On 28th March 1942 the Royal Navy's HMS Campbelltown mounted a raid on Saint Nazaire dock at what seemed like impossible odds of success.
Tomorrow, March 28, marks the 70th anniversary of the Saint Nazaire raid - Operation Chariot - the British Second World War naval and commando raid on the port of Saint Nazaire in Loire-atlantique which had as its object putting out of commission the massive dock at Saint Nazaire then under the control of the Nazis in occupied France.
The Saint Nazaire facility, known as the Normandie dock after the famous French ocean liner, was vital to the operations of the German Navy in the North Atlantic. It was the only dry dock along the Atlantic seaboard capable of accommodating the German battleship the Tirpitz, the sister ship of the Bismarck. The Bismarck had earlier been sunk by the Royal Navy in 1941.
If the Saint Nazaire dock could be destroyed it would mean that larger ships of the German Fleet would have to return to home waters, rather than slip in to the facility on the Atlantic coast – a much longer and more dangerous trip through narrower sea-lanes.
On 26th March 1942 a Royal Navy flotilla left Falmouth Harbour on the south coast of England. HMS Campbelltown was part of this flotilla, an aging former US Navy destroyer, which had been superficially modified to resemble a German torpedo boat. The flotilla headed for the Bay of Biscay along the west coast of Nazi-occupied France.
HMS Campbelltown had been packed with delayed action explosives and at 0122 hours she entered the estuary of the river Loire on her final run in to the target of the Normandie dock. There was sporadic enemy fire on the ship and ship's signals (in German) that the Campbelltown was a friendly vessel returning to port for repairs only delayed shore batteries for a few minutes. At 0128 hours Campbelltown was about a mile from the dock gates and her accompanying flotilla were able to return fire to emplacements guarding the Loire estuary. At this stage, the Germans could be in no doubt that an attack was underway.
Despite being hit a number of times, the master of HMS Campbelltown was able to increase the ship’s speed to 19 knots. The ship edged closer to her target and at 0134 hours on 28th March HMS Campbelltown rammed the dock gates with such force that the impact drove the ship 33 feet (about 10 metres) onto the gates.
Commandos who had sailed with HMS Campbelltown now disembarked and a series of assault and demolition teams set about destroying gun emplacements, pumping machinery and as much of the dock’s operating apparatus as they could.
It soon became apparent that the planned successful evacuation by other ships in the flotilla was not an option. The commandos fought until their ammunition was exhausted, when those surviving and ashore surrendered. Operation Chariot had come at a high cost as, of the men who took part in the commando raids, only 228 returned to Britain; 169 were killed and 215 became prisoners of war.
During all this time when the commandos were doing their job, HMS Campbelltown remained wedged on the dock gates. At noon on 28th March 1942, the explosives aboard HMS Campbelltown were detonated and the dock was destroyed. Such was the extent of the damage that the Saint Nazaire dock remained out of commission until the Second World War ended in 1945. The result was that wartime shipping routes in the North Atlantic became safer for Allied forces. The German battleship Tirpitz never ventured into the Atlantic for the remainder of the war and was bombed and sunk by the RAF in a Norwegian fjord in 1944.
Memorials were erected for those that took part in the Saint Nazaire raid in both Falmouth and Saint Nazaire. In Saint Nazaire the memorial and the 12 pounder gun taken from HMS Campbelltown are situated side by side at Place du Commando at the eastern end of Boulevard President Wilson.
The inscription on the Saint Nazaire memorial reads: “In proud memory of those who gave their lives in the attack on Saint Nazaire on 28 March 1942. They achieved much having dared all.”