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Attack on St.Nazaire - Operation Chariot

Author : 🕔25.09.2002 📕44.400
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The first months of 1942 were some of the darkest in the history of England. Her troops were pushed out of positions on all battlefields. There were constant reports of retreats and defeats from North Africa, Burma or Malaysia. Britain's survival depended on supplies transported by slow and vulnerable convoys from the United States, which tried to slip through the lurking wolf packs of Dönitz's submarines. The submarine war culminated.

Convoys of merchant ships, already quite decimated by packs of German U-boats, found themselves facing another deadly threat, the battleship Tirpitz , which had moved from Germany to Norwegian waters at the time. This move north was the traditional first step on the voyages of German surface " corsairs " on their expeditions to the South Atlantic, where they were tasked with searching for and sinking Allied merchant ships. The British Admiralty still remembered the penetration of Bismarck into the Atlantic and the subsequent hunt in which it was forced to deploy all its ships. Therefore, it immediately began to take steps to eliminate and isolate Tirpitz in Norwegian waters.

It could be calculated very well that in the event that Tirpitz eventually reached the Atlantic Ocean and was damaged in its actions, there is only one place on the western French coast where the Germans could repair it. This place was a dry dock in the port of St. Nazaire on the Loire river. In order to rule out the possibility that the German battleship would dock if necessary, and to weaken the German interest in sending Tirpitz to the Atlantic, it was decided to destroy it in London. The difficult task of planning this operation was entrusted to the combined operations staff, which was led by Lord Louis Mountbatten . The dock was too small a target to be destroyed by heavy bombers. It was therefore quite clear that the " Normandy " dock, as it was called, could only be destroyed by dropping a special unit from the sea and using several tons of explosives. The planned operation received the code name Chariot .

Aerial view of the entire port


Dry dock in St. Petersburg Nazaire was the largest in the world, more than 420 meters long and over 50 meters wide. It was originally built to maintain the huge French transatlantic steamer Normandy. The dock was connected to the mouth of the Loire River, from which it was separated by a massive gate. In order for it to be taken out of service, it was enough to blow up this gate and the Loire River will complete the work of destruction on its own.

Aerial shot of a dry dock

Lord Louis Montbatten's combined operations staff set to work immediately. From the very beginning of the event planning, the activities of the entire staff were characterized by great optimism bordering almost on gambling. An old ship with several tons of explosives in the bow was to be used to undermine the dock. The ship will be guided to the gate of the dock into which it will hit, and the timing device will detonate the charge at the appropriate time. For this purpose, HMS Campbelltown ( ex. USS Buchanan ) was selected, one of fifty destroyers that the US left to Britain in exchange for naval bases in the Western Atlantic and Caribbean. It is very likely that by choosing this particular ship, the English tried to tell the Americans what they thought of the obsolete destroyers they had received from them in 1940, at a time when England had no choice but to need a destroyer.

A specially lightened destroyer with a bow filled with 4.25 tons of explosives was to dominate two groups of motor ships acquired from the Royal Navy coastal forces.To attack a number of targets on shore, numerous units of well-trained commandos were to be deployed on board ships. To make it more difficult for the Germans to identify, the appearance of the Campbelltown destroyer was adapted to that of the German Möwe-class torpedo boat. Modifications were also made to the ship's internal structure to accommodate several tons of explosives. It was placed on the bow of the ship so that the center of the explosion was as close as possible to the gate of the dry dock. Thanks to the intelligence service, the attacking units were able to use recognition signals to identify ships used by the Germans.

HMS Cambletown during adjustments for the attack on St.Nazaire

Campbelltown was to be accompanied by sixteen speedboats; twelve of them occupied by members of the commandos strike units, belonging to the units of Commando No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 9 and 12, who, after entering St. The Nazaire were to disembark at designated locations and destroy as soon as possible other important equipment used to operate the dock, such as pumps, compressors, and the like. The remaining four torpedo boats will attack with torpedoes on any German vessel that would stand in the way of the small fleet. In order not to leave anything to chance, another group of motorboats with a special mission to torpedo the dock gate was added to the group in case anything happened to Campbelltown and he could not complete his task.

The combination of all these elements gave hope that the attacking units had a good chance of penetrating the mouth of the river unnoticed. The " German " appearance of the leading destroyer as well as the low silhouettes of the other ships were to surprise and deceive the German defense even more. The convoy of attack ships was to approach St. Nazaire at the moment of the raid of RAF bombers, which will carry out a diversion raid on the port to divert the attention of coastal batteries from the mouth of the river and to gain as much time as possible for the approaching convoy.

It all looked very promising, but only on paper. The list of serious critical remarks was long. In order for the units to try to penetrate the port unnoticed, they first had to sail unnoticed to the mouth of the river. This involved making a 400-mile journey in waters completely controlled by the German Air Force.

Other problems arose during a detailed analysis of the destroyer's own impact on the dock gate. The destroyer had to be lightened enough to maneuver freely near the shoals around the harbor. Therefore, all larger caliber cannons had to be removed from the destroyer. Also, part of the superstructures had to be removed to get a foot or two under the ship's keel. And only a dangerously large amount of fuel on board! Overall unsuitable for the task, such as this, weakly armored, almost unarmed and slow, the destroyer was to operate far beyond its normal range of action. He was normally exposed to the danger of a diesel fire in his bowels, but for this action he was forced to place on his unprotected deck more barrels with hundreds of gallons of diesel.

The group, freed from the heavy artillery of the destroyer, had no weapons that could jeopardize German firing positions on the coast. For a possible encounter with German patrol vessels at the mouth of the river, two motor boats equipped with torpedo tubes were placed at the top of the small fleet.

During the initial debates, targets were selected for the attack of commandos, which were closely related to the large dry dock. They were pumps, compressors, caissons and the like. And it was these that required a large amount of explosives that had to be unloaded ashore. They had to be divided among the available men, but the disadvantage was that the heavy load significantly limited them in rapid movement, so important for the successful completion of the action. Therefore, it was decided to divide the units according to their tasks. First, heavily armed strike units were to land, to secure and secure the bridgehead against the German counterattack. They were to be followed by demolition platoons, whose men were to transport demolition charges to their destinations under the protection of cover units.The situation of the units aimed at the dry dock was different. The strike forces were to be transported to the dry dock on the exposed upper deck of Cambeltown, where the only protection was provided by low steel plates. After hitting the dock gate, they will only have a few seconds to quickly leave the ship and reach shore before being killed by German fire from positions at the top of the dock.

Commandos member with demolition equipment

Another problem was to solve the way to embark the surviving soldiers on board the support ships. The destroyer's path was one-way, which meant that the boarding zone must be wherever the escort boats could land. An old pier was chosen for the place of embarkation, which was to be occupied in the first phase of the attack. To ensure safe embarkation, it was necessary to clean the entire " old town " and destroy the bridges over the " new entrance ". The area of buildings and warehouses between the old pier and the dry dock was to be secured by units planted in the " old entrance " area. As the planning of the event continued, the list of targets that would need to be destroyed grew, and the originally planned delicate event became a relatively large-scale event. The attack group was divided into three groups - the target of the 1st group, consisting of six ships, was the old pier, the 2nd group of the same number of ships had a target of " old entrance " and the destroyer Cambeltown, whose destination was the dry dock door, became the 3rd group.

Action plan

The Admiralty sent in advance to enter the port of St. Nazaire submarine Sturgeon, which was to expect attacking vessels and light signals to guide them on the right course. Destroyers HMS Tynedale and HMS Atherstone were assigned to cover the operation, but they were to wait on the high seas for returning vessels. A fast gunboat was used as the command ship, from the deck of which the entire operation was to be led by frigate captain Robert Edward D. Ryder . Commandos were subject to Lt. Col. A. Charles Newman, and the destroyer Campbelltown was the responsibility of Lt. Capt. Stephen Halden Beattie .

It was a delicate and complex operation, where even the most perfect preparation and thought-out of individual parts to the smallest detail did not guarantee success. The first phase of the operation - reaching St. Nazaire, for at least part of the voyage inevitably had to take place in daylight. The fleet could not miss the attention of any German reconnaissance aircraft. To reduce this danger somewhat, the British gave the first phase of the operation the camouflage character of a normal anti-submarine action.


At 2 p.m. on March 26, he raised an anchor convoy in the southern English port of Falmouth and headed south toward his destination. When the fleet sailed to the area southwest of Brest on March 27 and began to take a course to the southeast, towards St. Nazaire, she still didn't seem to attract attention. When turning to St. The Naziire raised the German flag on two British ships. According to the generally accepted rules of naval warfare, this was not an illegal trick; a warship can use such a trick, only it must not open fire under a foreign flag.

Shortly afterwards, the destroyer Tynedale spotted the German submarine U-595. On its mast, the British flag of war immediately replaced the German one, and the ship attacked. However, the submarine managed to hide under the surface and escape. She immediately reported to St. Nazaire about two enemy destroyers heading southeast. She probably didn't see the rest of the fleet retreating quickly, as there was no word on the other ships. St. Nazaire accepted the message, but some two destroyers did not upset the local headquarters. Not a finger moved.The Germans soon had to pay dearly for this negligence.

With dusk approaching, the second and decisive phase of the operation began. The ships headed straight for St. Nazaire. To facilitate their situation, the British Bomber Command carried out a planned diversionary raid by 70 heavy Wellington bombers at the port and surrounding enemy points, at a time when ships were already in danger of being spotted by German Coast Guard. For a while, they managed to divert attention from a small fleet, which gained several valuable hours.

Shortly after midnight, the boats reached the mouth of the Loire River and passed the lighthouse 3 km before St. Nazaire. At one o'clock, they passed by the main guard post guarding access to the harbor. At that moment, the first headlight came on and illuminated the group. Then others lit up. A sharp question for identity followed. A signalman on one of the British ships, selected specifically for this task for his knowledge of the German code, responded to the German with the signal used. This trick really served its purpose for a while. He confused the German guards, and the first warning shots sounded in a few precious minutes. When German coastal battery grenades began to fall, Campbelltown, disguised as a German torpedo boat, signaled in German that they were two ships damaged by enemy fire, seeking refuge in the harbor. Even this trick took a moment. The fire subsided, confused Germans arguing over what to do. Then - mainly from the shore - the fire rumbled again. Campbelltown repeated the request, and from the immediate decline in fire, it was clear that the enemy was not yet able to orientate itself in the situation.

The ship, filled with explosives, had continued on to the gates of the dry dock. She had about six minutes to sail when the Germans finally realized they had something to do with the enemy, who had reached the heart of the harbor in an incredible way, and opened fire on all the cannons. The ship shook with dozens of hits, its speed visibly dropped. A fire broke out in the engine rooms, the destroyer turning into a blown up wreck, but meter by meter he was approaching the dark, high-rise gate of the dock.

To help Campbelltown, on which the decisive moment of the operation depended, the other ships shelled intrusive headlights, coastal batteries, and machine-gun nests. Campbelltown finally reached his destination. With a deafening bang at 01.34, exactly as planned, the bow of the ship dug into the mighty gate and the machines fell silent forever. The crew tried to leave the motionless vessel as fast as possible, trapped in a tangle of twisted beams, metal plates and logs. The men plunged into the greasy and dirty water, holding their weapons above the surface and swimming to shore.

As soon as Campbelltown froze, the Germans turned their attention to the speedboats. They sank one vessel after another, and because there was a large supply of fuel in the boats that was supposed to be enough for the entire return journey, they ignited like a torch-burning thing alive that remained in their hearth. Five were already on fire. The sixth boat was more successful, landing a group of commandos and bravely set out to embark the Campbelltown crew. But that was also the last moment he was seen. The next second, he was hit directly, broke, and sank like a rock.

Second-boat boats turned out the same way. Cannons and machine guns spewed streams of steel from the shore. Nevertheless, as a miracle, many members of the commandos managed to leave the affected boats; they swam ashore, and there they immediately embarked on a frantic fight that broke out in the streets of the harbor. They tried to fulfill their task at all costs - to destroy the technical equipment used to operate the dock.

When, after half an hour, the British began to retreat back to the water according to plan, they discovered that there was no boat left to board them. Lieutenant Colonel Newman therefore gathered the remains of his men and gave the order to fight his way to the city, to St. Nazaire. From there, everyone had to try to penetrate further inland and reach the Spanish border on their own.It was the only way to the rescue, and the support that could be expected from illegal domestic workers provided hope. With desperate courage and bravery, the commandos tried to break through the German patrols and escape the raids the Germans had placed on them. In fact, only three men in the entire division succeeded. The others were either killed in fierce skirmishes or captured.

HMS Cambletown wedged into a dry dock gate

Grand finals

The final and crowning moment of the whole operation, which cost the English so many casualties, did not occur until the next day, at eleven o'clock in the morning. Campbelltown's charred and shot wreck, buried in the dock gates, was, of course, the focus of German attention. A group of senior naval officers were examining it when there was an explosion that shook the entire harbor. The timing device finally detonated the charges inside the ship, and in addition to the destroyed dock, about sixty German officers and three hundred and twenty soldiers were killed on the spot. An incredible mess broke out in the harbor. German troops believed that the night raid had been repeated, and opened fire on everything resembling a British raid squadron, shooting and wounding many of Todt's own working people because their khaki uniforms resembled British battledres. The French resistance movement spontaneously joined in, and the fighting flared up with no less force than at night, when a fleet of landing craft attacked. In the end, the Germans managed to handle the situation with all their might and great brutality. The fierce fighting is evidenced by the fact that in this bloody episode, four hundred French people laid down their lives in the streets of the port.


The British also found that they paid dearly for their success. Of the 611 sailors and soldiers who took part in Operation Chariot, 169 were killed and 200 - mostly wounded - were captured and spent the rest of the war in prison camps. The rest managed to return to England. Of the eighteen landing craft, ten were sunk by enemy fire on the spot and four were damaged so badly that they could not make their way back, so the crews sank them themselves. Only the last four eventually returned to Plymouth, accompanied by the destroyers Tynedale and Atherstone.

However, the result was achieved. The huge dry dock was scrapped and the Germans failed to repair it by the end of the war.

For the extraordinary courage shown during the Saint-Nazi operation, five members of the commandos were awarded the highest British award for bravery in combat - the Victoria Cross, seventy-eight others received other honors and fifty-one were praised in commanders' orders.

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Author : 🕔25.09.2002 📕44.400