The raid on St. Nazaire in March 1942 remains one of the outstanding acts of heroism in World War Two. More VC’s were won during the raid than at any other operation in World War Two that took same amount of time. St. Nazaire, on the west coast of France, had dry docks that the Allies had to put out of action if the Battle of the Atlantic was going to be won.
When the Germans launched the ‘Tirpitz’, they introduced into naval warfare a new type of ship that revolutionised naval design. Fast, heavily armoured and heavily armed, the ‘Tirpitz’ had the potential to roam the North Atlantic, causing chaos amongst the Allied convoys that crossed between America and Britain. Britain had no naval equivalent of the ‘Tirpitz’ and convoys would have been an easy target for her guns.
The Tirpitz, however, had one weakness. The only dry dock on the Atlantic coast capable of taking her for repairs and upkeep was the ‘Normandie’ at St. Nazaire – also known as the ‘Forme Ecluse Louis Joubert’. If this dry dock was put out of action, there was no place in the Northern Atlantic that could handle the Tirpitz for repairs and maintenance. This would force the Tirpitz to use dry docks in North Germany. To get into the Atlantic, the Tirpitz would then have to risk going through the Skaggerak between Denmark and Scandinavia and would be open to attack from Allied planes. Even if the Tirpitz got through this narrow stretch of water unscathed, she would have to sail either up the North Sea or through the English Channel to get to the Atlantic – both perilous journeys. Therefore, putting the Normandie dry dock at St. Nazaire out of use made very good sense, as it would have effectively trapped the Tirpitz and kept her out of the Atlantic.
However, for the Allies this was no easy task. The Normandie dry dock at St. Nazaire was not by the open sea. To get to it, ships had to sail five miles up the River Loire’s estuary. Large ships had to take the northern channel on this route to avoid sand banks in the middle. Such sailing would have taken any ship near to land – and certainly visible to any defenders.
Bombing the dry docks was out of the question. The chance of a bombing raid succeeding were remote. The area was surrounded with 80 anti-aircraft guns and pinpoint bombing was yet to be achieved. Blanket bombing the area would not have guaranteed success and would have resulted in many civilian casualties. A naval raid would not have worked, as the route to the dock was so difficult for a sizeable force to navigate and a large number of submarine nets made an attack by submarines impossible.
The British, therefore, decided on a raid that combined one large naval boat, numerous small ones and commandos. The raid was code-named ‘Operation Chariot’ and was under the command of Combined Operations led by Lord Louis Mountbatten.
The plan, on paper, was simple but very bold. An old naval ship – ‘HMS Campbeltown’ - would sail to the Normandie dry dock loaded with explosives and would ram the 1500 tons gates to it. Once ‘Campbeltown’ was embedded in the gates, Army commandos would disembark and destroy specific targets in the dock area – namely the pump house and winding houses that were required to allow the dry dock to function. The survivors would then return to England by the 16 wooden motor launches that had accompanied the ‘Campbeltown’ to the dry docks.
Though simple on paper, the plan did have a number of very real issues:
1) There was no guarantee that the ‘Campbeltown’ would actually reach the dock. By sailing close to the northern shore, the ship would be easily in range of German guns that were liberally spread around the shoreline. The northern shore had 32 artillery guns ranging from 20mm to 240mm. Nearly 50 artillery guns ranging from 20mm to 40mm guarded the dock at St. Nazaire. Around 1000 men were involved in manning all the guns around the harbour.
2) If the ‘Campbeltown’ managed to ram the gates to the dry docks, there was no guarantee that the explosives on the ship would explode or, if they did, no guarantee that they would destroy the gates as required.
3) There was no guarantee that the sixteen motor launches accompanying ‘Campbeltown’ would survive the crossing to France let alone the return journey. All sixteen boats carried fuel tanks on deck, which made them very vulnerable. Half the commando force was carried on these boats. Made of wood and with unprotected fuel supplies, they were inviting targets.
Documents from the time show that senior ranks in the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force were less than enthusiastic in their support for ‘Operation Chariot’. The RAF’s part in the plan was to bomb St. Nazaire as the ‘Campbeltown’ steamed to the gates. Senior RAF officers were unwilling to provide the operation with the 100 bombers that Mountbatten wanted. The RAF eventually agreed to supply 35 bombers for the diversionary raid. Ironically, it was the attack by these bombers that alerted the German defenders that something might be ongoing. However, there was little confidence in the RAF that the bombers used would be effective. Air Vice Marshal Saunby wrote that the bombers were “to hang around overhead and drop the occasional bomb.”
The c/c Plymouth wrote that the raid had “negligible chance of success.”
After leaving Falmouth in Cornwall on March 26th 1942, the seventeen ships, escorted by two destroyers, found the weather in their favour, as the crossing was smooth. The mini-force reached the mouth of the River Loire with few problems. However, the five-mile journey to the target was fraught with danger. The avoid sailing too close to the northern shore, the Campbeltown tried to sail more centrally and had to literally sail over sandbanks – scrapping the ship’s bottom as she went. Disguised as a German ‘Mőwe’ class destroyer, the Campbeltown managed to fool the outlying artillery gun placements. The huge advantage the Campbeltown had was that no one would have thought that such a raid was taking place. An added bonus was that British Intelligence had a copy of the signals used by the German Navy in ship-to-shore or ship-to-ship communication. A copy of this was carried on board Campbeltown and the first few gun emplacements were ‘told’ that the Campbeltown was returning to harbour for emergency repairs. This was sufficient to fool those who manned the guns.
It was the diversionary air raid that made the Germans realise that something was happening and as the Campbeltown steamed towards the dock gates with 2000 metres to go, she was caught in the light of search lights and hit with a great deal of fire. But she was only one mile from the dock gates when this happened. Campbeltown had little with which to defend herself as most of her weaponry – and other equipment – had been taken off to make her as light and as fast as was possible. All her captain – Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie – had on his side was the fact that the Campbeltown was quick.
At 01.34 on March 28th, Campbeltown rammed into the gates of the dry dock. The impact, at 20 knots, crumpled about 12 meters of the ship’s hull. The Commandos carried by Campbeltown disembarked and set about their work. However, the Commandos carried by the wooden motor launches had suffered very badly as they sailed with Campbeltown. Very little accurate fire was needed to damage these boats and very few Commandos from these boats actually managed to land. In total about 100 Commandos did get to their target. Divided into demolition teams and protection teams they faced a potential German force of 5,000 that was based in and around St. Nazaire.
After carrying out their work, the surviving Commandos decided that their only way out – as few motor launches had made it to the pick-up point – was to get out of St. Nazaire and get to Spain - 350 miles away. However, the town was inundated with German troops and by 10.00 most of the Commandos had either been killed or wounded and captured. Five did get to Spain and then on to Gibraltar.
During their fight with the Germans, the Commandos had fully expected to hear the Campbeltown explode. Clearly the Germans thought that the ship was safe as German soldiers were on board having their photos taken as a keepsake. The captured Commandos must have thought that their raid had been in vain as the ship had still not exploded after their surrender. The Campbeltown did explode at 10.35 – four and a quarter tons of amatol ignited. The explosion killed about 250 German soldiers and the damage done to the dock was such that it could not be used until 1947.
‘The Greatest Raid of All’ was a huge success. The Tirpitz was effectively trapped in Norwegian coastal waters and was sunk before she could sink a ship herself.
168 men were killed in the raid and 214 were taken as POW’s. Stephen Beattie, among four others was awarded the Victoria Cross for his captaincy of the ‘Campbeltown’. After ramming the dock gates, Beattie announced to his crew “Well there we are; four minutes late.” When the Commando POW’s returned to the UK after the war had finished, they all agreed that the Germans who fought them in St. Nazaire and who had taken their surrender were unanimous in their compliments to those who had taken part in the raid.
The success of the raid gave Britain a major boost in confidence. It had also proved Churchill’s support for the ‘Butcher and Bolt’ approach of the Commandos. These highly trained men had little support among the army’s hierarchy as regiments could see their best men being creamed off. With Churchill’s support, the Commando idea took root.
“I thought we’d get away with it.” Bill Watson, 2 Cdo
“When we heard we were going to blow up docking installations at St. Nazaire there was feeling of elation.” Corran Purdon, 12 Cdo
“It’s going to be a piece of cake…….we’re going to knock them for six.” Tom Sherman, 2 Cdo
“There did seem an off chance that it was impossible and that it would succeed. We had volunteered for danger.” M Burn, 2 Cdo.