While this blog tries to be broad in its subjects, once in a while it drifts into indulgence. The pacifists among readers need read no further because this blog will be dedicated to a little-known piece of classic British derring-do, during which more Victoria Crosses (the highest award for valour) were won than in any other action of World War II. Today, the 28th of March, is the 70th anniversary of Operation Chariot, referred to by many as ‘The St Nazaire Raid‘ and to military historians who know about such things, as simply ‘The Greatest Raid Ever’.
Winter of 1941-1942 was a black time for Britain. Staving off invasion in the Battle of Britain had been followed by smashing German victories in Russia and the entry of the USA after Pearl Harbor. This brought no positives as the Far East fell to the Japanese and USN inexperience contributed to what Vizeadmiral Karl Dönitz called ‘The Happy Time’. Wolf packs were sinking ships faster then we could build them, Britain was sliding close to starvation and even Churchill later admitted “nothing so frightened me as the U-boat menace”.
As well a U-boats, convoys had to deal with surface raiders. The German fleet was small but modern and powerful. The biggest of all were sisters Bismarck and Tirpitz (50,000 tons, eight 15-inch guns, capable of 30 knots). Although Bismarck had been sunk the previous May, it took the entire Home Fleet, two weeks and luck to hunt it down and it dispatched HMS Hood, the largest warship in the world after a 10-minute gun battle before finally succumbing.
If Tirpitz, based in Norwegian fiords could break out into the Atlantic, no convoy would be safe. And, since she could outfight anything she couldn’t outrun, the Admiralty was reduced to hoping for the same luck they’d had the previous May. The good news was that only one place on the occupied Atlantic coast had a facility capable of servicing and repairing a ship as mighty: the Normandie dock in St Nazaire at the mouth of the Loire.
The audacity of the plan Combined Operations cooked up to reach the lock gates 8km up the river over myriad sandbanks is the stuff of legend. 265 men of No 2 Commando under Lt. Col. Newman were to embark on motor launches (fast but flimsy craft of around 50 tons of 20th and 28th ML Flotillas) and raid the place. Centrepiece of it all was a surplus ex-USN four-stacker destroyer HMS Campbeltown under Lt. Commander Halden-Beattie. Shorn of a couple of funnels and rigged to have the silhouette of a German torpedo boat, her bow was packed with 5 tons explosives. The plan was to go upriver on the highest tide of the year and ram the lock gates.
On the German side, the area was defended by the 333rd Infantry Division. Although it had few troops in the town, the port had the 28 heavy guns of the 280th Naval Artillery, plus over 40 AA guns of the 20th Naval Flak. When Dönitz, inspecting the day before the 6th and 7th U-Boote Flotillen based there queried the base commander about a possible raid, Korvettenkapitän Herbert Sohler replied: “an attack on this base would be hazardous and highly improbable“.
Accompanied by two escorting destroyers and with a submarine position off the estuary to guide them in, the rag-tag fleet left Falmouth on the afternoon of March 26th and had a brush with U-593 and two French fishing boats before gathering off the Loire late on the 27th. Campbeltown hoisted the German naval ensign and the 3 MLs formed into three lines on either side and astern. A diversionary raid by five RAF squadrons bombed nothing of consequence and served only to alert the garrison that something was up.
They had only just entered the estuary around 01:20 when German searchlights homed in and demanded recognition signals. A German-speaking signaler stalled them. This got them to within a mile of the target before shore batteries opened up, the White Ensign replaced the German one and, as they say in the movies “all hell broke loose”. Engaging concrete bunker-emplaced guns with 20mm Oerlikons and no protection was heroic but close to futile. All but two of the dozen MLs were sunk or damaged and only fragments of the assault parties landed. Campbeltown, increasing speed to 19 knots, rammed the lock gates, driving her bow 30ft beyond it with the force of impact.
The Commandos aboard scrambled off to demolish pump houses and dock equipment and 30 of the crew, including Halden-Beattie were taken off the stern by ML-177. Only ML-160, -307 and -443 made it back to Falmouth. Newman had landed and organised a defence perimeter while demolition charges were being laid. But so many of the small boats were lost that the planned evacuation by sea was impossible. Apart from 169 dead or missing, 215 commandos and sailors were then captured in the fierce fighting that raged on until dawn. Only five men made it to Spain to return home.
Dawn brought the scene of shambles into the light—smoking, rubble-strewn demolition sites, bodies everywhere, abandoned MLs drifting on fire and the spectacular sight of the Campbeltown reared up over the dock gates.
Clean-up was underway just before noon and a party of 40 senior German officers were inspecting the ship when her delayed action charges went off. The massive explosion killed them all, along with almost 300 others in the vicinity. And, as planned, it wrecked the dock gates, sweeping Campbeltown into the empty dock and sinking two tankers that were already there under repair.
The dock itself was not again operational until after the war and the Tirpitz spent the war hiding in Norwegian fiords until capsized by a massive 22,000lb ‘Tallboy’ bomb delivered by an RAF Lancaster of the 617 ‘Dam Buster’ squadron. Five Victoria Crosses (two of them posthumous) and eighty-four other decorations were awarded, including four Croix de Guerre by the French. Hitler was so furious he dismissed the Chief of Staff to the Commander-in-Chief West. A memorial to the those involved in the ‘greatest’ raid was erected in Falmouth. It is a shame such selfless heroism gets so little coverage nowadays.
As a postscript, Campeltown’s ship’s bell was rescued that night and eventually presented to the people of Campbeltown, Pennnsylvania. When a new RN ship of that name was commissioned in 1987, the townspeople loaned the bell back in service. When she was decommissioned, the bell was returned to the people of the town on June 21st last year.