Decorations for bravery and valor are common in wartime. These awards serve to recognize and honor service members for their achievements in the field and to inspire their comrades and boost the morale of civilians at home.  Sometimes, operations that succeed at great cost are showered with medals to ease the sting of heavy losses. When British commando Sgt Thomas Frank Durrant won the Victoria Cross during the St. Nazaire raid in the 1940s, it was one of those times when a country awarded many medals to the survivors of a successful but extremely costly operation. The unusual part of how Sgt Durrant was awarded his VC is that he was recommended for the medal by the German officer who fought him.

Expansion Spree

When France fell at the hands of Nazi Germany, that also meant they gained control of the second-largest fleet in the European waters. Their only competitor in terms of dominance was the British Royal Navy, and when the US Navy entered the war in 1942, the combined US and British naval forces outnumbered the German Fleet. However, the Allied navies were busy fighting the Imperial Japanese Navy in the Pacific and Indian oceans. At the same time, they had to look after the shipping convoys in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, so they were mostly outside Europe.

Supposedly, the size of capital ships that the Germans were allowed to build was restricted after the Treaty of Versailles was signed after World War I. This was completely disregarded when the Nazis came to power, and they went to expand their ships to the biggest size that they could ever manage to create at that time.

Tirpitz identification image by US Navy (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The first giant battleship they created was Bismarck, and the second one was the Tirpitz. Both of these ships were state of the art naval vessels and were huge, fast and well armored. The Royal Navy learned this the hard way.  In hunting down the Bismark off Greenland while she was engaged in commerce raiding, the Royal Navy saw the flagship of their fleet, HMS Hood sunk with nearly all hands and the brand new battleship Prince of Wales mangled in just 11 minutes of combat with the German battleship.  While they managed to sink the Bismark at great cost, they worried about what her even larger sibling, the Tirpitz could do if she also broke out into the Atlantic and managed to intercept a convoy of slow cargo ships.  Hitler decided to position Tirpitz away from the radars of the Royal Air Force in Norway, and the British knew why, from Norway, the fast battleship could slip into the North Atlantic and with her 8,000 range run amuck among the Atlantic convoys coming from the US.

Operation Chariot

There was only one port in France with a dry dock big enough to service the Tirpitz: the St. Nazaire port, which the French constructed to service large passenger liners before the war. The British reasoned that if they could destroy the dry dock the German navy would be less inclined to risk damage to the Tirpitz since they would not be able to repair her. Now, there were three possible ways that St. Nazair port could be attacked: By air, by land, and by sea.

Attacking from the air was not a great idea as high altitude bombing at that time was not very accurate and the port was surrounded by civilian housing.  Approaching the port by land would mean that they’d have to fight their way through a panzer division at the town’s entrance. The best course of action was to attack by sea, although it had to be in secret.

The newly formed Britain’s Combined Operations was tasked with the job, with the help of the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. HMS Campbeltown, a US Navy World War II destroyer lent by the Royal Navy for the mission, and they modified it to make it appear like it was one of the German destroyers. They only procured several wooden motor launches for the rest of the assault troops to use, which didn’t have armor or any sort of protection from the enemy fire.

An example of the British motor launches used in the raid. From the British War Museum.

Four and a half tons of Depth Charges were fitter to the bow of the HMS Campbeltown, which would explode using pencil fuses with an 8-hour delay. The plan was to ram the ship into the gates of the harbor and, which would then disgorge commandos to attack other facilities at the dry dock like its pumps and generators. At the same time, the RAF would create a distraction by bombing the port.

On March 28, 1942, the HMS Campbeltown entered the German estuary. They were flying German flags and had the recognition codes needed to slip by the initial defenses. They claimed they were a German destroyer in need of repairs.  This created some confusion as the port was not expecting its arrival and several minutes passed as they tried to verify this with higher headquarters.  It didn’t take long and the German shore guns opened up on the Campbeltown and the mahogany launches following her into the port. The fire was withering and accurate, killing or wounding many of the sailors and commandos aboard.  The crew of the wooden launches really took a beating as they were totally unarmored and full of fuel.

Bad weather over the target resulted in the diversionary RAF raid being called off, but the planes over the target had alerted the Germans that an attack was coming.

German soldiers unwittingly stood on 4.5 tons of explosives in the bow of the HMS Campbeltown on a timed fuse. When it went off it killed hundreds of Germans in and around the ship who had shown up to take pictures and souvenirs of what they believed was a war trophy.

Earning the Enemy’s Respect

The destroyer rushed toward the target at 19 knots as planned while the troops on the wooden boats made for their own objectives. The Campbeltown stuck the gates of the dry dock hard enough to embed herself in the metal gates and the Commandos swarmed ashore to attack other parts of the facility. The plan was for them to gather at an extraction point to be picked up by the motor launches.  Arriving at the extraction point, the commandos found it heavily defended and unapproachable.  The waiting launches could not reach them and were still under fire from shore and the fateful decision was made to withdraw and hope the Commandos could escape into the countryside and maybe make it to neutral Spain with the help of French Partisans.

As the remaining motor launches departed they ran into 5 German motor torpedo boats recalled to the port to defend it who were faster and much better armed than the wooden boats.

Aboard of those on the boat was Sgt Thomas Frank Durrant, who manned a Lewis machine gun exposed to enemy fire. Despite being wounded several times, Durrant stayed at his gun raking the German vessels with gunfire.  Kapitänleutnant F. K. Paul of the Geman boats called on Durrant to surrender twice through a ceasefire. Durrant didn’t back off and kept on firing until he at last passed out from losing too much blood.

Thomas Frank Durrant. (24 Commando Royal Engineers/Facebook)

After the battle was over, the losses were appalling. Some 611 sailors and Commandos of the Royal Navy sailed into the port on that mission.  169 were killed, 232 were captured and only 5 commandos made it out of there to Spain and an eventual return to England.  The commander of the raid, Lt Col Newman was one of the captives, wounded in several places.

Kapitänleutnant F. K. Paul made it ashore and sought out Newman for the purpose of relating how well its surviving members had fought on their way out of the harbor and in particular praised the bravery of the gunner on one of the boat they had captured, Sgt Durrant. The German officers recommended that he receive the highest award for his bravery in defending his little boat from overwhelming odds.

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VC recommendation. (vconline.org.uk)

Durrant died of his wounds the next day while the Royal Navy mourned the shocking loss of the entire raiding force. Photo reconaisance showed that the drydock was indeed smashed beyond all repair and would remain so until after the war. So while the mission was a success, it had come at an awful cost.

Only when the war ended and Lt Col Newman was repatriated from a POW camp was England able to learn the full details of the bravery on display that day, the details of which were still secret from the British public.  Durrant did receive his Victoria Cross posthumously, along with 4 others reccomended for the VC.  In all some 89 medals would be awarded to the participants of this raid, called the Greatest Raid of All by the British.

It had the desired effect on German naval strategy as well. Now lacking a repair facility close enough to repair the Tirpitz if she sortied from Norway, she sat out the war in various fjords until finally ending up in one near Tromso as a kind of floating anti-aircraft battery. The British repeatedly tried to bomb her until using hundreds of heavy bombers. medium bombers and torpedo planes in more than a dozen missions frustrated by weather that seemed to continously keep Tirpitz safe under dense clouds. Finally, in December 1944, the Royal Air Force managed to sink her 29 Lancaster bombers armed with 12,000 lb bombs,  They got two hits on the ship and she rolled over and sank.

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