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"The greatest raid of all"

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The HMS Campbeltown with German personnel onboard after ramming the dry dock gate at St Nazaire during Operation Chariot (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

80 years ago, on March 28, 1942, the Royal Navy and British Commandos carried out a raid of unprecedented scope at the port town of St Nazaire in Nazi-occupied France. The valiant battle rendered a strategically important dry dock unusable for the rest of the war, but victory came at a high price: of the 612 men who went on the mission, only 228 returned home; 169 were killed and 215 captured by the port's German defenders. Despite the high losses, the raid, codenamed Operation Chariot, was hailed as "the greatest raid of all" by British military planners.
 
In early 1942, Britain and America were hard-pressed to keep their Atlantic convoys safe. German U-boats were sinking merchantmen faster than they could be replaced, and any additional threat from German surface ships might have pushed the Allies past the breaking point. Of particular concern were Germany's two battleships, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz.

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The Tirpitz, whose potential breakout into the Atlantic deeply concerned the Allies (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

In May 1941, the Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen slipped through the GIUK gap and into the Atlantic with plans to do exactly what Allied convoys feared. Abbreviated from "Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom," the GIUK gap was a strategic bottleneck formed by the waters between Greenland and Iceland, and Iceland and the UK. The Bismarck was eventually hunted down and destroyed by a Royal Navy stretched to its limits, but its actions during the chase revealed a potential security threat. When it was finally caught and sunk, the battleship was heading toward the French port of St Nazaire for repairs.

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The GIUK gap, which retained its strategic importance throughout the 20th century and even today (Image: public domain)

St Nazaire was special, since it had the only dry dock that could service and repair large German warships operating in the Atlantic, named the Louis Joubert Lock, or the Normandie dry dock. Its alternative name was given after the first ship to be constructed there, the passenger liner SS Normandie. The Tirpitz was held in Nazi-occupied Norway as a threat against Arctic convoys headed for the Soviet Union with vital supplies, but it was always possible that the ship could be sent west into the Atlantic. In order to deprive the Tirpitz from repairs during a hypothetical Atlantic operation, the Normandie dry dock had to be put out of commission.
 
Lord Mountbatten's Combined Operations Headquarters (Read our earlier article – Lord Mountbatten), charged with raids against German-occupied Europe, started looking into how it could take out the dry dock. A massive air raid was rejected, as it would have necessarily caused numerous deaths among French civilian dockyard workers. The secret Special Operations Executive was approached about using their agents to blow up the dock gates. They said they couldn't do it, as carrying enough explosives for the job would have taken too many agents. The Royal Navy considered simply attacking the port with battleships, but the terrain made that impossible. St Nazaire lies 5 miles (8 km) up the Loire estuary, and any ships large enough to do the job would have been spotted and engaged well before they could get into range. Additionally, much of the Loire estuary had underwater sand banks, which heavy ships would have run aground on, while the single dredged channel was heavily guarded.

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Captain Robert Edward Dudley Ryder, commander of Operation Chariot (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Perhaps inspired by medieval castle sieges, Combined Operations Headquarters eventually decided to just ram the dock's gate with a destroyer filled with explosives. Commandos onboard would quickly debark, do as much damage to various bits of vital machinery as possible, then get out on some evacuation ships. The timed explosives on the destroyer would blow up a few hours later, hopefully putting the dock out of commission. Naval experts knew that an unusually high spring tide was due in May 1942, which would allow a destroyer to approach via the undredged parts of the estuary without running aground. St Nazaire was also home to a German submarine base, and British planners hoped that enough damage to the docks would also hinder U-boat operations.
 
Naturally, the destroyer used for the operation would be a total loss. British Admiralty originally wanted to use an old Free French destroyer, but that would have meant sharing the plan with Free French officers, increasing the number of people aware of the raid. In the end, an old American destroyer was chosen instead.

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USS Buchanan, later renamed HMS Campbeltown, laying smoke, 1919-21. Note the four funnels, two of which were removed for the St Nazaire raid. (Photo: historyofwar.org)

The HMS Campbeltown was a World War I-era destroyer originally christened the USS Buchanan. It was transferred to Britain in 1940 as part of the Destroyers for Bases Agreement and renamed by the Royal Navy (Read our earlier article -America's politics before World War II). In order to approach the docks unchallenged, it was modified to look like a German Type-23 torpedo boat. (It should be noted that the Germans used the phrase "torpedo boat" for a ship category that was more like a small destroyer by Allied standards; in fact, Allied documents usually referred to German torpedo boats as "destroyers.") Two of the Campbeltown's four funnels were removed, and the other two had their tops chopped off at an angle to give the ship a more convincing silhouette. All unnecessary equipment was removed to lighten the ship, and some extra armor was added to the bridge, the wheelhouse, and the sides of the open deck where some of the commandos were to travel. The ship's bow was filled with 4.5 tons of explosives, enclosed in concrete to make sure the Germans couldn't disable it in time. The explosives were controlled by timed detonators set before the ship embarked on its last voyage.

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The Campbeltown during conversion, with two of her funnels already removed (Photo: Royal Navy)

A small flotilla was to accompany the Campbeltown. Two additional destroyers were to escort it to the French coast and deal with any hostile encounters on the way, but they would stay on the open sea. A submarine would go ahead of the task force unnoticed and use its navigational beacon to guide ships into the Loire estuary in the darkness. A motor gunboat, MGB 314 (a small, fast boat similar to a torpedo boat but equipped with guns) would act as the mobile headquarters for the operation, carrying Commander Robert Ryder, who was in overall command of the operation.

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MGT 314 (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

A motor torpedo boat, MTB 74, was added to the force at the last moment. She had a temperamental engine that only had two working speeds: dead slow at 6 knots, or full-out at 33. The boat's commander, Sub-Lieutenant Michael Wynn, and a mechanic had 24 hours to fix the engine so they could participate in the raid. Once at St Nazaire, Wynn was to approach the dry dock. If the outer gates were open, he was to launch torpedoes through it and down the length of the dock to hit the inner gates. If the gates were closed, he was to torpedo the old gates leading into the St Nazaire basin, where the submarine pen was.

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MTB 74 modified for the raid. The torpedo tubes have been placed atop the forecastle pointing forward, allowing the boat to launch torpedoes over torpedo nets. (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Now, none of these ships were spacious enough to actually bring the commandos home once they've left the Campbeltown behind. In fact, they didn't even have enough space to carry all the necessary commandos to St Nazaire. Twelve motor launches (MLs) were detailed for the task. These boats had machine guns, a small gun each and depth charges, but had neither the firepower nor the armor to stand up to any significant opposition.

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A Fairmile B Motor Launch, the same type as the ones used in St Nazaire, on D-Day (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The commando force was led by Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Charles Newman, and was divided into three groups. Two of these would travel in the MLs, and the last in the doomed destroyer. Each group was, in turn, split into three teams. Once at the port, the assault teams would go first and take out enemy defenses. Demolition teams would follow and plant charges on water-pumping and gate machinery as well as underground fuel tanks. These men carried so many explosives that they only armed themselves with sidearms for self-defense. Protection teams would escort the demolitionists and keep them safe. A mole called the Old Mole was located along the dock front jutting out into the river. Half of the MLs would deposit their commandos there, while troops aboard the Campbeltown would just get off after their ride rammed the dry dock gate. The other half of the MLs would follow the Campbeltown and land their troops near the old gate that was also the torpedo boat's secondary target. The mole was also the pick-up point for all the commandos once their business was done.

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Aerial photograph of the docks taken shortly before the raid. Red: the Normandie dry dock (with two tankers in it). Blue: the old gate. Yellow: submarine pens. Green: the Old Mole. Note that the photo is oriented roughly east, so north is to the left side. (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The attack force departed from England at 2 p.m. on March 26, with MGB 314 and MTB 74 towed by destroyers as they didn't have the range to get to their target and back home. The flotilla encountered two French fishing trawlers. They represented no direct threat, but their crews were taken on board and the ships sunk to make sure they wouldn't report the task force to the Germans. At 5 p.m., the force received reports of German torpedo boats in the area, but did not encounter the enemy. Two additional destroyers were dispatched from England to catch up with the flotilla and provide extra firepower, should the German force show up.
 
The task force ran into a German U-boat returning home to St Nazaire after its patrol on the morning of the 27th, and HMS Tynedale, one of the two escorting destroyers, quickly attacked it. The submarine broke contact, and later sent a radio message about the encounter. Luckily for the commando force, the U-boat's captain incorrectly reported them as heading westward, suggesting they were en route to Gibraltar. Incidentally, the same U-boat, U-593, met Tynedale again later that year, and sunk her.

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The conning tower of U-593 (Photo: Unknown photographer)

A diversionary RAF bombing raid occurred over St Nazaire late in the evening of the 27th. Some 60 bombers circled over the port for an hour from 11:30 p.m. onward to attract German attention away from the sea. They had orders to only bomb clearly identified military targets, and only with one bomb at a time, to avoid civilian casualties. Due to heavy cloud cover, only four planes dropped bombs over the town and six outside of it. The Germans believed that an airborne raid was in the making, and went to a heightened state of alert. Defensive guns stopped firing and searchlights were killed in order to make it harder for paratroopers to find the port. Sometime after 1 a.m., a lookout reported activity at sea – the convoy had arrived.
 
The Campbeltown was flying a German flag to mislead the port's defenders as long as possible. It should be noted that this practice was widely accepted as a legitimate ruse de guerre ("ruse of war") as long as the false colors were lowered and the true ones raised before the ship fired its guns.

The convoy was about 8 minutes away from the dock gates at 1:22 a.m., when it was suddenly illuminated by searchlights and the Germans demanded identification via signal lights. MGB 314 replied, using a coded German response that was obtained during a commando raid in Norway a few months before. A few guns from the shore batteries opened fire, and the MGB signaled "Ship being fired upon by friendly forces." This bought the convoy some more time, but the Germans figured out the ruse and started firing in earnest soon after. At 1:28 a.m., 1 mile (1.6 km) from the dock gates, Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie, captain of the Campbeltown, gave the order to lower the German flag and fly the Royal Navy's White Ensign.

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Stephen Halden Beattie, captain of the HMS Campbeltown on her final mission (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

The convoy steamed past a German guard ship, quickly silencing its guns with their own weapons. The helmsman of the Campbeltown was killed at his post; his replacement was wounded as well. Blinded by searchlights, the destroyer cut through anti-torpedo nets and rammed the closed gates of the Normandie dry dock at 1:34 a.m. (four minutes behind schedule), running 33 ft (10 m) onto them with the ship's momentum.

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The Campbeltown after ramming the dry dock gate, seen from the front (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The destroyer's naval crew headed for the pickup point at the Old Mole, while the commandos quickly alighted from the destroyer and engaged German defenses. Led by Captain Donald William Roy, nicknamed "The Laird" and leading his men in a kilt, they used ladders and grenades to take out rooftop gun emplacements and capture a bridge that allowed the force to get off the docks.

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Donald William Roy (left) and fellow Operation Chariot participant Richard Morgan (Photo: Pete R., Commando Veteran Archive)

The other two commando groups, carried by the MLs, fared much more poorly. Unable to withstand the enemy fire, all but two motor launches were either destroyed or turned around and forced to flee. Lieutenant Colonel Newman was aboard the MGB and did not need to land, but decided to do so anyway and lead his commandos in person.

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Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Charles Newman (Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Finding the dry dock's outer gate closed, MTB 74 fired her torpedoes into the old gate. They did not explode immediately, as they were on a long timer. The boat then turned homeward, but was torn apart by German fire before it could get to a safe distance. Wynn and Chief Motor Mechanic Bill Lovegrove were the only survivors, and Wynn had lost an eye during the intense shelling and machine gun fire. They were picked up by a German boat.

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Sub-Lieutenant Wynn and Chief Motor Mechanic Lovegrove of MTB 74 (Photo: Unknown photographer)

The commandos worked quickly, causing critical damage to important machinery, though they could not attack the submarine pens. With most of the motor launches gone, however, some 100 soldiers had no way of getting home. Newman gathered his men and gave them three orders: "to do our best to get back to England," "not to surrender until all our ammunition is exhausted," and "not to surrender at all if we can help it."

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Two commandos rounded up in St Nazaire after the raid (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The stranded men split into small groups and took to St Nazaire's narrow back streets and cellars, trying to get out of the town and into the countryside. Most of them were eventually captured by the Germans, but they followed Newman's second order to the letter and only surrendered after they ran out of bullets. Five men did manage to get away and eventually made their way to neutral Spain and to the British base at Gibraltar.

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The Campbeltown after ramming the gate (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Meanwhile, the few boats remaining tried to survive long enough to pick up whoever they could and to fish the survivors of sunk motor launches out of the water. One particular motor launch, ML 306, came under heavy fire near the port. Manning the aft machine gun, Sergeant Thomas Durrant fired back at enemy gun positions and searchlights, continuously fighting even after he was wounded. The boat reached the open sea, but was accosted by the German torpedo boat Jaguar (and, as mentioned earlier, German torpedo boats were more like destroyers). Despite having no chance against the superior ship, Durrant kept firing many drums of ammunition into its bridge, holding onto to his gun after his legs gave out. He eventually succumbed to his wounds, and the survivors of the crew surrendered. The Jaguar's captain was so impressed by the man's courage that he later sought out Lieutenant Colonel Newman in a German POW camp and recommended through him that Durrant receive a high decoration posthumously.

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The German torpedo boat Jaguar, which captured ML 306 (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The remains of the mauled convoy turned home and limped away, escorted by the two destroyers that were waiting for them off coast, and by the other two that were sent after them as reinforcements. They've briefly encountered the German torpedo boat force they were warned of on the 26th, and were spotted and attacked by several German planes, but eventually made it home.

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One of the destroyed motor launches at St Nazaire (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The explosive aboard the Campbeltown went off at noon on the 28th. The dry dock as destroyed, and the massive torrent of seawater rushing in through the gates washed the destroyer into the dock, where it remained, blocking the dock, until the end of the war. A group of some 40 senior German officers and civilians were onboard the destroyer at the time, examining the wreckage and hunting for the chocolate and cigarettes rumored to be onboard – they were all killed by explosion, along with some 320 other men nearby.

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HMS Campbeltown after ramming the dry dock gate at St Nazaire during Operation Chariot (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Two days later, on the 30th, workers from Organisation Todt, the Nazi civil and military engineering organization, were cleaning up the debris left after the attack. At 4:30 p.m., the torpedo boat's torpedoes, which have been left alone up to that point, finally detonated at the old gates. Panicking German guards mistook the khaki uniformed workers for another commando attack, and opened fire, killing several of the civilians. Other civilians were killed by Germans with itchy trigger fingers while the latter were combing the streets for commando holdouts.

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Captured commandos at St Nazaire (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The dry dock at St Nazaire was put out of commission for the rest of the war, but at a painful price. Of the 612 men who participated in the raid, only 228 returned home. 169 died, and another 215 were captured. 89 decorations were awarded for the raid, including five Victoria Crosses, Britain's highest military award. These went to Beattie, captain of the Campbeltown (captured), Newman, leader of the commandos (captured) and Ryder, overall commander of the operation (returned home). Posthumous VC-s were awarded to Sergeant Durrant, the gunner of ML 306, and Able Seaman William Alfred Savage, a gunner aboard MGB 314 who was killed at his gun.

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A British POW at St Nazaire (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The ship's bell of the Campbeltown was removed after she was driven into the dock gate, and taken back home to Britain. It was gifted to the town of Campbelltown, Pennsylvania, as a gesture of thanks for the Destroyers for Bases Agreement. In 1989, the town's residents voted to lend the bell back to the United Kingdom, so it could serve as the ship's bell of a new ship named HMS Campbeltown, a Type 22 frigate. The ship was decommissioned in 2011, and the bell sent back to Campbelltown, where it resides today.

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The bell of the Campbeltown on display in Campbeltown, Pennsylvania (Photo: LebTown)
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