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FS Richelieu


France | 1940

"The French battleship Richelieu was noted for her unusual forecastle armament consisting of a pair of large-caliber quadruple-gunned primary turrets."

Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited: 11/09/2018 | Content ©www.MilitaryFactory.com | The following text is exclusive to this site; No A.I. was used in the generation of this content.
In 1935, the keel was laid down for what would become the newest and largest battleship-class ever to be constructed by France. The class was named "Richelieu" after a French clergyman, nobleman and statesman of the 17th Century. Richelieu became the lead ship of the class and was followed by the Jean Bart. Two others - though never completed - were to be known as the Clemenceau and the Gascogne. By 1932, French authorities understood that they would have to work to counter the strongest threat to Mediterranean Sea operations - the Italian Navy, now under the power of strongman dictator Benito Mussolini. The Richelieu battleship class was part of the French answer to the threat and served - more or less - as the figurative "shot over the bow" against the Italian Navy in the region.

Up to this point, French ship designers and builders maintained a respected tradition of producing top-of-the-line warships for over two centuries. The Richelieu was a design built for speed with good armor protection and sound technology to better the ships of the Italian Navy and even make the Germans take notice. However, as a signer of the Washington Naval Treaty following World War 1, France was required to build her new ships within certain predetermined and agreed upon limits. As such, the battleship resided within a tonnage restriction though her choice of main guns were of 15" (380mm) caliber - then the largest and heaviest available when the vessel was designed in 1932. The one design feature that could be seen as "questionable" for its time was that all of the 15" guns were mounted forward within two large traversing turrets, each turret fitting four guns. This design choice was made to reduce the total armor tonnage across just two large turrets - as opposed to a typical design setup containing three or four turrets. To reduce the possible damage to the quad turret arrangement from a single direct hit, an armored divider was built between the right and left gun pairings. The four guns did not operate individually as on other contemporary vessels but as pairs so, if struck and put out of action, only half of the 15" inch gun armament on either turret would be immobilized. The French Navy felt the Richelieu would be firing all 15" guns while approaching enemy shipping, this in effect presenting the smallest silhouette possible, allowing the Richelieu full use of all of her powerful armament available. Secondary armament came in the form of standard 6" guns. All nine gun emplacements were mounted aft in the design across 3x3 traversable turrets.

The French battle plan concept concerning their new battleship countered the classic naval "Crossing the T" strategy in which ships fought to position themselves to fire a full broadside against oncoming enemy ships. If approaching the enemy, technically only any forward-facing guns within range could be called upon to fire. For typical battleships of this time, that meant that only half of the available heavy armament could be called to bear. However, had also shown its fair share of "running" battles in which capital ships needed to fire substantial armament against pursuing enemy ships as well. As such, the Richelieu design would, essentially, have a "big gun" disadvantage - able to only muster her 6" spread against an enemy's own large-caliber weapons.

Like other contemporary capital ships of the time, the Richelieu was equipped with an aircraft deck with and integrated aircraft hangar structure. This allowed the carrying of several floatplane aircraft for reconnaissance use and artillery spotting sorties. Aircraft were launched by way of two catapults and could send aloft up to four seaplanes from the Richelieu's stern section.

The Richelieu had not still not been commissioned but was however deemed seaworthy for additional trials by mid-April of 1940. World War 2 was underway, paved by multiple German conquests across Poland, Holland and Belgium and the Germans officially invaded neighboring France on May 10th, 1940 - a concerted effort being made to press the army hard towards the French coast to counter the French Navy response. Richelieu was at sea undergoing gunnery practice and speed trials from May to the middle of June when she returned to the western port city of Brest for needed repairs, scheduled crew changes and to take on more journey stores. As the German Army advanced, the French Government became very concerned that their prized battleship would be captured in port so, on June 18th, the decision was made to send some of the French fleet (including the Richelieu) from the home port at Brest and make for the French province port at Dakar, West Africa. Richelieu had to leave most of her expected stores behind, some still sitting on the awaiting docks. She also left with only 250 x 15" shells aboard and, worse, with only 48 powder bag charges for her 15" main battery; In short, she was not ready for a fight.

Richelieu arrived at Dakar on June 23rd, the day after France capitulated. French authorities were force to sign the surrender with Germany and, to even the bitterness left from the armistice ending World War 1 decades prior, Adolf Hitler demanded the same passenger rail car the Germans signed their surrender to the Triple Entente be used.

Richelieu and her screen of two destroyers found the politics in Dakar not favorable due to the uncertainly of the French government's surrender and, thusly, left with her screen in tow, steaming towards Casablanca on the 25th. The Richelieu's captain also feared that his vessel could also bottled up while in port or - perhaps worse for a Frenchman - seized by a British naval squadron that was shadowing her movements. Regardless, the Richelieu exit was short-lived for she returned to Dakar on the 28th.

The armistice signed between France and Germany forced Britain to conclude that the French Navy would be taken over by Germany and even rumored to fight for the Axis powered - making her an obvious and serious threat. The Allies of the time consisted of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth forces as well as "Free French" forces - the United States had yet to enter the war. So, on July 2nd, the British launched Operation Catapult to seize French ships anywhere in British waters with orders to sink or intern French capital ships at the ports of Mers el-Kebir and Alexandria in Africa.

On the nights of July 7th and 8th, the HMS Hermes sent in a special forces team to place mines under Richelieu and sink her. However, when triggered, these mines failed to explode. The British then launched Swordfish torpedo biplane bombers from the deck of the HMS Hermes who then proceeded to torpedo Richelieu below her waterline and armored deck. It was estimated that one of the torpedoes hit the unexploded mines and caused a 40-foot long gash aft, below the water line, which disabled the starboard propeller shaft. Flooding then caused her stern to sink to the bottom of the bay. The half-sunk battleship was pumped out in a number of days and made seaworthy once more in case she would be needed to escape or defend Dakar harbor from further attack. While in port, she was commission on July 15th, 1940 by the Vichy French Government authority, the puppet regime set in place by Nazi Germany to manage their French holdings.

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The Allies decided to take the port of Dakar, first trying a negotiation conducted by General Charles de Gaulle leader of the Free French Forces based out of England. If that failed then the vessel would be taken by force. Several Free French aircraft were launched from the HMS Ark Royal and landed at the Dakar airfield. However these pilots were taken prisoner and had their planes confiscated. The negotiation was not successful and the French Vichy collaborators went on to fight for the Nazis against the Free French and Allied forces - a stain of blood on whatever honor France still held. The three-day Battle of Dakar began on September 23th.The Allied forces consisted of 2 battleships - the HMS Resolution and HMS Barham, 1 aircraft carrier - the HMS Ark Royal, 5 cruisers, 10 destroyers and 8,000 invasion troops. The Axis Vichy French forces were comprised of 1 battleship - the Richelieu, 2 cruisers, 4 destroyers, 3 submarines and coastal gun emplacements.

The Allied fleet first bombarded the coastal defenses while the Vichy forces returned fire against the Allied fleet. Richelieu was hit by two 15" shells from the battleship HMS Barham, putting one of her 15" cannons out of service. On Richelieu, this proved to be her first day of firing her main guns in anger and this was against the British ships. Results proved disappointing when guns Seven and Eight failed in turret Number 2 when firing their first shells respectively. The cause proved to be the use of incorrect propellant charges which caused the 380mm shell to stick in the barrel and the resulting gas to "blow back" into the turret, damaging the breech mechanism as a result. It was then decided to use a smaller amount of propellant charge but this only served to significantly reduce the range and accuracy of the 15" shells - not a strong beginning for the pride of the French fleet.

In two days, Richelieu fired only a total of 24 rounds and did not score any hits on Allied ships. All of her gunnery crews were not onboard for the action, assigned instead to the shore batteries and it was here that the French found some success in scoring hits against Allied ships. The running battle forces the Allies to withdraw and lose capture of the port. There was great concern given to Frenchmen killing Frenchmen. Repairs on the damage Richelieu were underway in the port of Dakar and additional anti-aircraft mounts were added from the damaged French destroyer Audacieux and other vessels. She remained only partially seaworthy by this time and could only make 14 knots due to the damage received following the actions at Mers el-Kebir where she lost her forth propeller. By April of 1941, she was patrolling the African coast and received her first radar installation as well as three Loire seaplanes. She remained in African waters until November 1942 when the Allies officially invaded North Africa. The Allied success in the campaign saw some of the remaining Vichy forces join their Free French brothers for the Allied cause for the duration of the war. The Richelieu eventually fell into Allied hands.

The Richelieu was formally inspected by Allied naval engineers and found to be unfit for duty. The decision was to refit her at the Brooklyn Naval yard in New York, USA. Before she could sail under the Brooklyn Bridge, her highest antenna had to be removed. Knowing replacement of the 15" barrels was required, the Free French removed four barrels from her sister ship - the Jean Bart. In dry dock, her forth propeller and shaft were replaced, now allowing her to make 30.2 knots. The aircraft hangar and cranes were removed to make room for additional anti-aircraft batteries. Also removed were the 13.2mm heavy machine guns and the 37mm anti-aircraft cannon mounts. Replacing them were 48x20mm anti-aircraft guns in single mountings. Her rather simplistic radar was replaced by the latest air and surface radar. Her rear mast was shortened, allowing her to sail under the Brooklyn Bridge and two new and improved range finders were mounted on her foremast. The additional guns and superstructure changes resulted in her surface displacement increasing by 3,000 tons but, by this time, the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty were a thing of the past. Richelieu performed so poorly as a gunnery platform that her new shells and power charges were now being shipped in from the United States.

On October 14th, 1943 Richelieu sailed from the Brooklyn navy yard to the British naval base at Scapa Flow. She remained with the British Home Fleet until March of 1944 and aided operations off of the Norwegian coast. Soon afterwards she was transferred to the British Eastern Fleet and used for replacement when other battleships were in dry dock undergoing repairs. She was then involved in a number of operations with the British Fleet in the Far East against the Japanese Empire. In April of 1944 she was sent to Ceylon, joining Task Force 65 for "Operation Cockpit" - a bombing raid by two Allied naval forces on April 19th against a Japanese port and oil facilities on Sabang Island off of Sumatra. In May of 1944, the Task Force (including Richelieu) moved on with "Operation Transom" - a bombing raid against Japanese naval and air targets on and around Surabaya, Java by American and British planes to be conducted on May 17th, 1944. Looking for targets in the area, the force attacked Pedal in June and on to Sabang and Sumatra in "Operation Crimson" in mid July of 1944.

In September Richelieu was ordered to Casablanca for a major six-month refit. Now resupplied and rearmed, she was reassigned to the British East Indies Fleet at the Allied base at Trincomalee, arriving there on March 20th, 1945. She was assigned to Task Force 63 in April just in time for bombardment operations of Sabang and the Nicobar Islands until early May. With her shells and powder almost exhausted she needed another refit, this time at Durban until August. On her way back to her base at Trincomalee, the Japanese had officially surrendered to the Allied powers, thusly formally ending combat actions in World War 2. In September of 1945, Richelieu remained under British command and supported the re-occupation of British Malaya. On her way back, she struck a magnetic mine causing her to need minor repair. However, she was able to represent France at the Japanese Surrender in Tokyo Harbor during the "Show of Force" and official surrender signing.

After the surrender, France ordered Richelieu to escort a French troop convoy to Indochina to re-establish French colonial rule. She remained in Indochina (Viet Nam) waters to support French troops and bombard shore targets during the French Indochina War. Needing resupply, she sailed for France in February of 1946 and was sent to show the flag in port calls at Portugal and Britain, serving as the Presidential ship taking Charles de Gaulle to Africa. She returned to French waters on January 30th, 1956, for the only time in her career and maneuvered with her sister ship Jean Bart for the day. Soon after, she was used as a training ship for upcoming French Naval candidates then as an accommodation ship until, finally, she was put into reserve in 1958. She remained in that status until January of 1968 and was redesignated as "Q432" before finally being scrapped in Genoa in September of 1968. Currently, the only remaining part of the largest battleship built in France is one of her mighty 15" guns held at Brest harbor.

Richelieu served both the Axis and Allied forces during World War 2 yet did not sink a single enemy ship. As a much-feared battleship design, she was more or less a failure concerning her primary purpose.

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Power & Performance
Those special qualities that separate one sea-going vessel design from another. Performance specifications presented assume optimal operating conditions for FS Richelieu.
4 x Parsons geared turbines delivering 150,000 horsepower.
30.0 kts
34.5 mph
Surface Speed
8,499 nm
9,781 miles | 15,741 km
The bow-to-stern, port-to-starboard physical qualities of FS Richelieu.
813.0 ft
247.80 meters
O/A Length
115.0 ft
35.05 meters
32.0 ft
9.75 meters
Available supported armament and special-mission equipment featured in the design of FS Richelieu.
PRIOR TO 1943:
8 x 380mm/45 Modele 1935 main guns in two quadruple mountings on the forecastle.
9 x 152 (6-inch) cannons in three triple turret mountings.
12 x 100mm (3.9-inch) anti-aircraft cannons in six double turret mountings.
16 x 37mm anti-aircraft cannons
8 x 13.2mm Hotchkiss anti-aircraft machine guns

POST 1943:
8 x 380mm/45 Modele 1935 main guns in two quadruple mountings on the forecastle.
9 x 152 (6-inch) cannons in three triple turret mountings.
12 x 100mm (3.9-inch) anti-aircraft cannons in six double turret mountings.
56 x 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft cannons
48 x 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft cannons
Air Arm
Available supported fixed-wing / rotary-wing aircraft featured in the design of FS Richelieu.
3 OR 4 x Loire 130 OR Arado Ar 196 floatplane aircraft.
Ships-in-Class (1)
Notable series variants as part of the FS Richelieu family line as relating to the Richelieu-class group.
Richelieu; Jean Bart, Clemenceau (not completed); Gascogne (not laid down)
Global operator(s) of the FS Richelieu. Nations are displayed by flag, each linked to their respective national naval warfare listing.
National flag of France

[ Free French; France; Vichy French ]
1 / 2
Image of the FS Richelieu
High angled portside bow view of the French battleship Richelieu; note main gun batteries concentrated per turret
2 / 2
Image of the FS Richelieu
The French battleship Richelieu arriving in New York for repairs

Mission Roles
Some designs are single-minded in their approach while others offer a more versatile solution to seaborne requirements.
Some designs stand the test of time while others are doomed to never advance beyond the drawing board; let history be their judge.
Going Further...
FS Richelieu Battleship appears in the following collections:
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