World War II: French Battleship Richelieu

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Richelieu was designed in 1934, as an answer to the modernization of the Cavour class, itself designed to counter the French Dunkerque design.


The Richelieu was initially meant to receive 406mm guns, which proved to be non-practical. 380mm was judged to be the maximum that could be used in a quadruple turret.

Alternative research to use triple 406mm turrets brought the ship’s weight way over the 35,000 tons design.

Six preliminary designs were offered, ranging from slightly enlarging the Dunkerque concept to several 380mm concepts, some of them imitating some Italian concepts.

In the end, Project 1 (35,000 tons, 31.5 knots, 8x 380mm (2×4) prevailed, although it brought some concerns that the secondary armament (the project called for 20 130mm guns) would be weaker than the British Nelson and Rodney, which were the reference for ships of that tonnage.

Engineers were summoned again, and the ship gained its 15 152mm.


Two ships were ordered on August 14, 1935. One was for the Richelieu, the other for the Jean Bart.


The 380/45 Model 1935 gun was the most powerful ever mounted on a French battleship.

Each shell weighed 884kg and had an initial velocity of 830m/s.

The front turret had an arc of 156 degrees, the one behind it had an arc of 142 degrees, the center 152mm turrets had an arc of 180 degrees, and the aft 152mm turrets had an arc of 170 degrees.


Operational history

On January 1940, Richelieu made its first machinery trials. They lasted until April 7th, but were limited because of the danger from U-boats.

On June 15, full speed trials were performed, and Richelieu reached a speed of 32.63 knots.

On June 15th, because of the fast advance from German troops, Richelieu made preparations to escape to England, but with the possibility of an armistice approaching, the French government decided instead to keep the fleet as a bargaining tool, and Richelieu was ordered to sail to French colonies.

She exited Brest just in time, and even had to repulse a few attacks from the Luftwaffe.

Richelieu eventually reached Dakar (Senegal) on June 23, after trading her escort off the coast of Casablanca.

On June 24th, Captain Martin (Richelieu’s CO) received some news that the British were preparing an attack against Richelieu and other French ships, as they were concerned that they might end in German hands.

Martin was given two choices that were to either sabotage her or to flee to the (then neutral) United States.


Royal Navy attack

On July 3rd, HMS Hermes was ordered to join cruiser Dorsetshire who was already off Dakar.

Dorsetshire had already been ordered to either torpedoes or ram Richelieu to prevent any escape to the French West Indies.

The French countered any attempt from the Royal Navy by keeping two submarines (Le Glorieux and Le Heros) on a picket line.

On July 8th, Hermes launched her Swordfish who launched 6 torpedoes against the Richelieu.

5 of them missed, but the 6th one hit her, causing some substantial damage amplified by the fact that Richelieu was in shallow water.


Operation Menace

Churchill thought that there was another way to get Richelieu (and other French assets in Africa). Knowing of the growingly anti-British feelings amongst the French Navy, following the attacks on Dakar and Mers el Kebir, he decided that the (Free) French would be better equipped to convince the forces defending Dakar to switch side.

On September 23rd, two French planes were launched from the Ark Royal to try to convince Vichy forces to surrender. The result was not the one expected, and the (Free) French airmen were captured an imprisoned.

The same day, at 11:05 AM, British battleships started their attack but missed their targets, only causing light damage to cruiser Montcalm.

For several days, the British force continued air and sea attacks, but no significant damage was done on either side, partially because of poor visibility.

Things changed on September 25th, where visibility was excellent, and the entire British foce closed on Dakar. The attack was against repulsed, and the Royal Navy suffered some damage (Resolution got torpedoed) and finally withdrew.


Operation Torch

On November 8th, 1942, Allied forces landed in North Africa. A collateral event of Torch was the occupation by German forces of the southern part of France. Fulfilling their promise to the British Admiralty in 1940, the French didn’t give their ships based in Toulon to the Germans and sunk them instead. (Vichy) French forces in North Africa rallied the Free French, and by November 11, all French Navy ships were on the Allies side.

Richelieu was the top ship the United States had decided to modernize and she sailed to New York, which she reached on February 11th, 1943.


Work on the Richelieu started in Brooklyn on February 24th, 1943. Beside repairs that had to be done following the attacks during Operation Menace, new armament was installed, mainly anti-aircraft guns. The three 380mm guns that had been damaged were replaced with guns from the Jean Bart. Richelieu stayed in New York until October 1943, when she sailed for Gibraltar, escored by USS Tarbell and Ellet. She was eventually met by the light cruisers Le Fantasque and Le Terrible.

Operation Posthorn

While Richelieu was originally assigned to operate in the Mediterranean Sea under British command, she eventually was sent to Scapa Flow, after the Italian fleet surrendered.

Operation Posthorn was a combined operation with British forces (HMS CV Furious, BB Anson) to deter German shipping in Northern Norway. The hopes were that the Kriegsmarine would take the bait and send their heavy cruisers. They failed to show up!


Eastern fleet

Richelieu was not needed anymore in the Atlantic and was sent to reinforce Admiral Sommerville’s fleet in the Indian Ocean.

There, she saw little action during Operation Cockpit, alongside HMS (BB) Queen Elizabeth, and HMS (BB) Valiant (Force 69) that were constituting a screening force for Force 70 (USS (CV) Saratoga HMS (CV) Illustrious, HMS (BB) Renown).

She also participated in Operation Pedal (attack on Port Blair) and Operation Crimson (attack on Sabang).

During these operations, she proved that her rate of fire (81 380mm shells in 21 salvos, at a rate of one salvo every 50 seconds) was twice as fast as her British counterparts.

Return to Toulon

On September 6th, 1944, Richelieu was sent back to Algiers and then eventually to Toulon where she was modernized with radar.


Return to the Indian Ocean

She eventually went back to the Indian Ocean for Operation Sunfish (attacks against Sabang), Operation Bishop (Bay of Bengal), and Operation Dukedom (blockade of cruiser Haguro attempting evacuation of Port Blair).


Richelieu finished her service in February 1956, where she served as a school until September 30, 1967.

She was eventually sold to an Italian shipbreaker and was broken up at La Spezia between 1968 and 1969.



By | 2017-10-30T14:25:09+00:00 January 17th, 2017|Categories: Constructions, World War II|Tags: , , |0 Comments

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