As the 19th century came to a close, the primary competition of the Royal Navy was still the centuries old rival France, although Imperial Russia was coming up fast. For two decades the French navy had been dominated by the Jeune Ecole who disdained battleships. This clique believed that masses of small, cheap torpedo boats could overwhelm the British Fleet for a mere fraction of the costs of battleships. Also part of their theory was that fast armored cruisers could attack the Achilles Heel of Great Britain, her merchant fleet. If there had to be battleship construction, they should be small coast defense battleships. Battleship construction in the 1870s to 1890 was characterized by small coast defense types. To further muddle strategic continuity, naval administrations had the life span of a gnat. There were 31 different administrations in a 33 year time span. By 1890 it was decided to bring the French battleships back from the coast defense precipice. Even when a larger ship was authorized the procedure for for ordering new ships was so Byzantine that French ships took far longer to complete then almost all other powers. The Magenta was ordered in 1880 but not completed until 1893. The Plan of 1890 contemplated building ten blue water, not coast defense, battleships.

Over the next decade the French Navy completed these ships, which can be grouped in two separate types based upon their characteristics. The French battle line was known as a collection of samples in that French building practices tended to build one-off designs. This was primarily caused by lack of funds so multi-ship orders were not placed. With each new design the French would again rearrange all of the pieces. The only exception was the 1894 St. Louis class in which three battleships were built to the same design. This process resulted in little commonality from class to class or from ship to ship. French design emphasized rate of fire and seaworthiness and were less interested in speed and armor. Single mount turrets were favored in a lozenge pattern with for and aft turrets and a wing turret on each side amidship. In appearance they had heavy military masts and an extreme tumblehome. The genesis for the 1890 plan was a war scare and tariff war with Italy in 1889 and fleet maneuvers in which the faster “Italian Fleet” could avoid contact with the “French Fleet” and ravish the French Mediterranean coastline. Also the British had announced a big battleship program that year. In response initial plans called for 14,000-ton battleships with four 12.-inch guns and a 17-knot maximum speed. However, the young turks of the Jeune Ecole and penny-pinching politicians protested this “Gigantism” and estimates were cut down to a maximum displacement of 12,000-tons, handcuffing designers.  

The first five ships in the 1890 program were each given to a different designer, except Charles Martel and Bouvet had the same designer but even then the ships were not to the same design. Charles Martel, Carnot and Jaureguiberry were ordered  April 14, 1891 and Massena and Bouvet were ordered May 18, 1892. With long building times, although built faster than ships of the previous decade, the first three were completed in 1897 and the last two in 1898. No two ships had the same length or displacement running from 367-ft (oa) for Jaureguiberry to 402-ft (oa) for Bouvet. The largest and slowest was Bouvet with a top speed of 17-knots but the other four were at or close to 18-knots. They all had a common major armament of fore an aft single 12-inch gun turrets with single 10.8-inch wing turrets. The 12-inch main guns were 45 caliber except Massena with 40 caliber while for the 10.8-inch guns three of the four had 45 caliber and Charles Martel and Bouvet had 40 caliber. The first three had eight 5.5-inch/45 secondaries and four 47mm QF. The last two reduced the secondary gun size in order to increase the QF guns. These two had eight 3.9-inch secondaries with twelve 47mm QF guns. With a limit of 12,000-tons something had to go in order to permit more QF guns, exhibiting the folly of a hard displacement limit.

It wasn’t until 1893 that the French discovered the economy of ordering multiple ships of a common design. On September 30, 1893 three ships were ordered from the same design and became the St Louis class. There was a significant time gap between the order of this class and the orders for the ninth and tenth ships of the 1890 program. Jena wasn’t ordered until 1897 and Suffren in 1890. All five of these ships did away with the wing 10.8-inch guns and carried standard twin-12 inch gun turrets fore and aft. Suffren was significantly larger with a length of 422-ft (oa) and displacement of 12,527-tons, breaking the 12,000-ton limit and a 1,000 tons heavier than the St Louis class. All five had four 12-inch/40 twin turrets but secondary gun caliber started climbing. The St Louis class went back to ten 5.5-inch/45 but also packed eight 3.9-inch guns and twenty 47mmQF guns. Jena went to eight 6.4-inch, and Suffren to ten 6.4-inch/45. Each had the same eight 3.9-inch tertiary guns and Jena twenty 47mmQF and Suffren twenty-two 47mm. All five ships hit 18-knots.Charlemagne and Gaulois completed in 1899, St Louis in 1900, Jena in 1902 and Suffren in 1904.

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The single ship ordering approach changed with the advent of the 20th century. The designs of the 20th century were built with multiple ships in the class and each succeeding class improved upon the previous design. One of the factors that bedeviled French battleship designers was the restrictively low maximum displacement. Enacted by penny-pinching politicians, this resulted in ships in which too much was attempted on too small of a design. Designers had to make severe compromises that grouped guns together to provide common armor protection or carried them too low for stability purposes. The limited displacement of the designs caused these “work-arounds”, which in turn created grave operational flaws in the ships and ham strung their combat effectiveness.

The last of the 1890 program, Suffren was of the limited design but exceeded it and showed what could be accomplished with the 527-tons that she ran past the politically imposed 12,000 limit. The Suffren did reintroduce the practice on mounting secondary guns in turrets instead of casemates as still found in the designs of the Royal Navy. Turret placement proved to be far better than casemate placement for the secondaries and it was here that French designers were significantly ahead of their British contemporaries. It was with the next design that the limited displacement shackles were removed from the designers. With the Republique design the designers could provide a good, effective armor scheme with a belt running almost the entire length of the battleship. Displacement rose by 2,000 tons, allowing the designers to create a balanced, well armed, well armored design. The Republique design of 1901 had only two ships in the class, Republique and Patrie, but the four sisters of the follow-up design could be considered half sisters of the Republique class. In fact Eric Gille in his volume on French battleships, Cent Ans de Cuirasses Francais, list all six ships as the battleships of 15,000 tons of the Republique Type, which he calls the ultimate French pre-dreadnoughts.

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However, most authorities separate the two ships of the Republique class from the four ships of the Liberte class. Some authors list the Liberte class as the Verite class because the lead ship Liberte was not in service too long before blowing up in harbor. The names chosen for the ships hearken back to the 1st Republic of the 1790s with Verite (truth), Justice, Liberte and Democratie. You might think of them as Gaulic superman ships with the motto, Truth, Justice and the Parisian Way . The Republique class was of 14,870 tons and armed with four 12-inch/45 (305mm) main guns, sixteen 6.5-inch (164.7mm) secondary guns with twelve in six twin turrets and the other four in casemate positions, thirteen 65mm QF, ten 47mm QF and two underwater 18-inch 450mm beam torpedo tubes. The armor was reasonable with a 11 to 7inch belt, 12 ½ inches on main turrets and 13-inches on the conning tower. The vertical triple expansion engines developed 17,500ihp and drove three shafts for a maximum speed of 18 knots. The ships had three stacks with two grouped right behind the forward superstructure and the third separated far aft in front of the aft superstructure. Although still possessing a goodly tumblehome, the design did not have the excessive tumblehome of earlier designs. Republique was laid down in December 1901, followed by Patrie in December 1902.

Designers were thinking of ways to improve the class right from the initial design. The Liberte was ordered only seven months after the Patrie. The new design was hardly new at all in that it had the same appearance, same armor, same machinery for the first two (the second two increased power to 18,000ihp with two fewer boilers but from a different manufacturer), same dimensions and same armament, except for an increase to 12-inch/50 for the main guns, a large increase in size of secondary armament and a slight increase in torpedo size to 460mm. In keeping with the trends in other navies, the size of the secondary guns was increased, although the number of guns was reduced. Displacement rose slightly to 14,900 tons. The secondary armament for the Liberte design was ten 7.6-inch/45 (194mm) guns with six in single gun turrets and four in casemates. The ships were handsome, as they were less piled up than earlier designs and continued to exhibit distinctly French characteristics. With their tumblehome, top hat stack caps, fierce-face appearance and small sized turrets, there was no mistaking their French design.

A continuing problem with French construction was the slow building time. The yards were inefficient and a British yard could pump out two battleships in the time it took a French yard to produce one. The Liberte class ships were no exceptions from this malady. Liberte was launched April 19, 1905 and finished in December 1907 but took a long time from the laying of the keel and launch. Justice was laid down in May 1902, launched on September 27, 1904 but not completed until July 1907. Verite took almost five years to build as well. She was laid down in May 1903, launched four years later in May 1907 and completed in May 1908. Democratie was the quickest build only taking four years. Laid down in May 1903, she was launched in April 1904 and completed in July 1907. Although contracted in 1902, the ships were not in commission until the end of 1907 and into 1908. By this time HMS Dreadnought had already been in service for some time and therefore the design was obsolescent, if not obsolete, from the start of their service. With the entente cordial the French navy no longer had to concern itself with the channel or Atlantic squadrons, as the Royal Navy could station its vast battle fleet against the emerging German High Seas Fleet. Instead, the French focused their gaze upon the Mediterranean where Italy was seen as the most likely enemy.

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The last of the French predreadnought battleship designs will always be somewhat of a mystery because they were actually a postdreadnought design. HMS Dreadnought was launched February 10, 1906 and completed years before the last mixed gun French design was ordered. The French had gone from one extreme to another. From ordering one ship designs, the Danton class consisted of six ships of a common design. Unfortunately the design chosen was already obsolete. The Danton class battleships were big ships and were actually heavier than the Dreadnought at 18,400-tons normal compared to the 17,900-tons normal for Dreadnought. Why then did France build the mixed gun Danton class when they could have ordered ships with all big guns? In Cent Ans de Cuirasses Francais Eric Gille points out that not everyone was in favor of the Dreadnought design. Even in Great Britain there were critics of the design who believed the all big gun battleships would be too big and reduce the quantity of battleships that could be ordered. Others pointed out that the Japanese fleet had smothered the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima with secondary hits that could not be achieved with the puny QF secondary guns of Dreadnought. These critics either overlooked or were unaware that it was the big caliber hits that sealed the Russian’s fate, not the medium caliber shells, which caused crew casualties but not fatal damage to the Russian ships. You could probably call this group the “All Your Eggs in One Basket” group as they were afraid the loss of one or two all big gun battleships would take out too much of the fleet’s strength. They preferred to spread the risk in having a larger quantity of less capable ships. The distinguished French designer Emile Bertin basically held this same view and was dubious of the Dreadnought design.

The creation of Les Cuirasses de 18,000 tonnes type Danton, actually originated as the Dreadnought was under construction. Since the 12,000-ton shackles have been removed after the Suffren, each new design had jumped in size. However, for the Danton class it was a huge jump from 15,000-tons to 18,000-tons. In August 1905 the Minister of Marine sketched out preliminaries for the ships of the 1906 program. His idea was for three battleships with a displacement of 18,000-tons, 18-knot top speed, four 12-inch (305mm) main guns and twelve 9.4-inch (240mm) secondary guns in six twin turrets. Other proposals quickly followed and finally the basic characteristics were boiled down to three choices. One was the design as seen by the minister, a second was for a French version of Dreadnought with ten 12-inch guns (305mm) and a third was a compromise between the two with six 12-inch (305mm) and twelve 7.6-inch (194mm). Then another group came in in favor of all big guns but using the 10.8-inch (274mm) gun. They pointed out that the Germans were using their own eleven inch (280mm) guns and they thought the 10.8-inch gun was the equivalent.





Vital Statistics

 

Length: 480-feet 11-inches (146.58m)(oa), Beam: 84-feet 8-inches (25.8m), Draught: 28-feet 8-inches (8.74m), Displacement: 18,400-tons normal, 19,450-tons full load,

Armament: four 12-inch/45 (305mm) (2x2), twelve 9.4-inch (240mm) (2x6), sixteen 2.9-inch (75mm) QF 1x16, ten 1.85-inch (47mm) QF 1x10, two 18-inch (457mm) torpedo tubes

Armor: Belt – 10.5 to 6-inches (267-152mm), Main Turrets – 11.8-inches (300mm), Barbettes – 11-inches (280mm), Secondary Turrets – 8.7-inches (220mm), Armored Deck – 2.75-inches (80mm), Conning Tower – 11.8-inches (300mm)

Machinery: four Parsons turbines, four shafts, 26 Belleville boilers, 22,500shp, 19.25-knots (35.6kph) maximum speed, 3,370nm (6,234km) maximum range at 10-knots (18.5kmph), 1,750nm (3,237km) maximum range at 18-knots (33.3kmph), Complement - 921

 

After doing some calculations it was determined that it would take 20,000-tons displacement for a ship mounting ten 12-inch (305mm) guns and since the ministry was looking at a 18,000-ton battleship, the all big gun option was removed from the options. The coincided with the conclusion that the greater rate of fire of the 9.4-in gun (3 rounds/min) over the 12-in (2 rounds/min) more than compensated for the lighter projectiles. Other options were 17,200-tons for four 12-in and ten 9.4-in. 18,000-tons for four 12-in and twelve 9.4-in and 17,400-ton for four 12-in and sixteen 7.6-in. The design with four 12-in and twelve 9.4-in guns was chosen and the French passed on the opportunity to build their own dreadnought design. This proved to be a grievous error, as their subsequent dreadnought program was always a day late and a franc short.

On May 8, 1906 orders for two of the three ships were placed with Danton to be built at Breat and Mirabeau at Lorient . However, the machinery for the design was still undecided. As with every other navy, French battleships had used triple expansion reciprocating engines. The French were very interested in turbine machinery installed in Dreadnought and waited to find out how the turbines performed on Dreadnought’s trials. Dreadnought was completed in October 1906 and her turbine power plant proved to be an outstanding success, as important or more so than the all big gun layout. On December 29, 1906 the ministry ordered that turbines would be used in the Danton class. With the decision to go with turbines made, it was decided to expand the class from three to six and at the end of December Voltaire, Vergniaud, Diderot and Condorcet were ordered. It still took some time to order turbines as French at that time had no turbine manufacturer. Four Parsons turbines were used in each ship with 26 Belleville boilers to provide the steam. Since the Royal Navy was also equipping their battleships and battle cruisers with Parson turbines, the French order was at the tail end of the queue. Finally on January 10, 1908 Danton was laid down, almost two years after the order was placed and on July 4, 1909 she was launched. Although it took a year and a half to reach the launch date, the class completed very quickly given the history of slow construction for French yards. Danton, Diderot and Condorcet completed in April 1911. The other three took another year with Voltaire completing in May 1912, Mirabeau in July and Vergniaud in November. The turbines proved to be a success in the French design just as they were with Dreadnought with Danton and Voltaire exceeding 20-knots and the other four achieving speeds slightly below 20-knots.

Although completed in April 1911, Danton had to go through trials and finally joined the fleet at the end of 1911 with 1st Squadron, First Division  of  l’armee navale. All of 1912 was spent in cruises along the coasts of Provence and Corsica . In 1913 Danton went further afield, participating in fleet maneuvers off of Provence and Tunisia and in the fall steaming with the squadron to the Levant with visits to Egypt , Syria and Greece . There were more maneuvers in May 1914 off Corsica , Algeria and Tunisia . In August with the outbreak of World War One, the primary task of the French Fleet was to bottle up the Austro-Hungarian Fleet. On 16 August 1914 Danton and her squadron encountered the Austrian light cruiser Zenta, which was hit. The balance of 1914 was spent patrolling the Ionian Sea with occasional sorties into the Adriatic and visits to Malta and Bizerte . For 1915 it was more of the same for Danton. Finally in 1916 she was sent to Toulon for a refit, which was completed in December 1916. At the start of March she steamed to Corfu but by mid month she was back in the western Mediterranean . On March 19, 1917 Danton was cruising south of Sardinia when she was spotted by the German U-Boat U-64. A single torpedo put paid to Danton, which sank after 30 minutes. However, most of the crew was rescued with 806 saved and 296 lost.

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The Combrig Danton
When you think of predreadnought, you think of small battleships, at least significantly smaller than a dreadnought. However, at 18,000-tons the Danton was not a small ship and the 1:700 scale Combrig Danton is a large model. The Combrig hull casting is usual excellent casting work with zero defects or flaws. As usual, a light sanding along the waterline will remove a very slight casting remnant that you really can’t see but can feel. Since it is a French design, you’re guaranteed interesting hull sides. First and foremost is the tumblehome. Although the Danton doesn’t have the very extreme tumblehome of earlier French battleship designs, it still exhibits a strong sloping tumblehome. Another feature in common with earlier French predreadnought designs, which carried secondary guns in turrets or carried the lozenge main gun arrangement, is the reverse curve from the tumblehome presented by sponsons which flair outward from the tumblehome sides. The anchor positions are also another interesting feature in that they recessed wells in which the anchors are withdrawn. This is a remarkably advanced feature for a 1908 design. There are two such wells on the starboard side and one on the port side. The bow freeboard is smooth from deck to waterline but armor belt makes appearance beyond the hull sides below the forward turret. The belt is visible from that point all the way to the stern. There are inset tertiary positions at bow and stern. Lastly you get that wonderful gaullic mixture of square shuttered hull windows and portholes.

When you look at the deck detail, you’ll notice one big difference from predreadnought battleships from other navies. There is no wooden planking, just smooth steel decks. Don’t let the lack of deck planking fool you, Combrig still packs a wealth of detail on the decks. The forecastle is dominated by anchor equipment and fittings such as the hawse and windlass plates. Any manufacturer provides closed deck access hatches but with the Combrig Danton you’ll find that these access hatches are open with a well and inclined ladder leading into the hull. The deck edge has the usual mixture of open chocks and double bollard fittings. The bollards are not just straight posts but rather wider at top than the base, which is much harder to capture in resin casting. There are a number very finely incised rectangles on the forecastle. I don’t know what their original purpose on the ship was but they are there.

The amidship area from the forward superstructure to the deck break leading to the quarterdeck has enough holes to qualify for a golf course. There are two large superstructure locator wells on centerline and three secondary turret wells on each side. But that is the just the start of it as the French loved free standing, large, louvered ventilators, as big as deck houses. There are plenty of locator wells on the Combrig Danton’s deck. The circular wells in the aft portion of the deck are for the last two of the five funnels of the ship. The  first three are found on top of the large superstructure located behind the bridge. Also located amidship are more of the open access hatches with visible ladders, circular coal scuttles, deck plate lines and a number of skylights. At the very aft end, right before the deck break you’ll find five more skylight fittings and 16 small locator holes for pillars/posts that support a large superstructure platform. The quarterdeck has its own share of well detailed fittings with skylights, large and small bollard fittings, open chocks, more locator holes and some form of machinery.

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Smaller Resin Parts
If you like multiple turrets and multiple funnels, the Combrig Danton is the kit for you. With eight turrets you can have it your way and five funnels would do any Pittsburg steel mill proud. There are two large superstructure pies. One is the bridge and an even larger amidship structure. The tall three story bridge has finely incised square windows running along the sides. The turrets are oval in shape in French fashion. The French preferred small turrets to emphasize the length of the gun barrels. This was part of the fierce face design philosophy in which aggressive appearance was part of the design. The small turrets may have presented a smaller target but surely it negatively impacted crew efficiency. The main turrets have an additional armor plate on the front face, deep barrel openings and single centerline sighter’s hood on the crown. The secondary turrets are smaller editions of the main turrets.  Both main and secondary barrels are nicely cast with reinforcing bands at the base and nicely flared muzzles. They were straight with no warp but do have small casting vents at the muzzle, which will have to be removed. The tertiary guns are fine and the small QF (47mm) are especially well cast with separate resin mounts and barrels and brass shoulder rests. The five funnels have four different patterns. Three are circular with one tall funnel and two shorter ones. The other two are oval in shape and are of different heights. The funnels have typical double caps with two aprons/guy stay tie down fittings that resemble top hats. The aprons are very thin and finely cast. One funnel had some damage to one of the aprons undoubtedly caused by the fineness of the casting making it susceptible to damage.

A thin resin wafer has the superstructure decks. There are three of these, one for the navigation deck atop the bridge, one for the central superstructure with which the deck extends beyond the deck house, and the smallest which is an aft platform resting atop pillers/posts. The decks will require minor cleanup to remove resin remnants left over from removing the platforms from the casting wafer and you’ll have to remove the thin resin film covering the deck openings. The fore and aft platforms appear to have solid bulkheads but in reality this would be canvas covered railings. The large central platform is the most interesting piece as it has openings for three stacks, two large ventilator openings and two smaller ventilator openings. Additionally it has plenty of deck houses and sky lights. This sheet also includes eight other parts, which are conning tower, small deck houses, and small platforms. There is a second smaller resin wafer, which contains seven domed ventilator crowns.

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Most of the smaller resin parts are on resin casting runners. Two runners have the large louvered ventilator towers. The casting of these louvers is superb. Of the twelve louvers only three are identical. Two more runners have fittings and equipment. One has eight identical searchlights. If you examine the mounts, you’ll notice that the detail far exceeds typical searchlight mounts. The other fittings runner contains windlasses, deck winches and other fittings. Three smaller resin runners have the masts, yards and cranes. There are eight open ships boats in various sizes and two covered steam launches. Lastly there are five anchors. Three are the bow anchors with heavy flukes. Unfortunately one fluke had broken. The other two are smaller stream anchors.

Brass Photo-Etch Frets
Combrig includes one large and one small brass photo-etch frets with their Danton. Most of the brass parts are specific for Danton but Combrig does provide inclined ladders, multi-platform accommodation ladders, and anchor chains. The modeler will have to provide railing. Specific parts are the five funnel grates, boat skids, boat chocks, platform supports, davits, pulleys & tackle for the cranes, crane platforms, QF gun shoulder rests, and forecastle fittings. The small fret contains platform supports with open and closed patterns in different sizes.

Instructions
It is the standard one page back-printed Combrig format. The front page has a 1:700 scale plan and profile of Danton. Use these drawings to define exact attachment points for various parts, as well as for the rigging diagram. The history and vital statistics are in Russian. The back page has the actual assembly instructions with a starboard quarter view of the model and five smaller inset boxes, which detail subassemblies. The subassemblies include the shelter deck atop the central deckhouse, cranes, QF guns, forecastle detail and deck boats. Also included are parts laydown for resin and photo-etch parts.

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Verdict
The Danton was not a pre-dreadnought but a post-dreadnought design, in which the French chose to build a mixed armament battleship and rejected the all big gun layout of HMS Dreadnought but had a greater displacement than the British battleship. The 1:700 scale Combrig Danton provides excellently produced resin and brass parts to model Danton in all her eight turret, five funnel, top hat cap glory.

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