OPERATION CHARIOT ~
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."
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?
Planning & Preparation
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.
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 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
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
South loch gate showing the final stage of HMS
Campbeltown's one way journey.
South loch gate where HMS Campbeltown's
bow was lodged.
View of south loch gate from the north gate... the
space denied to the Tirpitz.
The approaches to the old entrance to the Basin of
St Nazaire. It is quite narrow and not very long.
The south side of the old entrance where Commando
The old entrance loch gates which were torpedoed in
Beyond the old entrance loch gates is the swing
bridge over which the Commandos from the Campbeltown retreated.
The steps on the south side of the approaches to
the old entrance used by the Commandos as a drop off point. The
heavily defended submarine pens are in the background.
The submarine pens from where the Commandos came
under heavy enemy fire.
The 'Bridge of memories' over which the Commandos
escape. View looking back towards the old town and the area north
of the Mole.
The Old Mole... scene of much bloody fighting.
The Old Mole lighthouse.
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.
Awards gained during the Raid
The Cross of
Sacrifice at the
~ VCs ~
Captain Robert Edward Dudley Ryder, RN.
For great gallantry in the attack on St. Nazaire. He
commanded a force of small unprotected ships in an attack on a heavily defended port and led HMS Campbeltown in under
intense fire from short range weapons at point blank range. Though the main object of the expedition had been accomplished in the
beaching of Campbeltown, he remained on the spot conducting operations, evacuating men from Campbeltown and dealing with
strong points and close range weapons while exposed to heavy fire for one hour and sixteen minutes, and did not withdraw till it was
certain that his ship could be of no use in rescuing any of the Commando Troops who were still ashore. That his motor boat, now full of
dead and wounded, should have survived and should have been able to withdraw through an intense barrage of close range fire was almost
Lieutenant-Commander Stephen Halden Beattie, RN, HMS Campbeltown.
For great gallantry
and determination in the attack on St. Nazaire in command of HMS Campbeltown. Under intense fire directed at the bridge
from point blank range of about 100 yards, and in the face of the blinding glare of many searchlights, he steamed her into the lock
gates and beached and scuttled her in the correct position. This Victoria Cross is awarded to Lieutenant-Commander Beattie in
recognition not only of his own valour but also of that of the unnamed officers and men of a very gallant ship's company, many of whom
have not returned.
Able Seaman William Alfred Savage, RN.
For great gallantry, skill and devotion to duty as
gun-layer of the pom-pom in a motor gun-boat in the St. Nazaire raid. Completely exposed, and under heavy fire he engaged positions
ashore with cool and steady accuracy. On the way out of the harbour he kept up the same vigorous and accurate fire against the
attacking ships, until he was killed at his gun. This Victoria Cross is awarded in recognition not only of the gallantry and devotion
to duty of Able Seaman Savage, but also of the valour shown by many others, unnamed, in Motor Launches, Motor Gun Boats and Motor
Torpedo Boats, who gallantly carried out their duty in entirely exposed positions against enemy fire at very close range.
Sergeant Thomas Frank Durrant, RE
attached to No.1 Commando, was
in the Royal Engineers. On 27th March 1942 at St Nazaire he was in charge of a Lewis gun on HM Motor Launch 306 which came under heavy
fire during the raid, and although he had no protection and was wounded in several places he continued to fire until the launch was
boarded and the survivors were taken prisoner. He died of his wounds the next day.
[Photo courtesy of Graham Francis.]
Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Charles Newman
The Essex Regiment was attached to No.2 Commando.
During the St Nazaire raid on 27th March 1942, Lieutenant-Colonel
Newman was in charge of the military forces and was one of the first
ashore, leading his men and directing operations without regard for
his own safety. The troops fought well under his command and held
superior numbers of the enemy at bay until the demolition parties had
done their jobs. Newman then attempted to fight through into open
country and did not surrender until all the ammunition was exhausted
when he was then taken prisoner.
~ 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
Society awards page.
Summary of Action
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, France. The memorial and the 12 pounder gun
taken from HMS Campbeltown, are situated side by side at Place du
Commando at the eastern end of Boulevard President Wilson.
Other Info -
The inscription below the gun reads 'Canon du destroyer Campbeltown
qui percuta le caisson sud de la forme joubert Commando Anglais du 28 Mars
for more information on Operation Chariot.
[Photos courtesy of Graham Francis.]
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Nazaire Society website gives a comprehensive account of the raid including many photographs of the ships
Operation Chariot: The
Raid on St. Nazaire by
Pen & Sword, 2005, 128pp. B/w & Coloured illustrations throughout.
Paperback. ISBN 1844151166
The Greatest Raid Of All - C.E.Lucas Phillips, Pan Books ISBN
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.
Storming St Nazaire - The Dock Busting Raid by James G Dorrian.
Published 1998 and more recently in paperback by Leo Cooper (an
imprint of Pen & Sword Books). 304 pages £14.95. ISBN 08052 807 0.
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
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 a mission in support 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 to 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.