- Slocombe, George
- Ship histories and stories, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1984 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
THIS IS ONE of the most tragic stories in the history of naval warfare. It is the story of the Richelieu, the fighting ship that never fought.
The Richelieu was the most beautiful, and perhaps the fastest, battleship in the world. She was the pride of of the French Navy. She was also the pride of the French nation. For five years the most brilliant naval designers of France planned her naval lines, her complicated superstructure, her secret electrical devices.
She was not quite complete when the war broke out.
When the Germans overran France some of her heavy guns had not yet been mounted. Her 380mm guns could only fire 48 rounds. But thanks to her speed and the British Navy she escaped from France.
Idle Two Years
But not to fight. For two years and eight months she lay at Dakar, her 35,000 tons of steel and armour plate idle. Only her AA guns were ever in action.
Then, some weeks ago, the Richelieu appeared suddenly in New York Harbour, towed by half a dozen noisy tugs and greeted by the sirens of all the Allied shipping in the Hudson.
A few days later 350 members of the crew deserted.
Some of them were interned on Ellis Island. Others succeeded in joining General de Gaulle and have now reached England. From these men of the Richelieu, with whom I talked yesterday in a naval depot, I heard the full story of the great battleship which is now undergoing repairs in a US naval yard.
Many of these men are specialists. One of them, a boy of 23, joined the navy two years ago to escape a conviction for sabotage in a war factory. Another had bribed a petty officer in Toulon to get him posted to Dakar in order to escape more easily to England.
A third had been at Oran during the British bombardment to the fleet at Mers-el- Kebir. He told me that at that moment six French armoured minesweepers were sweeping the mines laid by France and Britain in the Mediterranean.
When the news of the Anglo-American landings in North Africa became known, the sailors stated the commander of the Richelieu, Captain de Ramont, called a meeting of its officers and men at which he described President Roosevelt as a scoundrel and Churchill as a blackguard, and told them that if the Allies tried to land at Dakar the guns of the Richelieu would fire on them.
The same day all their leave was stopped. The crew retaliated by staging a mass demonstration on the foredeck. About 750 men assembled there, sang the Marseillaise repeatedly, and cheered Roosevelt and Churchill, Giraud and de Gaulle. When a Lieutenant-Commander tried to remonstrate with the men they knocked his cap off and forced him to listen bareheaded while they sang the Marseillaise.
It was only the surrender of Darlan, and the subsequent submission of Governor- General Boisson and the other authorities at Dakar, which ended this semi-mutiny, which lasted for three days. Later, when the Richelieu sailed for New York, discipline was restored, and the confidence of the men was maintained by the presence of American officers on board. But I was told that the 350 men who deserted had made up their minds to do so before they left Dakar, as a protest against the allegedly pro-Vichy spirit of many of their officers.
The vicissitudes of the Richelieu began on the evening of June 18 1940, the day after Petain’s capitulation.
Under her own steam, and firing all her AA guns at a German plane then raiding Brest, the Richelieu sailed safely out to sea through the narrow channel, unharmed by the magnetic mines which the Germans had dropped in the harbour.
The crew then believed, like many of their officers, that they were going to fight on with Britain in North Africa. But when they learned from the radio operator that signals had been received warning the battleship not to put in at Gibraltar and ordering French merchant ships to leave British convoys, and, finally, to avoid all contact with the British Fleet, their suspicions were aroused.