March is the Anniversary of Operation Chariot and the destruction of the
Normandie Dock in St Nazaire.
This daring raid, (led by the first RN warship named HMS
Campbeltown) was so successful and contained such heroism, that it
resulted in the award of 5 Victoria Crosses and 80 other decorations for
It is also known as ‘The Greatest Raid of All’. The St
Nazaire operation continues to be commemorated in the present Type 22
frigate, HMS Campbeltown, and the ship maintains strong links with
the “St Nazaire Society”. The surviving veterans are known as
In 1942 the Normandie Dock in St Nazaire was the only Atlantic seaboard
facility capable of taking in the mighty German Battleship Tirpitz
for essential repairs. The mission devised was codenamed Operation Chariot
and its aim was to destroy the dock in the very heavily defended French
port. Planned in the amazingly short time of 7 weeks and constricted by
highly limiting tidal movements, the only day a force could approach the
dock through the shallow waters was 28th March 1942, because of the Spring
high tide. The plan was to send in a ship to ram the dock gate and then
explode; this vessel’s mission would be supported by many small ships
carrying Commandos who would destroy the dock’s winding and pumping
facilities then wreck the dockyard infrastructure. Daring and against all
the odds, the plan was accepted by the Admiralty and HMS Campbeltown
was nominated as the ship to carry out the task of destroying the dock.
The ship was completely stripped out internally to reduce her draught for
the transit through the shallows approaching the target dock. The work was
completed in amazing record time of 10 days, with the signal detailing the
work package drafted in just one hour. The ship’s bows were packed with
4.5 tons of high explosive, which were hidden in false bulkheads, encased
in steel and set in concrete. These explosives were set to detonate on
delayed fuses, once the Commandos had completed the operation and been
withdrawn to safety.
On 26 March, HMS Campbeltown and her Operation Chariot flotilla of
16 small Motor Launches, 1 Motor Torpedo Boat and a Motor Gun Boat sailed
from Falmouth for St Nazaire. The passage went smoothly and at 0134 on
28th March 1942, Campbeltown rammed into the dock gate, 4 minutes
later than planned. The Commandos disembarked under heavy fire and set
about their demolitions. Campbeltown blew up on her delayed fuses at 1135 on 28 March, destroying the 160 ton caisson and rendering the dock
out of action until 1948. This explosion killed 360 Germans who were
onboard Campbeltown as they were convinced that the raid had
failed. Even later, 2 torpedoes that had been fired at, and where lodged
in, the inner dock also exploded. This caused great confusion amongst the
now jittery German defenders and a fierce firelight ensued amongst German
forces, which suffered even greater casualties as result. The raid was so
successful that the Tirpitz never ventured into the Atlantic again.
Of the 611 personnel who took part in Operation Chariot, 169 were killed, 215 were captured and became POWs, with 227 returning home. Of
those who were killed 64 were Commandos and 105 were naval personnel. Of
the 227 who returned home, 222 did so by sea in the ML's and their
accompanying Destroyers. The remaining 5 Charioteers avoided capture and
overland on foot and by bicycle through France and Spain to Gibraltar.
Operation Chariot attracted 5 VCs, 80 other gallantry decorations and 51
Mentions in Despatches.
The VCs were awarded to:
Lt Cdr Sam Beattie CO HMS Campbeltown (Buried in Ruan Minor, Cornwall)
Lt Col Charles Newman Military Commander
Cdr Robert Ryder Naval Commander
Sgt Tom Durrant Lewis Gun operator in ML 306 (Posthumous award)
AB William Savage Gun Layer on the Pom-Pom Motor Gun Boat 314 (Posthumous
award) (Buried in Falmouth).