- Slocombe, George
- Ship histories and stories, History - WW2
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1984 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The Richelieu reached Dakar on the evening of June 23. Two British auxiliary cruisers and an aircraft carrier were in the harbour, and other British cruisers were patrolling outside.
At first the commander of the Richelieu (then Captain Marzin) was told that Dakar would be handed over to the British. In printed orders he informed his crew of this intention.
Two days later, when the armistice was signed, the Richelieu suddenly shifted her anchorage by 500 yards. A few hours later, without informing the British naval and consular authorities ashore, she raised her anchor and steamed out of harbour. To do so, she had to pass the British aircraft carrier, which signalled, ‘Where are you bound?’
At Full Speed
The captain of the Richelieu replied mendaciously: ‘I am returning to my previous moorings,’ Instead of which, he ordered full steam ahead, gained the open sea, and sailed northwards at full speed.
During the night, the Richelieu learned that Dakar was not to be handed over to the British after all. She changed course and returned to the port, and was about to enter when a message was flashed from the shore ordering her to sail northwards to protect a flotilla of French auxiliary cruisers which were carrying the gold of the Bank of France to Dakar.
The commanders of these cruisers had received instructions to scuttle their ships if they were intercepted by the British Navy.
In the afternoon the Richelieu sighted the smoke and then the funnels of a large British cruiser, whose captain requested the French battleship’s aid in locating a wrecked British plane. The Richelieu‘s commander replied that he was in a hurry.
Thereupon the British cruiser changed course and significantly trailed the Richelieu.
Lost Her Escort
When the darkness came the Richelieu increased speed, and succeeded in losing her escort. She did not, however, manage to locate the gold convoy, this having been diverted when the Richelieu signalled the French Admiralty: ‘I am being followed by a British cruiser whose attitude seems suspicious.’ On June 29 the Richelieu returned to Dakar. Five days later came news of the British bombardment of the ships at Oran, and the Richelieu prepared to be attacked in her turn. Some of the crews of French torpedo-boats in the harbour refused to fight and were interned. The captain of the Richelieu thereupon decided to await the attack by the coastal batteries and by a torpedo screen of British cargo boats which he moored around the battleship.
Never before in history, says a French eyewitness bitterly, had a French battleship taken refuge behind merchant shipping.
His precautions, however, provided useless. On July 7 a few daring British naval men in a ship’s boat dropped depth charges under the stern of the Richelieu, disabling the steering gear. Immediately afterwards a squadron of British planes from an aircraft carrier came out of the setting sun, flying low, and launched five torpedoes, at least one of which struck the Richelieu.
The battleship reeled under the blow and the stern momentarily disappeared underwater. ‘When it re-appeared,’ said one of her crew to me, ‘we saw that a great hole 14 metres wide had been torn in her side. One of the propeller shafts was also badly damaged. This was afterwards repaired with spare parts sent out from France.
‘The hole was patched up, and we made 17 knots on the crossing to New York. We could have pushed her up to 19 knots if we had been sighted by U-boats. But we saw none, and in any case we had an escort of American destroyers.’
This was the only action in which this proud fighting ship has ever been engaged. She fired her AA guns but twice, both times ineffectively – once against a German plane at Brest, once against British planes at Dakar.
Thereafter, until she passed into Allied control at New York recently, the Richelieu has returned nothing in dividends, either of glory or service, to the French taxpayers who lavished millions on her, the men who built her, or the 1,200 Frenchmen of her crew who believed they were leaving Brest to fight on when France fell.