French Firepower Forward: The unrealized potential of the Dunkerque and Richelieu Class Battleships

Richelieu in the 1950s

This is the second in a series of five articles on the battleships built under the provision of the Washington and London Naval Treaty limitations in the 1930s. I am not including the ships which were completed in the immediate aftermath of the Washington Treaty limitations. This series looks at the modern battleships that the World War II combatants would produce in the 1930s which saw service in the war. Part one covered the Italian Vittorio Veneto class entitled The Pride of the Regina Marina: The Vittorio Veneto Class Battleships. This article covers the French Dunkerque class and Richelieu class Battleships. Part Three will deal with the British King George V Class and Part Four the American North Carolina and South Dakota Classes. I have already published the final part which covers the German Scharnhorst Class entitled Power and Beauty the Battle Cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau . The German Bismarck, Japanese Yamato, British Vanguard and American Iowa Classes will be covered in a subsequent series.

Dunkerque 1937

In the late 1920s the French Navy having concentrated on cruiser construction following the war realized the need to develop a class of Fast Battleships to counter the German Deutschland class Pocket Battleships but was limited by the Washington Treaty to just 70,000 tons which meant that in order to have a number of battleships that they would have to be smaller but still mount a significant armament. The new class of ship which the French termed a Fast Battleship was more like a battle cruiser being less heavily armed or armored than current battleships and less so than the new classes of ships being developed by other navies in the mid-1930s.  The Dunkerque class had a designed displacement of 26,500 tons and a top speed of 31 knots the ships mounted 8 13” guns in two quadruple turrets both mounted forward. This allowed all guns to fire forward during engagements to present the smallest possible silhouette to the enemy.  They employed all or nothing armor protection ensuring the strongest protection over vital spaces with their armor designed to protect the ships against German 11” gunfire from the Pocket Battleships or the Scharnhorst Class Battlecruisers. They also mounted a powerful dual purpose armament recognizing the need for defense against aircraft as well as surface ships.

Dunkerque Class:


Dunkerque was laid down on 24 December 1932, launched on 2 October 1935 and commissioned on 1 May 1937. Her sister Strasbourg followed and was laid down in 1934 and launched on 12 December 1936 and commissioned in 1939. When war was declared the two ships spent their time operating with the Royal Navy searching for German raiders and to escort convoys.

Strasbourg

When the Germans overran France in June 1940 the ships took refuge at Mers-el-Kibir where with other French Fleet units they were the target of the Royal Navy to keep them from being taken over by the Germans on 3 July 1940. Dunkerque was heavily damaged in the attack and sank with the loss of 210 sailors after being hit by 4 15” shells from the Battlecruiser HMS Hood and Battleships HMS Resolution and HMS Valiant a testament to their light armor protection.  Strasbourg escaped to Toulon with 5 destroyers where she joined the bulk of the French Fleet in the so called “Free Zone” of Vichy France. She was joined by Dunkerque following the completion of temporary repairs in February 1942.

Dunkerque entered drydock for permanent repairs and was there when the Germans occupied Vichy. Under threat of capture the Fleet was scuttled. Dunkerque was destroyed in drydock and declared a total loss. Both the Germans and Italians attempted scrapping operations and the wreck was further damaged by Allied bomber attacks.

The Hulk of the Dunkerque in1944

What was left of the hulk was refloated and finally scrapped in 1958. Strasbourg was scuttled but refloated by the Italian Navy in July 1943 and after the Italian surrender taken over by the Germans. Sunk again in an American air attack in August 1944 she was refloated and used as a test bed for underwater explosions until she was condemned.  She was sold for scrapping in 1955.

Richelieu Class


The Richelieu class was derived from the Dunkerque class in response to the Italian Vittorio Veneto Class.  With a standard displacement of 35,000 tons and a full load displacement of 48,950 tons the ships were the largest build for the French Navy until the commissioning of the Nuclear Aircraft Carrier Charles DeGaulle.  The ships shared the layout of the Dunkerque Class with their main battery of 8 15” guns mounted in quadruple turrets forward which like the Dunkerque’s allowed them to present the smallest silhouette possible to an opposing ship while being able to employ their entire main battery.   Their speed, protection and design were state of the art and comparable to their contemporaries in other navies.  They were capable of 32 knots at full speed and had a cruising range of 7671 miles at 20 knots.  The main battery was spaced far enough apart to ensure that a single hit could not put both turrets out of action and each turret was internally subdivided to prevent a single hit from knocking out all four guns. The mounted 9 6” dual purpose guns in three triple turrets aft and 24 4” AA guns in 12 twin-mounts located amidships.  During the war Richelieu was repaired and refitted in the US receiving 56 40mm Bofors AA guns in quadruple mounts and 48 20mm Oerlikon AA guns in place of her original 37mm cannons and 13.2 inch machine guns.

Richelieu arrives in New York in 1943

Richelieu was laid down in October 1935, launched in January 1939 and began sea trials in January 1940. When the Germans broke through the French defenses and threatened Brest Richelieu put to sea to French North Africa and was commissioned in June at Dakar. She was damaged by an aerial torpedo launched by a Swordfish Torpedo bomber from the HMS Hermes and received emergency repairs in Dakar. On 24 September she fought an engagement against the Royal Navy at the Battle of Dakar and was damaged by two 15” shells fired by the HMS Barham and was further damaged by a misfire in one of her turrets. Following the French return to the Allied camp she was sailed to New York for major repairs and modernization from January to November of 1943. Following this she operated with the British Home Fleet until March of 1944 when she was sent to the India Ocean to serve with the British Far East Fleet in operations against the Japanese until the end of the war. Following the war she took part in the initial stages of the campaign in French Indochina. She was placed in reserve in 1956 and struck from the Navy list and scrapped in 1968.

The Damaged Jean Bart at Casablanca

Her sister Jean Bart was laid down in December 1936 and launched on 6 March 1940.  Only 75% complete with untested engines and only one of her main battery turrets and no secondary armament installed Jean Bart put to sea to escape the German advance and sailed to Casablanca.  The navy attempted to ship her second main battery turret on a freighter but that ship was sunk by a U-boat enroute to Casablanca. She was at Casablanca when the Allies invaded North Africa and was attacked by the U.S. Navy when the Vichy government refused to surrender on 8 November 1942.  She was engaged by the Battleship USS Massachusetts and aircraft from the carrier USS Ranger and was damaged by several bombs and shells from the 16” guns of Massachusetts. She engaged Massachusetts with her one working turret but scored no hits. On the 10th she opened fire on the USS Augusta and was attacked again by aircraft from the Ranger which damaged her so that she had to be run aground to prevent her from sinking.  She remained in Dakar for the duration of the war as it was not feasible to sail her to the United States for completion. Following the war it was suggested that she be converted to an aircraft carrier but that was rejected and she was completed as a battleship and commissioned in 1949.  She took part in the Suez crisis of 1956, was decommissioned in 1957 and finally sold for struck in 1969 and sold for scrap in 1970.

Jean Bart in the 1950s

Both the Dunkerque and Richelieu class were ships of unrealized potential due to the French surrender and the deep divisions between the Vichy and Free French governments.  Had circumstances been different they might have played an important role in the Battle of the Atlantic or in the Mediterranean during the war. Once wonders how they might have done in open combat with their Italian contemporaries or even the German Bismarck and Tirpitz. Instead they and their brave crews had to battle the Axis powers as well as former allies in circumstances in which all the cards were against them. One of Richelieu’s 15” guns is mounted on the waterfront at Brest as a memorial to these brave ships and the men that sailed them.

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15 Comments

Filed under History, Navy Ships, world war two in europe

15 responses to “French Firepower Forward: The unrealized potential of the Dunkerque and Richelieu Class Battleships

  1. John Erickson

    One very small criticism, Padre. The fact that Dunkerque sank after 4 15″ hits was not a sign of weakness. She had been designed with the 11″ guns of the pocket battleships and the Scharnhorst/Gneisenau duo in mind. Although light, their armour would have been sufficient for a ranged duel with any of the German 11″ ships. Dunkerque and Strasbourg were never meant to face 15″ armed opponents – and Dunkerque, like many of our battleships at Pearl Harbor, was caught in an unprepared state (not as thoroughly unprepared as some of our BBs with cold boilers and open hatches!) and had little room to maneuver to avoid fire. Dunkerque suffered from the same failing as the British BCs did at Jutland – fighting ships they were never meant to. Other than this little niggle, this is an excellent article, and an outstanding description of (in my opinion) 4 beautiful and innovative ships. Tres magnifique!

    • padresteve

      John
      I realize that they were only designed to take the 11″ hits. Although they were not designed to fight battleships as were all the battle cruisers save the Germans built those ships hoping that they would not have to fight battleships capitalizing on speed. The German battle cruisers dating to the First World War were much more robust and had the ability to take a punch as well as give it. The British and French did not learn that lesson as you point out so aptly. The French in the Dunkerque’s did thier best to stay within treaty limits and that hurt the defensive capabilities of these ships. I think that the designers of battlecruisers showed a certain amount of hubris in not planning for the real possibility that they could face fast battleships. As always you have great comments.
      Blessings my friend
      Steve+

    • John Erickson

      Actually, Padre, the French were one of the few to not only learn a lesson, but fix it quickly. Strasbourg carried heavier armour than her sister Dunkerque, specifically to counter guns heavier than the German 11″. (Not MUCH heavier – the opponent in mind were the rebuilt Italian WW1 BBs whose 12″ guns had been bored out to 12.6″.) A great debate has always circled around the WW1 British and German BCs. The Germans used 11″ guns, and put weight saved into armour. The British used 12″ guns, and chose lighter armour to compensate (using Sir Jackie Fisher’s motto “Speed is armour”). Thus, at Jutland, the weaker German guns fired at weaker British armour, and the stronger British guns fired at heavier German armour. The big problem was British gunpowder handling – German ships took turret hits which simply knocked out a gun or both guns in the turret, while British ships took turret hits that “flashed” into the magazines and blew their BCs to pieces! Hence the great historical quote: “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships!” (Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty)

      • Piet

        Exactly right ,in fact it was not till late 1917 that the royal navy rectifified the cordite problem-the low quality cordite produced by the Brits (Hms Vanguard actualy blew up at anchor at Scapa Flow with not 1 German Ship in Sight or out of port!) this contaminated cordite and the fact that most of the battlecruisers where still obsessed with Nelsonian rapid fire so shipped far too many charges -left ALL flashdoors open (even sometimes removing the doors completely!)and stacking a trail of unstable cordite all the way too the magazines!Actualy the armor aparantly stood up very well on a few splinters being found inside the belt!But of course this evidence was kept quiet for many years as Beaty became chief of Grand fleet and Jelicoe first lord and it didnt look too good that the ships where lost due mainly to the ships men themselves,so the official Royal Navy story ran that the ships-Their ARMOR was at fault Not the sailors cordite ammunition handling etc.

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  6. Rowhider

    I found some weeks ago an interview of a the Richelieu main gunner who served after WWII. He explained that the Richelieu was the only one Battleship in the world capable to reload the full main battery whatever its position and the angulation of the guns. So the reload time was about 5 times smaller than for equivalent allied battleships. In equivalent allied BS, main guns needed to be put in neutral position and angulation: it was a incredible lost of time.
    When the Richelieu came to USA for repair and AA improvement, US ingineers came everydays to look how was designed this very complex reloading system.
    So definitively, the Richelieu class was the best incarnation of what you could do within the authorized limits. This ship has been far to much underrated, maybe for some political reasons…

  7. Chris Eidsmoe

    Cool post. My dad took some pictures of the Richelieu in Dakar when he was there sometime during WWII, I still have them. By the way, his name is Eidsmoe also, like the pilot Padre wrote about.

  8. Lee Bargough

    Were the quad turrets as prone to failure mechanically as the King George V class? Rowhider’s is the first assessment I have read at all about the turrets.

  9. altandmain

    It would be interesting to compare a 3×3 design vs the 2 front quad turrets. In theory, you would have a 270 degree arc around for the guns and if a target was to the rear, angle at 45 degrees and fire.

    I have been told that one of the big weaknesses are that:

    1. Although the turrets are spaced to prevent a hit from taking out the turret, another weak point may be that the gears are easier to jam.

    2. The other is that there is a larger hole in the hull. The problem is that these large barbettes can reduce the width of the side protection. The only real solution might be to move the guns further back, but that in turn means that you have a smaller superstructure and the firing arcs might not be as good towards the bow. Perhaps these restrictions are why 4 twin configurations are more common on cruisers.

    Hmmm 3×3 vs a 2 quad-design – interesting.

    I”d love to hear your thoughts on the optimal turret configuration.

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