A retired pharmaceutical and industrial chemist, author and historian specialising in military events.
Britain had been fighting a vicious European war effectively alone since 1st September 1939 and lost a significant number of troops, equipment and aircraft defending France, who surrendered prematurely to Germany on 22nd June 1940 together with some other weaker low countries. The powerful Royal Navy and outnumbered but courageous RAF deterred Germany from attempting an invasion following the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk and this allowed time to rebuild and re-equip the Army, in particular.
Operation Chariot came about due to two significant events during 1941 and 1942 where the might of the British Royal Navy was challenged by the Kriegsmarine. The first was the pursuit of the German battleship KMS Bismarck and the “Admiral Hipper Class” heavy cruiser KMS Prinz Eugen by part of the British Home Fleet, which included the 1920 built venerable, but powerful battlecruiser HMS Hood and the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales.
On the 21st May 1941, the German ships broke out from their home port of Gotenhafen under Operation "Rheinübung” and sailed for Bergen, where only KMS Prinz Eugen refuelled, as she was a very thirsty ship. The two opposing groups met on 24th May 1941 but within ten minutes HMS Hood had received an unlucky hit directly into its lightly armoured magazine and chillingly the entire ship just blew into fragments, with only 3 survivors out of a ship's company of 1418. Stunned the two German ships quickly recovered and concentrated their fire on HMS Prince of Wales who similarly mortified withdrew to reassess the situation. The KMS Bismarck, however, had received seemingly light but critical damage, which caused it to loose oil and take in water. It changed course for the French port of St Nazaire after splitting up from the Prinz Eugen but was intercepted by aged but capable biplanes, Fairy Swordfish torpedo aircraft from HMS Ark Royal and a superior British force and sunk on 27th May 1941 with only 114 survivors from a ship's company of 2220. The KMS Prinz Eugen was damaged but escaped to survive the war. The history of this vessel is quite astonishing and I will publish a separate article on her fortunes shortly.
The second event concerned the two German battlecruisers KMS Scharnhorst and KMS Gneisenau that had skulked in Brest for several months surviving, pretty much unscathed, a series of bombing raids by the RAF. In February 1942 they left the port, audaciously dashing through the English Channel, defying the Royal Navy, the RAF and many coastal defence batteries to make it to the comparative safety of the Baltic Ports. Despite the sinking of the KMS Bismarck, there again reared the threat of a powerful German strike force breaking out into the Atlantic, particularly as the Bismarck's sister ship, the KMS Tirpitz, was nearing completion in Germany.
In 1941 Great Britain was still fighting for the freedom of the people of Europe, a lone figure in the morass of Nazi and Communist oppression. The success of the U Boat campaign in the North Atlantic and around the British Isles was causing great hardship as Britain depended on sea routes to supply the food and materials it needed to support a war against the Axis powers. U Boats, although stealthy, could be hunted down and neutralised effectively by small fast destroyers and frigates but the battleships and cruisers of the Kriegsmarine were a different matter entirely.
In January 1942 the KMS Tirpitz became operational and left the Baltic for the shelter of the Norwegian fjords along with the pocket battleships KMS Lützow and Admiral Scheer. The threat of what they could do to Britain's convoy supply lines was a nightmare for Winston Churchill and meant that six battleships (four British plus a further two American from December 1941) were kept in readiness should they make a dash for the North Atlantic. Thereafter the Royal Navy and RAF spent too much time and tied up too much equipment devising methods to eliminate the great battleship and the other two capital ships. Initially, the only options seem to be either attacking them by air while they lay at anchor, or planning a strategy of neutralising them if they made a dash for the open sea.
The Achilles Heel of the Tirpitz if she ventured out into the Atlantic Ocean was one of replenishment and repair. Although she could possibly re-fuel by using fleet tankers, U-boat tankers or friendly ports, if damaged she would eventually need to seek refuge in a port that could accommodate her huge size.
St Nazaire was the only port along the French Atlantic coast that was capable of offering dry dock facilities. 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 SS Normandie. St Nazaire was the centre of the shipbuilding and marine repair industry that sprung up around the town prior to World War Two. If the Kriegsmarine could not use it then it would be unlikely that they would risk the Tirpitz in the North Atlantic and instead would be forced to use her to target the Arctic Convoy routes only and hiding in the fjords in between sorties.
At the start of 1942 merchant vessel losses caused by U-boats were rising alarmingly and the threat of the new “Bismarck” class of large German warships spearheaded by KMS Tirpitz was causing concern within British admiralty. Faced with the British fleet it was unlikely any of them would come out to fight. If they did and were damaged only the Normandie Dock at St Nazaire was capable of housing the huge warships to carry out repairs. Therefore an attack on the St Nazaire harbour would force such ships back into hiding thereby severely hampering their war effort. In addition, a new German submarine base had been built within St. Nazaire harbour, making this target even more essential and tempting.
In the second week of January 1942 KMS Tirpitz moved from the Baltic through the Kiel Canal and north to Trondheim on the Norwegian coast. There was a very real danger that she would break out into the North Atlantic and wreak havoc on allied Atlantic convoys. C in C Home Fleet, Admiral Tovey, held the view that to sink the Tirpitz would be "of incomparably greater importance to the conduct of the war than the safety of any convoy." Churchill shared this view commenting that "the entire naval situation throughout the world would be altered."
Between 30th March 1942 and 29th April the RAF made three separate attempts, using Halifax and Lancaster aircraft to bomb the Tirpitz but failed with the loss of 13 aircraft and 60 men, they also lost a Beaufighter and 3 PRU Spitfires with the loss of a further 4 pilots. Clearly the threat this warship posed required an unconventional strategy.
It became quite obvious that any successful plan would need to revolve around denying repair facilities to the Kriegsmarine and therefore concentrate on the only practical port capable of handling something this size, which as we mentioned had to be St. Nazaire on the French coast. There were others worldwide, one in Germany (Dock Elbe 17- Hamburg), Genoa and Singapore but each of these would be either in a hazardous location or of questionable operational value to the Germans. St. Nazaire lay on the north bank of the River Loire about 6 miles from the river mouth which was wide with a deep dredged channel and, of course, in an occupied country under German control.
To successfully attack the docks it was quite obvious that using only an air attack would be very costly in men and machines and therefore the Planning Division of the Admiralty came up with the idea to destroy the lock gates at St Nazaire, thus making it unavailable to the Kriegsmarine. This concept appealed to Captain Charles Lambe (who later became First Sea Lord) who took the idea to Lord Louis Mountbatten head of Combined Operations and a great supporter of the effective use of highly trained commando raids, much feared by Hitler.
As an aside Hitler was so afraid of British commandos, that following this and other successful raids he instructed Army Chief of Staff, Alfred Jodl on the 18th October 1942 to henceforth kill them all, without trial, whether they were prisoners, in uniform, attempting to surrender, injured or not. This order was issued, in secret, by Jodl's department and known as “The Commando Order” and stipulated that the commandos (and later paras) be handed over to the Sicherheitsdienst (security services) for execution by hanging, shooting or lethal injection. Being found guilty of war crimes, Jodl was hanged at Nuremberg on 16 October 1946.
The dock target area was sandwiched between the River Loire and the waters of the outer harbour and the Basin of St Nazaire - a small total area of less than one square mile. However, it should be understood that this was the most heavily defended area along the whole of the German-occupied Atlantic coast.
Concentrated in this confined space were power stations, pumping stations, warehouses, lock installations, power distribution networks and the old town of St Nazaire itself. The dry dock was enormous, a basin 1,148 ft. by 164 ft. It was opened and closed by immense, hollow 35-foot-thick gates, so massive that they were referred to as 'caissons.' They measured a gigantic 167 ft. by 54 ft. square, and could only be moved on huge rollers. Denying the Germans use of the dry dock would effectively neutralize the threat the Tirpitz posed, but for the raid to succeed would require a degree of lateral thinking.
In the early days of the war, St Nazaire had been one of a number of French ports that had been identified and taken over by the Germans to serve the needs of the Kriegsmarine (along with Brest, Lorient, La Rochelle and Bordeaux) when they had occupied France in 1940.
The facilities at St. Nazaire included space for the construction of massively strong and well-equipped submarine pens that proved to be immune to even the heaviest bombs available. This allowed the U Boat fleet a comfortable and superbly equipped base from which to conduct the “Battle of the Atlantic” against Allied shipping. This immense and spacious complex was built to house the 'Grey Wolves' of the 6th and 7th U-Boat Flotillas and the single structure dominated the harbour. Capable of accommodating up to 20 U-Boats, it comprised of 14 deep chambers, some of which could be drained and used as dry docks to allow extensive repairs. The construction used almost 17½ million cubic ft. of heavily steel reinforced concrete, in its massive walls and roof, together with armoured doors, gun platforms and firing positions. All of this combined to make it a self-contained fortress within which boats could be received, repaired, refuelled and dispatched almost independent of events happening outside. It was heavily bombed over a period of several years by both British and American aircraft, but such was the quality of construction it was never penetrated, nor was any damage ever caused to its boats or personnel.
The defences surrounding St Nazaire, particularly at the mouth of the River Loire were supplemented by the addition of a number of fixed gun emplacements of various calibres. The gun crews were all experienced German naval troops under the command of Kapitän zur Zuckschwerdt. He was designated as See Kommandant Loire and was responsible for the seaward defences around the estuary and the antiaircraft defences of the port. His headquarters was in a small seaside resort of La Baule, about eight miles west of the St Nazaire dock facilities.
Zuckschwerdt's command comprised the 280th Naval Artillery Battalion under the highly efficient Kapitän zur See Edo Dieckmann whose headquarters was at Chémoulin Point. Dieckmann’s formidable battalion consisted of some twenty-eight guns of varying calibres, ranging from 75mm to the great 240mm railway guns at La Baule.
In addition to Dieckmann’s battalion, 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).
This was a formidable set of defences and between them, the three units had a total of forty-three guns, 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 swept the river or the sky to illuminate air or sea targets for the guns. There were four large 150mm searchlights and a large number of smaller 60mm searchlights as a backup for the smaller-calibre quick-firing guns.
Finally, there was the Harbour Command under Korvettenkapitän Kellermann who looked after the close defence of the dockyard using guard companies equipped with small arms and light machineguns, as well as the harbour defence boats that patrolled the river and its mouth. .Anchored in the mainstream was a heavily armed Sperrbrecher 137 (ex-Botilla Russ), a flak ship specially designed to also deal with magnetic mines.
In addition to the troops, it should not be forgotten that there were also present naval technicians, industrial workers and U-Boat maintenance groups that were employed in the port itself, as well as transient numbers of ships' crews and workers from the quasi-military Todt Organisation. All of these could be armed and used to defend the port.
Further afield was the corps headquarters of General Ritter von Prager and his 333rd Infantry Division garrisoned on this part of the coast. This seemingly unlikely division had been formed back in January 1941 and was made up to a large extent of Polish troops. (These may have been Poles of German descent, otherwise, it makes little sense). (Just for information the division was obviously considered expendable and was transferred to the Eastern Front in early 1943 to fight the Poles equally hated Russian enemy. Here they suffered heavy losses and effectively ceased to exist as a fighting unit and was 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 its response against the attack.
While the whole Normandie Dock complex 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 heavily 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 than the Normandie Dock and provisions 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. He could not have known that at that very moment, British forces were in the Bay of Biscay and heading in the direction of St Nazaire.
The Loire estuary, as a whole, was a complex myriad of mud flats and channels, with a deep dredged section. To succeed with a frontal assault shallow draught vessels running on a high tide would be required. Although a heavily defended area it seems the German planners had never considered the possibility of an attack across the mud flats and shoals. Meticulous planning was undertaken, by the British Admiralty including taking advice on the two important variables of tide and winds and studying historical French charts and tables some dating back 100 years or more.
The outline plan was simple and daring. The selected vessel, packed with 4¼ tons of Amatol high explosives in the bow, with troops and crew in protected areas, would ram the outer lock gate of the Forme Ecluse Louis Joubert, (the Normandie dry dock), at speed and stick there, using scuttling charges to anchor it. The crew and commandos would disembark and take cover behind a nearby reinforced air-raid shelter. The ship would then blow up destroying the gate. An MTB would then pass through and fire specially designed torpedoes at the inner gate which would collapse under pressure when the tide went out damaging the submarines berthed in their protected pens. The troops and crew would then seek out and destroy as many dockyard targets, as possible and withdraw in fast motor launches which had followed them in. All this was to be achieved under cover of an RAF air raid, on selected targets.
From the start, the planners themselves had doubts about the withdrawal phase. There were, of course, likely to be unknown and variable factors that could not be envisaged or planned for but the risks were outweighed by the potential rewards. However, outside the planning circle, there were those, notably the Naval C in C Plymouth, who thought the chosen vessel would rebound from the gate, thus reducing the force of the explosion. He held to his view even against the advice of the engineer who built it. He also thought that anyone within half a mile of the major explosion would be killed.
Mountbatten conceded the point about the destructive power of the explosion and provision was made for delayed action fuses to be fitted to allow time for the troops and crew to evacuate the area. However, on the question of the use of a ship to ram the lock gate, he held firm. A further concession was to spread the raiding force between the main ship and the supporting motor launches simply to avoid total loss of the commandos in the event of a disaster befalling the main ship.
The draft plan had a negative response when presented to the Admiralty as they were reluctant to agree to the certain loss of one of their destroyers, however obsolete and the possible loss of a second, even though the destruction of the Normandie Dock was a major target of their own choosing.
They suggested the use of the 1927 built Free French destroyer “FR Ourangan” as the ramming ship and a flotilla of motor launches and torpedo boats to carry the additional commandos and to evacuate all of the personnel after the operation. This idea was not perfect but it was now possible to put the operation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for approval.
The RAF was also not enthusiastic as they were unhappy about being given no choice in the targets and the numbers of bombers eventually allotted to the operation fell well short of what they felt was needed.
Churchill himself had some misgivings about the operation but approval was eventually given on 3rd March and the undertaking codenamed Operation Chariot.
However, the Joint Chiefs were reluctant to use a French ship, even if it was to be expended. To do so would require that some French troops and crew be used in the raid and that would mean approaching the leader of the Free French, General Charles de Gaulle. By doing this it would inevitably widen the number of people with knowledge of the operation and increase the risk of details leaking out, as many felt, with some justification that not all the Free French were to be trusted. The feeling was that it would be safer to find a suitable ship from within the Royal Navy, rather than risk a breach in security.
After much discussion the final decision was for the raid to be led by the obsolete 1260 ton HMS Campbeltown; one of 50 American Wickes class lend-lease destroyers (ex USS Buchanan) built in 1919. Many were in poor condition but all had been modernised, rearmed and reclassified as Town Class but Campbeltown was especially refitted for the task ahead. At HM Dockyard Devonport, to reduce her draft the interior was stripped and lightened, the bridge armour-plated and additional discreet armoured protection provided for the Commandos she would carry. Her profile was considerably altered; removing two funnels and other superstructure, giving her the appearance of a German Möwe class destroyer. Prior to her choice she had a distinguished history and had been previously damaged in a collision with SS Comus and laid up until March 1941. Following this, she also served in the Royal Netherlands Navy for a time before returned to convoy duty with 7th escort group 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. Her swan song, however, would be the explosive punch in her bows, organised by Lt Nigel Tibbits who decided to use twenty-four Mk. VII depth charges, each weighing 400lbs. The charges were packed tightly 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 accompanying 15 motor launches (MLs) were to carry a total of 150 Commandos. Each boat was a B-Class Fairmile having a 112-foot-long unarmoured mahogany hull carrying terribly vulnerable auxiliary petrol tanks on deck and fitted with two Oerlikon 20mm guns and a pair of World War I-vintage Lewis machine guns. Four of these frail craft carried torpedoes as well. In their favour it must be said the MLs did have two advantages, they could do 20 knots, and they drew very little water. Coming into the Loire estuary on a spring tide, they could skim across the shallows and around the mud flats, outside the heavily defended main ship channel.
Only one motor gun boat (MGB) was available - MGB 314, a C-Class Fairmile, commanded by Lt. Dunstan Curtis, faster than the other boats at 30knots, she carried a 2-pounder Vickers anti-aircraft gun, a couple of twin-mount, power operated .50-caliber pom-pom machine guns and a semiautomatic 2-pounder gun. She would be used as the headquarters boat and was also equipped with both radar and an echo sounder making her the ideal boat to lead the attack.
In reserve, there would be motor torpedo boat (MTB) 74. This was equipped with innovative, unproven flying torpedoes to breach the dry dock gates if the Campbeltown failed to reach the target. MTB-74 was 72 foot Vosper that was an eccentric boat that seems to be either flat out or idling, she was shorter than the other boats and had three 1,250hp super-charged Packard and two Ford V8 engines, giving her a top speed in excess of 45knots, which might well prove useful. Her fuel consumption was enormous and consequently, she was to be towed into action, much to the chagrin of her skipper, Sub-Lt. Micky Wynn, (7th Baron Newborough) who was well known as one of the many daring characters in the Royal Navy and “as mad as a hatter.”
These highly trained Commando volunteers knew that this was little more than a suicide mission. A blunt individual and never one to hide the truth, Vice Adm. Louis Mountbatten, chief of Combined Operations, told Lt. Col. A.C. 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 single man turned away.
The Royal Naval contingent was led by Commander Robert Ryder who, even at the age of 34, had a wealth 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 floating in the sea clinging to a wooden chock. His current assignment was a desk job in a stately home in Southern England having lost his last ship in a collision in thick fog. His unenviable task was to organise and ultimately implement the plan to land 200 Commandos in St Nazaire, get an ageing destroyer to the port and make sure it rammed the southern caisson of the dry dock and then organise the withdrawal of as many survivors as possible back to Britain.
Never one to do things by halves and taking into account they would be a small lightly armed group of, albeit, superb commandos, these men practised and practised again leaving nothing to chance. Although terrifyingly expert in hand to hand combat they underwent intensive training in the techniques of night, street fighting under No. 2 Commando's legendary second-in-command Major Bill Copland. Their essential task would be to provide protection squads for the demolition teams, who only carried side arms, to secure and hold positions vital to the outcome of the raid and keep enemy forces away long enough for the demolition teams to complete their work.
All the soldiers that were to take part in the raid were experienced experts in raiding techniques, but the St Nazaire raid would require complex demolition skills specifically tailored to the unique targets that awaited the force. In this regard, they were fortunate to have the highly qualified Capt. W H Pritchard of the Royal Engineers whose recent experience had included blowing bridges behind the retreating BEF in 1940. In addition, his father was Dock Master in Cardiff and Capt. Pritchard had been an engineering apprentice in the dockyards of the Great Western Railway before the war. His experience and expertise had been invaluable particularly as he had been asked to assess a number of ports and methods by which they might be made unusable to the enemy. One of those was St Nazaire and his conclusion was that aerial bombardment would not destroy or damage the heavy machinery required in putting the dock out of action. In order to do this precise placement of powerful charges and the actual locations and methods were outlined in the report. Another superb sapper, Capt. Bob Montgomery, also had a wealth of knowledge on the subject, and had assisted in the production of the original report and both officers were now tasked with helping L. Col.Newman.
The demolition teams were specially selected from 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 12 Commando and were sent to Burnt Island on the Firth of Forth to undertake specialised training in the identification and destruction of dockyard installations. All the teams were trained in the use of plastic explosive charges and detonators and taught to identify the exact location of where the charges would gain maximum destruction.
The teams then moved on to Rosyth dockyard to familiarise themselves with the general dock working and identify weak points of a dockyard. From there they split into two separate groups and travelled to either Cardiff or Southampton in order to practise their techniques on large commercial ports. Here the training stepped up a gear with the teams working to set times, sometimes in the dark, cold and wet and sometimes without warning, key members were taken away, who were deemed as casualties. In Southampton, they were fortunate to practise on the great King George V Dry Dock, which was an almost an exact replica of the Normandie Dock. Lieutenant Stuart Chant and his men repeatedly practised descending the dark metal stairs of the pumping chamber to set imaginary explosives against the vulnerable impeller pumps. Lieutenants Brett and Burtenshaw clambered into the hollow caisson to place charges, whilst Lieutenants Purdon and Smalley practised setting charges to demolish the essential winding house that opened and closed the gates. After a week of perfecting their technique, the groups swapped round so that the two teams could gain the widest experience possible to cope with unforeseen events or casualties.
The landing force comprised of 257 officers and men, drawn from six different commando troops. Some of the demolition men were lightly armed with only a Colt 45 M1911 A1 pistol and a 90lb rucksack load of plastic explosive. The job of the other five-man parties, each equipped with a Thompson 1928A1 submachine gun and a Mk 1 Bren gun fired from the hip, was to cover the demolition men while they set their charges. Other fighting parties, made up of two officers and 12 men each, were to neutralise gun positions, create a perimeter around the dock and prevent the entry of German reinforcements coming from the town. To cope with causalities, there was a small reserve of 12 men, plus a doctor (Lieutenant-Colonel Dr David Paton) 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 who was the quintessential British seadog, a veteran of polar exploration, submarines, Q-ships and survivor of two wartime sinkings. Both men were highly intelligent, cool, thoughtful professionals.
The men who followed them included some professional soldiers and sailors, but many were Territorial troops. All were fully trained in the finer points using the commandos' terrifying training regimen. No man was allowed to wear the commando patch on his shoulder without surviving forced marches of 60 miles in 24 hours which was the standard, and sometimes the men were pushed seven miles in a single hour with full kit. One unit made a memorable march of 64 miles in 23 hours. Physically everybody shared the loads, officer, NCO and enlisted man alike. Everybody trained in the snow and cold of Highland winters; everybody shivered through landing operations in the icy waters of the Hebrides and everybody learned to kill men silently and quickly with bare hands and cold steel.
The raiders even invented a German-proof password: “War Weapons Week”, to which the reply was “Weymouth” chosen because there is no 'W' sound in German. They also amused themselves with a little playacting for the benefit of any German spies who may be watching the activities around Falmouth. They called themselves the “10th Anti-Submarine Striking Force” and put out the rumour that they were set up to search for U-boats far beyond the western approaches to the British Isles. They also concocted a tale that the force was going to be based somewhere east of the Suez Canal and made a public show of loading sun helmets and hot-weather gear on board the ships that would take them to France.
The Commandos, who had arrived on the converted Belgian cross-channel ferry HMS Princess Josephine Charlotte, were now introduced to the motor boats and given the chance to find their sea legs. They were taken on a long rough cruise around the Scilly Isles and almost every man was seasick. The training and familiarisation continued for two weeks and ended with a minor exercise where the Commandos carried out a mock night assault on the dockyard at Plymouth. They were easily discovered by the defences and the whole thing ended in a shambles, the greatest problem being the ships' crews being blinded by searchlights.
PRU flights confirmed the presence of the following shipping moored in the submarine or Penhouet basins. There were 10 minesweepers, four harbour-defence boats, and nine U-boats, although the subs were expected to be manned only by skeleton crews. 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, right in the very spot where Ryder and Newman had planned to site their MGB headquarters. With minor modifications, Operation Chariot would go ahead regardless. The odds were formidable: 611 raiders, roughly half navy and half commando would take on 10 times their number. Expertise, daring and surprise would have to make up for the disparity in force.
With the various problems overcome the fleet sailed from Falmouth at 1500hrs on the 26th March with MGB 314 leading and two escorting “Hunt class” destroyers, HMS Atherstone and HMS Tynedale flanking the MLs and HMS Campbeltown. As two of the launches had limited fuel range HMS Tynedale was towing MGB 314 and HMS Campbeltown towed the erratic MTB 74, who’s immensely powerful supercharged engines seemed to be either at idle or full power. .At this point, their Hurricane fighter escort had reached the limit of their range and reluctantly returned to Britain. Southwest of Ushant they came across a surfaced U-Boat, the nearly new but damaged Type VIIC U593 under the command of Kapitänleutnant Gerd Kelbling. HMS Tynedale swiftly attacked with depth charges, for two hours but failed to damage or sink it. The fleet left the area on a false course which the submarine duly reported to their command and control HQ, who assumed they were heading for Gibraltar. Five German torpedo boats were sent from St Nazaire to engage the vessels but, as intended, travelled in entirely the wrong direction. They were still at sea during the period of the raid.
Soon after the encounter with U-593, the force ran into a fleet of French fishing trawlers. It was known that the Germans often put observers or Vichy French aboard these vessels with radios to report on any British movements and Ryder had previously decided to sink any such vessels that they came across. However, the French fishermen were friendly and assured him that there were no German observers aboard any of the vessels and with the number of vessels making it impossible to sink them all Ryder decided to sink just two of them after taking off their crews.
At 1830hrs one of the launches (ML 341 under Lt D Briault) developed a fault with its port engine and it was decided that ML 446 (under Lt Falconar) would take on board its party of Commandos, also. A sea transfer took some time 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. A disappointed ML 341 was left to limp back to Britain on her own.
Around midnight on the 27/28th March, the raiders saw bomb flashes and tracers light the sky. The diversionary bombing air raid of 35 Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys and 27 Vickers Wellingtons had started but 10/10 low cloud and ice-cloaked the intended targets and aircraft were dropping only single token bombs or just circling. This caused an alert in the town and its approaches rather than the intended effect of keeping the German forces in their bunkers, with their heads down and the local German commanders soon suspected this was not a normal raid. The RAF bombers had been briefed to target only specific military installations to avoid French civilian casualties and those who failed to identify their specific targets did not drop their bombs. Such was the secrecy of the operation the RAF pilots were not aware of Operation Chariot and said later that had they known they would have come in at ground level to support the commandos.
Back in the Loire estuary each boat still flew the German flag to confuse the enemy and delay identification. HMS Sturgeon, an S class submarine ( Lt Commander Mervyn Wingfield) lay partially submerged at point Z to provide an exact navigation position, using light signals, for the task force from which to make its run into and up the estuary
At 2300hrs, explosives expert Lt Nigel Tibbets set and activated the pencil fuses which would detonate the huge explosive charge, in Campbeltown’s bow, some eight hours later. The fuses were notoriously inaccurate and a margin of error had to be allowed, but expectations were that the explosives would detonate somewhere between 0500 and 0900hrs. The force stealthily cruised past the radar station at Le Croisic without incident and entered the mouth of the River Loire where shortly after 0030hrs it passed the eerie wreck of the HMT Lancastria. ( This Cunard liner was sunk on 17th June 1940 during Operation Ariel, packed with troops, injured servicemen and civilians evacuating France, for England at the time of Dunkirk, with the loss of at least 4,000 people). A quarter of an hour later the force passed the 75mm guns on the Pointe de Gildas, still apparently undiscovered.
From now on the success or failure of the whole raid depended on one man, Royal Navy Lieutenant A.R. Green, navigator on the leading motor gunboat. All of the preliminary research work was hoped would pay dividends in order to keep the destroyer out of the shallows and off the mud flats that lurked unseen in the blackness of the river. Twice Campbeltown scraped bottom on the mud, knocking back her speed, from 10 knots to 5, but she kept going. Green's navigation was proved to be superb. After the war-professional Loire pilots said that his pilotage of Campbeltown through the shallows was “without parallel in the history of the port.”
Still holding formation, the British flotilla cruised boldly on through the night, but at 0115hrs the flotilla was finally spotted and the German headquarters signalled “Achtung: Landegefahr!” ('Attention: danger of landing!') It was not until 7 minutes later that the German coast defences reacted. Searchlights suddenly pierced the darkness from both banks and warning shots cracked overhead as the Germans challenged the vessels. Leading Signalman Pike, dressed in a German uniform quickly replied to the challenge with a 'Wait', followed by the call sign of a German torpedo boat captured recently. This was followed by a signal prefixed “Urgent” and the message “two craft damaged by enemy action, request permission to proceed to harbour without delay.” The Germans ceased firing, confused as to what to do. However, after something of a delay, the Germans started to fire 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 to signal again, “You are firing on friendly ships”. For a few moments, the Germans were reluctant to open fire again possibly because of confusion caused by fake signals and a possible disbelief among the Germans that anyone would attempt such an outrageous raid.
At this point, the German flags were run down and replaced with the White Ensign with the fleet still two miles from its target. All pretence gone the Germans opened fire with everything they had with still 15 minutes of the run in left. The intensity of this left half the men aboard the MLs either killed or wounded from the fearsome shelling of these fragile wooden launches.
Despite the lack of armour, the launches returned fire with every gun, including the Bren guns of the commandos, although outgunned the British fire was accurate and concentrated and soon their fire began to tell. At the head of the force, MGB 316 had reached the outer harbour and the German guard ship, Sperrbrecher 137, 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 on the ship and raked her from bow to stern as she passed. All German fire ceased and the ship fell silent and several other launches added to the damage inflicted by MGB 314 as they passed by and the Sperrbrecher was silenced with her deadly 88mm gun destroyed. German fire from the shore started to reduce significantly and several searchlights were shot out. British return fire from the launches and HMS Campbeltown was highly effective. In the ensuing confusion, the launches, many making smoke, turned sharply in toward the heavy black skyline of the dockyard complex, and Campbeltown's captain, Lt. Cmdr. R.H. Beattie, called for revolutions to be increased to maximum.
The Campbeltown cleared the estuary and increased speed to drive her bows through the cables of the torpedo barrier and into the dock gate. The MLs were all but stopped and only two succeeded in landing their full complement of Commandos. Other MLs approached the landing zones but were forced to re-embark their Commandos in the face of very heavy fire from 20mm cannons. Onshore fighting was ferocious and hand to hand in places.
As she raced forward to her noble end, Campbeltown's Oerlikons were in action, hammering the German coastal defences. The gun positions had no shields and offered no protection and when the crews of two of the Oerlikons were hit, other crew members ran in the storm of shells to replace them and continue their withering fire. German tracers streamed out toward her, and heavier shells smashed into her flanks. Her sides seemed to be alive with bursting shells and dead and wounded men littered her bloody decks.
Campbeltown's coxswain and quartermaster were both cut down on the bridge, but Lt.Tibbets calmly stepped past another officer and took the helm. “I'll take it, old boy,” he said and held the venerable ship straight on her final run to glory. Almost blinded by the German searchlights, the bearded Beattie and Tibbets remained the consummate Royal Navy professionals, succinct and rather matter-of-fact even in the midst of the mayhem and carnage around them.
HMS Campbeltown hit the massive caisson at 0134hrs travelling at about 20 knots, causing the forward compartments to crumple by about 36ft so that the four and a quarter tons of explosive rested right up against the caisson. In fact, it could not have been better placed if they had been moved there by hand, which was a testament to the great skill of her crew. The timing of the whole raid had been so good HMS Campbeltown was literally only 4 minutes behind schedule and most of her crew were quickly taken off by MGB 314 while the erratic MTB 74 fired her delayed action torpedoes into the foundations of the old entrance dock gate.
As soon as Campbeltown had hit the caisson and come to a halt, Beattie immediately organised the evacuation of the crew & commandos and activated the scuttling charges so the ship’s stern rested squarely on the bed of the Loire to create a formidable obstacle even if the explosive charge failed to detonate. The destroyer was now a sitting duck and the enemy guns continued to pound her from every direction.
The Commandos slipped away to start their destructive tasks included Lt Roderick and his team who disembarked from the starboard side and immediately attacked their first target, a sandbagged gun emplacement that was close by. Before the Germans realised it the Commandos were on them and they had knocked out the emplacement and dealt with the gun crew in a short space of time.
They were straight on to their second target which was a concrete bunker with a rapid-firing 37mm gun on the roof, which was silenced with some well-placed grenades and the crew killed as they tried to flee.
The third designated target had already been knocked out by gunfire from the ships on the river and so Roderick moved to his final target, the huge underground fuel tanks. Containing heavy fuel oil these, however stubbornly refused to catch fire and so Roderick consolidated his position to provide a flank guard and awaited the return signal.
Lt Roy's group disembarked from the port side of the destroyer and quickly made their way to the important Pump House to attack two German guns on the roof. However, when they reached there they had been abandoned. Apparently, the gun crews having caught sight of Roy and his group moving towards them decided that they weren’t going to hang about and made good their escape down an external staircase. Charges were expertly placed on the guns to destroy them and the group moved on to their next objective.
This was the Old Entrance Bridge which it was important for Roy to seize and hold to allow the various demolition teams to get back to the Old Mole for embarkation. Once everyone was back to the bridge it was to be blown by charges laid by Lt Woodcock, but tragically Woodcock and many of his team had already come to grief on ML 262. When they got there Roy and his group found it had been abandoned by the enemy and so set up positions covering its approaches and waited there, temporarily isolated from the action.
ML 177 had managed to reach the gates at the old entrance to the basin and succeeded in planting charges on two tugboats moored in the basin.
Next to leave the destroyer was Lt Chant and his demolition team of four sergeants, who had the vitally important task of destroying the pumping house and its machinery (these are the great impeller pumps that emptied water from the dock). Their destruction would mean that the Normandie Dock would cease to be a dry dock and revert to a tidal quay even in the event of the caisson remaining intact. 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, Lt. Chant, and one of his sergeants, Chamberlain, had both been wounded in the arm and leg during the approach down the Loire. Despite the fact these two wounded men could only move 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, justifying the countless hours of dry runs and days of training and they now set to work. Chamberlain was beginning to suffer the effects of his wound so Chant left him to guard the entrance while the rest of the team set about their mission. Sergeant A.H. Dockerill, a one-time choirboy at Ely Cathedral, carried both the wounded Chamberlain’s 60-pound rucksack of explosives and his own down those long dark steel stairs. Reaching the bottom they started 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 each of 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 safety. He kept one man, Dockerill, with him as he too was becoming weak because of his wounds and knew the climb up the stairs would be difficult. Once the others were clear he ignited the fuses and they had 90 seconds to climb the 40-foot stairway to safety. Chant managed to limp up the stairs in time, clinging to the belt of the indomitable Dockerill and make it to a safe area a short distance away. The pump house exploded with a shattering roar that resonated all around the dockyard. When Chant and his men returned to survey the results, they were satisfied to see the destruction was complete. Much of the floor had collapsed, and two of the huge electric motors had fallen down into the pumping chamber, while the other two had twisted off their bases. The only task left was igniting the oil that was leaking into the ruins of the structure, which was done by 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. 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 prior to Lt Chant and his men destroying the pumping house, the night air had also been rent with the noise and debris from the destruction of the winding shed, which was only some fifty yards from Campbeltown. Lt Smalley and his men had followed Chant off the Campbeltown and made their way along a water-filled channel from the caisson to the winding shed. The shed was a relatively 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, this was an unlucky decision as Lt Smalley and some of his men were killed when the boat was later hit by enemy fire.
Following Chant and Smalley's teams, there were other 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 attacking the northern caisson and its winding mechanism. The destruction of the caisson fell to Lt Brett and eight NCOs and the winding mechanism was the target of Lt Purdon and four Corporals. To protect these two groups as they did their work was Lt Denison and four well-armed men were assigned as guards. To this were added Lt Burtenshaw and his group as his task of blowing the southern caisson should Campbeltown fail to make it, was made unnecessary due to Beattie's excellent seamanship.
Lt. Etches had been wounded in the legs during the run up the river and could barely move. Two of Denison’s men had been likewise wounded and so they were hidden and made comfortable awaiting evacuation while Purdon, Brett and Burtenshaw all quickly disembarked from Campbeltown and moved along the dock. Denison led the way but met fierce resistance from a manned trench. Denison courageously drew the enemy fire while the two others destroyed the emplacement with hand grenades. He then passed the northern caisson and winding shed 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. Sergeant Chung was sent to let them know he was ready but he was wounded when he ran into a wall of small arms fire. Meanwhile, Brett and Burtenshaw faced a greater hazard when they were fired on from several well-concealed enemy groups. To make things worse, the design of the northern caisson differed from that practised on at Southampton.
Lieutenant Bob Burtenshaw now wearing Commander Beattie's naval hat (it is not recorded how he got it) and with his monocle screwed firmly in his eye, under his breath 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 undercover 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 their Colt pistols, but with accurate use of these short-range weapons and help from two Tommy gunners, they charged the source of the automatic weapons that were pinning down the demolition men at the caisson. Terrified the Germans ran, but Burtenshaw, still humming his song, died on the edge of the dock.
While the Commandos had managed to lower the first set of charges into position, it proved an almost impossible task to open the access cover to the interior. It was right in the middle of the roadway and had been covered by wooden planks and tarmaced over. Burtenshaw had tried to blow it open but without effect. By now, Brett and a number of Commandos had been wounded 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 access to the caisson was not going to be possible, so under the circumstances, once everyone was clear, he detonated the explosive that was hanging against the caisson wall. After a reassuring dull thump and a huge column of water, Carr noted that he could hear the satisfactory roar of water rushing into the hollow structure. It 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 the winding shed, which he did with a shattering crump 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 with their various tasks, Lt Col Newman had come ashore and set up his headquarters in a building just south of Roy's bridge. As luck would have it the building turned out to be an existing German Dockyard HQ and so Newman waited for Sergeant Moss and his group. Sadly this group never arrived as a significant number of them were killed while on Beart's ML 267. They were encouraged when Sergeant Haines and his group arrived who had completed their task of clearing the gun emplacements between the Old Entrance and the Old Mole and had returned for fresh orders. Newman deployed them as the ad hoc protection party for the HQ.
Back on the river, leading the port column of boats was ML 447 under Lt Platt who carried Capt. Birney and the fourteen Commandos who were assigned the task of assaulting the Old Mole and clearing away the enemy defences, including two pillboxes positioned along its length. This would then be the embarkation point for surviving navy and commandos. Like ML 192, being the head of the column meant that the boat attracted a significant volume of enemy fire. Many of the crew and Commandos became casualties but Platt did manage to bring the boat in close enough to have a go at landing his team of Commandos. Unfortunately, he overshot and when he manoeuvred to try again the boat was hit by both small arms fire and a larger calibre shell hit the engine room and set the craft alight. Platt ordered everyone who could to abandon ship and a number managed to make it to the shore, while others were picked up by Boyd in ML 160.
Lt Collier in ML 457 had much better luck and managed to get right alongside 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 closed in on the Old Mole the officers on board saw a group of Germans moving along the stone wall with their hands up in surrender. 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 about they struck an underwater obstacle and grounded. Enemy fire concentrated on the stranded boat and casualties amongst the Commandos quickly mounted to the point where Capt. Bradley decided that he could not accomplish 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.
Only one out of the six boats that had been scheduled to land Commandos had succeeded. Collier had landed twenty of the seventy men but these had immediately headed inland to carry out their assigned demolition tasks. Birney's team had been put out of action on the river and in consequence, the Old Mole was still firmly in German hands and would be next to impossible to capture with the remaining force now available. The result of this meant that the evacuation of the Commandos was gradually slipping out of reach from Newman and his men.
Just inland, the only groups to land on the Old Mole were intent on achieving their objectives but mistakenly believed that Birney and his men had captured it and so set off into the face of withering German fire. Lt Walton's team were there to destroy the lifting bridge to isolate the Old Town from the rest of St Nazaire and Lt Watson and his team were to provide them with