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French Battleships, 1922-1956

Reviewed by Ed Calouro  

Most histories of World War II at sea rightly focus on the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and Germany. After all, these nations’ navies did the bulk of the fighting.  The French, Italian, and other fleets generally receive short shrift.  John Jordan and Robert Dumas have shifted the spotlight in their reissued French Battleships, 1922-1956. Originally published in 2009, the 2020 release is a high quality, superior stock paperback, the type readers expect from Seaforth Publishing. This is a first-rate history of the four modern fast capital ships of the Marine Nationale and is a superb presentation of the Dunkerque– and Richelieu-class battleships prior to, during, and after World War II.

Jordan and Dumas rightly devote most of their book to the Dunkerque, Strasbourg, Richelieu, and Jean Bart. Nevertheless, other warships and topics are examined, as are the proposed, but never completed French capital ship designs. 

The authors assert these French battleships represented influential and radical designs, and that the British, Germans, and Italians were desirous of these warships. They draw upon Dumas’ 1990s French monographs, and rely heavily upon primary sources in the French archives, especially the recently made available Fonds Potsdam. These were materials the Kriegsmarine confiscated during the Occupation and were not returned to France until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. 

The book opens with a preface and introductory pre-history of early twentieth-century French battleships. Even before the revolutionary all-big-gun HMS Dreadnought was completed in 1906, the French were “already well off the pace.” slow building times, because of the inferior state of their naval infrastructure, meant the French would never fully compete with the British and German navies, then the two largest in the world. Not only were the French Navy’s capital ships numerically and technologically inferior, but its dreadnoughts were smaller, slower, less powerfully armed and of obsolescent design. This did not bode well for future French capital ships. 

The Washington Naval Conference (1921-1922) is examined insofar as it impacted the French building capital ships in the interwar period. Because the Marine Nationale and the Regia Marina had not completed a capital ship since 1916, the French and Italians were permitted to construct capital ships up to 70,000 tons, starting in 1927, so long as their standard displacement did not exceed 35,000 tons.

There were several factors which influenced the designs of the new French capital ships.  Among them were the new Italian treaty cruisers Trento and Trieste, with a top speed of 35 knots. The French envisioned super cruisers, cruiser-killers, and battle cruisers to offset these potential adversaries. To save weight, these new proposed French warships had their main armament concentrated forward thereby reducing the size of the armored citadel. Since it was thought they would often be involved in a stern chase, having all of the main armament forward might be beneficial. In this, the French were influenced by the HMS Nelson-class (completed in 1927), which also had all its main guns forward of the superstructure.  The most important factor which led to the design of the Dunkerque class, however, was the laying down of the Panzerschiffe (armored ship, more popularly known as a pocket battleship) Deutschland in 1929. The Dunkerque-class was specifically built to counter the threat of these German commerce raiders, though they could also be used in the battle line as a fast division against the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean. 

The specifications for these new French battleships included a speed of approximately 30 knots, main armament consisting of eight 13-inch/52 caliber guns in two quadruple turrets forward, and armor sufficient to protect against the pocket battleships’ six 11-inch guns. These characteristics could only be attained on a displacement of at least 26,500 tons. The French were constrained by the size of their quays, dockyards, and graving docks. Few French shipyards could accommodate these over 700-foot-long ships. Laid down in 1932, Dunkerque was not completed until 1938. Her better armored and heavier sister, Strasbourg (27,300 tons), was laid down in 1934 and in service by 1939.

When Benito Mussolini announced in 1934 that the Italians would build two 35,000-ton battleships, the utility of the Dunkerques was questioned. To counter this new threat, the French designed the Richelieu-class.

The Richelieu and Jean Bart were, in essence, larger versions of the Dunkerque-class with their standard displacement of 37,250 tons. The increased size of the main and secondary armaments was the major difference. They mounted eight 15-inch guns forward in quadruple turrets, the largest guns ever mounted on a French battleship. The secondary battery consisted of nine 6-inch guns in triple mounts in the stern (versus 5.1-inch dual-purpose guns in the Dunkerques). The French DP guns were difficult to load at high angles and had a tendency to jam.

Jordan and Dumas are correct in noting that it is difficult to judge the qualities of these French capital ships since they had relatively short operational combat experiences. Nevertheless, it was captivating to read how the Richelieu and Jean Bart made their escapes from French ports in June 1940, just as German troops were approaching.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill was so concerned about the Germans possibly taking over these major units that he ordered Royal Navy warships to attack their former ally at Mers el-Kébir on 5 July 1940. Subsequently, during Operation Menace (23-25 September 1940), the British again attacked French naval forces, this time at Dakar, primarily to disable or destroy the Richelieu. The resultant torpedo and turret damage was temporarily repaired, and she sailed for the United States in February 1943.  She was refurbished at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and returned to service in August 1943. Richelieu served with the Royal Navy’s Far Eastern Fleet from 1943 to 1945.

The Jean Bart’s only noteworthy WWII combat took place at Casablanca, during Operation Torch in November 1942. With only her Turret I fully operational (the guns for Turret II were not even installed), the French battleship, a stationary target, moored to the dock, took on the newly commissioned battleship USS Massachusetts. In what noted historian Samuel Eliot Morison termed “an old-fashioned fire-away-Flannagan,” the American battlewagon temporarily silenced her opponent. The drawings of the damage to the Jean Bart are excellent. Having expended 60 percent of her major caliber shells, the Massachusetts had to conserve her remaining rounds in case the Richelieu arrived to contest the invasion. Jean Bart was not completed, until after the war, when she returned to Brest.  In 1956, she was the last battleship ever completed, a decision, the authors wrote, which “owed more to the heart than the head.”

What makes this such a superb history of the four modern French battleships? The authors are fair and balanced in their assessments, not afraid to criticize where warranted. They note the Dunkerques’ seakeeping was poor in rough weather; the main and secondary armaments were both fragile and overly complex. Regarding fire danger, Admiral Jean de Laborde observed the Dunkerques were: “a carefully prepared bonfire waiting for someone to strike the match.”

Even so, Jordan and Dumas conclude the Dunkerques could have handily dealt with the pocket battleships. How well they would have stood up to the battle cruisers Gneisenau and Scharnhorst is more questionable, since the German battle cruisers’ nine 11-inch SKC-34 guns were an improved and heavier version than those used by the Deutschland-class. 

In French Battleships, 1922-1956, there is rarely a page without a picture, chart, table, schematic, line drawing, profile, or map to illustrate the points made in the text. The “Color Profiles and Plans” on pp. 129-136 are top-notch. It is obvious the authors are experts on the Marine Nationale, as they have written extensively on the subject in books, monographs, and periodicals. 

There are very few things that might have improved this book. Maps showing the locations of Mers el-Kébir, Toulon, Bizerta, Casablanca, and Dakar in their larger context would have been helpful. There are a few awkward passages with a missing word or one that is not needed. These are quibbles in what is an excellent, first-rate history of the WWII-era French capital ships. In over fifty years of reading battleship books, this volume is among the finest this reviewer has examined. 

Ed Calouro is a freelance writer and adjunct instructor in the History Department at Rhode Island College. 

French Battleships, 1922-1956 (John Jordan and Robert Dumas, Seaforth Publishing, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, Great Britain, 2020).

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