Stephen Beattie VC, commanded HMS Campbeltown in the 1942 raid on St. Nazaire. Beattie accepted Britain’s highest award for valour on behalf of the crew of the Campbeltown – many of whom lost their lives in the attack.
Beattie was born on March 29th 1908. During World War Two he served in the Royal Navy and was given the command of an old World War One American destroyer that once in the service of the Royal Navy was named HMS Campbeltown. However, this command was for one task only and if the raid worked Beattie would lose the ship he had been given command of. Beattie was a Lieutenant-Commander at the time of the raid in March 1942.
The Royal Navy was only given twelve days to change the Campbeltown so that it vaguely resembled a ‘Möwe’ class German destroyer. As much equipment as was necessary was removed to give the destroyer as greater speed as was possible. The bridge was reinforced to protect Beattie and the steering crew. Beattie’s brief was on paper simple. He was to sail the Campbeltown six miles up the River Loire to the massive Normandie dry dock in St Nazaire. In the run-up to St. Nazaire, the Campbeltown and sixteen accompanying wooden motor launches (commandos and Campbeltown survivors would return on these) would fool German shore batteries that the Campbeltown was a damaged Kriegsmarine destroyer coming in for emergency repairs. As the Campbeltown got nearer and nearer St. Nazaire, Beattie would crank up her engines to full throttle and ram the Normandie dock gates.
For quite a distance up the Loire, German shore batteries were reassured by messages sent from the Campbeltown that she was indeed a damaged German destroyer. The cover of the raiding party was only fully blown when the Campbeltown was about 2000 meters from the dry dock gates. Now caught in searchlights and German gunfire, Beattie captained the old destroyer from the bridge despite losing two men in quick succession manning the steering wheel. The reinforced bridge just about held out.
It was only at the last minute that Beattie realised that the Campbeltown was targeting the wrong dry dock gate. He adjusted the ship’s steering – now being carried out by Lieutenant Tibbits, the man who had developed the four ton amatol bomb in the bow of the Campbeltown – and rammed the 1500 tons caisson gates to the Normandie dry dock.
Beattie dryly announced to the survivors on the Campbeltown that they had reached their target but were four minutes late.
The Germans captured Beattie and while he was being questioned nearby, the explosives on the Campbeltown ignited. The damage done to the dry dock was so great that it did not re-open until 1947.
Stephen Beattie was awarded a Victoria Cross for his gallantry and leadership during the raid – one of five awarded. The medal was accepted on behalf of the whole crew, many of who did not return.
After the war, the French who lived around the docks told Beattie, that the raid was the first since the fall of France in 1940 to offer the French hope that something was happening to help them out.
Stephen Beattie was later promoted to captain. He died on April 20th 1975, having been awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d’Honneur by the French.