In the dark early days of 1942, Britain’s Atlantic lifeline was stretched to the breaking point. U-boats were sinking Allied merchantmen faster than they could be replaced, and to this threat was added the lurking menace of German surface raiders. The previous spring, the Royal Navy had run down and sunk the modern superbattleship Bismarck, but other potential surface raiders remained at large. The most dangerous of these was Tirpitz, sister ship to Bismarck.
Tirpitz was a monster, more than 50,000 tons of thick armor and 15-inch guns. She was so strong that no single British-or American-battleship could stand up to her alone. If this behemoth got loose in the North Atlantic convoys lanes, the results for the Allies could be catastrophic. With his usual gift for words, Winston Churchill summed up the importance of destroying Tirpitz: ‘The whole strategy of the war turns at this period on this ship.’
Just then Tirpitz was holed up in Norwegian waters, along with the pocket battleships Lützow and Admiral Scheer. The Royal Navy was making every effort either to neutralize this dangerous fleet or to get it to come out and fight-but thus far the British had had no luck. The danger was, of course, that the German ships would sortie when major British fleet units were elsewhere and savage a convoy covered only by corvettes, trawlers and destroyers. If the Royal Navy could bring Tirpitz to battle and damage her, there was only a single port in all of Axis Europe where she could be repaired. That refuge was the French town of St. Nazaire.
This small port city was home to the Forme Ecluse Louis-Joubert-better known as the Normandie Dock-a huge dry dock built especially to accommodate Normandie, the pride of the prewar French passenger fleet. Bismarck, damaged in her fight with Hood and Prince of Wales in May 1941, had been heading for St. Nazaire when a Royal Navy Fairey Swordfish aircraft got a torpedo into her and a pursuing British naval force caught and sank her. It was to St. Nazaire that Tirpitz would also run to be healed of torpedo, bomb or shell damage. The British were determined to take away the big ship’s only refuge-and thus Operation Chariot was born.
St. Nazaire and the Normandie Dock sit on the estuary of the Loire River, about six miles from its mouth. In the spring of 1942 the river was almost a mile wide and quite shallow, except where a single big-ship channel had been dredged close to the north bank of the estuary. The dock itself was enormous, a basin 1,148 by 164 feet. It was opened and closed by monstrous 35-foot-thick gates, so massive that the British called them ‘caissons.’ They loomed a gigantic 167 feet by 54 feet square, and were designed to move on huge rollers.
The winch houses and pumping stations were constructed on the same scale as the great dock itself. To one side of the dry dock lay the St. Nazaire and Penhouet basins, large artificial anchorages generally used by small German warships. The St. Nazaire Basin, the larger of the two, served the U-boats, which reached the estuary of the Loire through a set of locks. Some of the St. Nazaire Basin’s concrete U-boat pens were in use, while others remained under construction.
Nearby lay other port facilities, locks and bridges, wharves, underground fuel tanks for the U-boats, and a power station. The whole complex was defended by some 100 guns of various sizes, infested with searchlights and frequented by minesweepers and coast defense vessels. The city itself was home to 5,000 or more German soldiers and sailors, including a whole infantry brigade.
To overcome these formidable defenses, the British knew they would have to call on their best troops-the commandos. The British have quite a history of daring raids. They had staged dozens of small-boat expeditions against the Spanish and the French in the days of sail. And they were the authors of the audacious World War I strike against Zeebrugge, Belgium, in which landing parties shot up German coast defenses while the navy scuttled three old cruisers in the canal that led German U-boats to the North Sea.
British Commandos had already distinguished themselves in similar raids from Africa to Norway’s Lofoten Islands. The Lofoten strike of April 1941 was enormously successful. The raid netted 11 ships sunk, 800,000 gallons of vital oil burned, 216 Germans and 60 Norwegian quislings taken prisoner and enlisted more than 300 Norwegian volunteers for the forces of Free Norway. The British suffered only one man wounded.
While most of the commandos’ early raids were successful and all had caused the Axis casualties, embarrassment and anxiety, St. Nazaire would be a much tougher proposition than anything they had previously attempted. If the offensive succeeded-and that was nowhere close to certain-it would be the most audacious raid of the war. The commandos would go in during the last week of March, for only then would they have both a full moon and a flood tide between midnight and 0200 hours.
British resources were slim. Some of the commandos were to travel on a fleet of 15 motor launches (MLs), 112-foot-long unarmored mahogany boats carrying terribly vulnerable auxiliary gas tanks on deck and packing only a dual-mount Oerlikon 20mm cannon and a pair of World War I-vintage Lewis machine guns. Four of these frail craft carried torpedoes as well. The MLs did have two advantages: They could do 18 knots, and they drew very little water. Coming into the Loire estuary on a spring tide, they could operate across the shallows and around the mud flats, outside the heavily defended main ship channel.
A little more firepower was provided by a single mahogany-skinned motor gunboat (MGB). The MGB carried a 2-pounder Vickers anti-aircraft gun, a couple of twin-mount .50-caliber machine guns and a semiautomatic 2-pounder gun. She would be the headquarters boat, and would lead the raiders into the Loire, for she carried both radar and an echo sounder.
And last, there was Motor Torpedo Boat 74 (MTB-74), modified so that her torpedo tubes, designed to rest amidships, had been moved forward, almost to her bow, on the thesis that she could thus pitch her torpedoes over an anti-torpedo net. Her torpedoes had been modified to incorporate a delay, so that they would explode after lying for a while on the bottom. Her function was to torpedo the southern caisson if the main weapon failed to work. MTB-74 was a cranky boat that had trouble maintaining any speed between dead-slow and a flat-out 40 knots. She was to be towed into action, much to the disgust of her skipper, Sub-Lt. Micky Wynn, one of the many daring eccentrics (‘mad as a hatter,’ according to one senior officer) who found a wartime home with the Royal Navy.
But none of those vessels could provide the main punch, the knockout blow that would put the dry dock out of action for keeps. There would be no second chance. Commandos would land to destroy the great sliding caissons and the winch houses and pumping station, but even that might not take the dock out of the war permanently. Something more was needed, and that something turned out to be HMS Campbeltown. An old 314-foot, four-stack destroyer, Campbeltown, alias USS Buchanan, was one of 50 obsolete destroyers transferred to the Royal Navy in return for granting the United States base privileges in British Caribbean possessions.
In preparation for the raid, Campbeltown was sent to Royal Navy facilities at Devonport for a facelift. The nine-day reconstruction left the destroyer looking a little like one of Germany’s heavy-duty Möwe-class warships, a sort of cross between a small destroyer and large torpedo boat. The shipwrights in Devonport stripped the old destroyer of as much weight as possible, for she would have to negotiate the shallows of the Loire, where even at flood tide there was barely 10 feet of water. All of Campbeltown‘s torpedo tubes and depth-charge equipment was removed, along with two of her funnels, most of her masts and all of her deck guns but one. The remaining two stacks were cut down, and shipwrights added thin armor around the bridge. They also installed four strips of plating, 18 inches high, from bridge to stern, to give a little cover to the commando landing parties. In addition, she got eight 20mm Oerlikons, and her single 12-pounder gun was moved from her stern to her forecastle.
Campbeltown‘s stinger was 24 depth charges, tucked into a steel tank concreted into the hull just behind the pedestal that had supported the forward deck gun. This enormous charge, more than four tons of explosives, was fused with explosive tied to eight-hour delay fuses. The fuses would be activated on the way up the Loire. If everything went according to plan, Campbeltown would ram the huge dry dock gates, smash her way through and come to rest deep within the dock itself. There she would be scuttled, and there, with luck, she would explode and finish the Normandie Dock for the war’s duration. The explosive charge was far enough back in Campbeltown‘s hull that it would not be disturbed by the inevitable crumpling of the bow, but far enough forward to be well within the target area.
The commandos’ job was to get ashore quickly, shoot up anything German and do as much destruction as possible to the critical dock equipment and other port facilities. The lock gates serving the submarine basin were a particular target-knocking them out would not entirely block the submarines from access to open waters, but it would seriously limit the basin’s usefulness. Altogether, the commandos targeted for demolition four bridges, six power stations, eight lock gates and 13 guns.
There would be 256 officers and men in the landing force, drawn from six different commando troops. Some of the raiders carried only a pistol and an enormous rucksack load of plastic explosive-up to 90 pounds of it. The job of other five-man parties-each equipped with Thompson submachine guns and a Bren gun-was to cover the explosives men while they set their charges. Other fighting parties-two officers and 12 men each-were to assault gun positions, create a perimeter around the dock and head off German reinforcements coming from the town. For unforeseen crises, there was a tiny reserve of 12 men, plus a doctor and a small medical detachment.
The raid would be led by Lt. Col. A.C. Newman, a Territorial officer from the Essex Regiment, leader of No. 2 Commando and veteran of the successful raids into Norway. The naval contingent was commanded by Commander R.E.D. Ryder-inevitably called ‘Red.’ Ryder was the quintessential British seadog, a veteran of polar exploration, submarines, Q-ships and two wartime sinkings. Both men were cool, thoughtful professionals.
The men who followed them included some professional soldiers and sailors, but most, like Henry V and his soldiers, were warriors for the working day. Newman’s men included a member of the London Stock Exchange, a miner, a museum curator and an economist. All were trained to a fine edge in the commandos’ murderous training regimen. No man wore the commando patch on his shoulder without surviving killing forced marches-60 miles in 24 hours was the standard, and sometimes the men were pushed seven miles in a single hour. One unit made a memorable march of 64 miles in 23 hours. Everybody shared the loads, officer, NCO and enlisted man alike. Everybody trained throughout the snow and cold of Highland winters; everybody shivered through landing operations in the icy waters of the Hebrides; everybody learned to kill men with bare hands and cold steel.
These wartime volunteers knew they were sailing into the jaws of death. In fact, with depressing honesty, Vice Adm. Louis Mountbatten, chief of Combined Operations, told Newman that he and his men were being written off: ‘I’m confident that you can get in and do the job, but we cannot hold out much hope of you getting out again. Even if you are all lost, the results of the operation will have been worth it. For that reason I want to tell you to tell all the men who have family responsibilities, or who think they should stand down for any reason, that they are free to do so, and nobody will think any worse of them.’ Newman passed on Mountbatten’s offer to his commandos, but not a man backed away.
Rehearsals for the raid went on for weeks, particularly at Southampton’s King George V dry dock, which was big enough to handle the 75,000-ton Queen Mary. The attack teams rehearsed their tasks over and over again and spent many more hours with a precise model created with the help of RAF photoreconnaissance images of St. Nazaire. The demolition parties rehearsed by day, then while blindfolded and finally at night. The standard was to plant explosives on the target in 10 minutes or less, and on each run-through men were declared casualties without notice, so that the rest of the team were forced to learn their tasks as well as their own.
The raiders even invented a German-proof password: ‘War Weapons Week’-the countersign was ‘Weymouth’-for there is no ‘W’ sound in German. They also indulged in a little playacting for the benefit of any German spies who might be hanging around Falmouth, their jump-off point. They called themselves the ’10th Anti-Submarine Striking Force’ and put out the rumor that they were organized to search for U-boats far beyond the western approaches to the British Isles. They also concocted a tale that the force was going somewhere east of the Suez Canal and made sure anybody watching could see sun helmets and similar hot-weather gear being carried on board the ships that would take them to France.
By the middle of March, everything was as ready as they could make it. Last-minute aerial photos showed four new coast defense guns near the target area. These new pieces were only part of the tremendously powerful weaponry of the 280th Naval Artillery Battalion, which covered the estuary with 28 cannons, ranging in caliber from 70mm all the way up to massive 170mm tubes. There was even a battery of 240mm railway guns some nine miles down the coast at La Baule.
Three battalions of naval flak guns were also situated in or near St. Nazaire. These units manned 43 20mm and 40mm guns and a few 37mms, many of which were positioned in flak towers or atop bunkers or roofs of buildings. And this did not even take into account the aircraft of the Luftwaffe, the guns of ships moored near the dock or roving destroyers of the Kriegsmarine.
Moored in the submarine or Penhouet basins were 10 minesweepers, four harbor-defense boats, and nine U-boats-though the subs were manned only by skeleton crews. Anchored in the stream was a heavily armed Sperrbrecher, a ship designed to deal with magnetic mines. Two tankers were under repair inside the great dock itself and another nearby. There were also four Möwe-class torpedo boats moored in the submarine basin, and they happened to occupy the very spot where Ryder and Newman had planned to site their MGB headquarters. Operation Chariot would go ahead regardless. The odds were formidable: 611 raiders, about half navy and half commando, would go out against 10 times their number. Daring and surprise would have to make up for the disparity in force.
The raiders left Falmouth late on March 26, led by the destroyers Atherstone and Tynedale, followed by Campbeltown and flanked on both sides by the little motor launches. MTB-74 and the gunboat were towed by the destroyers. Those commandos who appeared on deck wore Navy jerseys and duffel coats to deceive any inquisitive German submarine or aircraft. That night the British changed course and hoisted German colors. The next morning they sighted a U-boat, which Tynedale drove under with gunfire and depth charges. Nothing more was seen of the submarine-U-593-but nobody could tell whether she had transmitted the force’s position and heading.
It turned out she had, but here the British had a piece of luck. U-593 had probably not seen the little motor launches-they lay too low in the water-and had also signaled her headquarters that she had seen a British force headed west, instead of east. The Germans made the logical assumption that what the submarine had seen was a mine-laying operation, and sent ships to investigate. They found only empty water.
By 2200 that night the force sighted a light from the Royal Navy submarine Sturgeon, posted as a navigational beacon to mark the starting point for the final leg into the mouth of the Loire. The little flotilla altered course and started into the cannons’ mouth, the MGB in the lead and Campbeltown right behind her. Atherstone and Tynedale turned aside, cruising in close support off the mouth of the estuary. Every man had checked and rechecked his weapons, and the demolition teams had carefully packed their plastic-explosive charges in the order they were to be used. Each charge-varying from half a pound to two pounds-was carefully wrapped in waterproof paper.
Over St. Nazaire, up ahead in the darkness, German tracers arced into the gloom of a cloudy sky, a beacon in the night. The RAF was putting in a diversionary raid, though in the event most of the bombers did not drop their loads for fear of killing French civilians. In fact, British concern for French lives aroused the suspicion of the German garrison commander, who noted that the bombers were dropping only a single bomb at a time. ‘Some devilry is afoot,’ he said, and warned his garrison about’suspicion of parachute landings.’ The RAF pilots, who knew nothing of the coming raid below them, later said they would cheerfully have come down to bomb at zero altitude had they only been told what was at stake.
At 2300 on board Campbeltown explosives expert Lieutenant Nigel Tibbets set the fuses on his ship’s big bomb. The charge would explode between 0500 and 0900 the next morning. The British columns cruised sedately into the Loire estuary, keeping their speed down to 10 knots. The little boats did not handle well at slow speeds, but Campbeltown drew less water at 10 knots than at high speed, and it was critical to keep her draft to a minimum to clear the mud flats.
Now the whole raid depended on one man, Royal Navy Lieutenant A.R. Green, navigator on the motor gunboat. It was up to him to lead the way, keeping the destroyer off the shallows and mud flats that lurked all around her in the blackness of the river. Twice Campbeltown scraped bottom on the mud, reducing her speed by half, but she kept going. Green’s navigation was superb-professional Loire pilots said after the war that his guidance of Campbeltown through the shallows was ‘without parallel in the history of the port.’
Still in their neat columns, the British flotilla cruised boldly on through the night, but by 0115 the flotilla was spotted and the German headquarters signaled ‘Achtung: Landegefahr!‘ (‘Attention: Landing danger!’) Only at 0122, however, did the German coast defenses react. Searchlights glared across the river from both banks, and the Germans challenged the vessels. A British signalman in German uniform replied, giving a call sign extracted from a captured signal book. That held off the German batteries for a few minutes more, and the British followed up with further signals, asking for immediate berth for ships damaged by enemy action. Finally, as the Germans at last began to open fire, the British made the international signal for ships under friendly fire.
Once the German guns started shooting in earnest, the British tore down their German colors, ran up the White ensign and returned fire with every gun, including the Bren guns of the commandos. Immediately, their fire began to tell. The Sperrbrecher was quickly silenced, her deadly 88mm gun knocked out. German fire from the shore began to slack off, and several searchlights were shot out. The effective British return fire was a triumph, Ryder said later, ‘for the many gunlayers in the coastal craft and in the Campbeltown.’ In the confusion, the little wooden boats, making smoke, turned sharply in toward the looming black mass of the dockyard complex, and Campbeltown‘s captain, Lt. Cmdr. R.H. Beattie, called for all the speed he could get.
Campbeltown, at the end of her long life, was racing down to die in style. On her bridge, Beattie called his steering corrections, aiming for the great caisson gates still some 700 yards upriver. Campbeltown‘s Oerlikons were in action, hammering the German coastal defenses. When the crews of two of the Oerlikons were hit, other crew members ran in the storm of fire to replace them. German tracers streamed out toward her, and heavier shells smashed into her flanks. Newman, watching Campbeltown from the MGB, said later: ‘The weight of fire caught one’s breath. Her sides seemed to be alive with bursting shells.’ Dead and wounded men littered her bloody decks.
Campbeltown‘s coxswain and quartermaster were both killed on the bridge, but Tibbets calmly stepped past another officer and took the helm. ‘I’ll take it, old boy,’ he said, and held the old ship straight on her run to glory. Almost blinded by the German searchlights, Beattie and Tibbetts remained the consummate navy professionals, laconic and matter-of-fact in the midst of fire and carnage. The bearded Beattie’s icy calm prompted one observer to exclaim: ‘By God! The absolute Elizabethan!’
‘Hard a-starboard,’ said Beattie quietly to his new coxswain.
‘Hard a-starboard, sir,’ came Tibbetts’ equally calm reply.
‘Steer 055 degrees.’And then, ‘Port 25.’
‘Twenty-five of port wheel on, sir.’
‘Steer 345 degrees.’
Finally Beattie ordered, ‘Steer 350 degrees,’ and old Campbeltown pointed directly at the south caisson of the dry dock. Then, ‘Stand ready to ram.’ Just before impact, Beattie ordered ‘port 20,’ and Tibbets swung her stern to starboard, neatly clearing a landing place for the motor launches coming in behind her.
At 19 knots the old destroyer tore through the cables of an anti-torpedo net, smashed into the massive southern caisson and jammed herself deep inside the great dock. Her steel bow warped and buckled for 36 feet under the tremendous impact of striking the dock. Now she was stuck fast, pointed upward at an angle of about 20 degrees, her stern almost submerged. Beattie allowed himself a smile, then said, ‘Well, there we are, four minutes late.’ It was 0134, just four minutes off Ryder’s carefully planned schedule. Over the side of Campbeltown went the survivors of the raiding parties. Most of them had already been hit on the run in, but anybody who could move clambered down from the dock on scaling ladders and went about his mission. The destroyer’s forward gun crew and the men serving the commandos’ mortars were all down, dead or wounded, but the remaining Oerlikons continued their accurate fire on the German coast defenses. With so many men dead or wounded, no more than 113 commandos got to shore, and of those about one-fourth-the demolitions men-carried only pistols.
Colonel Newman got safely ashore with his command party and was immediately engaged in a furious firefight with German guns mounted on the sub pens, cannons on guard vessels and a riverfront shore battery. Troop Sgt. Maj. Haines arrived with a 2-inch mortar in the midst of all this hell, calmly set up his tube and managed to suppress much of the German fire, even though he was firing without sights. When one of the German ships in the St. Nazaire Basin fired on Newman’s party, Haines silenced it with a Bren gun.
Lieutenant John Roderick led his part down scaling ladders from Campbeltown‘s bow, rushing two gun emplacements in a row and destroying both with grenades. The next obstacle was a flak tower, which Roderick’s men took out with grenades lobbed onto the gun platforms on the roof. Next was a 40mm gun position, which they reduced to silence. Beyond them another gun and a German searchlight were erased by British fire, though to this day no one knows who got through to destroy them.
Meanwhile, Captain Donald Roy was leading his kilted Scotsmen past the pump house, across a bridge and on to the submarine basin, where they held off German reinforcements for half an hour. On the way he took out the guns on the roof of the large concrete pump house. The German survivors ran for their lives into the night. Roy’s men took heavy casualties from multibarrel flak guns on the far side of the submarine basin and from the ships inside it. The Germans perceived them as enough of a threat, however, that the crew of one harbor-defense boat, fearing capture, scuttled her.
Behind Roy’s Scots fighting party, Lieutenant Stuart Chant, already hit in the right arm and left leg, led his demolition team toward his objective, the great dock’s pumping station. Roy’s men had already cleared out the German gunners on the roof of the building. Chant’s party stuck a ‘clam’-a small magnetic charge-on the locked doors, blew them open and plunged into the bowels of the pump house, heading for the machinery 40 feet below. One of Chant’s men, who had already been wounded and could not walk, was left as security at the pump house door.
Sergeant A.H. Dockerill, a one-time choirboy at Ely Cathedral, carried both the wounded man’s 60-pound rucksack of explosives and his own down those long steel stairs. Chant, his hands cut and bleeding, set charges along with his men, about 40 pounds of plastic for each enormous pump, then sent the rest of his men upstairs, keeping only Dockerill with him, ‘in case my wounds should prevent me from firing the charges.’ As he worked, the pump house shook from heavy explosions on its roof, the sounds of Roy blowing up German guns. Once Chant and Dockerill had ignited their fuses, they had 90 seconds to clear the 40-foot stairway to safety. Chant managed to limp up the stairs in time, clinging to the belt of the doughty Dockerill.
Chant had set his charges well. The explosion blew the pump house into concrete rubble and dropped the pump motors down into the crater below. His party finished the job by smashing up whatever was left with sledgehammers and incendiary charges. He then pulled his men back toward the river, heading for the ‘Old Mole,’ a pier that jutted straight out into the Loire directly south of the mouth of the dry dock. Finding their way blocked by a bridge that was swept by German fire, Chant’s men swung hand over hand along the girders beneath the structure, making their way to the other side.
Lieutenant Bob Burtenshaw led his team down the dock near Campbeltown. Wearing Commander Beattie’s naval hat-it is not recorded how he got it-and with his monocle screwed firmly in his eye, he hummed the tune ‘There’ll Always Be An England’ to himself in the midst of the German fire. In the gloom he came upon the survivors of Lieutenant Gerard Brett’s party, who had left their wounded commander under cover and moved to the north caisson of the dock, killing two Germans they met along the way. They had tried without success to blow open the hatch leading inside the huge caisson.
Burtenshaw, who had already been wounded, took command, and the combined teams lowered a dozen 18-pound demo charges down into the water against the face of the caisson. The Germans responded with heavy fire from boats moored in the basin, and Burtenshaw led a small party down the dock wall to try to suppress that fire. Since they had been burdened with heavy loads of explosives, Burtenshaw and his men carried only pistols, but with these puny weapons and help from two Tommy gunners they charged the automatic weapons raking the demolition men at the caisson. The Germans ran, but Burtenshaw, still humming, died on the edge of the dock.
The dock’s south winch house had also been blown up by a team under Lieutenant Christopher Smalley, its motors and huge sheaves blown into scrap iron, although Smalley was killed as he withdrew his men to the remaining motor launches. Lieutenant Corran Purdon’s men sledgehammered open the locked steel door to the northern caisson’s winch house, set their charges and watched as the winch house was torn apart by the explosion.
Back on the river, the unprotected wooden motor launches had suffered terribly under the hail of German fire. Several had sunk or were afire and sinking by the time Campbeltown slammed into the great dock. Flaming gasoline spread across the river surface as commandos and sailors struggled to swim ashore in the freezing water, towing their wounded comrades. No survivor would ever forget the cries of men trapped in the flaming gasoline. Regimental Sgt. Maj. Moss’ launch went down without getting near shore, and her survivors abandoned her. The gutsy Moss swam toward land, towing the raft himself-he died, with every man on the float, in a torrent of machine-gun fire.
One of the launches caught fire and blew up, taking with her 15 of the 17 commandos on board and most of her crew. Another launch stopped to fish survivors out of the blazing gasoline on the river’s surface, caught fire and was shredded by German guns. Still another ML lost an engine and steering gear and had to withdraw, and three more were on fire. The ML that took off the survivors of Campbeltown tried to escape downriver, zigzagging and making smoke, but there were too many German shore batteries. Hit repeatedly, the launch drifted helplessly down the Loire, a burning beacon in the darkness, her captain dead. Save for Beattie and one other man, every one of Campbeltown‘s officers died on board her, including the gallant Tibbets.
Ryder’s battered MGB was filled with dead and wounded, and out on the river five motor launches were burning fiercely in the night. At the pom-pom on the forward deck, Seaman William Savage poured a steady and accurate fire into the German shore batteries. Completely exposed, without even a gun shield for protection, Savage coolly hammered the German guns for 25 terrible minutes.
As German fire continued to sweep the MGB, many of the wounded aboard her were hit for the second or even the third time. To save his hurt men, Ryder reluctantly gave the order to withdraw, and the gunboat, her remaining weapons still shooting, turned downriver toward the sea. Some of the surviving launches turned for home at about the same time, making smoke to cover their withdrawal. As the MGB at last headed for home, a splinter from a final German salvo killed Savage.
Micky Wynn turned MTB-74 to his secondary target, the lock gates leading into the St. Nazaire Basin. Wynn heard his missiles hit the gates and turned for home, his mission accomplished. He and MTB-74 had a clear path to safety, running hard down the Loire at 40 knots-until Wynn came upon two British survivors clinging to a Carley float in the river. Unwilling to abandon them, he skidded his little boat neatly alongside the float, but before the men could be pulled aboard, a torrent of German fire tore MTB-74 apart. The brave Wynn, minus one eye, was rescued along with two other men by German boats. Everybody else on board died.
On shore, the surviving commandos began to rally around Newman, who collected about 70 men, more than half of them wounded. Newman gave them the bad news that all the launches had either been sunk or had pulled away from the hell along the riverbank. He told them to break up into small parties and head for open country, not to surrender while they still had ammunition, and to try to make for the Spanish frontier. He quickly appointed leaders for each of the breakout parties. ‘Their salutes,’ he wrote later, ‘and bearing might well have been back in Scotland, and the orders to fight inland were receive with grins.’
‘It’s a lovely moonlight night for it,’ said Newman, and his men began to split up, jumping garden fences and scuttling up alleys. German fire was coming from everywhere, including an armored car charging down the darkened streets. The commandos fired on anything that moved as they worked their way through the east side of the basin area, shooting up a German motorcycle and sidecar en route, clearing pockets of German resistance. Some of the fighting was hand to hand. But the area was crawling with the enemy by now, and a few at a time the raiders were shot or taken prisoner.
Meanwhile, out at sea, Tynedale and Atherstone fought off four German destroyers, and Atherstone collected the survivors of three British motor launches, their decks running with blood and strewn with desperately hurt commandos. Tynedale had collected wounded men from three other launches and the motor gunboat, and transferred some of these men to Atherstone. Loaded with hurt men, the two destroyers made top speed for Falmouth, covered by aircraft of RAF Coastal Command. When a Junkers Ju-88 threatened the survivor-laden ships, an RAF Bristol Beaufighter attacked and rammed the German aircraft. The crews of both planes were killed.
Shortly afterward, the destroyers Brocklesby and Cleveland appeared on the scene, which added considerable firepower to the little fleet. Brocklesby shot down another German bomber, and a Beaufighter destroyed a shadowing German reconnaissance aircraft, blinding a large Luftwaffe strike force that was assembling to attack the retreating British. To gain more speed, the raiders now scuttled the MGB and two of the launches, all of which were badly shot up.
Three other motor launches got home on their own, on the way damaging one German aircraft and shooting down another. ML-14 came close to winning her way into the clear, but some 45 miles from the estuary she ran into Jaguar, a larger, more heavily armed German torpedo boat. Little ML-14 fought the warship for a solid hour as the enemy tried to ram or board her. Not until her decks oozed blood and she was sinking beneath her still-defiant crew did ML-14‘s skipper finally surrender. To his credit, German Captain Paul took great care of the British wounded. In fact, a German officer-most likely Paul-later visited Newman, then a prisoner, to pass on a favorable account of the gallant British defense. The German’s report led to the postwar award of the Victoria Cross to Sergeant Thomas Durrant, who stuck to the twin Lewis guns of the little launch and died on board Jaguar after being hit a total of 25 times.
Back at St. Nazaire, the smoke had blown away and the killing was over. The British prisoners had been led away, and the corpses of both sides collected. In the dry dock, about 40 German officers, some with French mistresses on their arms, had ventured aboard Campbeltown, inspecting the battered ship. Another 400 or so curious Germans were clustered on the edges of the dock. They were still there in late morning, chatting and taking photos, when the old destroyer’s enormous charge went off, scattering bits and pieces of Germans all over the dockside.
The blast knocked the caisson completely off its track, blew off Campbeltown‘s bow and finished the dock for the rest of the war. Beattie was being questioned at the time by a German officer, who had just finished commenting that the British clearly did not realize the strength of the dock. At that moment Campbeltown‘s charges went off, the window blew in and the building shook. Beattie could not resist commenting softly that just perhaps they had not underestimated their targets.
German casualties from the blast are unknown, but later French inquiries set their losses at 60 officers and some 300 enlisted men in addition to those killed and wounded by the commandos. The story persists that one or more captured British officers were on board Campbeltown as well, and that perhaps they sacrificed themselves, telling the large group of German officers some concocted story to keep them on board until the charges exploded. The French of St. Nazaire believed that something of the sort happened, or that an officer returned to fire the charges. If that was so, it was cold courage of the highest order.
The next day, MTB-74‘s two delayed-action torpedoes went off in the St. Nazaire Basin, producing panic in the German defenders. Some of the German troops began to fire indiscriminately into groups of French dockworkers, even at their own Todt Organization labor force personnel.
Campbeltown had done her job well. In fact, the dock would not be put back in service until the ’50s. The monster battleship Tirpitz was without a home. She never came out of her Norwegian refuge, and there, in another daring raid, Royal Navy midget submarines found and crippled her in 1944. And in autumn of that year, RAF Avro Lancasters attacked her. Their 12,000-pound bombs ravaged the superbattleship, which turned turtle in Tromso Fiord, becoming a huge steel coffin for many of her crew.
Operation Chariot had cost Britain 169 killed and about 200 taken prisoner, most of them wounded. Five commandos worked their way through Spain and back to England. Four more were imprisoned but escaped. Those who died in the attack were honored by the Germans, who mounted an honor guard over the coffins of some of the dead and exchanged salutes with captured British officers at the funeral.
The extraordinary courage of the raiders resulted in a total of 74 British decorations, and France contributed four Croix de Guerres. An unprecedented 51 men were mentioned in dispatches, and the operation was dubbed by those who survived it as ‘the greatest raid of all.’ Five Victoria Crosses were awarded to the raiders. One went to Ryder and another to Newman, in recognition not only of their personal valor but of the collective bravery of the men under their command. A third medal went to the imperturbable Beattie, captain of Campbeltown, recognizing his courage as well as, according to British custom, the valor ‘also of the unnamed officers and men of the ship’s company, many of whom did not survive.’
Sergeant Durrant earned the VC for his gallant one-sided fight against the cannons of Jaguar. The fifth VC went to Bill Savage. His citation for the medal summed up the whole, valiant, tragic night at St. Nazaire. The Victoria Cross was awarded not only for individual gallantry, but also for the great valor shown by many others unnamed, in motor launches, motor gunboats and torpedo boats, who carried out their duties in entirely exposed positions against enemy fire at very close range.
This article was written by Robert Barr Smith and originally appeared in the March 2003 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!