In response to the rearming German Navy's new Deutschland-class armored cruisers (the "Pocket Battleships") built from 1929 to 1936,the French government authorized the design and construction of a new "fast battleship" class all their own to become the two-strong Dunkerque-class. The group would be of considerable speed and firepower but lack the needed protection scheme in an effort to stay within the restrictions of the 1923 Washington Naval Treaty. The class' design would also be inspired by the British Royal Navy's Nelson-class (appearing in 1927) which saw fit to install all of the main battery at the forecastle.
The two ships of the class, FS Dunkerque and sister FS Strasbourg, became the first French warships laid down after the close of World War 1 (1918) and the first constructed after the signing of the Washington Naval Treaty. Lead-ship Dunkerque was named after the storied French city, laid down on December 24th, 1932 and launched on October 2nd, 1935. She was formally commissioned for service on May 1st, 1937.
Displacement reached 27,000 tons under standard load and 39,000 tons under full load. Overall length measured 704 feet with a beam of 102 feet and a draught of 29 feet. The warship was given a rather atypical profile with her main battery concentrated forward of the bridge. This set the bridge superstructure closer to midships than what was typically conventional. This further moved the smoke funnels aft of midships. The main mast was incorporated as part of the bridge superstructure and the secondary mast was fitted aft of the smoke funnels. Over the aft section was installed a hangar and catapult station to operate up to four recoverable floatplane aircraft from her deck. The operating crew numbered between 1,380 and 1,430 personnel made up of officers and enlisted. Armor protection included 225mm at the belt, 115mm at the main deck and 330mm at the primary turrets. The conning tower was protected in up to 270mm of armor plate.
Dunkerque was somewhat unique in displaying all of her primary armament in just two forward turrets, these being quadrupled-gunned emplacements set over the forecastle with clear firing arcs over the bow and to either side. The weapons were of 330mm caliber Modele 1931 naval guns packing a considerable punch at range and were spaced just far enough apart so as to not have both knocked out in a single direct hit. Secondary armament was spread out over 16 x 130mm Dual-Purpose (DP) guns and airspace denial was granted through use of 8 x 37mm autocannons and 32 x 13.2mm heavy machine guns.
Dunkerque's construction was financed under the earlier 1931 French defense budget of 1931 and built in the French port city of Brest. From there, she sailed out to undertake her requisite seat trials which lasted into 1937. When war broke out with neighboring Germany in September of 1939, Dunkerque and her sister were actively used in the Atlantic to help protect vital French shipping convoys. During October of that year, Dunkerque served as flagship of "Force L" and was part of the contingent charged with hunting down the German Pocket Battleship Admiral Graf Spee.
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