Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, April 15, 2015: Big Jean
Here we see the Richelieu-class battleship of the French Republic’s Marine Nationale Jean Bart racing forward on speed trials in 1949. Her distinctive all-forward main battery of eight 15-inch guns in twin quad turrets is very apparent.
France rather tried to distance themselves from the modern dreadnought game after the end of World War I, figuring that with the destruction of the Austrian battleships in the Med, and the Kaiser’s battleships at Scapa Flow in 1920; all was well in the world. Then came Hitler and his rebuilding of the German Navy to include the Deutschland class pocket battleships while Mussolini came to power in Italy and the new fascist government there building their very modern 40,000-ton Littorio-class battleships. As an answer to the first, the Republic ordered two 25,000-ton Dunkerque-class battleships in the early 1930s and as an answer to the latter (as well as the pair of German 38,000-ton Scharnhorst-class battleships laid down in 1935), the French ordered a quartet of massive new warships– the Richelieu‘s.
With a standard displacement of 35,000-tons to comply with the Washington and London Naval treaties (although this would balloon to nearly 50,000 when fully loaded), these 813-foot long beasts were among the largest battleships ever built and remain the largest French warships ever to put to sea. Even today, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (R91), the flagship of the French Navy and largest European warship afloat, only maxes out at 42,000-tons.
Unlike many battlewagons before them, these were fast battleships, capable of breaking 30-knots if needed due to a quartet of Parsons geared turbines that generated more than 150,000 shp. With long legs, these ships were capable of a 10,000-mile cruise at 16-knots, enabling them to travel to far off Pacific territories such as Indochina if needed (more on this later).
Designed to be able to take German 28 cm/54.5 (11 inch) SK C/34 fire as well as that from Italian 381 mm (15.0 in) L/50 guns, these leviathans were girded in as much as 17-inches of armor plate and mounted eight 15-inch 380mm/45 Modèle 1935 guns, the largest caliber naval gun ever fielded in French service. They could fire a 1950-pound diving shell to a range of 45,600 yds. The secondary armament of 9x152mm guns in three triple turrets over the stern could handle light work.
Laid down at Chantiers de Penhoët, Saint-Nazaire on 12 December 1936, the second ship of the Richelieu-class was named Jean Bart after a notorious
pirate privateer and naval commander.
This Flemish swashbuckler from Dunkirk, who spelled his name “Jan Baert,” was much man, at over 6 ft. 8” and topping some 400-pounds. This size didn’t stop big Jan/Jean, who cut his teeth in the Dutch Navy, from capturing an amazing 386 ships as a privateer during the late 17th Century and rising to the rank of full Admiral in the French Navy. A rather incorrect svelte statue stands to him in Dunkirk today and no less than 27 ships of the French Navy have carried his moniker, including their last completed battleship.
When World War II came, class leader, Richelieu was nearing completion at Brest while Jean Bart was still a bit further away. Only 75 percent complete and mounting just half of her big guns, she took to the sea on June 19, 1940, as Metropolitan France was surrendering to the Germans, and made a break for the French North African port of Casablanca.
The third and fourth members of the class, Clemenceau, and Gascogne were not far enough along in their construction to even be considered ships (and were never completed).
Jean sat at Casablanca during the awkward Vichy French years, spending the next 29 months of the war languishing as there were no construction facilities to complete her and most of her smaller caliber guns were landed ashore to set up coast defense and AAA batteries in the city and harbor.
Then, on Nov 8, 1942, the Allied Torch landings occurred and Jean Bart defended her colonial harbor from dockside from the 16-inch guns of the new SoDak-class battleship USS Massachusetts (BB-59) and the Dauntless dive bombers and Avenger torpedo planes of the carrier USS Ranger (CV-4) over the next three days she fired 25 shells from her one operational 15-inch turret which narrowly missed the Mass and the cruiser Augusta.
Nevertheless, with the Bart stationary, incomplete and by far outnumbered, the battle was a foregone conclusion. At least seven 16-inch shells (fired from Massachusetts from a range of over 24,000 yards) and several bombs hit her, sinking in with her decks awash.
It was the only time that U.S. and French battleships fought in the steel era and she gave a good account of herself for all of her handicaps.
She spent the rest of the war as a hulk in Casablanca and her four 380 mm guns were salvaged and sent to New York where they were emplaced on Richelieu who had gone over to the Free French Navy and was being refitted there.
That sistership put Bart’s guns to good use in both the European and Pacific Theaters of operation as well as in French Indochina.
Finally, four months after Hitler ate a bullet, big Jean was sent back to France and work began to complete her at Cherbourg.
Commissioned on 16 January 1949, she made 32-knots on her speed trials and was finally ready for sea duty– and for the first time was fully armed.
1948 off St. Nazaire, France
In the early 1950s, she sailed on many goodwill trips around Europe and to New York but was never fully manned; only carrying half-crews due to postwar funding shortfalls. She was more of a heavily armed and armored cruise ship and flag-waver than an active ship of the line.
In the Suez Crisis of 1956, she sailed with the joint Anglo-French fleet with an augmented near-full sized crew and provided some brief naval gunfire support, firing her big 15-inchers in anger once more, losing just four shells at the Egyptian defenses.
As a sad note, on the afternoon of 30 January 1956, she was briefly reunited with her old classmate Richelieu while at sea, the one and only time the two French ships maneuvered together underway.
Placed in reserve in 1957 after just an eight-year career, she was decommissioned soon afterward. Cantieri Navali Santa Maria of Genoa scrapped Richelieu in September 1968 while Jean Bart, the last European battleship afloat, was scrapped 24 June 1970 at Brégaillon near Toulon.
Today, at least six of Richelieu/Jean Bart‘s guns are maintained as museum pieces around France. However, you can visit the USS Massachusetts, the winner of the Great Casablanca Battlewagon Duel, at Falls River where she has been on display since 1965.
Displacement: 35,000 tons standard as designed, 48,950 t at full load, in 1949
Length: 813 feet
Beam: 114 feet
Draught: 33 feet
Propulsion: four Parsons geared turbines, six Indret boilers. 150,000 hp (112 MW)
Speed: 32 knots at trials, 20 design
Range: 9800 nautical miles at 16 knots, 7671 nautical miles at 20 knots; 3181 nautical miles at 30 knots
Complement: 1620 designed, 911 men in 1950 (incomplete), 1,280 men during the Suez affair
8 × 380mm (15 inch)/45 Modèle 1935 guns in quadruple mounts at bow
9 × 152 mm (6 inch) secondary (3 × 3 mounted aft)
12 × 100 mm (3.9 inch) Anti-Aircraft guns (6 × 2)
As completed 1949
8 × 380mm/45 Modèle 1935 guns in quadruple mounts at bow
9 × 152 mm AA in 3 triple turrets at the aft till 1952–53
8 × 40 mm AA
20 × 20 mm AA
Two 15-inch turrets fitted, only one operational
24 × 100 mm in 12 twin mountings CAD Model 1945
28 × 57 mm in 14 twin mountings ACAD Model 1950
Armor: Belt: 330 mm
Upper armored deck: 150–170 mm
Lower armored deck: 40 mm
Aircraft: Designed for four seaplanes, never fitted.
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