St. Nazaire, Raid on, (Operation Chariot), Part One

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The Planning Begins
The British Force
Transporting the Force
The German Garrison
The Final Plan of Action
Moving from Falmouth to St Nazaire
Moving up the Loire
Running the Gauntlet and Raising the White Ensign
Suggested Reading


The background to the operation lies in two significant events during 1941 and 1942. The first was the pursuit of the German pocket battleship Bismarck and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen by the British Home Fleet led by the battlecruiser HMS Hood and battleship Prince of Wales. The two groups met on 24 May 1941 but within ten minutes the Hood had received a hit in its ammunition storage and blew up. The two German ships concentrated their fire on the Prince of Wales forcing it to withdraw. The Bismarck however received light damage, which caused it to loose oil and take in water. It set sail for the French port of St Nazaire after splitting up from the Prinz Eugen but was intercepted by a superior British force and sunk. The second event was when the two German battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau remained in Brest for several months surviving a series of bombing raids by the RAF that caused them virtually no damage and then in February 1942 exited the port, dashed through the English Channel defying the Royal Navy, the RAF and many coastal gun batteries to make it to the comparative safety of the Baltic Ports.

Despite the sinking of the Bismarck, there remained the spectre of a powerful German strike force breaking out into the Atlantic, as the Bismarck's sister ship, the Tirpitz, was nearing completion in Germany. In 1941 Britain was fighting alone and the success of the U Boat campaign was causing hardship as Britain depended on sea routes to supply the material it needed to prosecute a war against the Axis. U Boats could be attacked and contained to some degree by small destroyers and frigates but the battleships and cruisers of the Kriegsmarine were a different matter entirely. In January 1942 the Tirpitz became operational and left the Baltic for the shelter of the Norwegian fjords. The potential of what she could do to Britain's supply lines was an obsession with Prime Minister Winston Churchill and meant that six battleships (four British and two American) were kept in readiness should she make a dash for the North Atlantic. Therefore the Royal Navy and RAF were kept busy devising methods to take care of the great battleship - some looking at means to eliminate her while she lay at anchor, while others looked at the question of what to do if she sortied.

If the Tirpitz ventured out into the Atlantic Ocean, she would eventually need to seek refuge in the only port that could take her, St Nazaire, especially if she was unlucky enough to suffer damage as the Bismarck did. St Nazaire was the only port along the French Atlantic coast that was capable of accommodating that sort of warship. The enormous Normandie Dock was, at that time, the largest dry dock in the world and was completed in April 1932 to hold the great passenger liner Normandie, and remained at the centre of the shipbuilding facilities that sprung up around the town prior to World War Two. If the Kriegsmarine were denied its use, it would be unlikely that they would risk the Tirpitz in the North Atlantic and instead use her to target the Arctic Convoy routes.

The Planning Begins

By early 1942, the Normandie Dock in the port of St Nazaire had become a strategic target of vital importance but one that was a difficult target to attack. The close proximity of the civilian population meant that the RAF was reluctant to press home a major attack that might stand a chance of doing damage to the dock as the precision bombing techniques used later in the war were not yet available. A surface raid would also be difficult against such a well-defended target (as would be shown by the Dieppe raid later in the year) as, using the techniques of the day, a landing ship that got close enough to launch landing craft would almost certainly be detected as the port lay some five miles up the treacherous River Loire estuary, a journey that was covered by a number of coastal gun batteries. SOE was asked to look at the feasibility of landing agents to sabotage the gates to the dry dock, but they concluded that it was beyond their limited resources.

In January 1942, Churchill asked the Armed Forces to once again look at the Tirpitz question and so the new Chief of Combined Operations, Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had taken over the role from Sir Roger Keyes (who had originated a similar raid in World War One on Zeebrugge), was asked to consider an operation against the Normandie Dock. This time a fresh approach was considered. It was known that March would see an unusually high spring tide, which would allow a shallow-bottomed vessel clear passage to approach the port of St Nazaire over the sand banks that dotted the Loire estuary rather than through the dredged and protected shipping channel. The current type of landing ships - converted cross-channel ferries - were unsuitable so whatever ship was used had to be light enough to make it through the estuary but be sturdy enough to carry a large amount of explosive. There was thus a slim chance that such an operation against the Normandie Dock could be mounted and so the planners at Combined Operations started on a draft. By 31 January they had drafted an initial scheme that, while having many uncertainties, could act as an initial framework to build the outline of an operation that was crucial to the war effort.

The initial draft saw the use of two obsolete destroyers that would be specially lightened. The first would be packed with explosives and carry a large team of commandos trained in demolitions. It would ram the outer gate (caisson) of the dry dock and the commandos would disembark and destroy as much of the surrounding facilities as they could. The destroyer would then blow up using time-delay fuses and the commandos evacuate on the second destroyer, which would act as an escort on the way in. The RAF would carry out a number of air raids on the surrounding area while this was going on to divert the enemy's attention. When the plan was presented to the Admiralty they reacted negatively, as they could not agree to the certain loss of one of their destroyers and the possible loss of a second, even though the Normandie Dock was a major target of their own choosing. What they did agree to was the use of the old Free French ship Ourangan as the ramming ship and a flotilla of motor launches and torpedo boats to carry the additional commandos in and to evacuate all the personnel out after the operation. While not perfect, it was now possible to put the operation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for approval. The enthusiasm of the RAF was also waning, as they did not relish being given targets that they did not pick and the numbers of bombers eventually allotted to the operation fell well short of what was needed. Churchill himself had some misgivings about the operation but approval was eventually given on 3 March and the undertaking codenamed Operation Chariot, but the Joint Chiefs were not happy about using a French ship. This would require that French troops be used in the raid and that would mean approaching the leader of the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle. This would inevitably widen the number of people with knowledge of the operation and increase the risk of details leaking out. It was felt that t would be easier to find a suitable ship from within the Royal Navy, rather than risk a breach in security.

The British Force

Operation Chariot was organised under the auspices of Combined Operations, which was an inter-Service organisation formed with the specific task of harrying the Axis powers. While a full-scale counterattack was outside the resources available to her at the time, Britain could not allow the Armed Forces to slip into a defensive mentality - an offensive spirit had to be engendered both for morale at home and propaganda abroad. Also, it was important not allow the Germans to have uncontested control of occupied Europe and so it was Combined Operations task to conduct raids all along the enemy-occupied coastline to force the Germans to station troops along the coast to protect vital installations, troops that could be used elsewhere. However, Combined Operations was not a service in its own right and had to rely on the cooperation of the Army, Navy and Air Force to provide the support for a raid. This meant that raids were often modified or cancelled when the resources it needed were in short supply or simply not made available to it. It did however have a force of Army Commandos with which to conduct offensive operations. The Commandos were formed just after the fall of France and consisted of teams of handpicked, highly trained men who by 1942, had been organised into a Special Service Brigade of twelve individual commandos under the command of Brigadier Charles Heydon. Each commando had around 500 personnel (about the size of a small battalion) from most of the corps and regiments of the British Army.

Lt Colonel Charles Newman was chosen to lead Commandos on the operation. Newman was a building contractor by profession and had been in the Territorial Army before the war (Essex Regiment). At 38 he seemed old to most of his subordinates but his leadership ability and the way he could relate to his men meant that he was popular and well respected. Given that Newman was its commanding officer, it was natural that the majority of the troops involved would come from No. 2 Commando, but many officers and men were drawn from other units to give them battle experience. The Commandos under went intensive training in the techniques of street fighting at night under No. 2 Commando's second-in-command Major Bill Copland and would have to provide protection squads for the demolition teams, secure and hold positions vital to the outcome of the raid and keep enemy forces at bay long enough for the demolitions teams to do their work.

All the soldiers that were to take part in the raid had broad experience in raiding techniques, but the St Nazaire raid would require the acquisition of demolition skills specifically tailored to the targets that awaited the force. In this regard, Combined Operations were lucky enough to locate Captain W H Pritchard of the Royal Engineers who was highly qualified as he had seen action in France that had included blowing bridges behind the retreating BEF, whose father was Dock Master in Cardiff and who had been an engineering apprentice in the dockyards of the Great Western Railway before the war. His expertise had been put to good use as he had been asked to look at a number of ports and methods by which they might be made unusable to the enemy. One of those was St Nazaire. He had concluded that aerial bombardment would not destroy the machinery required to put the dock out of action - that would only be accomplished by the precise placement of charges and the actual locations and methods were outlined in the report. Another sapper, Captain Bob Montgomery, who also had wealth of knowledge on the subject, had assisted in the production of the report and both officers were now tasked with helping Newman.

The demolition teams were drawn from 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 12 Commando and were sent to Burntisland on the Firth of Forth to undertake specialised training in the destruction of dockyard installations. The teams were trained in the use of explosive charges and taught to identify the precise location of where to place the charges to gain maximum benefit. The teams were then taken to Rosyth dockyard to familiarise them with the general working and weak points of a dockyard and from there split into two separate groups and transported to either Cardiff or Southampton in order to practise their techniques on these two large commercial ports. The teams had to perform within set times, sometimes in the dark and sometimes with key members missing who had suddenly been deemed as casualties. In Southampton they practised on the great King George V Dry Dock, almost an exact replica of the Normandie Dock on which it was modelled. Lieutenant Stuart Chant and his men practised descending the dark metal stairs of the pumping chamber to set imaginary explosives against the vulnerable impeller pumps. Lieutenants Brett and Burtenshaw climbed into the hollow caisson to place charges, whilst Lieutenants Purdon and Smalley practised setting charges to demolish the winding house that opened and closed the gates. After a week the groups swapped round so that the teams could gain the widest experience possible to cope with unforeseen events.

The Royal Naval contingent was led by Commander Robert Ryder who, even at the age of 34, had a great deal of seagoing experience, having served three years in submarines, commanded a schooner for three years during which it had sailed to the arctic, commanded the frigate HMS Fleetwood for six months and had a Q-Ship torpedoed out from under him and spent four days clinging to a wooden chock. At the time he had been assigned to a desk job in a stately home in Southern England having lost his last ship in a collision in thick fog. His task was to organise for, and ultimately implement the plan to land 200 Commandos in St Nazaire, get an aging destroyer to the port and make sure it rammed the southern caisson of the dry dock and withdraw the survivors back to Britain.

Transporting the Force

By late March, with planning for the operation well underway, a destroyer had still yet to be found by the Admiralty, who offered a large submarine as a replacement. This, Newman and Ryder considered, would be totally unsuitable as the troops would be in poor condition after spending three days cooped up in such cramped conditions. They then considered just using motor launches to get the troops and explosives to the dockyard and physically planting the explosives in the caisson, but this to would be impractical. Just as it looked as if the raid would have to be cancelled, the Admiralty relented and provided the old destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, to be used as the ramming ship. The ship had in fact started life as a destroyer in the United States Navy named USS Buchanan (DD131) and was of World War One vintage having been launched in 1919. She had spent most of her life in reserve and was transferred to the Royal Navy along with some fifty other obsolescent destroyers under the 'Lend-Lease' agreement. Under this agreement, Britain allowed the Americans to 'lease' a number of naval bases worldwide, in return for the 'loan' of a number of badly needed ships. USS Buchanan (DD131) was commissioned into the Royal Navy and became the 'Town' class destroyer, HMS Campbeltown (142) and assigned to the 7th Escort Group, Western Approaches, based at Liverpool. She was damaged in a collision and laid up until March 1941. She served in the Royal Netherlands Navy for a time and returned to convoy duty in September 1941. For the next five months she patrolled the North Atlantic and claimed two 'kills', assisting in the sinking of U401 and destroying an enemy aircraft. On 10 March 1942 she appeared in Devonport for her final and most important refit, to take part in Operation Chariot and almost certain destruction.

To help cause confusion and delay the German response, Campbeltown was altered to resemble a German destroyer of the Möwe class. This required the removal of two of her four smoke stacks and the modification of the other two that included cutting them at an oblique angle and enlarging the forward one to almost twice its original size, while the rear stack was shortened slightly. To give some extra protection to the crew, extra steel plates and splinter mats were welded to certain areas of the ship and two parallel rows of plating were welded along the decks to give some shelter to the commandos as they lay in the open on the final run into the port. Her armament was also beefed up with the original 4in gun being replaced by a rapid-firing 12pdr and eight 20mm Mark I Oerlikon cannons being added on elevated platforms. All unnecessary equipment and stores were stripped away from her to make her as light as possible and when she left for St Nazaire, she had just enough fuel and water to make the trip. Campbeltown drew just eleven feet of water on this journey, but there was one vital addition to her in the forward compartments - a massive charge with four-and-a-quarter tons of high explosive. The explosive punch was organised by Lt Nigel Tibbits who decided to use twenty-four Mk. VII depth charges, each weighing 400lbs. The charges were grouped together in a steel tank and then covered in concrete. The long-delay pencil fuses were inserted, connected by cordtex (a fuse that detonated instantaneously) and primed to explode after an eight-hour delay.

The remainder of the naval force was made up of smaller craft that came in three types. Most were Fairmile 'B' motor launches, armed in a variety of ways with some even having torpedoes. It was the most common type of launch made in Britain during the war with some 560 being made at over seventy individual shipyards. They were of wooded construction, 112 feet long, 19.5 feet across the beam and powered by two 600hp Hall-Scott petrol engines giving a maximum speed of 20 knots. Eight came from Lt Commander F N Wood's 28 Motor Launch Flotilla, while another four came from 20 Motor Launch Flotilla, led by Lt Commander W L Stephen. All these craft had their armament modified to give additional firepower. The single Hotchkiss 3-pdr was replaced by two 20mm Oerlikon canons mounted fore and aft, as well as two 0.303in Lewis machineguns mounted on the bridge. The twelve craft were augmented just before the raid by another four motor launches from 7 Motor Launch Flotilla that were armed with two 18in torpedo tubes, one either side of the funnel. While they received Lewis guns, there wasn't enough time to install Oerlikons so they kept the 3-pdr Hotchkiss guns. The second type of craft was MGB 314. This came from 14 Motor Gun Boat Flotilla and was a Fairmile C class launch. Some twenty-four were built and while they were slightly smaller than the B class, they were powered by three 850hp Hall-Scott engines, which while propelling them to a greater top speed (26 knots) shortened their cruising range considerably. Even though MGB 314 had extra fuel tanks, she was still towed to a position very close to the target to conserve her fuel for the journey home. The C class were well armed with two 2-pdr guns fore and aft and two powered twin 0.50in heavy machineguns amidships. MGB 314 was also equipped with radar and an echo sounder and was the natural choice to become the command ship having both Ryder and Newman on board as she made the run up the Loire Estuary to St Nazaire. The third type of craft was MTB 74 commanded by Sub Lt R Wynn. This was a specially modified Vospers 70-foot motor torpedo boat that had her torpedo tubes mounted forward instead of amidships with the intention of firing specially modified torpedoes over the anti-torpedo net that surrounded the Scharnhorst as she lay in Brest harbour. These would sink to the bottom and then detonate under the ship. Both Scharnhorst and Gneisenau escaped from Brest before the operation could be mounted but the craft was drafted into Operation Chariot as her speed (almost 40knots from being 40-foot shorter than the other boats and having three 1,250hp super-charged Packard and two Ford V8 engines) might well prove useful.

The German Garrison

St Nazaire had been one of a number of French ports that had been taken over by the Germans to serve their military needs (along with Brest, Lorient, La Rochelle and Bordeaux) when they had occupied France in 1940. This included the construction of massive submarine pens that were all but immune to even the heaviest air bombardment so that the U Boat fleet could conduct the Battle of the Atlantic against the Allies. The defences around St Nazaire, especially at the mouth of the River Loire were upgraded by the addition of a number of fixed gun emplacements of varying calibre. The gun crews were all German naval troops under the command of Kapitän zur See (the Kriegsmarine rank of Captain) Zuckschwerdt. He was designated as See Kommandant Loire and responsible for the seaward defences around the estuary and the antiaircraft defences of the port. He was headquartered in La Baule, a small seaside resort about eight miles west of St Nazaire.

Zuckschwerdt's command was composed of the 280th Naval Artillery Battalion under Kapitän zur See Edo Dieckmann whose headquarters was at Chémoulin Point. His battalion consisted of some twenty-eight guns of varying valibres, from 75mm to the great 240mm railway guns at La Baule. There was also the 22nd Naval Flak Brigade commanded by Kapitän zur See Karl-Conrad Mecke whose headquarters was in St Marc. His brigade consisted of three battalions under Korvettenkapitän Thiessen (703rd), Korvettenkapitän Koch (705th) and Korvettenkapitän Burhenne (809th). The three units had forty-three guns between them, mainly 20mm and 40mm but with a few 37mm cannons, and covered the waters closer to the estuary and the port itself as well as defending the area against air attack. Mecke also commanded the numerous searchlights, which lit the river or the sky to illuminate targets for the guns. There were four large 150mm searchlights and a large number of smaller 60mm searchlights as backup for the smaller-calibre quick firing guns. Finally, there was the Harbour Command under Korvetenkapitän Kellermann who looked after the close defence of the dockyard with guard companies armed with small arms and light machineguns, as well as the harbour defence boats that patrolled the river and its mouth.

While not immediately concerned with its defence, there were the naval technicians, industrial workers and U-Boat maintenance groups that were employed in the port itself, as well as ships' crews and workers from the Todt Organisation. All of these were capable of bearing arms and defending the port. Further afield was the corps headquarters of General Ritter von Prager and his 333rd Infantry Division garrisoned this part of the coast. The division had been formed back in January 1941 and was made up to a large extent of Polish troops. It was to be transferred to the Eastern Front in early 1943 where it would be badly mauled and effectively cease to exist as a fighting unit and be disbanded. It had arrived from Brittany early in 1942 and was to cover the coast from St Nazaire to Lorient. The division's 679th Infantry Regiment was headquartered just west of La Baule and as it had not been placed on immediate alert, it took time for it to mobilise to respond against the attack.

While the Normandie Dock was undoubtedly seen as an important asset, the fact that the U-Boats were the main weapon against the British at that time rather than the Luftwaffe (which was engaged in the war against the Soviet Union), meant that most Germans considered the U-Boat pens as the most vital target within the port. The massive concrete structure provided a safe haven for the U-Boats of the 7th Submarine Flotilla and part of the 6th, which at the time was gradually being transferred to St Nazaire. The defences of the port were planned in the expectation that any landing would be directed against the U-Boat pens rather then the Normandie Dock and were thought to be more than adequate to repel any attack. The day before the raid, Admiral Dönitz, Flag Officer, U-Boats, visited St Nazaire and asked Kapitänleutnant Herbert Sohler, who commanded the 7th Submarine Flotilla, what he would do if the British landed in the port. 'It would be out of the question for the English to enter the harbour' replied Sohler. Little did he know that at that moment, the British force was in the Bay of Biscay and heading in the direction of St Nazaire.

The Final Plan of Action

With the selection of the vessels that were to carry the raiding force and the completion of the Commandos' training, the whole force started to be brought together in Falmouth in mid-March. A cover story that the craft were being organised into the 10th Anti-Submarine Striking Force to conduct long-range anti-submarine sweeps in the Bay of Biscay was created to pre-empt idle gossip in the town and amongst other service personnel stationed in the area. The Commandos, who had arrived on the converted Belgian cross-channel ferry Princess Josephine Charlotte, were now introduced to the small craft and given the chance to find their sea legs. They were taken on a long cruise around the Scilly Isles and almost to a man were seasick. The training and familiarisation continued for two weeks and ended with a minor exercise where the Commandos carried out a night assault on the dockyard at Plymouth. They were easily discovered by the defences and ended a shambles, one problem being the ships' crews being blinded by searchlights.

On 23 March, HMS Atherstone and Tynedale arrived in Falmouth, the two 'Hunt' class destroyers being there to act as escorts to the force as they made their way to the mouth of the Loire. Late in the afternoon of 25 March, Campbeltown arrived in port and caused a stir among veterans as were modified (and Germanic) outline was silhouetted against the setting sun. The ship had a new master, the previous captain being considered too old for the raid and was replaced by Lt Commander Stephen Beattie. This suited Ryder well as Beattie and he knew each other from way back when they were both cadets on the training ship HMS Thunderer. After everyone had arrived, a formal briefing was conducted in which everyone learnt in detail of what the target was and what he or she would be required to do. It was obvious that from the odds they faced, many in the raiding party would not return. An opportunity was given for any who wished to remain behind could do so without any recrimination or loss of honour, but none came forward to drop out. The objectives of the raid, in order of priority, were thus:

The plan of attack would unfold in the following sequence. The main charge to blow up the southern caisson of the dock would be carried by Campbeltown right up to the gate itself. After ramming the caisson, the Commandos would then land and set about destroying the local defences, dockyard facilities including the pump house and the two winding sheds, as well as the northern caisson. The remainder of the Commandos would then land at the Old Mole and Old Entrance and attack the local defences, bridges, locks and equipment and (hopefully) seal off the area around the Old Mole to form an orderly evacuation area. Additionally, MTB 74 would torpedo the outer lock at the northern entrance of the Submarine Basin to help render the basin tidal.

The journey to St Nazaire would be made in the company of the two destroyers, Tynedale and Atherstone and would be made in a sub-hunting formation to keep the cover story going when near to home base and to fool enemy spotter aircraft when in the Bay of Biscay. Near the entrance of the Loire, the two destroyers would leave the flotilla and the force would adopt battle formation. MGB 314 with its radar and echo sounder would be in the lead, guiding the force across the mudflats and shallows. On either side of the gun boat would be the motor torpedo boats ML 160 and ML 270 that would fire their torpedoes at any vessel interfering with the force. After that would be Campbeltown with two columns of motor launches on either side and to the rear, the port column landing its Commandos at the Old Mole, while the starboard column would head for the Old Entrance. Two more motor torpedo boats (ML 446 and ML 298) would cover the rear and MTB 74, with its erratic momentum would try and keep station, waiting for an opportunity to torpedo the lock in the Old Entrance. After landing the troops, the craft would wait in the river until the demolition tasks had been completed as far as possible and re-embarkation of the Commandos would take place from the Old Mole. The crew of Campbeltown would be picked up from around the Old Entrance after they had evacuated the ship. The four torpedo carrying launches (160, 170, 298 and 446) would provide additional capacity for embarking troops once the Commandos were embarking. The operation had been scheduled to take place on the night of the 28 / 29 March, the night of the highest tides in the Loire but Ryder felt that the force was ready to go and not wanting to lose the good weather decided to go a day early. The small force therefore set out on the afternoon of 26 March.

Moving from Falmouth to St Nazaire

The voyage to St Nazaire took the flotilla across the mouth of the English Channel, round the Brittany Peninsula and into the Bay of Biscay. Once clear of British waters, it was likely that German U Boats, aircraft or surface vessels would spot the force and so it adopted an anti-submarine formation as a cover. The course set would take them well clear of the French coast initially and it was hoped that the Germans would assume the force was heading for Gibraltar. Even in their approach to St Nazaire, the force would angle inwards from the south after first hading towards La Rochelle and so disguise their true target until the last possible moment. The convoy made a steady ten knots as it moved southwesterly with Atherstone in the lead, Tynedale on its flank towing MGB 314 and then Campbeltown towing MTB 74. The two long lines of motor launches were strung out on either bow. Eventually, the Hurricane fighters that had been watching the convoy had to depart and the force swung south to avoid enemy minefields near Ushant. The passage during the night was uneventful but the 27 March dawned bright and clear, much to Ryder's annoyance. By 07.00, the force was some 160 miles southwest of St Nazaire and changed course slightly to start the long turn towards their target, when Tynedale spotted an object on the surface around seven miles to the east of the force and after having cast off MGB 314, sped up to investigate. The object turned out to be the German U Boat U-593, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Gerd Kelbling that had in fact been heading back to St Nazaire after completing its first patrol. The destroyer closed the distance and fired off a salvo, which came close to hitting several times. The U-593 crash-dived and attempted to escape. The destroyer then launched a pattern of depth charges that forced the submarine to the surface again, after which it almost immediately crash-dived again after Tynedale had almost hit her with another salvo. Atherstone joined the chase and for the next two hours the two ships hunted for the submarine. Nothing more was heard and so Ryder decided to break off and continue towards St Nazaire hoping that the U Boat had been sunk. Unfortunately it hadn't, and U-593 surfaced at around 14.20 and snapped off a quick radio message about the encounter with three destroyers and 10 MTBs heading west. The composition of the group and its direction led the German command to believe that the force was on a mine-laying operation or on their way to Gibraltar.

Soon after the encounter with U-593, the force ran into a fleet of French fishing trawlers. It was believed that the Germans often put observers aboard these vessels with radios to report on any British movements and Ryder had decided to sink any such vessels that they came across but the number of vessels made impossible to sink them all and so Ryder decided to sink just two of them after taking off their crews. The French fishermen assured him that there were no German observers aboard any of the vessels. As the day wore on, the weather gradually worsened and the sky became grey and overcast. Just after midday, the force was told that reconnaissance photos had picked up five German destroyers leaving St Nazaire and who might be encountered on the run into the port. Fortunately, the destroyers had put to sea before the force arrived and were patrolling the submarine lanes near the coast in response to U-593's message about a possible mine-laying operation. At 18.30 one of the launches (ML 341 under Lt D Briault) developed a fault with the port engine and it was decided that ML 446 (under Lt Falconar) would take off its party of Commandos. This took sometime to complete and ML 446 finally caught up with the rest of the force just as they had reached the entrance to the Loire estuary. ML 341 was left to make it back to Britain on her own.

The force then continued towards the French coast and with two more gradual changes of course, came into line with St Nazaire. From here the force would move direct to the port and just after 20.00 the two escorting destroyers parted company with the raiders to set up a standing patrol. MGB 314 was cast off from Tynedale to advance under its own power whereupon Commander Ryder and Lt Col Newman boarded the boat, which became their headquarters. The force assumed battle formation and sped up to 12 knots for the run into the port. There was one more rendezvous to make before St Nazaire however. The submarine HMS Sturgeon, under Lt Commander Mervyn Wingfield, was waiting for the force at Point Z to act as a navigational beacon as the run into St Nazaire had to be carried out along a precise course over mud flats and sand banks. At 22.00 Sturgeon's light was spotted straight ahead - the force was exactly on time and on course. The final run into their own 'valley of death' could now begin.

Moving up the Loire

Just before midnight, the RAF began their raid on the port as part of the diversion for Operation Chariot but could not press home their attack for fear of causing French civilian casualties due to the target being obstructed by low cloud. They therefore decided to circle and hope that their presence would keep the defenders looking skyward. By this time, Lt Tibbets had already set and activated the pencil fuses deep inside the Campbeltown which would detonate the huge explosive charge some eight hours later. These fuses were not altogether completely accurate and a margin of error had to be take into account, but at it was expected that somewhere between 05.00 and 09.00 the explosives would detonate. The force made its way pass the radar station at Le Croisic without incident and entered the mouth of the River Loire where shortly after 00.30 it passed the ghostly wreck of the Lancastria. The liner was sunk on 17 June 1940 whilst evacuating the last troops of the BEF from France and with some 4,500 people missing, the scene of the greatest loss of life in Britain's maritime history. Fifteen minutes later the force passed the 75mm guns on the Pointe de Gildas, still unobserved.

Ahead, the bombing was becoming sporadic, with often a few or even a single plane making bombing runs. Kapitän zur See Mecke had started to become suspicious - the bombing raid was just not developing as it should, with hordes of bombers dropping tons of high explosive but a few planes here and there releasing their ordnance. He alerted all units to be on their guard and followed this up again at midnight and again at 01.00 with warnings to be alert for either parachute landings or an attack from the sea. He also ordered the AA guns to cease fire and searchlights to be extinguished. Meanwhile the raiding force was getting closer and closer to the port, passing over the mud flats and sand banks that twice caused the Campbeltown to lightly ground but did not affect her forward momentum. At 01.20 they slipped passed the Les Morées Tower, when a searchlight pierced the blackness behind them and swept the river, just as suddenly going out. The force was now less than two miles from the target and still apparently undetected. While their luck had held amazingly well, it could not last.

In fact the force had been spotted a few minutes earlier by a lookout at St Marc who contacted the Harbour Commander's headquarters reporting that a force of some seventeen vessels was headed up the channel. The sighting was dismissed out of hand as no vessels were expected. The sighting was passed onto Mecke's headquarters, and the staff there contacted the Harbour Commander's headquarters as well, receiving the same reply. After all this had occurred, Mecke himself was told of the sighting and at 01.20 signalled all units in the St Nazaire area to beware of a landing. This set in motion plans to counter an enemy landing that had enemy troops, ship's crews, harbour defence vessels, shore defences and reinforcements moving to thwart such an attack. As the force moved ever closer to the target, searchlights on both banks of the river came to life and started to probe the dark waters for the vessels. They quickly locked onto the grey destroyer and at first sight, the Campbeltown resembled on of the huge Möwe-class destroyers with a German flag fluttering on her mast. This caused some confusion and delay in the German gunner's reactions, despite the force having come out of the night unexpectedly. What should they do? A couple of gun crews fired some light cannon shells low over the force as a warning and the ships were challenged by signal stations on both banks. Leading Signalman Pike was prepared for this and quickly replied to the challenge with a 'Wait', followed by the call sign of a torpedo boat known to the raiders. This was followed by a signal prefixed 'Urgent' and a message 'two craft damaged by enemy action, request permission to proceed to harbour without delay.' The Germans stopped firing, confused as to what to do. After something of a delay, the Germans started firing again, hesitantly at first, but with the heavier guns on the north gradually joining in with Dieckmann's batteries at Chémoulin Point and Point de l'Eve. Pike started signalling again, 'You are firing on friendly ships'. Again the firing stopped in confusion, no doubt encouraged by the fact the British had not so far, fired back. By now the Campbeltown was entering the mouth of the River Loire itself and leaving the heavier guns behind her.

Running the Gauntlet and Raising the White Ensign

The Germans were now certain that the ships were hostile and Mecke and Dieckmann ordered every gun to open fire. The bluff had worked better than anybody could have imagined in getting them this far - the force was almost at the target - but the game was now up. Ryder ordered all vessels to return fire and the river was instantly criss-crossed with tracer and cannon fire, while the Campbeltown lowered the German flag and the raised the White Ensign, followed by the little ships. The fire from the coastal defence guns landed among the flotilla and started to cause casualties but with less than five minutes to go, it was a case of steaming ahead at full speed with all guns blazing. At the head of the force, MGB 316 had reached the outer harbour and the German guard ship, Sperrbrecher, moored near to the East Jetty. The ship was pouring a large volume of fire into the force as it approached and so MGB 314 turned all its guns at the ship and raked her from bow to stern as she passed. The ship fell silent and several other ships added to the damage inflicted by MGB 314 as they passed by. The Germans were singling out Campbeltown more and more as her size gave her an obvious importance but with the heavier guns being left behind it was only the smaller calibre shells that were hitting her as time went on. Still, damage was being done to her superstructure and decks, while some shells penetrated inside the ship and small fires broke out along her. The Commandos waited behind the specially installed plates of metal for the moment that Campbeltown rammed the caisson and they could make their way onto the dock and fight back.

At this point, Commander Beattie ordered the men gathered on the open bridge into the covered wheelhouse as he felt it was becoming too 'hot'. The sides of the wheelhouse were plated and so gave some protection from smaller calibre weapons, expect for a slit in the front to give forward visibility. He planned to go to full speed and hit the caisson at twenty knots but could not as yet see anything as a searchlight dead ahead were impairing his vision. The helmsman next to him was shot dead, as was the quartermaster who leapt forward to take control. Tibbets, the demolition expert, then stepped forward to guide the ship as Beattie concentrated his gaze forward waiting for the moment that MGB 314 would veer off to starboard and allow the Campbeltown a clear run at the Normandie Dock. The main gun received a hit from a large calibre weapon that killed the crew and Commandos around it, the hit momentarily blinding Beattie, but recovering, he caught sight of the curved jetties of the south entrance. The Campbeltown passed the Old Mole with the lock gates a mere few hundred yards away. The motor gunboat then veered off and Beattie announced 'stand by to ram'. Everybody in the wheelhouse braced themselves for just ahead was the low black strip of steel that was the entrance to the Normandie Dock. Campbeltown hit the anti-torpedo net but the 1,000 tons of onrushing warship tore through it and hit the massive steel caisson with a low groan and shuddered to a halt. The time was 01.34 and Campbeltown had reached her target just four minutes late.

Suggested Reading

A Reluctant Hero: The Life and Times of Robert Ryder VC, Richard Hopton. A biography of the naval commander at the St Nazairre raid, who after a pre-war career dominated by sailing ships (he sailed home from China in a yacht built for the task and was the naval commander on the British Graham Land Expedition), he had a fairly distinguished wartime career, which included the raid on St. Nazairre, Dieppe and the D-Day Landings. [read full review] cover cover cover
Chant-Sempill, Stuart Nazaire Commando John Murray, London, 1985 cover cover cover

cover Dorrian, James Storming St Nazaire , Leo Cooper, London, 1998 cover cover cover

Dunning, James It Had To Be Tough , Pentland Press, Durham, 2000 cover cover cover

cover Ford, Ken St Nazaire 1942: The Great Commando Raid , Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2001, Campaign Series No. 92. cover cover cover

cover Lucas Phillips, C E The Greatest Raid of All , Heinemann, London, 1958 cover cover cover

Mason, David Raid on St Nazaire , Macdonald & Co, London, 1970 cover cover

cover 'The Raid on Saint-Nazaire' After the Battle , No. 59, pp. 1 - 23. cover cover cover
How to cite this article: Antill, P. (6 April 2001), St. Nazaire, Raid on, (Operation Chariot), Part Two (28 March 1942),
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