During the afternoon of June 22, 1940, the French destroyer Hardi was off the northwestern coast of Morocco. On board was the Commander in Chief, Naval Forces Western France, Admiral de Laborde. At 1530 he ordered the signal hoisted: “Show your colors.” An hour later as his small flagship stood in toward the approaches to Casablanca, the Admiral had another run up: “Make best of way to anchorage.”
The signals were answered by two other destroyers, the Épée on the starboard bow and the Mameluk abeam to starboard. In the center of the DD screen, about 1,000 yards off the Hardi’s quarter, the hoists were repeated by a battleship flying the tricolor of France. This was the Jean Bart, and although she showed a good bow wave as an indication of her anxiety to reach the Moroccan port, to a seaman’s practiced eye she presented a strange appearance.
There was a look of emptiness and uncertainty about her. The high No. 2 turret showed no guns, all four ports being blanked off; there were no signs of any secondary battery and as for anti-aircraft defenses, the Jean Bart had scattered about topside a couple of 3.54″ guns, three twin 1.46″ mounts, and two quadruples of .52″, a very scanty amount of protection for a first-line warship.
About the ship there were the usual scars from a recent shipyard visit: dirty decks, sections of scattered air hose and lines still leading through doorways or hatches, and an assortment of gear lying about to indicate a hurried as well as unexpected departure for sea. Topside as well as down below in the engineering spaces, a comparatively small number of men was in evidence. A good part of the crew appeared to be civilians. Less than 600 men were manning the battleship and, of that number, three dozen were French territorial soldiers and about 150 were shipyard engineers and Workers. Although Capitaine de Vaisseau Pierre-Jean Ronarc’h of the French Navy was supervising and directing the ship’s operations, he had no written orders placing him in command of the Jean Bart.
At 1655 when the Captain ordered: “Let go!” and the anchor went down off the Grande Jetee of Casablanca, his sigh of relief swept through the battleship, and all hands in the four-ship convoy enjoyed the relaxation of tension under which they had recently been steaming. Just a few days before, the uncompleted, untested, and as yet uncommissioned battleship of 35,000 tons displacement had been berthed alongside the fitting-out quai of the dry dock in which she had been built. With the rapidly advancing enemy practically breathing down his neck, the Prospective Commanding Officer, Captain Ronarc’h, had snatched the helpless Jean Bart away from the imminent grasp of the Germans.
The three and a half-day passage from Saint Nazaire, France, to Casablanca had been made at an average speed of 16½ knots, and the last twenty hours of the run at 21 knots, but during 7½ hours the Jean Bart had been dead in the water, while for fifteen hours more she had been forced to crawl along at a reduced speed of about seven knots. That the harassed battleship had made port was a well merited laudation to the determination and courage of Captain Ronarc’h and of his officers and men, along with the devoted shipyard workers who had all labored furiously in the waning hours of the Germans’ approach to make possible the hurried dash to safety.
Shortly after anchoring, the harbor pilot came on board to assist in shifting berth to alongside the mole. A group of small tugs had to do the maneuvering because neither the Captain nor Engineering Officer Fauconnier would risk backing the engines. That operation had not been tried as yet, and, furthermore, only two of the four engines had been available when the ship left the building yard. With no preliminary, acceptance, or even dock trials behind her, the Jean Bart's first time underway on her own power had been that initial appearance at sea on her escape from the enemy.
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Why had the ship waited until the Nazi armored columns were within forty miles and support bombers were ranging overhead? Although the first section of the Jean Bart's keel had been laid during December, 1936, the rate of construction had lagged way behind schedule. The acceptance trials had been set originally for December 1, 1939, but that day had already passed when the PCO arrived in Saint Nazaire to familiarize himself with his expected command. For at least two years deliveries of material had been late. The ship’s progress had suffered apparently from the prevalent slowdowns which prevailed in French industry during the 1930’s following the advent to power of Premier Leon Blum’s Popular Front government. Even with Hitler’s rapid strides casting the threat of war across the ill-fated Maginot Line, the Paris new regime precluded any overtime, night shifts, or drastic increases in the Jean Bart’s work force. The ship was far from completed, and the best time that Captain Ronarc’h could foresee for the preliminary sea trials was October 1, 1940. As the “phoney war” dragged on through its first winter of 1939–40, there was no great increase in activity along the banks of the Loire River where the massive ship’s structure towered up from the bed of its building dry dock. A large number of the shipfitters had been mobilized, and the building yards were hard pressed to find extra help to push the ship’s work.
But the prospective Captain was not one to accept such a condition of tranquility even though the prevalent attitude of the nation at the time was that all was safe behind the heavy line of fortifications which France had strung along her northern border during the past eight years. Although Captain Ronarc’h did not expect any sudden collapse of the Maginot Line, he was anxious to have his new command ready for service as soon as possible. With his new target date set as October 1st, he planned accordingly.
He was on board early in March when the Jean Bart was floated up off her building blocks; shortly thereafter he felt the thrill of his ship moving, even though at a snail’s pace, when she was breasted across the double-width building basin to alongside the fitting-out quai. The PCO was looking forward to five more months of dockside activities when his plans were interrupted by the German break-through in early May. In spite of his own wishes in the matter, Captain Ronarc’h was caught with the Jean Bart far from being anywhere near ready for sea.
But even if the new warship had been completed before those tense days of May when France’s defenses collapsed and melted away, she could not have put to sea. Once her bow was across the dry dock sill, she would have poked her nose into a mud flat and would have been stuck fast. The channel and approaches to the battleship’s berth were not deep enough at maximum spring high tide to take her in her uncompleted condition of low displacement. The Captain found himself in the same awkward predicament as the week-end hobbyist who had built his boat in the basement and could not get it out through the cellar door.
There was a branch channel about 2,300 yards long leading from the dry dock entrance to the main river thoroughfare and although deepening work had started at the beginning of 1939, the bucket dredge was sunk by an underwater obstruction off the dock gate in July. Raised in February, 1940, it was not until along in May that the dredge was back on the job again. With another of the mudsucker type to help, the excavating work was not expected to be completed before October 1st.
While the branch or exit channel to the dry dock gate ran almost due north and south, the Jean Bart was alongside her fitting-out quai on a heading of 145°; there was an angle of about 35° between the exit channel axis and that of the building basin. To provide swinging room after the battleship was to have been eased out of her berth and then headed down toward the river, it had been planned to dredge an area in the shape of a slice of pie off the basin entrance: the point to be at the sill and the two sides about 35° apart to allow for the swing from the fitting-out quai alignment to the course down the exit channel. As the Jean Bart was 812 feet long, the swinging arc of the pie wedge area was to be about 885 feet out. Under the most perfect of weather and slack water conditions, maneuvering a 35,000-ton ship of such length in that restricted area would have been a ticklish operation. Add to that handicap the prospects of moving the huge ship at night during a total black-out, with no power available, and no compass for showing the heading during the maneuver— only three moderately-powered tugs to tow and swing the Jean Bart, and one has the almost insurmountable task that Captain Ronarc’h had to overcome in getting away from the enemy. He could not have cleared out sooner than he did because at the time of the German sweep across Northern France the pie shaped area had not been dredged.
By the 18th of May the Captain could see from the rapid pace of the invaders’ progress that he would have to move fast if he wanted to get the jump on them. His Executive Officer, Capitaine de Frégate de Rodellec, and the Engineering Officer shared his -anxiety to get the Jean Bart out before the Germans arrived. First Class Engineer Gasquet wanted from two to three months more to get his plant installed. The shipyard management also asked for more time, but when they all were confronted with Captain Ronarc’h’s determined resolution to risk saving the ship, the time limit was reduced to six weeks more. Hitler’s legions were not telegraphing their schedule ahead, but it could be judged from their speedy advance that Saint Nazaire would be reached in about a month. As the next high spring tides were due on June 20th, the Captain let the local authorities know that he planned to take the ship out on that date. At first the naval and civilian officials concerned discounted his chances of making good the Jean Bart’s sortie, but, urged on by the bold officer’s determination, they soon fell into step with his plans.
The construction schedule was changed in an effort to speed up the work. During the following three weeks, the ship’s work force was boosted from 2,500 to 3,500 full-time workers, and some specialized branches went on a twelve-hour shift. Pressure was put on sub-contractors to speed up the delivery of parts, and in some special cases the Captain provided his own personal funds to finance urgent trips by some selected officers to distant manufacturers for obtaining vitally needed equipment before the sailing date. Spares and instruments were removed from some plants that had already been abandoned to the oncoming enemy. The Jean Bart’s material foraging parties were often entangled in the swarm of retreating French forces. In the confusion of defeat, equipment or means for transporting it were gladly given to the conscientious emissaries from Saint Nazaire, and yet in some instances they were almost stymied by red-tape on the part of some petty bureaucrats. Everyone connected with the ship turned to with a will, and, during the last several weeks of the all-out effort, they more than made up for the months of delays when the work had dragged along altogether too slowly for the modern tempo of construction.
But if the miraculous and impossible had been accomplished and the huge ship made ready to sail, all would have been in vain without enough deep water in the exit channel and the pie-shaped swinging area off the dock sill. The dredging had been going along at the rate of about 40,000 cubic yards a month, and now, just to barely slide the Jean Bart out at her low displacement, no less than 130,000 cubic yards of excavating had to be done within the next couple of weeks. When the dredging supervisor said it just couldn’t be done, Captain Ronarc’h thought otherwise: they could start in working at night, couldn’t they, black-outs notwithstanding? And how about getting some additional dredges to help?
Neither the local engineers at Nantes nor the French Admiral, Prefet Maritime at Lorient could shift the craft keeping the important channel to Nantes open for war material. But if the Ministry of Marine in Paris gave the go-ahead, however, then the Admiral would be more than glad—no sooner suggested than accepted, and Captain Ronarc’h caught the express that night to Paris. There on the morning of May 22nd, in the midst of all the confusion and disorganization connected with the Navy Department’s evacuation ahead of the enemy, the Admiralty Chief of Staff, Admiral Michelier, listened to the plans for the Jean Bart and dispatched the orders necessary for the extra dredges. The Captain was happy; as long as he could have an exit channel ready, he’d get the ship out even if she had to be towed.
The work for deepening the ship’s path started in earnest; it went on day and night without letup. One dredge was working along the face of the dry dock gate when the large caisson was floated away to clear the area for the ship’s undocking. At the time of the sortie, the mean low water in the swinging area and exit channel showed 11′8″, and as the maximum flood was expected to be 16′5″, the Captain had a depth of 28′1″ for his planned draft of 27′4″—not too much underfoot for comfort.
As for the channel width, while he had asked for one about 295′ wide, all he had when clearing the dock was a width of 147′7″; as the battleship’s beam was 108′7″, it was a very tight squeeze under the most ideal conditions.
While France’s defenses were crumbling away before the German onslaught, one factor contributed greatly to Captain Ronarc’h’s success in getting the ship ready to sail: none of his superiors in the chain of command bothered him. The exciting times kept them more occupied than thinking of the doubtful fate of an uncompleted battleship. When the Captain made a further estimate of the enemy situation as well as of local conditions and pushed up the time of his sortie to the night of June 18-19, the chef de la Surveillance at Saint Nazaire notified the Ministry of Marine in Paris that everything possible has been done so that the Commanding Officer of the Jean Bart may move his ship out on or after June 19th “if he considers it suitable to do so.” In other words, he was put on his own. No orders had as yet been issued to Capitaine de Vaisseau Ronarc’h to take command. The usual practice in the French Navy was to issue such orders a few days before the ship was ready for its preliminary trials and at which time the commissioning ceremony took place; in this case, however, the mere formality of the written orders was over-looked and dispensed with as all hands were more concerned with the ship’s escape. (Early in 1941—several months later—the Captain was notified by the French Admiral of the Fleet that the former had been placed in command of the Jean Bart by an order written ten days before the ship left Saint Nazaire.)
With the target date set as the early hours of June 19th, the ship hummed with activity. The Captain and his Executive Officers were “up and about” almost 24 hours a day. The difficult task ahead had been assigned to two of the most conscientious officers in the French Navy. Capitaine de Vaisseau Ronarc’h, known as “Husky” (le robuste) throughout the service, would have been an N-star fullback or stroke oar at Annapolis because of his heavy-chested build; a meticulous, ever-driving, and energetic officer, he was thoroughly founded in all branches of the naval service and devoted to it. Already marked for a promising career in the French Navy, the hardy Breton was determined to bring credit to the Jean Bart which had been named in honor of another Breton, the rough and tough free-booter—yet valiant corsair—of the 17th century.
The Executive Officer, Capitaine de Fregate de Rodellec, in turn enjoyed a highly favorable service reputation. During the troublesome 1930’s when some of France’s servicemen fell under the influence of the leftist political doctrines, the Navy set up a correctional center for bringing the intransigents back into line. Commander de Rodellec was assigned as Commanding Officer for that unattractive post but soon earned great respect among the troublemakers as being a strict but just disciplinarian. With his outstanding qualities of leadership, initiative, and ability to tackle the toughest jobs, he was a “natural” to follow through with his Captain and insure success to the bold venture.
And so four weeks were left for getting the battleship out. Not a day passed without its myriad of problems; all thoughts of personal comforts or the completion of living facilities on board were discarded; only heavy equipment which would be necessary for having the ship clear the dock was brought on board for installation; and only a minimum amount of fuel and boiler feed water was loaded to keep the draft as light as possible. Right down to the last minute before casting off, it was a tight race against time and the oncoming Germans.
Designed for 180,000 SHP to be furnished by two firerooms, each with three boilers, plans were made to concentrate on having only the afterroom ready. Originally scheduled for the first part of July, the lighting-off was advanced to the 16th of June, when all three boilers were in use and their safeties were set. High hopes were also held out that the contractor would keep his promise to have one evaporator available before the sailing date.
Of the four propellers, only two were set up on the sixth and seventh of June, and only twelve hours before the ship left were the two main shafts lined up. The main turbines, scheduled for testing toward the end of August, would now be turned over when the Jean Bart was clear of the dock—that is, if all went well.
The forecastle and the afterdeck winches had been tested two weeks before, but on the afternoon before leaving Saint Nazaire they both kicked out and from that time on all line handling had to be done by the use of capstan bars. Of the two gyro-compasses allocated, only one was received in an unassembled batch of diverse boxes during the evening of June 18, a few hours before departure. One magnetic compass installed up in the navigating control tower had not been compensated. The engine room telegraphs and some temporary portable phone extensions were in use for internal communications, and, for keeping in touch with the outside, all that the Jean Bart could scrape up for use when getting underway were a set of signal flags, two small signal lights, a 600-watt transmitter, and one medium frequency receiver. One of the two 1,500-KW auxiliary turbogenerators was operating, as were two 140-KW emergency diesel generators. Although the fire mains were ready the afternoon before departure, main drains and bilge pumps were not all working, nor had watertight bulkheads in the central part of the ship been tested. In spite of the foregoing condition of unpreparedness, Captain Ronarc’h was determined to get going at all costs, and during the morning before leaving he had the Jean Bart loaded with the necessary small amount of fuel and water to get her clear of the coast. A ship of her size could not go far on only about 125 tons of bunker fuel or the same amount of feed water.
As for her main battery of two forward quadruple turrets of 14.97″, it was a toss-up between mounting all guns and leaving off the barbettes as a weight saving, or to complete only one turret. When it became apparent that the last two guns of turret No. 2 would not be delivered in time, work was concentrated on No. 1. Late in the afternoon before departure, the two guns on the dock were damaged by the use of cutting torches to burn heavy grooves in the breeches and along the interiors. As the destruction job was finished, the wrecking party left the guns for the approaching enemy but not before having painted in bold letters along each barrel: Vive la France.
As the deadline approached, hundreds of workmen worked feverishly to complete installations throughout the ship while the few crew members assisted or stood by with acetylene torches to damage the equipment should the Germans arrive before the battleship could get underway. Some sailors were ready to smash the delicate instruments with sledge hammers, others stood guard along the cableways, all set to touch off fires in the tunnels, and others were waiting for the word to “burn up” the boilers and condensers.
During his last three days in the dry dock, Captain Ronarc’h’s port of destination was changed several times. During the last afternoon, Commodore Sir T. J. Hallet of the Royal Navy placed two sea-going tugs and the destroyer HMS Vanquisher at the disposal of the Jean Bart for escorting and, if necessary, towing after the battleship was clear of the exit channel. In making the offer of assistance, the British officer was doubtlessly under the impression that the ship was to be taken to the mouth of the Clyde or some other designated British port: on June 15th the French Admiralty had notified the Admiral Western Approaches that the Jean Bart would be placed under his orders. Any kind of help was more than welcome; Captain Ronarc’h kept his ship’s destination to himself and gladly accepted the Commodore’s offer.
At 1215, June 18, the Germans were near Nantes, less than forty miles away. That was too close for comfort. Workmen who were going to sail with the ship were given time off to take leave of their families and except for specialist technicians who volunteered to work up to the last minute, all others were cleared from the ship as a security measure. A lone bugler sounded colors as the French flag was run up, and the men manning the few light pieces of armament hastily bolted or welded to isolated parts of the superstructure knew that the tricolor represented their defiance to the Germans who were expected to arrive at any time. During those tense moments, Captain Ronarc’h set out with the dredging engineer for a familiarization tour of the sparsely buoyed channel; line-handling parties were organized for the nighttime sortie.
A last hurried requisitioning foray into the city was fruitless. No medical supplies were made available. As for obtaining a supply of “sea stores” tobacco before sailing, the local customs office would not release the cigarettes out of bond and so another difficulty was added for the prospective cruise.
The final hours in port were a nightmare to the harassed engineers. When the dockside electricity was cut off late in the afternoon, one auxiliary boiler and dynamo were put into use for shipboard power. As no time had been allowed for adjusting circuit breakers, as soon as the juice was cut in, a vicious circle started: when the circuit breakers tripped, the power-driven fuel and feed pumps stopped; the dynamo then quit and that stopped the ventilation as well as the lighting in the machinery spaces. The temperatures soon got so high there that the men were forced to abandon their stations. Just about that time the emergency diesel cut in and services were restored. But in the meantime the interruptions caused the cutting out of the main boilers and the Prospects were that the Jean Bart was going to be a totally dead ship on departure. Finally at 0230 on the 19th, the circuit breakers were wedged tight with blocks of Wood and at 0300 the boilers were lighted off for the third time that night. Then the long procedure of warming up the main plant started all over again. Later on, when far distant from the calm security of the fitting-out quai, the engineers could look back on that night of hectic experiences as a mere prelude to what awaited them at sea on their dash to safety.
At last the dock gate was floated clear, and all that remained now to free the battleship was the early morning full high tide. While the dredges continued working in the pie-shaped swinging area, the Captain and Commander de Rodellec checked final details for clearing the dock. The night security watches were set. A final draft check and estimate of the exit channel at full flood showed that there would be no clearance underfoot before 0311 and after 0457; four inches would be available at 0321 and 0445; eight at 0336 and 0430, and at maximum high water slack, there should be eleven and eight-tenths inches clearance for the Jean Bart. It was decided to start moving as soon as possible right after the 0311 zero limit.
As the decisive hour approached, all was apparently in readiness; however, the tugs that were assigned to ease the ship out and then swing her around to head down the exit channel had not showed themselves. One had gone aground, and the other two were pulling her free as the precious minutes went by. A bad augury? Good luck favored the audacious, and at 0310 one tug worked its way through the dock gate and tied up astern to the battleship; the Minotaure was to act as a brake to hold and snub the ship while up forward the other two tugs would pull her out of the basin and then swing her around to head downstream.
Under the most ideal conditions the sortie would have been a trying one in such restricted waters. At last the order was given to cast off. It was 0320, and there was a solid overcast; a light breeze had also sprung up. To add to the Captain’s difficulties, in the pitch darkness he could not see the dock from his high navigating station. It was impossible to judge the way on the ship, and she came out in a hurry. There were shouts and confused noises from the quai wall as the line handlers tried to get clear; the huge ship was moving out so quickly that one had to jog along at a fast trot to keep up with her; the men had to cast off their lines and let her run. A few moments later the Jean Bart's bow was fast on the mud shelf along the southeastern arc of the “slice of pie.” The tide was still flooding and so all was not yet lost; all tugs went to work and soon succeeded in hauling the ship to starboard until she was clear of the restricted swinging area.
With no compass to show his heading, the Captain soon found himself in difficulties again. Estimating in the black-out that he was headed down the exit channel, he had let the ship edge over too far, and at 0345 the bow was nosed into the eastern side of the channel. This time the stern tug pulled back toward the dock gate while the other two pushed with all their might to get the Jean Bart back in line. As the fatal minutes ticked by, the ship refused to budge. All appeared to be lost, but once again the Captain’s good luck held on, and his courage paid off: a couple of tugs from Saint Nazaire happened to be nearby at the time, and when they realized the situation, they lent a hand quickly, and at 0425 succeeded in helping to free the battleship. This time, carefully towed by the two tugs up forward, she headed slowly down the exit channel. With sunrise due at 0505 it was still difficult for Captain Ronarc’h to make out the marker buoys in the fading darkness; fortunately there was no current and the pressure effect from the huge ship against the steep sides of the narrow fairway aided in the steady course taken by tugs. They were going full-out and making good four knots as they guided their precious charge into the main channel.
With the early light of dawn, Captain Ronarc’h and the harbor pilot could make out the buoys down the main channel. True, the Jean Bart wasn’t moving at any remarkable rate of speed, but at least she was being towed further and further toward possible safety from capture. During all the excitement of clearing the dock and being pulled free after the two groundings, the workmen and crew down below continued their efforts to make their ship self-sustaining.
At 0440 aircraft were reported off the starboard bow. At first the Captain thought that they were those promised to him as escorts from the neighboring field at d’Escoublac, but he soon realized his error when they approached on a bombing run. At the first signs of attack, all ships present opened up with everything they had. The fire kept up as the planes made two more attacks, and although two of the aircraft were apparently driven off and did not come in for the third run, the final pattern of bombs dropped bracketed the Jean Bart and made one direct hit between the two forward turrets. No personnel suffered any causalties but the eight-inch hole which punctured the upper deck was followed by the blowing out of several bulkheads along the main lower deck.
At the first attack, the tugs began to make preparations to cast off from the Jean Bart. The Captain was just about to let them all go as a protective measure when he received the cheering news from below that the main engines were ready to turn over. At 0450 when the third attack hit his ship, he gave the order to cast off all the tugs and rang up fifty turns (twelve knots) on the engine room telegraphs. At last the ship was on her own as she left Charpentier Channel and entered the Loire roadstead.
As the harbor pilot prepared to leave the ship, he pointed out to the Captain where the next two buoys would be picked up. His directions were most important as the ship still did not have any compass to steer by. Guided by a small picket boat, she stood on down the swept channel and stopped at 0610 to drop the pilots who had helped in taking the ship out. The sky was clear; only some escorting French planes were in sight. A good breeze was blowing from the northeast, and the sea was slightly choppy. A course was set in the general direction of a point about one hundred miles off Cape Finisterre.
Soon a small escort arrived to form the Jean Bart’s convoy: the French destroyer Mameluk, HMS Vanquisher, two deep-sea tugs, one British and the other Dutch, and the French tanker l’Odet. The latter’s low speed limited the convoy to seven knots, but when she was relieved later by the Tarn at about 0800, the group went on up to 12 knots. In the meantime, the Hardi, flying the flag of Admiral de Laborde had taken over command as well as guide of the formation.
As the general course being followed was most definitely not one leading toward the west coast of England, the Captain of HMS Vanquisher inquired as to the Jean Bart's destination. For a reply, he was referred to the flagship Hardi. When advised as to where the battleship was heading, and apparently in accordance with orders previously received from his own superiors, the Vanquisher immediately withdrew from the convoy and, taking the two deep-sea tugs with her, disappeared to the northward.
Although the full might of Hitler’s submarine force was not being felt as strongly in the early summer of 1940 as it was to be later on in the war, the U-boats were, nevertheless, a weapon to be feared in the eastern reaches of the Atlantic. In spite of that danger, and relying on the protection of the two remaining destroyer escorts, Captain Ronarc’h had to accept the risk of stopping his ship in order to take on fuel. When about sixty miles out of Saint Nazaire, the Jean Bart hove to, and at 1045 the tanker Tarn came alongside. With no underway fueling gear installed and with no actual experience in such an operation behind them, it took over an hour to make the necessary connections. At about noon, pumping started and continued until 1800 when the job was done, the battleship having taken on about one thousand tons of fuel as well as a good load of feed water and wash water for the crew. And all this time the massive battleship was a set-up target, dead in the water, in an active theater of war.
During the fueling period, the engineers were coping with more difficulties. Since getting underway on her own power, the engine room temperatures had been mounting steadily: they went from 115°F to 158°F, and once again the spaces became uninhabitable. While the men worked in short relays to keep the plant operative, every effort was made to correct the deficiencies. In addition to trouble with the electrically and turbo-operated ventilators, a leaky main condenser allowed such a loss of vacuum that the main plant had to be cut out. Just about the-time that the Tarn was getting ready to cast off after the long fueling, the leaks and faulty connections were corrected so that power was again available.
Again underway, all went well until about 1930 when, at the request of the Admiral, the Jean Bart began to work up to twenty knots. The explosion of the ejector on the starboard condenser cut the speed down to seven knots; another long period of heavy work was in store for the engineers as they struggled with dismantling and replacing the faulty ejector with one taken from the idle engine room where the machinery had not been completely installed before sailing. The arduous job was finished at 1430 the following day, thanks to the volunteer help of many of the deck personnel, and once more the speed was worked up. As the 135 rpm mark was approached, heavy vibrations and excessive heating in the port LP turbine forced another reduction in speed. The convoy kept at a speed of 120 rpm for the second night’s run while skirting well out to the westward to avoid an area wherein enemy submarines were reported to be operating.
With the first well-earned hours of rest behind them, the engineers went to work with a vengeance on the morning of the 21st and tracked down, checked, and adjusted numerous settings and connections in both the steam and electrical systems. By sunset their work had been so successful that the battleship had her escorts stepping along at 21 knots. The long hours of clearing blocked lines, connecting leads which in many cases had been left open intentionally, and adjusting hastily installed valves had paid off in a more efficiently operating plant. Except for the marked deficiency in her designed armament—only one turret installed, no secondary defense whatever, and but a small part of her AA guns available—the Jean Bart was ready for service as a fighting ship of the French Navy.
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A few days after her arrival at Casablanca, the battleship was provisioned and fueled with about 3,000 tons of bunker oil in preparation for another dash to safety, this time across the Atlantic to a United States port; however, the French had already put out armistice feelers to the Germans, and the final terms of the cease-fire precluded any further sortie. According to the Franco-German agreement, the battleship was required to remain in her harbor of refuge.
For some inexplicable reason, the British elected to spare the Jean Bart from any damage when they attacked the French warships at Mers-el-Kébir and the Richelieu at Dakar in the early part of July, 1940. If the troubled ally across the Channel thought that the battleship, as a result of such a protective gesture, would defect to the British forces, no such action was contemplated or taken. Fearing any surprise attacks such as were delivered against the French internes in the other North African ports, Captain Ronarc’h made use of all means available to safeguard his ship. While the civilian engineers and technicians who had helped him during the flight to safety were repatriated and the greater part of his crew, as well as the officers and leading petty officers, went to other duties, those who remained on board kept the Jean Bart “buttoned up tight” and performed the routine of security watches during the rest of the battleship’s internment.
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The Captain had already been detached for more than a year when his former command was badly hit during the Allied invasion in November, 1942. Damaged astern, she settled on the bottom in her berth. Refloated, the Jean Bart returned home after V-E Day. Now in active service in the French Navy, she is a proud reminder of the great credit due to Vice Admiral Ronarc’h, who as a Capitaine de Vaisseau saved the ship from falling into the hands of the enemy, as well as to the devotion and inspired efforts of the many civilian engineers, technicians, and shipworkers who helped their naval brethren in the arduous task of making the Jean Bart ready for sea.
Her presence on the seas is also a grave reminder of Germany’s apparent shortsightedness regarding the battleship’s potential value, psychologically as well as strategically. While one can readily understand the patriotic motives which inspired Captain Ronarc’h to speed up and effect the escape of the Jean Bart, it is difficult for anyone interested in naval affairs to understand why or how Germany let the ship get away. Even if the battleship had been most severely damaged prior to its probable capture, it could be accepted that under the threats and pressures employed by Hitler’s cohorts, engineers and artificers would have found the means to put the ship into service within a reasonable length of time. With such a valuable prize in their hands, the enemy then would have made every effort to thwart any nuisance attacks or acts of sabotage by the British or their agents. With the Jean Bart under control of the Germans, their hand would have been so strengthened that England’s North Atlantic naval strategy would have had to undergo a complete revision.
By joining up with the Bismarck, already in service, and then later with the Tirpitz, the French man-of-war would have helped form a most formidable striking force. The probable formation of such a naval unit and the telling effect it would have had on their foe, would have more than justified positive action by the Germans to prevent the battleship’s sortie.
As Italy joined the Axis forces shortly after the German spring offensive, the potentialities of what would have happened in the Mediterranean had the Jean Bart been captured, repaired, and then sent to join up with Mussolini’s naval force, could excite the imagination of any naval strategist. Added to the power represented by the Littorio and Vittorio, both of equal 35,000 ton displacement, the admirals protecting the British life line to the Suez would have been hard pressed; by the time that the damaged Jean Bart could have made such a move, the Italian human torpedoes would have already put the Valiant and Queen Elizabeth out of action in Alexandria harbor and the remaining handful of AA cruisers, not to forget the dummy wooden battleship at Port Said, would have been of little importance against such a trio of first-line battleships. But fortunately for the tenacious British, the Axis partner did not know how severely he had damaged His Majesty’s two powerful dreadnaughts, and long before then, the Germans had not come through with an eleventh-hour spurt to keep Captain Ronarc’h from taking the Jean Bart out from under the enemy’s imminent clutches.
Somewhere along the line of the Reich’s strategy and its tactics of fulfillment there had been an apparent slip-up regarding the Jean Bart. In addition to enemy broadcasts that the ship would never leave port under French colors, the Germans had indicated great interest in the warship. The aerial bombardments of Saint Nazaire carried out during the night of June 12-13 were concentrated on the railroad station and shipping in the roadstead; magnetic mines were dropped along the main fairway. Daylight attacks on the following days, reaching out ahead of the oncoming invasion, kept well clear of the battleship and the adjoining shipyards. Two afternoons before the sortie, the 16,000-ton British transport Lancastria with 5,000 evacuated troops on board was sent to the bottom after striking a mine in the main channel. As no bombs were dropped on or near the Jean Bart, indications were that she was being spared for future capture and use by the enemy.
The taking of the prize could have been based on one of the following suppositions:
The work on the Jean Bart was not sufficiently advanced to permit her getting underway before the Germans’ arrival.
The advance of the armored columns would be so rapid that the French would not have time either to get the ship out or to make adequate plans to insure her destruction before capture.
Liaison between the German Army and Navy Would be so effective that the latter would be kept advised regarding the progress being made during the invasion so that naval representatives would he ready to take over the ship before it could be damaged.
The deceleration of the sweep across France, plus an apparent breakdown in the German intelligence service, helped contribute to the escape. At 1000 June 18 the enemy was at Rennes, 72 miles to the north-east, and in the early morning hours of the next day was on the outskirts of Nantes, less than forty miles to the east. Although the Germans formally entered and took over Saint Nazaire at 1000 on the 22nd of June, it was not until 0900 three days later that the first officers of their navy appeared on the scene. Strange as it may appear, on their arrival at the headquarters of the French admiral in command of that area, they made no inquiries concerning the Jean Bart; neither the subject of the ship or her departure were mentioned at all. She was gone, and there was nothing more that they could do about it. They did not realize at the time what a valuable prize had slipped from their fingers.
History records the chain of events and the actualities which result therefrom; the probabilities in the case of any possible changes are left to the supposition of theorists as well as second-guessers. They can while away many hours in analyzing the probable results of the Jean Bart’s capture: a different naval picture in the North Atlantic and most likely in the Mediterranean also where the big ship’s power would have been of marked importance to both sides. No matter what might have happened with the battleship, it is doubtful if the Germans could have matched Captain Ronarc’h’s boldness and courage; his action struck a decisive psychological blow against the enemy; he also helped upset their strategy and plans with reference to the ship; and by fleeing with his precious charge to Casablanca, far from the grasp of the Axis, he saved the Allied naval planners from a most probable dilemma. His steadfast devotion to his service paid off in the success of his courageous undertaking, thereby leaving to history a good example of how luck favors the bold and daring, and how courage and determination can engender success.
A long-time contributor to the Proceedings, Captain Olch graduated from the Naval Academy in 1922 and received his Master of Science Degree from Yale in 1929. His World War II service included command of the USS Stack. Following that war he commanded the USS Ajax. Captain Olch retired in 1952 and now resides in Southern France.
Contributed by LIEUTENANT COMMANDER J. R. LANCE CASSIDY, U. S. Navy
During a recent NATO exercise one of the BLUE ports was “constructively” destroyed by a guided fissile. At a staff conference the next day discussing the bombing, the Staff Officer ABCD requested to know how much the bomb weighed?
The Acting Chief of Staff glared and said, “I don’t know, it exploded before we could weigh it.”
(The Proceedings will pay $5.00 for each anecdote submitted to, and printed in, the Proceedings.)
 See “The French Navy Enters World War II,” page 592, June, 1956 Proceedings.