To be sure, the Second World War was not the proverbial swan song for battleships. After all, the U.S. Navy went on to use battleships for combat operations in the Korean War, Vietnam War, and 1991 Persian Gulf War.
That said, WWII was indeed the last war in which battleship vs. battleship engagements took place. These capital ship slugfests are typically mentally divided as follows: (1) U.S. Navy vs. Imperial Japanese Navy within the Pacific Theatre; and (2) Great Britain’s Royal Navy vs. Nazi Germany’s Kriegsmarine – especially the now-legendary Bismarck story – during the European-North African Theater.
But there was one other fight between battleships during WWII that almost gets lost in the shuffle when discussing this particular aspect of surface warfare. In what turned out-to-be the U.S. Navy’s only battleship vs. battleship battle of the European-North African Theatre, the USS Massachusetts tangled with the Vichy French-controlled Jean Bart.
Profile of the Loser: Vichy France’s Jean Bart
Jean Bart was one of two members of the Richelieu class of fast battleships, named in honor of Admiral Jean Bart (1650-1702), former privateer turned eventual highly exalted 17th century senior French naval officer. She was laid down on 12 December 1936 and launched on 6 March 1940. However, a not so funny thing happened before she could get commissioned or even completely outfitted: the Fall of France. Long story short, this explains how the vessel eventually ended up in the control of the Nazi puppet Vichy French government at the Moroccan port of Casablanca for her eventual showdown against the U.S. Navy.
As per her designed configuration, Jean Bart was to have a fully laden displacement of 44,698 tons, a hull length of 813 feet 2 inches, a beam width of 108 feet 6 inches, a maximum speed of 37 knots, a draft of 32 feet 6 inches. and a crew complement of 1,569 commissioned officers and enlisted seamen. Primary armament was eight 15-inch guns backed up by nine 6-inch guns, eight 100mm antiaircraft (AA) guns, eight 37mm AA guns, and twenty 13.2mm Hotchkiss machine guns.
Profile of the Winner: USS Massachusetts (BB-59)
USS Massachusetts was the third of four South-Dakota-class fast battleships. Laid down on 20 July 1939, launched on 23 September 1941, and commissioned on 12 May 1942. She displaced 45,233 tons, was 680 feet long and 108 feet 2 inches abeam, with a draft of 32 feet 1 inch, a max speed of 27.5 knots and a crew complement of 2,500 officers and men. Armament was nine 16-inch guns, twenty 5-inch guns, seven 40mm AA guns, and thirty-five 20mm AA guns.
The Battle and Aftermath
It was in Operation Torch that the stage was set for this Vichy Franco-American faceoff, during the Naval Battle of Casablanca phase on 8–10 November 1942. As noted by USN Admiral Samuel J. Cox in an October 2021 article for the Rebellion Research website:
“Jean Bart opened fire with her operable forward quad 15-inch turret from pierside in Casablanca Harbor and hit a couple hundred yards from Massachusetts. Massachusetts received the ‘play ball’ code at 0704, and she and Tuscaloosa concentrated their fire on Jean Bart. Massachusetts fired nine full 16-inch gun salvos (9 x 9 = 81 rounds) and hit Jean Bart five times within 16 minutes. The first shell hit in an empty magazine… The last shell to hit glanced off the number 1 turret’s armor and bounced into the city, apparently without exploding, as it later became a souvenir at French navy headquarters. The hit, however, jammed the drive train of the turret and put Jean Bart’s main battery out of action for eight hours. Jean Bart’s 15-inch guns had sufficient range to reach the landing area at Fedala, but Massachusetts’s quick action eliminated that threat.”
Admiral Cox sums up this battlewagon duel by noting that “Although the French had put up a spirited fight, and U.S. reports indicate an admiration for their professionalism, the battle ended up very one-sided. The French scored one hit each on the Massachusetts, Augusta, Brooklyn, Ludlow, and Murphy, none of which caused major damage and only the three deaths on Murphy.”
In short, unlike the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal and the Battle of Surigao Strait, no battleships were sunk on either side of this brief USN vs. Vichy French fight, and the casualty count was comparatively low as well. After the Vichy contingent surrendered, Jean Bart ended up back in Free French hands.
Where Are They Now?
Both vessels lived to see the end of WWII and beyond.
Jean Bart was commissioned in March 1949 and entered into operational service with the Cold War-era French Navy (Marine nationale) in May 1955. Her last hurrah in combat was on 5 November 1956 in Operation Mousequetaire (“Musketeer”) during the Suez Crisis, firing four rounds from her main batteries during a bombardment of Port Said before the planned amphibious and parachute assault was cancelled. In August 1957 she was relegated to barracks ship duty and had her reserve status further downgraded in January 1961. She was finally struck from the naval register in February 1970 and sold for scrap and towed to Port de Brégaillon for breakup. Her anchor still survives as a memorial display in the commune of Saint-Nazaire in Brittany.
Meanwhile, the USS Massachusetts was decommissioned in March 1947 and assigned to the Atlantic Reserve Fleet, until she was stricken from the naval register in June 1962. She was initially doomed to the same scrapping fate as her former WWII opponent, but luckily a contingent of her former crewmen lobbied to save her and preserve her as a museum ship, with the Massachusetts Memorial Committee raised enough funds to purchase her from the U.S. Navy. The official transfer of ownership took place in June 1965, and two months later she was towed to where she still sits proudly to this day, at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts. On 14 January 1986 she was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Christian D. Orr is a former U.S. Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS).