The 'Little-Ships'

The original plan of attack proposed by Mountbatten's Combined Operations staff envisaged the use of two specially lightened destroyers. One of these, whose bow would be packed with explosives, would ram the outer gate of the 'Normandie' dry dock, while the second, having acted as escort on the way in, would carry off the crew of the ramming ship PLUS the survivors of both ships' Commando complements once these had completed their assault and demolition tasks on shore.

Seen by Combined Ops as the most efficient solution to the problem of knocking out St Nazaire's great dock, this plan fell foul of the Admiralty's desperate need of convoy escorts, and it was only with great difficulty that even the ramming destroyer was secured, leaving the slack to be taken up by much smaller and more vulnerable ships of His Majesty's Coastal Forces.

To ensure sufficient deck space, a total of eighteen 'Little Ships' would take part in the raid, sailing into action in two columns between the heads of which would be the old destroyer HMS Campbeltown. The force would include a 'headquarters' gunboat and a specially adapted MTB: however, the bulk of the number would consist of sixteen 65-ton wooden-hulled 'B'-type Fairmile Motor Launches normally used for patrol, escort or anti-submarine duties, and entirely unsuited to the role of assault ships. In considering the specifications given below, it should be borne in mind that these launches would be facing numerous potential adversaries easily capable of dealing them lethal blows. As well as enemy aircraft whose fire could penetrate their internal and deck-mounted petrol tanks, the estuary of the Loire was known to be defended both by powerful coastal artillery and batteries of light and medium flak. Patrol vessels were almost certain to be guarding the approaches to St-Nazaire, in addition to which Intelligence had identified the presence of a flotilla of enemy Torpedo Boat Destroyers in the immediate area of the port. Commanded by Korvettenkapitän Moritz Schmidt, each of these five steel ships - Seeadler, Jaguar, Iltis, Falke and Kondor - was capable of wreaking havoc should they ever engage with their heavy guns wooden MLs only a tenth of their size.  

Designed by the Fairmile Construction Company, the 'B's measured a mere 112' in length by 18' across the beam. In normal service they carried a crew of sixteen officers and men; however, for 'CHARIOT' that number would effectively be doubled by the inclusion of extra officers and ratings as well as by squads of up to fifteen Commandos. Normally armed with obsolescent 3-pounder Hotchkiss cannons forward, they would, for the raid, be re-armed with single 20mm Oerlikon cannons (this weapon being a personal favourite of Mountbatten's) forward and aft. Useful against aircraft and unprotected structures, these quickfirers would, however, prove wholly ineffective when faced with fortified German gun positions and blockhouses.

Eight of the MLs, numbers 298, 306, 307, 341, 443, 446, 447 and 457 made up the newly formed 28th Flotilla, whose units had as yet had little time to train as a formation. Four MLs, numbers 192, 262, 267 and 268 belonged to the 20th Flotilla, whose C.O., Lieutenant-Commander 'Billie' Stephens RNVR, would be responsible for all the 'B's in the 'CHARIOT' force. The remaining four boats, MLs 156, 160, 177 and 270 were torpedo-variants belonging to the 7th Flotilla: added almost at the last moment, these retained their original 3-pounders.

In all of these ships '...there was a preponderance of "Wavy-Navy" officers and "Hostilities Only" ratings. Thrown together in very close proximity, they shared the tedium of patrol and escort duties that were only very occasionally relieved by bursts of action. In the majority of cases wardroom and messdeck had a closer and friendlier relationship than would have been possible on big ships. Discipline was more democratic, people got to know each others' little ways, and in a well-run boat a "family" atmosphere could exist which enhanced rather than diminished the overall effectiveness of the crew.

'For the men themselves, the primary living and sleeping space was the messdeck, a large compartment with six folding bunks along each side, which occupied most of the forward third of the hull. Immediately aft of the messdeck was the messdeck lobby, a small open space approximately amidships, which contained the main access to the upper deck. Opening off the lobby were four small compartments; on the port side the Petty Officers' cabin and WC, the spaces reserved for the coxswain and engine-room chief; and, on the starboard side, the radio room and galley. Aft of these compartments was the engine-room containing two American 600 horse-power V12 Hall-Scott "Defender" marine engines, which could power the boat to a little over twenty knots. This particular compartment, which had the petrol tanks immediately behind it, was sealed off from the interior of the boat and could only be accessed from the deck above. Right behind the petrol tanks and occupying much of the after portion of the boat, were the officers' quarters, comprising a small wardroom and officers' pantry and WC. This portion of the hull was accessed from the upper deck by its own companionway. Right at the stern were a number of small storage spaces, the after magazine and the steering gear.

'The main deck itself was flat and open, forward and aft of the low superstructure which occupied the middle third of the space. The superstructure did not extend right across the full width of the deck, leaving walkways along either side which, for the purposes of "CHARIOT" were used as the mounting sites for rectangular auxiliary fuel tanks. The foremost portion of the superstructure contained the enclosed wheelhouse behind and slightly above which was the open bridge. Immediately abaft the bridge the deck was only slightly raised, this lowest portion of the superstructure containing the companionway to the messdeck lobby, the stubby funnel and the engine-room ventilators.

'As Modified for Operation CHARIOT the foredeck housed the bandstand mounting for the forward 20mm Oerlikon cannon, as well as its ready use ammunition lockers, while the after portion of the deck housed the second Oerlikon mounting, the depth-charges, where fitted, and the apparatus for making smoke which was situated right at the stern. In addition to the Oerlikons, some bridge-wings were fitted with studs on which could be mounted stripped-Lewis guns. Additional Lewis mountings, for anti-aircraft use, were to be found on the after part of the superstructure, or on the after deck.

'Of round-bilge construction, the Fairmile 'B's were capable of standing up to very severe sea conditions, although in certain circumstances they could roll and corkscrew mercilessly, as Newman's Commandos were soon to discover for themselves. Consigned to a dusty and forgotten corner of the Navy, the 'B's lived a solitary existence, seen by many only as a wartime necessity; coastal forces vessels were tolerated - no more. They were never taken as seriously as steel-hulled ships: however, as "CHARIOT" would show, their crews - who, unlike Newman's Commandos, were not given the option of volunteering for the job - would behave under fire in such a manner as to prove themselves more than worthy custodians of the very best traditions of the Senior Service.'

MGB 314, showing pom-poms forward and aft, and power-operated MG turrets amidships.

As for the remaining two 'Little ships', the gunboat was also a Fairmile - but this time one of the 'C'-class boats. 'Slightly shorter and narrower than the 'B'-type, her three supercharged Hall-Scott engines could power her to a sustainable 23 knots and a maximum speed of 26.5 knots. Wooden-hulled as were the 'B's, she was of hard chine construction, with her officers' accommodation forward of the crew spaces, and most of the after portion of her hull taken up by the engines and their petrol tanks. She was quite heavily armed, with a Vickers 2-pounder pom-pom forward, and a Rolls Royce 2-pounder semi-automatic cannon aft. Amidships on either side of the deck twin .5" machine guns were mounted in power-operated turrets and on the bridge there were .303 machine guns.'  ('STORMING ST NAZAIRE' p55)

The inclusion of the gunboat in a way only adds insult to the injury of the Admiralty's failure to supply the raiding force with suitable ships: for on the night the 314's surviving (forward) pom-pom transpired to be the only gun on the attacking side capable of dealing with the blockhouses on and around the Old Mole - which begs the obvious question, why were more of her type not included? In his after action report her captain, Lieutenant Dunstan Curtis, comments that 'It was noticeable that the German flak positions ashore fired shot for shot with the Oerlikons of the 'B' MLs, but whenever MGB 314's pom-pom opened up on them..the German gun crews were either killed, or at least were made to keep their heads well down........If a flotilla of 'C' MGBs could have been employed, I believe the situation would have been very much more favourable for us'.  (I.W.M.)

And so we come to the tiny MTB74, whose inclusion in the raiding force arguably owes more to the perserverence of her captain, Sub Lieutenant Micky Wynn, than to any great utility she might offer on the night. Essentially a Vosper 70-footer, she was in fact a one-off adaptation specifically created to attack the battle-cruisers, then in Brest, by speeding up to the ships' protective anti-torpedo nets and firing special demolition torpedoes (whose motors had been replaced by additional explosives) over them from tubes mounted high on her fo'c's'le. Her job, during 'CHARIOT' was to fire these delayed-action torpedoes at the inner 'Normandie' caisson, should the dry dock be open to the Loire, or at the outer caisson should Campbeltown fail to reach her target. In the event she was ordered to lay her torpedoes against the gates of the Old Entrance lock where their greatly delayed explosion precipitated a violent German response against what they believed must be 'terrorists' in hiding. The MTB herself, after taking on board a full complement of survivors from Campbeltown, was later destroyed in the estuary with great loss of life.

MTB 74: (John Lambert/Vosper Thorneycroft UK Ltd)

A total of six troop-carrying MLs from each column had been tasked to come alongside at both the Old Mole and in the Old Entrance. Tragically they met a wall of defensive fire from which few emerged unscathed with vessel after vessel being shot to pieces and left to burn to the waterline amidst flaming pools of petrol. Of the seventeen wooden boats to stage an attack only three would make it back to Falmouth. The cost of sending such 'Little Ships' to St-Nazaire would be bitter indeed.

(With the exception of comments attributed to Dunstan Curtis, all material quoted on this page is taken from 'STORMING ST NAZAIRE', and is copyright)