The year is 1940, and the French army in Europe is quickly losing ground to the German army’s relentless mechanized advance on Paris. By June, the writing was on the wall and the government was forced to begin drafting the terms of France’s surrender. The French fleet at this time was one of the largest and most modern in the world, so if this asset were to fall into German hands, it could turn out to be a massive thorn in the side of the Allied powers. With this consequence in mind, the Commander-in-chief of the French Navy, Admiral François Darlan, made a promise to Winston Churchill; he would not allow his fleet, which he had played a large role in modernizing and building up in previous years, to be captured in the event of surrender.
Darlan’s naval shipbuilding program had mirrored in many ways the approach applied by most military powers in the 1930s, mostly focusing on responding to the warships conceived by Germany and Italy with designs to thwart them, such as the ‘pocket battleships’ or the Vittorio Veneto-class battleships, respectively.
The Richelieu-class was one such French response. This new battleship would take many of the design features from the older and smaller Dunkerque-class, the most notable of which was the concentration of all main batteries on the bow (inspired by British concepts of the 1920s and 30s like the HMS Nelson). These batteries were configured into two quadruple 380 mm gun turrets, as had become the staple for French battleship designs. Having more guns in less turrets meant less heavy armor was required to protect the guns, which meant less weight and the possibility of greater speed.
Less turrets unfortunately also meant a higher likelihood of all the ship’s artillery being taken out with fewer hits, so the French engineers carefully planned for this. Plenty of space was placed between the two turrets, moving the ship’s superstructure towards the stern as a result and internally compartmentalizing each turret to minimize the spread of damage. The bulk of the secondary armament was placed aft, with three triple 152 mm gun turrets arranged in a delta shape. The achievement of high speed without concessions in armor or armament was precisely the goal and, indeed, with a top speed approaching 32 knots, the Richelieu-class was one of the fastest battleships ever constructed, just behind the Iowa-class.
Fight or flight
Jean Bart – named after the famous 17th century French privateer – was the second Battleship of the Richelieu-class to be constructed. Laid down in late 1936 in Saint-Nazaire; by the time of the French surrender in mid-June 1940 it was barely three-quarters completed, with only one of its two main battery turrets operational. Under these circumstances, Jean Bart, along with its sister ship Richelieu and a large portion of the Marine Nationale, were ordered to leave France and take refuge in the country’s African colonies. As the ships were underway, an armistice was signed under which the French state would be allowed to continue semi-independently as a client state of Germany in the South of France (with its capital in Vichy), as long as it remained neutral in the war.
Though some ships would defect to the Allied-aligned Free French Navy operating chiefly out of Britain, Jean Bart and most French warships would come under the command of the Vichy state and were focused on defending its neutrality in the colonies, far from prying hands. However, both the Germans and British were distrustful of the French and their loyalties; François Darlan, himself an official in the new Vichy government, felt great aversion towards Britain, especially after the Royal Navy attacked his fleet at Mers-el-Kébir in July 1940.
Jean Bart arrived at Casablanca (Morocco) on June 22 and was moored defensively in the harbor. Many of its heavier anti-aircraft guns were demounted and used to fortify the city, and the resources needed to finish its construction weren’t readily available nearby. Nearly a year would pass before navigational instruments and fire control equipment could be shipped to Casablanca for fitting.
Jean Bart, though still not officially even commissioned into the Navy on account of its incomplete state, would engage in the most notable engagement of its career in November 1942. The Allied command, along with Free French Forces, had been planning Operation Torch: an invasion of North Africa. Though American diplomats had been negotiating with French leaders in North Africa, their allegiance hadn’t been secured and their potential response to an Allied occupation was yet unknown.
As the invading fleet approached Casablanca in the early morning, coastal defense batteries opened fire on the landing forces and the American escort ships responded in kind. The French defenders counted on a small fleet of nine destroyers, one light cruiser, and eleven submarines moored beside Jean Bart, in addition to the support from three coastal battery positions. The ships and submarines that weren’t damaged or destroyed by US Navy artillery fire carried out several sorties from the harbor in an attempt to dissuade the invaders with torpedoes and small caliber gunfire, but to little avail.
Jean Bart, still sitting in the harbor, began making itself heard and fired off several shots from its only functioning turret. The guns of USS Massachusetts then turned to challenge the new threat as dive bombers from USS Ranger began making sorties on the ship. The aerial bombs lightly damaged Jean Bart, but Massachusetts managed to score several hits, the first of which exploded inside the inactive turret’s magazine, thankfully devoid of any explosives. A well-placed 406 mm shell then knocked out the rotation of the only functioning turret, silencing it temporarily.
The rotating mechanism was quickly repaired, and two days later Jean Bart’s guns awoke once again, continuing to fire on the Allied escort fleet and nearly hitting cruiser USS Augusta. Ensign Richard Belt, aboard Augusta recorded in his memoirs:
This prompted a severe response from USS Ranger’s dive-bombers, which scored two hits (forward and aft), causing Jean Bart to founder in the shallow harbor. The following day, after the conclusion of intense negotiations, François Darlan, in his role as highest-ranking French officer in North Africa, made a deal with the Allied command to switch sides and join their cause. This effectively ended the battle of Casablanca. Richard Belt noted:
After the war
Jean Bart was then raised from the bottom of the harbor and made seaworthy again to join the fight against the Axis. It was first proposed that it be sent to the United States to be refitted to enable it to play an active role in the war like its sister ship Richelieu, but complications due to the differing specifications between American and French shipbuilding delayed any action.
Jean Bart would remain in Casablanca for the remainder of the war. After returning to France, the French admiralty wasn’t sure what to do with it, or whether it was worth completing at all. It was finally decided to keep it as a battleship, adding an abundant anti-air complement to adapt it to the new post-war aircraft-heavy naval doctrine. Jean Bart was finally commissioned in 1949, the last battleship to enter service into the French Navy, as Aircraft Carriers began overshadowing battleships in the role of capital ships. Throughout the rest of its career until its scrapping in 1970, Jean Bart participated in only one combat mission of note, when in 1956 the French fleet joined Israel and Great Britain in successfully putting pressure on the Egyptian government during the Second Arab-Israeli War.