Operation Chariot - the Raid on St Nazaire

Posted on Wednesday 27th March 2013


Introduction by Bryan Watkins, author of Allied Special Forces Insignia.
St Nazaire, at the mouth of the River Loire, possessed the largest dry dock in the world and was the last port left on the Atlantic coast which was capable of taking a German capital ship, such as the pocket battleships which were playing such an important part in the Battle of the Atlantic in 1942. It had become very important that the dock should be put out of action. It was therefore decided to ram the dock gates with the old American destroyer, HMS Campbeltown and to destroy as much of the dock installations as possible.
The HMS Campbeltown sailed under a strong naval escort and accompanied by just under 300 men from No 2 Commando, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel A C Newman, and demolition parties from 1,3,4,5,9 and 12 Commandos, all carried in motor launches (MLs). The force commander was Commander R E D Ryder RN. The date, 27 March, 1942.
Once more, surprise was complete and the Campbeltown was well and truly jammed into the great lock gates before the Germans had any inkling of what was afoot. However, they then reacted sharply and the defensive posts along the river began to engage the MLs, many of which were extensively damaged and a number of men killed. Nevertheless, those demolition parties that did get through managed to effect heavy damage within the port area. Having lost most of their craft by this time, a large number of Commandos were captured and fifty-nine killed, so that only just over one third of them returned. The Germans set about Campbeltown like a swarm of ants, little realising that she was packed with explosives with time pencils set on delay. Some twelve hours after the initial attack, she blew up with devastating effect and killing a large number of the enemy at the same time. It should be remembered that it was almost exactly one month since the fall of Singapore and three since the loss of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse, public morale was low and the Navy suffering deeply from the loss of those two fine ships. The impact of this heroic triumph at St Nazaire – Operation Chariot – at such a time was of immense importance. Once again, the Navy and Special Forces had carried the fight to the enemy with heartlifting results.

The Voyage
By Jon Cooksey, extracted from Operation Chariot and reproduced by permission of Pen and Sword Books Ltd.

Ryder’s fleet left the safe haven of Falmouth at 2.00 p.m. on the 26th and sailed into the English Channel in two columns at 13 knots. Campbeltown, Atherstone and Tynedale followed on an hour later. Leading the convoy – arranged in a modified version of his Night Cruising Order – wide of the Lizard to avoid attracting the attention of curious eyes on the Cornish Coast, Ryder, aboard the Atherstone, with his co-commander Major Newman, adopted a south westerly heading and pushed on towards open water and point ‘A’ as per his route orders. Butting along in tow behind the Atherstone was MGB 314, the HQ boat, followed by Tynedale and then Campbeltown herself towing the MTB. The rest of the MLs formed two further columns on either side of the central column of destroyers. It was the first time all 21 vessels had sailed in formation as a single unit.
Under a comforting cover of haze induced by the warm spring sunshine the fleet then reduced its speed and shook out into ‘Cruising Order No. 1’, a broad arrowhead formation, with the MLs forming the arrowhead, to simulate an anti-submarine sweep. Ryder then juggled with the problem of command duties forced on him by Lieutenant Commander Wood’s sudden and untimely illness. Ryder’s ‘spare’ commanding officer, Lieutenant Horlock RNVR, took over command of ML 443 to replace Lieutenant Platt, who had assumed Wood’s mantle in leading the port column aboard ML 447.
A little after 7.00pm, with night approaching, the fleet reached point ‘A’ and Ryder ordered a course due south which would take them deep into the Bay of Biscay before the next stage of their approach to the mouth of the Loire. Increasing speed to 14 knots as the darkness enveloped it the fleet adopted Night Cruising Order with parallel columns of MLs stationed either side of the three destroyers. It passed Point ‘B’ four hours later and changed course slightly to a heading which took it just east of south, aiming for Point ‘C’ at which they would begin their slow turn towards the hostile coast. To Ryder’s dismay 27 March dawned in a blaze of brilliant light under a cloudless sky with visibility uninterrupted as far as the horizon. Nevertheless spirits were raised a little when the three destroyers hoisted the German ensign as part of their deception plan.
At around 7.00 am the fleet reached Point ‘C’ 160 miles west of St. Nazaire and resumed its simulation of an anti-submarine sweep. Once again the course was adjusted; now the heading was south east to begin the long run in towards its final destination.

image
A fearsome sight for the British sailors. The silhouette of the German U-593, which spotted the Chariot attack force.

Minutes later, a sharp-eyed gunner on the Tynedale noticed an object on the surface off to port some seven miles distant. Was it a German submarine? If so she might signal a sighting and elicit a response from the German Navy or worse the Luftwaffe in which case the mission would be seriously compromised. It was important. Ryder’s worst fears were realised with the confirmation of contact with a German U-Boat – later confirmed as U-593. This new but damaged vessel, ironically also headed for St. Nazaire for repairs, had been keeping a careful, yet uncertain eye on the Chariot force for some time. There was nothing for it but to sink her or at least force her into a dive before she could warn the German commanders ashore. Tynedale was ordered to engage, which she did at speed and with venom. Hoisting her White Ensign she fired the first of several salvoes at 7.45 am driving the U-Boat beneath the surface in a crash dive, whilst Ryder himself set off in Atherstone to investigate two fishing boats in the vicinity. Tynedale steamed towards the point of the last sighting. The submarine, hoping to mount an attack of its own, broke the surface again but failed to launch a stern torpedo. Frantically her captain dived once more to escape. Too close to the submarine to seed a full pattern of depth charges, Tynedale sped away to give herself room for manoeuvre but U-593 slipped away. She was not seen again.
At 0930 hours the search was broken off. Unaware that the U-Boat had eluded him, several questions crowded in on Ryder’s mind. Had she spotted his force? Had she been destroyed? He could not be sure. If the submarine had noted the presence and course of the MLs as well as the destroyers and had managed to get a signal off to the German Naval Commander in Chief in the West then the Chariot force was in jeopardy. Ryder’s response to this possibility was as wise as it was decisive. Tynedale and Atherstone were ordered to change course and steam away to the southwest, to shake the submarine off the scent just in case U-593’s periscope was still busily scanning the surface. After the war it transpired that the submarine had in fact noted MLs in Ryder’s fleet and had relayed the same in a message to base, albeit some five hours after the initial contact. Although the U-Boat had not directly observed Ryder’s ruse her captain nevertheless reported the convoy’s heading as ‘course west’. Five German destroyers had headed out on their normal patrol run on the strength of that communication and fortunately never sighted Ryder’s flotilla. At 11.00 am, with the situation appearing normal, the fleet resumed its journey. The convoy and the mission were saved: for the time being.
A little after 11.35 am the crews of two French trawlers which had marked the outer limits of a cluster of fishing boats were taken on board the destroyers and their boats sunk as a precaution against the possibility of their carrying signal equipment.
On reaching Point ‘D’, Ryder signalled a course south of east that he hoped would lull hostile observers into the false assumption that he was of heading for La Rochelle.

image


At 8.00 pm in the gathering gloom, the convoy halted at position ‘E’. This was quite probably the point of no return. They were now only 65 miles and just a few hours from charging straight into the mouth of the River Loire and into the teeth of the German guns on the final run into St. Nazaire, a port the Germans felt was nigh on impregnable. Proof of this had come that same day, even as the Chariot force was sailing towards its destiny. Admiral Karl Dönitz, Commander in Chief of Germany’s U-Boat forces, had chosen that day of all days to tour the submarine pens at St. Nazaire, escorted by Kapitänleutnant Herbert Sohler, commander of the 7th U-Boat Flotilla. Dönitz had enquired what Sohler had in mind to do should the British decide to mount an attack. Sohler assured his Admiral that plans had been but no-one in St. Nazaire on 27 March seriously expected a raid from the sea. ‘That is considered here to be highly improbable’ remarked Sohler with more than a hint of complacency. Perhaps with the words of Hitler’s Directive No. 40 on ‘Command Organisation on the Coasts’ – an almost prophetic warning of imminent British attacks, issued just four days earlier – still ringing in his ears the Admiral’s response was a terse, ‘I should not be too sure’.
If only he had known. If only he could have seen the force now begin to assume its attack formation as MGB 314 took on its naval and military HQ staff of Ryder and Newman and loosed itself from the Atherstone to take up its position as spearhead with ML 270 and ML 160 following a little way behind to port and starboard respectively. Now the rest of the MLs formed up in two parallel columns behind the leading MLs with the Campbeltown, having freed the MTB, sailing between the heads of the columns. The MTB moved to the rear with the spare MLs. The column was almost a mile long.
With just over forty nautical miles to go only one last checkpoint – Point ‘Z’ – remained to be negotiated. Before that one of the MLs – ML 341 – was lost to the force due to engine trouble. Her troops and assault party were transferred to the spare ML 446, which raced on to catch up while the damaged ML could do little but turn for home. The delay caused by the transfer seriously reduced the numbers of men required for taking and holding the Mole as they could never hope to regain their assigned landing positions.
At Point ‘Z’ they kept their rendezvous with Lieutenant-Commander Mervyn Wingfield, aboard the submarine Sturgeon, only her conning tower visible to provide a navigational beacon from which chart positions could be checked for the final run in. At 10.00 pm, from out of the darkness Sturgeon’s light began to flash intermittently, signalling the letter ‘M’. It was dead ahead and dead on time.
Now Tynedale and Atherstone, broke away to establish a patrol-line across the course the surviving MLs were expected to follow as they returned to rendezvous position ‘T’ on their way home after the attack. Denuded of the reassuring presence and firepower of the destroyers’ guns the rest of the fleet now felt uncomfortably vulnerable.
By 11.00 pm the rendezvous with Sturgeon had, like its extinguished beacon, become a faded memory. With muscles tightening and mouths drying the men began mental rehearsals as they ran through their attack positions and responsibilities. This was it.
image
Lieutenant Colonel A C Newman.

image
Commander R E D Ryder RN.

image
The voyage route and rendezvous points.

'At 8.00pm in the gathering gloom, the convoy halted at position 'E'. This was quite probably the point of no return.'

image
Admiral Karl Donitz, Commander in Chief of Germany's U-Boat forces.

image
The attack run to St Nazaire.

image


image
Motor Gun Boat (MGB) 314.


Further Reading


Operation Chariot - The Raid on St Nazaire
(Paperback - 128 pages)
ISBN: 9781844151165

by Jon Cooksey
Only £14.99

By March 1942, mainland France had been under German occupation for almost two years. Every month that passed saw Germany bolster her defences against an expected allied invasion. Every month that passed saw Germany tighten her grip on Britain's transatlantic lifeline; menacing allied shipping from the French west coast ports. At St Nazaire on the Loire estuary, the vast Normandie dry dock was the only one capable of holding the mighty battleship Tirpitz, still at large and free to hunt allied ships. Something had to be done. Operation Chariot was…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

Of further interest...