The last boat in the line however, ML 177 under Lt Rodier, achieved some success by managing to land its party of Commandos under Sgt Major Haines on the southern side of the Old Entrance, who then made to join up with Captain Hooper and his men and eliminate the guns between the Old Entrance and the Old Mole not knowing that they had failed to land. The command boat MGB 314 now moved across the river and landed Lt Col Newman and his headquarters at the northern steps of the Old Entrance. Ryder used his loudhailer to order Lt Rodier to move to the stern of Campbeltown and take off the crew and wounded. At this point the two launches that had overshot had come back round and once again tried to make a landing. The first was Lt Burt's ML 262 who came into the Old Entrance and landed his party on the northern quay. Lt Woodcock and his demolitions team, along with Lt Morgan and his protection squad scrambled ashore. About this time, the southern winding shed erupted in a huge explosion as Lt Smalley and his men completed their work. Burt was just casting off when Lt Morgan and his team came racing back and so Burt came up alongside the quay once again and took them onboard. Lt Morgan claimed that the return flare ordering the recall had been sighted - probably a multi-coloured tracer. Just as Burt was leaving, Lt Smalley's party came back shouting to be taken off. Burt once again moved back to the quayside and took them off and headed for the open water. The craft was hit several times in short succession causing casualties (that included Lt Smalley being killed) and damage but the craft remained operable and so Burt headed downstream. Beart's ML 267 came round next and tried to land the Commandos without success. A few men got ashore but were recalled almost immediately as the craft took a number of hits from sustained and accurate fire. The ship was set alight and the occupants abandoned it as it drifted into he middle of the river. Many of those on board were killed while in the water, either due to machinegun fire, burning oil or drowning. Finally, MTB 74 under Lt Wynn entered the Old Entrance. He came up alongside Ryder in the MGB but his torpedoes would no longer be needed for hitting the Normandie Dock But Ryder still needed them in case Campbeltown failed to scuttle properly.
Lt Roy's group disembarked from the port side of the destroyer and made their way to the Pump House to attack two German guns on the roof. The guns however were found to be abandoned, the crews having caught sight of Roy and his group moving towards them and decided that discretion was the better part of valour, making their escape down an external staircase. Charges were placed on the guns to destroy them and the group moved on to their next objective. This was the Old Entrance bridge - Roy as to seize and hold it to allow the various demolition teams to retire towards the Old Mole on their way to embarkation. The bridge was then to be blown by the charges laid by Lt Woodcock, but Woodcock and many of his team had already come to grief on ML 262.Roy and his group found it to be free of the enemy however and so set up positions covering its approaches and waited there, isolated from the action.
Next to leave the destroyer was Lt Chant and his demolition team of four sergeants, who were assigned the task of destroying the pumping house and its machinery (the great impeller pumps that emptied water from the dock) - probably the next most vital objective after the destruction of the outer caisson. Their destruction would mean that the Normandie Dock would be a tidal quay even in the event of the caisson remaining intact and their inaccessibility meant that it could take months for the repair work to be completed, denying the dock to the Kriegsmarine in general, and the Tirpitz in particular. Unfortunately, Chant, and one of his sergeants, Chamberlain, had both been wounded in the legs in the run up the Loire. Despite the two wounded men moving with difficulty, the team left the Campbeltown, found the door to the pump house, blew it open and entered. The layout of the machinery was just as expected - the countless dry runs and hours of training would now pay dividends as they set to work. Chamberlain was beginning to feel the effects of his wound so Chant left him to guard the entrance while the rest set about their mission. They managed to descend the stairways to the bottom of the room and start planting their explosives (specially shaped and in waterproof material) where Pritchard had considered they would do the most damage. Each man wired his explosives together and then joined them to a 'ring main' of cordtex. Duplicated detonators would fire the cordtex via short-lengths of slow-burning safety fuse, that would be lit by manual igniters. As their work was completed, the sergeants called out to Chant. Once all was ready, Chant sent two of his men to collect Chamberlain and move away from the pumping house to a safe distance. He kept one man, Dockerill, with him as he too was becoming weak and knew the climb up the stairs would be difficult. Once the others were clear he ignited the fuses and helped by his sergeant, climbed the stairs to the top and retired to safe area a short distance away. The pump house exploded in an enormous roar that was heard all around the dockyard. When Chant and his men returned to survey the results, the destruction was complete. Much of the floor had collapsed, and two of the electric motors had fallen down into the pumping chamber, while the other two had twisted off their bases. All that remained to be done was ignite the oil that was leaking into the remnants of the structure. Lt Roy then reported to Captain Montgomery, who was in charge of demolitions around the dry dock, that their tasks were complete. They were then free to make their way across the bridge being held by Lt Roy to the Old Mole and wait for pick up.
Just before Lt Chant and his men had destroyed the pumping house, the night air had also been filled with the noise and debris from the destruction pf the winding shed, only some fifty yards from Campbeltown. Lt Smalley and his men had followed Chant off the Campbeltown and made their way along the water-filled channel from the caisson to the winding shed. The shed was an easy target and Lt Smalley and his men quickly planted their charges, got clear and blew the shed sky-high. They received permission to withdraw but instead of going to the Old Mole as planned they instead took the opportunity to board Lt Burt's ML 262, which was hovering close to the northern steps of the Old Entrance. Unfortunately, Lt Smalley and some of his men were killed when the boat was hit by enemy fire.
After Chant and Smalley's teams, came groups of Commandos that were to attack targets further afield, towards the far end of the Normandie Dock. Lt Eches and his team were assigned the task of assaulting the northern caisson and its winding mechanism, the first by Lt Brett and eight NCOs, the latter was to be conducted by Lt Purdon and four corporals. To protect these two groups, Lt Denison and four well-armed men were assigned as guards, to this being added Lt Burtenshaw and his group as his task, that of blowing the southern caisson should Campbeltown fail to make it, was unnecessary due to Beattie's excellent seamanship.
Etches had been wounded in the legs on the run up the river and cold barely move. Two of Denisons men had been likewise wounded and so they were left awaiting evacuation while Purdon, Brett and Burtenshaw all quickly disembarked from Campbeltown and moved along the dock. Denison led the way but came up against fierce resistance from a manned trench just to one side of the dockyard. Denison skilfully drew the enemy fire while the two others destroyed the emplacement with hand grenades. He then passed the northern caisson and winding shed by to set up his team overlooking the northern swing bridge. Lt Purdon followed up and made for the winding shed while Brett and Burtenshaw made for the roadway over the lock gate. Lt Purdon and his team set their charges but waited for Brett and Burtenshaw to blow the caisson first. He sent Sergeant Chung to let them know he was ready but the NCO ran into a wall of small arms fire and was wounded. Meanwhile Brett and Burtenshaw faced a somewhat more hazardous task as they being fired on from several well-concealed enemy groups. To compound their difficulty, the design of the northern caisson differed from that at Southampton - the team was to place two types of explosive, the first being twelve eighteen pound underwater charges that were to be placed against the caisson walls on the PenhoŽt Basin side, while the others were wreath-like charges that were to be laid inside the caisson itself.
While the Commandos managed to lower the first set of charges into position, it proved a almost impossible task to open the access cover that was in the middle of the roadway as it had been covered by wooden planks and tarmac placed on top of that. Burtenshaw tried to blow it open but failed. By now, Brett and a number of Commandos had become casualties and a major firefight erupted between enemy troops that were encroaching on the Commandos position and the British boats that were supporting them. As casualties continued to mount (including Burtenshaw), Sergeant Carr made the decision that nothing could be done in the way of lowering charges into the caisson and so once everyone was clear, detonated the explosive that were hanging by the caisson wall. After a reassuring bang and column of water, Carr noted that he could here the satisfactory sound of water rushing into the hollow structure. They may not have destroyed it, but it had certainly been damaged badly enough to take a great deal of time and effort to repair. As they retired, Lt Purdon was given the go ahead to blow he winding shed up, which he did with a roar that cheered the hearts of the battered Commandos. The group then made its way back towards the Old Mole via Roy's bridge.
As the teams progressed on their various tasks, Lt Col Newman came ashore with his headquarters to set up in a building just south of Roy's bridge. Luckily it just happened to be an existing German Dockyard HQ and so Newman set up is headquarters and waited for Sergeant Moss and his group, who never arrived as large number of them were killed while on Beart's ML 267. He was cheered however by the arrival of Sergeant Haines and his group who had completed their task of clearing the gun emplacements between the Old Entrance and the Old Mole and had returned for fresh orders. He deployed them as the ad hoc protection party for the HQ.
Lt Collier in ML 457 had much better luck and managed to get right up to the stone structure and deposit his three teams of Commandos. The first was a control party led by Lt Pritchard, the second Lt Walton and his demolitions team and the third was a protection party under Lt Watson. As the boat neared the Old Mole the officers on board saw a group of Germans moving along the stone wall with their hands up. They assumed that these were the troops from the pillboxes and so came ashore to carry out their tasks. ML 307 came next under Lt Wallis. He attempted to dock his craft, despite a warning from Lt Platt but was too close to stop and misjudged the landing. When he tried to manoeuvre to come around again they struck an underwater obstacle and grounded. Enemy fire raked the boat and casualties amongst the Commandos quickly mounted to the point where Capt. Bradley decided that he could not accomplished the task assigned (to blow the centre lock gate in the south entrance) and after speaking with Wallis it was decided that the boat should withdraw and engage German guns and searchlights interfering with the raid. After ML 307 came ML 443 under Lt Horlock, ML 306 under Lt Henderson and ML 446 under Lt Falconar (which had been promoted from spare after the unfortunate Briault had had to return to the UK), all of which had difficulty in landing their teams due to the volume of enemy fire and the chaos on the river. All decided it was too risky and withdrew. Bringing up the rear was Lt Bob Nock's ML 298, a torpedo launch with no Commandos aboard. Its mission was to wait offshore and engage the enemy until it was time to withdraw the troops.
Thus of the six boats that had been scheduled to land Commandos, only one had succeeded. Collier had put down twenty of the seventy men but these had immediately gone inland to carry out their demolition tasks. Birney's team had been put out of action on the river and the Old Mole was still firmly in German hands and would be next to impossible to capture with the force now available. The location and means to affect the evacuation of the Commandos was gradually slipping out of reach from Newman and his men.
Boats ML 160, 270 and 298 had been in the middle of the river engaging enemy targets. A German shell eventually hit ML 270 and the steering gear was damaged. With no Commandos to put ashore, Lt Irwin took the decision to affect what repairs they could and to head back up the river. Lt Boyd and ML 160 went to the aid of Platt's burning ML 447, taking off the survivors. He too, decided to withdraw and on the way down the river stopped to pick p three survivors. Once again three shells from Dieckmann's battery straddled the craft causing some damage and a number of casualties but luck was with him and he was soon underway, albeit slowly. Further out the crew managed to repair the engine to give the boat full speed in the bid for home.
ML 298 under Lt Nock had suffered its share of hits too and so Nock decided it was time to leave. He quickly inspected the Old Mole and Old Entrance looking for Commandos to embark but found none and so started the journey home. The craft was accidentally set on fire by some burning fuel, which became worse as he went downstream. The fire acted as a beacon to enemy guns and so the craft started receiving hits from weapons of all sizes, particularly several large calibre hits that caused devastation. With the boat ruined the survivors took to the water. Burt's ML 262 after having taken off Lt Smalley's team came across Collier's ML 457 just off the Old Mole, Collier having just landed the only Commandos to get onto the Old Mole but was now on fire and in trouble. Burt moved in to help but the two craft together provided an excellent target and were devastated by enemy fire. Lt Rodier and ML 177 carrying some fifty Commandos and crew from the Campbeltown almost made it to the pen sea (having past Lt Fenton in ML 156) but was hit by a 75mm shell from the Le Pointeau and sunk. Lt Rodier was killed, as was Lt Tibbits but Lt Cdr Beattie survived to go into the water and was rescued by the Germans. The four remaining commanders, Wallis (ML 307), Horlock (ML 443), Henderson (ML 306) and Falconar (ML446) deduced that getting to the Old Mole to land their Commandos was now impossible with the scene illuminated by burning fuel and craft and so headed back up the river to safety. Cdr Ryder, still on MGB 314, had seen Campbeltown scuttled and Wynn torpedo the lock gates but when he went to see how things were going around the Old Mole was filled with dismay by the scene of devastation that greeted him. There was clearly no possibility of the evacuation going as planned and so decided to reluctantly head out to sea. It was here that Able Seaman William Savage won a posthumous VC for bravely manning the forward pom-pom on MGB 314 and engaging an enemy pillbox despite the overpowering amount of enemy firepower.
The most direct route was across the Old Town Place and then over Bridge D but there was still sporadic German fire and so when the groups moved out they doubled back towards Roy's Bridge and then moved past the sheds at the side of the submarine basin. This brought them under the occasional observation from a number of German positions and the occasional burst of fire would head towards them every so often. The Commandos suffered a number of casualties here and these had to be left behind, as there was no real way of taking them along. By the time they had reached the southern end of the basin, the lifting bridge and the exit from the dockyard lay just sixty yards away. It was however covered by a large umber of enemy troops and a concrete pillbox with a machinegun. Summoning all their courage the Commandos hurled themselves at the bridge and under the cover of Sergeant Haines who manned a Bren gun, rushed across firing their weapons on the run. Casualties mounted quickly but the onrushing Commandos had taken the Germans by surprise and the defenders on the bridge quickly took flight. Very shortly afterwards the Commandos were across and put the defenders there to flight too as they were assaulted from close range by the Commandos. They made it through the cordon and escaped into the town itself. It was here that the groups started to loose contact with each other and it was up to each man to make his own way. Gradually as the night progressed more and more were either captured or occasionally shot in their bid for freedom. Here the regulars of the German 679th Infantry regiment, part of the 333rd Infantry Division had taken control of the town and had started making a systematic sweep, enclosing St Nazaire in an iron grip. Lt Col Newman and fifteen men had taken shelter in a cellar to wait for their chance to make a break for it but were soon discovered. By daylight, the raid was over.
Boyd (ML 160), Wallis (ML 307) and Horlock (ML 443) had all escaped and made their way back to the UK independently. Henderson (ML 306) escaped but was unfortunate enough to run into the German destroyer jaguar and several motor torpedo boats as he headed for home. A short but violent fight occurred and the German's superior numbers and firepower quickly told. It was here that Sergeant Thomas Durrant, manning the twin Lewis guns, stayed at his post valiantly engaging the Germans. Twice Kapitšnleutnant Paul called for their surrender, twice he was answered by a long burst of fire from Durrant. The German ship moved away and raked the motor launch with its short-range weapons. Durrant died from a huge number of wounds. Lt Swayne then took the decision that enough was enough and offered their surrender. Of the twenty-eight on board, 20 were either dead or wounded. Once the British had been brought on board, Kapitšnleutnant Paul commended Swayne and the crew for their gallant fight and fighting spirit, singling out Sergeant Durrant for his bravery. A week later, Swayne met Newman in a prison camp near Rennes, bringing the naval action to his attention and suggesting that the Colonel recommend Durrant for a high award. Thus it came to pass that the army sergeant was awarded a Victoria Cross for his valour in a naval engagement at the behest of a German naval officer. A unique event in British military history.
While most who had not escaped went into captivity, a few did manage to make it to freedom. Corporals Douglas, Howarth, Wheeler and Sims, along with Private Harding all managed to escape the net that had been cast over St Nazaire and make their way to Spain and onto the UK. Each was assisted by numerous French civilians and their families, often with risk to themselves. Douglas and Harding moved from family to family until they were put on a train to Marseilles where they were transferred to the care of an escape organisation. Howarth was eventually helped by a schoolteacher who took him as far as Bordeaux, but was picked up by the Vichy Police. After spending eight months in jail he managed to escape over the border with Spain. Wheeler and Sims walked most of the way while passing from family to family. At the bridge at Leugny over the River Creuse, two pretty young women diverted the German guard's attention whilst the two Commandos swam across the river into Vichy France. All five rejoined their units and saw additional action later in the war.
What lessons can be drawn out from Operation Chariot? In summery, these are:
"I know of no other case in naval or military annals of such effective damage being inflicted so swiftly with such economy of force . . . . This brilliant attack was carried out at night, under a vicious enemy fire, by a mere handful of men, who achieved, with certainty and precision, what the heaviest bombing raid or naval bombardment might well have failed to do." (Lucas Phillips, p. xvii)
|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]|
|Chant-Sempill, Stuart Nazaire Commando John Murray, London, 1985|
|Dorrian, James Storming St Nazaire , Leo Cooper, London, 1998|
|Dunning, James It Had To Be Tough , Pentland Press, Durham, 2000|
|Ford, Ken St Nazaire 1942: The Great Commando Raid , Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2001, Campaign Series No. 92.|
|Lucas Phillips, C E The Greatest Raid of All , Heinemann, London, 1958|
|Mason, David Raid on St Nazaire , Macdonald & Co, London, 1970|
|'The Raid on Saint-Nazaire' After the Battle , No. 59, pp. 1 - 23.|