in the prison compartment, which was finally recovered by Jacques Cousteau when he allegedly found the wreck of the submarine in 1964.

            James Rusbridger in “Who Sank Surcouf?” concludes that the records of the 6th Heavy Bomber Group, operating out of Panama, report the sinking of a large submarine the morning of February 19, 1942; since no German submarine was lost in that area on that date, it could only have been Surcouf.  Rusbridger postulates that damage from the collision with Thompson Lykes damaged the radio so that Surcouf could not identify herself, and she was thus sunk by “friendly fire.”   

            The official French position is that she was sunk by Thompson Lykes, with Rear Admiral Jean Auphan, author of “The French Navy in World War II” stating “for reasons which appear to have been primarily political, she was rammed at night in the Caribbean by an American freighter.”  Charles de Gaulle, never one to shy away from blaming the Americans when he felt they had misused or diminished France, said in his memoir “The  Call to Honor” that Surcouf “had sunk with all hands.”

            Today, a memorial to the ill‑fated submarine stands in Cherbourg harbor, overlooking the sea.


             There have been some resin kits of Surcouf released in the past, but this is the first injection-molded kit of the submarine.  (Actually, Heller issued one way back when and it has recently been re-issued with some resin parts. Ed) As with most submarine models, it does not suffer a surfeit of parts, though it includes a very credible example of the Besson MN‑411 floatplane she carried before the war.  A photoetch fret provides the necessary railing.  All detail parts are very petite.


            As with most submarine kits, construction is simple.  I followed the instructions and had the model assembled in about an hour.  I left it set up overnight, then began painting it.


             I started with the red lower hull color, which I did with a mixture of Tamiya “Hull Red” and “Flat Red.”  I masked that, then painted the upper surfaces Tamiya “Sky Grey.”  I masked that and painted the deck, rear hull and upper part of the conning tower and turret with Tamiya “NATO Black.”  I unmasked the model and gave it a coat of Xtracrylix Clear Gloss.


            I applied the decals to the conning tower, then applied some rust streaks on the hull.  I attached the propellers, and then gave the model an overall coat of Xtracrylix Clear Flat.


             I have always been interested in Surcouf ever since I first read about her in a book about submarines in the school library when I was in elementary school.  I never thought I would see an injection-molded kit, and was very happy when this was announced.  The kit makes up into a very nice model of one of the strangest ships to ever set sail, and is certainly a worthy addition to any collection of World War II submarines.  It’s just about a “weekender,” and any modeler should have no difficulty creating a very nice model.  With some photoetch crewmen, a very interesting waterline diorama of Surcouf launching her seaplane could be done (hint hint, Herr Doktor Spahr).

 Thanks to HobbyLink Japan for the review kit.  Order yours at: http://www.hlj.com/product/HOB23522

 Tom Cleaver

December 2011

If you would like your product reviewed fairly and fairly quickly, please contact the editor or see other details in the Note to Contributors.

Back to the Main Page

Back to the Review Index Page