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St. Nazaire Raid "Operation Chariot"
Part of World War II
USS Buchanan 1936.JPG
HMS Campbeltown in 1936 when she was USS Buchanan
Date 28 March 1942
Location Saint-Nazaire, France

47°16′29.28″N 2°11′47.76″W / 47.2748°N 2.1966°W / 47.2748; -2.1966Coordinates: 47°16′29.28″N 2°11′47.76″W / 47.2748°N 2.1966°W / 47.2748; -2.1966

Result British victory
Belligerents
 United Kingdom  Nazi Germany
Commanders
United Kingdom Louis Mountbatten
United Kingdom Lt. Col. Charles Newman (Commandos)
United Kingdom Commander Robert Ryder (Navy)
United Kingdom Lt. Col.Stephen Halden Beattie (Captain of the Campbeltown)
Nazi Germany Kapitän zur See C. C. Mecke
Nazi Germany Korvettenkapitän Edo Dieckmann
Strength
Destroyer HMS Campbeltown, 17 small craft (12 carrying commandos); 611 Royal Commandos c. 5,000 troops
Casualties and losses
169 killed,[1][2]
214 POWs;[2] HMS Campbeltown scuttled, eight Motor Launches lost
42 killed, 127 wounded (Plus 150-400 dead including indirectly connected deaths from HMS Campbeltown explosion)[citation needed]

The St. Nazaire Raid (also called Operation Chariot) was a successful British seaborne attack on the heavily defended docks of St. Nazaire in occupied France on the night of 28 March 1942 during World War II. The operation was undertaken by Royal Navy and Army Commando units under the auspices of Louis Mountbatten's Combined Operations. St. Nazaire was targeted as the loss of its dry dock would force any large German warship in need of repairs, namely the Tirpitz, to return to home waters rather than seek safe haven in the Atlantic coast.[3]

The obsolete destroyer HMS Campbeltown commanded by Stephen Halden Beattie and accompanied by 18 shallow draft boats, rammed the St. Nazaire lock gates and was blown up, ending use of the dock. Commandos landed on the docks and destroyed other dock structures before attempting to fight their way out. Out of 611 Royal Commandos who entered the St. Nazaire harbour, only about 200 or more succeeded in landing at the docks. All but 27 of the commandos that landed were either killed or captured: 22 escaped back to Britain in the Motor Torpedo Boats and five escaped to the Spanish border. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded to men involved in the raid, which has been called The Greatest Raid of All.[4]

Contents

St. Nazaire

Map of the port in 1942

Several features of St. Nazaire made it worth attacking. The main target was the Forme Ecluse Louis Joubert, the biggest dry dock in the world at that time, capable of holding the largest Kriegsmarine (German Navy) warships and the only dock of that size on the Atlantic coast. The British, intent on maintaining a conventional naval power advantage over the Germans, feared that the Tirpitz would be transferred to St. Nazaire. The dock had been built between 1928 and 1932 to accommodate the SS Normandie liner and is sometimes referred to as the Normandie Dock. It was 1,148 feet (350 m) long and 164 ft (50 m) wide, connecting at one end into the Penhoet basin and entering the estuary at the other. The lock gates of the dock were caisson-and-camber, each 167 feet (51 m) long and 35 feet (11 m) thick constructed of hollow steel sections.

As well as the dock the harbour included a new submarine base being built by the Organisation Todt with fourteen enormous submarine pens. It was connected to the sea via two entrances both fitted with lock systems, one opening east near the Normandie Dock and one opening south into the new (1907) avant-port.

The German defences at St. Nazaire were considered the second toughest in western France after those of Brest. Both sides of the estuary approach were fortified and were manned by the 280th Naval Artillery Battalion (commanded by Edo Dieckmann) and the 22nd Naval Flak Battalion (commanded by C. C. Mecke). Fortified guns on the northern shore included four 150 mm howitzers, four 170 mm guns and four 75 mm guns at Chémoulin, south-west of St. Nazaire and four 88 mm guns and ten 20 mm or 40 mm guns at Villès Martin closer to St. Nazaire. Further away at La Baule were four 105 mm guns and two 240 mm railway guns. Across the estuary from St Nazaire were four 75 mm guns at St Gildas, another four at Le Pointeau and ten or so 20 mm guns at Mindin. In the harbour area were around 30 single 20 mm guns, two quad 20 mm guns, around fifteen 40 mm guns and a flakship, the Sperrbrecher 137 just off the new port. Heavy anti-aircraft defences were also in the town. Radar stations were operating at Le Croisic and at St Marc and all the German positions had searchlights. Around 1,000 troops manned these defences and there were a further 5,000 or so military personnel in the town. Excluding submarines the naval power in the town was limited to ten minesweepers, four small Hafenschutzboote (Harbour Protection Boats) and four torpedo boats.

British plan

A 2007 photo of the Normandie dock, the principal target of the raid.

The Combined Operations scheme relied on surprise. A flotilla of shallow-draft boats would speed up the estuary while the German defences were distracted by an air-raid. A destroyer carrying tons of explosives hidden inside it would be rammed into the exposed caisson of the Normandie Dock. Commando raiding parties would then disembark from the destroyer and accompanying vessels to attack and destroy 24 targets in the dock area. The raiding force would then be withdrawn by sea from the edge of the harbour via the "Old Mole" jetty. Some hours later delayed-action fuzes (a group of pencil detonators were used together in order to guarantee ignition) would trigger the massive explosive charge on the destroyer.

British Forces

Initially, the plan was to have one destroyer as the explosive ship and eight motor launches. The final plan involved the destroyer, sixteen motor launches, one Motor Gun Boat and one Motor Torpedo Boat.

The destroyer was HMS Campbeltown, an obsolete craft. She was previously the USS Buchanan of the United States Navy, transferred to Britain early in the war as part of the Destroyers for Bases Agreement. Campbeltown was given cosmetic modifications so that she would resemble a German Möwe class destroyer, though the resemblance was far from perfect. This step of the operation had only 12 days, so changes made were minor, such as cutting the ship's funnels and chamfering the edges to create a more German destroyer look. Other changes included the removal of main guns and other excess weight to reduce her draught to the minimum. Armament was reduced to a single QF 12 pounder (76 mm) gun and eight 20 mm Oerlikon guns. The explosives were placed just behind 'A' gun position, consisting of 24 Mark VII depth charges. These charges were concealed from German military personnel (who would undoubtedly search the ship after it hit the lock gates) by enclosing them in steel tanks and a layer of concrete. Each depth charge contained 132 kg of amatol, giving a total explosive charge weight of 3.17 metric tons.

The ship was to ram the caisson and then be scuttled to prevent her removal before she could explode. Campbeltown was commanded by Lieutenant-commander S. H. Beattie and the crew was reduced to 75.

The Motor Launches were the Fairmile B craft designed by Fairmile Marine, 112 feet (34 m) long and 19.5 feet (5.9 m) in beam. They were powered by two 650 bhp (480 kW) petrol engines. Built of mahogany they had very little armour and were vulnerable to fire and damage to the hydraulic steering system. They were armed with a 20 mm Oerlikon for air defence, four 0.303 inches (7.7 mm) Lewis Guns and depth charges. With a normal crew of twelve, on Operation Chariot each carried fifteen commandos and extra fuel tanks.

The Motor Gun Boat MGB 314 was added to act as a headquarters ship for the naval command. She was a Fairmile C type, slightly smaller than the 'B', but powered by three 850 hp (630 kW) engines, each driving a shaft and screw, capable of almost 30 knots (56 km/h). She was armed with one automatic QF 2 pounder (40 mm) forwards, one semi-automatic Rolls-Royce QF 2 pounder amidships and two 0.50 inches (13 mm) Vickers machine guns. She was also fitted with radar and an echo sounder.

The Motor Torpedo Boat, MTB 74, captained by Sub-Lieutenant Mickey Wynn, was a special craft, a Vosper & Company motor-boat modified to carry delayed-action torpedoes weighing 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg) each. The torpedo tubes were mounted high enough on the MTB to allow them to be fired over torpedo nets. The craft was also equipped with five Hotchkiss machine gun s. With engines generating over 3,500 hp (2,600 kW) she was capable of almost 45 knots (83 km/h) but consumed so much fuel that she had to be towed most of the way to the target. She and all the other motor boats were painted a special shade of purple, dubbed 'Plymouth Pink', designed to make them less conspicuous to searchlights.

The group was escorted most of the way to the target by two Hunt-class escort destroyers, HMS Atherstone and Tynedale.

611 men were employed in the attack. The naval commander was R. E. D. Ryder and the Commandos were led by Lieutenant-Colonel A. C. Newman. The Commando force was divided into three groups, two on the motor launches and one on Campbeltown. The Commando groups were further divided into demolition squads and protection squads. The demolition squads carried 60 to 90 lb (27 to 41 kg) of demolition equipment each, mainly explosives and cordtex, sledgehammers and axes. With the demolition men carrying so much kit they were only armed with pistols, the protection squads with Thompson guns, hand grenades and Bren guns were there to defend them while they worked.

The bomber support was 35 Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys and 25 Vickers Wellingtons, although this force was greatly reduced before the operation due to the needs of RAF Bomber Command. Its effectiveness was further diminished by the order of Churchill to bomb only clearly identified targets to minimise French casualties; heavy cloud obscured the target on the night.

The raid

Journey to France

The ships left Falmouth on 26 March 1942 with the goal of ramming the Campbeltown into the caisson at 01:30 on 28 March. The flotilla sailed south-west and then south, adopting the arrow-head formation of an anti-submarine sweep. Apart from a brief clash with a U-boat on 27 March, the ships proceeded unseen, turning eastwards on the morning of 27 March and finally north-east in the early evening. One motor launch suffered a mechanical failure and returned to England alone. As they approached St. Nazaire, the ships moved into a simple formation, two lines of motor launches with the Campbeltown in-between and the MGB leading the way. Rather than taking the main channel, the ships cut across the shallows to the west. In doing so, the Campbeltown narrowly avoided grounding, but also avoided some heavy defences.

Attack on the docks

German picture of Campbeltown on the dock caisson, taken on the morning after the raid

The diversionary bombing was desultory and did little except to alert the German forces that something odd was happening. Despite this, the British ships got very close to the harbour without being fired on. Rather than use the deep channel which passed near the German guns, Campbeltown used the spring tide to pass over shallows, being lightened by removing guns, etc, though this also affected her handling characteristics. The force was first noticed at 01:15 but searchlights did not go on until 01:22 when the force was little more than 1.5 nautical miles (2.8 km) from the harbour. The British legitimately flew the Kriegsmarine ensign as a false flag and used a German morse call sign and gained almost five minutes of unimpeded progress. Twice the German guns opened fire but were soon silenced by reassuring coded messages. It was not until 01:28, with less than a mile to the harbour, that the German guns finally opened fire. Now that the ruse had been detected, Campbeltown then lowered the Kriegsmarine flag and hoisted the White Ensign.

The Campbeltown drew the most fire, sustaining a number of casualties. There was some protection from machine gun fire on Campbeltown's bridge but not enough. First the helmsman was killed, and when the quartermaster took his place, he too was killed. The third man to take the helm was Lt. Nigel Tibbets. Tibbets was a Royal Navy demolitions expert, and it was he who had set the delay fuses shortly before the ship came under fire. In charge of Campbeltown, Commander Beattie could not see the docks through the blinding searchlights of the defenders, but followed the guiding vessel ahead of him, Motor Gunboat (MGB) 314, under Lieutenant D. Curtis, with the raid commanders Newman and Ryder on board. Beatty was waiting for MGB 314 to veer aside, which was the signal to mean the locks were dead ahead. Cannon fire caused an explosion on the foredeck of Campbeltown, killing a number of commandos there.[5]

When the smoke cleared from explosion, Beattie could see the lock gates just a few hundred yards way, with MGB still in front of him. MGB 314 then swerved aside and Beattie gave the order "Stand by to ram." The Germans had anticipated a possible torpedo attack on the lock, and they had rigged torpedo netting in front to forestall this. Campbeltown, with Tibbets at the wheel, ripped through the torpedo netting and successfully struck the southern caisson at around 20 knots (37 km/h) at 01:34, jamming herself deep into the structure and crumpling almost 40 feet (12 m) of her hull. As the ship continued to take heavy fire, Major Bill Copeland aboard the Cambeltown urged a wounded fellow Commando to disembark, describing the situation as "decidedly unhealthy." The seven Commando teams then disembarked from the ship and made for their targets, destroying much of the equipment associated with the Normandie Dock and damaging the northern caisson. As these Commando groups withdrew and headed for the pier to embark they discovered how the remainder of the force was faring.[5]

German picture of a dead commando, 28 March 1942

The seventeen smaller vessels, although receiving less fire, were much more vulnerable. In the four minutes around the ramming by the Campbeltown eight of the launches were destroyed in the channel. A few hits were often sufficient to set the motor launches ablaze and the crew and Commandos had to take to the water or Carley rafts. Many drowned or were caught in the burning fuel that spread across the water. Most of the eight craft destroyed suffered greater than 80% fatalities; even on the surviving craft very few escaped injury. In the dark, and dazzled by the searchlights, several boats overshot the harbour entrance and had to turn back through heavy fire to try and land their Commandos. MTB 74 survived, fired her special torpedoes into the lock at the old entrance and made it back out to sea after taking on around half the crew of the Campbeltown.

Only a few Commando teams on the launches made it ashore, and none were later able to reach the Old Mole, from where it was planned that they would re-embark and escape after completing their mission. Motor Launch 177, under Lieutenant M. Rodier took off many of the survivors from Campbeltown, and had headed downriver, when the boat was struck by heavy fire from shore-based batteries. Lt. Rodier was killed, as well as Lt. Tibbets.[5] The intact motor launches took on the survivors they could find or rescue from the water, made smoke and withdrew, leaving just over a hundred Commandos on the docks. MGB 314 survived and was the last vessel to leave, her decks covered in wounded men rescued from the water. On this vessel the two Able Seamen William Alfred Savage and Frank Smith distinguished themselves manning the exposed 2-pdr (a 40 mm/39-calibre QF HA Mk.II, the ubiquitous pom-pom) until Savage was killed.

Back out to sea

The boats that reached the sea were heading for a point around 25 nautical miles (46 km) out from St. Nazaire, where they would rendezvous with their destroyer escorts. As the boats moved out into the wider part of the channel they came under fire from heavier guns, although at longer range. One of the motor launches and MTB 74 were destroyed in the race down river; both vessels were carrying many wounded and most of the Campbeltown crew, and their losses accounted for over half of the naval casualties. A final motor launch, carrying 28, was engaged at around 05:30 by the German destroyer Jaguar commanded by F. K. Paul. Eager to capture the British vessel, Jaguar did not use her main armament and the two vessels exchanged heavy small arms fire. After almost an hour of firing and manoeuvring, with twenty dead or seriously wounded, the British surrendered. Sergeant T. F. Durrant, who had manned a Lewis Gun during the clash, kept firing despite being shot over sixteen times and severely wounded; eventually he passed out from loss of blood and died. He was later posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross upon the personal recommendation of Kapitänleutnant F. K. Paul, the German officer in command of the Jaguar.

Four British vessels made the rendezvous with the destroyers; two were abandoned due to their condition and the others were abandoned slightly later when the destroyers came under air attack. Upon reaching the destroyers, the occupants of three motor launches were informed that their vessels were to be sunk, but they decided instead to return to Falmouth under their own power. On the way ML443 shot down a Messerschmitt aircraft.

Retreat at the docks

Private Tommy McCormack is loaded onto a truck in the Old Town.

The Commandos left behind were soon heavily pressed. Troops from Works and Flak companies began to enter the dock area from around 02:00. Also, with the withdrawal of the boats, the German 20 and 40 mm guns began to fire into the dock area. The British regrouped amongst the warehouses and, refusing to surrender, took off on a circuitous route at around 03.00 which they hoped would take them across a bridge into the main town and hence into open country.

Leaving a steady trail of dead and wounded, the Commandos worked through the docks and charged the bridge, breaking through onto the Place de la Vieille Ville, but with barely one in four of the force uninjured. The Commando breakout coincided with the arrival of regular soldiers and armoured vehicles from 679 MI Brigade. The British were forced southwards into the town and, under increasing fire, sought cover. The Germans surrounded the town, posted road-blocks, stopped all traffic and conducted a house-to-house search. Almost all the British were captured or killed by around 10:00. They were assembled at La Baule, numbering roughly 200 and taken to various prisoner of war camps, most to Stalag 133. Five British soldiers avoided capture and made it to Gibraltar. Of the British force, 169 had been killed and about 214 were captured in and around the town, including survivors from the water from the sinking motor launches. German casualties from the battle were 42 killed and 127 wounded.

VCs were awarded to Sergeant Thomas Frank Durrant (Royal Engineers attached to No. 1 Commando, died of wounds), Lieutenant-Commander Stephen Halden Beattie, Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Charles Newman (Essex Regiment attached No. 2 Commando), Commander Robert Edward Dudley Ryder and Able Seaman William Alfred Savage (2pdr gunner killed in action).

Explosion and aftermath

German personnel on-board Campbeltown, before she exploded

The Campbeltown's charges were timed to go off at around 0900 hrs at the latest. A German search of the ship failed to discover the hidden explosives, but they had not detonated by the due time. During this delay, senior German officers arrived to inspect the damage and were photographed on deck. They were accompanied to the dock by two Commando officers who had been taken prisoner but did not tell their captors about the explosives. At 10:35 Campbeltown exploded, destroying the caisson and killing about 250 German soldiers and civilians in the immediate area. The delay in detonation was probably due to the use of pencil detonators which, though reliable, only give approximate time delays affected by temperature and other factors.

As intended, the delayed-action torpedoes fired by MTB 74 at the lock gates did not detonate until two days later, 30 March 1942. These late explosions panicked the nervous German garrison, leading to a night of confusion during which German forces fired at French civilians and at each other. Sixteen French civilians were killed in the resulting crossfire and around thirty were wounded. Later, approximately 1,500 civilians were arrested and taken to the internment camp at Savenay. During the whole operation approximately 400 Germans were killed.

Despite the heavy casualties suffered by the British raiders, the St. Nazaire raid was judged to be highly successful: the dock was severely damaged and remained unusable until 1947.

Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten said of the raid: “I know of no other case in Navy or Military Annals of such effective damage being inflicted so swiftly with such economy of force, for in less than half an hour from the moment the “Campbeltown” rammed, all the Commando’s chief demolition objectives were successfully achieved”.

He continued: “No fewer that five VCs were won at St Nazaire, surely by far the highest proportion of VCs ever awarded for a single operation; and this is the measure of the heroism of all who took part in that magnificent enterprise”.[6]

Legacy

Memorial at Falmouth on Fish Strand Quay (moved July 2008 to the Prince of Wales Quay)

A memorial has been placed on the harbourside at Falmouth bearing the following inscription:

OPERATION CHARIOT

From this harbour 622 sailors
and commandos set sail for
the successful raid on St. Nazaire
28th March 1942 168 were killed
5 Victoria Crosses were awarded
— · —
Dedicated to the memory of
their comrades by

the St. Nazaire Society

The Memorial has recently been moved to Prince of Wales Pier in Falmouth and was unveiled by the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall in its new location on 11 July 2008.[7]

On 27 March to 28 March 1982, which was the fortieth anniversary of the raid, Queen Elizabeth II invited members of the St Nazaire society to return to St Nazaire on board the Royal Yacht Britannia.

In popular culture

There have been several films and documentaries that chronicle Operation Chariot and the raid on St. Nazaire. In 1968 the film Attack on the Iron Coast, which was based on the operation, was released.[8] In 1973 the BBC made a television documentary of the assault on St Nazaire and some of the survivors took part. It was shown on 26 March 1974, on the eve of the 32nd anniversary. In 2007 British television presenter and writer Jeremy Clarkson wrote and presented a one-hour TV-documentary on Operation Chariot called Jeremy Clarkson: The Greatest Raid of All Time, directed by Richard Pearson, and produced by Andy Wilman for North One Television. James Dorrian, author of two books on Operation Chariot acted as programme consultant.

In 1987 Avalon Hill published a solitaire boardgame depicting the raid. The player controlled the British forces while a combination of pre-planned responses and random die rolls controlled the German defenders. The game was solitaire only, with no provision for two players. The game featured an Area Movement system rather than the more familiar hexagon-based map common to most wargaming.

The raid was used in a wholly fictionalised storyline for the EA Games' 2005 release Medal of Honor: European Assault. The player takes control of American Lt. William Holt, even though no Americans took part in the original raid. The player must destroy German fuel tanks in the initial raid, then destroy a German power station, before finally escaping to the French countryside.

The latter part of the 1952 film, Gift Horse is clearly based on HMS Campbeltown and the St. Nazaire Raid.

See also

  • Zeebrugge Raid - a similar raid of the First World War
  • Dieppe Raid - a similar, but unsuccessful, raid on a French town in 1942

References

Further reading

  • Saint-Nazaire: Operation Chariot - 1942: Battleground French Coast; James G Dorrian; Pen & Sword Books, 2006: ISBN 1-84415-334-7 (www.jamesgdorrian.com)
  • St. Nazaire 1942, The Great Commando Raid; Osprey Campaign Series #92, Ken Ford; Osprey Publishing, 2001; ISBN 1-84176-231-8 .
  • Storming St. Nazaire; James G. Dorrian; Leo Cooper, London 1998; ISBN 0-85052-419-9 .
  • St. Nazaire Commando; Stuart Chant-Sempill; John Murray, London 1985; ISBN 0-89141-315-4 .
  • The Attack on St. Nazaire; Commander R.E.D. Ryder; John Murray, London 1947.
  • Forgotten Voices of the Second World War; Max Arthur; Ebury Press, London 2004; ISBN 0-09189-734-3
  • Turned Towards the Sun;Michael Burn; Michael Russell (Publishing) Ltd, Great Britain 2003; ISBN 0-85955-280-2.
  • The Greatest Raid of All; C.E. Lucas Phillips; William Heinemann Ltd, London 1958.

External links








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