The Greatest Raid
Saint-Nazaire, France, March 28, 1942
seek no further glory for they are all dead. They lie in a cemetery of
La Baule, some 15 kilometres from where they died. A salt wind flies
over them. Not all of them are buried here for not all of them could be
found. Not all of them could be identified when they were found. Luger
and Schmeizer (sic) bullets, incendiary shells fired over open sights,
blazing petrol and the last shattering explosion had rendered some
unidentifiable. During the days that followed, many were picked out of
the eddies and currents of the tidal river. Tattoo marks on human skin
are usually too discreet to give a name and address. "I love Glad"
tells the undertaker little. The battle in which they died was
relatively small in scale. But it was successful - and costly. It was a
brief, bloody, savage, flaming, explosive incident that burst on a mild
March morning.... It was the raid on Saint Nazaire.'(Lieutenant
Colonel Stuart Chant-Sempill, OBE., MC., 1956. Stuart, as a young
Lieutenant led the party whose members destroyed the dry dock Pumping
'COMMANDOS' TO THE FORE
steaming towards her target under punishing fire: MGB314 in the foreground. © Ross Watton www.navalbroadsides.co.uk
the summer of 1940, when the military situation for Britain seemed
truly hopeless, a new force was created whose sole objectives were to
take the fight to the enemy, to keep him on his toes, and to
demonstrate to the world that, while the British might lack the
matériel with which to wage war on a Continental scale, they
would never be found wanting in respect of fighting spirit.
Known as the ARMY, as opposed to ROYAL MARINES Commandos, this
élite unit was to usher in the era of Secial Forces as we
know them today, its specialized - and extremely arduous - training
regimes so impressing the U.S. military heirarchy that they soon
brought into being their own 'Commandos' under the historic American
volunteer force, drawn primarily from 'Territorial' units, whose
'irregular' status meant that they were not hidebound by the strictures
imposed on 'regular' formations, the ethos of the Army Commandos
revolved around developing individual initiative to the point where
regardless of rank, would continue to strive towards an objective
whatever the odds against them. It is their particularly distinctive
contributions which so illuminate every facet of CHARIOT and
characterize the raid as so much more than just another relentlessly
military 'war' story.
developed the Army Commandos in the face of often bitter opposition
from traditionalists, the British could not, however, then agree on how
best they should be used, leading to a situation in which these highly
motivated individuals were consigned to apparently endless months of
training amidst the hills and moors of Scotland, while one operation
after another was planned for, then almost inevitably cancelled.
wonder therefore that when, in the early months of 1942 it was proposed
that they attack the supposedly impregnable submarine base of Saint-Nazaire with the object of deterring Tirpitz's Atlantic ambitions by ramming the explosive-filled destroyer HMS Campbeltown into the port's enormous Normandie dry dock, their overwhelming desire to get to grips with the enemy led them to embrace a plan which might just succeed in getting them as far as their objective, while offering almost no hope of ever bringing them home again alive.
as it does both the best and the worst that Britain had to offer in
those dark days - the best in respect of the quality and
enthusiasm of the young soldiers who could not wait to sail for France;
the worst in respect of the muddle and parsimony that saw them face the
enemy with no weapon more potent than their absolute determination to
win regardless of the cost - here is a poignant memoir both of a great
adventure stained by pain and loss, and of an era whose attitudes
and aspirations were soon to change forever.
THE PLAN OF ATTACK The
French Atlantic Port of Saint-Nazaire was one of a chain of German
U-Boat bases developed following the fall of France, in 1940. Where
once the U-Boats had been forced to run the gauntlet of the North Sea
in order to reach their patrol areas in the North Atlantic, now they
had free access and were causing havoc all along the vital convoy
lifelines, returning, usually victorious, to reinforced concrete
shelters whose massive strength rendered the flotillas immune from
Allied aerial bombardment.
The chain of bases ran from Brest, in
the north, through Lorient, Saint-Nazaire and La Pallice, to Bordeaux,
close to the Spanish border. Of these Saint Nazaire had long been a
target of interest, not only because it was being developed as home to
the 6th and 7th U-Flotillas, but because it possessed one of the
largest dry docks in the world. Originally constructed to house the
liner Normandie, which
ship was constructed in Saint-Nazaire's own yards, this dock, the
Forme-Ecluse Joubert (more commonly known as the Normandie Dock) could,
alarmingly, accommodate even the largest of Germany's battleships.
to 1942 several plans to attack the port from the sea had been
developed - then just as quickly defeated by the apparent impossibility
of overcoming both the port's geographical inaccessibility and the the powerful coastal batteries put in place by the Germans.
at the absolute limit for an attacking force wishing to spend no more
than one night at sea, Saint-Nazaire was also tucked deep inside the
estuary of the River Loire. As can be seen from my illustration below,
the apparent width of the estuary was severely restricted by shoals
whose extent required vessels to keep to a single, narrow, and easily
defended channel. From a German point of view security seemed assured;
which was exactly the opinion given by the Commander of the 7th
U-Flotilla to Admiral Dönitz during one of his visits to the
port - even as a British force was already at sea, the planning
staff at Combined Operations Headquarters having been driven by new
knowledge of the operational readiness of the powerful German
battleship Tirpitz, to consider even the most desperate of measures in order to render the dry dock inoperative.
to finding even the slightest chink in Saint-Nazaire's armour, was the
belief on the part of the port's defenders that no one would be stupid
enough to send ships into what was effectively a geographical trap.
However this assumption was predicated firstly on one's definition of
'ships' and secondly on the glaringly obvious need for such vessels to
remain within the confines of the heavily guarded deep-water channel.
Glaringly obvious to the defenders perhaps, but not to COHQ planners
belatedly aware that an upcoming high Spring tide would provide just enough depth
over the shoals to allow shallow-draft vessels to pass where no one
would think to look for them. A specially lightened destroyer, the old
USS Buchanan, now serving with the Royal Navy as HMS Campbeltown would
carry both the explosives needed to destroy the dock and a Commando
force tasked with destroying its ancilliary services; while an
accompanying fleet of Fairmile Motor Launches would carry a secondary
Commando force and, at the conclusion of all operations, carry their own
survivors and those of the Campbeltown back home.
'Operation CHARIOT', to give the raid its official designation, was
an ingenious plan, and German complacency might just allow it to work;
however, given the lightly-armed MLs' wooden construction, engines
fuelled by highly vulnerable tanks of high-octane petrol, and the
knowledge that every German battery would be in action against them as
they tried to withdraw, no one - least of all the Commandos - saw the
raid as anything but a one-way ticket to oblivion.
the ensuing pages, the plan, its logistics, the quality of equipment
provided, and the human consequences of undertaking a project so
unlikely to succeed will be highlighted. A much more rigorous
emamination can be found in my two books on the raid, whose text is
based both on official documents and on the very personal testimony of
the veterans themselves.
St Nazaire', is based largely on original
research. It was written in the mid 1990s with the full
cooperation of the
members of the St-Nazaire Society, the commemorative body
established by survivors of the raid while they were still 'guests of
the Reich'. With the Society's help I was able to contact almost all of the 100-plus
veterans then surviving, who provided me with a
wealth of material mostly in the form of taped interviews, but also
including comprehensive personal accounts of the action written in
previous years. These first-hand accounts were supplemented by material
sourced from the relatives of Commandos and sailors lost in action.
Many of these personal memories of CHARIOT are
contained in the text which therefore, instead of having to
describe the raid second-hand as is the case with more recent
volumes, uniquely and honestly reflects the
views and experiences of the actual soldiers and sailors who achieved
the impossible all those years ago. (304pp: illustrated) NEW edition released September 2012 - www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/?product_id=291
'Saint-Nazaire: Operation Chariot
- 1942' is a much more heavily illustrated battlefield guide, highlighting personal accounts of the raid and including a detailed
of the battle area. It also contains information designed to assist visitors
Saint-Nazaire and to the surrounding area (hotels; driving in France;
museums; maps, etc) (224pp:
some illustrations in colour) - www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/?product_id=818
well as writing about the raid, I have acted as programme
consultant for Jeremy Clarkson's television documentary 'The Greatest
Raid of all Time', and historical consultant for the DeCantillon Films
feature 'The Only One Who Knows You're Afraid'.
More recently I co-produced the film 'Turned Towards the Sun', the
story of the remarkable life of Michael Burn, a Commando captain
captured during the raid and later incarcerated in Colditz Castle, where he was one of the team who ran the secret radio - www.youtube.com/watch?v=XAZk5GoW33A I am a member both of the St Nazaire Society, and of the Commando Veterans' Association.