It was almost as if the British went back in time: a year ago German U-boats and surface raiders sank merchant ships faster than they could be replaced and nearly forced the British into submission. In March 1942, it was happening again. With America’s entry into the war, the German Navy had another “Happy Time”. The Americans refused to put inter-city shipping along the Eastern Seaboard and the Caribbean into convoys before a committee review was completed by the US Navy on the hard learned and freely given British convoy experience. As the Americans flailed about with ineffectual “Hunter/Killer” groups, a surprisingly small number of U-boats were massacring isolated merchantmen against the backdrop of a well-lit US mainland. Churchill was back to counting down the months until the population of the British Isles was starved into submission.
Eleven months before, toward the end of the first “Happy Time”, the German battleship Bismarck broke out into the Atlantic. Only by the luck, specifically a one-in-a-million torpedo drop from an ancient and obsolete biplane, did the Royal Navy manage to slow the Bismarck down before she reached the safety of the French coast. And even then the Bismarck was more than a match for the battleships of the British Home Fleet, who nearly couldn’t sink the crippled ship despite their best efforts. The Admiralty didn’t want to go through that again, but in the winter of 1942, feared they would have to: the Bismarck’s sister ship, the Tirpitz, became operational and was spotted in Norway.
Bismarck didn’t sink any convoys, but still caused significant damage to the Atlantic shipping by its presence alone, mostly through convoy reroutes and delays. If the Tirpitz broke out, and actually sank some merchantmen, it could break the British before the full weight of America’s industry could be brought to bear. Before the Bismarck was sunk, it was heading to the French port of St Nazaire. The drydock there was built for the luxury liner Normandie and was the only drydock large enough on the Atlantic seaboard where the Bismarck could be repaired. The Tirpitz would require the same facilities. If the Normandie drydock was destroyed, the Tirpitz would have to return to Germany for repairs. If it was in the Atlantic that meant via the English Channel or around Scotland, and the British learned their lessons from the Channel Dash. If the drydock at St Nazaire were somehow disabled, the chance of the Germans unleashing the Tirpitz into the Atlantic would be significantly reduced, if not gone altogether. (They wouldn’t risk it. The Tirpitz was the last battleship Germany produced, plans for more were scrapped in mid-1941).
But the Normandie drydock was notoriously difficult to damage, much less destroy. The RAF ruled out bombing it, the bombers weren’t accurate enough. The battleships of the Home Fleet were tied up around Norway protecting Arctic convoys and preventing the Tirpitz from breaking out in the first place. Even if they headed south to bombard the drydock, St Nazaire was six miles up the Loire Estuary, and the Luftwaffe and shore batteries would have their way with them before they could get accurate fire on the target. They couldn’t afford further battleship losses to airpower; the experience of the Prince of Wales and Repulse was too fresh in everyone’s mind. Finally, a submarine couldn’t get close enough; the estuary was very shallow, except for a narrow channel that was dredged deep enough for ships to navigate up the river. But it was blocked by numerous anti-torpedo and anti-submarine nets. The mission was turned over to Vice Adm Lord Louis Mountbatten, the commander of the Combined Operations Headquarters to figure out.
The Combined Operations Headquarters was the British joint headquarters responsible for commando operations against mainland Europe and was comprised of the best from all branches of the British military. They determined that if commandos could approach up the Loire undetected they could carry enough explosives to destroy the drydock facilities, such as the pump house, power station, and wheel house, but something larger was needed to damage the massive 350 ton gates. They were so large the British referred to them as “caissons”. One ingenious planner suggested the use of a small ship packed with explosives to ram them.
The Royal Navy balked at the inevitable loss of one of their precious convoy escorts, but the thought of the Tirpitz in the Atlantic overruled those fears. The ship chosen was the HMS Campbeltown, the obsolete former USS Buchanan which was given to Great Britain by the United States in 1940 in the “Destroyers for Bases” agreement. The Campbeltown was a “four stacker” destroyer and over twelve days in mid-March, was significantly modified to look like a German “Mowe” class torpedo boat, at least at a glance… in the dark… by a German sentry that didn’t know any better. She was stripped of all excess weight, fitted with additional armor to protect the commandos and crew on board from the shore batteries, and packed with four and a half tons of explosives set in concrete, fitted with a timed fuses.
The plan called for the Campbeltown and an accompanying fleet of small craft to infiltrate up the Loire Estuary to St Nazaire where the disguised destroyer would ram the gates to the drydock, commandos would disembark and destroy the facilities, and then they would load onto the remaining small craft and escape. The planners didn’t expect them to succeed, but it had to be tried. Since the majority of the force was from the Royal Navy, the operational commander was Cdr Robert “Red” Ryder. To accompany the Campbeltown, Ryder had one motor torpedo boat, which would launch its torpedoes into the gate if the Campbeltown was incapacitated, one motor gun boat, which would serve as the floating headquarters, and 16 mahogany motor launches to carry the rest of the commandos.
The actual raid would be carried out by 265 men mostly from 2 Commando led by LtCol Charles Newman, though his superiors wanted to give experience to picked men from other units so men from six other commandos were attached (Operation Chariot was The Big Show, and everyone wanted in on it. The decision would significantly affect commando operations for the rest of 1942). While the Campbeltown was being modified, Newman and his men conducted rigorous rehearsals on the battleship King George V’s drydock in Southhampton. On 25 March they had a final rehearsal against a company of the Home Guard acting as the German defenders. The rehearsal was a disaster, and the elderly gentlemen of the Home Guard massacred the commandos. The operation was almost called off. If a company of old men could defeat the raid, how would they fare against the brigade of German infantry that was St Nazaire’s garrison? But the tide and moon meant they had to execute now, or they would have to wait a month before they could try again. Lord Mountbatten felt they could do the job, but doubted they could get back out. He had actually written them off, feeling that the objective was worth the lives of 611 of the British military’s best men. Operation Chariot was a “go”.
Just after midnight on 28 March 1942, Ryder’s small flotilla of wooden boats and iron men, and one very explosive tin can, entered the Loire Estuary for the long six mile trip under the noses of the Germans to the Normandie Drydock at St Nazaire.
Just before midnight, 35 RAF bombers appeared over St Nazaire. Lord Mountbatten, the commander of Combined Operations, asked for 100, but the Bomber Command couldn’t give more “without prejudicing ongoing operations”. The RAF mission commander was told simply to “create a diversion”, but not for what. He assumed the diversion was for another bombing raid, not for a small raiding force who at that point was just about to enter the Loire Estuary. They were told specifically not to bomb their usual target, the submarine pens in the basin of the port, so the bombers flew in circles over the town, and dropped a single bomb every minute or so, (to reduce civilian casualties in the surrounding area. Bomber Command still cared about civilian casualties at this point in the war) just to let Germans know they were there. All they did was alert the Germans that something was up. At 0100, the garrison commander declared, “Some deviltry is afoot”.
That “deviltry” was in the form of 265 commandos and 346 Royal Navy sailors aboard a destroyer converted into a floating bomb, the HMS Campbeltown, and 18 small wooden craft. Their mission: destroy the Normandie Drydock at St. Nazaire.
The Campbeltown’s hasty modifications to look like a German torpedo boat worked to a point. More importantly, they worked in conjunction with a stolen code book, which gave LtCdr Stephen Beattie, the captain of the Campbeltown, the correct challenge and password, which he blinked to any inquisitive German battery on shore as they sped past.
The Campbeltown was significantly lightened specifically so it didn’t have to follow the dredged channel which was too close to the northern shore. Nonetheless the Loire Estuary was only ten feet deep in many places, even at high tide. This was expected by the navigator, who, using a Loire pilot’s stolen depth chart and maps, plotted a meticulously detailed route up the estuary using a stop watch. However, he planned the run with the expectation of a constant speed of 14 kts, and LtCdr Beattie kept increasing the speed, so he had to redo calculations on the fly. (French Loire pilots would later say the run was a most impressive display of seamanship on the part of the navigator. Tom Clancy would use this as the basis for the “trench run” scene in “Hunt for Red October”, “Too fast, Vasily… too fast”). The Campbeltown struck and powered through more than one sand bar.
The Campbeltown continued on its nerve wracking journey up the Estuary passing dozens of guns ranging from quad 20mm anti-aircraft guns to massive 170mm ship cannon meant to deal with battleships, cruisers, and destroyers just like her. She bluffed her way past three coastal artillery batteries without incident. On two more occasions, the Germans opened fire on the speeding ship, only to be assuaged by frantic blinking of “friendly fire”. The raiders had made it 4 ½ of the six miles up the Loire Estuary without casualties. But about 2000 meters out the gig was up.
The garrison commander correctly surmised the form of deviltry once he’d been informed of the mystery ship, and ordered the shore batteries to ignore the blinking and open fire. Searchlights immediately illuminated the river, and were soon joined by the multitude of dual purpose anti-aircraft guns who were equally as deadly against ships and wooden boats as they were against bombers attempting to destroy the submarine pens. And they were much more accurate against the former.
Tracers of all types crisscrossed the estuary. Beattie, no longer willing to play the part of a German ship, lowered the Kriegsmarine ensign and ran up the Royal Navy’s battle ensign. The Campbeltown would either go down or ram the gate under her own colours. He ordered flank speed, a face melting 22 kts an hour, and raced for the lock gates of the drydock. It would take the small fleet seven minutes to get there.
It was seven minutes of Hell. The wooden motor launches were particularly vulnerable, especially with the exposed extra unarmored long range fuel tanks fitted on them specifically for this mission. Any accurate fire what-so-ever set them aflame and forced their crews of ten sailors and fifteen heavily laden commando passengers to jump into the oily flaming river if they weren’t killed in the inevitable explosion. Even so, the Campbeltown was the focus of most of the fire, and dozens of sailors and commandos on the deck were wounded or killed. LieutCol Newman would comment later that “The weight of fire caught one’s breath. Her sides seemed to be alive with bursting shells.”
The up armored bridge was particularly targeted, and helmsman after helmsman fell wounded or killed. Eventually the helm was taken by Lt Nigel Tibbets, the brilliant explosives expert who fitted the 4 ½ tonnes of amatol into Campeltown’s hull. He was on the ship to make sure it exploded and found himself steering the ship under the unflappable Beattie. After a near miss of a lighthouse caused by the glare of the searchlights, Beattie calmly told the crew to “Stand ready to ram”, and at 0134 on 28 March 1942, the Campbeltown smashed into the southern lock gate. She crumpled 36 feet of her bow and was pointed slightly up, and Tibbets’ amatol was placed directly above the massive gate. A smiling Beattie quipped, “Well there we are, four minutes late”.
Now was the time for Newman’s commandos to spring into action. Only 113 of the 265 were able to jump off the Campbeltown or land from the motor launches, the rest were either dead, too wounded to move, or drowning and burning to death in the river. Assault teams cleared antiaircraft positions and German defenders. Bren crews ran off to hold choke points against the overwhelming numbers of German troops converging on the area. And demolition teams, most of whom carried just a pistol and 90 lbs of explosives, raced off to the power stations, winch houses, and the all-important pumping station.
After clearing the defenders from each of the objectives, the commandos set their charges in the darkness with the cool efficiency of those who had rehearsed the task hundreds of times, which they had on the accurate mock ups in Southhampton. In the pump house, two severely wounded commandos had just 90 seconds to scale forty feet of scaffold stairs in the pitch black before they were killed by their own explosives. They made it with mere seconds to spare.
In just 25 minutes, all of the secondary objectives were destroyed, to include a German harbor patrol ship whose crew was so terrified of the commandos’ assault, they scuttled it to keep it from being captured. But the 25 minutes was too long for the remaining motor launches waiting at the Old Mole for the commandos. The guns of the wooden boats pounded the Germans, but they got much worse in return. Those that remained had to escape lest they were sunk. In any case, a particularly stubborn German pillbox on the quay itself separated the commandos from the flaming hell at its end. There would be no escape by sea.
About 70 remaining commandos rallied around Newman at the near end of the Mole. He gave them the bad news, and that they were to break up and head for neutral Spain, 350 miles to the south. They were not to surrender while they still had ammunition, and that the commando’s signature dagger was considered “ammunition”. They fought their way into the town and then split up. But by this time nearly 4000 Germans swarmed the area. One by one the small teams of commandos were killed or captured in small vicious fights, sometimes in alleys, sometimes in gardens, sometimes in basements, and sometimes in fields far away from St. Nazaire. Despite it all, six commandos would make it to Spain and safety without being captured. Three more would escape and make it there later in the year.
Seven motor launches covered in blood and packed with wounded eventually made it to the Atlantic. There they found their covering force of two British destroyers at the tail end of a successful engagement with four much larger German destroyers. The awaiting destroyers loaded up the survivors and sailed back to England.
Four other motor launches made their way back to England on their own. Three would make it, despite incessant Luftwaffe attacks. The fourth ran into a much larger German torpedo boat. The men of the motor launch refused to surrender and even tried to board the German boat. One gunner kept up accurate fire for the entire hour long engagement despite being wounded 23 times. Once the fight came to its inevitable conclusion the impressed German captain sailed back to St Nazaire and found the highest ranking British officer he could find. He told him about the gunner’s exploits and demanded they he be given the Victoria Cross. The astonished Brit told him to write it up and after he recovered and escaped he would submit it. It was Newman.
Both Newman and Beattie had been captured while trying to escape and were being held fairly close to the Campbeltown, which had not exploded yet. The damaged facilities would render the drydock unusable for months, maybe even a year, but it could still be repaired. The ship still hadn’t exploded at 1030, three and half hours after it was supposed to go off. By this time it was crawling with German engineers and souvenir hunters, even some officers with their French mistresses. All of the prisoners knew of the bomb, and couldn’t say anything lest the Germans find it and figure out a way to diffuse it. Those prisoners near the gates and clearly within the blast radius should have gotten Oscars for their fine acting, “They couldn’t look pleased that Germans were all over the ship. They couldn’t look quizzical as to why it hadn’t exploded yet. And they couldn’t look afraid because it could explode at that very second.”
Around noon, a German interrogator who spoke excellent English, admonished Beattie for underestimating the strength of the gates and thinking that the flimsy ship would ever permanently damage them. At that moment, the Campbeltown exploded, the gates destroyed, and the flooding waters pushed the remains of the ship into the now useless drydock. Beatty commented, “Perhaps we didn’t underestimate the targets”.
No one knows why the Campeltown didn’t explode until much later than planned. At least one British officer was taken into the ship. Legend has it that he set off the unreliable, unpredictable, and sensitive acid fuses. The official history is that the notorious fuses just took longer to burn through due to the impact. But in any case, whomever the Germans took inside had to have giant stones to show them about the ticking time bomb, without alerting them.
Of the 611 raiders, 168 were killed and 215 were captured. The Normandie drydock wouldn’t be repaired until 1947, two years after the end of the war. The Tirpitz never ventured into the Atlantic. In fact, it never ventured anywhere, it was too precious to German prestige to risk in action. The Tirpitz was ingloriously sunk in a Norwegian fjord by a bombing raid in November 1944, without having sunk anything. Despite the losses, Winston Churchill would call Operation Chariot, the Raid on St. Nazaire, “The Greatest Raid of All.”