In the late summer of 1940, when Britain was fighting alone after the fall of France, three elderly destroyers moved slowly out of Boston Harbor.
They flew the American flag, but not the commission pennant of ships on active service with the U. S. Navy. Aboard each were about 60 officers and men, which was about one half the normal complement. The ships’ storerooms and magazines, however, were fully loaded for wartime cruising.
Once clear of the channel, the three vessels turned north and steamed at high speed to Halifax. There, each took aboard a complete British crew. For four days, the Americans trained the British in the operation of the ships. Then came a quick commissioning ceremony, and the vessels formally became part of the Royal Navy. The Americans departed, and the three old destroyers sailed for the Battle of the Atlantic.
Though they were “antiquated and inefficient craft,” in the words of Winston Churchill, they created more alarm in Berlin and more hope in Britain than any of the hundreds of warships fighting that long and deadly battle. Their fighting power was not the reason, though they and their sister ships, after a disappointingly slow start, earned the respect of Hitler’s U-boats.
Rather, they inspired alarm and hope because their transfer to the Royal Navy marked a sharp change in the U. S. Government’s policy toward the war in Europe.
In the first year of World War II, concern over Britain’s plight was widespread on this side of the Atlantic. But up to the departure of the destroyers, this concern had been reflected in little more than expressions of sympathy and good wishes.
Now, though legally bound to a policy of neutrality, the Government announced that it was engaging with Britain in a transaction that gave Hitler an ominous hint of the future: the transfer of 50 World War I destroyers to the hard-pressed British fleet, while Britain gave this country free 99-year leases on a string of Atlantic bases.
Hitler’s press reacted with strange moderation. It fumed that the transaction was a “flagrant breach of neutrality,” but hopefully suggested that Britain must be desperate to engage in what was clearly a lopsided deal.
A more realistic view of Nazi reaction was given by Count Ciano, however, who noted in his diary that the deal had created indignation and excitement in Berlin.
Roosevelt said the transaction could be compared only to the Louisiana Purchase in its strengthening of American defenses, and Secretary of State Cordell Hull later called it one of the most momentous decisions in American history.
In effect, the transaction constituted a well- advertised engagement ring for the timid, informal Anglo-American military flirtation that had been carried on since the outbreak of the war in Europe.
But before it was announced, the two nations had argued their way through months of strange and frustrating negotiations, and the United States only partially succeeded in extracting from Churchill a pledge he did not want to make—and fortunately did not have to keep.
The ships, like a lot of other oldtimers pressed into World War II service, went on to perform feats that rank with the most heroic, humdrum, and occasionally ridiculous in the annals of naval history.
In many respects they indeed were “antiquated and inefficient,” and suited for the scrap heap. Completed between 1917 and 1920, they were the first prefabricated ships built for the U. S. Navy. After the Naval Disarmament Treaty of 1922, they and about 150 other destroyers were laid up in mothballs. While they slowly deteriorated for 18 years, advances in hull design, armament, and propulsion equipment passed them by.
All but three of the 50 carried an awkward- looking line of four smoke stacks—hence the name “four-stackers” or “four-pipers”—compared with the generally standard two on the succeeding generation of destroyers. The largest of them were 1,190 tons and 314 feet long. They all carried four 4-inch guns, two 50-caliber anti-aircraft guns, and twelve 21- inch torpedo tubes.
Compare them with their descendent, the World War II Fletcher-class destroyer, which was the workhorse of the Fleet: 2,050 tons, 376½ feet, carrying five 5-inch guns, four 40-mm. anti-aircraft guns, and ten 21-inch torpedo tubes.
But some of the oldtimers could do 35 knots, fast even by present-day standards, and they could carry a lot of depth charges to the hunting grounds of the U-boats.
Better ships were on the drawing boards and the building ways, but these were in existence. With the outbreak of war imminent in Europe, the U. S. Navy set about reconditioning the old vessels for use until more modern ones were available. And Churchill, who had not failed to keep an eye on what the U. S. Navy was doing, wanted them desperately to reinforce his battered destroyer fleet.
Destroyers, which had been bred since World War I as the answer to the submarine, were spread thin along the Atlantic supply lines that nourished Britain’s war effort.
Simple arithmetic told a grim story. Britain had gone into World War II with 184 destroyers in service, compared with the 433 available to guard her supply lines at the end of World War I.
After a year of fighting, and despite the construction of 21 new destroyers, Britain’s fleet was down to 171, largely because of severe losses incurred in the evacuations of Norway and Dunkirk.
There were not enough destroyers in Britain’s Navy to guard the channel against invasion and at the same time protect the merchantmen carrying supplies. Through spring and early summer, shipping losses mounted at a rate that would bring annual imports dangerously below the 43 million tons needed to feed Britain’s population and sustain her war effort.
The destroyer reinforcements existed—idle in American yards. The arithmetic was clear. But there were barriers, some as unyielding as the U-boats, that had to be removed before the vessels came into British hands.
First, there was widespread isolationist sentiment. Millions of Americans felt that Britain’s war was of no concern to this nation. The United States had before it a barrier of 3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean guarded by the U. S. Navy. Any talk of draining the Navy’s strength to aid Britain would not be popular with Americans who looked upon the war purely as a European affair.
The Navy, quite clearly, was not so well equipped with destroyers that it could afford to part with 50 of them. In the summer of 1940, it had fewer than 75 modern destroyers in commission, along with about 100 recommissioned old-timers. At a time when it was pleading for funds for more ships, a large scale giveaway would be hard to sell.
And then there was a presidential election coming up that fall, with Roosevelt trying to buck the sacred third term tradition. He was not eager to give his powerful isolationist foes support for their argument that his re-election inevitably would pull the United States into Europe’s battles.
There was Congress, where fear of U. S. involvement was so strong that a routine Army request for funds for overseas caps was to create a row.
And there was a specific statutory barrier to the transfer of the ships. A law passed in 1917 made it illegal for the United States to deliver warships to a belligerent power. An Administration bill later modified that law by allowing exceptions if the Chief of Naval Operations certified that the ships were not essential. But the Navy could not simultaneously plead for funds for more ships and send a major portion of its destroyer strength to another nation.
Finally, there was Roosevelt himself. He was knowledgeable in sea power. He had concentrated on the submarine problem while serving in the Navy Department in World War I. He was sympathetic to Britain and ahead of the mass of Americans in recognizing the menace of Hitler. But he was not convinced, even as France was falling, that the destroyers would be useful to Britain.
Churchill’s first plea for the destroyers was sent 15 May 1940, in the first communication that he sent to the President after becoming Prime Minister. He asked for “the loan of 40 or 50 of your older destroyers to bridge the gap between what we now have and the large new construction we put in hand at the beginning of the war.” He added hopefully, “This time next year we shall have plenty.”
Roosevelt, however, was still a long way from ordering the transfer of the vessels. They were too lightly armed, he told Secretary of Interior Ickes, and too old for this war. Furthermore, while they might benefit Britain, their transfer might antagonize Hitler—with uncertain consequences. (When the deal was announced, Hitler was only too happy to remain silent in order not to antagonize the United States.)
Roosevelt offered other reasons, however, in his reply to Churchill. He said that the U. S. Navy was spread out over two oceans and could not spare the ships, even temporarily. In addition, he pointed out, Congressional approval would be necessary, and it was unlikely that it could be obtained.
Roosevelt’s views were to change markedly between Churchill’s first request and midsummer, when Hitler was scouring Europe’s waterways for barges to carry his invasion army across the channel.
A cable from Churchill on 31 July was decisive in changing the President’s thinking. The Prime Minister described his nation’s plight clearly and frankly. To repel the expected invasion, he said, British destroyers were concentrated in confined waters where they were subject to severe air attacks. Eleven had been sunk or damaged in the past ten days.
“We could not sustain the present rate of casualties for long,” the Prime Minister’s cable stated grimly, “and if we cannot get a substantial reinforcement, the whole fate of the war may be decided by this minor and easily remediable factor.”
He explained that the older destroyers would be used to guard the exposed supply lanes on the Atlantic, freeing the more modern British destroyers to defend the channel.
“Mr. President, with great respect I must tell you that in the long history of the world, this is a thing to do now. Large construction is coming to me in 1941, but the crisis will be reached long before 1941. I know you will do all in your power, but I feel entitled and bound to put the gravity and urgency of the position before you.”
Churchill’s desperate plea for immediate aid was well justified. Though the Administration had been giving Britain increasing verbal support, the fact is that in the first year of the war only a trickle of material support had been delivered.
Statutory restrictions bound the Government’s hands. What had been obtained so far had come almost exclusively through private bargaining with American manufacturers while the Government looked on approvingly and tacitly co-operated.
In June, Churchill noted that “Although President [Roosevelt] is our best friend, no practical help has [reached us] from the United States as yet.”
British orders for thousands of planes had piled up with American manufacturers since 1938, but this country’s aviation industry had managed to deliver only a little over 100 in the first six months of 1940.
Events, however, soon caused the Administration to risk the domestic consequences and Hitler’s unpredictability to get aid to Britain.
The miraculous Dunkirk operation had rescued 338,000 Allied fighting men. But in their escape they had been forced to abandon their arms on the beaches. Now they stood virtually unarmed in Britain while, across the Channel, Hider finished off France and began his invasion preparations.
Churchill appealed for arms to meet the invasion, and the U. S. Government responded in what now seems a curious way: it scoured armories across the Nation and collected 500,000 World War I rifles, 80,000 machine guns and other light arms. The weapons were sold to the U. S. Steel Corporation for 37 million dollars. The Corporation resold them to the British for the same price, and they were carried across the Atlantic in British ships. The use of American vessels was out of the question because cash and carry prevailed under the law. American ships were not permitted to make deliveries to belligerents.
With the arms delivered, Churchill renewed his pleas for the destroyers, and emphasized an earlier warning that was to become crucial in the negotiations: the British fleet, historically a shield for American security, might well become a key bargaining point if Britain fell and a Quisling government grovelled for favorable terms from Hitler.
Do not fail to remind the United States of that, Churchill instructed Lord Lothian, the British ambassador in Washington. Do not fail to warn American leaders that a Quisling government might surrender the fleet, making the United States an inferior naval power. The warning made sense and the Administration was now determined to deliver the destroyers, regardless of statutory barriers and Hitler’s reaction.
Two separate strands in Anglo-American relations were brought together to close the deal. One month before the outbreak of the war, the Navy had received permission from Britain to operate patrols from the islands of Trinidad, St. Lucia, and Bermuda. Now, with Hitler’s U-boats rampaging through the Atlantic, and the growing likelihood of American entry into the war, the Navy was negotiating for additional bases. These negotiations were in progress when the Administration became determined to meet Churchill’s desperate need for destroyers.
It was proposed to Lord Lothian that the bases should be swapped for the destroyers. In this way, it was explained, the Chief of Naval Operations would be able to certify that the net result was greater over-all strength for American defense.
The proposed barter was appealing from the American point of view—50 old ships for a string of strategic bases, but Churchill would have none of it. His desperate need for the vessels was now matched by an adamant refusal to barter British territory even for sorely- needed war material.
“Our view,” he cabled to the President, “is that we are two friends in danger helping each other as far as we can. We should therefore like to give you the facilities mentioned without stipulating for any return, and even if tomorrow you found it too difficult to transfer the destroyers, etc., our offer still remains open because we think it is in the general good.”
While the negotiators attempted to digest this problem, they were confronted by the very nightmare conjured up by Churchill to speed the deal: the future of the British fleet. There were many good reasons why Hitler’s invasion would not succeed (though only Hitler’s admirals and Churchill seemed aware of them). But Britain’s position was precarious. Hull demanded an assurance that, if Britain fell, the fleet (including any American destroyers it had acquired) would try to make its way across the Atlantic.
Churchill at first flatly refused to give any such assurance. It would be injurious to British morale to raise such a possibility, he stated. He had told Commons on 4 June that if an invasion succeeded, “our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, will carry on the struggle. ...”
He was not going any further than that, he insisted. Indeed, Lord Lothian thought that the 4 June speech had gone too far. He cabled that Churchill’s words served to increase the complacency of those who felt that no matter what happened in Europe, the British fleet would still be available to help guard the American shores.
Churchill instructed him to “discourage any complacent assumption on the United States’ part that they would pick up the debris of the British Empire by their present policy.” He later added that, in respect to the future of the fleet, “We have no intention of relieving (the) United States from any well-grounded anxieties on this point.”
But Hull remained as adamant as Churchill on assurances about the fleet.
Another problem existed to eat at the Administration’s determination to aid Britain. The extent of isolationist sentiment throughout the nation was receding in the face of Hitler’s successes. But how powerful was this sentiment? A poll showed that 61 per cent of Americans favored transfer of the destroyers. But would Wendell Willkie attempt to make campaign capital out of the deal? Willkie, approached through his advisers, pledged that he would not bring the issue into the bitter election fight.
That problem was happily and easily out of the way, but what of the others: the legal barrier, Congressional hostility, Churchill’s refusal to pledge the future of the fleet, and his insistence that the destroyers and bases be handled as separate transactions?
These were deep and difficult problems. But they were made to appear insignificant by the threat to Britain and Churchill’s plea that these few vessels could change the balance. “You know well,” he had cabled the President on 15 August, “that the worth of every destroyer you can spare to us is measured in rubies.”
Serious, determined men, spurred by pleas of this sort, sought a compromise that would satisfy the needful but proud Churchill while, at the same time, meeting the peculiar problems that beset the Administration.
One of these men was the State Department Legal Adviser, Green H. Hackworth. Hull recalls that he, Hackworth, and a Justice Department official were mulling over the impasse that had developed, when Hackworth suddenly was struck by a solution: Britain could grant the United States leases for bases in Newfoundland and Bermuda purely as a gift, thus satisfying Churchill’s desire to avoid the appearance of a swap. At the same time, Britain could give the United States leases for Caribbean bases in return for the destroyers, thus satisfying the Administration’s need for bartering the vessels.
Further discussions between the British and Americans pinpointed the Caribbean part of the deal as the Bahamas, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Trinidad, Antigua, and British Guiana.
Churchill reluctantly agreed to this fanciful division of the deal, though in his memoirs he insists that he regarded “all these as parallel transactions” while Roosevelt “found it more acceptable to present them to Congress as a connected whole.”
Faced now with American insistence that he pledge the future of the fleet, Churchill refused to yield, but agreed to fall back to a previously prepared, honorable position.
He prepared a telegram for Roosevelt to send to him. The telegram inquired whether Churchill’s 4 June statement to Commons “represents the settled policy of the British Government.”
To his own inquiry, the Prime Minister boldly replied:
“You ask, Mr. President, whether my statement in Parliament on June 4, 1940, about Great Britain never surrendering or scuttling her fleet ‘represents the settled policy of His Majesty’s Government.’ It certainly does. I must, however, observe that these hypothetical contingencies seem more likely to concern the German Fleet or what is left of it than our own.”
Meanwhile, the Chief of Naval Operations certified that the vessels were not essential to American defense, and the Attorney General prepared an opinion stating that the 1917 statute pertained only to vessels constructed for a belligerent. Therefore, he ruled, it was not applicable to these vessels, which were built for the U. S. Navy.
On 2 September, as news of the impending deal became known, Senator Gerald P. Nye, a leading isolationist, warned that giving the destroyers to Britain would bring this country into the war.
Clearly, the path through Congress would not be speedy, and might prove fatal to the transaction. Roosevelt, however, had no intention of submitting this painfully wrought and delicately balanced deal to the rough hands of Congress. The following day, he announced the transaction as an accomplished fact and said he was providing details merely “for the information of Congress.”
Nye accused him of “dictatorial practices.” A full-page advertisement in the New York Times announced “Dictator Roosevelt Commits an Act of War.”
But American sentiment had come a long way. Millions of Americans could well agree that the transfer of warships to Britain was an act of war. But it was a justifiable act in terms of the nation’s interests. Few responded to the cries of the isolationists.
As the first three destroyers left Boston Harbor on the evening of the announcement, behind them was a nation which wishes them good fortune.
Ahead lay Halifax, where British crews were standing by for their arrival. Speaking of their presence there, Churchill whimsically told Commons that “You might call it the long arm of coincidence.”
Actually, it was nothing but the result of a fairly safe gamble and a political calculation on Churchill’s part. Two weeks earlier, Lord Lothian had advised him that the prospects of getting the ships were brightening. It would not look good, the Ambassador said, if the ships had to remain idle while British crews were en route to them. And not realizing that Roosevelt had decided to go ahead without Congressional approval, Churchill concluded that the presence of the crews would help make Congress aware of his urgent need for the ships.
With the deal closed, one minor problem remained—the rechristening of the vessels. The British attended to this in a diplomatic and comradely fashion by giving most of them the names of towns and cities common to the United States and Britain. As a group, the 50 went to war under the name of the Town- class destroyers.
Now, nearly four months after Churchill’s first appeal, these hard-won oldtimers were on their way to the Battle of the Atlantic. These were the ships that were to “bridge the gap” until the 1941 destroyer crop put to sea. Ironically, it was not until well into 1941 that the Town-class destroyers made themselves felt in the fight to protect Britain’s ocean supply lines.
After nearly 20 years of idleness, more than a Navy yard overhaul was needed to rejuvenate them. The journey across the Atlantic burst seams and pipes, and turned up scores of problems. Three months after the first vessels were delivered, Churchill impatiently asked the Admiralty for information about “their many defects and the little use we have been able to make of them so far.” And he later informed Roosevelt that “We have so far only been able to bring a very few of your 50 destroyers into action on account of the many defects which they naturally developed when exposed to Atlantic weather after having been laid up so long.”
One serious defect—in the British view, at least—could not easily be corrected: the crew’s quarters were fitted with bunks, and many a British sailor spent stormy, sleepless hours wondering why the U. S. Navy had abandoned hammocks.
A more serious problem that afflicted these ships was a proclivity for collisions with their sisters, other vessels, dry land, and storms.
Typical was HMS Georgetown. Shortly after she was placed in British hands, she collided in Canadian waters with a sister ship, HMS Hamilton. Precious time for repairs was lost before both ships returned to sea. Several weeks later, Georgetown ran aground at New Brunswick. Both vessels fortunately left bad luck on this side of the Atlantic and went on to perform years of valuable convoy service.
Not so fortunate was HMS Newmarket. She and a sister ship, HMS Newark, collided in Canadian waters early in December. Newmarket came off lightly, but was plagued by boiler breakdowns and other troubles that required a great deal of yard work. She was taken out of active service in the fall of 1943 and became a target ship the following spring.
Following the collision, Newark spent two months in Canadian waters and then set out for England. She came back a few days later —at the end of a tow line—because of engine trouble. Repairs got the gremlins out of her system, but it was not until the end of February 1941 that the doughty old vessel was ready for convoy service.
In the early days, trouble was plentiful for these Town-class vessels. HMS St. Croix was caught by a storm early in December and was about to be written off as lost when she reappeared five days later. She vindicated herself, however, by sinking a U-boat in the summer of 1942. The following spring she assisted in the destruction of another. Six months later a U-boat sent her to the bottom.
The fortunes of war never smiled on HMS Cameron. She made a speedy trip across the Atlantic following her transfer to the Royal Navy. But her journey only brought her to a rendezvous with a high explosive bomb that struck her while she was in drydock. She was so badly damaged that she never saw service.
By the spring of 1941, however, patching and experience had shipped the Town-class fleet into a potent naval force. They went on to perform heroic duty at the height of the Battle of the Atlantic, despite Churchill’s optimistic assertions that the need for them would be only temporary.
There was HMS Wells, off to a late start because of collision damage. Clear of the repair yard, she set off for Britain, only to lose her topmast in a storm. But once patched up, she performed faithfully. In 1943, the Admiralty announced that she had steamed 250,000 miles without a breakdown, a proud record for any ship.
And then there was HMS Churchill, hero of a Quixotic charge that almost brought her doom. Her brush with misfortune could be indirectly blamed on the Prime Minister, who took a special interest in the destroyer that shared his name.
He came aboard en route from the Atlantic Conference and promised the crew that if they sank a U-boat he would pay another visit. Despite the damage wrought by the U-boats, they actually were few and far between in the vast Atlantic. It was not until nearly a year later that HMS Churchill sighted the possibility of again playing host to the Prime Minister.
There, off the coast of Venezuela was a long dark shape low in the water. All hands went to action stations, the boilers poured out flank speed, and HMS Churchill knifed through the water intent on ramming the foe. A violent turn at the last moment fortunately foiled the intent and HMS Churchill passed safely within six yards of a tiny island, 200 by 10 feet.
A harmless event, it stood out in amusing relief from the daily diet of most of the Town- class fleet: monotonous, cramped, and dangerous commuting across the Atlantic, with decisive action a rarity. The final score was nearly even in one sense: nine Town-class destroyers lost to torpedoes, mines, and bombs, including one that went down while serving in the Russian Navy after the Royal Navy no longer needed her; eight U-boats positively or probably knocked out of the war by or with the aid of Town-class destroyers.
But the primary task of the escorts was the safe and timely arrival of supplies, and their success in that job was not always reflected in U-boat sinkings. The mere presence of destroyers—old or new—often was sufficient to make the U-boats stalk the precious merchantmen with caution instead of boldness. Cautious U-boats were not the most effective for the German cause.
If unspectacular service was the rule for these ships, one of their number starred in an operation so daring, dazzling, and successful that she earned enough glory for the entire fleet of oldtimers.
She was HMS Campbeltown, also a slow starter in getting into the war. Damaged in a collision in Liverpool shortly after her transfer to the Royal Navy, she did not put to sea for escort service until March 1941. It was while she was working in the convoy lanes that audacious plans, sealing her fate, were drawn up in London.
These plans were aimed at the French port city of St. Nazaire, population 50,000, site of the only Axis-held drydock on the Atlantic that could accommodate the giant German battleship Tirpitz.
Tirpitz, sister of the sunken Bismarck, was in Norwegian waters early in 1942, but it was rumored that she was southbound to hunt Atlantic shipping. The vast drydock, 1,148 by 164 feet, immediately became a prime target, for if repair facilities were not available on the Atlantic coast, the Germans might reconsider plans for the most powerful unit of their small surface fleet.
The target stood 250 miles from the nearest British port, and was six miles inland, surrounded by fortifications that made it one of the most strongly defended points on the French coast. The likelihood of success appeared so remote that one of the officers planning the operation remarked that anyone who “thought of doing such a thing deserved the D.S.O.”
He was not cheapening the King’s decorations, for the plans called for sending an explosive-filled ship up the river and crashing it into the drydock gate under cover of a commando attack. The commando planners wanted a destroyer, but the Admiralty was not inclined at first to sacrifice any of the precious few it had, regardless of the objective. A submarine was offered for the raid. The commandos, however, did not relish 36 cramped hours in a submarine. Furthermore, it would be difficult to disembark quickly through a submarine’s narrow hatches. Finally, the Admiralty decided that Campbeltown could be spared for the mission.
A prime ingredient in the operation was deception. The old four-stacker had her funnels cut down to make her resemble an oversize German torpedo boat. Her signalmen were equipped with captured challenges and replies, and she carried German colors.
A dress rehearsal was held in the Devonport shipyard for the launches, the motor gunboat and the motor torpedo boat that would accompany Campbeltown. When Lieutenant Commander S. H. Beattie, captain of Campbeltown, was asked why his ship was not taking part, he replied that “ramming dock gates is not exactly a thing that could be practiced very frequently.”
In the early afternoon of 26 March, the force sailed out of Falmouth Harbor, bound for St. Nazaire. Leading the procession was the gunboat; behind came Campbeltown, two columns of seven launches, and in the rear was the motor torpedo boat. Aboard these vessels were 265 commandos. Stowed deep inside Campbeltown was a three-ton explosive charge connected to a 25-hour fuse that would be started after the impact.
Misfortune came close to the group at dawn the following day. Still many miles from the objective, it was sighted by a surfaced U-boat. Two destroyers, sent to escort the attackers en route, forced the U-boat to submerge before it got a good look at the vessels or could dispatch a message.
The destroyers carried out a depth charge attack until they were convinced the U-boat was destroyed. Then they rejoined the attack force, hoping that knowledge of its presence had gone down with the U-boat. Unhappily, this was not the case.
After making certain that her pursuers had moved on, the U-boat poked her aerial above the surface and radioed that she had encountered a force of light enemy vessels. Because of the poor sighting, however, she reported them as moving westward. German intelligence evaluated the report as enemy vessels returning to Britain after minelaying operations. Shore defenses were not alerted. Surprise was still with the attackers.
Now a low cloud cover appeared, giving the raiders protection against air observation. After nightfall, still unobserved by anything more hostile than a few French fishing trawlers, they sighted a friendly marker—a submarine stationed 40 miles from the objective to point the way.
The mouth of the river was entered without enemy challenge. Steaming without lights, they moved on, past gun batteries and radar posts, one mile, two miles. Then suddenly a searchlight broke the darkness and picked out the procession. Other searchlights blazed along the shore. Campbeltown ran up German colors, and signalled that she and another vessel had been damaged by enemy action. Permission was requested to proceed without delay. Hesitant firing, without effect, had started from the shore, but the ruse gained precious minutes. The guns stopped, then started again. The gunboat then signalled that she was being fired on by friendly forces. Firing ceased. The heaviest batteries were now behind them.
Deception was now stretched beyond all hope. Without further interference, Campbeltown steamed within half a mile of the lock, when heavy gunfire broke out from both shores. Lieutenant Commander Beattie increased to full speed and Campbeltown leaped toward the objective.
The tough, old ship, fighting a war for which she was never intended, took shells and machine gun bullets up and down her hull. Flames broke out on her forecasde and she rocked and shuddered. But her guns kept on firing and she drove on toward the target.
At 1:34 A.M., only four minutes behind schedule, she crashed through the center of the dock gate. Her speed and power carried her on, so that the explosive charge, 36 feet astern of the bow, came to rest level with the gate. With flames and explosions around them, her crew opened the sea cocks and she slowly settled to the bottom.
Now the commandos and crewmen poured ashore to join the other attackers in the demolition of harbor facilities. They were helped to some extent by the confused and excited German defenders, who indiscriminately poured heavy fire in all directions. For a time, the defenders fired ferociously at each other from opposite sides of the river. But as they came to realize the size and location of the attacking force, their superior numbers and firepower took effect.
The signal to withdraw found few of the invaders making their way to the river points where the launches were waiting to pick them up. As they made their escape, the sounds of battle were all around them, but the sound they were waiting for had not come. The 2 ½-hour mark was passed and no explosion had occurred inside Campbeltown.
The German defenders remained on the alert through the night. Among their prisoners was Lieutenant Commander Beattie, who had jumped ashore after Campbeltown rammed the gate. He was one of the few Navy men to survive the raid.
In the morning, a party of 40 Germans boarded the old vessel to study means of removing her from the lock. Most of them were standing on the forecastle, not far from the charge, when a gigantic explosion tore the ship apart and destroyed the target. Campbeltown had completed her last mission. The dry dock was unusable for the rest of the war.
Not long afterward, Commander Beattie was summoned by the commandant of the prisoner of war camp where he was held. The commandant read a citation informing him that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross for heroism in the St. Nazaire raid.
By 1944, few of the Town-class destroyers remained in active service. During that year, seven were transferred to the Russian Navy. An eighth was sent along to be stripped for spare parts. Many served as training or target ships after the tide of battle turned against the submarines in 1943. By the end of the war, the scrapper’s torch was performing its long postponed task on the survivors of the Town-class fleet. Today, they are all gone.
The excitement created by the transfer of the vessels was shordived in the United States, for within the week that the deal was announced, Hider began the London Blitz. Fifty old ships and a string of little-known Atlantic pinpricks were quickly pushed out of the newspaper headlines.
But in Britain the effect was profound, especially because of the trying days that followed. The besieged island had at last drawn more than promises from its great and powerful friend across the Atlantic. From neutrality, the United States had taken a giant step to what was technically non-belligerency. The next step, massive material aid under the name Lend-Lease, was inevitable and soon to come.
Five years after the end of the war, the destroyer deal was largely forgotten here, but not so in Britain. The war records were combed and a handprinted volume prepared on the Town-class destroyers. Each of the towns and cities that provided a name for those vessels was presented a copy.
Of the transaction, the introduction states, “Fewer announcements could have given greater encouragement to the British people and their allies. ...”
It goes on to quote Admiral of the Fleet Sir James Somerville, who said that if not for the contributions of the Town-class fleet “the outcome of the European war itself might have been vastly different.”