The Greatest Raid
Saint-Nazaire, France, March 28, 1942

They 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 Station)

 HMS Campbeltown steaming towards her target under punishing fire: MGB314 in the foreground. © Ross Watton


During 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 title 'Rangers'.

A wholly 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 men, 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.

Having 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.

Small 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.

Representing 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 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.

Prior 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.

Already 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.

Key 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.

In 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.

'Storming 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 -

'Saint-Nazaire: Operation Chariot - 1942'  is a much more heavily illustrated battlefield guide, highlighting personal accounts of the raid and including a
detailed walking tour of the battle area. It also contains information designed to assist visitors both to Saint-Nazaire and to the surrounding area (hotels; driving in France; museums; maps, etc)  (224pp: some illustrations in colour) -

As 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 -  I am a member both of the St Nazaire Society, and of the Commando Veterans' Association.



About the author                         Storyboards                              The 'Normandie' dock            
The Army CommandosThe U-Boat PensHMS Campbeltown
The Old EntranceThe Old MoleThe South Entrance
Saint-Nazaire in 1942The 'Little Ships'Roll of Honour 
Escoublac la Baule War CemeteryThe 'Chariot' Memorial Micky Burn feature documentary
A record five Victoria CrossesLinks/Sources/Media'Tirpitz' - the real story

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