Operation Chariot - the St Nazaire Raid 1942 (part 2)

Posted on Thursday 28th March 2013

a gift horse for troy
The attempts to put men ashore at both the Old Mole and Old Entrance were already under way even as the dust began to settle on the debris-strewn fo’c’s’le of the battered Campbeltown.
Her bow having ridden over the top of the caisson, she was now being swept by fire from several nearby emplacements: from gun positions 64 and 65, high on the roof of the Pumping Station; from the sandbagged position 66 abeam to starboard, and from the building which carried the heavier cannon M70. To Copland the ship was a sitting duck and he thought it ‘quite miraculous’ that Commando casualties were not much heavier. Paradoxically, it was the Navy who suffered more as sailors continued to work the ship and keep her Oerlikons firing, the gunners standing dreadfully exposed in their elevated bandstands.
While Lieutenant Chris Gough supervised the positioning of the port iron-runged ladder, Copland,
‘dashed ...through the narrow doors – gangways and well decks covered with many wounded sailors – a job to get through and I had to be rather rough in dragging them out of the way where they lay across the path for my chaps coming off. “Sorry to hurt you mate, but my chaps must get through here,” and “For Christ’s sake leave this passage clear” – eventually to the main deck and issued orders “Roderick off – Roy off” – back to the fo’c’s’le deck and found troops having some difficulty with ladders bending, but helping immediately to sling more bamboo assault ladders overside. I gave them a little time and made my way back to the main deck for the Protection and Demolition parties. On the way across the deck I heard a voice, “Major Bill, Major Bill” and going across to near the hole in the deck I found John Proctor crumpled up and bleeding badly from a leg wound. I said, “Hang on John, I can’t stop now but I’ll come back to you as soon as I can,” – back amidships to issue the orders “Denison off – Hopwood off – All Demolition Parties off”. (Major W O Copland, DSO: unpublished narrative)


As the various Commando parties pushed forward through the hail of fire, the complementary deployment of Campbeltown’s crew added to an overall impression of frenetic activity. The ship had struck a mere four minutes after the 0130 target, and to best support Copland’s disembarkation, Beattie was withholding his orders to cease fire, stop engines and abandon ship.
Captain Bob Montgomery met with Copland before making his own way forward, accompanied by Sergeant Jameson. Having ordered the badly wounded Etches to make his way to safety, he now found himself in sole charge of all demolitions in and around the ‘Normandie’ dock.
With the majority of targets lying west of the caisson, the only Commandos to disembark over the starboard side were Lieutenant Johnny Roderick’s Assault Party. With Lance Corporal Donaldson having already been mortally wounded, the total number of men to land was thirteen. Scrambling down ladders and ropes, Tommy-gunners to the fore, they made short work of position 66 before sweeping on to the roof-mounted M70 and bombing it into submission. Finding position M10 already knocked out by fire from Leading Seaman MacIver’s 3- pounder during ML160’s supporting bombardment, it only remained to silence gun 67 and a searchlight beyond, before Roderick could apportion his team for the purpose of clearing the whole of the area south of Ressort 8. Delayed action incendiary devices had been provided for the purpose of blowing up the fuel stores; however, despite all attempts to insinuate these through ventilation shafts, the precious liquid refused to ignite.
With Roderick busy to starboard, Captain Donald Roy’s assault troops were quickly over the port side and racing towards the Pumping Station. Originally totalling fourteen, this party had also been reduced by casualties, perhaps the most critical loss being that of the very badly wounded Johnny Proctor. Lance Sergeant Don Randall, who, along with so many others had marvelled at Copland’s astonishing display of ‘sangfroid’, made his own way forward carrying a bamboo ladder,
‘when I got down myself, I was told to take it to the pumphouse where it was needed. When we got to the other end, [Private] Johnny Gwynne was waiting to put it up against the wall. But it had been shot through on the way across [the caisson], so he put it up against the wall, put his weight on it and about five feet came off! So we worked round the back of the building, saw three Germans running down the steps and took a pot at them. Sergeant Challington had a Tommy Gun, so he was detailed off by Roy to cope with those, but his gun jammed and they got away. Well we didn’t know if they’d [all] left or not, but we eventually got to the top. Having got to the top it was like a sort of heavenly peace and I remember whistling the theme from Snow White “It’s off to work we go... .” It was absolutely peaceful there, tracers floating across the top of all of us, in different colours, but not aimed at us. It must have been about the safest place in St-Nazaire at that moment.' (Lance Sergeant D C Randall, DCM: taped interview)

While Don placed his charges on gun 64, Donald Roy took care of number 65. Some idea of the degree to which these guns dominated the approach to the caisson can be gained today by climbing up to the pedestrian-accessible roof of the enormous Old Entrance bunker, constructed in the wake of the raid to give protected access to the Saint- Nazaire Basin. Had their fire been better directed, the story of the disembarkation might well have had an altogether more tragic conclusion.
A cross-section of the Pump House, a vital objective during the raid. The pumps were expensive and difficult to refit. Lieutenant Stuart Chant's party were tasked with its destruction.

With the roof-top guns destroyed, Roy’s party swept westwards across a quayside which in 1942 opened directly onto the Old Entrance, but today lies buried beneath the ferroconcrete mass of the bunker. Their destination was the all-important Bridge ‘G’, the single physical link between Copland’s parties, Newman’s HQ and the Mole. Taking what cover they could find at its northern end, they established the bridgehead they must now hold until all the northern parties withdrew. Placed as it was at the very edge of the Basin, their position was open to murderous short-range fire not only from the ships backing and filling within, but also from troops on the roof of the U-Boat complex opposite.
In the wake of Roderick and Roy came the demolition teams and their protectors. With the closest gun positions knocked out the caisson had become rather less lethal, the only unknown quantity, in the shape of the tankers, Schlettstadt and Passat, lying within the dry dock itself. Ironically, these were the ships in search of which Lieutenant Tom Boyd had sailed his ML160 upstream. They might or might not have crews on board who were willing to fight. Fortunately, they remained for the moment, silent and dark.
A total of forty-one men, split into five ‘demolition’ and two ‘protection’ parties, made it into the shadow of the Pumping Station. The northern groups faced a lonely and dangerous passage towards the far caisson. Here, on the doorstep of the Penhoët Basin, it would be Lieutenant ‘Bung’ Denison’s job to prevent the enemy from interfering with Lieutenants Purdon and Brett as their parties destroyed, respectively, the northern winding house and northern caisson. Had the other landings gone to plan, they might have been sharing their exposed peninsula with the parties of Burn, Pennington and Jenkins: however, the latter two were already dead; and of Burn’s gallant band, only he appeared to have made it through the chaos surrounding ML192’s destruction.
Immediately to port of Campbeltown Lieutenant ‘Hoppy’ Hopwood’s men would keep the enemy at bay while the myriad demolition charges were laid, by Lieutenant Chris Smalley at the southern winding house, and by Chant, deep within the bowels of the Pumping Station. Had Campbeltown for any reason failed to hit her target, provision had been made for Lieutenant Burtinshaw’s party to destroy the southern caisson. Robbed of this particular purpose, all but Private Jimmy Brown were now sent northwards to reinforce Brett. As instructed by Montgomery, who knew that the effect of the main charge would be all the greater were the caisson to be filled with water, Brown laboured alone in the shadow of the destroyer’s bow to place his blasting charges against the structure’s outer face.
With the Commandos successfully disembarked, Beattie was free to order his gunners to cease fire, to activate scuttling charges and to abandon ship either forward onto the caisson, or over the destroyer’s port quarter onto the waiting ML177. On descending to the main deck, he explored the ship to make sure no one would be left behind who was still alive. Oddly, he did not make contact with Copland, who,
‘searched for Beattie... . First to the main bridge – a shattered mass of twisted wreckage – up higher to the top bridge – no sign of Beattie. Down again and aft, calling his name. I ran into a party of sailors carrying more ladders for their own disembarkation but could get no information from them concerning him. Time was flying and my job only half done and I visualized troops returning to the Old Mole to re-embark and I, whose second task was to organise and control the re-embarkation, missing, so I turned to searching the ship for wounded. I managed to get them, including John Proctor, over the side and sent them down with sailors to the MLs loading up with the naval personnel near to the dock gate. John appeared to be badly hit in the thigh and had lost a good deal of blood – fortunately I had tied some rubber tourniquets round my waist before the show and so was able to put one on his leg before, literally, throwing him over the side – all my efforts to carry him down our bent and battered ladders having failed. (Major W O Copland, DSO: unpublished narrative)
With the wounded clear and all his parties in action, Copland then disembarked with his own team of four. Finding that Corporal Beardsell had been wounded, he sent him off with instructions to make sure Proctor got onto the gunboat: then he set off along with Corporal Cheetham, Lance Corporal ‘Jock’ Fyfe the radio operator, and his batman Private Gerry Hannan. His original orders had been to make directly for the Mole: but with Roy still heavily involved with the enemy, Copland chose instead to circle northwards and approach HQ along the Quai des Frégates. As the party made towards Brett’s caisson, they learned from Hopwood that all appeared to be going well at the Pumping Station. This good news was, however, tempered by a failure to establish signals communication which was to bedevil the remainder of the operation. Copland himself describes how,
‘we stood in shadow and watched the crews of the ships in the dry dock running aboard. All this time Fyfe was trying to contact HQ on his set – “Copland calling Newman, Copland calling Newman”. The call droned on and on, with pauses for Fyfe to say “No reply Sir, can’t hear a sound”. All through our movement, Fyfe continued his efforts to establish communication and... at our hottest moments under fire that calm voice went on “Copland calling Newman”.' (Major W O Copland, DSO: unpublished narrative)
In Copland’s rear, Smalley was finding that the placing of charges is never quite an exact science. His small party had raced along the side of the camber only to find their access to the interior of the winding house barred by a stout steel door. Bombardier Johnny Johnson having failed to shoot the lock off with his Colt, the prowling Lance Sergeant Gerry ‘Tanky’ Bright spotted a small window which they all got through. Charges were swiftly attached to the winding wheels and their motors, following which Smalley sought, and received, permission to fire from Montgomery. The percussion igniters were pulled with great expectation – but absolutely no result: Montgomery recalling how, when the failure was reported,
‘We went against all demolition principles, which is that if an explosive doesn’t go up, you leave it for half an hour before you go back to it. But (Smalley) was straight in to see what was happening. And the second time it went up and showered an ML alongside with debris.' (Lieutenant Colonel R K Montgomery, MC: taped interview)
With the southern winding house burning fiercely, attention turned to Chant and his team of four Lance Sergeants from 1 Commando, now lost to view deep within the heart of the Pumping Station. Under Hopwood’s protection all five men had made it to the structure although, on arrival at its strong steel doors, there had been a moment of confusion when these were unexpectedly found to be locked. Appearing out of the gloom, Montgomery had blown them open with a small magnetic charge, following which Chant’s party, escorted by Hopwood, had rushed inside and made for the iron stairs leading down into the blackness below.
With such a dangerous descent ahead Chant decided to leave the wounded Chamberlain on the upper floor, the other members of the team now carrying his heavy rucksack in addition to their own. The metal stairs which ran steeply down were connected to a confusion of galleries in such a way as to make rapid descent impossible; nevertheless they found the four impeller pumps, each of which was connected to an electric motor on the main floor, high above. Working by the meagre light of torches, in the knowledge of their absolute vulnerability to grenades tossed down from above, they took some twenty-minutes to place charges on each of these and connect them ready for firing. As it was now no longer necessary for them all to remain, Ron Butler and Bill King were sent up first with orders to collect Chamberlain and get clear, following which Chant and Dockerill pulled their igniter pins and also made for the stairs, Dockerill in the lead, with Chant behind, clinging to the sergeant’s belt. A fuze delay of 90 seconds hardly covered the long climb through the darkness: nevertheless they made it outside just in time, Montgomery again coming to their rescue by ensuring they took cover well away from the danger posed by falling masonry.
Having destroyed the pumps the job of Chant’s team was nonetheless incomplete, for there was still the question of the four huge electric motors. On re-entering the badly damaged structure they were relieved to find that the explosion had been much more devastating than anticipated, its force having collapsed a portion of the main floor and knocked the motors off their mountings.
As the various explosions rent the night air they were music to the ears of Newman, trapped with only a handful of men in his small HQ enclave south of Bridge ‘G’. That he had landed in the full expectation of finding support is evident from his account, which confirms how he had,
‘fully expected RSM Moss and the Reserve had safely settled themselves in and around the HQ building. We didn’t take long in coming up to the building and I went round to try to find an entrance. I don’t know who was the most surprised when on turning the corner of the building I literally bumped into a German. Before I realised who or what he was, his hands were up and he was jabbering fifteen to the dozen. I called up Tony Terry who asked him in German where he’d come from. He had just come out of this building which was a German HQ! Our HQ! “Were there any more of you inside?” “Yes”. “Well go in and tell them to come out with their hands up!” In he went, but almost at once the entrance to the building became very unhealthy. A quick-firing gun from a vessel in the inner Bassin had seen us and was firing at point-blank range – something like seventy yards away. We had to beat a hasty retreat under cover of the building. There was no sign of Moss and the reserve...
'The Headquarters area was a bit hot at this time – fire was coming from one or two vessels in the inner Bassin who were sailing backwards and forwards in the restricted area giving the dockside all they’d got. Two gun positions, on the roof of the U-Boat bunker and a tall building just by it [the ‘Frigo’] were bringing heavy plunging fire to bear all about us, and salvoes of shells from a battery on the south of the river kept on bursting overhead. At this time I was very relieved when TSM Haines and a party of the Special Task Group arrived on the scene. Haines had a 2” mortar with him with which he took on the gun positions on the U-Boat shed. His firing was grand, and for a while the firing stopped from the enemy guns.' (Lieutenant Colonel A C Newman, VC: unpublished narrative)
Condsidering the strength of the parties which should by now have landed at the Old Mole, the lack of clamour from the Old Town area was ominous: however, until such time as physical links could be established with other groups, Newman must fight on in a communications vacuum compounded by his failure to establish contact with anyone over the airwaves. Just as was the case with Copland, Newman had his own signals expert in the form of Sergeant Ron Steele, who throughout the action on shore had been switching his set alternately from ‘Call’ to ‘Receive’ in hopes of raising Copland, Ryder – anyone: but it was hopeless. The sets so carefully ‘netted in’ prior to departure, were dead and would remain so. Curtis having brought the gunboat alongside the northern wall of the Old Entrance, where she would shortly be joined by both the MTB and the out-ofsequence ML262, she immediately became the focus of attention for sailors and wounded who had got off over the destroyer’s bow. Ryder describes how, as they berthed,
‘the remaining survivors of Campbeltown’s crew rushed on board. I looked for some of her officers but could find none. Someone told me that the Captain and First Lieutenant had been killed but I doubted that and climbed on to the jetty to investigate. As I did so MTB74 came in and reported for Orders. I had in mind sending [Wynn] to torpedo Campbeltown if plans there had appeared to miscarry and so told him to wait alongside.
'Some very badly wounded men were carried down as I came up the steps and a grenade or fuze fell between the gunboat and the jetty and burst close to me. The decks were crowded and it wounded one or two men. There was a sinister burning smell and for a moment I was afraid that our ship was on fire. It soon cleared, however, and I continued on my way to Campbeltown.
'A challenge from a crouching figure with a Tommy gun halted me abruptly. I gave the password, which was my own name, and was permitted to continue. I reached the side of the dock entrance and hailed the Campbeltown, but all seemed quiet. There was a small fire burning still in the fo’c’s’le mess deck. The ML [177] we had sent alongside her had shoved off and there seemed to be no sign of life. I stepped forward and hailed again but was greeted by a burst of fire which I imagined came from one of the ships in the dock. It struck the masonry of a small hut close by me. I dodged behind the hut and watched Campbeltown from there for what seemed to be a good five minutes. Then to my relief I saw a series of small explosions along her port side and it sounded as if there were others on the further side too. The ship had ridden over the torpedo net and was firmly held by the bow. However, she started to settle by the stern and so I decided that everything was going to plan there. My next task was to see how the other landings were getting on.' (Captain R E D Ryder, VC., RN)
For Corran Purdon, whose target was the northern winding house, the disembarkation had been a relatively straightforward affair, over the bow where Tibbits and Gough were holding onto the ladders. Corporal Bob Hoyle had fallen into the smouldering crater in the foredeck, Corran recalling how:
We pulled him up, burnt, and he landed unperturbed and cheerful. The ladders were unsteady, and some of us, myself included, jumped most of the way down, stumbling under the weight of our heavy rucksacks as we landed. Our little party consisting of myself, Corporals Johnny Johnson, Ron Chung, Bob Hoyle and Cab Callaway, rallied together and made our way at a trot along the side of the dry dock towards our objective... Our rubber-soled boots were almost noiseless. We wore, for recognition purposes, webbing belts and anklets scrubbed white. En route Corporal Johnson was hit and wounded. We came to our winding house and found it had a heavy metal door. I tried unsuccessfully to shoot the lock in, then Ron Chung burst it open with a sledgehammer.
'Once inside, following the drill we knew so well, we laid our made-up charges and connected them up. Corporal Johnny Johnson, in great pain, showed a wonderful example of fortitude, determination and efficiency. The other three... were cool as ice and as cheerful as if on a holiday. When we were ready to blow, I sent Ron Chung across to Gerard Brett’s party to tell him we were ready when he was... Ron Chung ran across under intense fire, fully illuminated by the glare of searchlights. He returned after successfully completing his mission having found the area swept by a hail of bullets and he himself being hit.' (Major General C W B Purdon, CBE, MC, CPM: List The Bugle PP 33-4)
For Corran’s party there had been at least a semblance of shelter from enemy fire. But for the troops spread out along the caisson, exposure was the order of the day. With the loss of Pennington had gone any chance of assaulting Bridge ‘M’ and the Caserne des Douanes, the failure leaving that structure’s roof-mounted cannon untouched: and with the loss of Burn’s troops had gone the blocking position, east of the caisson, which had been designed to forestall enemy attacks from the main body of the shipyards. With the exception of Denison’s five-man protection squad, this immensely vulnerable area was therefore held only by demolition troops neither armed nor trained for the purpose.

The Campbeltown deeply embedded into the caisson. She was now a time bomb with a deadly cargo of high explosives ticking away deep inside her bows. Her service as a destroyer was over but final duty was yet to be completed.

The plan for the destruction of the caisson, whose formidable scale still inspires awe, involved placing explosives both outside and inside the structure, the latter to be achieved by entering its vast interior through hatches mounted proud of its upper surface. Unfortunately, with that same surface being used as a roadway, access proved to be impossible, every attempt to blow a passage through coming to naught.
Lieutenant Brett and his seven men from 12 Commando had been first upon the scene, joined later by Burtinshaw and his team from 5 Commando. With time speeding past, and attempts to force the hatches growing steadily more violent until such time as they were finally abandoned, attention then switched to creating as much external damage as could be achieved with the available resources. Corporal Bob Wright, who was still up with the party in spite of a shell splinter lodged in his knee, takes up the story, describing how he and Bombardier ‘Jumbo’ Reeves,
‘got up there, found the manhole – we were on the far end of the caisson, towards the oil tanks – and we then found that we couldn’t get the manhole cover up with whatever tools we’d got; and I shouted to Brett that we were going to use two limpet charges to see if we could shatter the top of this bloody big manhole...and...I detonated these charges and they never made any impact at all.
'By this time there was rifle, or machine gun, fire coming off the tankers in the dry dock: and Brett had been hit by then, because I went back to report that we couldn’t get down inside the caisson...and...he was propped up by the side of this crane very adjacent to where the caisson would have been drawn back. And I didn’t realise how badly he was hurt. And then he said: “Well can you get under?” Because you could get under the road: there was a gap where the road was carried over on a steel structure and you could get under and clamber about...and put the explosives wherever we could see anything that was vulnerable, and then take the fuze up to the ring main. And (after this) I made my way back...and scuttled under cover, and that’s where Blount was, and he’d been hit, and Burtinshaw had been wounded...’ (Sapper Corporal R E Wright: taped interview)
Although Burtinshaw’s arrival had effectively doubled their strength, the efforts of the caisson party were being constantly undermined by the volume of fire directed against them. Copland, who was passing at the time, has recorded how:
Fire of all sorts was pouring from the high buildings on the other side of the basin [the Douaniers complex], and the dock roads seemed light as day.’
The tanker crews had finally plucked up the courage to fire on the caisson; in addition to which the failure of the other parties to land had left the lightly-armed demolition troops at the mercy of enemy parties closing in on them from either side. The scene was later set by Sergeant Frank Carr, of Burtinshaw’s team, who in a letter to Stuart Chant described how:
‘We came under an extremely heavy attack with fire from...our rear, ships in the Penhoët Basin, from the east of the dry dock and also from a tanker in the dry dock. This was probably attracted by the firing of the charges by Burty in his attempt to gain access to the interior of the caisson. The laying of the charges, ring-main etc, for the outer demolition had been virtually completed when the attack came. It was so heavy we were forced to take cover briefly, Burty, myself and some others, under the decking of the caisson. We then nipped onto the dockside and engaged the tanker... with our pistols which as you can imagine was pretty ineffectual. The protection party silenced the tanker and we returned to our task. I never saw Burty again. After checking to make sure our ring-main had not been damaged, I tried to locate Burty and was told he had been killed and was alongside a nearby wall...
I suppose it could be said I took over at the time. I checked for damage. We then had another attempt to open the hatch, but without success. Time was passing and we should have been ready to ‘blow’. The fact that we could not complete the whole task caused some concern and I realised we would have to blow the underwater charges only. About this time a runner [Chung], arrived to say the winding house party was ready. I... removed the pins from the igniters. The resultant explosion...was heavier than intended because we had incorporated both parties’ charges. I then walked the caisson to estimate damage. I could hear running water at both ends and realised it was damaged, probably enough to move it on its seating.' (Sergeant F A Carr, DCM)
The blast from the direction of the caisson was the signal Purdon and his party had been waiting for. He writes that:
‘The noise of firing was terrific and the place continued to be lit up by searchlights and the fire of explosions. Gerard Brett’s party came through us having suffered heavily. Gerard, bady wounded, was carried by Corporals Bob Wright and [‘Fergie’] Ferguson. Once they were through and clear, from what we all hoped was a safe distance, I pulled the pins of our igniters. It was a memorable sight. The entire building seemed to rise several feet vertically before it exploded and disintegrated like a collapsed house of cards.’ (Major General C W B Purdon, CBE, MC,CPM)

Men of 5 Commando who were led by Lieutenant Burtinshaw. They fought a hard, last-ditch battle
With Burtinshaw, Sergeants Beveridge, Ide and William Ferguson, and Lance Corporal Stokes all having been killed, the remnants of the various northern parties came together close by a burning building prior to withdrawing to what they believed would be a waiting fleet of MLs at the Mole. Not included in this group was either Copland or the indomitable Micky Burn. Having by some miracle got across Bridge ‘G’, having avoided enemy parties and at one point suddenly woken up to the fact that he was absently carrying a live grenade with the pin removed, Burn had eventually arrived by the flak towers
‘I saw no one, not even the group detailed to wreck the ‘Normandie’ dock’s northern caisson, whom I was supposed to be protecting. There seemed to be no guns on the towers my group were to destroy, but I went up one to make sure, though I now had nothing to destroy them with. It was some thirty feet high and had sleeping quarters for a dozen soldiers at the top. I came down with several Reichswehr jackets and a vague thought that they might be useful; then
'I awaited Morgan and his group’s arrival to demolish the swing-bridge [M] to the mainland. Prowling round a pill-box at this far end of our battlefield, I had a sense of someone prowling on the other side. Colonel Newman had given us a password which few Germans could have got away with: “War Weapons Week”. I gave it and Bill Copland replied. He told me that our operation had succeeded... and it was time to begin withdrawal to the boats. He gave no news of Morgan’s group or the remainder of mine. After he had gone I waited a short while longer, then started to return the way I had come...’ (Michael Burn, MC, Turned Towards The Sun P 138)
As to Copland’s rather less lonely odyssey he and his party pressed on in the hope of finding someone to report on progress by Bridge ‘M’. But the only force present there was the enemy, whose fire continued to hound them as they attempted to return to Bridge ‘G’ via the Quai des Frégates. Finally driven from the main dock road, they;
‘doubled back and tried to get round the buildings. Twelve-foot walls barred our way and time was flying so I decided to chance the Basin road again. Bunching together, we ran and dodged from cover to cover and managed always to keep one jump ahead of the machine gunners...’ (Major W O Copland, DSO: unpublished narrative)
Having always had in mind the orders which required him to take charge of parties arriving at the Mole, Copland and his team had made good time, distancing themselves rapidly from Burn, Purdon and the parties still struggling at the inner caisson: in fact they were almost within hailing distance of Roy when, according to Copland:
‘Suddenly a roar of sound cracked into our ear-drums, followed immediately by a colossal burst of continuous yellow fire to our left rear. With relief I realised that it was the big Dock Pump House demolition going up and thought, “Good! that’s three jobs done – the Gate, Dock Operating Gate House and Pump House.” We pressed on towards the bridge at "G".’ (Major W O Copland, DSO)

A team of German technicians search the Campbeltown and
the explosion
Down in the area of the Avant Port, the blast, so long expected, still came as a huge shock to the clusters of prisoners either waiting under guard on the quaysides or landing from German ships. In one shocking instant they had been transformed, in their captors’ eyes, from the defeated remnants of a force whose losses were entirely out of proportion to the damage they had caused, into dangerous and unpredictable desperadoes who had sown who knows what terror in the buildings and waters around them. Beattie was in a dockside office having the futility of attempting simply to ram the massive caisson pointed out to him, at the very moment when the thunder of exploding Amatol tore the caisson from its seat and folded it back against the dry dock wall. The hopeful évadées, still hiding in drain and cellar, took heart from the aural evidence of success in spite of the fact that, by putting the Germans even more on their guard, it might well impact negatively on their attempts to escape. Everywhere attitudes changed, the mantle of victor slipping from German shoulders onto British ones – a reversal of roles which hardened attitudes towards both POWs and civilians alike.
Out in La Baule, where Watson had been ‘overjoyed to meet Johnny Roderick and Hoppy [Hopwood] again,’ news of Campbeltown’s belated eruption came in the form of loud shouting, which woke him from an exhausted sleep to find ‘their’ Germans had exploded too.
‘A small German petty officer was positively screaming with rage... telling us at the top of his voice that we were all going to be shot, and indeed the guards looked angry enough to do it there and then. We infuriated them further by our indifference to their threats. They did not appreciate that we were so physically and emotionally drained that being put up against a wall or shot where we lay was a matter of resignation rather than fear. In the event everything slowly calmed down.’
Watson’s account links this reaction to the realisation on the part of the Germans that they had made a grave, and uncharacteristic, error in assuming,
‘that the British would have gone to all that trouble just to scuttle an old destroyer which could be dragged off or broken up. The explosive was well concealed but the search party could have been more imaginative. It must have made then even angrier to realise that they only had themselves to blame. They should have assumed that the Campbeltown was a Trojan Horse.’ (Dr W H Watson MBE, MC, unpublished narrative)
Added to this was the fact that, directly as a consequence of their lack of thoroughness, the explosion had exacted a cost in lives which ran into the hundreds, this, tragically, including a number of women who had come to the area with their uniformed escorts. The various experts having, earlier that morning, inspected the ship and declared it safe, the burned and battered relic had quickly become ‘the place to be seen’, a magnet for the curious of all ranks who came from near and far to impress and to be impressed, and whose bodies were all but atomized in a single, shattering moment of time. The scale of the destruction was later recalled by an eye-witness, a French electrical mechanic who, on passing through the area on Monday en route to his place of work at Ressort 8, noticed how dazed and bewildered the German troops still seemed to be. He was able to see that the caisson had been destroyed: however, the most visible, and shocking, evidence of Campbeltown’s explosion was a litter of human remains so extensive that working parties had not yet succeeded in shovelling everything up.
In thrusting the caisson off its seat, the blast, which had torn Campbeltown apart from her forepeak right back to her midsection, had exposed the dock to the Loire whose waters flooded in, carrying the remains of the destroyer forward and ripping Schlettstadt and Passat from their moorings. Although damaged by charges placed earlier by the parties of Brett and Burtinshaw, the inner caisson held, preventing the even greater disaster of having the whole Penhoët Basin opened to the sea. Taken in conjunction with the destruction of the winding houses and Pumping Station, Campbeltown’s immolation had effectively sealed the fate of this one great facility which, had the Germans even bothered to try, would have taken at least a year and a half to repair. As it was, the evolution of German naval strategy saw all her major surface ships transferred to home waters, the collapse of the Kriegsmarine’s Atlantic dream removing all priority from the enormous effort involved. Once home to the mightiest of ships, the ‘Normandie’ dock was sealed off so as to restore the operational integrity of the Penhoët Basin. Left to moulder, it would remain, for Occupied and Occupier alike, an ever-present reminder that men of courage and determination had come once to Saint- Nazaire – and would surely come again.

The 'Normandie' Dock, looking toward the northern caisson.
Major Bill Copland, DSO, 2 Commando.

'Sergeant Challington had a Tommy Gun, so he was detailed off by Roy to cope with those, but his gun jammed and they got away.'

Thompson Sub-Machine Gun

A Commando loaded down with heavy equipment needed for the job.

Lieutenant Purdon, 12 Commando.

'... attention turned to Chant and his team of four Lance Sergeants from 1 Commando, now lost to view deep within the heart of the Pumping Station.'

Colt 45 – M1911 A1

'As the various explosions rent the night air they were music to the ears of Newman, trapped with only a handful of men in his small HQ enclave south of Bridge "G".'

A Commando armed with the Bren Gun. Many of the Commando raiders were heavily laden with explosives needed to blow up key objectives. Because of this they had to be lightly armed, making them reliant on the protection parties for cover and suppressive fire whilst placing their charges.

'In Copland's rear, Smalley was finding that the placing of charges is never quite an exact science... His small party had raced along the side of the camber only to find their access to the interior of the winding house barred by a stout steel door. Bombardier JOhnny Johnson having failed to shoot the lock off with his Colt, the prowling Lance Sergeant Gerry 'Tanky' Bright spotted a small window which they all got through...'

The twisted remnants of the northern winding hut blown by Lieutenant Purdon and his men.

'Fire of all sorts was pouring from the high buildings on the other side of the basin and the dock roads seemed light as day.'

German Kriegsberichter film the body of a dead sergeant believed to be George Ide.

'The protection party silenced the tanker and we returned to our task. I never saw Burty again.'

Casualty believed to be Sergeant Beveridge, 5 Commando.

Private McCormack suffers in silence whilst nursing a serious head wound
Two Commandos in a buoyant mood are escorted away during the round.

Lieutenant Stuart Chant (seated, facing camera) finds relief for his injured knees on the back of a flat bed truck.

'Fire of all sorts was pouring from the high buildings on the other side of the basin [the Douaniers complex] and the dock roads seemed light as day.'

Once the Campbeltown was deemed safe, souvenir hunters prowl her smoking hull.

'Everywhere attitudes changed, the mantle of victor slipping from German shoulders onto British ones...'

The aft half of the Campbeltown submerged in the Normandie dock, her mission accomplished.

'The most visible, and shocking, evidence of Campbeltown's explosion was a litter of human remains so extensive that working parties had not yet succeeded in shovelling everything up.'

An aerial photograph showing Normandie dry dock flooded and now useless to the German Navy.

'Normandie dock was sealed off so as to restore the operational integrity od the Penhoet Basin. Left to moulder, it would remain, for Occupied and Occupier alike, an ever-present reminder that men of courage and determination had once come to Saint-Nazaire – and would surely come again.'

Further Reading

(Paperback - 192 pages)
ISBN: 9781844153343

by James Dorrian
Only £12.99

In early 1942, shipping losses in the Atlantic threatened Britain's very survival. In addition to the U-Boat menace, there was real concern that the mighty German battleship Tirpitz be unleashed against the vital Allied convoys. Yet only the 'Normandie' Dock at St Nazaire could take her vast size in the event of repairs being required. Destroy that and the Tirpitz would be neutralised. Thus was born Operation CHARIOT, the daring Commando raid that, while ultimately successful, proved hugely costly. Using personal accounts, James Dorrian describes the background and thrilling action…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

The 'Normandie' Dock, looking toward the northern caisson. Portions of Campbeltown remain long after the raid. (Collection: Ecomusee de Sainte-Nazaire)

Further Reading

Storming St Nazaire
(Paperback - 304 pages)
ISBN: 9780850528077

by James Dorrian
Only £14.95

The year 1942 opened on the note of virtually unrelieved gloom. Things were already bad enough in Europe; then in February, came the fall of Singapore and few had the foresight or optimism to share Prime Minister Churchill's view that ultimate victory was inevitable from the moment the Americans entered the war. Perhaps the greatest threat to British survival lay in the North Atlantic where shipping losses had reached crisis point, and the most formidable manifestation of that threat was the might German battleship Tirpitz, at the time sheltering in…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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