The St Nazaire Raid or Operation Chariot was a successful British amphibious attack on the heavily defended Normandie dry dock at St Nazaire in German-occupied France during the Second World War. The operation was undertaken by the Royal Navy and British Commandos under the auspices of Combined Operations Headquarters on 28 March 1942. St Nazaire was targeted because the loss of its dry dock would force any large German warship in need of repairs, such as the Tirpitz, to return to home waters rather than having a safe haven available on the Atlantic coast.
The obsolete destroyer HMS Campbeltown, accompanied by 18 smaller craft, crossed the English Channel to the Atlantic coast of France and was rammed into the Normandie dock gates. The ship had been packed with delayed-action explosives that detonated later that day, putting the dock out of service for the remainder of the war. A force of commandos landed to destroy machinery and other structures. Heavy German gunfire sank or immobilised all the small craft intended to transport the commandos back to England; the commandos had to fight their way out through the town to try to escape overland. They were forced to surrender when their ammunition was expended and they were surrounded.
After the raid only 228 men returned to Britain; 169 were killed and 215 became prisoners of war. German casualties were over 360 dead, mostly killed after the raid when Campbeltown exploded. To recognise their bravery, 89 decorations were awarded to members of the raiding party, including five Victoria Crosses. After the war St Nazaire was one of 38 battle honours awarded to the Commandos; the operation has since become known as The Greatest Raid of All.
The three destroyers and 16 small boats left Falmouth, Cornwall at 14:00 on 26 March 1942. They formed into a convoy of three lanes, with the destroyers in the middle. On arrival at St Nazaire the portside MLs were to head for the Old Mole to disembark their Commandos, while the starboard lane would make for the old entrance to the basin to disembark theirs. Not having the range to reach St Nazaire unaided, the MTB and MGB were taken under tow by the Campbeltown and Atherstone. On 27 March at 07:20 Tynedale reported a U-Boat on the surface and opened fire. 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. The two destroyers returned to the convoy at 09:00. The convoy next encountered two French fishing trawlers. Both crews were taken off and the ships sunk for fear they might report the composition and location of the convoy. At 17:00 the convoy received a signal from Commander-in-Chief Plymouth that five German torpedo boats were in the area. Two hours later another signal informed them that another two Hunt class destroyers,HMS Cleveland and HMS Brocklesby, had been dispatched at full speed to join the convoy.
The convoy reached a position 65 nautical miles (120 km; 75 mi) off St Nazaire at 21:00 and changed course toward the estuary, leaving Atherstone and Tynedale as a sea patrol.The convoy adopted a new formation with the MGB and two torpedo MLs in the lead, followed by Campbeltown. The rest of the MLs formed two columns on either side and astern of the destroyer, with the MTB bringing up the rear. The first casualty of the raid was ML 341, which had developed engine trouble and was abandoned. At 22:00 the submarine Sturgeon directed her navigation beacon out to sea to guide the convoy in. At about the same time the Campbeltown raised the German naval ensign in an attempt to deceive any German lookouts into thinking she was a German destroyer.
At 23:30 on 27 March, five RAF squadrons (comprising 35 Whitleys and 27 Wellingtons) started their bombing runs. The bombers had to stay above 6,000 feet (1,800 m) and were supposed to remain over the port for 60 minutes to divert attention toward themselves and away from the sea. They had orders to only bomb clearly identified military targets and to drop only one bomb at a time. As it turned out, poor weather over the port (10/10ths cloud) meant that only four aircraft bombed targets in St Nazaire. Six aircraft managed to bomb other nearby targets.
The unusual behaviour of the bombers concerned Kapitän zur See Mecke. At 00:00 on 28 March, he issued a warning that there might be a parachute landing in progress. At 01:00 on 28 March, he followed up by ordering all guns to cease firing and 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 ordered out of the air raid shelters. During all this a lookout reported seeing some activity out at sea, so Mecke began suspecting some type of landing and ordered extra attention to be paid to the approaches to the harbour.
The convoy had just entered the Loire at 01:22 on 28 March when searchlights on both banks of the estuary highlighted the ships and a naval signal light demanded their identification. Before they could reply to the challenge, some shore batteries opened fire. A German-speaking signaller replied to the challenge using German signals:
"Urgent—have two damaged ships following enemy engagement. Demand immediate entry" and "ship considering herself to be under fire from friendly forces"
This deception lasted only a few minutes before the German guns opened fire again. At 01:28, with the convoy under sporadic fire and only 1 mile (1.6 km) from the dock gates, Beattie ordered the German flag lowered and the White Ensign raised, the intensity of the German fire increased. The guard ship opened fire but was quickly silenced when every ship in the convoy responded, shooting into her as they passed.By now all the ships in the convoy were within range to engage targets ashore and were firing at the gun emplacements and searchlights. Despite being hit a number of times Campbeltown had increased speed to 19 kn (35 km/h). The helmsman on her bridge was killed and his replacement was wounded, he was also replaced. Blinded by the searchlights, Beattie only knew they were close to their objective when the MGB turned into the estuary. Still under heavy fire, Campbeltown cleared the end of the Old Mole, crashed through an anti-torpedo net strung across the entrance, and at 01:34 rammed the dock gates, only three minutes later than scheduled. The force of the impact drove the ship 33 feet (10 m) onto the gates.
The Commandos on Campbeltown now disembarked: two assault teams, five demolition teams with their protectors and a mortar group. Three demolition teams were tasked with destroying the dock pumping machinery and other installations associated with the drydock. Another team successfully destroyed four gun emplacements, losing four men. The fifth team also succeeded in completing all their objectives but almost half its men were killed. The other two Commando groups were not as successful. The MLs transporting Groups One and Two had almost all been destroyed on their approach. ML 457 was the only boat to land its Commandos on the Old Mole and only ML 177 had managed to reach the gates at the old entrance to the basin. That team succeeded in planting charges on two tugboats moored in the basin. There were only two other MLs in the vicinity: ML 160 had continued past the dock and was engaging targets upriver, ML 269 appeared to be out of control and was running in circles. By this time the crew of the Campbeltown had detonated the scuttling charges and gathered at the rear of the ship to be taken off. ML 177 came alongside the destroyer and took 30 men on board including Beattie and some of the wounded. Major Copland went through the Campbeltown and evacuated the wounded towards the Old Mole, not knowing that there were no other boats there to take the Commandos off.
Lt Col Newman aboard the MGB, need not have landed, but he was one of the first ashore. One of his first actions was to direct mortar fire onto a gun position on top of the submarine pens that was causing heavy casualties among the Commandos. He next directed machine-gun fire onto an armed trawler, which was forced to withdraw upriver. Newman organised a defence that succeeded in keeping the increasing numbers of German reinforcements at bay until the demolition parties had completed their tasks.
Some 100 Commandos were still ashore when Newman realised that evacuation by sea was no longer an option. He gathered the survivors and issued three orders:
To do our best to get back to England;
Not to surrender until all our ammunition is exhausted;
Not to surrender at all if we can help it.
Newman and Copland led the charge from the old town across a bridge raked by machine gun fire and advanced into the new town. The Commandos attempted to get through the narrow streets of the town and into the surrounding countryside, but were eventually surrounded. When their ammunition was expended they were forced to surrender. Not all the Commandos were captured; five men reached neutral Spain, from where they eventually returned to England.
The explosive charges in HMS Campbeltown detonated at noon on 28 March 1942, and the dry dock was destroyed. Both tankers that were in the dock were swept away by the wall of water and sunk. A party of 40 senior German officers and civilians who were on a tour of the ship were killed. In total, the explosion killed about 360 men. The wreck of the Campbeltown could still be seen inside the dry dock months later when RAF photo reconnaissance planes were sent to photograph the port.
The day after the explosion, Organisation Todt workers were assigned to clean up the debris and wreckage. On 30 March at 16:30 the torpedoes from MTB 74, which were on a delayed fuse setting, exploded at the old entrance into the basin. This raised alarms among the Germans. The Organisation Todt workers ran away from the dock area. German guards, mistaking their khaki uniforms for British uniforms, opened fire, killing some of them. The Germans also thought that some Commandos were still hiding in the town, and made a street by street search, during which some townspeople were also killed.
The explosion put the dry dock out of commission until the end of the war. The St Nazaire raid had been a success, but at a cost. Of the 622 men of the Royal Navy and Commandos who took part in the raid, only 228 men returned to England. Five escaped overland via Spain and Gibraltar. 169 men were killed (105 RN and 64 Commandos) and another 215 became prisoners of war (106 RN and 109 Commandos). They were first taken to La Baule and then sent to Stalag 133 at Rennes.
To recognise their achievement, 89 decorations were awarded for the raid. This total includes the five Victoria Crosses awarded to Lieutenant Commander Beattie, Lieutenant Colonel Newman and Commander Ryder, and posthumous awards to Sergeant Durrant and Able Seaman 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 furious that the British had been able to sail a flotilla of ships up the Loire unhindered. His immediate reaction was to dismiss Generaloberst Carl Hilpert, chief-of-staff to the Commander in Chief West. The raid refocused German attention on the Atlantic Wall, and special attention was given to ports to prevent any repeat of the raid. By June 1942 the Germans began using concrete to fortify gun emplacements and bunkers in quantities previously only used in U-boat pens. Hitler laid out new plans in a meeting with Armaments Minister Albert Speer in August 1942, calling for 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. She was bombed and capsized by the RAF in a Norwegian fjord on 12 November 1944 during Operation Catechism