The Raid on Saint Nazaire

Posted on Friday 13th November 2015

A new release on DVD from Battlefield History TV and Pen and Sword Digital, The Saint Nazaire Raid is the most complete analysis of the epic Saint Nazaire Raid available. Shot on location with the help of extensive veteran testimony, leading experts on commando operations and combat experienced soldiers, the lid is lifted on the complex antimony of the Raid and the team marvel at the heroism of the Royal Navy and the Army Commandos.
The commandos were formed in the dark days of June 1940, in the words of Winston Churchill ‘…to shake off the intolerable shackles of the defensive’. From small, rather amateurish beginnings, the pin prick raids grew in ambition, in parallel with the skill and experience of the Army Commandos and Combined Operations HQ.
Following the sinking of the Bismarck in 1941, her sister ship the Tirpitz provided the single greatest surface threat to Britain’s maritime lifeline. The only dock that could take her on the Atlantic coast was the massive Normandie Dock at Saint Nazaire. Deny that dock and Tirpitz would be forced to run the gauntlet of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, in confined waters, to reach a home port.
Combined Operations considered bombing but the dual consideration of a lack of accuracy at the time and unacceptable civilian casualties, ruled out this course of action. The dock was, however, six miles up the well defended Loire Estuary, with shifting sandbanks for much of its length; there seemed to be no way to attack Saint Nazaire by sea. That was until a naval officer noticed that at high water during the strongest spring tides of the year there was just enough water to get across the banks but under the very noses of the German batteries many still considered it mission impossible.

HMS Campbeltown after conversion to look like a German destroyer, but still in Mountbatten pink.

Eventually a daring plan for a naval force to bluff its way up the estuary was formed. An old destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, was given up by the Royal Navy for conversion to look like a German destroyer. With her bow packed with explosive, she would ram and destroy the lock gates. Meanwhile, demolition experts from across UK commando units were busy training on similar docks in the UK, under the supervision of Royal Engineers. When they joined Colonel Newman’s Number 2 Commando at Falmouth they were told ‘We are going to do the sauciest thing since Drake singed the King of Spain’s beard’.
The five specialist demolition teams who would target the vital workings of the dock would travel aboard Campbeltown, while the remainder of the 170 commandos would sail on Royal Navy motor gun boats and motor launches. Landing at various points around the docks these protection parties were to fan out and keep the Germans at bay as well as destroy other facilities such as lock gates that would hamper submarine operations out of Saint Nazaire.

Map: The Loire Estuary.

On the night of 27/28 March 1942, despite close encounters with German destroyers, the force started to move up the channel and across the sandbanks. They were soon spotted by the Germans but a combination of the lookalike craft and responding to challenges using correct German codes, the force bluffed its way to within a mile of the dock. Then the fully alert Germans opened fire and deluged the craft with fire. Despite being raked by high explosive Lieutenant Commander Beattie on the bridge of Campbeltown directed the ship into the lock gates with a sliding crunch. Beattie looked at his watch, with tracer cracking around him calmly said ‘There we are, two minutes late’.
The demolition teams dashed onto the dockside and on to their objectives suffering casualties as they went but the vital pump and winding houses went up with a series of detonations. The remainder of the commandos aboard wooden craft were, however, suffering greatly from enemy fire; some got ashore and headed for their objectives, while some ended up in the water when their craft caught fire.
Map: The main Normandie Dock demolition targets.

With the main targets demolished, Commander Ryder having satisfied himself that the Campbeltown was firmly stuck in place on the dock gates and with the Germans rapidly increasing in number, it was time to withdraw. Captain Bob Montgomery enquired if he should ‘head for the boats?’ ‘Look Bob’ was the reply – the Estuary was covered with burning craft and fuel. They would not be going home that way!

HMS Campbeltown in position on the dock gate.

The naval attack on Saint Nazaire docks.

Colonel Newman’s solution was to rush the bridges, escape into town, lie-up until the following night and then head for Spain. Breaking out from the docks the commandos escaped through gardens, over walls and into houses, as German search parties hunted them down. Only a handful escaped. But as the Germans were triumphantly rounding up and questioning the prisoners to the joy of the commandos, Campbeltown exploded destroying the outer lock gates completing the operation to deny the dock to the Tirpitz.

1943 – The dock after pumping out and the removal of much of the wreckage, except Campbeltown's stern. The Normandie Dock remained out of commission for the remainder of the war.

Only 228 of the 622 sailors and commandos returned to the UK. The remainder were killed or prisoners but the heroism of the force was rewarded with no less than 89 honours and awards, including five Victoria Crosses.

Lieutenant Colonel Newman VC, commander of the shore raiding force.

'Despite being raked by high explosive, Lieutenant Commander Beattie on the bridge of Campbeltown directed the ship into the lock gates with a sliding crunch... Beattie looked at his watch, with tracer cracking around him, he calmly said, "There we are, two minutes late".'

Lieutenant Commander Beattie VC, Captain of Campbeltown.

Commander Ryder VC, Naval and overall commander.

'Only 228 of the 622 sailors and commandos returned to the UK. The remainder were killed or taken prisoner but the heroism of the force was rewarded with no less than 89 honours and awards, including five Victoria Crosses.'

Able Seaman Bill Savage, posthumous VC. Pom-pom gunner aboard one of the motor launches.

Sergeant Tommy Durrant, posthumous VC, Lewis gunner aboard ML 306. He was recommended for the VC by the captain of the German destroyer, Jaguar.

Taking it Further

Special Operations: The Saint Nazaire Raid
ISBN: 5060247620893

Only £16.99

Building on the success of various Commando Raids during 1941, Headquarters Combined Operations moved up the scale of size and complexity by electing to attack and deny the only dry dock that could take a German battleship for repairs, the Normandie Dock at St Nazaire on France's Atlantic coast. The problem was that the port was miles up an estuary that was well defended by the Germans. To deliver an explosive charge big enough to demolish the massive lock gates, an old ship HMS Campbeltown was converted to look like…
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