Like other mainland European powers in the post-World War 2 world, France faced a long road in reestablishing its once-dominant military presence. This led to a period of vast development and construction for its various armed services including the Navy. In 1953, a new cruiser warship, with an anti-aircraft role in mind, was ordered by the French government. Its keel was laid down during December of 1953 at the shipyards of Brest. The vessel, carrying the name of Colbert (C611) after Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), was put to sea on march 24th, 1956 and formally commissioned on May 5th, 1959.
Anti-aircraft warships rose to considerable prominence during World War 2 (1939-1945) when surface ships laden with rapid-firing cannon proved utterly useful as both fleet- and area-defense protectors. With missile technology still in its relative infancy, it fell to air defense warships to supply the needed screening against incoming aerial threats. Colbert was one such type of warship and immediately set about to providing the rebuilding French Navy with a powerful floating air denial battery.
As built, she was crewed by 562 men and could carry an additional 2,400 if pressed. The warship displaced 11,000 tons (long) under load and held an overall length of 592 feet with a beam measuring 66.7 feet and a draught down to 25.10 feet. Armament was 16 x 127mm AA guns (8 x twin-gunned mountings) along with 20 x 57mm Mod 51 AA guns (10 x twin-gunned mountings). Over stern was a single helicopter helipad - a new quality now being built into French warships of the period. Onboard provision allowed the warship to serve as fleet flagship and a command vessel.
Power was from 2 x CEM-Parsons geared steam turbines developing 86,000 horsepower to 2 x shafts. This propelled the vessel to speeds of 31 knots out to ranges of 4,000 nautical miles. The engines were arranged in two separate compartments, each assigned its own boiler unit and a geared turbine set. A watertight bulkhead divided these two compartments and improve the capability of the warship to operate on one engine should the other be knocked out by enemy fire.
The Colbert's profile included a bridge superstructure set well-forward in the design with high-reaching masts installed just aft. At midships were the smoke funnels and aft of this was another mast and a stepped superstructure, leading to the flattened section of helideck. One helicopter could be supported from this pad.
Colbert entered service with the French fleet in 1959 and, from a 1964 reorganization, was made part of the Mediterranean squadron out of Toulon. The advancing nature of enemy aircraft of the period, particularly Soviet bombers (as well as anti-ship missiles) made her all-gun armament obsolete. This led to extra work conducted on her in the early 1970s to convert her to a dedicated guided missile cruiser.
The modernization effort led her armament suite to showcase 4 x MM-38 Exocet anti-ship missiles, 1 x "Masurca" Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) system, 2 x 100mm AA guns, 12 x 57mm Mod 51 AA guns and 2 x 12.7mm AA machine guns. Her active crew complement was reduced to 560 personnel and her bridge superstructure rebuilt. Improved radar systems were installed and a 6,705 electric generator added to deal with the increased power requirements. Her control room was also updated for the new technologically-advanced battlefield.
From 1976, Colbert served as flagship of the Mediterranean squadron and a second major refit to her was had from 1981 to 1982 - the goal of keeping the ship viable into the 1990s. Changes to her design during this phase included installation of SATCOM supporting equipment and increased range capability of the Masruca missile system. The missiles evolved from beam-riding weapons to semi-active radar homing types. Engagement of the radar system was up to 60 kilometers and the missiles could reach up to 73,800 feet of altitude.
Her participation in the coalition effort of the 1991 Gulf War marked the end of her service tenure. However, she never fired a shot in the whole of the conflict and is remembered for never having fired a shot in her entire sea-going career.
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