Fleets 1939

British Royal Navy, French Navy and German Kriegsmarine at the beginning of World War II in September 1939.

 battleship of the Nelson class

A battleship of the Nelson class leads the British Atlantic fleet during an exercise. There follow battleships of the Royal Sovereign and Queen Elizabeth classes.

The fleets in September 1939 with ship classes, ships under construction and deployment of the Royal Navy, French and German navies.


british-flagAt the beginning of the War, the Royal Navy was the most powerful in the world. It had the largest number of ships and a network of naval bases and coaling stations around the globe.
Before mobilization the strength of the Navy was 9,762 officers and 109,170 ratings. In January 1939 there were in addition 51,485 men in the Royal Fleet Reserve, 10,038 in the Royal navy Reserve (mainly serving in the Merchant Navy), 2,049 in the Royal Navy Auxiliary Sick Berth and Wireless Auxiliary reserves, and 6,180 in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve.

Royal Navy
Ship class Numbers Ships Under Construction
Battleships 15 2 Nelson, 1 Hood, 2 Renown, 5 Royal Sovereign, 5 Queen Elizabeth 9 (5 King George V )
Aircraft Carriers 7 1 Ark Royal, 2 Courageous, 1 Furious, 1 Eagle, 1 Hermes, 1 Argus 6
Heavy Cruisers 15 2 Exeter, 13 County (2 Australian)
Light Cruisers 41 2 Edinburgh, 8 Southampton, 4 Artehusa, 3 Sydney (Australian), 5 Leander (2 New Zealand), 2 Emerald, 3 Effingham, 8 Despatch, 2 Cardiff, 3 Caledon, 1 Adelaide (Australian) 9
Anti-Aircraft Cruisers 8 8 Cairo 16
Minelayer Cruiser 1 Adventure 1
Modern Destroyers 113 24
Old Destroyers 68
Modern Submarines 53 11
Old Submarines 12
Escorts 54 (4 Australian, 2 Indian) 80
Fleet Minesweepers 44 10
Monitors 2

Royal Navy dispositions in European waters in September 1939 were as follows:

Sip class Home Fleet (Scapa Flow, Admiral Forbes) North Atlantic Command (Rear-Admiral Wodehouse) Home Waters Mediterranean (Alexandria)
Battleships 7 2 3
Aircraft Carriers 2 2 1
Cruisers 15 2 5 6
Destroyers 17 9 65 31 + 4 escorts
Minesweepers 7 2 12 5
Submarines 21 2 10
Six British battleships of the Home Fleet and the Mediterranean Fleet

Six British battleships of the Home Fleet and the Mediterranean Fleet in maneuvers in the Atlantic. From front to back ‘Resolution’, ‘Barham’, ‘Malaya’, another ship of the ‘Royal Sovereign’ class as well as the modern battleships’ Nelson’ and ‘Rodney’.

Escort vessels served worldwide, while a number of ships of all types were undergoing refit, were in reserve, or being used on miscellaneous duties such as training.
Captains commanded battleships, battlecruisers, cruisers and aircraft carriers, which were organized in squadrons of between two and nine ships under a rear-admiral. Eight destroyers, each in the charge of a commander, plus a specially fitted leader commander by a captain, usually comprised a flotilla.

The Fleet Air Arm as it was known went to war with 190 airplanes in aircraft and seaplane carriers; plus spotter float planes mounted on catapults in capital ships and cruisers.


French-flagIn January 1937 France began a program of modernization and expansion which elevated the French Fleet to fourth largest in the world, although it was considerably smaller than that of her ally, Great Britain.
On 23 August 1939 Navy reservists were called up, anti-aircraft defenses manned, and liaison officers were exchanged with the Royal Navy. By 1 September 1939 the strength of the French Navy was 160,000 personnel of all ranks.

French Navy
Ship class Numbers Ships Under Construction
Battleships 7 2 Courbet, 3 Bretagne, 2 Dunkerque 4 (Richelieu)
Aircraft Carriers 1 1 Bearn 2
Heavy Cruisers 7 2 Duquesne, 4 Suffren, Algerie
Light Cruisers 12 3 Duguay Trouin, 1 La Tour D'Auvergne (minelayer), 1 Jeanne D'Arc (training ship), 1 Emile Bertin, 6 La Galissoniere 3
Destroyers 78 6 Chacal, 18 Bison, 6 Le Fantasque, 2 Mogador, 26 Bourrasque, 8 Le Hardi, 12 La Flore 27
Submarines 81 1 Surcouf (submarine cruiser), 9 Requin, 29 Redoutable, 3 Roland Morillot, 6 Saphir, 1 Aurora, 32 Amazone 38
Minesweepers and Gunboats 56 33 old gunboats from World War One, 8 Bougainville, 12 Elan, 3 Chamois 30 (Chamois)

The deployment of the French navy on the outbreak of war was as follows:

Ship class Mediter- ranean (Toulon und Mers-el-Kebir, Vice- Admiral Godfroy) Atlantic (Brest, Vice-Admiral Gensoul) Bay of Biscay Chanal Casablanca Indo- China
Battleships 3 - - - -
Battle cruisers 2 - -
Aircraft Carrier - 1 - - -
Seaplane Carrier 1 - - - -
Cruisers 10 3 - - - 2
Destroyers 48 10 3 7 2 5
Submarines 53 - - - 4 2
 light cruiser 'La Galissonnière'

The light cruiser ‘La Galissonnière’ is the class ship of 6 fast, well-armed and mobile warships.

The early war strength of the Fleet Air Arm (Aeronavale) was four squadrons of dive-bombers, two of seaplanes and one of flying boats. They were all intended to be ship borne, although the employment of the two rather slow carriers on ferrying duties meant that the aircraft had to be shore-based, apart from those planes mounted on capital ship and cruiser catapults.
In 1939, naval aircraft strength was 350 planes.

t_arrow1 Here Part II: German Kriegsmarine

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