Fleets in 1939

British Royal Navy, French Navy and German Kriegsmarine at the beginning of World War II in September 1939.
Part I: Ships and deployment of Royal Navy and French Navy.

 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.


At 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 classNumbersShipsUnder Construction
Battleships15 2 Nelson, 1 Hood, 2 Renown, 5 Royal Sovereign, 5 Queen Elizabeth 9 (5 King George V )
Aircraft Carriers7 1 Ark Royal, 2 Courageous, 1 Furious, 1 Eagle, 1 Hermes, 1 Argus6
Heavy Cruisers15 2 Exeter, 13 County (2 Australian)-
Light Cruisers41 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 Cruisers8 8 Cairo16
Minelayer Cruiser1Adventure1
Modern Destroyers11324
Old Destroyers68-
Modern Submarines5311
Old Submarines12-
Escorts54 (4 Australian, 2 Indian) 80
Fleet Minesweepers4410

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 WatersMediterranean (Alexandria)
Aircraft Carriers2-21
Destroyers17965 31 + 4 escorts

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.


In 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 classNumbersShipsUnder Construction
Battleships7 2 Courbet, 3 Bretagne, 2 Dunkerque4 (Richelieu)
Aircraft Carriers11 Bearn2
Heavy Cruisers7 2 Duquesne, 4 Suffren, Algerie -
Light Cruisers12 3 Duguay Trouin, 1 La Tour D'Auvergne (minelayer), 1 Jeanne D'Arc (training ship), 1 Emile Bertin, 6 La Galissoniere3
Destroyers78 6 Chacal, 18 Bison, 6 Le Fantasque, 2 Mogador, 26 Bourrasque, 8 Le Hardi, 12 La Flore27
Submarines81 1 Surcouf (submarine cruiser), 9 Requin, 29 Redoutable, 3 Roland Morillot, 6 Saphir, 1 Aurora, 32 Amazone38
Minesweepers and Gunboats56 33 old gunboats from World War One, 8 Bougainville, 12 Elan, 3 Chamois30 (Chamois)

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


Ship class Mediterranean (Toulon und Mers-el-Kebir, Vice- Admiral Godfroy) Atlantic (Brest, Vice-Admiral Gensoul)Bay of BiscayChanalCasablancaIndo- China
Battle cruisers-2---
Aircraft Carrier-1----
Seaplane Carrier1-----

 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

References and literature

World War II – A Statistical Survey (John Ellis)
Flotten des 2. Weltkrieges (Antony Preston)
The Armed Forces of World War II (Andrew Mollo)

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