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The St Nazaire Raid

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The St Nazaire Raid

History

HMS Campbeltown started the Devonport repairs in January. During this time, HMS Campbeltown was chosen for a specific operation and was withdrawn from normal service for modifications. HMS Campbeltown was to be used in Operation Chariot, a planned assault operation on the docks at St Nazaire. In 1942 the Kriegsmarine battleship Tirpitz was anchored at Trondheim in Kingdom of Norway, and was believed to be a grievous threat to Atlantic convoys. Should the battleship Tirpitz move into the Atlantic Ocean, the Louis Joubert dry dock at St Nazaire which had in the beginning been built for the liner SS Normandie was a critical target, it was the only Kriegsmarine held dry dock on the European coast of the Atlantic that was big enough to service the battleship Tirpitz. Whenever this dry dock could be put out of action, any offensive sortie by battleship Tirpitz into the Atlantic would be a good deal more dangerous for the Kriegsmarine to carry out, making it less likely that they would risk deploying battleship Tirpitz.

Operation Chariot was a plan to ram an explosive laden warship into the dock gates. Going with her would be a number of small boats carrying British Commandos, who would demolish the dock's pumping and winding machinery and other infrastructure. The British Commandos would then be evacuated by the small boats before the explosives in HMS Campbeltown blew up. A exceptional difficulty was that the dock was located a few miles up the estuary of the Loire River. HMS Campbeltown was considered to be expendable and was chosen to be the ram ship. HMS Campbeltown spent February receiving modifications. This included removing HMS Campbeltown third and fourth funnels, and having the remaining two funnels raked to simulate the structure and appearance of a German Raubvogel class torpedo boat. A 12-pounder gun was installed forward and eight 20 mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft cannons were mounted on the upper deck. Some extra armour was provided to protect the bridge structure, and unnecessary stores and equipment were removed to lighten the destroyer.

A explosive charge consisting of 24 Mark VII depth charges containing a total of 4.5 short tons of amatol high explosive was fitted into steel tanks installed just behind the steel pillar that supported her most forward gun mount. The charges were to be set off by multiple eight hour time pencils joined together by cordtex, set before steaming out and cemented in to prevent any interference with the detonation. HMS Campbeltown steamed from Devonport to Falmouth, Cornwall on 25 March 1942 to join the other ships that would participate in the operation. The crew which would be evacuated with the commandos was reduced to 75 men, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Stephen Sam" Beattie.

A flotilla of 21 vessels HMS Campbeltown, 16 Fairmile B motor launches, one motor torpedo boat, and a Fairmile C motor gun boat acting as the commandos headquarters left Falmouth at two o'clock on 26 March 1942, escorted for most of the crossing to France by two Hunt class escort destroyers. Aside from a brief clash with German submarine U-593, whose captain misreported the task force's course and composition, the ships reached France untroubled. One motor launch suffered mechanical troubles and had to return to England.

The preliminary air attack carried out through heavy cloud by 35 Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys and 25 Vickers Wellingtons was very much smaller than earlier planned and was ineffectual, simply alerting the defenders of something unusual happening. Nonetheless, by flashing genuine Kriegsmarine recognition signals, the force, with HMS Campbeltown flying the flag of the Kriegsmarine, approached to within less than 1 mile of the harbour before being fired upon. HMS Campbeltown as the biggest target drew most of the fire. On the final approach, the crew of HMS Campbeltown lowered the emblem of the Kriegsmarine and hoisted the fighting ensign of the Royal Navy.

1:34 a.m. on 28 March 1942, four minutes later than planned, HMS Campbeltown rammed the dock gate. The British Commandos and ship's crew came ashore under heavy German fire, and set about destroying the dock machinery. 162 of the raiders were killed 64 commandos and 105 sailors out of the 611 men in the attacking force. From the survivors, 215 were apprehended and 222 were evacuated by the surviving small craft. An further five circumvented capture and travelled overland through France to Spain and then to Gibraltar, a British territory.

The explosive charges in HMS Campbeltown blew up at noon, an hour and a half later than the British had anticipated. Though the ship had been searched by the Germans, the explosives hadn't been discovered. The explosion killed around 250 German soldiers and French civilians, and destroyed both the front half of the destroyer and the 160 short tons caisson of the dry dock, with the rush of water into the dry dock washing the remains of the ship into it. The St. Nazaire dry dock was made unserviceable for the rest of the war, and wasn't repaired until 1947.

Whilst the delayed-action torpedoes fired by the motor torpedo boat into the outer lock gate to the submarine basin blew up, as planned, on the night of 30 March 1942. This later explosion led to terror, with German forces firing on French civilians and on one another. Sixteen French civilians were killed and around thirty wounded. Later, 1,500 civilians were arrested and interned in a camp at Savenay, and most of their houses were destroyed, even though they had nothing to do with the raid. Lieutenant Commander Beattie who was taken prisoner received the Victoria Cross for his valour, and in 1947 received the French Légion d'honneur. Lieutenant Commander Beattie Victoria Cross was one of five that were presented to participants in the raid, along with 80 other military medals.

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The St Nazaire Raid  picture 1

battleship Tirpitz

German submarine U-593

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Sources

The Second Great War.
Edited by Sir John Hamilton

The War Illustrated.
Edited by Sir John Hamilton

2194 Days Of War.
ISBN-10: 086136614X

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