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The French debacle on earth was swift, and virtually unchallenged. On the other hand, the French navy remains powerful, and on the eve of the armistice, it is as much the English as the Germans who are eyeing its flagships. Among them, the battleship Jean Bart, twin brother of Richelieu, not yet completed in June 1940. Yet he was to be the hero of a remarkable escape. This little miracle will be quickly forgotten after the disaster at Mers-El-Kébir and the scuttling of the Toulon fleet in 1942.
A tailor-made harbor for Jean Bart
It was in Saint-Nazaire that the battleship was started in 1936. In the same port, the liner was launched Normandy in 1932 which caused a sensation; for the latter, a 350 m hold of the conventional type was used. But, for the battleship, the engineers innovated with a structure comprising a large refit basin with two doors (an airlock to connect the Penhoët basin and the Loire) and a platform with a 240 tonne crane; all for a length of 325 m and a width of 134 m, the whole protected by a concrete wall to withstand the pressure of the body of water necessary to make its hull float above the construction platform !
The ship was put into dry dock without incident on March 6, 1940, with almost general indifference ...
It was the German offensive in May and the rapid arrival of the Panzers at sea that made the command of the Jean Bart ; the risk of the battleship falling into enemy hands grows larger with the passing days, and Captain Ronarc’h, nicknamed "Robust", decides to do something about it. But to bring out the unfinished monster, you have to wait for the high tide, that is to say either June 5th or 20th. It is too early for the first date, so it is June 20th which is chosen.
The ship then has no propellers, mounted machinery, or artillery! His real release was only planned for October ...
Things get even more complicated when it comes to the fact that proper dredging cannot be done at the time of release! The Jean Bart will then have to have only 8 to 10 m of draft to ensure the blow, and to exit without water, without fuel, without supply and with only one of its turrets of 380 mm.
Fortunately, since June 11, a boiler room and two propellers (out of four) are in place, and the corresponding machines are ready on the 15th. Machine guns are quickly installed for a very light anti-aircraft protection ...
The escape of Jean Bart
The Germans are in Rennes, so you have to go out in the middle of the night! It is 3.30 am when the battleship is pulled by the tugs, its machines still not turning. Due to the darkness, a channel buoy was missing and ran aground first from the front and then from the back! Six tugs are needed to help him, and he is doing his best just as the Luftwaffe appears in the sky. A bomb hits the deck of the battleship without major damage, while three French fighters try to cover it; one of them got off… by the ship's DCA!
The Jean Bart Also miraculously escaped two German submarines which lurked out of the harbor and it was refueled then piloted by the torpedo boat Le Hardi. Soon, the ship is heading at 21 knots towards Casablanca, where it arrives safely on June 22.
This original escape ultimately satisfied everyone: the French sailors were proud of this feat, the English happy that the battleship did not fall into the hands of the Germans, and the latter, who did not hope to have it intact, s 'are much more interested in the harbor where it was born.
A career with a bitter taste
The rest of the life of the Jean Bart, started in such an eventful fashion, is original but not in the most glorious way. He opposed the American landing in November 1942 and was bombarded by aircraft from the aircraft carrier Tidy, then by the battleship Massachusetts. Its resistance was hailed, but ultimately useless, and the damage it suffered very significant: it could not be rehabilitated before the end of the war.
After the conflict, while the battleships were supplanted by the aircraft carrier at the heart of the fleets, the Jean Bart entered service in the Mediterranean squadron, and was present during the Suez crisis in 1956. He was withdrawn from service the following year and finally dismantled in 1970. A very sad career for this flagship of the Royal, which no has not experienced the few moments of glory of his twin brother the Richelieu, nor obviously those of the large privateer who gave it its name.
- Vice-Admiral Ronarc'h, Jean Bart's escape, June 1940, Flammarion editions, 1951.
- Robert Dumas & Jean Guiglini, Les cuirassés de 23,500t, Lela Presse editions, 2005.
- The Second World War, Jules Tallandier editions, 7 volumes, 1966.