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Operation Chariot : St Nazaire Raid

Operation Chariot : St Nazaire Raid

Operation Chariot was an audacious, brave, and daring Combined Operations raid on the port of St Nazaire in German-occupied France. Packed with tons of high explosives, the destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, was rammed into the gates of the only dry dock capable of servicing the German battleship Tirpitz. Such was the damage, the dry dock was rendered unusable for the remainder of the war.

In the second week of January 1942, the powerful German battleship Tirpitz moved from the Baltic, through the Kiel Canal, and north to Trondheim on the Norwegian coast.

From there, it had the potential to break out into the North Atlantic and wreak havoc on allied Atlantic convoys. Four separate attempts to bomb the Tirpitz failed, with the loss of 12 aircraft. A different strategy was required to silence Tirpitz.

The Germans needed dry-dock facilities on the Atlantic coast before the battleship could be deployed effectively against allied convoys and the only suitable port was St. Nazaire. It lay on the north bank of the River Loire about 6 miles from the river mouth, which itself was about 6 miles wide.

The Planning Division in the Admiralty, conceived the idea to destroy the lock gate at St. Nazaire which would render the dry dock unusable. The idea was picked up by Captain Charles Lambe who became First Sea Lord. The heavy concentration of enemy defensive positions and troops in the area strongly reflected the importance of the port facilities to them. It was, arguably, the most heavily defended place along the whole of the German-occupied Atlantic coast. In this confined space there were power stations, pumping stations, warehouses, lock installations and the old town of St. Nazaire. Denying the Germans use of the dry dock would effectively neutralize the threat of Tirpitz.

The estuary was a complex mixture of mudflats and channels. A frontal assault would, therefore, need a shallow draught vessel running on a high tide. Although heavily defended, the Germans were unlikely to have considered an attack across the mudflats and shoals.

The initial Combined Operations plan required one specially lightened destroyer to carry out the raid. The destroyer HMS Campbeltown was chosen, she would be packed with explosives and rammed into the dock gates. Commandos on board would then disembark and use demolition charges to destroy nearby dock installations, searchlights, and gun emplacements. The destroyer would then be blown up, disabling the gate. At the same time, the RAF would undertake diversionary air raids in the area.

Combined Operations Headquarters worked closely with several intelligence organisations to plan the raid. The Naval Intelligence Division compiled information from a variety of sources. A detailed plan of the town of St. Nazaire was provided by the Secret Intelligence Service, and information on the coastal artillery nearby was sourced from the War Office's Military Intelligence branch. Intelligence about the dock itself came from pre-war technical journals. The Naval Operational Intelligence Centre selected the route and timing for the raid based on intelligence about the location of minefields and German recognition signals sourced from naval intelligence and the enigma codes. The commandos and crew from Campbeltown were to board the motor launches at the Old Mole jetty after the raid and then return to base.

HMS Campbeltown was a First World War destroyer that had previously been USS Buchanan in the USN. She had come into British service in 1940 as one of 50 destroyers transferred to the United Kingdom under the destroyers-for-bases deal.

Campbeltown was converted for the raid. She had to be lightened to raise her draught to get over the sandbanks in the estuary. 

All her internal compartments were stripped, her three 4-inch guns were removed along with the torpedoes and depth charges from the deck and the forward gun was replaced with a light, quick-firing, 12-pounder 3-inch gun. Eight 20mm Oerlikons were installed on mountings raised above deck level. The bridge and wheelhouse were given extra armour-plate protection, and two rows of armour were fixed along the sides of the ship to protect the commandos on the open deck.

Two of her four funnels were removed, and the forward two were cut at an angle to resemble a German destroyer. The bow was packed with 4.5 tons of high explosives, which were set in concrete. The explosive charge would be timed to detonate after the raiders had left the harbour.

The other naval units involved were two Hunt-class destroyers, HMS Tynedale and Atherstone, which would accompany the force to and from the French coast and remain out at sea during the raid. A motor gunboat was the headquarters ship for the raid, with Commander Ryder and the commanding officer of the commandos on board. A motor torpedo boat had two objectives. If the outer Normandie dock gates were open, she had to torpedo the inner dock gates. If the gates were closed she would instead torpedo the gates at the old entrance into the St Nazaire basin.

To assist in transporting the commandos, 16 Fairmile B Motor Launches were also sent on the raid and instead of transporting the commandos, these boats were to engage any German shipping found in the estuary. The submarine HMS Sturgeon would leave before the rest of the convoy and be in position to act as a navigational beacon to guide the convoy into the Loire estuary.

The three destroyers and 16 small boats left Falmouth, Cornwall, at 14:00 on 26 March 1942. On arrival at St. Nazaire, the portside motor launches were to head for the Old Mole to disembark their commandos, while the starboard group would make for the old entrance to the basin to disembark theirs.

The convoy followed two French fishing trawlers on the way. Both crews were taken off and the ships sunk for fear they might report the composition and location of the convoy. At 17:00 the convoy received a signal from Commander-in-Chief Plymouth that five German torpedo boats were in the area. Two hours later another signal informed them that another two Hunt-class destroyers, HMS Cleveland and HMS Brocklesby, had been dispatched at full speed to join the convoy.

The convoy reached a position 65 nautical miles off St. Nazaire at 21:00 and changed course toward the estuary, leaving HMS Atherstone and HMS Tynedale as a sea patrol. The first casualty of the raid was ML 341, which had developed engine trouble and was abandoned. At 22:00 the submarine Sturgeon directed her navigation beacon out to sea to guide the convoy in. At about the same time Campbeltown raised the German naval ensign in an attempt to deceive any German lookouts into thinking she was a German destroyer.

At 23:30 on 27 March, five RAF squadrons of 35 Whitleys and 27 Wellingtons started their bombing runs. The bombers had to stay above 6,000 feet and were supposed to remain over the port for 60 minutes to divert attention toward themselves and away from the sea. They had orders to only bomb clearly identified military targets and to drop only one bomb at a time. Six aircraft managed to bomb other nearby targets in the raid.

Between 2330 and 0030, the convoy was sighted by the German submarine U-593, which dived and later reported the British ships as moving westward which caused further complications to the Germans about what was going on.

The unusual behaviour of the bombers made the local commander issue a warning that there might be a parachute landing in progress, he ordered all guns to cease firing and searchlights to be extinguished in case the bombers were using them to locate the port. Everyone was placed on high alert. 

The harbour defence and ships' crews were ordered out of the air raid shelters. During all this a lookout reported seeing some activity out at sea, so Kriegsmarine Kapitän Karl-Conrad Mecke began suspecting some type of landing and ordered extra attention to be paid to the approaches to the harbour.

At 00:30 hours the ships crossed over the shoals at the mouth of the Loire estuary, with Campbeltown scraping the bottom twice. Each time she pulled free, and the group proceeded toward the harbour in darkness. They had come within about eight minutes' passage from the dock gates when, at 01:22, the entire convoy was illuminated by searchlights on both banks of the estuary. A naval signal light demanded their identification.

They replied in a coded response obtained from a captured German trawler. A few bursts were fired from a shore battery and both Campbeltown and MGB-314 replied: "Ship being fired upon by friendly forces". The deception gave them a little more time before every German gun in the bay opened fire. At 01:28, with the convoy 1 mile from the dock gates, Beattie ordered the German flag lowered and the White Ensign raised. The intensity of the German fire seemed to increase. The guard ship opened fire and was quickly silenced when the ships in the convoy responded, shooting into her as they passed.

By now all the ships in the convoy were within range to engage targets and were firing at the gun emplacements and searchlights. Campbeltown was hit several times and increased her speed to 19 kn. The helmsman on her bridge was killed, and his replacement was wounded and replaced as well. Blinded by the searchlights, Beattie knew they were close to their objective. Still under heavy fire, the motor gunboat turned into the estuary as Campbeltown cleared the end of the Old Mole, cut through anti-torpedo netting strung across the entrance and rammed the dock gates, striking home at 01:34, three minutes later than scheduled. The force of the impact drove the ship 33 feet onto the gates.

The commandos on Campbeltown now disembarked. These comprised two assault teams, five demolition teams with their protectors, and a mortar group. Three demolition teams were tasked with destroying the dock pumping machinery and other installations associated with the dry dock. A 14-man assault group was tasked with knocking out two pump-house roof-top gun emplacements high above the quayside and securing a bridge to provide a route for the raiding parties to exit the dock area. Captain Donald William Roy and Sgt. Don Randall used scaling ladders and grenades to accomplish the former, and a head-on rush to secure the bridge and form a bridgehead

They lost four men in this action. The fifth team also succeeded in completing all their objectives, but almost half their men were killed. The other two commando groups were not as successful. The motor launches transporting Groups One and Two had almost all been destroyed on their approach. ML 457 was the only boat to land its commandos on the Old Mole and only ML 177 had managed to reach the gates at the old entrance to the basin. That team succeeded in planting charges on two tugboats moored in the basin.

Lt. Col. Newman aboard the motor gunboat need not have landed, but he was one of the first ashore. One of his first actions was to direct mortar fire onto a gun position on top of the submarine pens that was causing heavy casualties among the commandos. He next directed machine gunfire onto an armed trawler, which was forced to withdraw upriver. Newman organised a defence that succeeded in keeping the increasing numbers of German reinforcements at bay until the demolition parties had completed their tasks.

Some 100 commandos were still ashore when it was realised that evacuation by sea was no longer possible. the survivors were issued three orders:

(1) To do our best to get back to England;

(2) Not to surrender until all our ammunition is exhausted;

(3) Not to surrender at all if we can help it.

The commandos led a charge from the old town across a bridge raked by machine gunfire and advanced into the new town. The commandos attempted to get through the narrow streets of the town and into the surrounding countryside, but were eventually surrounded. When their ammunition was expended, they surrendered. Not all the commandos were captured, five men managed to reach neutral Spain and eventually return to England.

Most of the motor launches had been destroyed on the run-in and were burning. The first ML in the starboard column was the first boat to catch fire. Her captain managed to beach her at the end of the Old Mole. Some starboard boats managed to reach their objective and disembark their commandos. ML 443, the leading boat in the port column, got to within 10 feet (3 m) of the mole in the face of heavy direct fire and hand grenades before being set on fire. The crew were rescued by ML 160, one of the torpedo MLs which had been looking for targets of opportunity such as the two large tankers reported to be in the harbour. The rest of the port column had been destroyed or disabled before reaching the mole. ML 192 and ML 262 were set on fire, and all but six of their men were killed. ML 268 was blown up, with only one survivor.

ML 177, the launch that had successfully taken off some of the crew from Campbeltown, was sunk on her way out of the estuary. ML 269, another torpedo-armed boat, moved up and down the river at high speed to draw German fire away from the landings. Soon after passing Campbeltown, it was hit and its steering damaged. It took ten minutes to repair the steering. The boat turned and started in the other direction, opening fire on an armed trawler in passing. Return fire from the trawler set the boat's engine on fire.

ML 306 also came under heavy fire when it arrived near the port. Sergeant Thomas Durrant of No. 1 Commando, manning the aft Lewis gun, engaged gun and searchlight positions on the run-in. He was wounded but stayed with his gun. The ML reached the open sea but was attacked at short range by the German torpedo boat Jaguar. 

Durrant returned fire, aiming for the torpedo boat's bridge. He was wounded again but remained at his gun even after the German commander asked for their surrender. He fired many drums of ammunition until the ML was boarded. Durrant died of his wounds and, on the recommendation of the German Jaguar's commander he was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

After the commando headquarters group had landed, Commander Ryder went to check for himself that Campbeltown was firmly stuck in the dock. Some of her surviving crewmen were being taken on board the motor gunboat. Ryder returned to the boat and ordered the motor torpedo boat to carry out its alternative task and torpedo the lock gates at the old entrance to the basin. After a successful torpedo attack, Ryder ordered the MTB to leave. On their way out of the estuary, they stopped to collect survivors from a sinking ML and were hit and set on fire. Back at the docks, the motor gunboat had positioned itself mid-river to engage enemy gun emplacements. 

The Commander reported that he could see no ships other than seven or eight burning MLs. He then realised that the landing places at the Old Mole and the entrance to the basin had both been recaptured by the Germans. There was nothing more they could do for the commandos, so they headed out to sea. On their way, they were continuously illuminated by German searchlights and were hit at least six times by the German guns. Passing ML 270, they ordered her to follow and made smoke to hide both boats.

When they reached the open sea the smaller calibre guns were out of range and stopped firing but the heavier artillery continued to engage them. The boats were about 4 miles  off-shore when the last German salvo straddled them and killed Able Seaman William Alfred Savage, who was still at his gun. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his exploits which is now on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England. His citation recognised both Savage and the bravery of "many others, unnamed, in Motor Launches, Motor Gun Boats and Motor Torpedo Boats who gallantly carried out their duties in entirely exposed positions against Enemy fire at very close range."

At 06:30 the five German torpedo boats that the convoy had evaded the previous day were sighted by HMS Atherstone and Tynedale. The destroyers turned toward them and opened fire at a range of 7 miles, After ten minutes the German boats turned away, making smoke. The destroyers sighted the motor gunboat and two accompanying motor launches soon after and transferred their casualties to Atherstone

Not expecting any more boats to arrive, they headed for home. Just after 09:00 the Hunt-class escort destroyers sent by Commander-in-Chief Plymouth, Brocklesby, and Cleveland, arrived. Shortly after this, the ships were spotted by a German Heinkel HE-115 floatplane.

The Luftwaffe sent a Junkers JU-88 bomber, which was engaged by a RAF Bristol Beaufighter that had arrived in the area earlier. Both machines crashed into the sea after a dogfight. Other German planes arrived but were driven off by Beaufighters and Hudsons from Coastal Command. The Atlantic weather conditions deteriorated and amid concerns about the growing German threat and the realisation that the damaged small ships would not be able to keep up the Commander ordered the crews off the smaller boats and had them sunk.

ML 160, ML 307, and ML 443 reached the rendezvous and waited until 10:00 for the destroyers to appear. Having already been attacked once, they moved further out into the Atlantic to try to avoid the Luftwaffe but a Junkers JU-88 appeared overhead at 07:30 and approached them at low level for a closer look. The ships opened fire and hit the aircraft in the cockpit, killing the pilot and causing the aircraft to crash into the sea. The next aircraft to appear was a Blohm & Voss seaplane which attempted to bomb the boats but left after being damaged by machine-gun fire. The MLs eventually reached England unaided the following day.

The explosive charges in HMS Campbeltown detonated at noon on 28 March 1942, and the dry dock was destroyed. Reports vary on the fate of the two tankers that were in the dock, they were either swept away by the wall of water and sunk or swept to the far end of the dock, 40 senior German officers and civilians who were on a tour of Campbeltown were killed. In total, the explosion killed about 360 men. The wreck of Campbeltown could still be seen inside the dry dock months later when RAF photo-reconnaissance planes were sent to photograph the port.

The explosion put the dry dock out of commission for the remainder of the war and succeeded in keeping Tirpitz out of the Atlantic convoy lanes, The St. Nazaire raid had been a success.

Adolf Hitler was furious that the British had been able to sail a flotilla of ships up the Loire unhindered and he sacked Generaloberst Carl Hilpert, Commander in Chief West. The raid refocused German attention on the Atlantic Wall and special attention was given to ports to prevent any repeat of the raid. 

By June of 1942, the Germans began using concrete to fortify gun emplacements and bunkers in quantities previously only used in U-boat pens. Hitler laid out new plans in a meeting with Armaments Minister Albert Speer in August 1942, calling for the construction of 15,000 bunkers by May of 1943 to defend the Atlantic coast from Norway to Spain. The battleship Tirpitz never entered the Atlantic. She remained in Norwegian fjords to threaten Allied shipping until she was destroyed by the RAF in Operation Catechism on 12 November 1944.

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