ST. NAZAIRE - 28th MAR 1942
Operation Chariot was an audacious Combined Operation raid on the port of St Nazaire in German occupied France. Packed with tons of high explosives a destroyer was rammed into the gates of the only dry dock capable of servicing the German battleship Tirpitz. Such was the damage that the dry dock was rendered unusable for the remainder of the war. Based on an article by James Paul.
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. There was a very real danger that it 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."
Four separate attempts to bomb the Tirpitz failed with the loss of 12 aircraft. Clearly a different strategy was required. The Germans needed dry-dock facilities on the Atlantic coast before the battleship could be deployed effectively against allied convoys. The only port capable of handling it was St. Nazaire on the French coast. There were others world-wide in Germany, Genoa and Singapore but none of operational value to the Germans. St. Nazaire lay on the north bank of the River Loire about 6 miles from the river mouth which itself was about 6 miles wide.
From within the Planning Division in the Admiralty the idea emerged to destroy the lock gate at St Nazaire. It was picked up by Captain Charles Lambe (who became First Sea Lord from 1959 to 1960 when he died a few months after resigning on the grounds of ill-health). He took the idea to Mountbatten head of Combined Operations - the first outside client for COHQ.
The target area was sandwiched between the River Loire and the waters of the outer harbour and the Basin of St Nazaire - a total area of less than one square mile. But it was arguably the most heavily defended area 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 the Tirpitz posed... but how?
The estuary was a complex mixture of mud flats and channels and for a frontal assault a shallow draught vessel running on a high tide would be required. Although heavily defended the German planners had not considered the possibility of an attack across the mud flats and shoals. Meticulous planning was undertaken including taking advice on the two important variables of tide and winds and studying French charts and tables up to 100 years old.
The outline plan was simple. The selected vessel, packed with high explosives in the bow, with troops and crew in protected areas, would ram the outer lock gate at speed and stick there. They would disembark and take cover behind a nearby 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 destroy as many dockyard targets and withdraw in fast motor launches which had followed them in. All this was to be achieved under cover of an air raid.
The planners themselves had doubts about the withdrawal phase. There were likely to be unknown and variable factors that could not be planned for but the risks were less than the potential rewards. However, outside the planning circle there were those, notably the Naval C in C Plymouth, who thought the vessel would bounce off the gate. 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 explosion would be killed.
Mountbatten conceded the point about the destructive power of the explosion and delayed action fuses were to be fitted to allow time for the troops and crew to evacuate the area. However on the question of the use of a boat 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 force in the event of disaster befalling the main ship.
The raid was to be led by HMS Campbeltown, an American lend-lease destroyer (USS Buchanan). It was especially refitted for the task. Her interior was stripped, the bridge armour-plated, and additional protection provided for the Commandos she would carry. The accompanying motor launches (MLs) were to carry 150 Commandos. The boats were fitted with two Oerlikon 20mm guns and additional fuel tanks to increase their range. As the needs of the raid were reassessed, the ML fleet was firstly increased to ten and then to 14. Only one motor gun boat (MGB) was available - MGB 314, a C-Class Fairmile, commanded by Lt. Dunstan Curtis. She would lead the attack and in reserve there would be motor torpedo boat (MTB) 74. This was equipped with unproven flying torpedoes to breach the dry dock gates if the Campbeltown failed to reach the target.
The fleet sailed from Falmouth at 3 pm on the 26th of March with MGB 314 at the head and two escort destroyers flanking the MLs and HMS Campbeltown. South west of Ushant they came across a U-Boat and damaged it. They left the area of action on a false course which the submarine duly reported to their command and control HQ. Five German torpedo boats were sent from St Nazaire to engage the vessels but in entirely the wrong direction. They were still at sea during the period of the raid. Around midnight on the 27/28th March the raiders saw bomb flashes and tracers light the sky. The diversionary bombing air raid had started but low cloud rendered it inaccurate which caused an alert in the town and its approaches rather than the intended effect of keeping the German forces in their bunkers. The bombers had been briefed to target only specific military installations to avoid civilian casualties. Those who failed to acquire their targets did not drop their bombs.
Each boat flew the German flag to confuse the enemy and delay identification. HMS Sturgeon, a submarine, provided the exact position for the task force from which to make its run into the estuary. The Campbeltown crept through at 5 knots, touching bottom twice. At 0120 hours search lights illuminated the entire fleet but, for a short time, the Germans were reluctant to open fire possibly because of confusion caused by spoof signals and a general disbelief amongst and the Germans that such an audacious raid could be undertaken. The German flags were replaced with the White Ensign when the fleet was still two miles from its target. The Germans opened fire during the final 15 minutes of the run in during which half the men aboard the MLs were either killed or wounded from the intense shelling.
The Campbeltown cleared the estuary and increased speed to drive her bows through the torpedo barrier and into the dock gate. The MLs were all but stopped 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. On shore fighting was ferocious and close quartered. At 0134 hours Campbeltown was successfully driven at speed into the dock gates just 4 minutes behind schedule and was relieved of most of her crew by MGB 314 while MTB 74 deployed her delayed action torpedoes in the foundations of the old entrance dock gate.
Captain Ryder, CO of the Naval forces, went ashore and satisfied himself that Campbeltown was both scuttled and embedded in the loch gate. At 0230 hours Ryder decided to withdraw. By this time more than half of his craft had been destroyed and the remainder were riddled.... if he didn't withdraw soon he would lose them all. The MTB then left for her rendezvous with British destroyers in the open sea off the Loire with 26 men on board accompanied by 7 other craft.. It stopped to pick up two more survivors but was hit by accurate shelling from the shore batteries. Only three of the 34 aboard survived. On the way they met the 5 German torpedo boats returning from their fruitless mission. In further enemy fire more craft were destroyed or scuttled and their crews transferred to the remaining craft. Of the 18 coastal craft which set out from Falmouth only four returned. [Photos below taken in 2005 by Graham Francis. They show major landmarks largely unchanged since 1942.]
The delayed action fuses detonated the high explosives in the Campbeltown's hold at noon on the 28th. Forty German officers were aboard at the time and 400 other ranks were nearby on the quay. All were killed in the blast. The dock gates were destroyed and were not repaired until after the war. On the evening of the 29th the delayed torpedoes were activated causing further damage and German casualties. Regrettably many needless French casualties were caused by jittery German soldiers who believed that the raiders were still in their midst.
Of the 241 Commandos who took part 59 were posted as killed or missing and 109 captured. 85 Royal Navy personnel were killed or missing and a further 20+ captured. Many others were wounded. 5 other ranks returned to England via Spain. The Tirptitz was never able to leave Norwegian waters for want of a safe haven on the Atlantic coast. The value of the shipping saved in terms of men, armaments and food, can only be guessed at but it was very significant contribution to the Allied cause.
The air raid had hindered rather than helped the amphibious raid on St Nazaire. The experience had regrettable consequences 5 months later when a planned bombing raid at Dieppe was dispensed with.
~ VCs ~
Captain Robert Edward Dudley Ryder, RN.
Lieutenant-Commander Stephen Halden Beattie, RN, HMS Campbeltown.
Able Seaman William Alfred Savage, RN.
Sergeant Thomas Frank Durrant, RE
Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Charles Newman
~ Other awards ~ Other awards were granted after the St. Nazaire Raid were: 4 DSO; 17 DSC; 11 MC; 4 CGM; 5 DCM; 24 DSM and 15 MM. Another 51 men were mentioned in dispatches, 22 of them posthumously. For full list of awards visit St Nazaire Society awards page.
Allied Forces: Sea - HMS Campbeltown, MTBs, MGBs & 8 MLs; Land - Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, & 12 Commando.
Axis Forces: Sea - Shore defence batteries; Land - Shore defence units.
Outcome (positive) - Dry dock facility at St Nazaire disabled for the remainder of the war.
Outcome (negative) - Heavy losses - see text.
St Nazaire Society website gives a comprehensive account of the raid including many photographs of the ships and men.
Operation Chariot: The
Raid on St. Nazaire by
Pen & Sword, 2005, 128pp. B/w & Coloured illustrations throughout.
Paperback. ISBN 1844151166
Saint-Nazaire. Operation Chariot -
1942 written by James G Dorrian and published in 2006 by Pen and
Sword as part of their 'Battleground' series. It is designed for both
'armchair visitors' and for those who intend to visit the port. The guide is highly illustrated, with
224 pages, 20 maps and drawings and more than 150 photographs.
Dimensions - 8 1/2 " by 5 1/4". Softback. ISBN
1844153347 - cover price £12.99 but can be found at £9.99.
Commandos and Rangers of World War 2 by James D. Ladd. Published in 1978 by MacDonald & Jane's. ISBN 0 356 08432 9.
Commandos 1940 - 1946 by Charles Messenger. Pub. by William Kimber, London 1985. ISBN 0 7183 0553 1.
The Watery Maze by Bernard Fergusson published 1961 by Collins.
If you have any information or book recommendations about Operation Chariot please contact us.
Royal Australian Air Force. In the spring of 1942 I was a pilot in 10 squadron, at the time the only active Royal Australian Air Force unit. On the occasion of the St Nazaire raid I was first officer to Graham Pockley Captain of a 10 squadron Sunderland. We were based at the Mountbatten RAF station, Plymouth. From there we set off on patrol around 5 to 8 miles off shore during the raid on St Nazaire. Our purpose was to help in the rescue of survivors. You mention only RAF aircraft in support of the action but we patrolled a few miles offshore all the time the attack on St Nazaire took place. I might add that having been subject to German bomber attacks on Plymouth we cheered each time there were signs of action in and around St Nazaire. Long ago and far away! Best regards, Rex Senior. [Rex later returned home to Australia and crewed the now famous Qantas flights from there to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) over areas held by the Japanese. Each flight lasted between 28 and 34 hours and became known as the flight of the double sunrise.]
Hector McIntyre RN. I was grateful for reading about the St.Nazaire attack 28 March, 1942 on your website, as my late eldest brother, Hector McIntyre took part in this raid and was a survivor of it. He was a Leading Seaman on the front escort MGB which was scuttled. He told us he was on land for sometime that night and spoke to some of the German soldiers who regretted us going to war with them.
Later in his 4 year service he was selected to be trained as a Naval Officer and went to the 2 Naval colleges in London, passing out as Sub. Lieut. Hector McIntyre. He always served with the Light Coastal Forces based in the South East England. In 1943, during an unsuccessful action off the coast of Holland for which he had volunteered, he was lost at sea on 28 February 1943. Despite the best efforts of Lieut Commander Hitchins, his famous Commander, who threw him a rope to try and get him and his craft home to "Blighty" in freezing weather conditions, the attempt failed.
I am his only sister, aged 83 now (Nov 2010) and I will never forget him and his bravery. Before he joined the Royal Navy in 1941 he was a brilliant journalist working for a Glasgow newspaper. My only regret is that when my mother's house was cleared, I did not receive any of my brother's records of actions (he kept a good diary of events).
I know he volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1941 and that he craved action, so he was a very brave young man. There is a good memorial at Gravesend on Sea where his name is engraved along with others who "have no grave but the sea". At this memorial weekend, I trust you will find me email interesting.
Mrs Ellen Kerr, Wemyss Bay, Inverclyde on the south
west coast of Scotland.
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