Operation Chariot

This was a British combined naval and special forces assault planned by Vice Admiral the Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Headquarters against the docks and naval base at St Nazaire on the west coast of German-occupied France (28 March 1942).

Otherwise known as the St Nazaire Raid, ‘Chariot’ was a successful amphibious attack on the heavily defended Forme Ecluse at St Nazaire on the west coast of German-occupied France, and was undertaken by the Royal Navy and commandos under the auspices of the Combined Operations Headquarters. St Nazaire was a target of singular importance in British minds as the destruction of its very large dry dock, created to accommodate the French transatlantic liner Normandie, would make it necessary for the Germans to send any large warship in need of major repairs, and most especially the battleship Tirpitz, to home waters rather than to an essentially safe haven on the Atlantic coast.

The ship selected for the operation was the obsolete destroyer Campbeltown, one of 50 elderly ‘four-stacker’ destroyers transferred from the USA in exchange for naval and air basing rights in British possessions in the western hemisphere. The destroyer was accompanied by 18 smaller craft, steamed across the English Channel to the Atlantic coast of France, and was rammed into the outer gate of the Forme Encluse dry dock. The ship had been packed with explosives, well hidden within a steel and concrete case, which were detonated later in the same day by delay-action fuses. The resulting explosion put the dock out of service for the remainder of the war (and indeed for 10 years after its end). A force of commandos also landed to destroy machinery and other structures. Heavy German fire sank, set ablaze or immobilised most of the small craft intended to transport the commandos back to England, so the surviving commandos had to fight their way out through the town in an effort to find an overland escape route. Surrounded by German forces who were superior in numbers and firepower, the commandos were forced to surrender after exhausting all their ammunition.

St Nazaire lies on the northern bank of the Loire river estuary some 250 miles (400 km) from the nearest British port, and in 1942 had an outer harbour known as the Avant Port, formed by two piers jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean, leading via two lock gates into the Bassin de St Nazaire, on whose northern side the Organisation ‘Todt’ labour corps had built nine U-boat pens and was in the process of building another five. The gates controlled the basin’s water level, rendering this independent of the tide. Farther to the east, beyond the basin, was a larger inner dock called the Bassin de Penhoët, able to accommodate ships up to 10,000 tons. There was another and older entrance to the Bassin de St Nazaire located to the north-west of the the Forme Ecluse Louis Joubert: this latter had been built in 1924/28 and completed in 1932 to accommodate the great transatlantic liner Normandie. Sometimes known as the Normandie Dock, this was 1,148 ft (350 m) long and 164 ft (50 m) wide, connecting at one end into the Bassin de Penhoët and entering the estuary of the Loire river at the other. The dock’s two sliding gates were each 167 ft (51 m) long and 35 ft (11 m) thick, constructed of hollow steel sections, and allowed water to flow between the Loire river estuary and the Bassin de Penhoët. The Old Mole was a jetty jutting into the Loire river estuary about mid-way between the long southern pier of the Avant Port and the old entrance into the basin.

On 24 May 1941, during the Battle of the Denmark Strait in the opening phase of ‘Rheinübung’, the German battleship Bismarck and heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen fought a gun fire engagement with the British battleship Prince of Wales and battle-cruiser Hood. Of the two British ships, the battle-cruiser was sunk and the battleship had to retire with substantial damage. Bismarck was also damaged, and Prinz Eugen was ordered to proceed independently while the battleship headed for St Nazaire, which was the only port on the Atlantic coast with a dry dock able to accommodate a ship of her size. However, Bismarck was intercepted and sunk or 27 May before she could reach St Nazaire.

This served to focus British minds still more closely on St Nazaire. The British Naval Intelligence Division had already proposed a commando raid on the dock late in 1941, and by the time the British became aware that Tirpitz, the sister ship of Bismarck, had become operational in January 1942, the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force were already drawing up plans to attack her. The planning staff of Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Headquarters was considering what could eventuate were Tirpitz able to escape the naval blockade and reach the Atlantic, and immediately appreciated that the only port large enough to accommodate the battleship was St Nazaire, especially if, like Bismarck, she was damaged and had to by dry-docked for repair. The planners therefore concluded that if the dock at St Nazaire was unavailable, the Germans were unlikely to run the risk of sending Tirpitz on a commerce raiding operation into the Atlantic.

Combined Operations Headquarters considered several possibilities while planning the destruction of the dock. One of the factors they had to bear in mind that at this stage of the war the British government was still attempting to minimise civilian casualties, all the more so in the occupied countries of Europe, and this ruled out a bombing attack as the RAF’s heavy bomber force currently lacked the bombing accuracy needed to destroy the dock without the loss of large numbers of French civilians. The Special Operations Executive were approached to see if its agents could destroy the dock gates, but the SOE decided that the mission was beyond its capabilities because the weight of explosives that would be required would need the involvement of too many agents merely to deliver them to the dock area. The Royal Navy was also unable to undertake a major shore bombardment effort as St Nazaire lies 5 miles (8 km) up the Loire river estuary, so any naval ships large enough to cause sufficient damage would be detected well before they were within range of their target, and would come under devastating attack from aircraft and coastal artillery batteries.

The planners then examined the possibility of using a commando force. There was an unusually high spring tide due in March 1942, which would allow a light ship to pass over the sand banks in the estuary and approach the docks, bypassing the dredged channel which, the British believed, would be covered by pre-registered artillery fire. It would still be too shallow for infantry landing ships, but specially lightened destroyers might succeed.

The raid that was then planned was based on the destruction of the Forme Ecluse, the old gates into the Bassin de St Nazaire together with the water-pumping machinery and other installations, and any U-boats or other shipping in the area. The initial plan was based on the use of two specially lightened destroyers. One of these was to be packed with explosives and rammed into the dock gates; the embarked commandos were then to be disembarked and use demolition charges to destroy nearby dock installations, searchlights and gun emplacements; the destroyer was then to be blown up. The second destroyer was then to come alongside and evacuate the first ship’s crew and the commandos. At the same time the RAF would carry out a number of diversionary air raids in the area.

This plan was presented to the Admiralty, which refused to support it one the grounds that the certain loss of one or possibly both destroyers was too great a matériel loss to bear. The Admiralty suggested instead the use of an elderly Free French ship, the destroyer Ouragan, and a flotilla of small motor launches to deliver and later evacuate the commandos. Initial approval for what was now ‘Chariot’ was given on 3 March 1942. Then consideration of the use of a Free French ship suggested that security might well be compromised by involving Free French forces and thus increasing the number of people aware of the raid. Finally it was decided that the Royal Navy would provide one of its own ships. The RAF complained that the raid would draw heavily on its limited resources, and thus the number of aircraft assigned by Air Marshal A. H. Harris’s RAF Bomber Command was reduced several times before ‘Chariot’ was launched, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill added further complication by ordaining that bombing should take place only if targets cold be clearly identified.

Combined Operations Headquarters co-operated with a number of intelligence organisations in the planning of ‘Chariot’: the Naval Intelligence Division compiled information from a variety of sources; the Secret Intelligence Service provided a detailed plan of St Nazaire; and the military intelligence branch of the War Office offered information on the German coastal artillery of the St Nazaire area. Information about the dock itself came from pre-war technical journals. The Royal Navy’s Operational Intelligence Centre chose the operation’s route and timing on the basis of intelligence about the known location of minefields and German recognition signals sourced from ‘Enigma’ decrypts and knowledge of Luftwaffe patrols compiled by the Air Ministry’s Air Intelligence Branch.

The final plan, complete with timings, indicated that the raid would last no longer than two hours to the point that the commandos and Campbeltown’s crew boarded motor launches at the Old Mole jetty for their return to the UK.

The definitive plan required one destroyer to ram the dock gates and a number of smaller craft to transport the commandos. The Royal Navy provided the largest contingent for the raid under the overall command of Commander Robert Ryder. The destroyer selected for ‘Chariot’ was Campbeltown (ex-US Buchanan), commanded by Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie. The conversion of the ship for its final task occupied 10 days and reduced the crew to just 75 men. The ship had to be lightened to reduce her draught so that she could pass over the sand banks in the estuary, and was achieved by completely stripping all her internal compartments. The dockyard removed her three 4-in (101.6-mm) guns, torpedo tubes and depth charge equipment, and replaced the forward gun with a 3-in (76.2-mm) light quick-firing 12-pdr weapon. Eight 20-mm Oerlikon cannon were installed on mountings raised above deck level. Armour plate was added to the bridge and wheelhouse to provide additional protection, and two rows of armour were fixed along the sides of the ship to protect the commandos on the open deck. Two of the four funnels were removed, and the forward two which remained had their tops cut at an angle to resemble those of the German ‘Möwe’ class torpedo boat. The bow was packed with 4.5 tons of high explosive in the form of 24 Mk VII depth charges enclosed in steel tanks and set in concrete. It was decided that the explosives would be set to detonate after the raiders had left the harbour. To prevent the Germans towing the vessel away from the outer gate of the Forme Ecluse, the crew were to open the ship’s seacocks before abandoning ship. Should the destroyer be disabled or sunk before getting to the dock, four motor launches had been detailed to take off the crew and put the commandos ashore. The charge would be reset to explode after the last boat had left.

There were several other naval units involved in ‘Chariot’. Two ‘Hunt’ class escort destroyers, Tynedale and Atherstone, were to accompany the force to and from the French coast and remain out at sea during the raid.

One motor gun boat, MGB-314, was the headquarters vessel for the raid, with Ryder and the commandos’ commanding officer on board. This boat was a Fairmile ‘Type C’ class unit, very slightly smaller than the motor launches but powered by three 850-hp (634-kW) engines and capable of almost 30 kt. MGB-314 was armed with one 2-pdr automatic gun forward, one 2-pdr semi-automatic gun amidships and two 0.5-in (12.7-mm) Browning heavy machine guns, and was also fitted with an indifferent radar system and a useful echo sounder.

One motor torpedo boat, MTB-74 under the command of Sub-Lieutenant Michael Wynn, was also included in the force. This boat was modified to carry special 2,200-lb (998-kg) delayed-action charges in her torpedo tubes, which were mounted higher than standard to allow them to fire over torpedo nets. Other than that the boat had five 0.303-in (7.7-mm) light machine guns. With three engines generating more than 3,500 hp (2610 kW), the boat was capable of almost 45 kt but consumed so much fuel that she would have to be towed most of the way to the target. MTB-74 and all the other motor boats were painted a special shade of purple, dubbed ‘Plymouth pink’, designed to make them less conspicuous to searchlights. MTB-74 had two tasks: if the outer gate of the Forme Ecluse was open it was to attack the inner gate, and if the outer gate was closed it was to attack the gates at the old entrance into the Bassin de St Nazaire.

To assist in transporting the commando force, 12 Fairmile ‘Type B’ motor launches were assigned from the 20th and 28th Motor Launch Flotillas. These boats were each 112 ft (34 m) long, powered by two 650-hp (485-kW) petrol engines and armed with two 20-mm cannon and two pairs of 0.303-in (7.7-mm) light machine guns, and in addition to its standard crew of 12 men also carried 15 commandos. At the last minute another four motor launches were assigned from the 7th Motor Launch Flotilla, and these four vessels were each additionally armed with two torpedoes, and instead of transporting commandos were to engage any German shipping found in the estuary. Each of the motor launches had a 500-Imp gal (2273-litre) auxiliary fuel tank fixed to the upper deck to increase their range. The ‘S’ class submarine Sturgeon was to leave before the rest of the force and be in position to act as a navigational beacon to guide the surface vessels into the Loire river estuary.

The officer chosen to lead the commando force was Lieutenant Colonel Charles Newman, whose own No. 2 Commando would provide the largest commandos contingent, of 173 men, for the raid. The headquarters of Brigadier R. E. Laycock’s Special Service Brigade also used the raid to provide experience for their other units, and 92 men were therefore drawn from Nos 1, 3, 4, 5, 9, and 12 Commandos. The commandos were divided into three groups: Groups 1 and 2 were to be transported in the motor launches, while Group 3 would be in Campbeltown. Under the command of Captain Hodgeson, Group 1 had the objectives of securing the Old Mole and eliminating the anti-aircraft gun positions around the southern quays, and was then to move into the old town and blow up the power station, bridges and locks for the new entrance into the basin from the Avant Port. The capture of the Old Mole was a major objective, as this was to be the embarkation point for the evacuation after the mission. Under the command of Captain Burn, Group 2 was to land at the old entrance to the Bassin de St Nazaire with the tasks of eliminating the area’s anti-aircraft positions and seizing the German headquarters, blowing up the locks and bridges at the old entrance into the Bassin de St Nazaire, and then guarding against a counterattack from the U-boat base on the northern side of the Bassin de St Nazaire. Under the command of Major William Copland, who was also the commandos’ second in command, Group 3 was to secure the area immediately around Campbeltown, destroy the Forme Ecluse’s water-pumping and gate-opening machinery, and also blow the nearby underground fuel tanks.

All three groups were subdivided into assault, demolition and protection teams, with the first clearing the way for the other two. The men of the demolition squads each carried 60 to 90 lb (27 to 41 kg) of demolition equipment, mainly explosives and cordex but also ‘tar babies’, sledgehammers and axes. Carrying so much kit, the men of the demolition squads were otherwise armed only with pistols for self-defence, while the men of the protection squads carried 0.303-in (7.7-mm) Bren light machine guns, 0.45-in (11.4-mm) Thompson sub-machine guns and grenades with which to protect the men of the demolition squads as they set about their tasks.

The commando planning was aided by the availability Captain William Pritchard of the Royal Engineers, who had pre-war experience as an apprentice in the Great Western Railway dockyards and whose father was the dock master of Cardiff Docks. In 1940, while part of the British Expeditionary Force in France, Pritchard had numbered among his duties an assessment of the manner in which French dockyards could be disabled if they were about to be captured by the Germans. One of the dockyards Pritchard had studied was St Nazaire, and he had submitted a report detailing how to put the dock out of action.

The German defences at St Nazaire were considered the strongest, after those of Brest, in western France, and were manned by some 5,000 men in and around St Nazaire. The port was defended by Kapitän Edo Dieckmann’s 280th Marineartillerieabteilung, which had 28 pieces of artillery, varying between captured French 75-mm (2.95-in) field guns to 280-mm (11.02-in) railway guns, for the protection of the coastal approaches to St Nazaire. The fortified artillery on the northern shore included four 150-mm (5.91-in) howitzers, four 170-mm (6.69-in) guns and four 75-mm (2.95-in) guns at Chémoulin, to the south-west of St Nazaire; four 88-mm (3.465-in) guns and 10 20- or 37-mm guns at Villès Martin closer to St Nazaire; and farther away at La Baule four 105-mm (4.13-in) guns and two 240-mm (9.45-in) railway guns. Across the estuary from St Nazaire were four 75-mm guns at St Gilda, another four at Le Pointeau, and 10 or so 20-mm cannon at Mindin.

The heavy guns were supplemented by the guns and searchlights of Kapitän Karl-Conrad Mecke’s 22nd Marineflakregiment, whose three battalions had 53 anti-aircraft guns ranging in calibre from 20 to 37 mm. These guns had twin capabilities as both anti-aircraft and light coast-defence weapons. Many were in concrete emplacements on top of the submarine pens and other dockside installations of the St Nazaire submarine base. In the immediate harbour area were some 30 single 20-mm cannon, two quadruple 20-mm cannon, and about 15 37-mm guns. There was also an auxiliary minesweeper and Flakship, the 996-ton Sperrbrecher 137, just off the Avant Port. Heavy anti-aircraft defences were also situated within the town. Radar stations were operating at Le Croisic and at St Marc, and all the German positions had searchlights.

Harbour defence companies were responsible for local defence and for the security of the ships and U-boats moored in the harbour. These harbour defence companies and the four small Hafenschützboote (harbour defence boats) used to patrol the river were under the command of the harbour commander, Korvettenkapitän Kellerman.

Generalleutnant Rudolf von Tschudi’s 333rd Division was the army formation entrusted with the defence of the coast between St Nazaire and Lorient. The division had no troops actually based within St Nazaire, which was a naval responsibility, but some of the division’s units were located in nearby villages and would be able to respond to any attack on the port.

Excluding U-boats, the German navy had at St Nazaire four torpedo boats which were at sea at the time of the raid, the four Hafenschützboote, Sperrbrecher 137 which was the harbour’s guard ship, one armed armed trawler and, on the night of the raid, the 10 minesweeping vessels of Korvettenkapitän Karl Marguth’s 16th Minensuchflottille and Kapitänleutnant Josef Bauer’s 42nd Minensuchflottille berthed in the basin. There were also two tankers berthed inside the Forme Ecluse. Kapitänleutnant Georg-Wilhelm Schulz’s 6th Unterseebootsflottille and Korvettenkapitän Herbert Sohler’s 7th Unterseebootsflottille were home-based at St Nazaire, but it is not known how many of their U-boats were present on the day of the raid. The U-boat base had been inspected by the commander-in-chief of the U-boat arm, Vizeadmiral Karl Dönitz, on the day before the raid, and he had asked what would they do if the base was attacked by British commandos, Sohler reply that an attack would be very dangerous and highly improbable.

The three destroyers and 16 small craft of the ‘Chariot’ undertaking departed Falmouth, on the south coast of Cornwall, at 14.00 on 26 March, and formed into a convoy of three columns, with the destroyers in the middle on a course which was initially to the south-west and then the south in a cruising formation characteristic of an anti-submarine sweep. On arrival at St Nazaire the motor launches of the port column were to head for the Old Mole to disembark their commandos, while those of the starboard column were to head for the old entrance to the Bassin de St Nazaire to disembark their commandos. Not having the range to reach St Nazaire unaided, the motor gun boat and motor torpedo boat were taken in tow by Campbeltown and Atherstone respectively. At 07.20 on 27 March Tynedale reported a surfaced U-boat and opened fire on it, and the two escort destroyers left the convoy to engage the U-boat, later identified as U-593. The U-boat promptly dived and was unsuccessfully attacked by depth charges before the two destroyers broke off and returned to the convoy at 09.00. Next, the convoy came across two French fishing trawlers, whose crews were taken off and the ships sunk lest they report the location and nature of the British convoy. At 17.00 the Western Approaches Command in Plymouth signalled the convoy to the effect that there were five German torpedo boats in its area. Two hours later another signal informed the convoy that another two ‘Hunt’ class escort destroyers, Cleveland and Brocklesby, had been despatched at full speed to join the convoy.

The convoy reached a position some 75 miles (120 km) from St Nazaire at 21.00 and changed course from south to north-east in the direction of the Loire river estuary, leaving Atherstone and Tynedale as an offshore patrol. The convoy now shifted into a new formation with the motor gun boat and two torpedo-armed motor launches in the lead, followed by Campbeltown. The other motor launches formed two columns on either side and astern of the destroyer, with the motor torpedo boat bringing up the rear. The raid’s first casualty was ML-341, which developed engine trouble and was abandoned. At 22.00 the submarine Sturgeon directed her navigation beacon out to sea to guide the convoy into the estuary. At about the same time Campbeltown raised the German naval ensign, a legitimate ruse de guerre, in an attempt to deceive any German lookouts into thinking that she was a German destroyer.

At 23.30 on 27 March, five RAF squadrons, totalling 35 Armstrong Whitworth Whitley and 27 Vickers Wellington bombers, started their bombing runs. The bombers had to remain at an altitude greater than 6,000 ft (1830 m), were supposed to remain over the port for 60 minutes to divert attention toward themselves and away from the sea, and were under orders to bomb only clearly identified military targets and to drop only one bomb at a time. However, thick cloud over St Nazaire meant that only four bombers attacked targets in St Nazaire, while six other aircraft managed to bomb other nearby targets.

The atypical behaviour of the bombers concerned Mecke who, at 24.00 on 27/28 March, issued a warning that there might be a parachute landing in progress. At 01.00 Mecke ordered all his anti-aircraft guns to cease firing and the searchlights to be extinguished in case the bombers were using them to locate the port. Everyone was placed on a heightened state of alert. The harbour-defence companies and ships’ crews were also ordered out of their air raid shelters. During this period a lookout reported seeing some activity out at sea, so Mecke began to reach the conclusion that a landing of some sort might be in the making, and ordered extra attention to be paid to the harbour approaches.

At 03.00 the convoy passed over the shoals at the mouth of the Loire river estuary, with Campbeltown scraping the bottom twice but on each occasion managing to pull free, and the convoy proceeded toward the harbour. The convoy had got to within about a passage time of only eight minutes from the dock gates when, at 01.22, it was illuminated by the combined searchlights of both banks of the estuary. A naval signal light demanded their identification, and MGB-314 replied with a coded response obtained from a German trawler boarded during the ‘Archery’ commando operation against Vågsøy off the coast of occupied Norway in December of the previous year. A shore battery fired a few bursts, and both Campbeltown and MGB-314 signalled that they were being fired on by friendly forces. This deception provided a couple more minutes before every German gun in the bay opened fire. At 01.28, when the convoy was only 1 mile (1.6 km) from the dock gates, Beattie ordered the German flag to be lowered and the White Ensign raised. The intensity of the German fire seemed to increase. The guard ship opened fire, but was quickly silenced when the convoy’s ships fired into it they passed. By now all the ships in the convoy were within engagement range of shore targets, and were firing at the gun emplacements and searchlights. Campbeltown was hit several times, and increased speed to 19 kt. The helmsman on the bridge was killed, and his replacement was wounded and replaced. Unable to discern anything with accuracy as he and the lookouts were blinded by the searchlights, Beattie knew that the objective was close. Still under heavy fire, MGB-314 turned into the estuary as Campbeltown cleared the end of the Old Mole, cut through anti-torpedo netting strung across the entrance and rammed the dock gates, striking home at 01.34 just three minutes behind schedule. The force of the impact drove the ship 33 ft (10 m) onto the gate, and the forward 40 ft (12.2 m) of the destroyer were completely crumpled.

Campbeltown’s commandos now swarmed off the ship as two assault teams, five demolition teams with their protectors, and one mortar group. Three of the demolition teams were to destroy the dock’s pumping machinery and other dry dock installations. Captain Donald Roy and his 14-man assault troop were tasked with destroying the to gun emplacements on the roof of the pump house high above the quayside and securing a bridge to provide a route for the raiding parties to exit the dock area. Roy and Sergeant Don Randall used scaling ladders and grenades to accomplish the former, and a head-on rush secured the bridge and form a bridgehead which made it possible for Captain Robert Montgomery and Lieutenant Corran Purdon to lead their demolition teams out of the area, though they lost four men as they did so. The fifth team also succeeded in completing all its tasks, but lost almost half its men killed.

As the men of these teams withdrew and headed for the Old Mole to re-embark, they finally became aware of how the remainder of the force was fairing. The 17 small craft had received less fire but were much more vulnerable. In the four minutes around the ramming by Campbeltown, eight of the motor launches had been destroyed in the channel. A few hits were often sufficient to set the motor launches on fire, and the crew and commandos had to abandon themselves to the water or Carley rafts, many being drowned of burned alive. Most of the eight craft destroyed suffered greater than 80% fatalities, and even on the surviving craft barely a single man escaped injury. In the dark and dazzled by the searchlights several boats overshot the harbour entrance and had to turn back through heavy fire to try and land their commandos.

Thus the other two commando groups were less successful as almost all of the motor launches transporting Groups 1 and 2 had been destroyed on their approach. ML-457 was the only boat to land its commandos on the Old Mole and only ML-177 managed to reach the gate at the old entrance to the Bassin de St Nazaire. That team succeeded in planting charges on two tugs moored in the basin. There were only two other motor launches in the vicinity: ML-160 had continued past the dock and was engaging targets farther up the river, and ML-269 appeared to be out of control and turning in circles.

By this time Campbeltown’s scuttling charges had been detonated and her cut-down crew had gathered at the stern to be taken off. ML-177 came alongside the destroyer and took on board 30 men including Beattie and some of the wounded. Copland went through Campbeltown and evacuated the wounded toward the Old Mole, not knowing that there were no other boats there to evacuate the commandos off.

There was no need for Newman, aboard MGB-314, to land, but he was one of the first ashore, and here he directed mortar fire onto the top of the U-boat pens, from which a German gun was causing heavy commando casualties. He next directed machine gun fire onto an armed trawler, which was forced to withdraw up the river. Newman organised a defence that succeeded in keeping the increasing numbers of German reinforcements at bay until the demolition parties had completed their tasks.

About 100 commandos were still ashore when Newman realised that evacuation by sea was no longer an option. He then gathered the survivors and ordered them to do their best to get back to the UK, not to surrender until they had used all their ammunition, and not to surrender until there was no other option but be killed.

Led by Newman and Copland, the commandos left behind were soon under increasingly heavy pressure as German forces moved into the dock area from about 02.00. After the withdrawal of the British naval craft, moreover, the German 20- and 37-mm guns also began to fire into the dock area. The British regrouped among the warehouses and, declining to surrender, at around 03.00 set off on a circuitous route to cross a bridge into the main town and then, they hoped, into the open country. Leaving a steady trail of dead and wounded, the commandos worked through the docks and charged the bridge, breaking through onto the Place de la Vieille Ville, but with barely one in four of the force uninjured. The commando breakout coincided with the arrival of regular soldiers and armoured vehicles, and the British were forced south into the town and then to look for cover as they came under increasing fire. After their vain attempt to get through the narrow streets and escape into the surrounding countryside, the surrounded commandos finally surrendered after using all their ammunition.

Most of the motor launches had been destroyed or very severely damaged on the run toward the target, and were still burning. The leading motor launch in the starboard column was the first boat to catch fire, and its skipper managed to beach the vessel at the end of the Old Mole. Some of the boats in the starboard column did manage to reach their objective and disembark their commandos. The leading boat in the port column, ML-443 got to within 10 ft (3 m) of the mole in the face of heavy direct fire and hand grenades before being set on fire, and its crew was rescued by ML-160, one of the torpedo-armed motor launches which had been looking for targets of opportunity such as the two large tankers reported to be in the harbour. The rest of the port column had been destroyed or disabled before reaching the mole. ML-192 and ML-262 were set on fire, and there were were only six survivors. ML-268 was blown up, only one man surviving. ML-177, the launch which had taken off some of Campbeltown’s crew, was sunk on her way out of the estuary. ML-269, the other torpedo-armed boat, had the unenviable task of moving up and down the river at high speed to draw German fire away from the landings. Soon after passing Campbeltown she was hit and had her steering gear damaged. It took 10 minutes to effect repairs, and the boat then turned and started in the other direction, opening fire on an armed trawler in passing. Return fire from the trawler set the boat’s engine on fire.

ML-306 also came under heavy fire on arriving near the port. Sergeant Thomas Durrant of No. 1 Commando, manning the after Lewis gun, engaged gun and searchlight positions on the run-in, was wounded but refused to leave the gun for treatment. The motor launch reached the open sea but was attacked at short range by the German torpedo boat Jaguar. Durrant returned fire, aiming for the torpedo boat’s bridge, was wounded yet again, but remained at his gun even after the German commander asked for their surrender. Firing drum after drum of ammunition, he refused to give up until the Germans boarded the motor launch. Durrant died of his wounds and, after the recommendation of the Jaguar’s commander, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

After the commando headquarters group had landed, Ryder went to check that Campbeltown was firmly stuck on the gate of the Forme Ecluse. Some of the destroyer’s surviving crew were being taken on board the motor gun boat. Ryder returned to the boat and ordered the motor torpedo boat to carry out its alternative task and torpedo the lock gates at the old entrance to the Bassin de St Nazaire. After it had made a successful torpedo attack, it was ordered by Ryder to leave. On its way out of the estuary its stopped to collect survivors from a sinking motor launch and was hit and set on fire.

Meanwhile the motor gun boat had positioned herself in mid-river to engage the German gun emplacements, and the fire of the forward 2-pdr gun resulted in an appreciable slackening of the German fire.

Ryder could see no vessels other than seven or eight burning motor launches, and then realised that the landing places at the Old Mole and the entrance to the Bassin de St Nazaire had both been recaptured by the Germans. There was nothing more that MGB-314 could do to aid or evacuate the commandos, and therefore headed out to sea. On its way it was continuously illuminated by German searchlights and hit at least six times by the German guns. Passing ML-270, Ryder ordered it to follow and make smoke to hide both boats. When the two vessels reached the open sea, the Germans’ smaller-calibre guns were out of range and stopped firing, but the heavier artillery continued to engage them. The boats were about 4 miles (6.4 km) off-shore when the last German salvo straddled them and killed Able Seaman William Savage, the 2-pdr gunner who was still at his gun and was later awarded the Victoria Cross.

At 06.30 Atherstone and Tynedale sighted the five German torpedo boats which the convoy had evaded on the previous day, turned toward them and opened fire at a range of some 12,000 yards (10975 m). After 10 minutes the German ships turned away and made smoke. Soon after this the two escort destroyers sighted the motor gun boat and two motor launches, which transferred their casualties to Atherstone. Not expecting the arrival of any more boats, the British vessels then headed for home. Just after 09.00 Brocklesby and Cleveland arrived, and soon after this the ships were spotted by a Heinkel He 115 floatplane of the Luftwaffe. The next warplane to arrive was a Junkers Ju 88, which was engaged by a Bristol Beaufighter which had appeared in the area earlier. Both machines crashed into the sea. Other German aircraft arrived, but were driven off by Beaufighter heavy fighters and Lockheed Hudson maritime reconnaissance aircraft of Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté’s RAF Coastal Command.

At this time the weather deteriorated and, in the face of the twin problems of the possible arrival of more German aircraft and/or ships and the realisation that the damaged small ships would not be able to keep up, Sayer ordered the crews off the smaller vessels and had them sunk.

ML-160, ML-307 and ML-443 did manage to return to England. They reached the rendezvous and waited until 10.00 for the destroyers to appear and then, having already been attacked once, moved farther out into the Atlantic to try and avoid the attentions of German warplanes. Even so, a Ju 88 appeared overhead at 07.30 and approached the three vessels at low level for a closer look. The ships opened fire and the Ju 88, hit in the cockpit, crashed into the sea. The next German aeroplane to appear was a Blohm und Voss flying boat, which tried to bomb the vessels but departed after being damaged by machine gun fire. The surviving motor launches eventually reached England on the following day.

Back in St Nazaire, the explosives in Campbeltown’s bow detonated at 12.00 on 28 March, and the Form Ecluse was effectively destroyed. Reports vary on the fate of the two tankers which were in the dock: they were either swept away by the wall of water and sunk, or swept to the far end of the dock but not sunk. Some 40 senior German officers and civilians who were examining Campbeltown were killed, and in total the explosion killed some 250 of the 360 Germans who lost their lives in ‘Chariot’. The wreck of Campbeltown could still be seen inside the dry dock months later when RAF reconnaissance aircraft were despatched to photograph the port.

On 29 March Organisation ‘Todt’ labourers were assigned to clean up the debris and wreckage. At 16.30 on 30 March MTB-74’s charges, which were on a long delayed fuse setting, exploded at the old entrance into the Bassin de St Nazaire. This raised further alarm among the Germans, and the Organisation ‘Todt’ workers, wearing khaki uniforms, ran away from the dock area. German guards, mistaking the uniforms for those of British soldiers, opened fire and killed some of them. The Germans also thought that some commandos were still hiding in the town, and in the course of a street-by-street search killed 16 French civilians and wounded another 30. Later 1,500 civilians were arrested and taken to the camp at Savenay.

The explosion put the Forme Ecluse out of commission until after the end of the war. The St Nazaire raid had been a British success, but only at considerable cost. Of the 622 men of the Royal Navy and Special Service Brigade who took part in the raid, only 228 returned to England. Five escaped overland via Spain to Gibraltar, whence they returned to the UK; 169 men (105 sailors and 64 commandos) were killed, and another 215 (106 sailors and 109 commandos) were taken prisoner. These last were first taken to La Baule and then sent to Stalag 133 at Rennes.

The achievement of ‘Chariot’ was recognised by the award of 89 decorations. These included the five Victoria Crosses awarded to Beattie, Newman and Ryder, and the posthumous awards to Durrant and Savage. Other decorations awarded were four Distinguished Service Orders, four Conspicuous Gallantry Medals, five Distinguished Conduct Medals, 17 Distinguished Service Crosses, 11 Military Crosses, 24 Distinguished Service Medals and 15 Military Medals. Four men were awarded the Croix de Guerre by France, another 51 were mentioned in dispatches.

Adolf Hitler was deeply angered that the British had been able to sail a flotilla of ships up the Loire river estuary without being spotted and destroyed before the ships could reach St Nazaire. His immediate reaction was to dismiss Generaloberst Carl Hilpert, chief-of-staff to Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’ and commander-in-chief of Heeresgruppe ‘D’. The raid refocused German attention on the ‘Atlantic Wall’, and special attention was given to the defence of ports to prevent any repeat of the raid. By June 1942 the Germans had started to use concrete to fortify gun emplacements and bunkers in quantities previously only used in U-boat pens, and in August 1942 Hitler laid out new plans in a meeting with Albert Speer, his armaments minister, demanding the construction of 15,000 bunkers by May 1943 to defend the Atlantic coast from Norway to Spain.

The battleship Tirpitz never entered the Atlantic, instead remaining in a number of Norwegian fjords to threaten Allied arctic convoys until she was sunk in the RAF’s ‘Catechism’ on 12 November 1944.