A sabre-rattling piece of French philatelic propaganda in 1939 backfired when a mighty battleship was misrepresented - and ended up in the service of the enemy
In 1935 France laid down the first of four new Richelieu-class ‘super-dreadnought’ battleships, the most powerful it had ever built, in response to heightened international tension.
By January 1939, when the third vessel was commissioned, war had become a serious possibility and the mood of the nation was in need of a lift. This was to be achieved in two ways.
The first was naming the ship after a great statesman, Georges Clemenceau. Twice Prime Minister, and famed for his uncompromising treatment of political opponents, Clemenceau was regarded as the ‘Father of Victory’ in World War I.
The second was to celebrate the building of this latest addition to the resolute French navy with a new recess-printed 90c stamp, which would portray the vessel along with an image of Clemenceau.
The emerging stamp designer Albert Decaris was to draw and engrave the stamp, for issue on April 18, 1939, just three months to the day after work had begun on the vessel. This clearly put him under some time pressure, and without the benefit of a fully constructed battleship to illustrate.
He might have chosen either of the two earlier vessels in the class, the Richelieu or the Jean Bart, but for some reason best known to himself he chose a completely different battleship, from the earlier and now obsolescent Dunkerque class.
Like the Richelieu class, this was armed with two tiers of quadruple 380mm guns, mounted in the bow, but closer inspection revealed several significant differences, most notably the presence of rear guns and a very prominent funnel.
Decaris’ blunder had completely failed to show off the very latest in French naval power, as had been intended. But then, he would have had a long wait to find out what the Clemenceau really looked like, and in any case her ignominious career would comprehensively fail to justify a nation’s pride.
She was still an incomplete hulk when the German army swept into France in May 1940. When she was finally launched, in 1943, it was in the service of the hated occupying power. And the following year she was spotted by Allied bombers and sunk.
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