Operation Chariot

27/28 March 1942

IT WAS SHORTLY before midnight when Lieutenant Nigel Tibbits left the bridge of HMS Campbeltown and went below to activate the fuses connected to the huge charge inside the watertight, cement casing built into the forward compartments of the old destroyer. Using long-delay pencil fuses, it was impossible to set an exact time, but the young naval demolition expert had no doubt that within six to ten hours, the four-and-a-half tons of explosive in the form of twenty-four depth charges would tear the ship to shreds – as well as anything else within the vicinity of its huge blast range. Whether her captain up on the bridge, Lieutenant Commander Stephen ‘Sam’ Beattie, would succeed in guiding the ship onto the target was another matter. To do that, over the coming hour, the naval force would have to negotiate six miles of the Loire’s myriad of treacherous shoals and mudflats and survive the pounding barrage of one of the most heavily defended stretches of coast anywhere on the planet.

HMS Campbeltown sat at the centre of the naval force, now in battle formation, steaming at fifteen knots towards the yawning mouth of the Loire estuary, twenty-five miles south of the Brittany peninsula. The gun crews were closed down in their positions, the eighty Commandos of Group Three, who had been kept out of sight below deck throughout the long crossing, put on their steel helmets and collected their weapons and equipment. On Campbeltown’s port and starboard sides, two columns of high-speed motor launches, carrying the Commando assault and demolition troops of Groups One and Two, bounced over the flat surface of the Atlantic. There were twelve of them in total and, though fast, their wooden hulls and the extra fuel they carried on deck made them vulnerable. The convoy was spearheaded by Motor Gun Boat 314, the HQ vessel, containing the two commanders of the raid, Commander Robert Ryder, who was in charge of the naval force, and Lieutenant Colonel Charles Newman, leading the Commandos. Tucked in behind them, on either side, were two torpedo motor launches. Two other torpedo boats provided protection at the rear of the convoy. Twenty miles to the southwest, the crews of destroyers HMS Atherstone and HMS Tynedale who had escorted them from Falmouth waited in the darkness, on high alert for enemy patrols and U-boats.

They were still twelve miles off and no land could be sighted through the misty gloom when Ryder and Newman spotted gun flashes dead ahead to the northeast. A glance at the time told both men that the RAF had arrived over St Nazaire, according to plan. Soon the horizon was ablaze with tracer and searchlights. On all 18 vessels, the nerves of 611 men began to tighten and the banter faded to tense silence as they went to action stations.

As the convoy slid towards the estuary opening, they passed the eerie sight of the wreck of the troopship Lancastria lying on its side, sunk by German bombers two weeks after Dunkirk, with the loss of over 4,000 lives, in Britain’s worst ever maritime disaster. The time was 0025 and, moments later, they arrived at the buoy that marked the final positioning from which they would head into the Loire through the maze of natural obstacles hidden below the dark surface of the water. The operation had been timed to take place inside a tight window when an unusually high spring tide would allow the destroyer Campbeltown to make an alternative approach to St Nazaire, up the centre of the great river out of sight, if not out of range, of the many coastal gun installations.

The closer they moved to St Nazaire, the shallower the water became, increasing the risk of beaching on one of the many of the sandbanks lurking below. As they passed over the notorious Banc de Châtelier, all aboard the Campbeltown froze as they felt the destroyer scrape the seabed and wedge to a halt – not once but twice. The alarm of the men was matched by the relief they felt as each time she pulled clear and continued on her way, undetected by the crews of the many medium and heavy coastal guns pointing in their direction. The convoy was still over seven miles away – or forty minutes – and to the troops waiting below and the crews manning the vessels, it was surely only a matter of time before the German defences sprang into life and the battle erupted. But onwards they crept, inching ever closer to the giant dockyard and further away from the mighty coastal guns guarding the entrance to the estuary.

A light breeze carried the stench of the mudflats and seaweed through the cold air as the gunners stared down the barrels of an array of light armaments, including Bren, Lewis and Vickers guns, Oerlikons and other anti-aircraft cannon, each man waiting for the German onslaught. It was around 0100 when the first of the sixty-five Wellingtons and Whitleys of the diversionary bombing raid turned for home, thwarted by thick cloud and Churchill’s express orders not to endanger French civilians. They had dropped no more than half a dozen bombs, causing virtually no damage, and had succeeded only in arousing the suspicions of the German commander Kapitan zur See Karl-Conrad Mecke in charge of the port’s air defences. He ordered the AA gunners to hold fire, the searchlights to be switched off and all troops to be on high alert for a ‘landing’. The force was under two miles from the target when a German lookout on the coast reported the sighting of an inward-bound convoy, but his warnings were dismissed by all the commanders – except Mecke, who was convinced that there was ‘some devilry afoot’. By the time the drone of the last RAF bomber had faded away, the Germans were fully prepared for a seaborne attack. Every gunner was at his station with his armament depressed and angled to meet the potential threat heading up the estuary. All infantry units had been roused from their barracks and were heading towards the dockyard.

At 0122, the blinding beams of two large searchlights, one from either bank, were turned on, lighting up the entire British flotilla in a flash. Sporadic fire opened up from the shore, but there was confusion amongst the German defenders. Surely ‘Fortress St Nazaire’ could not be under attack? And the destroyer at the heart of the convoy not only looked distinctly German, it was flying the German Ensign.

As the Germans dallied, Commander Ryder’s German-speaking signalman bought the raiders a few more precious minutes. Answering the naval light signal to identify themselves, the signalman sent a long reply by Morse code: ‘Have Urgent signal. Two damaged ships in company. Request permission to proceed without delay.’ A second request to identify themselves from a separate signalling station delayed the inevitable a few more seconds. To the disbelief of the British commanders, by the time the German defences realised they had been duped, the raiders were under a mile from their target.

At 0128, Beattie ordered the red, white and black Ensign of the Third Reich to be hauled down and the White Ensign to be broken out. Battle was officially commenced. The German response was one of uncontained fury. A devastating barrage from every gun in the harbour opened up on the British flotilla. Campbeltown, her guns blazing, surged at full speed through the maelstrom. ‘All hell was let loose’ is the phrase that crops up over and over in the eyewitness testimonies of those fortunate enough to survive it. Operation CHARIOT, by far the most hazardous raid undertaken by Combined Operations, had reached its critical moment. They had two hours to achieve their strategically vital objective. It would come to be known as ‘the greatest raid of all’, but a great many of those who took part in it would not live to tell the story. Of the 611 sailors and Commandos who had set sail from the Cornish coast 36 hours earlier, only 242 of them would make the return journey.

St Nazaire was one of five major ports on the Atlantic coast of Vichy France which the Axis powers converted into U-boat bases to wage a deadly underwater war against the Royal Navy and the Allied merchant convoys. By the end of 1941, Brest, Bordeaux, Lorient, La Rochelle and St Nazaire had been so heavily fortified that they were almost invulnerable to attack from sea or air. The U-boat pens were encased in concrete so thick that, in the very unlikely event that the RAF were able to land a dozen 500-lb bombs right on top of them, the high explosive would cause only minor damage. The success of Germany’s U-boats against the Allied convoys in the Atlantic threatened to starve Britain out of the war and deny her armed forces the raw materials and resources necessary to defend the last free corner of western Europe. But, in the late summer of 1941, when the strategists from all three services first sat down to discuss a proposed assault on St Nazaire, the U-boat pens were not the main subject of discussion. This was partly because the planners knew that German subs could use the other bases on the coast, and partly because the solidly built pens, deep inside the harbour, would be very difficult to destroy. But, principally, the pens were treated as a target of secondary importance for the simple reason that St Nazaire raised the spectre of a much greater threat to the British war effort – the Tirpitz.

The largest and most powerful battleship in Europe and the pride of Germany’s Kriegsmarine, Tirpitz had recently completed her sea trials, and was ready to enter the Atlantic and Arctic to wreak havoc amongst Allied convoys already struggling under sustained attacks by the U-boats. Churchill referred to Tirpitz as ‘the beast’ with good reason. The bare statistics of her specifications were enough to send a shudder down the spine of even the saltiest Royal Navy captain. With an overall length of just under 800 feet and displacing over 50,000 tons when fully laden, she had a maximum speed of 30 knots and could outrun the fastest destroyers, the whippets of the high seas. With a range of 9,000 miles, she could remain out at sea for long periods of time. The thickness of her armour, especially around her belt and turrets, made her virtually unsinkable by conventional shelling. Armed with eight 15-inch guns and twelve 5.9-inch guns, plus dozens of AA guns and eight 21-inch torpedo tubes and four reconnaissance flying boats, her armament was so powerful that the Admiralty determined that two battleships and an aircraft carrier would be needed to defeat her. These capital ships needed a significant fleet of cruisers and destroyers to protect them, meaning that the mere threat of Tirpitz venturing out of port was sufficient to tie up a huge amount of naval assets. ‘The destruction, or even the crippling, of this ship is the greatest event at sea at the present time,’ said Churchill. ‘No other target is comparable to it. The entire naval situation throughout the world would be altered.’

In all, the Allies would launch more than thirty-six major operations to sink the Tirpitz while keeping her confined in waters where she could inflict no damage on her enemies. So long as there was a war to be won at sea, it was vital that Tirpitz did not enter it. St Nazaire featured in the planning from the outset because it possessed the only dry dock in Europe with sufficient capacity to accommodate the giant battleship for refuge and repairs. The theory was that if the British could somehow deny the Tirpitz a safe haven in the Atlantic, she would never dare venture out of the Baltic or the fjords of Norway and risk the fate of her sister ship a few months earlier. The Bismarck, having sunk HMS Hood in the Denmark Strait, was immediately hunted down and sunk by the Royal Navy as she ran for St Nazaire for repairs to damage caused by torpedoes from Swordfish biplanes.

Aerial bombing was a long way from being a precise science at that time and the lock gates of the ‘Normandie’ dry dock were far too small a target for the RAF bombers operating from several thousand feet. An amphibious assault on the port was the only plausible option, though it was one fraught with grave peril and major logistical challenges. When such an attack was first proposed, all senior officers connected with its planning understood the great hazards it would entail for those they tasked to execute it. Admiralty files reveal the minutes of an inter-services meeting on 19 September in which it was suggested that protection forces should be landed in the harbour to hold positions while demolition groups went about their tasks. There was agreement around the table that an extremely high casualty rate was a price worth paying. ‘If this operation is to be carried out I think we must accept the very possible if not probable loss of the landing parties,’ the minutes note. ‘If they achieved the destruction of the 5 lock gates it may be considered that the operation should be carried out in spite of the regrettable loss of life.’

Admiralty, Air Ministry and Combined Operations files from the autumn of 1941 reveal the heated disputes between the services and other government officials over the details of the proposed attack. Eager to hit targets of their own choosing, and with resources increasingly limited by heavy losses, the RAF were reluctant partners from the outset. The number of aircraft they offered for a diversionary bombing raid fell far short of the figure sought by their colleagues in the Navy and Army. Churchill, worried about casualties to French civilians, narrowed the scope of their usefulness still further by insisting the RAF could only drop their bombs if the dockyard targets were clearly visible. The Navy, meanwhile, despite standing to gain the most from neutering the Tirpitz, were averse to the idea of sacrificing any of their precious warships in an enterprise that would end in the certain destruction of at least one of them. The Army, as ever overstretched and under-resourced, saw little point in committing several hundred of its best men to an operation that, in all likelihood, would end in their death or capture. Such was the wrangling that, in a memo dated 18 October, Charles Lambe, the Director of Plans at Combined Operations, called for the operation to be scrapped.

But the squabbling stopped in early January with intelligence reports that Tirpitz had been declared ready for combat operations and was preparing to leave Kiel in the Baltic and sail north to Trondheim on the Norwegian coast. The Admiralty took this as evidence that the most powerful battleship afloat in western waters was preparing to break out into the North Atlantic. Tackling the Tirpitz was given urgent priority. Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had been appointed Director of Combined Operations in October, now had the full attention of the three services.

Combined Operations HQ worked closely with several intelligence organisations to plan the raid, which was code-named Operation CHARIOT and given the approval of the Chiefs of Staff Committee on 3 March. The main objective of the operation was to put the Normandie dry dock out of action. The planners had established that the only feasible way to do this was to convert an obsolete destroyer into a floating ammunition dump and ram her into the outer gate of the dock, having negotiated an estuary made highly treacherous by the sandbanks below her surface and the network of heavy gun batteries strung out along her banks. Long-delay fuses would detonate several tons of high explosive several hours after the raiders had withdrawn. As soon as the destroyer made impact, Commando demolition groups were to storm ashore and cause as much damage as possible to the port installations while protection parties kept the enemy at bay. Their tasks completed, the survivors were to re-embark in a flotilla of smaller ships known as Fairmile Motor Launches and, protected by destroyers waiting out at sea, run the gauntlet of German retaliatory strikes on the return voyage to home waters.

There was no part of the operation that didn’t carry the highest risks to those taking part in it. Surprise was the key. The further the force could sail up the Loire estuary without being detected, the greater their chance of pulling off the most daring amphibious raid ever undertaken. The odds against the raiders could barely have been longer, nor the stakes higher but, were they to succeed in their mission, they would have accomplished two great feats. Not only would they have forced the enemy to strengthen his defences all along the western coast of Europe by allocating men and materials urgently required elsewhere, they would have effectively eliminated Tirpitz from the war at sea.

Lieutenant Colonel Charles Newman, commander of No. 2 Commando, was chosen to lead the assault forces on the ground. A civil engineering contractor by trade, he had served sixteen years as a territorial officer with the Essex Regiment before the war. At thirty-eight, he was relatively old, and his friendly, avuncular manner only reinforced the impression and endeared him to his men. There are few pictures of him without a pipe stuck in his mouth and a smile on his distinctive face. He had a large, very hooked nose (broken several times), a small moustache and a large pair of ears that, according to one of his junior officers, gave him the appearance of a kindly elephant. Behind the cheerful, relaxed manner, however, lay the soul of a warrior, who demanded the highest standards from those in his command.

No. 2 Commando were to provide 173 men, roughly half the unit, to form the assault and protection groups in the raid. The five assault groups, each comprising two officers and a dozen other ranks men, were to assist the Navy in attacking targets during the approach. Once the landing parties were ashore, they were to attack enemy positions, blockade possible lines of enemy approach and cover the withdrawal of all troops during re-embarkation. Each of the seven protection parties was made up of one officer and four men and armed with three Thompson submachine guns and one Bren gun between them. They were to defend the target positions while the demolition teams, armed only with Colt pistols, went about their tasks. Anticipating combat at extremely close quarters, 2 Commando’s second-in-command, Major Bill Copland, was ordered to oversee the training of 100 men in the dark arts of nocturnal street fighting. The demolition teams were to be made up from groups of officers and men from 1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 12 Commando. Newman’s HQ group, two demolition control parties, Copland’s 2iC group, a reserve of fourteen men and a twenty-eight-strong special task party completed the complement of landing forces. The special task party was ordered to attack the defences at the southern entrance of the dry dock if HMS Campbeltown were to get into difficulties and failed to ram the gate.

The demolition parties, working in groups of five to thirteen men, underwent an intensive three-week training course in dockyard demolition, beginning in the shipyard of Burntisland on the Firth of Forth under the expert supervision of two Royal Engineer captains, Bill Pritchard and Bob Montgomery. Pritchard, who had been awarded a Military Cross for blowing a bridge under enemy fire during the Dunkirk evacuation, was the son of the dock master in Cardiff and, having trained as an engineering apprentice in the dockyards of the Great Western Railway, there was probably no one better qualified in Britain to offer advice on how best to destroy the installations of St Nazaire. At the heart of his training methods was the belief that the total destruction of an installation as large as the Normandie dry dock could only be achieved by the placing of explosives in the structure’s weakest spots. The positioning of the charges, he argued, was far more important than the amount of explosive used. By coincidence, Pritchard and his friend Montgomery had drawn up plans on how best to destroy St Nazaire dock as part of a Royal Engineering theoretical training exercise.

After Burntisland, the demolition group was split into two and transferred either to Cardiff’s Barry docks or Southampton’s King George V dry dock, whose design had been based on the one in St Nazaire. Each of the ten demolition parties concentrated on the destruction of specific targets, including lock gates, bridges, pumping stations, winding machinery and power houses. By the time the sappers assembled at Falmouth with the rest of the raiding force, they had been put through their paces so intensively that – it was said without exaggeration – they would able to carry out their tasks in pitch darkness or wearing blindfolds.

The Commandos were split into three groups, each with its own subparties of assault, protection and demolition teams. Group Three, the largest, would travel and disembark from the Campbeltown after she had rammed the outer gate of the dock. Groups One and Two were dispersed among the motor launches, and were to land at two separate points, from where their demolition and protection parties would fan out. Group One was to land and secure the Old Mole, about 600 yards south of the Normandie dock, and destroy the enemy gun positions protecting the southern quays. This was one of the key tasks of the raid, for it was from the Mole, a 100-yard-long stone jetty, that all the troops were to re-embark. The demolition parties were then to advance into the nearby Old Town and destroy targets including the power station, swing bridges and lock gates of the smaller, new entrance into the main basin of the docks. Group Two, under the command of Captain Micky Burn, were to rush ashore at the Old Entrance to the St Nazaire basin, halfway between the Old Mole and the Normandie dock, eliminate various gun installations, destroy the locks and bridges at the Old Entrance into the basin and then form a defensive block to prevent an enemy counterattack. Group Three, under the 2iC Major Bill Copland, were to knock out the gun emplacements and hold the area around the Campbeltown, before the demolition teams set about destroying all the operating machinery associated with the Normandie dock.

Commander Robert Ryder was serving an unofficial punishment, languishing in a dull desk job as naval liaison officer to the Army’s Southern Command in Wilton, when on 26 February 1942 he was summoned to London to a meeting at Combined Operations HQ. He was more surprised than anyone to find himself sitting around the same table as Lord Mountbatten and Admiral of the Fleet Sir Charles Forbes, the Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth. His surprise turned to astonishment when he was informed that he had been selected as the naval commander for a major inter-service assault on an enemy-held port. Only a few months earlier, the thirty-four-year-old adventurer, who had taken part in several global expeditions, had received a letter from the Admiralty informing him that he had ‘incurred their Lordships’ displeasure’. The Admirals’ discontent related to an incident twelve months earlier when the Commando ship he captained, Prince Philippe, was sunk following a collision in thick fog. British Admirals never like to see one of their ships slip beneath the waves and, although he was not held responsible for the loss, Ryder was sent for a ‘rest cure with the Army’ in Wiltshire. It was a job wholly unsuited to Ryder’s adventurous temperament.

Until his mishap off the West Coast of Scotland, Ryder had distinguished himself as a sailor of great courage and daring. He had served in submarines, sailed from Hong Kong to the UK in a boat he helped build himself, and he had commanded a three-masted topsail schooner during an expedition to the Antarctic. Shortly after the outbreak of war, the Q-ship he commanded (a heavily armed, disguised merchant vessel) was torpedoed in the Atlantic and he spent four days adrift clinging to a wooden plank before being rescued. Sitting around a Whitehall table with the Royal Navy’s top brass, Ryder might have been excused for believing that he had been forgiven for the collision incident. After the war, he wrote that, to his great amusement, he was to discover that he had been chosen for the St Nazaire job because there was no other officer of suitable experience available.

Ryder had shown he was a highly resourceful man, but even he was going to be hard-pressed to pull together the many elements of a complex plan in just over three weeks. He was not helped by the fact he had no support staff, no office and, crucially, no old destroyer with which to ram the outer lock gate of the dry dock. The inability of the Admiralty to produce a suitable ship to be sacrificed in the raid was threatening once again to scupper the entire operation. On the last day of February, while all other elements of the force were being hastily assembled, Mountbatten vented his fury on his brother officers in the Senior Service. The Navy had offered a large submarine destined for the scrapyard instead, but this was considered by both Ryder and Newman to be wholly unsuited to the nature of the operation. In a terse, handwritten MOST SECRET memo from Combined Operations, an official scrawled that Mountbatten ‘urgently requires a decision by Monday as to the destroyer’. Having considered and dismissed all other options, Mountbatten dangled the warning that the operation would have to be cancelled if the Navy was unable to deliver an expendable vessel by the meeting of the raid’s planners three days later. The threat of being held responsible for the raid’s abandonment appears to have had a remarkably galvanising effect on the Admirals. Within days, the HMS Campbeltown was on her way from Portsmouth to Devonport for a very rapid refit.

The UK’s shipyards were building new warships as fast as it was humanly possible but at this stage of the war, Navy resources were stretched to the limit. The reluctance to commit any vessel to certain destruction – no matter how outdated and decrepit – was understandable, but if there was one ship that the Royal Navy could probably survive the war without, it was the Campbeltown. She was launched in 1919 as the USS Buchanan, one of fifty antiquated warships given to the Royal Navy by the United States in exchange for the lease of some of Britain’s naval bases around the world. On her last legs, she would have been no match in a fight with the Kriegsmarine. Converting her for the raid involved two main challenges: 1) allowing for the addition of almost five tons of explosives she had to be made light enough to pass over the Loire estuary’s many shoals; 2) she had to be modified to resemble a German destroyer.

That both these engineering feats were completed within ten days was a testament to the hard work and skill of the men of the Devonport dockyard. All her compartments below deck were stripped out, her three 4-inch guns, torpedoes, depth charges and forward gun were removed and replaced with a light, quick-firing 12-pounder and eight 20-mm Oerlikon AA guns. Anticipating heavy fire from the German coastal guns, the bridge and wheelhouse were plated with extra armour. Two further rows of armour were installed along the sides of the ship to protect the Commandos lying on the open deck during the final approach. Her rear two funnels were removed and the forward two were reduced and repositioned at an angle to resemble those of a German destroyer. The huge explosive charge, secured in a concrete block, was placed in a hidden compartment between the bridge and the bow, where it was likely to cause the greatest amount of damage to the dock. Ryder was delighted when the elderly captain of the Campbeltown was replaced by Lt Cdr Sam Beattie, an old friend who had joined the Navy in the same year. Beattie had plenty of experience on destroyers and Ryder wrote later: ‘I could wish for no one better.’

Combined Operations’ original plan of attack envisaged the use of two lightened destroyers, one to ram the Normandie dock and the other to act as an escort and troop carrier. But if securing one old destroyer had proved hard enough, acquiring two was impossible. Faced with the problem of transporting over 100 Commandos laden with weapons and demolition equipment to and from the target, the planners found there was only one plausible alternative and that was to deploy a flotilla of ‘little ships’. This was to be made up of sixteen Fairmile ‘B’ motor launches (MLs), a gun boat and a motor torpedo boat. Twelve of the MLs were to transport small squads of Commandos and the four others were each mounted with two torpedo tubes to boost the force’s firepower. It promised to be a cramped voyage for those on board. In normal circumstances, the MLs had a crew of sixteen, but that number was increased for the raid.

The sixty-five-ton vessels, designed for escort, patrol and anti-submarine roles, could reach a maximum speed of twenty knots, but their speed would be of little help when they came within range of St Nazaire’s coastal defences. Made from plywood, they were completely ill-suited to the task of assaulting one of the most heavily defended ports in the world. The thin sheet of armour around the small bridge was small comfort for the crew within. The Commandos on the deck outside were even more vulnerable – even a rifle bullet could breach the ship’s timber sides. In order to extend their range for the 850-mile return voyage, each of the vessels was fitted with an additional fuel tank, on the deck, carrying 500 gallons of highly combustible petrol. It would take just one accurate or lucky shot from the shore to turn one of the mini-troop carriers into a floating inferno. Given the extreme frailty of the motor launches, the element of surprise during the approach to the target was imperative. The closer they advanced to the target, the greater their chances of success.

The guns under which it was necessary for the flotilla to pass were truly formidable, even for far more heavily armed and armoured ships than the little wooden motor launches. At the entrance to the estuary, the Germans had made major improvements to the existing French installations. In all, St Nazaire was protected by over 70 guns, ranging in calibre from 75 mm (of which there were 28 pieces) to 150 mm and 170 mm, and to the massive 240-mm railway guns a few miles to the north at La Baule, positioned to engage enemy ships long before they reached the estuary. In addition to the heavier artillery, there were over forty 20-mm to 40-mm calibre guns that doubled as anti-aircraft and coastal defence weapons. If an attacking force succeeded in negotiating these forbidding layers of defence, a further bulwark awaited them in and around the town itself where over 5,000 German troops, military and naval, were stationed.

In mid-March, all the elements of the raiding force began to assemble at Falmouth on Cornwall’s south coast. The motor launches that would carry most of them were already in harbour when the troops of 2 Commando arrived from their training base on the west coast of Scotland aboard the troopship Princess Josephine Charlotte. The demolition groups, having completed their intensive rehearsals on the docks of Southampton and Cardiff, slipped into the town at the same time. In order to maintain a veil of secrecy over the operation, all the Commandos were ordered to remain out of sight below deck. Spies were known to operate in every naval port in the world during the war. Loose talk and slack security could compromise the operation. A cover story was invented to mislead the gossipers and safeguard CHARIOT from intelligence breaches. Word was put about that the flotilla was being organised into ‘Tenth Anti-Submarine Striking Force’ for a sweep of U-boats out in the Bay of Biscay.

In order to familiarise the troops with conditions at sea, the Commandos were embarked in the motor launches and other small ships and taken around the Scilly Isles, forty miles off Land’s End. They set off in rough weather that soon developed into a strong gale. By the time their Navy hosts decided to seek shelter in the bays of the Scillies, virtually every one of the 250 soldiers had been sick. Back in Falmouth, two further weeks of training exercises focused on approaching the target, and on disembarking and reboarding in the dark. On 18 March, Newman summoned his thirty-nine officers and divulged the nature of the mission. The following day, one by one, the officers revealed the plan to the men they would be commanding on the night. Only the name of the port was withheld, but several immediately guessed its identity. Throughout the army contingent, the reaction was one of excited astonishment mixed with trepidation. Most of the young men had never seen combat, but they were savvy enough to understand the scale of the challenge and the grave risks it involved. The Commandos were a volunteer organisation and it was in that spirit that Newman offered the opportunity for his men to pull out and, without recrimination or dishonour, return to their regular units. No one took him up on his offer.

A detailed model of the dockyard was displayed in the briefing room aboard the troopship and, one after another, each of the Commando subgroups filed in to have their specific tasks spelt out. Once the raid was underway, Newman’s military HQ was to be set up at the Old Entrance to the harbour where Group Two was to have disembarked. Communications on the night were to be carried out by radio and by runners. The original plan to take six bicycles was considered impractical and was dropped. All tasks were to be completed within two hours. The signal to withdraw was to be made first with green and then red flares. In an emergency, if the operation had to be aborted, all flares would be fired at once and the crews of every ML would sound their klaxons. The operational orders issued to Newman and Ryder stipulated a number of security precautions. All badges and distinguishing signs were to be removed (except badges of rank) and no papers or letters disclosing the identity of the unit or formation were to be taken ashore. Recognition between the men on the ground was to be made by the use of surnames plus a password and countersign.

Useful French and German phrases were learned by all ranks. In French, the expressions were to be forceful and helpful: ‘Obey and you’ll be OK . . . Disobey and you’ll be killed . . . Where are the Germans? . . . Get out! . . . Shut up!’ In German, the phrases were designed to intimidate and mislead. They included: ‘Scum . . . Quickly for God’s sake . . . You’re surrounded . . . We’re two battalions . . . It’s a whole army . . . Hands up!’

The Commandos’ uniform included special-issue boots fitted with rubber soles for silent movement (which soon came to be known as ‘commando boots’). The orders regarding uniform and appearance continue: ‘oldest battle dress, roll-neck sweaters, first field dressing, knives (fighting), Mae Wests, 2 identity discs around neck, gaiters, steel helmets, no respirators, faces and hands clean, scrubbed skeleton order [= clean faces & hands, bare minimum kit], full water bottle slung, no entrenching tool.’ Special carrying equipment was also issued to those armed with grenades, Tommy guns and mortars. The conclusion of the Operational Order, signed off by Admiral of the Fleet Forbes, reads: ‘In an operation of this nature, difficulties may arise which have not been foreseen. I rely on all officers and men to overcome these by the display of initiative and the aggressive spirit.’

On the night of 21/22 March a full-scale dress rehearsal was carried out at Plymouth and Devonport under the ruse of testing the dockyards’ defences. It quickly turned into a fiasco that depressed the planners and participants in equal measure (although it brought some cheer to those tasked with the defence of one of Britain’s most important naval bases). The approaching raiders were immediately picked up by the port’s defences after the crews of the ships had been blinded by the searchlights. Had the exercise been for real, the entire party would have been blown out of the water long before they reached the target.

On 25 March, seventy-two hours before the force was scheduled to depart, a distinctly Germanic-looking Campbeltown caused a stir when she slid into Falmouth Harbour. Just 22 days after the Chiefs of Staff had given the operation the go-ahead, 21 ships, one submarine, and 611 sailors and highly trained soldiers were ready for action. The operation was scheduled for the night of 28/29 March when the tides in the Loire were at their highest, but eager to make the most of the favourable weather, Commander Ryder brought the timetable forward by twenty-four hours. On the afternoon of 26 March, escorted by the destroyers HMS Atherstone and HMS Tynedale and a lone Hurricane fighter, the flotilla slipped out of the Cornish harbour at 1400 and headed towards the Bay of Biscay. A gentle swell rolled beneath the ships and a mellow, hazy sunshine filled the skies above, but the calmness of the scene did not fool anyone aboard. The Operation Order insisted on military personnel staying out of sight. If anyone was to come above they had to do so in a naval duffle coat or oilskins. ‘It is essential that reconnaissance enemy aircraft should NOT learn the presence of Military on board,’ the order reads. For most of the passage, the Commandos remained below deck in fairly cramped conditions, relieving the tension with nervous banter and jokes.

The 420-mile voyage to St Nazaire had been plotted so as to maintain the impression that the flotilla was on a U-boat sweep. The course that had been set took them well past the Brittany peninsula into the Bay of Biscay before they turned sharply and steamed for the French coast under the cover of darkness. As soon as it had left the relative safety of home waters, the flotilla went into anti-submarine formation. If an enemy ship or reconnaissance aircraft did spot them, it would have appeared that the British convoy was on a routine passage to Gibraltar. In this way, it was only in the final few hours that the raiding force’s true intentions might be suspected.

As darkness began to fall, the last of the escorting Hurricanes swept low over the ships and headed back to England. The Ensign of the Third Reich was hoisted aboard so as to try and fool any Vichy fishing vessels they might encounter. The night passed without incident and, to the dismay of Ryder and his crews, daybreak ushered in a beautifully clear day with brilliant visibility. It was shortly after 0700 and the force had just turned east for France when the alarm was raised. Tynedale spotted a U-boat, its periscope up, seven miles to the northeast. Ryder understood the critical importance of the moment: he must either destroy the enemy boat or force her to dive before she radioed in the sighting of the flotilla.

Tynedale was immediately ordered to go after her. Casting off the HQ motor gun boat (MGB) she was towing, the destroyer, flying the German Ensign, sped towards the sub at a maximum speed of twenty-seven knots. The U-boat fired off a pyrotechnic rocket that burst into five stars as a recognition signal. The Tynedale replied with five long flashes of her Aldis lamp. At 4,000 yards, Tynedale ran up her White Ensign and opened fire. If she had closed any further, it would not have been possible to depress her guns low enough to hit the target. Giant plumes of water burst around the U-boat but the near-misses were not near enough to cause any damage. The U-boat (U-593), damaged from an earlier confrontation with the British, had tried but failed to launch a torpedo at the Tynedale. She had no option but to crashdive and wait for the inevitable pounding beneath the surface. Minutes later, the German crew felt the mighty percussion of depth charges. Such was the force of the explosions that U-593 was forced to the surface, but she quickly dived again, strafed by Tynedale’s short-range guns from close range. HMS Atherstone was now at the scene and the two destroyers swept the area using ASDIC underwater detection device. But dropping to about 500 feet below the surface and reducing her speed to a barely perceptible one knot, the U-boat evaded her hunters. After two hours the destroyers broke off the search and rejoined the flotilla. Ryder’s main fear was that the U-boat had succeeded in reporting the British presence before diving. There was nothing for it but to continue as planned. All would be revealed in the coming hours. If the Germans ashore had been alerted, Operation CHARIOT was badly compromised.

For two hours, no enemy reconnaissance aircraft was spotted as the flotilla continued its course towards the French coast. But shortly before midday, the raiding force came across two French fishing vessels. Enemy radio operators were known to operate from these boats and Ryder was under orders to sink any that he encountered. Atherstone and Tynedale went alongside them and, having taken off the crews, sank both vessels. The captains of both boats gave their word that there were no wireless sets on board either of the craft. By that time, Ryder was reassured that the U-boat they had engaged had been unable to dispatch a sighting report to her Coastal Command. (After the war, it was discovered that U-593 had surfaced in mid-afternoon and the captain made a report that contained one highly significant mistake. He said the British flotilla was heading west, away from their intended target. They were in fact heading southeast. The German coastal commanders assumed the ships were en route to Gibraltar and decided not to send out the five destroyers that patrolled that area. It was a very poor error of judgement by the U-boat crew, and it would not be long before they were made to understand its magnitude.)

Darkness had fallen when one of the motor launches, ML 341, reported that she had lost the use of one of her engines and was unable to keep up with the flotilla’s fifteen-knot pace. Coming at such a critical time, just a few hours before Z-hour, this was a blow on a number of counts. The Commandos on board were an assault group tasked with capturing and holding the Old Mole, the re-embarkation for the raiding force. One of the two back-up launches, ML 446, that had been brought for just such an eventuality, took the troops and a medical team on board, but they were two hours behind the others by the time the handover was completed. Pushing twenty knots, ML 446 succeeded in rejoining the flotilla, but she was forced to line up at the rear of the formation. There was now no chance of the assault party spearheading the attack on the Old Mole and that was a major cause for concern, as the demolition groups that would now go in before them had little more than a few pistols between them.

It was shortly after 2000, five and a half hours from Z-hour, when the force reached ‘point E’ off the French coast and came to a stop. Ryder and Newman transferred from Atherstone to MGB 314, which hauled out to the front of the force as the rest of the ships fell into battle formation. Two torpedo boats, ML 160 and ML 270, were positioned behind them at the head of two columns of motor launches, twelve of them in total, to the port and starboard of HMS Campbeltown. Two further torpedo boats, ML 446 and ML 298, brought up the rear. Ryder was astounded that the flotilla had steamed so close to the heavily patrolled French coast without being detected. So far, the good fortune had been all British.

Navigation was now the key challenge. The submarine HMS Sturgeon, which had sailed from Plymouth twenty-four hours before the flotilla, was to act as a navigational mark for the raiders. From that position, the force would be able to follow the precise course charted for them through the treacherous shallows of the Loire estuary. The rendezvous point was known as Position Z and the responsibility of leading them there fell to Lt Bill Green in the lead gun boat. In the pitch-black night and with no landmarks to assist him, it was some feat that Green not only brought them to the very spot but he did so almost to the second. It was exactly 2200 when Sturgeon’s beacon flashed out of the darkness. Passing within hailing distance of the sub, the crews exchanged greetings before it slipped beneath the surface, leaving no more than a ripple. At the same time, the destroyers Atherstone and Tynedale broke off from the force and steamed away from the coast to await the return of any ships that survived the most ambitious, large-scale amphibious raid ever undertaken by British forces.

By coincidence, six hours earlier, Admiral Karl Donitz, supreme commander of Germany’s U-boat fleet, had made an inspection of St Nazaire and asked Kapitänleutnant Herbert Sohler, commander 7th Submarine Flotilla, what the chances were of the British attacking the port from the sea. He was reassured that an amphibious assault was out of the question. Both men were preparing for another good night’s sleep when 611 British souls steamed through Position Z and into the mouth of the Loire. In three-and-a-half hours’ time, the German commanders would discover whether Sohler’s conviction held true.

When the White Ensigns on the ships were hoisted, the raiders were still six minutes short of their target. The 360 seconds had felt like six days to those who survived the gunfire of one of the most heavily defended military bases in the world. ‘It is difficult to describe the full fury of the attack that was let loose on each side,’ Ryder wrote after the war. ‘Owing to the air attack, the enemy had every gun, large and small, fully manned, and the night became one mass of red and green tracer.’

When MGB 314 – the command boat spearheading the approach – reached the east jetty, close to the entrance of the harbour, she was greeted with a burst of fire from the guard ship moored there. Passing no further than 200 yards away, the British gun boat responded with a heavy fusillade from her pair of two-pounders and heavy-machine guns, knocking out one of the German gun positions. The Campbeltown and the other ships followed 314’s example and, in the confusion, German guns also pounded the hapless ship, which was unable to depress its AA guns low enough to attack the flotilla.

The Campbeltown, the largest of the vessels, began to attract fire like iron filings to a magnet. Scores of shells of all sizes punched holes in her hull and waves of machine gunfire swept over her decks. There was not a part of the old destroyer that didn’t feel the full force of German gunnery skills. The Commandos, lying on the decks behind the reinforced armour plates, could do nothing but pray that the flying shrapnel and ricocheting bullets failed to come their way. Casualties were sustained from the opening seconds of the battle and they mounted rapidly. The bridge of the Campbeltown drew such a weight of fire that Commander Beattie ordered his men to the wheelhouse below, where thin armour plates at least offered some protection from the efforts of the gunners of the smaller armaments. The range of vision from there, however, was reduced to a small slit, no more than a foot wide, and it was through that gap that Beattie had to direct the destroyer onto a relatively small target that he hadn’t yet managed to identify.

With a shower of bullets and shells crashing into the hull, the thickly bearded Commander squinted through the slit, desperately trying to pick out the outer lock. Campbeltown was close to its full speed of twenty knots when a giant searchlight fixed the wheelhouse and left Beattie blinded by its powerful beam. Almost instantaneously, his helmsman slumped to the floor, mortally wounded. The telegraphist immediately leapt forward to take the wheel, but he too was cut down on the spot as fire raked the wheelhouse. Tibbits, the demolitions expert, calmly stepped into the breach to steer the ship. There were just seconds now before impact.

Beattie knew that if he failed to ram the outer lock gate head-on, Operation CHARIOT would be remembered as a very costly catastrophe, a waste of a great many talented, brave young men. He kept his eyes on the gun boat in front, waiting for it to bank to starboard and allow him an open run at the dock. At that moment, a huge shell from one of the larger gun emplacements crashed into the twelve-pounder gun forward of the bridge, instantly killing the gun crew and many of the Commandos lying around it, and leaving many others stunned or writhing in agony. The massive explosion left Beattie dazed and dazzled, but through the smoke he recognised the landmarks of the harbour from the planners’ scale model back in Falmouth. Passing the Old Mole on his port side, he realised he was off course and ordered a sharp wheel to the starboard. As Tibbits swung the destroyer back on course, Beattie could now see the lock gate of the giant dock dead ahead of the point of his bow.

Battering her way through a maelstrom of tracer and incendiaries, punctured by a hundred shell holes, the dead and wounded lying on her decks, but her guns still blazing, the Campbeltown surged towards the entrance at full steam. The motor gun boat swung away to starboard. ‘Stand by to ram,’ ordered Beattie calmly. Those still alive inside the wheelhouse clung for dear life to whatever support they could find and braced themselves for the impact. The dark outline of the dock’s structure appeared to rise out of the water before the impact. A split second later, over 1,000 tons of warship travelling at 20 knots smashed into the thick metal wall of the gate. The violence of the collision shook the ship from bow to stern, sparks and debris flew in all directions and the harsh sound of metallic grinding filled the air. What was left of the bow of the old destroyer hung over the lock gate, pointing skywards at an angle. The impact was so powerful that the front of the ship was crushed back by twelve metres. Through a barrage of artillery fire, with his men falling dead around him, Beattie had guided her straight into the centre of the target. The four and a half tons of explosive below deck were sitting right on top of the gate. He could not have been more precise in his positioning of the charge had he placed it there with a crane. It was 0134 hours. Beattie, a stickler for precise timing, looked at his watch and was heard to mutter: ‘Hmm, four minutes late.’

Leaving their dead and wounded comrades behind for the medics and the crew to attend to, the Commandos of Group Three leapt over the sides of the wrecked destroyer and, splitting into small parties, sprinted for their assigned targets. Behind them in the harbour bloody carnage was being played out as the two columns of motor launches, carrying Commando Groups One and Two, were shredded by withering enemy fire. Proving to be every bit of a problem as they had been in the rehearsal exercise, the searchlights lit up the little ships in a brilliant light that allowed the shore gunners to pick them off almost at will. The small, lightly armed wooden craft were no match for the big-calibre shells or the sheer volume of fire from the smaller guns. Very soon after the battle had begun, many of the launches were ablaze and cries of agony rang out across the water, mingling with the burst of shells and the rattle of machine-gun fire in a hellish chorus.

The starboard column, carrying Group Two, was to land her Commandos at the Old Entrance to the harbour’s main basin, 100 yards from where the Campbeltown had come to rest. The first motor launch, ML 192, had been hit by a shell during the approach and was burning furiously alongside the east jetty. Her captain gave the order to abandon ship and the wounded were lifted into the Carley float life rafts. Nine soldiers were killed or too seriously wounded to continue and four crewmen were also lost. But Captain Michael Burn, the party’s leader, and four others managed to jump into the water and scramble ashore, swimming past the dead body of one of the section commanders as they did so.

The second and third launches in the column overshot the disembarkation point after the crew were caught in the glare of a powerful searchlight. As they turned round to head back, ML 268, which had been fourth in the column and was carrying a large contingent of eighteen Commandos, was hit by relentless, close-range fire as she made her approach. She burst into flames and then blew up as the auxiliary fuel tank on deck and the demolition party’s explosives caught light. Half the crew jumped overboard in time but sixteen soldiers were killed in a huge explosion.

ML 156, the fifth of Group Two’s six launches, had already taken heavy fire when a direct hit on the bridge severely wounded its captain Lieutenant Fenton, the leader of the Commando assault group, and a number of his men. The ship’s second-in-command took over and pressed on towards the Old Entrance but, when heavy fire claimed him and the third officer, as well as one engine and the steering gear, there was no option but to withdraw.

Witnessing the bloody mayhem on the northern side of the Old Entrance, Lieutenant Rodier in ML 177, the final boat in the column, diverted at the last moment and went alongside the steep stone steps on the other side of the small quay where the enemy fire was lighter. His quick thinking almost certainly saved many lives and ML 177 thus became the only one of the six ships in Group Two to succeed in putting its troops ashore. It was, however, a hollow success, as there were no demolition parties to support. They were on their own. At this point, Commander Ryder’s gun boat appeared and disembarked Lieutenant Colonel Newman and his HQ party at the northern steps of the entrance. Some of the German guns had been silenced by now and CHARIOT’s military commander was able to get ashore without the loss of any of his seven men.

Using his loud-hailer, Ryder ordered Rodier to go to the Campbeltown and take off as many of the wounded Commandos and crew as he could. At the same time, ML 262 under Lieutenant Burt, one of the launches that had overshot the Old Entrance, arrived on the scene. The Commandos she carried were jumping onto the quay when the southern winding shed, a stone’s throw across the water, exploded with an ear-shattering blast. It was heartening for the others to know that at least some demolition parties had managed to get off the water and reach their target. Moments later, the five-man party responsible for laying the charge – Lieutenant Smalley’s from the Campbeltown group – ran down the quay. ML 262, which had just re-embarked a separate party, took them aboard. As they headed out, they came under heavy fire again and suffered a number of casualties, including Smalley who was killed outright. The launch was damaged too but Burt managed to escape downstream.

ML 267 under Lieutenant Beart, carrying a reserve of fourteen Commandos, had turned back to make a second attempt at the Old Entrance but, under heavy fire, burst into flames as she tried to land her men. Jumping overboard to escape the flames, nineteen crew and Commandos died in the water, most of them machine-gunned in the burning oil. The lucky ones were drowned. Ryder witnessed the horrific fate suffered by so many from his starboard column as his gun boat raced down to the Old Mole to assess Group One’s progress there. In his report, he wrote: ‘On leaving the Old Entrance, however, I could see that matters had fared badly there. The approaches were floodlit by searchlights from all directions and a deadly fire was being poured on the M.L.s still gallantly attempting to go alongside.’

While the Commandos in the motor launches battled the devastating enemy fire to try and get ashore, their colleagues on the Campbeltown, many of them already carrying wounds, were pouring over the sides of the stricken destroyer. They too were feeling the full force of the enemy guns that continued to spray the ship from both sides of the river. As they did so, Commander Beattie immediately set about arranging the withdrawal of his crew and the wounded before scuttling his ship. The plan was to send the destroyer to the bottom so that if the charge failed to detonate, the entrance to the dock would remain blocked to the Tirpitz for up to a year.

The two assault groups were the first into the fray but their exit was impeded by the number of wounded men lying in the blood-spattered gangways and well-deck. There was no option but to drag some of them out of the way in order to get the attack under way. Urged on by Newman’s 2iC, Major Copland, the men of 2 Commando hurried through the smoke, flames and raking fire to clamber down the hanging ladders to the dock. Lieutenant Roderick’s party descended by the starboard side of the bow and quickly silenced a gun emplacement, strafing the gunners with their Tommy guns and disabling the gun with a small explosive. Working in small groups, covering each other in fire-and-move advances, Roderick’s men used a shower of grenades to destroy their second target, a 3.7-cm flak gun that had been hammering the Campbeltown from its position on a nearby roof.

A third gun they were to target had already been silenced by the Navy’s guns and, their tasks complete, Roderick’s men set up a blocking position to thwart a German counterattack. In the space of those few, frenetic minutes, four of his men had fallen. The other assault party, led by Captain Roy, destroyed a gun position that had been hastily abandoned at the sight of the Commandos streaming along the dockside, firing Brens and Tommy guns from their hips. The emplacement was put out of action and Roy took up position, as per their orders, at the Old Entrance bridge, which they were to hold until all the demolition squads had withdrawn to the evacuation point on the Old Mole.

The first demolition team from the Campbeltown into action, led by Lieutenant Chant, had reached their target before the immediate area had been cleared of enemy guns. Chant and one of his sergeants, Chamberlain, were carrying severe wounds sustained in the run up the river. Struggling to walk, Chant had taken injuries to his leg, arm and hands, while Chamberlain had been hit in the shoulder and had to ask one of his ‘buddies’ to carry his heavy haversack laden with explosives. Their task was to destroy the pumping house, next to the Campbeltown, which would render the dock tidal and prevent the Tirpitz and all other large warships from using it for a great many months. It was considered the most important of all the demolition assignments.

Having blown the door to the pump house, Chamberlain, who was weakening by the minute, was left to guard the entrance while Chant and three sergeants disappeared below. Each carrying 60 pounds of explosives on their backs, they descended the labyrinth of stairs into the bowels of the echoing chamber as quickly as the darkness and Chant’s wounds allowed them. Working in the gloom by the light of their torches, it was now that their intensive training back at Southampton’s King George V dock paid off. The layout of the machinery was just as they had been led to expect and, one by one, each of the four peeled off to their assigned positions and quickly set about laying their charges. As they finished, Chant was starting to fade and one of his men had to help him climb back to the top as the slow fuses burnt down behind them. Shortly after they had taken cover, the pump house exploded in an enormous roar that reverberated across the dockyard. Adding the finishing touch to their demolition work, the group lit the oil pouring out of the structure and withdrew over Roy’s bridge, hurrying to the Old Mole ready to re-embark.

The final group of Commandos off the Campbeltown, and the largest, had been handed the most hazardous of the demolition tasks. They were to destroy the northern lock gate and its winding shed. To reach their target, however, they had to run the gauntlet of heavy German fire for 300 yards along the eastern, or left-hand side of the Normandie dock. The group was split into two parties: the first, four NCOs under Lieutenant Purdon, was to blow the winding machinery. The second, eight NCOs under Lieutenant Brett, was to attack the lock gate. Their numbers were boosted by the addition of a reserve demolition group under Lieutenant Burtinshaw. Lieutenant Etches, who was in overall charge of the group, was forced to stay behind having suffered serious shrapnel wounds to both legs and an arm shortly before the Campbeltown made impact with the southern gate. Two men of five in a heavily armed protection squad had also been incapacitated and remained on board.

Stepping over the dead, the dying and the wounded to get to the ladders at the forward end of the besieged destroyer, Purdon, Brett and Burtinshaw led their men down the sides and into the thick of the battle. They advanced to their target in short bounds, taking cover from the beams of the searchlights and the raking crossfire as and when they could. The heaviest fire was emanating from a German position midway along the dock and it was clear there could be no further progress until it was neutralised. Drilled to perfection by months of training, the three-man protection squad went into action. While one drew the fire, the other two crept forward and lobbed in grenades, killing all inside.

The two demolition squads had infiltrated deeper into the heart of enemy territory than any other and they soon found themselves under intense fire from a number of positions, including the heavier-calibre guns of the ships moored inside the giant basin to their left. Brett was injured early on and Burtinshaw and six others were killed as the casualty toll mounted rapidly. But, undaunted, the others continued with their tasks. With no officers left standing in the group, Sergeant Carr took control and, having abandoned plans to lay explosives inside the structure, he set about detonating the underwater explosives that had been lowered over the side. Moments later, a muffled boom was followed by the sight of giant fountains of water shooting into the air and pouring through the holed structure into the dry dock. Leaving their dead comrades where they lay, the survivors, each one suffering at least one wound, staggered back through the tumult of gunfire towards the bridge held by Roy’s small, heavily reduced assault party. As they disappeared into the night, Purdon and his men lit the fuses on their charges on the machinery inside the winding shed, echoing those set off by Lieutenant Smalley a short time earlier at the southern end.

With battle raging in all parts of the dockyard, Lieutenant Colonel Newman and his seven men waited anxiously at the HQ they had established in a building at the Old Entrance close to the bridge held by Roy. His protection party had perished on the water but he was soon joined by the only full Commando party to have made it ashore – from Rodier’s ML 177. He deployed the group, commanded by Troop Sergeant Major Haines, as the HQ’s makeshift protection party, doing his forlorn best to exercise some sort of control over the chaotic scenes around him.

Five hundred yards to the south of Newman’s HQ, the six launches of the port column of the raiding force were attempting to land the Commandos of Group One on the Old Mole. The fate they suffered under the German guns was every bit as horrifying as that of their comrades from Group Two at the Old Entrance; the courage of their efforts to get ashore was as awe-inspiring as it was hopeless.

As the first of the six, ML 447, under Lieutenant Platt, had already absorbed significant punishment as it closed on the heavily defended stone jetty. Two machine-gun positions on the Mole raked the vessel, and casualties lay strewn upon her deck as Platt tried to bring her alongside the steps. Captain Birney’s fifteen-strong assault party had already been reduced to roughly half its strength when an artillery shell scored a direct hit and flames engulfed the ship. Platt gave the order to abandon ship, but though a few managed to scramble ashore and some were picked up by one of the torpedo boats, most were drowned or gunned to death in the water.

As at the Old Entrance a few hundred yards to the north, only one of the six launches managed to get their men ashore. Once Birney’s assault party had been wiped out, there was no chance of the rest overcoming the German defenders behind the walls of the jetty, who outnumbered and outgunned them. ML 457, under Lieutenant Collier, the second in the column, somehow survived the relentless German enfilade from above and managed to disembark one demolition team under Lieutenant Walton, the protection party under Second Lieutenant Watson and a small demolition control party under Captain Pritchard. The fifteen men who made it into the dockyard amounted to 18 per cent of the total number of Commandos scheduled to land at the Old Mole.

With next to no support, their fate was sealed the moment they began to scramble up the greasy stone slipway towards the German gunfire that was intensifying by the minute. But they pressed on nevertheless, trying to ignore the harrowing screams of their friends and comrades from ML 447 in the water below. As the small groups of men made a dash for their targets, more Germans arrived to strengthen the defences at the Old Mole, extinguishing, once and for all, any hope that the troops ashore could be evacuated from there as planned. As the Germans tossed grenades over the walls onto the landing points below, the weight of fire raining down was so great and the scene so chaotic that the remaining four motor launches were forced to withdraw back into the middle of the river. So it was that of the twelve troop-carrying vessels, only one from each column had succeeded in putting their men ashore.

Moments after the last of his Commandos had clambered ashore, Collier’s motor launch (ML 457) burst into flames. Lieutenant Burt in ML 262 rushed in to help but both were shattered by enemy fire. There were few survivors. Within minutes, the parties that had managed to land at the Old Mole were also in disarray as they battled in vain to carry out their orders. Lieutenant Walton lost his life trying to blow up the bridge connecting the Old Town to the centre of St Nazaire in an attempt to block German reinforcements. Captain Pritchard died of a deep wound to the stomach, almost certainly at the point of a German bayonet as he rounded the corner of a building. Lieutenant Watson’s team were beaten back by ferocious German defence and fought their way through the dock installations to Newman’s HQ at the Old Entrance.

To his mounting frustration, Lieutenant Wynn, commanding the motor torpedo boat MTB 74, had been forced to watch the battle unfolding on the dockside, unable to contribute anything more telling than some covering fire for the rest of the force. Commander Ryder had held him back to torpedo the Campbeltown if her scuttling charges had failed to detonate, but once the old destroyer was lying safely on the bottom and stuck fast on the lock gate, Wynn was handed his chance to play his part in the action. Speeding towards the Old Entrance, Wynn unleashed two torpedoes at the lock gates leading to the U-boat basin. Both hit the target and, with their time-delay fuses activated, sank to the river bed. He returned to the Campbeltown and embarked as many wounded men as he could accommodate before making his escape towards the mouth of the estuary.

It was now that his good nature got the better of him and disaster struck. Orders stipulated that none of the withdrawing vessels were to stop under the German guns to pick up survivors but, spotting two men on a life raft, Wynn didn’t have the heart to roar past them. The speed of the torpedo boat was its only protection against the mighty coastal guns and, as soon as he slowed, one of them traversed its giant barrel. Moments later, two 170-mm shells crashed into the boat causing devastation. Wynn, severely injured, was rescued by his Chief Petty Officer. Together with the others who survived the massive blasts, they abandoned ship. As many as two dozen men clung to the one Carley float life raft as it was pulled out to sea by the power of the retreating tide. When it was later intercepted by a German patrol boat, Wynn was one of only three men still alive.

The three other motor torpedo boats had provided covering fire during the attempted landings and, using their speed to dodge incoming shells, survived the early exchanges of the action. ML 270 and ML 160 were later hit by shells but managed to patch up the worst of the damage and limp out to sea. ML 298 under Lieutenant Nock was less fortunate. Braving the heavy fire of the German defences, Nock took the boat into the Old Mole and the Old Entrance searching for Commandos to evacuate; finding none, he headed back out into the river. The boat had been hit several times during the night and a fire on board soon drew the attention of the coastal gun batteries as she sped for the relative sanctuary of the open sea. When a volley of large-calibre shells crashed on her wooden decks, the result was carnage and destruction. The few that survived had no choice but to abandon ship and put their lives at the mercy of the tides.

Commander Beattie and Lieutenant Tibbits, the two men who had guided the Campbeltown onto the target, were among fifty or so naval personnel and Commandos who had been taken aboard Lieutenant Rodier’s ML 177, many of them carrying severe wounds. They had almost reached the mouth of the river when they were hit by a shell that killed most on board, including Rodier and Tibbits. Those who weren’t killed outright died of their wounds in the freezing water. Beattie and the few other survivors were later rescued by the Germans after several hours in the water.

Commander Ryder, aboard his HQ gun boat MGB 314, was horrified by the grisly spectacle in the harbour. Bodies of men floated in water, the badly wounded cried out in agony, motor launches exploded and smouldered, oil burned on the surface of the river and fountains of water burst skywards from the shower of shells raining down from the coastal batteries.

‘All this time MGB314 was lying stopped about 100 yards off the Old Entrance,’ wrote Ryder in the Dispatch submitted to the Admiralty two weeks later, ‘and although fired on continually by flak positions and hit many times she was by the Grace of God not set ablaze. On looking round the harbour, however, I counted about seven or eight blazing M.L.s and was forced to realise that MGB314 was the only craft left in sight . . . It was clearly impossible for MGB314 to return. With some thirty to forty men on board and her decks piled with seriously wounded I decided at 0250 that she was in no position to take off the soldiers we had landed. It was unlikely that MGB314 would survive another five minutes with the fire that was being concentrated in her direction so I left at high speed.’

As she withdrew downriver, the gun boat was caught in the glare of the searchlights and immediately subjected to heavy crossfire from both banks. In spite of being badly wounded, Able Seaman Bill Savage, the gunlayer manning the forward gun, a quick-firing three-pounder, kept up a vigorous stream of return fire. Savage, who was completely exposed without an armoured gunshield to protect him, must have known it was only a matter of time before the sheer weight and accuracy of the enemy’s many guns got the better of him. The citation for his posthumous Victoria Cross stated that it had been awarded ‘in recognition not only of the gallantry and devotion to duty of Able Seaman Savage but also of the valour shown by many others, unnamed, in motor launches, motor gun boats and motor torpedo boats, who gallantly carried out their duty in entirely exposed positions against enemy fire at very close range.’

It was as obvious to Newman as it had been to Ryder that there was going to be no evacuation as planned. He too could see the blackened hulls of the smouldering motor launches out on the oil-choked river. Roughly 100 Commandos, many of them wounded, had slowly congregated, group by group, around the HQ building by the Old Entrance. With every minute that passed, more German reinforcements poured into the town, pinning the British down with their backs to the river. The question facing Newman was simple: surrender, or try and fight their way out and head for neutral Spain? There was only going to be one answer. Surrender was not covered in the Commando training manual.

The only possible escape route was through the dockyard and the outskirts of the Old Town, over a narrow bridge spanning the southern entrance to the U-boat basin, into the labyrinth of backstreets and alleys and out into the countryside. The Commandos were running out of ammunition, they were heavily outnumbered and many of them were carrying wounds, but their one advantage was their street-fighting skill.

The men spilt up into five groups of about twenty and moved out in the darkness through the network of warehouses. Almost immediately, a series of skirmishes broke out and the crack of grenades and rattle of machine-gun fire echoed across the giant submarine basin. Several men fell in quick succession with wounds too severe for them to continue. All their comrades could do was inject them with morphia, wish them luck and press on.

The Commandos regrouped at the end of the warehouse complex and paused in the shadows of a building, pondering their next move. To their right, they could see the bridge, but to reach it they had to dash across over 100 yards of open ground. Heavy fire was pouring in their direction from buildings and a machine-gun pillbox on the town side. But there was no talk of giving up. As one, eighty men rose from the shadows and burst towards the bridge, firing their weapons. Writing about the event after the war, Lieutenant Purdon recalled: ‘A hail of enemy fire erupted as we crossed the bridge, projectiles slamming into its girders, bullets whining and ricocheting off them and from the cobbles. There was a roar of gunfire and the percussion of “potato masher” grenades as we neared the far end.’

The defenders fled at the sight of the stampeding British troops, who immediately split and disappeared into the backstreets of the town centre. The charge was a heroic gesture of defiance by the Commandos but, for the great majority of them, it was to be their last. The Germans had surrounded the town and cordoned it off with heavily armed checkpoints while hundreds of other troops carried out an intensive sweep, street by street, house by house. Some Commandos holed up in homes, cellars and alleyways, while others chose to break out while there was still darkness to cover them. The close-quarter fighting continued for several hours but, as the sun cast its watery light over the French port, it became obvious that, with ammunition almost expended, any further attempt to flee would end in certain death.

Newman and the other survivors were gradually rounded up and taken up the road to the de-luxe hotel L’Hermitage in La Baule, which had been converted into a temporary hospital and prisoner camp. Here they were reunited with other ‘Charioteers’ – soldiers and sailors – who had been plucked from the river or found wounded around the dockyard. Over three-quarters of the 200 raiders who were captured were carrying at least one wound, some so severe that several men did not survive to make the transfer to the permanent POW camp a few days later. Only five men succeeded in evading capture. Helped by French civilians along the route, all of them made it safely into Spain and back to England, rejoined their units and saw further action before the war was out.

Daylight revealed an apocalyptic vision in St Nazaire. Dead bodies, British and German, were strewn around the dockyard and streets of the town. Some were floating in the harbour; others lay washed up on the banks of the Loire. Buildings had been turned to rubble, fires burned and sunken ships and boats sat low in the water, billowing smoke. On realising the hopelessness of their situation, the Commandos slowly emerged from hiding and gave themselves up throughout the morning and afternoon, but the town remained tense for many days afterwards. Sporadic bursts of machine-gun fire crackled through the streets as nervous Germans, expecting to find a ‘Tommy’ in every nook and cranny, leapt between doorways and alleys firing at shadows.

The raid had come as a huge shock and it quickly reverberated through the chain of command back to Berlin. There was open fury among Hitler’s High Command that a small raiding party had managed to infiltrate such a heavily defended and strategically vital centre of German military operations – and wreak so much devastation. Some of the locals, meanwhile, thought the long fight through the night heralded the start of their country’s liberation and attacked German soldiers, triggering a brutal crackdown by the authorities.

In general, the Germans treated their British captives with decency, and over the coming days they would bury their enemies with full military honours. But there were a few instances of cruelty and inhumanity. Some of the severely wounded were dumped unceremoniously into transports and others were treated harshly by some medical orderlies at L’Hermitage.

As the Commandos were continuing the fight in St Nazaire, the eight of the seventeen ‘little ships’ that had survived the pounding of the coastal gunners were racing to make their rendezvous with Tynedale and Atherstone. The destroyers, however, were running late, having encountered a group of enemy torpedo boats, which they saw off after a brief but fierce engagement. Ryder’s gun boat (MGB 314), which was taking on water having been holed on the starboard, came across the torpedo boat ML 270 as they left the Loire and they both went alongside the destroyers shortly after daybreak to transfer their wounded into the care of the medical teams. Two other launches (ML 156 and ML 446) had already done the same, having arrived an hour earlier. Once the rest of the men and the crews were taken aboard the warships, the four smaller vessels were scuttled and the destroyers made smoke to get away from the heavily patrolled coastline as quickly as possible. Three other launches – ML 160, ML 307 and ML 443 – were several hours ahead of them, having decided to make the most of the darkness and head straight back to England. They were the only ones of the original eighteen to make it from Falmouth to St Nazaire and back.

The crew and Commandos aboard ML 306, under Lieutenant Henderson, had good reason to believe that they had slipped the German net too. By 0530, they were some fifty to sixty miles from the mouth of the estuary and making good speed towards the safety of home waters. The fourteen Commandos aboard, who had not managed to get ashore, were feeling aggrieved at having missed out on the main action when they felt the engine cut and heard the call from the bridge to go to action stations. Henderson had spotted the phosphorescence from the bow waves of an enemy destroyer squadron.

One of the five, the Jaguar, broke away from the others to investigate and, quickly identifying the suspicious vessel as a small British motor launch, Kapitänleutnant Friedrich Paul approached her, expecting her to surrender. Henderson and the Commandos aboard had no intention whatsoever of capitulating, in spite of the fact their vessel was over ten times lighter, made from wood not steel and one of her two Oerlikon 20-mm guns was jammed. The only other armaments were two .303-inch Lewis machine guns mounted on the bridge and the assorted small arms of the Commandos, which didn’t amount to a great deal as nine of the men were part of a demolition team and carried nothing more powerful than a Colt pistol.

Jaguar turned on her searchlight and opened up with all her light weapons. A murderous enfilade tore through the British ship from close range, shredding wood and flesh. The German captain could have sunk the launch at any point with his main armament but he wanted to have it as a prize and, once he had overcome his shock that he had a fight on his hands, he seemed to be enjoying the sport being offered by the spirited Tommies. A game of cat-and-mouse followed as Henderson tried to outmanoeuvre the destroyer, which was attempting to ram him. When Jaguar, which was faster, managed to make impact, the launch was turning away, but the shunt was powerful enough to catapult several men overboard. German guns poured fire into the British vessel, knocking out the Oerlikon and inflicting very heavy casualties. When the crewman manning the Lewis guns was cut down, Sergeant Tom Durrant leapt up to take over the position.

Fed up with the resistance, Paul finally brought his main 4.1-inch guns to bear and a single shell into the flimsy craft caused death and devastation. Paul’s call to surrender was met by a heavy burst from Durrant’s Lewis guns. Durrant sustained wounds from the German guns to both arms, both legs, chest, head and stomach but he continued to battle his superior opponent as if they were meeting on equal terms. A repeated call to give up drew an even longer burst from Durrant before he was finally silenced, slumping to the deck mortally wounded.

With the naval officers and senior crewmen all dead, dying or wounded, Lieutenant Swayne, the demolition group leader, finally offered their surrender. Of the twenty-eight men on board, twenty lay dead or wounded. The survivors were taken back to France where they were reunited with their comrades at L’Hermitage. The following week Kapitänleutnant Paul, a chivalrous commander of the old school, sought out Lieutenant Colonel Newman at the POW camp in Rennes, and reported the brave fight put up by the men aboard. He singled out Durrant in particular for his gallantry, recommending the Sergeant receive the highest award for his heroic, bloody stand.

As the morning wore on, back in St Nazaire, the Commandos still fighting, in hiding or in captivity were dismayed not to have heard the Campbeltown go up. It seemed that either the fuses must have failed or the Germans had discovered the huge charge and made it safe. After so much blood had been shed, it was a bitter blow that the main objective had not been achieved. The scuttled ship on the lock gates represented a serious inconvenience rather than a major catastrophe.

Once the fighting was over in the dockyard area, the Germans began the task of taking away the dead bodies that lay in great numbers around the quays, jetties and warehouses. (The Germans removed their own dead first and left the British till later, so that the locals were led to believe their occupiers had scored an overwhelming victory.) Hundreds of people, mostly German servicemen, crowded down to the Normandie dock to witness the extraordinary spectacle of the British destroyer lying over the southern lock gate, its crumpled bow angled towards the sky over the empty dock and its stern sitting heavily on the river bottom on the other side.

The German naval authorities who went aboard to examine her were at a loss to understand why the British would go to such lengths and sacrifice the lives of so many frontline troops. The lightened destroyer was never going to have the weight or force to destroy the gate, so why bother? As an act of defiance to show that the British were not a spent force, it was an impressive performance, but in practical strategic terms, it had achieved very little. The destroyer could be dismantled and the lock gate patched up.

The clock had just struck twenty-five minutes to eleven and Lieutenant Commander Beattie was in the office of one of the port buildings, wrapped in a blanket, wondering why the charge had failed to blow. At the very moment his interrogator was mocking the costly stupidity of the raid, the Campbeltown offered a retort far more potent than any words the exhausted Beattie could have done. An almighty explosion, as loud as anyone in the vicinity would ever hear, shattered the relative calm that had been restored to the Atlantic port.

The roar of the blast was heard across town and many miles beyond. Around the town, buildings shook, windows shattered, and people standing hundreds of yards away were blown off their feet. Between 350 and 400 people, mostly enemy servicemen aboard the destroyer or alongside the dock, were killed instantly. Their number included several senior officers accompanied by their collaborating mistresses. Body parts rained down on the dockyard. The front of the ship ceased to exist, the lock gate was blown to pieces and collapsed, and what was left of the Campbeltown was swept into the dry dock by several million gallons of water from the estuary.

In the short term, the eruption caused panic and fury among the Germans and did little to speed up or improve the quality of the medical attention being received by the wounded at La Baule. Many suffered at the hands of vindictive orderlies, enraged by the news of the explosion. Around St Nazaire, startled troops, fearing a fresh attack and a civilian uprising, rushed through the streets, firing their guns at any figure they suspected of being unfriendly. Homes were turned upside down and the locals manhandled as the search for the ‘Tommies’ intensified. Two days later the town had once again settled down into some form of normal life when the delayed-action torpedoes fired by Lieutenant Wynn’s boat blew up the lock gate to the U-boat basin and sparked more pandemonium and paranoia.

On that first morning, to the hundred or so British soldiers and sailors still within the area, all facing a long spell in captivity, the deafening boom of the Campbeltown explosion was a sound as satisfying as it was shocking. In one ear-splitting second, a gallant defeat had been transformed into a glorious victory. The Normandie dry dock had been put out of action for years to come. Tirpitz would find no refuge or respite from Royal Navy guns in St Nazaire now. Not one of the 169 deaths had been in vain.

Of those 169 men to give their lives, 105 of them sailors and 64 Commandos, most perished during the attempted landings in the ferocious start to the action. Medals were showered on the raiders, many of them posthumously, but it took many years to piece together the whole story. Newman and Beattie, two central figures in the drama, and 200 other participants languished in German POW camps until the end of the war in Europe three years later. Savage, Durrant, Newman, Ryder and Beattie were all awarded the Victoria Cross. Four Distinguished Service Orders, seventeen Distinguished Service Crosses, eleven Military Crosses, fifteen Military Medals, four Conspicuous Gallantry Medals, five Distinguished Conduct Medals, twenty-four Distinguished Service Medals, four Croix de Guerre were also awarded and fifty-one men were Mentioned in Dispatches. Tirpitz never dared venture out into the Atlantic and spent the rest of her life trying to thwart relentless Allied attacks. She finally met her end up a Norwegian fjord in November 1944 when she was sunk by RAF Tallboy bombs.

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