HMS CAMPBELTOWN

There are those who say that you can never teach an old dog new tricks. Obviously they have never heard of the gallant HMS CAMPBELTOWN, a superanuated destroyer which, in the deep twilight of an otherwise undistinguished career, still managed to bring her very own version of 'shock and awe' to the supposedly impregnable U-Boat base of St-Nazaire, France.

Constructed for the US Navy by the Bath Ironworks, of Bangor, Maine, she, as DD131, the USS BUCHANAN, entered service way back in 1919, eventually being resuscitated in 1940 for service with an increasingly desperate Royal Navy, in the 1st Town Flotilla, as HMS Campbeltown. Chosen to be the 'explosive' ship at the heart of Operation CHARIOT because of her age, unreliability and general expendability, she, under the inspired direction of Lieutenant Commander 'Sam' Beattie, VC, RN, raised her game to the point where she performed faultlessly on the night, her success more than compensating for failures elsewhere.





Carrying her complement of Commandos both on the deck amidships - where they lay behind the dubious shelter of low, armoured, screens - and in the wardroom below, the old ship struck the outer caisson of the Normandie dock at 0134hrs on Saturday 28, March 1942. Just as the planners had intended, her bow crumpled back where it struck the face of the caisson, leaving the upper part of the foredeck to ride up and over the 9 metre wide caisson structure. Taking charge immediately, Major Bill Copland, shown above standing at the base of the bridge, rifle slung, ordered the assault parties off to port and starboard, while calling the waiting demolition teams up from below. Success rested with the shock and speed of the assault overwhelming the enemy gun positions which completely dominated the forward portions of the ship.

In this carefully researched painting by artist David Rowlands, you have a snapshot of a scene which must have struck terror into German gun crews still reeling from the realisation that an attacking force really had come up the supposedly impenetrable estuary. At the forefront are the kilted 'Liverpool Scots' of Captain Donald Roy's assault party who, racing across the shattered caisson deck, are tasked with destroying the two gun positions on top of the nearby Pumping Station: while on the other side of the bow Lieutenant Johnny Roderick's assault team are tasked with destroying all the gun positions to starboard. In view is a steel ladder held in place by Lieutenants Nigel Tibbits, RN ( in the dark uniform) and Christopher Gough RN (in the 'submarine smock') : neither man was destined to survive the night. To their left a bamboo ladder assists in the disembarkation, with Bren-gunner Fusilier Bill Mattison kneeling beside its upper rungs. Racing forward on either side of the 12-pounder gun, weighed down by heavy packs of explosives, are Lieutenant Gerard Brett's demolition party (to the right of the gun), and Lieutenant Corran Purdon's demolition party (to left of the gun). Lying on the deck at the feet of Purdon's party is the kilted form of the badly wounded Lieutenant Johnny Proctor.

In the top left corner of the painting can be seen the cannon atop gun position M70, while the horizon behind the ship is lit by the flames of burning Motor Launches. To the rear of the parties running forward is the armoured bridge structure - shown more clearly below. Having been pummeled by enemy fire of all calibres, the ship has become a floating collander, a heavy shell having exploded in the space immediately above the all-important demolition charge, causing the fire seen just to the right of the bamboo ladder.

Having, at the conclusion of a 400-plus mile trip through enemy waters, not only made it to the dock, but also succeeded in striking the caisson with absolute precision, Campbeltown had all but guaranteed success. All she had to do now, was blow up......

(Image courtesy of David Rowlands, who retains all copyright - www.davidrowlands.co.uk)






The above image, courtesy of the family of Captain Robert Ryder, VC.,RN, shows the Campbeltown as her extensive refit neared completion prior to the raid. The screen shown immediately below the bridge structure is where 'Major Bill' Copland took station during the final run-in to target allowing him to supervise the fire of both the ship's 12-pounder gun, and Lieutenant Johnny Proctor's 3" mortars, to port and starboard of his position. Right of the screen, can be seen the open port-side hatch which, with its twin on the nearer side of the bridge, gave access to the main deck amidships, where the bulk of the Commando parties lay behind low armored screens. Given the weight of enemy fire to be expected once inside the estuary, the ship would be conned from the shelter of the armoured wheelhouse, whose narrow observation ports are clearly visible.




This image of Campbeltown's shattered starboard bow, is taken from the east side of the caisson, close to the position of 20mm gun position 66.  Evidence of the fire on the fo'c's'le is obvious, as is the degree to which the old destroyer's bow rode over the massive structure of the caisson, placing her 4.25-ton charge right next to the caisson face. Visible left of picture is the screen of the 12-pounder gun, whose warped barrel is now on display by the Monument du Commando on the St Nazaire seafront: and immediately beyond is the bulk of the Pumping Station, whose roof-top 20mm cannon were ideally placed to rake the destroyer's decks as she came steaming in from the direction of the Mole. These were the priority targets of Captain Donald Roy's Assault Party, disembarking under heavy fire over the port side of the bow.





Adapted from a profile by Al Ross, this is the old ship with two of her four funnels removed, and the two remaining funnels cut back in the style which it was hoped would fool the defenders. The Oerlikon gun platforms were mounted high on the topside and were therefore particularly exposed to enemy fire. Commando parties lying prone on the deck amidships had no protection from the splinters caused by enemy shells striking the structures high above them.



THE 'LEGEND' OF ST-NAZAIRE
A particular myth surrounding Campbeltown's explosion and the failure of the Germans to discover her hidden charge, still appears quite regularly in accounts of the raid. The story is that the Germans were fooled into believing the ship was 'safe' by two Commando Subalterns who allowed themselves to be taken on board the ship for questioning even though they knew they would inevitably die when she blew up. It is, without doubt, a particularly appealing story: however, records exist which account for the place, time and fate of every fallen officer - and none died directly as a consequence of the ship's destruction. The 'legend' appeared in C.E. Lucas Phillips' 1958 account of the raid in which he describes it as a 'persistent French legend', concluding finally, however, that 'there is no positive evidence'. Perhaps it should be borne in mind that visitors to the apparently harmless hulk could have included both members of the Organisation Todt, whose uniform could easily have been mistaken for British khaki, and also U-Boat personnel some of whom wore adapted British battledress captured during the retreats of 1940.