St Nazaire: The Old Mole

The Old Mole was a primary target on the night of the raid - firstly as the landing point for the six troop-carrying Motor Launches of Captain Bertie Hodgson's GROUP 1; and secondly as the position from which all surviving raiders would withdraw upon completion of the action on shore. Looking due East, this photograph shows both the raised platform upon which had been constructed two blockhouses, and the low walls which gave cover to defenders on the night. To give some idea of the volume of fire being directed at boats trying to land on the slipway left of  picture, the far shore of the estuary was the position of the 809th Marine Flak Battalion, whose quick-firing cannon had an unobstructed field of fire across the narrowest portion of the estuary.

Saint Nazaire, 1942, showing structures most of which were later destroyed by Allied bombing

The above images show only too clearly how the Mole offered immediate access to the whole southern portion of the battlezone - always assuming it could be captured and held. Clearing the Avant Port and Old Town were precursors to the destruction of the various crossings which, if successfully blown, would turn the New Entrance lock into a protective moat, isolating defensive forces on the far quays, and providing a secure assembly area for withdrawing Commandos.

This tranquil view of the slipway, with sightseers on the Mole above, is a world apart from the scene which met the approaching launches on the night. Picture it with two tall blockhouses (shown below) dominating the walkway above right- with fire pouring in from guns both on the town side of the estuary and from the far shore; with German troops high on the Mole platform tossing grenades down onto decks crowded with sailors and Commandos, many of whom were, by this time, already wounded; with tracer flashing through the darkness to blast splinters from the walls above; and with boats already aground and on fire in the deceptively shallow approaches. Also see below the full extent of the structure, without the foreshortening effect of photos taken directly along its length.

In the reconstruction below, the addition of the blockhouses can be seen to render the Mole virtually unassailable from the sea - which begs the question why, in the planning, was the frontal attack not coordinated with an assault from the rear, utilizing troops scheduled to land in the Old Entrance? With 'bunker-busters' such as the PIAT still some way from entering service, the solidity of these two structures also demonstrates a primary failure in the make-up of the attacking force, which was the lack of any cannon capable of taking them out. Lieutenant Dunstan Curtis, CO of the only gunboat present, made no bones of criticising the failure to include more of these agile, powerfully-armed, 'C' -Type vessels, having noted how the gunboat's single surviving pom-pom was so much more effective in 'keeping the Germans heads down' than the ML's Oerlikons or 3-pounders. On the night, even a half-flotilla of gunboats offering mobile fire support where needed, could have made an enormous difference to the outcome of the raid. 

While most activity on the night took place on and around the slipway, the tragedy of ML192 should not be forgotten. Hit early on this, the first ML in the Starboard column, was set ablaze and, with engines knocked out, sheered across the column heading for the slipway, to crash into the portion of the Mole's southern face shown below. Clearly visible are the narrow steps upon which were cast those fortunate enough to abandon ship over the ML's stern. Amongst this group was Captain Micky Burn, leader of the Commandos making for the Old Entrance, who took to the water, began to sink and was fortunate indeed to be dragged to the surface by the wounded Lance Corporal Arthur Young. Although half-drowned and subsequently wounded several times by small-arms fire from the blockhouses, he nevertheless managed to reach his assigned target area almost a kilometre to the north. In his account of the action, Micky notes how, while the survivors were struggling to reach safety on the narrow steps, fire from approaching MLs was slamming into the face of the Mole, sending granite splinters everywhere. Although not visible in these photographs, the whole southern face of the structure is pock-marked by Oerlikon fire - particularly so in the area of blockhouse 63.