The Battleship Richelieu

Visualization 3D Andrzej Sobucki and Piotr Forkasiewicz

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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