As the spring of 1942 approached, the British Admiralty had its hands full with the Battle of the Atlantic, which had been raging for two and a half years. U-boat wolf packs, surface raiders, and warplanes had sent about eight million tons of Allied shipping to the bottom, and the situation was getting worse. Slipping out from their havens in the western French ports of Brest, Lorient, La Pallice, Bordeaux, and Saint-Nazaire, the German submarines were now preying on merchant shipping along the U.S. East Coast while continuing to sink Allied vessels at the rate of almost two a day in the North Atlantic.
Brest and Saint-Nazaire were the most heavily fortified German naval bases on the French Atlantic coast. Ringed with mine and torpedo barriers, antiaircraft guns, coastal batteries, and ship patrols, their U-boat pens were bunkers of reinforced concrete several yards thick. But Saint-Nazaire, situated near the mouth of the Loire River, was much more than a secure refuge for submarines, and its significance haunted the admirals and strategists in Whitehall.
The port contained an enormous wet and dry dock—built in peacetime for the 82,800-ton French luxury liner Normandie—that was the only facility on the Atlantic coast where the German Navy could accommodate its two biggest battleships, the 42,900-ton Tirpitz and 41,700-ton Bismarck. The Royal Navy had sunk the latter on 27 May 1941 after an epic chase, but the Tirpitz, operational since mid-January 1942 and a prime threat to the British, was lurking in the fiords of Norway.
If the Tirpitz broke out into the Atlantic to prowl along shipping lanes and wreak havoc on convoys, the Normandie dry dock would be her only realistic refuge for repairs. The other option would be to run the gauntlet of the Strait of Dover or cross the heavily patrolled North Sea to reach the Baltic naval base at Kiel. The Admiralty reasoned that the big Saint-Nazaire dry dock’s destruction would force the battleship to remain in Norwegian waters.
To ensure the Germans considered these risks not worth taking, the dock must be put out of action. Previous Royal Air Force (RAF) bombing raids had proved futile, and a frontal attack would be suicidal—unless an intricate hoax was devised to hoodwink the Germans into enabling attackers to reach the dock before the defenders realized what was up. So a bold raid was seen as the only solution.
Preparations for the Raid
The daunting assignment was handed to Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Command, whose all-volunteer British Commandos had been making small-scale hit-and-run attacks against German coastal installations since 1940. Mountbatten, Royal Navy Commodore John Hughes-Hallett, and their aides busily prepared Operation Chariot, which would be the largest Combined Operations raid yet mounted.
The chosen plan, drawn up in strict secrecy, called for an old destroyer laden with explosives to ram the steel outer lock gate, or caisson, of the Normandie dry dock and then be scuttled. Three eight-hour fuses on board would detonate the charges. The operation was to involve a 300-mile sea voyage and a five-mile run up the Loire estuary.
The destroyer chosen for the raid was the 1,090-ton HMS Campbeltown, formerly the USS Buchanan (DD-131). She was one of the 50 four-stack, flush-deck World War I–era destroyers turned over to the Royal Navy by the Roosevelt administration in September 1940 in exchange for British bases in Bermuda, the West Indies, and Newfoundland. For her “Trojan horse” role, the decrepit, flimsy vessel was heavily modified, in part to reduce her displacement enough to allow the ship to traverse the Loire estuary’s shallows and avoid its more heavily defended channel. The destroyer’s explosive charge consisted of 24 400-pound depth charges concreted in a specially built steel compartment below her foredeck. She also would carry two assault and five demolition teams of Commandos.
The raiding force assembled in the Cornwall port of Falmouth on the craggy southwestern tip of England. Besides the centerpiece Campbeltown, the vessels comprised a motor gunboat (MGB-314), a motor torpedo boat (MTB-74), and 16 unarmored motor launches. Manned by 346 naval personnel, the boats and destroyer were to carry 265 Commandos armed Bren light machine guns, Thompson submachine guns, hand grenades, and explosive charges. The vessels would be escorted by the Hunt-class destroyers Atherstone and Tynedale, which would remain outside the estuary, and additional support was to be furnished by the destroyers Cleveland and Brocklesby.
The force leader was ruggedly handsome Royal Navy Commander Robert E. “Red” Ryder, who made the Atherstone his headquarters ship. The Campbeltown was commanded by bearded Lieutenant Commander Stephen H. “Sam” Beattie, and the officers and other ranks of No. 2 Commando were led by pipe-smoking Lieutenant Colonel Augustus C. Newman of the Royal Essex Regiment.
Early on the breezy, sunny afternoon of 26 March 1942, the flotilla eased out of Falmouth Harbor, regrouped into an arrow-shaped formation, and headed west and then south toward the Bay of Biscay. Told of their destination during the voyage’s first leg, the seamen and Commandos sang songs and snacked on ham and raisins; morale was high. At dusk, large German “flags of convenience” were hoisted above each vessel, intended to deceive the enemy during the approach.
Just after 0700 the next day, Ryder’s lookouts spotted a U-boat idling on the surface 130 miles west of Saint-Nazaire. Flying a German flag, the Tynedale headed for the submarine, which stayed on the surface. The destroyer opened fire at 4,000 yards, and the U-boat crash-dived. The Tynedale dropped a pattern of depth charges, fired her 4-inch guns and automatic weapons, and then sped off to rejoin the flotilla.
Commander Ryder was anxious that the submarine would radio a warning to Saint-Nazaire, but he decided to press on. Having seen the Tynedale steam southwest to rejoin the flotilla, the German skipper assumed all the British vessels were going in that direction, away from the coast. So he radioed Saint-Nazaire, “British naval force sailing on a westerly course.”
At this time, Admiral Karl Dönitz, the dour chief of Germany’s U-boat force, was inspecting the concrete pens at Saint-Nazaire. When he asked the port commander about defensive measures, the officer said a plan was ready, but he considered a raid unlikely. “Well, I would not be so sure about that,” Dönitz remarked.
Late in the afternoon of the 27th, Commander Ryder became disturbed anew when several French trawlers neared his flotilla. Ryder’s sailors boarded and searched two of the vessels, and their crews were taken aboard the Tynedale. The Frenchmen were befuddled. Their English-speaking captors wore British uniforms, but the German flag flew overhead.
The flotilla sailed on closer to its objective as darkness fell. At midnight antiaircraft-gun flashes and the glow of bombs to the northeast told Ryder and his men that 65 RAF bombers were making a prearranged diversionary attack. About an hour later, the Saint-Nazaire shoreline became faintly visible to the tense sailors and Commandos. All hands prepared for the perilous dash into the Loire estuary. Newman’s men pulled on Bergen rucksacks filled with grenades and explosives and strapped razor-sharp fighting knives to their legs. Time fuses were set on board the Campbeltown.
A few miles away ashore, the RAF raid had made some Germans fearful that trouble was brewing. Huddled in his Saint-Nazaire command bunker, Kriegsmarine Captain Karl C. Mecke grew suspicious when he observed that the bombers were not flying in formation and one or two were making passes over the port. He fired off a signal to all defense posts: “I don’t understand the behavior of the enemy. I suspect parachutists.”
Shortly after 0100 on 28 March, Mecke received a warning that unlighted ships were sailing up the Loire estuary leading into the Saint-Nazaire harbor. Rushing to an observation post, he squinted through a telescope and discerned the dark shapes of about 15 vessels. Captain Mecke called for searchlights to be switched on, and Ryder’s flotilla was outlined brightly.
The Kriegsmarine officer was hesitant to give an order to open fire because one of the intruding vessels, the Campbeltown, appeared to be German, but the others did not. Yet all were flying German flags. He ordered a shell to be fired across the bow of the leading craft, and moments later the British fired a green flare that split into three red stars, the German recognition signal.
Flanked by enemy guns on both sides of the Loire, the flotilla moved carefully between mudflats and sandbanks, churning steadily onward. It was less than a mile from the Normandie dock at 0130 when the German batteries opened up with a deafening roar. While flotilla guns fired back, the German flags were rapidly lowered and replaced by Royal Navy ensigns. The British deceit had paid off, and the raiders had managed to penetrate the enemy lair before being identified as hostile.
‘Here We Are’
Shells battered the Campbeltown, killing and wounding a number of sailors and Commandos. Standing calmly on the bridge while tracer fire hissed around him, Commander Beattie could see the dock clearly outlined by the searchlights’ glare. “Full speed ahead!” he shouted. “Prepare for ramming!” Rocked by the shells, his vessel lurched toward the massive dock gate as flame, smoke, and flying debris filled the air. Closer and closer went the Campbeltown at 15 knots until, with a grinding crunch, she slammed into the gate dead center. Ten yards of her bow was sheared open like a tin can, but she came to rest with her forecastle hanging over the heavily damaged caisson.
The jarring impact knocked the seamen and Commandos down. The unruffled Beattie scrambled to his feet and remarked to the officers on the bridge, “All right, here we are.” Glancing at his wristwatch, which read 0134, he added with a hint of disappointment, “Four minutes late.” The Commandos swiftly clambered down her sides. The gallant Campbeltown had fulfilled her sacrificial duty, and her crew disembarked after the Commandos as Saint-Nazaire Harbor became an inferno of exploding shells, smoke, and tracer streams.
The motor launches crammed with Commandos, meanwhile, had run into a hornets’ nest of fierce German shell and machine-gun fire. Several boats were sunk and their swimming survivors gunned down, and other craft turned back, their decks covered with dead and wounded men. As they tried to escape, the survivors were intercepted by German torpedo boats returning to the estuary. These were driven off by the supporting destroyers, but only four of the launches ultimately survived.
But other Commandos managed to scramble ashore under fire and begin blowing up their assigned targets. Within half an hour of the Campbeltown’s ramming, they had destroyed the dry dock’s machinery and mechanisms. They also disabled the winding gear of the gate, but their efforts to attack the U-boat pens were unsuccessful.
Pandemonium in Saint-Nazaire
With their mission completed, the Commandos regrouped to take a breather and tend their wounded. Under increasing enemy fire, Lieutenant Colonel Newman and the 150 weary men he had left took up a defensive position behind some trucks near the embarkation point, the port’s Old Mole. They waited patiently for the motor launches to return, but none arrived. As the minutes passed, it became all too clear that they were marooned in Saint-Nazaire and surrounded by thousands of Germans. The Commandos were not surprised; they had been warned that their chances of getting away were slim at best.
Newman ordered his men to split into small groups and try to slip or fight their way to the countryside and then work their way south to neutral Spain or Portugal. But there was little hope of survival for the hapless Commandos; the port was teeming with search parties. The Britons hid in back streets, bombed buildings, gardens, and cellars to evade capture, and exchanged fire with the enemy, but the Germans captured most of them one by one after their ammunition ran out.
Pandemonium had taken hold in Saint-Nazaire, meanwhile, and gunfire was echoing at daybreak. Believing that an Allied invasion had begun, French Resistance fighters had emerged and were picking off German soldiers. Convinced that he was facing a major “terrorist” uprising, the port commander called for more troops and declared a state of emergency.
But the chaos did not deter German curiosity about the Trojan horse jammed in the wrecked Normandie dry-dock gate. Forty officers climbed aboard for an inspection tour. Rumors had spread that the mess and store rooms in the Campbeltown contained quantities of chocolate, coffee, whiskey, and cigarettes, so scores of enemy seamen and soldiers soon swarmed through the ship. An inspection team failed to find the explosives and delayed-action fuses.
The British skipper was interrogated that morning at the local German headquarters. Beattie merely shrugged his shoulders at the questions of Kriegsmarine intelligence officers, and they concluded he was probably an incompetent officer who got excited when the shooting started, lost control of his ship, and crashed her into the dock gate.
Suddenly, without warning at 1035, a deafening explosion shook the Saint-Nazaire area as the Cambeltown’s charges detonated, destroying the forward part of the ship and the dry-dock caisson and killing up to 400 Germans still on board and two captured Commando officers who knew that the ship was about to blow up but did not say so. The blast also disabled the Normandie dock for the rest of the war. When they heard the explosion, the officers interrogating Beattie stared at each other in disbelief. The Campbeltown skipper remained expressionless.
At 1632 the next day, another explosion rocked Saint-Nazaire when an MTB-74–launched torpedo with a delayed-action fuse detonated against one of the Bassin de Saint-Nazaire’s Old Entrance gates. While frantic German officers inspected the damage, a second torpedo went off. Pandemonium erupted again. Panicky French workers tried to storm the dockyard gates, and German sentries opened fire, killing about 250 of them. The Kriegsmarine commander closed the harbor area for the rest of the week and ordered a search for more delayed-action explosives.
The Far-Ranging Fallout
Operation Chariot was pronounced a great success. It proved that such a raid could reap strategic dividends, and encouraged Mountbatten’s Combined Operations to attempt a bolder venture, the 19 August 1942 “reconnaissance in force” against the French port of Dieppe by 1,000 British Commandos, 5,000 Canadian infantrymen, 50 U.S. Rangers, and two dozen Free French troops. But Operation Jubilee proved disastrous. The Channel port was strongly defended, and almost 4,000 Allied troops were killed or captured. Nevertheless, Jubilee provided an invaluable lesson for the planners of the 1944 Normandy invasion.
The Saint-Nazaire operation denied the mighty Tirpitz a haven on the western French coast, virtually ruling out the possibility of her operating in the Atlantic. Prime Minister Winston Churchill exulted over “the brilliant and heroic exploit” at Saint-Nazaire, and spirits rose through the Admiralty. The Tirpitz remained in the Norwegian fiords, persistently menacing the British convoys to Russia, and was eventually attacked near Tromso by 32 RAF Lancaster heavy bombers and sunk on 12 November 1944.
The high command in Berlin predictably dismissed the raid as a complete failure, but a number of enemy correspondents paid generous tribute to the Britons. “Even after being isolated from the main force,” wrote one, “certain British units continued bitter resistance.” According to propaganda reactions, the operation dealt a serious blow to enemy morale. It also convinced German leaders of the vulnerability of the long Atlantic coast and forced them to start diverting critical men and materials for its defense.
The success of Operation Chariot lifted the morale of the British, numbed by bombing and many military and naval setbacks, and was headlined triumphantly. But the cost was high. Of the 611-man force, 169 were killed (64 Commandos and 105 naval personnel) and 200 captured—a 60 percent casualty rate.
Of the Commandos left behind, five managed to reach Spain and sail home from Gibraltar, while those captured spent the rest of war in prison camps. Two weeks after the Saint-Nazaire raid, the commandant of a camp in Germany had his British captives formed up in the compound with an honor guard of Wehrmacht soldiers. Then he read the citation for the Victoria Cross that had been awarded to Commander Beattie, skipper of the Campbeltown.
Another VC was pinned on Lieutenant Colonel Newman after he was eventually repatriated and returned to England. Britain’s highest award for valor also went to Commander Ryder, the assault force commander; Sergeant Tom Durrant, who gave his life defending one of the motor launches against a German destroyer; and Able Seaman William A. Savage of MGB-314, who kept firing his 2-pounder pom-pom until killed by a shell splinter.
Saint-Nazaire was the first operation of the war in which so many VCs were awarded. A total of 83 decorations were given to participants in the raid, including 14 Distinguished Service Crosses to naval officers.
The Campbeltown’s Transformation
Over nine days in March 1942 the destroyer HMS Campbeltown—the former USS Buchanan (DD-131)—was heavily modified for her role in the Saint-Nazaire raid. The goals were to lighten the ship and fool the Germans into thinking the old destroyer, as she approached Saint-Nazaire, was a Kriegsmarine Möwe-class submarine chaser. Changes included:
- Removing her rear two stacks, broadening the forward stack and cutting its top at an angle, and cutting the second stack at an angle.
- Removing her three 4-inch guns, torpedo tubes, and depth-charge tracks and throwers.
- Removing all boats.
- Moving her single 12-pounder from the aft deckhouse to the forecastle (as seen above).
- Adding eight Oerlikon 20-mm cannon.
- Adding a .50-caliber machine gun on each bridge wing.
- Adding armor plating and splinter mattresses to the bridge and parallel rows of two-foot-high plating amidships to protect Commandos on deck during the final approach.
William B. Breuer, The Secret War with Germany (Novato, CA: Presidio, 1988).
Winston Churchill, The Second World War (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1950).
Jon Cooksey, Operation Chariot: The Raid on St Nazaire (Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2012).
James G. Dorrian, Storming St Nazaire (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998).
John Hammerton; The Second World War (Cronulla, Australia: Trident, 2000).
His Majesty’s Stationery Office, Combined Operations: The Official Story of the Commandos (New York: Macmillan, 1943).
Robert Jackson, The Royal Navy in World War II (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997).
James D. Ladd, Inside the Commandos (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984).
Jon Latimer, Deception in War (New York: Overlook, 2001).
Al Ross, The Destroyer Campbeltown (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990).