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Warship Wednesday (on a Thursday) Jan 2, 2020: One Tough Russian

Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 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 (on a Thursday) Jan 2, 2020: One Tough Russian

Here we see, under what looks like an albatross circling, the gently listing Petropavlovsk-class battleship Sevastopol of the Imperial Russian Navy in early December 1904. The olive drab warship is terrain masking as best she could in besieged Port Arthur to avoid the Japanese Army’s 11-inch howitzer shells which had sent all the rest of the Tsar’s Pacific battlewagons to the bottom. She would enter 1905 as the sole combat-ready Russian battleship still afloat on that side of the globe– only to fight her last on 2 January, some 115 years ago today.

At 11,500-tons (standard), the trio of Petropavlovsk were essentially improved versions of the previous one-off Sissoi Veliky and Tri Sviatitelia-class battleships.

Russian Petropavlovsk-class battleship Poltava fitting out in Kronstadt, 1900 

Packing four 12″/40 (30.5 cm) Pattern 1895 Obukhov guns in a pair of twin hydraulic turrets forward and aft, which had a two-minute firing cycle between rounds, they also carried a secondary armament of eight 6″/45cal guns in four twin mounts (rather than casemates as commonly seen around the world).

Imperial Russian battleships Poltava and Sevastopol in Kronshtadt, 1899 under construction–note the turrets being constructed

Imperial Russian battleship Sevastopol in Kronshtadt, September 1900

Topping the cake was something on the order of 40 37mm and 47mm anti-torpedo boat guns and a half-dozen torpedo tubes. Armor was an impressive mix that ran up to 16-inches thick. Speed, just 15.3 knots on 16 coal-fired boilers and a pair of VTE engines, was typical of the era.

Russian battleships Poltava and Sevastopol in Kronshtadt, September 1900. Note the myriad of 37mm and 47mm light guns slathered throughout the ship from fighting tops to decks

Petropavlovsk and her sister, Sevastopol, were laid down at the Galerny Island Shipyard in St. Petersburg while the third ship of the class, Poltava, was laid down at the city’s Admiralty Yard at the tail-end of the 19th Century. All were named after famous Russian battles, with our featured ship honoring the epic 11-month Siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War.

Commissioned 15 July 1900 after a second set of builder’s trials– during which she made 16.41 knots– Sevastopol was dispatched to join the rest of her class in the Pacific where the Russians were hedging in on Korea and Manchuria, much to the heartburn of the Japanese Empire.

From 1900 to the beginning of 1904 the Petropavlovsk-class vessels carried a Far East scheme that included white sides, turrets, deckhouses, masts, and fans with black-capped yellow stacks and gilded bow and stern decorations. This would later switch during the Russo-Japanese War to an all-over dark olive-green and black.

Sevastopol photographed at Algiers in 1901 while en route to the Russian base at Port Arthur where she was scuttled in 1905. Courtesy of J. Meister, Zurich Switzerland, 1975 NH 81876

Battleships Sevastopol and Petropavlovsk (in the background) in Vladivostok, August 1901

Russian battleships Sevastopol, Poltava, and Petropavlovsk in Port Arthur, 1903

The Balloon Goes Up

When Port Arthur was attacked by the Japanese in the opening act of the war on the night of 8/9 February 1904, the Russians had their fleet in three lines anchored in the outer harbor.

The innermost line included Sevastopol and her sisters Petropavlovsk (fleet flagship) and Poltava along with the two similar 15,000-ton Peresvet-class battleships Peresvet and Pobieda. The middle line included the new battleships Tsarevich and Retvizan as well as several cruisers. In all, seven Russian battlewagons swaying at anchor in a “peacetime” Pacific port. (Similarly, at Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. had seven along Battleship Row as well as the dreadnought Pennsylvania in dry dock.)

Within 20 minutes, three flotillas of Japanese destroyers swept in, delivered their fish, and slipped out to sea, suffering no casualties. The middle line took the worst of it with both Retvizan and Tsarevich taking torpedoes and having to run aground to prevent a total loss.

Japanese Ukiyo-E woodblock art depiction, “Illustration of Our Torpedo Hitting Russian Ship at Great Naval Battle of Port Arthur” by Kobayashi Kiyochika, 1904

Japanese Ukiyo-E woodblock art depiction by Toshihide Migita of the torpedo ship attack, Port Arthur

Nonetheless, the undamaged Russian ships stood to the next morning and engaged Japanese Adm. Togo’s squadron in a 40-minute battle that was a tactical draw in the respect that it left the status quo with the Russians in Port Arthur and the Japanese in control of the water outside the range of the base’s coastal guns.

Print shows Japanese battleships bombarding Russian battleships in the surprise initial naval assault on the Russian fleet at Lüshun (Port Arthur) 1904

During the said engagement, Sevastopol fired 10 12-inch and 65 6-inch shells at the Japanese with no reported hits, taking three small hits in return which caused little damage.

Sevastopol. This photograph might possibly have been taken at Port Arthur on the Yellow Sea during the early stages of the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, after the opening engagement but before she got her olive drab paint. Courtesy of J. Meister, Zurich Switzerland, 1975 NH 81875

Togo next decided to try and bottle up the Russian fleet in Port Arthur by sinking old merchant ships, manned by volunteer IJN crews, in the approach channel. Said one-way volunteers would be plucked from their doomed ships by accompanying torpedo boats.

The first attempt, with four blockships– Bushu Maru, Buyo Maru, Hokoku Maru, and Jinsen Maru-– took place on the night of 24/25 February and but was unsuccessful after the grounded battleship Retvizan caught the lead ship in her searchlights and plastered it.

Second attempt to block Port Arthur, 27 March 1904 William Lionel Wylie RMG PV0976

The second attempt was in the early morning of 27 March and, like the first, involved four blockships: the Chiyo Maru, Fukui Maru, Yahiko Maru, and Yoneyama Maru. The whole thing fell apart when Fukui Maru was spotted and promptly sunk by the patrolling Russian destroyer Silnyii well short of the outer harbor and the other three condemned steamers scuttled too far out to fill their intended role.

Blockade of Port Arthur by Hannosuke Kuroki 1904

A third attempt was made a few weeks later using a doubled force of eight blockships– but this was also unsuccessful and cost the lives of more than 70 of the volunteers who rode them to the bottom.

It was roughly at this point that Sevastopol’s skipper, Capt. Nikolai Chernyshev, was relieved by the newly-installed squadron commander, Russian Vice Adm. Stephan Makarov, after the battleship had a collision with Peresvet that was ruled Chernyshev’s fault during a rushed inquiry. The career officer was sent back to St. Petersburg on one of the last trains out of the fortress and would be found dead in his apartment the same week the Treaty of Portsmouth formally ended the Russo-Japanese War, aged 48.

Relieving Chernyshev was the commander of the fast cruiser Novik, Capt. Nicholas von Essen, from an esteemed Baltic German family with a long history of service to the Tsar. Although the crack up between the two battleships left one of Sevastopol’s rudders and screws damaged, an ersatz repair was able to semi-fix the warship enough to consider her still fit for service.

Makarov, who was seen by the Russians as essentially their equivalent of Chester Nimitz, led the patched up Russian squadron on a patrol out of Port Arthur on 13 April, with his flag on Petropavlovsk and Sevastopol just to her stern.

However, Petropavlovsk stumbled across as many as three unmarked Russian mines (!) and sank in about a minute with the loss of 646 lives, to include the good admiral and Russian combat artist Vasily Vereshchagin.

A Japanese Ukiyo-E depiction by artist Yasuda Hampō of the sinking of Petropavlovsk. The original caption reads: “Picture of the Eighth Attack on Port Arthur. The Flagship of Russia Was Destroyed by the Torpedo of Our Navy and Admiral Makaroff [sic] Drowned.” Photo via Museum of Fine Art, Boston

“The Russian battleship Petropvavlask sinks as Adm. Makarov stands bravely on deck”

“Faith, Tsar, and Fatherland 1905 Forgotten War” by Pavel Viktorovich Ryzhenko showing Russian military artist Vasili Verestchagin aboard battleship Petropavlovsk with Admiral Makarov just before it sank. I love the sailors in the background.

Among the 89 survivors from Petropavlask plucked from the water was Lt. Grand Duke Kirill (Cyril) Vladimirovich, the Tsar’s first cousin and the man who would go on to be the pretender to the Romanov throne in exile from 1924 until his death in 1938, a position his granddaughter continues to style today. Kirill would suffer from burns, back injuries, and PTSD for the rest of his life.

Sevastopol, along with the rest of the squadron, was able to return to port after the loss of her sister.

Under newly promoted and deeply fatalistic Rear Adm. Wilgelm Vitgeft (aka Withief), the fleet at Port Arthur was ordered to sortie from the doomed base to the relative safety of Vladivostok to the North, fighting their way through Togo if they had to.

Sailing out on 10 June with six battleships, seven cruisers, and six destroyers, they made it some 20 miles outside of the port before the clashed– briefly– with Togo’s slightly smaller force (four battleships and 12 cruisers) and turned tail.

On re-entering the port, Sevastopol was hit by another unmarked mine and suffered 11 wounded.

Russian naval mines of the 1904 era were not that much more advanced than the black powder Jacobi mines of the Crimean War, a design that predated Farragut’s damnation in the Civil War. Nonetheless, they worked. The Russo-Japanese war experience led the Russkis to develop the M08 mine shortly after, one that is still used extensively today.

Russian naval mines on the beach on the east coast of Heishakow, Port Arthur 1905. In addition to Japanese mines, the loss or the Russian minelayer Yenisei, struck one of her own devices two days after the war began while laying an unmarked minefield, would haunt the Russian fleet. NH 94783

Japanese sailors inspect captured Russian sea mines during the Russo-Japanese War. The IJN lost the battleships Hatsuse and Yashima, the cruisers Miyako, Saien and Takasago; auxiliary cruiser Otagawa Maru, the destroyers Akatsuki and Hayatori, blockship Aikoku Maru, the torpedo boat No. 48, gunboat Heien, transport Maiko Maru, and corvette Kaimon to mines during the conflict. Photo via USNI photo archive

Left with a 12×14-foot hole in her hull and a 5-degree list, Sevastopol went to the port’s naval yard once again for repairs. It was during this period that a few of her 6-inch and most of her light guns (37mm Maxims and 47mm Hotchkiss) were removed to be installed ashore, manned by her gunners. One of her 12-inch guns was cannibalized to repair a similar one that had been damaged on Poltava.

Six-inch naval gun in a Russian hillside battery commander seated at left Port Arthur, LC-DIG-ppmsca-07978

The Beginning of the End

The hourglass was upended on Port Arthur on 1 August when the fortress city was cut off from the rest of Asia on land by the Japanese Army. With no more trains or supply columns, fresh troops or stock coming, and the port blockaded by the Japanese fleet applied against a single point, Port Arthur was withering on the vine for the next 154 days as the world watched.

Sevastopol was ready for action again by the end of July and fell in with the squadron once more for Vitgeft’s second attempt to break out on 10 August. The flag officer, in a meeting with his commanders before the sortie, reportedly told the assembled as they departed, “Gentlemen, we will meet again in the next world.”

Proving himself correct, the mission saw the unlucky admiral killed on the bridge of his battleship Tsarevich and most of the force– except for the battered Tsarevich herself which made for neutral Chinese shelter along with a trio of German-made destroyers— returned to Port Arthur a final time. In that lengthy (10 hours) running fight, known today as the Battle in the Yellow Sea, Sevastopol fired 78 12-inch and 323 6-inch shells and was hit twice by Japanese shells in return, causing 61 casualties.

With the likelihood of breakout evaporating, the fleet then turned to provide extra hands for the shrinking siege lines in the hills to fight off Gen. Baron Nogi Maresuke’s entire Third Japanese Army. Mobilizing nearly half of her crew to serve ashore in an ersatz infantry company, Sevastopol’s bluejackets were given rifles and cartridge belts and sent packing.

Imperial Russian battleship Sevastopol in Port-Arthur, 1904, with her crew sending off a scratch naval battalion armed with Mosin M91 rifles. Note, she now has an olive drab scheme. 

Still, Sevastopol, by then a battered and half-manned floating war engine, shuttled around the harbor and provided direct gunfire support in late August, during which she exchanged fire with the Japanese armored cruisers Nissin and Kasuga. Once again, she struck a mine, which put her in repair until October.

It was while she was the Navy Yard that the Japanese had begun to bombard the base and its defenses with over a dozen Armstrong-designed 11-inch (280mm) L/10 howitzers which had been pulled from the coastal defenses of Tokyo Bay and manhandled to the fortress. Each of the behemoths fired 478-pound AP shells to a range of nearly 5-miles.

Enormous 11-inch shell from Japanese siege gun, beginning its deadly flight into Port Arthur LC-USZ62-67825

Drydock in Port Arthur Navy Yard showing cruiser Bayan, left and Sevastopol, right, under fire from Japanese 11-inch howitzers, likely in October. Courtesy of Mrs. John B. McDonald, September 15, 1966. NH 111897

Hit by five such shells while in repair, Sevastopol’s deck was reinforced with a layer of sandbags and slag under a cover of an inch of plate steel. Such up-armored, the battered Russian was able to clock back in and provide counter-battery fire throughout November.

However, once the Japanese on 3 December seized control of the strategic key to Port Arthur, 203 Meter Hill, which commanded the harbor itself, and with a gunfire support team atop the crest directing fire, it was game over for the Russian fleet.

Destroying Russian ships and town terrific rain of great Japanese shells in Port Arthur, LC-DIG-ppmsca-07969

On 5 December, Sevastopol’s remaining sistership Poltava was hit by plunging howitzer shells and suffered a magazine explosion, sinking her to the mud of Port Arthur.

The Russian pre-dreadnought battleship Poltava sunk at Port Arthur as a result of bombardment by Japanese land-based artillery during the siege of Port Arthur (December 1904). She would later be salvaged and put into service with the Japanese then repatriated to Russia in 1915 and be finally scrapped in the Baltic in the 1920s. 

The next day, Retvizan was pounded to the bottom.

Port Arthur, 1905 Russian battleship Retvizan sunk by Japanese 11-inch howitzers shallow water

On 7 December, Peresvet and Pobeda went.

Russian Peresvet Class Pre-Dreadnought Battleship IRN Pobeda under intense Japanese artillery fire at Port Arthur on December 6th, 1904.

On 8 December, the cruiser Pallada was destroyed.

Destroying a fleet — battleship Pallada struck by a 500 lb. Japanese shell — Port Arthur harbor via LOC LC-USZ62-68822

On the 9th, the cruiser Bayan joined the butcher’s list. The minelayer Amur and gunboat Bobr followed.

Port Arthur from the top of Gold Hill in 1905. From the left wrecks of battleships Peresvet, Poltava, Retvizan, Pobeda and the cruiser Pallada

The Final Act

After the first week or so of December, Sevastopol and a retinue of small ships were all that was left of the once-mighty Russian Pacific force in Port Arthur. Though missing some of her armament and still suffering damage from two mines, a collision, five 11-inch hits and a dozen from smaller 8- and 6-inch naval guns, she was still the only combat-effective Russian capital ship available.

Therefore, Essen, with his ground-fighting sailors repatriated back from the frozen trenches to their floating steel home, fought the last naval battle for Port Arthur from 10 December onward, with the big howitzers firing another 300 rounds indirectly at the theorized location of the Russian ship in a real-life game of Battleship without success, forcing the Japanese navy to tap back into the fight.

A fleet in being, although trapped, the Sevastopol and her escorts pinned down the bulk of the Japanese fleet for the rest of the year.

As described in Richard Connaughton’s Rising Sun and Tumbling Bear: Russia’s War with Japan:

Von Essen, formerly captain of the Novik, placed Sevastopol in the roadstead at the southern end of Tiger’s Tail behind a hill that shielded her from 203 Meter Hill. She was protected by an anti-torpedo boom and a small, hurrying, anxious destroyer flotilla. Wave after wave of Japanese destroyers sped in to release no fewer than 124 torpedoes in six successive attacks against the luckless target. For three weeks, Essen survived…

Sevastopol repulsing a night attack. Painting by A.V. Ganzena

In the series of attacks, the Russian force sank at least two Japanese torpedo boats, No. 53 and No. 42, and damaged as many as 13 other vessels. Meanwhile, the protected cruiser Takasago was sent to the bottom on 13 December when she struck a mine while shepherding the small attack craft, with a loss of 273 of her crew.

Japanese Torpedo boats returning to base after night attack

It was downright embarrassing to Togo that, even after the Army had dismantled the Russian squadron piecemeal, his force still could not shut the lid on its coffin.

Finally, it was all for naught as Gen. Baron Anatoly Stessel (Stoessel), the Russian commander at Port Arthur, moved to surrender his force on New Year’s Day 1905, without consulting his shocked staff. Apparently, while in a tactically bad position, the besieged base could have held out much longer in theory.

From W. Bruce Lincoln’s, In War’s Dark Shadow:

When they entered Port Arthur, the Japanese expected to find a handful of desperate defenders short of weapons, ammunition, and food. Not counting doctors, nurses and noncombatants, they found 13,485 able-bodied men, another 5,809 suffering from scurvy or minor wounds, and 13,856 who were in the hospital or on light duty because of wounds or serious illness. There were over 600 pieces of artillery still in good order, over 200,000 shells still unfired, and about 2.5 million rounds of machine gun and rifle ammunition. There were tons of food and fodder: flour for 27 days, groats for another 23 days, beans and lentils for 34 days, and dried vegetables for 88 days. There were nearly 200 days’ worth of salt and tea. Most amazing of all, perhaps, there was 2,944 horses in the fortress, enough to supply the garrison with fresh meat for many days to come in view of the large quantities of fodder remaining. With their sense of honor that drove them to fight to the death for their Emperor, the Japanese were dumbfounded.

Of note, Stessel was later court marshaled and sentenced to death by a Russian military tribunal, although his sentence was eventually commuted.

Just before the Nogi’s forces moved into Port Arthur on 2 January, the last of the Russian fleet in the harbor pulled a Toulon 1942 and scuttled. These included the Puilki-class destroyers Storozhevoi, Silni, and Razyashchi; the Delfin-class destroyers Bditelni and Boevoi; the gunboats Djigit, Guidamak, Guidamak and Razboinik; and the battered but not broken Sevastopol.

Von Essen, with a crew of 50, moved the ship to the deepest water available to him, 30 fathoms, and opened her seacocks after passing the word to dog closed only the portside watertight doors. This caused the ship to keel over starboard and sink by the stern in about 15 minutes. Notably, while the Japanese were able to raise and ultimately repair all the Russian battleships sunk at Port Arthur (apart from the shattered Petropavlovsk) Sevastopol was declared a loss and not salvaged.

In all, some 507 of Sevastopol’s crew and 31 of her officers, to include Von Essen, were captured by the Japanese, bringing their ship’s battle flag with them.

Russian sailors from the wrecked battleships – surrendered prisoners of war in Port Arthur. LC-USZ62-11832

Stossel and Makarov over Nogi and Togo on the cover of The Sphere, 115 years ago this month. Makarov was, of course, already long dead when this was published while Stossel would live under a commuted death sentence until 1915. As for Nogi, grieving for the loss of more than 14,000 of his men on the costly Port Arthur campaign– including his eldest son– he would commit ritual suicide in 1912 upon the death of the Emperor. Notably, Nogi after the war spent most of his personal wealth on the construction of memorials to both the Russian and Japanese soldiers of the 1904 campaign. Togo, Japan’s most decorated naval officer of all time, died of throat cancer in 1934, aged 86, and is still seen as “The Nelson of the Pacific.”

Essen would go on to be appointed commander of the Baltic Sea fleet during the first part of WWI before he died of pneumonia and today a frigate in the modern Russian Navy carries his name.

The Sevastopol’s Port Arthur St. Andrew’s flag remains in the Russian Navy’s collection to this day, housed in the building of the Naval Cadet Corps.

Via Ocean-Magazine.ru

The name Sevastopol went on to be used both on a Gangut-class battleship that served in both WWI and WWII before going on to be scrapped in 1956 as well as for a Kresta-class cruiser during the Cold War.

Our circa-1904 battlewagon is remembered in maritime art as well.

Battleship Sevastopol by Nikolay Konstantinovich Artseulov

Finally, Combrig released an excellent 1:700 scale model of Sevastopol, #70102.


Line drawing via Combrig

Displacement: 11,842 long tons
Length: 376 ft
Beam: 70 ft
Draught: 28 ft 3 in
Machinery: 16 cylindrical boilers, 9368 ihp, 2 shafts, 2 triple-expansion steam engines
Speed: 16 knots
Range: 3,750 nm
Complement: 27 officers and 625 sailors as designed
Armor, nickel-steel Harvey type:
Waterline belt: 10–16 in
Gun turrets: 10 in
Secondary turrets: 5 in
Conning tower: 9 in
Deck: 2–3 in
2 × twin 12″/40 (305 mm) guns
12 (4 × twins, 4 × single) 6″/45cal (152 mm) guns
12 × single 47mm Hotchkiss guns
28 × single 37mm Maxim guns
4 × 15-inch torpedo tubes, broadside
2 × 18-inch torpedo tubes, below the waterline
50 mines

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Warship Wednesday, March 28, 2018: Le sabordage!

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, March 28, 2018: Le sabordage!


Here we see the French Suffren-class croiseur lourd (heavy cruiser) Colbert in the 1930s when she was among the fastest and most impressive warships of the Republic. She was to have a sad future, but in the end, went out with a bang.

Following the lessons learned from the Great War, where France’s two most significant naval threats– Kaiser Willy’s High Seas Fleet and old Emperor Franz Joseph’s k.u.k. Kriegsmarine— both evaporated at the end of the conflict, the French embarked on a cautious plan to build modern warships in the 1920s, with an eye to keeping overseas colonies in Africa and the Pacific intact from possible encroachment by former WWI allies Italy and Japan. The first major French warships built post-Versailles were the trio of Duguay-Trouin-class light cruisers (9,200-tons, 8×6.1-inch guns, 30 knots) followed by two Duquesne-class heavy cruisers (12,200-ton fl, though “10,000” officially to meet treaty requirements, 8×8-inch guns, 33 kts). Then came the four-pack of Suffren-class cruisers.


Ordered in 1926, these were very modern ships for their time. Like the preceding Duquesne-class, they were large (636-feet oa, roughly the same length as battleships of the day and almost 90 feet longer than the Bretagne-class battleships that were France’s largest at the time), fast ships capable of delivering a bit of brutal damage from their eight 203 mm/50 (8″) Model 1924 guns in four twin turrets.

The ships of the class–Suffren, Colbert, Foch, and Dupleix— were all ordered from the naval shipyard at Brest, one year apart between 1926-29 and each was very slightly different from each other. For instance, the first two were completed with eight Guyot du Temple boilers (six oil- and two coal-fired), while the second two just used an easier all-oil plant. Likewise, Suffren was commissioned with a battery of 75mm M1927 secondary guns while all three follow-on ships received 90mm M1926s. There were several other, minor, differences– basically meaning they were more half-sisters than whole.

The Suffren class underway in the Med, 1938

Our ship, Colbert, was named after King Louis XIV’s celebrated 17th Century minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who among other accomplishments, was secretary of the Navy for 15 years. As such, she was the fifth such French naval vessel to carry the name.

Laid down at Brest June 12, 1927, on her trials she proved to be the fastest of her class. On her trio of Rateau-Bretagne geared steam turbines ran up at the maximum power of 105,722 hp allowed her to hit 33.012 kts, which wasn’t bad as the class was designed for just 32.

Aerial view of Colbert, date unknown; seen in US Navy Department Division of Naval Intelligence publication ONI203, Via ww2dbase. Note the two seaplanes.

She was commissioned March 4, 1931, and just a month later was used to carry President Doumergue to Tunisia while still in her shakedown period. It was the first of several diplomatic missions for the shiny new cruiser which included state visits along with her sister ships Foch and Suffren and others to Barcelona in 1933.

French Warships visiting Barcelona, Spain 1933. Photographed by Lucien Roisin, Barcelona. The French ships, tied up together in the middle distance, are (from left to right): four heavy cruisers (Foch, Colbert, Tourville, and Suffren), a Chacal-class destroyer and five 1500-tonne type destroyers. The vessels in the foreground are pleasure craft, including a yacht at right. The title at the bottom center refers to Montjuich hill and castle, seen in the distance, beyond the French ships. The original print came from the Office of Naval Intelligence. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Catalog #: NH 95293

On 10 October 1934, Colbert, along with the cruiser Duquesne, escorted the proud British-built Royal Yugoslav Navy destroyer Dubrovnik from France back across the Med, bringing back the remains of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia, who had been famously assassinated in Marseilles, to that Balkan country.

Between 1936 and 1939, Colbert spent much of her time off the coast of Spain, patrolling that war-torn country during its Civil War.

When the Allies entered WWII in September 1939, Colbert was in Toulon and immediately put to sea to perform surveillance on the sea lanes between metropolitan France and its North African colonies in conjunction with the new cruiser Algeria and her sister Foch.

French cruiser Colbert, date unknown; seen in US Navy Department Division of Naval Intelligence publication ONI203 ww2dbase

By January 1940, Colbert had been dispatched to the key French West African port of Dakar to be on the lookout for German surface raiders, a task she carried out through April. Returning to the Med, she was at Toulon when the Italians entered the war and, on that day, June 10, her gunners fired at some of Il Duce’s bombers that sortied over the French base. As a bit of payback, she was ordered to sea and bombarded the Italian harbor at Genoa on 13 June– her first shots in anger.

Then came the unthinkable.

On Saturday, 22 June, the French signed an armistice with the Germans, near Compiegne, in the same railway car that had been the scene of Foch’s victory in 1918. Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain, the celebrated World War I hero of Verdun, became prime minister of the so-called Vichy government of France, co-opted by Fleet Adm. François Darlan. France was out of the war and officially neither a direct ally of either side, though under German influence.

Sister Suffren, stationed in Alexandria, Egypt, with other French warships, was immediately disarmed and interned there by the British. Then came the horror that was the British bombardment of the French fleet in North Africa at Mers-el-Kébir on 3 July.

This event triggered Colbert, Foch, and Dupleix, along with the mighty battleship Strasbourg and the cruiser Algeria, to be formed into the 1st Squadron of the Forces de Haute mer (FHM= High Seas Forces) at Toulon under Vice Adm. Jean de Laborde, the successor of the wartime Force de Raid.

Laborde, center, who would become the fleet’s hatchetman

However, this squadron was largely a farce as the Germans ordered it disarmed– their breechblocks, shells, and powder landed ashore– and the ships defueled. Even with that being said, the French were able to fit their experimental early Sadire radar to Strasbourg, Algeria, and Colbert in early 1942, a sign of how important they saw those three vessels.

Over the next 29 months, the French fleet, under effective house arrest, languished at anchor in a fate like that of Willy’s interned High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1918-1919, and with the same result in the end.

When the Allies launched the Torch Invasion of Morocco on 8 November 1942, Adm. Darlan, then in Casablanca, negotiated a deal with London to keep the French fleet and forces neutral while hinting at maybe a more active alliance, a deal he couldn’t pull off. This triggered the Germans to kick off Case Anton, the military occupation of Vichy France and Corsica, which was pulled off in a fortnight, largely bloodlessly.

I say “largely” bloodlessly because of Toulon. There, a 50,000-strong Vichy army corps stood outside of town and VADM. Laborde, from his flagship Strasbourg, was a wildcard. The Germans had let it be known they would ostensibly leave Toulon unoccupied and the fleet still in being, in hopes of staving off any efforts by the French to bug out for Algeria and make good on Darlan’s unfulfilled promises.

That stage of the operation to seize the fleet, codenamed “Unternehmen Lila” by the Germans, saw elements from the 7. Panzer-Division and SS-Panzergrenadier-Division Das Reich start filtering through the city’s outskirts around 0400 on 27 November. Laborde, his back against the wall without enough fuel to make it to North Africa or the guns to fight off the Germans, really did the only thing he could and at 0525 ordered the fleet to scuttle by signaling “et c’est à vous, marins, soldats, citoyens français que nous transmettons en mourant le Drapeau de la Liberte” (and it is to you, sailors, soldiers, French citizens that we transmit, in dying, the flag of freedom.)

Within minutes, 77 vessels– including 3 battleships, 7 cruisers, 15 destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, 6 avisos (sloops) and 20 submarines– were aflame or settled to the harbor docks, their crews busy wrecking everything they could. The French suffered about 40 casualties. The Germans, only one motorcycle rider wounded.

French fleet scuttles itself! Far left is battleship Strasbourg settling into the water; next to her, burning with giant flames, is our Colbert; under the smoke from her is, Algérie; to the right, Marseillaise. 1942 LOC

The photo above is of the ships to the far left in the diagram.

Internationally, the fleet’s action’s were seen as something of a redemption for going into the disarmament willingly in 1940 as opposed to joining the Free French overseas.

The gesture served as inspiration for the similarly disarmed Royal Danish Navy whose sailors, just nine months later, pulled the plug on their own ships when the Germans sought to take over their vessels. In that action, the Danes succeeded in the scuttling of 32 vessels, while 1 patrol boat, 3 minesweepers an 9 small cutters managed to escape to neutral Swedish waters.

Coastal defense ship Peder Skram of the Royal Danish Navy lies half-sunk at Holmen, scuttled by her crew to thwart a German attempt to seize the Danish fleet, 29th August 1943 

The Danes suffered about 20 casualties and members of the sea service were treated as POWs by the Germans for the rest of the war. Vizeadmiral Hans-Heinrich Wurmbach, commander of the German Kriegsmarine in Denmark and a Great War u-boat commander, told Vice Adm. A H Vedel, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Danish Navy, after that action as, “Wir haben beide unsere Pflicht getan” (We have both done our duty).

Back to our French hero.

Colbert’s’ crew did their job exceptionally well and she was thoroughly wrecked and continued to burn for days.

Le Strasbourg sabordé, derrière lui le croiseur Colbert est en feu

Le Colbert et l’Algérie (27 novembre 1942 – collection Mauro Trevenzoli)

Scuttled French heavy cruiser Colbert, Toulon, France, date unknown ww2dbase 

27 Novembre 1942 Toulon crew of a Panzer IV of 2nd SS Division, Das Reich, watch a burning French warship, cruiser Colbert via Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-027-1451-10 Vennemann, Wolfgang CC-BY-SA Libre de droits

Her sisters Foch and Dupleix were considered salvageable and were raised by the Italians to be repaired for further use by the Regina Marina, which the rapid conclusion of Italy’s involvement in the war in 1943 did not allow.


Dupleix, via Netmarine.net

Class leader Suffren, interned in Egypt, eventually returned to French service and survived the war. She was converted to a school ship in 1963 and remained in service to the Republic until she was scrapped in 1972.

In the end, Colbert was such a wreck that she was scrapped in place in 1948.

The fallout from the great sabotage at Toulon was short. Both the Allies and the Axis kinda considered it a decent outcome as neither had to worry about who controlled the French fleet. De Gaulle was pissed as he did not get the prestigious force and made sure Laborde paid for his “national unworthiness” (Indignité nationale) by putting him on public trial with a resulting death penalty after the war– although the sentence was commuted, and he was released from jail in 1947. In the end, he died in 1977, aged 98, outliving de Gaulle by almost a decade.

As for Darlan, he only outlasted the fleet at Toulon by a couple weeks. On Christmas Eve 1942, he was fatally shot by 20-year-old Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle, a young De Gaulle follower and would-be SOE agent, as payback for the admiral’s collaborations with the Germans. Like the loss of the fleet, both the Allies and the Axis kinda considered it a decent outcome and Chapelle was pardoned just after he was put in front of firing squad, saying he acted “in the interest of the liberation of France.”

As recalled after the war by Petain, erasing the bulk of the French Navy in 1942 was the right thing to do:

To answer the question asked about the scuttling of the fleet, in Toulon, November 27, 1942, it is important to go back. The Armistice left the fleet almost untouched but disarmed and put on guard. It remained our property. It was to avoid a violation of the terms of the armistice, both by the Germans and by the English, and to satisfy the commitment made to the latter at Cange, that, from Armistice and were never repealed, the instructions of scuttling. The aggression of Mers-el-Kebir, July 3, 1940, then allowed to obtain from the Axis powers the constitution of an “FHM.” The order of scuttling was maintained.

After the Anglo-Saxon forces landed in Africa, the Germans on 11 November 1942 invaded the free zone. My government succeeded then in raising around the fleet a final rampart by obtaining from the German high command that the defense of the entrenched camp of Toulon was left to the French navy. On the other hand, under the terms of the secret treaty which I had negotiated with Mr. Winston Churchill, it was stipulated that the fleet should scuttle itself rather than falling into the hands of the Germans or the Italians. When, on the 27th of November, a German armored division penetrated into the entrenched camp of Toulon, and sought to seize our fleet, Admiral de Laborde gave the order of scuttling, in accordance with the permanent instruction, to the engagement undertaken. vis-à-vis the English and the code of maritime justice. The French fleet had not fallen into the hands of the Axis powers.

Why did I not order the fleet on November 11 to reach Africa? The order, for technical reasons, was not executable, and the fleet would have been doomed to destruction; therefore, the departure would have brought the same consequences as the scuttling. In addition, this order would have been the signal for the resumption of hostilities against Germany and would have exposed disarmed France to terrible reprisals without any benefit for the Allied cause. Between two evils, the politician must choose the least. It seemed to me less serious that the fleet was scuttling, in accordance with the commitments, rather than send it to its ruin and unleash on France unprecedented violence, including the return to captivity of the 700,000 prisoners I had obtained the liberation, and the substitution to the French government of a “Gauleiter”.

So, I spared the worst and helped the common victory, preventing Germany from increasing its war potential by capturing our fleet. Nevertheless, I consider the inevitable sabotage as a sacrifice and a national mourning. ” Ref- Philippe Pétain, Acts, and Writings, Flammarion, 1974, pp. 582-583.

Petain died in 1951, aged 95, senile and in prison. He was buried in a Marine cemetery at Port-Joinville on the island of Ile-d’Yeu.

As for Colbert, her name was reissued in 1953 for a new anti-aircraft cruiser, C 611, an impressive ship only decommissioned in 1991. She was sent to the breakers in 2016 after a period as a museum ship.


Displacement: 10,000 tonnes (standard) 13,103 tonnes (full load)
Length: 194.2 m (637 ft)
Beam: 20 m (66 ft)
Draught: 7.3 m (24 ft)
Propulsion: 3-shaft Rateau-Bretagne SR geared turbines, 8 Guyot boilers, 100,000 shp (75,000 kW)
Speed: 32 knots (59 km/h; 37 mph)
Fuel: Oil 1700 tons, coal 640 tons
Range: 4600 at 15 knots
Sensors: Sadire radar added early 1942
Complement: 602
8 × 203mm/50 Modèle 1924 guns (4 × 2)
8 × 90 mm (3.5 in) 55-calibre M1926 anti-aircraft guns (8 × 1)
8 × 37 mm (1.5 in) M1925 anti-aircraft guns (4 × 2)
12 × 13.2 mm (0.52 in) AA (4 × 3), later augmented in 1940s by several 8mm machine guns
6 × 550 mm (22 in) torpedo tubes (2 × 3)
Belt 50 mm (2.0 in)
Deck 25 mm (0.98 in)
Turrets and conning tower 30 mm (1.2 in)
Aircraft carried: 3 early FBA.17 (designed) or later CAMS 37 flying boats, 2 catapults

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