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.