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The Battleship Richelieu

Visualization 3D Andrzej Sobucki and Piotr Forkasiewicz

1. Design

Construction of the battleship was made possible after the French government signed the Washington Naval Treaty. It allowed for construction of three battleships displacing 35 000 tons each and building of the first one could be commenced in 1927.

Two additional ships were planned in two-year intervals – in 1929 and 1931 respectively. French delegation was able to force through that exemption under the terms of the treaty as a compensation for the fact that the French navy was unable to build battleships during the World War I. In 1924, the first draft of the future shipbuilding program, which concentrated on light units, was being prepared. Construction of new battleship was first discussed in 1926, when the units of the Provence class had already been ten years in the service. The Staff of the French Navy (EMG – Etat Major General) requested the STCN (Section Technique de Constructions Navales – similar to the Naval Ship Engineering Center in the U.S. Navy) to prepare a design of “battle cruisers” (croiseurs de combat) that would meet the following three requirements. First, they were to be capable of destroying each treaty cruiser that would be commissioned by major naval powers. Second, they would be able to attack merchantmen in convoys protected by battleships with speeds of 20 to 25 knots. Third, they would become part of the scouting force. These requirements related mainly to the colonial nature of the country, whose priority at that time was protection of its shipping lanes, were not difficult to meet. In 1926 several preliminary designs of 17 500 tons cruisers armed with 330 mm guns were prepared. In 1928, when the Germany announced the construction of 10 000 tons Deutschland class warships, the new design work on units which would have both heavier armour and armament was commenced. In the meantime, two disarmament conferences were held, first in Geneva in 1927 and the second in London in 1930. Governments of Great Britain and the United States strived to retain the position guaranteed by the Washington Naval Treaty and prevent construction of larger battleships. Majority of countries had already been aware that disarmament treaties would soon be a thing of the past. They were also surprised by the fact that Germany joined the new armament race.

Bow and Stern view of the battleship. Symmetrical camouflage scheme worn in the years 1943-1945 is worthy of attention. Visualization 3D Andrzej Sobucki

Table 1. Design requirements of the battleship Richelieu
Displacement (standard)    35 000 tons
Main battery    Eight or nine 15 or 16-inch guns mounted in triple or quadruple turrets
Secondary battery     The same as the Dunkerque class
Speed     29.5 – 32 knots
Armour protection
Main side belt     360 mm, sloped at 11.3°
Upper armour deck    160 mm
Lower armour deck     40 mm

First intelligence reports concerning the construction of the Deutschland class influenced the decision to change the requirements for the so-called “battle cruisers”. Displacement of the designed battleships was between 23 000 and 35 000 tons and the armament would consist of 305 or 330 mm guns, although designs that would mount 380 and 406 mm guns were also considered. The French navy changed its requirements concerning armour protection and in 1930 demanded that it should withstand 280 mm projectile hits. The design presented by STCN called for 25 000 tons displacement, armament of eight 305 mm guns mounted in two quadruple turrets and the speed of between 29 and 30 knots. Design of the first battleship, named Dunkerque was finished in 1931 and its final version was ready on April 27, 1932. The construction of the second unit was hastened by the information received in May 1934, when Mussolini informed the public that keels of two new Italian battleships had been laid down. These ships were considered a threat to the Marine Nationale in the Mediterranean area which the French government could not allow. In reply the French government authorized construction of the second battleship named Strasbourg. Design study of a new battleship was also commenced. The new unit was based on the Dunkerque class. Vice Admiral Durand-Viel, the Chief of the Navy’s General Staff, argued that France needed homogenous combat groups. Moreover, he was of the opinion that the new warships should be constructed as soon as possible. At that time design studies took a considerable amount of time, therefore, it was decided to modify the existing design and adapt it for the presented requirements: main battery made of 380 or 406 mm guns and maximum speed of 29.5 to 32 knots. Underwater protection would be identical to that of the Dunkerque class. After preliminary calculations, it was determined the use of 406 mm main battery guns was impossible as the heavy turrets would affect stability and increase displacement. It must be remembered that the requirements called for two quadruple turrets in forward superfiring position like on the Dunkerque class. Therefore, it was decided to mount smaller calibre 380 mm guns. Taking into consideration basic requirements, STCN prepared six preliminary battleship designs and presented them for consideration by the Conseil Superieur de la Marine on November 27, 1934. All of these included main battery located in the forward section with secondary battery aft. Two of the designs included the main battery of six 406 mm guns in two triple turrets. However, members of the Council considered such solution inadequate and insisted on nine gun main battery. The chief designer of the navy pointed out that at the displacement of 35 000 tons this was only possible by either reducing speed or protection, as was in the case of the British battleship Nelson.

Details of the main battery Turret II and the port side of the forward superstructure with the fittings installed during modernization in the USA. An access ladder was installed on the slope of Turret II that allowed the Oerlikon gun crews to reach their stations. Visualization 3D Andrzej Sobucki

The first four designs with the proposed 380 mm main battery were approved. According to the 1935 program the construction of the new battleships was scheduled to commence in mid 1935 and they were to be commissioned in 1939. At the early stage of the design studies CSM and STCN looked into division of the secondary battery into two calibres, which at that time was practiced on both German and Italian warships. It was stressed that both 152 mm and 75 mm had to be dual-purpose. During the CSM session on April 14, 1935 the final design of a battleship was examined. The CSM approved the location of the secondary battery turrets and rejected the use of 75 mm guns. Moreover, it agreed with the STCN proposal concerning the reduction of armour thickness to retain the non-extendible displacement of 35 000 tons. The alterations were promptly incorporated into the design, which resulted in creation of a modern battleship. It must be noticed, that work on the project was not hindered by various decisions made during the conferences by the Command of the Navy. It could be credited to the well refined design of the Dunkerque class, which was the base for the new battleships.

Table 2. Preliminary battleship design requirements – April 4, 1935.
Standard displacement    37 960 tons
Full-load displacement     44 385 tons
Length overall    247.0 m
Waterline length    242.0 m
Waterline beam    33.08 m
Draft (designed)    9.17 m
Main battery    Eight 380 mm guns in two quadruple turrets.
Secondary battery    Fifteen 152 mm guns in five triple turrets.
Anti-aircraft battery    Twelve 37 mm guns (6 x II)
Twenty-four 13.2 mm machine guns (6 x IV)
Seaplane    Five Loire-Nieuport 130 aircraft  
Catapults    Two
Speed    31.5 knots
Power output     150 000 SHP
Fuel capacity    6 300 t
Main belt     360 mm sloped at 11.3°

Upper armour deck    170 mm (over magazines)
150 mm (over machinery)
Lower armour deck    40 mm

During session on April 4, 1935, the CSM recognized that the current battleship design’s displacement is too great and it had to reduced. The STCN designers shortened the citadel by 4.85 m. It was possible by the use of Sural-Indret boilers, which were very compact. Therefore, three boilers were located in each boiler room, reducing the number of the rooms to two. Additional weight was saved by reducing thickness of the main belt from 360 to 340 mm. However, that reduction forced the increase of armour slope from 11.3 to 15.24°. Moreover, the thickness of the side armour of the conning tower was reduced to 340 mm. Armour protection of the 152 mm gun turrets was also reduced and so was that of the armour deck – from 150 – 170 mm to 140 – 150 mm.
The Anglo-German Naval Agreement signed on June 18, 1935, forced France to proclaim that it would no longer abide by limitations of the Washington Treaty. That decision was being postponed until the end of the year, when a conference concerning limitation of the naval arms race was expected to take place. Deterioration of current diplomatic relations between France and Italy created further tension. Thus, the CSM deemed it necessary to commence construction of new battleships as soon as possible and that the program should be a priority. The Parliament authorized construction of two battleships. Both units were included in the 1935 shipbuilding program, but the second one was financed from the supplementary naval fund. Their preliminary cost was estimated at two billion francs allotted in the budget. According to later settlements the first warship cost 1 227 million, while the second one 1 400 million francs. The final design of the battleship was approved by the Minister of the Navy on August 14, 1935. On August 31, 1935 he also approved construction of the first Richelieu class battleship.

The post side 40 mm Bofors gun mount (No. 12). Single Oerlikon guns can be seen on the right. Visualization 3D Andrzej Sobucki

Richelieu was laid down on October 22, 1935 at Brest Navy Yard (Arsenale de Brest) at the dry dock No. 4. However, the dock was to small to accommodate the entire hull, therefore, its 52-metre-long bow and 8-metre-long stern sections were built separately. On completion all three sections were towed to the dry dock No. 8 were they were connected. The complete hull was launched on January 17, 1939 and the ship was ceremoniously commissioned on June 15, 1940.

Table 3. Final design characteristics of the battleship Richelieu
Standard displacement    37 832 tons
Full-load displacement     44 708 tons
Length overall    247.0 m
Waterline length    242.0 m
Waterline beam     33.08 m
Draft (designed)    9.17 m
Main battery     Eight 380 mm gun in two quadruple turrets
Secondary battery in 1938     Fifteen 152 mm guns in five triple turrets
Secondary battery in 1940    Nine 152 mm guns in three triple turrets
Anti-aircraft battery     Twelve 37 mm guns (6 x II)
Twenty-four 13.2 mm machine guns (6 x IV)
Seaplane    Three Loire-Nieuport 130 aircraft
Catapults     Two
Speed     31.5 knots
Power output     147 950 SHP
Fuel capacity     6 300 t
Side belt     330 mm sloped at 15.5°
Upper armour deck    170 mm (over magazines)
150 mm (over machinery)
Complement    1 550 (1945)

2. Technical description

Model of the Richelieu’s hull, based on the previous Dunkerque and Strasbourg design, was extensively tested in the Paris Model Basin. Information thus collected allowed for slight modifications of the design, which was promptly sent for completion. Traditional riveting as well as electric welding techniques were used during construction of the hull which considerably shortened the process. The hull was divided into 21 watertight compartments. The “F” compartment located in front of the first main battery turret is worthy of mention as it was filled with water-exclusion material “Ebonite Mousse” based on rubber foam. Richelieu had a flush deck with slight break of poop. The main battery turrets “I” and “II” were located in the forward section. Behind them there was a forward superstructure and a huge structure of the mast integrated with a smokestack characteristically bent toward the stern. The Richelieu’s propulsion plant included four Parsons-Rateau steam turbine sets with the total designed power output of 150 000 SHP located in two machine rooms – fore “L” and aft “N”. Each of the sets was composed of low, middle and high pressure turbines for forward gear, as well as low pressure turbines for reverse. Steam was provided by six Sural-Indret (Norguet) water-tube boilers located in threes in two boiler rooms – No. 1 in the “K” forward section and No. 2 in the “M” aft section. Each turbine set propelled a shaft through a single-stage transmission gear. It is worthy of mention that none of the two machine rooms was not divided with a transverse bulkhead into two separate compartments, as was the case in other heavy units in other navies. Thus, even a single hit in one of the machine rooms could cause their destruction or flooding, which would result in loosing half the power. The same was true as far as boiler rooms were concerned.
Both 230 V and 460 V (powering the main battery turrets equipment) direct current was provided by two sets of turbo-generators, each made of four 750 kW generators. The turbo-generators were located in the forward section of the “O” compartment, directly behind the aft machine room. Three generators, 1000 kW each, powered by diesel engines were located in the “H” compartment located between the main battery turrets “I” and “II”. Two small diesel generators, 150 kW each were on the main deck as emergency power source. Total power output of power-generating units aboard the Richelieu was 9300 kW.

The Oerlikon battery (Nos. 42 to 50) mounted in front of the main battery gun Turret I. Visualization 3D Andrzej Sobucki

Armour protection scheme was one the most effective ever designed for a battleship commissioned in the interbellum period. It was designed to withstand impact of 38 cm projectile and 500 kg bomb dropped from 5000 metre altitude. Vertical protection was provided by 131.45 m long (54.2 % of the overall length) side armour belt made of section armour plates installed at 15.14 degrees. They were of homogenous height of 5.96 m and width of 2.5 to 3.05 metres. Their thickness was 330 mm which gradually decreased to 170 mm at the lower edge. Three armoured transverse bulkheads were installed inside the hull, two at each end of the armoured citadel and one at the stern protecting steering mechanism. Apart from that, the battleship’s hull had no side protection, neither in the bow, nor in the stern section.

Table 4. Characteristics of the battleship Richelieu after modernization in the USA
Standard displacement    42 875 tons
Full-load displacement     47 721 tons
Length overall    247.0 m
Waterline length    242.0 m
Waterline beam     33.08 m
Full-load draft (battle)    10.58 m
Main battery     Eight 380 mm guns in two quadruple turrets
Secondary battery    Nine 152 mm guns in three triple turrets;
Six 100 mm guns in three twin turrets
Anti-aircraft battery    Fifty-six 40 mm Bofors guns (14 x IV, 11 x I)
Fifty-two 20 mm Oerlikon guns (41 x I)
Seaplane    Three Loire-Nieuport 130 aircraft
Catapults    Two
Speed    32.6 knots
Power output     147 950 SHP (max. 177 540 SHP)
Fuel capacity     6 796 t max
Main side belt     330 mm sloped at 15.5°
Upper armour deck    170 mm (over magazines)
150 mm (over machinery)

The main battery of the Richelieu consisted of eight 380 mm (1935 pattern) guns mounted in two quadruple, superimposed turrets “I” and “II” located in the forward section of the hull. The secondary battery made of fifteen 152 mm (1930 pattern) guns mounted in five triple turrets. In June 1939 the pair of forward 152 mm gun turrets was replaced by 100 mm (1925 pattern) guns in twin turrets, thus reducing the number of 152 mm guns to nine. The anti-aircraft battery of the battleship underwent several modifications during her service. During the fitting-out it was to be composed of twelve 37 mm guns (6 x II) and twenty-four 13.2 mm machine guns (6 x IV). First changes were introduced in 1939, when four quadruple 13.2 mm mounts were removed as they were considered ineffective. Instead, 37 mm gun mounts were to be mounted. The light anti-aircraft battery was completely modified during the modernization in the United States. The battleship received quadruple Bofors and single Oerlikon gun mounts.
First Sadir M.E. 140 radar equipment was installed in 1942, shortly before the Allied invasion in the North Africa. Later, during the modernization in the United States, American SG-1, SF and SA2 and British 281B and 285 radar gear was installed.

3. Operational history

When the German offensive in the battle of France broke through the defence lines near Somme and Aisne, on June 18, 1940, Richelieu, finished in 95%, left Brest under command of Captain Marzin, fleeing from the advancing German troops. The battleship headed for the safe Dakar, escorted by destroyers Fougeux and Frondeur. The battleship carried cadets of the Naval Academy and engineers, who were to help in completion of the still unfinished battleship, as well as members of the Naval Staff. The African harbour was reached on June 23 and for the next day the battleship’s main and anti-aircraft batteries were prepared for combat operations. Meanwhile, the British wanted to take advantage of the confusion surrounding the French navy by offering the escort of the aircraft carrier HMS Hermes, then stationed at Dakar. She would screen Richelieu’s redeployment to Freetown. However, the offer was refused and the battleship remained in Dakar. At that time, Casablanca was a safer harbour, so she headed there two days later, but returned to Dakar on June 28, where she remained until July 15, 1940. After the capitulation of France, its main forces were stationed at two North African bases – Dakar and Mers el-Kebir. Division of France into two fractions and Franco-German Armistice alarmed the British, who feared that the navy would be taken over by the Axis powers. Therefore, an ultimatum was sent to the units stationed in Africa, but since it was ignored, an operation was prepared to eliminate them. Operation “Catapult” began on July 3, 1940 by an attack on the French fleet in Mers el-Kebir. Shortly thereafter, on July 8, 1940 Richelieu was torpedoed by the aircraft operating from HMS Hermes. The hit put the starboard propeller out of action. Moreover, serious flooding of the stern compartments caused the stern to rest on the bottom. In the next days, the water was pumped out and the ship could leave the harbour in case of emergency. The British were not satisfied with the damage sustained by the French battleship, so they attacked her again at the end of September. She was shelled by the British battleships Barham and Resolution. During the artillery duel HMS Barham received two hits from Richelieu’s secondary battery. The French ship was also hit twice, but the damage was insignificant. Later, a premature shells explosion damaged main battery turret “II”.
In November 1942, following negotiations between Admiral Darlan and the Allied forces, French forces stationed in Africa joined the Allies. At the beginning of 1943, Richelieu still stationed in Dakar, sailed to New York for repairs and modernization, arriving there on January 30, 1943. The repairs were complicated for several reasons. First was the difference between American customary and French metric system. Second was the lack of complete documentation, majority of which fell into German hands. The third was a different equipment of the French ship, from the machinery, boilers, main battery calibre 380 mm (metric) vs. British and American 381 mm (imperial), up to anti-aircraft equipment. Despite these problems, repairs concentrated on the damaged machinery room, propeller shafts and starboard propellers. They were successfully completed and in August 1943 Richelieu underwent first speed trials on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Various tests continued until the end of September and the overhaul was officially completed on October 10, 1943. During that time the anti-aircraft battery was replaced by American anti-aircraft guns. It is worthy of mention that due to the atypical French main battery guns ammunition a special factory was created to manufacture projectiles. As a result, the French battleship was dependent on American ammunition supply. On October 14, Richelieu sailed for Mers el-Kebir and later to Scapa Flow, where she arrived on November 20, 1943.

 20 mm Oerlikon gun. Visualization 3D Andrzej Sobucki


Richelieu operated with the Home Fleet since November 1943 until December 1945. In January 1944 she took part in operations near the cost of Norway. Later, it was redeployed to the British Eastern Fleet to relieve British battleships which were in urgent need of overhaul. She arrived at Trincomalee, Ceylon on April 10, 1944. Her first action was an assault against Japanese troops on Sabang on April 19. In May, she operated against Surabaya and in June took part in Operation “Pedal”. In the second half of July she attacked Sabang again and took part in Operation “Crimson” (attack against Sumatra), returning to Trincomalee on July 27, 1944. She was relieved by the battleship Howe, which allowed her to return to European waters on September 7, 1944. On October 1, 1944 Richelieu called at Toulon to take on new crew members and later sailed for Casablanca. In January 1945 she underwent a short overhaul and on its completion she headed for Ceylon. There, on May 15, 1945 she joined HMS Queen Elizabeth as a part of the Third Battle Squadron of the British Eastern Fleet. Along with British warships she bombarded Japanese positions on Sabang and those at Nicobar Islands and in Port Blair. She also took in the search for the Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro, but the cruiser was sunk by destroyers, before the battleship could join the action. After refit at Durban in July and August, Richelieu sailed for Trincomalee, where her underwater hull was painted in a new floating drydock.
During Operation “Zipper” the battleship was slightly damaged. It started on September 5, 1945, when she left Trincomalee and headed for the Straits of Malacca. In the morning of September 10, before she entered the straits, she was joined by the battleship HMS Nelson. Both warships went on and soon, approximately 17 metres from Richelieu’s starboard a magnetic mine exploded. Damage sustained by the ship was slight and the ship was able to continue the operation. Finally, both ships reached Singapore on September 11, where on the following day the British accepted the Japanese unconditional surrender of the base. On the same day the French battleship headed for Trincomalee where she entered a dry dock in order to examine the underwater hull. The procedure confirmed that she was still operational, so Richelieu continued operations in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea until half December 1945. Only on December 29, 1945 she left Indochina and headed for Singapore, Trincomalee and the Suez Canal, arriving at Toulon on February 11, 1946. She later sailed to Cherbourg for an overhaul and repairs. She continued her operational career after the war’s end. Richelieu remained the flagship of the Marine Nationale until 1950. Her career ended on August 25, 1968 when the battleship was towed to Cantieri Navali Santa Maria scrap yard in Genoa.

William H. Garzke Jr, Robert O. Dulin. Jr. “British, Soviet, French and Dutch Battleships of Worl War II”. United States Naval Institute. Annapolis, Maryland 1980.

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