Operation Chariot (also known as the St. Nazaire Raid) was a very successful if highly costly Commando raid on the port of St Nazaire in German-occupied France on March 28, 1942. The Royal Navy and Royal Marine Commandos targeted the German naval base there because it housed not only a fully equipped submarine base but the only dry dock outside of German waters large enough to house and maintain the battleship Tirpitz.
The British packed the obsolete destroyer HMS Campbeltown with tons of explosives and rammed her into the dry dock gates The damage was so great that the dry dock was rendered unusable for the remainder of the war.
But the successful raid was a very costly one. Of the 611 British Commandos that launched on the raid, only 228 would return to Britain. The Germans killed 169 and took another 215 prisoners. The Campbeltown and two other destroyers HMS Tynedale (L96) and Atherstone (L05), along with 16 motor launches (MLs) that would ferry the troops took part in the battle. Only two of the MLs would make it back to Britain.
Background: The U-boat campaign was in full swing in 1942. St. Nazaire had nine complete submarine pens and five more under construction. The Germans needed the dry dock for Tirpitz so that the sister ship of the Bismarck could become an Atlantic raider and prey upon Allied shipping.
The German defenses around the port were forbidding. An anti-aircraft brigade armed with dual purpose cannons for either use at ground targets or aircraft lined the approaches and the dock area. There were 13 of the 40-mm AA guns along the coastal area. Interspersed with those were 28, 20mm anti-aircraft guns. Most of these were mounted atop of concrete bunkers.
The British initially tasked their Special Operations Executive to conduct the mission. But they had to decline, the number of explosives needed to destroy the dry dock would necessitate the use of too many agents.
Finally, the British decided that a commando raid was the best option for success. An unusually high spring tide was due in March 1942 which would allow a ship that was light enough to pass over the sandbars in the estuary and approach the drydocks. The British believed if they lightened a destroyer enough it could have a draft shallow enough to enable it to get through.
The Raid Plan is Simple: The British plan outwardly was simple. The Commandos were to destroy three objectives: the Normandie dock, the old gates into the Bassin de St Nazaire along with the water pumping machinery and other installations, and any U-boats or other shipping in the area.
The Campbeltown, once the USS Buchanan (a WWI Lend-Lease destroyer) would be packed with high explosives in the bow with troops and crew in protected areas, would ram the outer lock gate at speed and become firmly stuck there. They would then disembark and take cover behind a nearby air-raid shelter. The ship would then blow up destroying the gate.
But to get her in close enough the ship would have to be lightened. Two of her funnels were removed, the other two given a rakish look to give the outward appearance of a German destroyer. Her original armament was replaced by a 12-pounder on the foredeck and eight Oerlikon cannons. The bridge and wheelhouse were heavily armor plated. Her decks were cleared except for armored screens behind which the Commandos would lie behind until it was time to attack.
The ship was to be scuttled after ramming the docks making it impossible to drag her out to sea before the explosive charges blew.
The Commandos would blow up as many targets as they could and then withdraw on the smaller boats from where they came.
The Raid: At about 2330 hrs on the 27th of March, bombers from the RAF begin to bomb the dock area as a diversion but because of the heavy restrictions placed on the mission,(only one bomb dropped per bomb run) and forced to fly above 6000 feet, all it did was put the Germans on alert that something was brewing.
As the Commandos and the Royal Navy were approaching the coast, they switched to a German Naval Ensign to confuse any German lookouts they may encounter.
At 0120 hrs, German searchlights illuminated the Campbeltown and 20mm guns fired a warning shot overhead. The British were prepared and signaled that they were preceding to the harbor in accordance with orders. The Germans were doubtful but hesitated briefly. The British increased their speed and then fired a flare which their intelligence had told them was a correct signal. However, the Germans immediately recognized that the flare was the wrong shade of red.
At 0128 hrs the Germans opened up with every gun that could be mustered. The British replied…the raid was on. Campbeltown, the largest target, naturally received the most attention from German gunners. The 12-pounder and the mortars on deck were knocked out. Heavy fire raked the Commandos on deck. Commander S. H. Beattie, the Campbeltown’s commander increased speed to 20 knots. Blinded by searchlights he aimed his ship at the middle of the dock gates.
Half of his men were already dead or wounded, the fuses which would blow the ship had been lit already and he plowed thru an anti-submarine and crashed into the outer gate. Thirty-five feet of bow crumpled like an aluminum beer can. The bow projected beyond the gate. Beattie turned to Captain Montgomery in charge of the Commandos’ Demolition team on board and with typical British understatement said, “Well, here we are….Four minutes late.”
There were five Demolition, two Assault and a Weapons (mortar) Commando teams on the Campbeltown, they were tasked destroying the dock pumping station and other targets within the dry dock. They took heavy casualties but succeeded in their mission. Most of the other Commandos coming ashore in the MLs were decimated before they hit the shore.
Lt.Col. Newman, in charge of the Commandos, took command on shore and tried to direct fire to neutralize the German machine guns that were taking a heavy toll on the demo teams. Once he got the reports on the demolitions being complete, he need only look in the harbor to know they weren’t leaving by ship.
The harbor was ablaze with launches on fire. Newman tried to get his men to evade thru the town, to the countryside. Most were caught and made POWs once their ammunition ran out. Only 5 men out of the 100 Commandos left made it to Spain and eventual safety back in England.
The Campbeltown was supposed to explode by 0430, but there was an issue with the long time fuse. Beattie, who was captured by the Germans was being interrogated by a German intelligence officer. The time was just after 1000 hrs. “Your people obviously didn’t know what a hefty thing that lock gate is. It was really useless to try to smash it with a flimsy destroyer,” the German said.
It was at that moment that the explosives finally cooked off, shattering the windows of the office where the interrogation was taking place. The lock gate disintegrated and a tidal wave of water rushed in carrying the shattered destroyer halfway along the dock.
“That, I hope,” Beattie said, “is proof that we did not underestimate the strength of the gate.”
The explosion killed over 350 Germans including 40 senior officers and civilians who were touring the deck of the Campbeltown.
Despite the cost, the Commandos and the Royal Navy accomplished what they set out to do, the dry dock was inoperable for the rest of the war. The British recognized the valor and sacrifice made by the men and 89 decorations were awarded for the raid. There were five Victoria Crosses awarded to Lieutenant Commander Beattie, Lieutenant Colonel Newman and Commander Ryder, and posthumous awards to Sergeant Durrant and Able Seaman Savage. Four Distinguished Service Orders were awarded to Major William Copland, Captain Donald Roy, Lieutenant T Boyd and Lieutenant T D L Platt. Other decorations awarded were four Conspicuous Gallantry Medals, five Distinguished Conduct Medals, 17 Distinguished Service Crosses, 11 Military Crosses, 24 Distinguished Service Medals and 15 Military Medals. Four men were awarded the Croix de Guerre by France, and another 51 were mentioned in despatches.
The Tirpitz never made it out of Norwegian waters, the sacrifice of the Commandos and the Royal Navy saved the lives of an untold amount of merchant seamen. Tirpitz was eventually sunk in 1944 in a Norwegian fjord.