HMS Campbeltown is primarily associated with the legendary raid on St Nazaire in 1942, known as Operation Chariot. HMS Campbeltown was commanded by Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie during the raid and he received the Victoria Cross for his gallantry and leadership.
HMS Campbeltown had been a US destroyer before being transferred to the Royal Navy during World War Two. Originally HMS Campbeltown was known as USS Buchanan, a Wickes class destroyer launched in January 1919. In 1939, the US Navy put the Buchanan into its reserves and in September 1940 she was transferred to the Royal Navy as part of the ‘destroyers for bases’ agreement between the UK and US governments.
HMS Campbeltown arrived at Devonport on September 29th, 1940. She was classed as a ‘Town’ class destroyer. She had an inauspicious start to her Royal Navy ‘life’ as within a few months she was involved in two collisions while at sea and on both occasions had to put into dock for repairs. In March 1941, Campbeltown was transferred on loan to the Royal Netherland Navy. She was returned to the Royal Navy in September 1941. She took part in guarding convoys to Africa.
In January 1942, HMS Campbeltown was selected for special duties as part of Operation Chariot – the attack on the dry docks at St. Nazaire – the only ones on the Atlantic Coast that were big enough to cope with the ‘Tirpitz’. The Royal Navy had decided that HMS Campbeltown was expendable and would be used to carry a large cargo of explosives that would be carried in the destroyer’s hold. If all went to plan, the explosion would be so great that it would make the dry docks unusable – but it would also destroy the ship.
In February 1942, HMS Campbeltown was modified for the raid. Part of this modification was to make the ship look as much like a German Möwe class destroyer as was possible so that German guards lining the banks of the River Loire would not suspect anything as she sailed into port. Anything on the ship that was not deemed vital to the raid was removed in an effort to make the ship as fast and as light as was possible. However, extra armour plating was put around the bridge to protect this vital area of the ship. 4.5 tons of the explosive amatol was placed in steel tanks in the front of HMS Campbeltown.
HMS Campbeltown sailed from Falmouth harbour on March 26th 1942. Nineteen ships made up the flotilla guarded by two destroyers. As she sailed up the Loire, Campbeltown flew the flag of the Kriegsmarine but as it approached its target, this was taken down and replaced with the Fighting Ensign of the Royal Navy.
The raid went as planned and HMS Campbeltown rammed the gates of the dry docks. The explosives detonated on March 28th and it blew off the front section of HMS Campbeltown. The gates of the dry dock were destroyed and the rush of water that followed the explosion swept the remains of the ship into the dry dock.