The old lend-lease 1919-built American destroyer, USS Buchanan, renamed HMS Campbeltown was converted for the raid and given the approximate appearance of a German Mowe-class escort vessel in the hope that this would cause the German defenders to hesitate. She also had 4.5 tons of explosive packed into her bows.

In April 1918 the Royal Navy had launched the Zeebrugge Raid when ships packed with explosive had been forced into the Belgium port being used as a U-Boat base. Despite very high casualties on that occasion it was decided that a similar method might be used to disable the French base of St Nazaire, a potential home base for the Tirpitz if she ventured into the Atlantic.

This time it was a joint Royal Navy – Commando raid. On the 23rd March Hitler had himself warned of the probability of ‘English’ raids on the European coast – some said he had an uncanny ability to foresee these things. Nevertheless the raid achieved considerable surprise.

A motor launch (ML) of the type which took part in the raid on St Nazaire. Sixteen such MLs were assigned to the force and were to carry commandos and demolition parties into St Nazaire. Their frail wooden hulls offered scant protection and only three of the craft survived the operation.

Captain Robert Ryder was in command of the Naval force and was to describe the progress of the force up the Loire river, which they edged up as far as possible before they were challenged and came under gunfire – to which they responded vigorously.

At the moment of opening fire, we in MGB 314 were just coming up to a guard ship anchored in the river abreast the south entrance. In the glare of the searchlights we could see her clearly and her guns. At about 300 yards three well-aimed bursts of fire from our pom-pom silenced her. It was indeed an unfortunate day for that vessel, as she not only received bursts of fire from each craft in turn as they passed but finally provided an excellent target for their own shore batteries, who fired on her until she scuttled herself.

After about three or four minutes of this brisk action there was a perceptible slackening in the enemy’s fire. This was a triumph for the many gun-layers in the coastal craft and in the Campbeltown. It was, at this stage, a straight fight between the carefully sited enemy flak emplacements ashore, enjoying all the protection which concrete could afford, and the gun-layers, handling the short-range weapons on the exposed decks of their small and lively craft.

Only in the Campbeltown had it been possible to provide a reasonable amount of steel protection, and this was largely offset by her being the most conspicuous target in our force. To our advantage, on the other hand, we were the attackers and, by evading the batteries guarding the approaches, we had arrived off our objective, with a force mounting forty or more close-range cannon.

With our craft steaming past the southern entrance to the port a big percentage of our armament could concentrate on each ofthe enemy emplacements in turn as they passed them, and, finally, on arrival at our selected points of attack, we could reasonably expect to outnumber them locally. For all this the enemy, with their heavily protected emplacements and heavier-calibre guns (20 mm, 40 mm, and 88 mm) had the advantage.

Our triumph, therefore, although it was short-lived, was a fine feat of arms for our guncrews and for those officers and gunners’ mates who in many cases stood beside the guns to assist in directing the fire. The slackening in the enemy’s fire, moreover, came at the precise moment when the Campbeltown had to aim for the lock gate.

MGB 314, increasing speed to keep ahead of Campbeltown, passed about 200 yards off the Old Mole and then sheered off to starboard while Campbeltown continued on round and in to her objective. She had increased to nineteen knots; there was a slight check as she cut the torpedo net and she hit the caisson of the lock with a crash. The exact time of impact was 1.34 am, four minutes after the intended time.

Captain Robert Ryder was one of five men awarded Victoria Crosses for his part in the raid. Lieutenant-Commander Stephen Halden Beattie who was responsible for captaining HMS Campbeltown and driving her into the dock, and Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Newman, in overall command of the raid were similarly decorated.

Also taking part were Motor Torpedo Boats , including No 74: 'underway at speed, coastal waters, as converted for St Nazaire raid'.

Able Seaman Savage

One of five Victoria Crosses awarded for action during the raid. Able Seaman Savage who was a gun-layer of a pom-pom in MGB 314, engaged enemy positions ashore, shooting with great accuracy. Although he had no gun-shield and was in a most exposed position, he continued firing with great coolness until at last he was killed at his gun.

Sergeant Tom Durrant from No.1 Commando was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1945 after the full circumstances of his part in the raid came to light.

Motor Launch 306 came under heavy fire while proceeding up the River Loire towards the port. Sergeant Durrant, in his position abaft the bridge, where he had no cover or protection, engaged enemy gun positions and searchlights ashore. During this engagement he was severely wounded in the arm but refused to leave his gun.

The Motor Launch subsequently went down the river and was attacked by a German destroyer at 50 to 60 yards range, and often closer. In this action Sergeant Durrant continued to fire at the destroyer’s bridge with the greatest of coolness and with complete disregard of the enemy’s fire. The Motor Launch was illuminated by the enemy searchlight, and Sergeant Durrant drew on himself the individual attention of the enemy guns, and was again wounded in many places. Despite these further wounds he stayed in his exposed position, still firing his gun, although after a time only able to support himself by holding on to the gun mounting.

After a running fight, the Commander of the German destroyer called on the Motor Launch to surrender. Sergeant Durrant’s answer was a further burst of fire at the destroyer’s bridge. Although now very weak, he went on firing, using drums of ammunition as fast as they could be replaced.

A renewed attack by the enemy vessel eventually silenced the fire of the Motor Launch, but Sergeant Durrant refused to give up until the destroyer came alongside, grappled the Motor Launch and took prisoner those who remained alive.

Sergeant Durrant’s gallant fight was commended by the German officers on boarding the Motor Launch. This very gallant non-commissioned officer later died of the many wounds received in action.

The Commando Veterans Association has an online collection of original documents relating to Sergeant Durrant and his family, including the letters written from Prisoner of War camp by which they learnt of his death.

The Campbeltown wedged into the dock gates, showing signs of the damage sustained in the battle.

British prisoners of war guarded by Germans on the dockside at St Nazaire.

There were a substantial number of wounded taken prisoner during the raid.

The German propaganda photographer had a hard job finding pictures of dejected British prisoners of war.

British prisoners of war detained in a nearby building - they look like they might be in a pub.
They knew something the Germans didn't.

After being found hiding in a boat moored at the dockside Michael Burn, left, realised he was about to photographed as he was marched back and managed to produce a defiant 'V' sign with his fingers - the Nazi propaganda machine did not notice and published the picture.

Michael Burn was one of the officers from No. 2 Commando who found themselves left on the dockside among a number of men who had completed their task of blowing up various military installations. They discovered that all the boats had left and there was no possibility of them getting away. ” Well, the transports let us down again”.

The order was given to make for Spain, a thousand miles away. All the men had memorised the Spanish phrase ‘I am an escaped British prisoner’ with which they were supposed to greet the Spanish authorities. Five men actually made it to Spain. The remainder were picked up by the Germans, hiding in various buildings and ships along the harbourside, during the course of the morning. The officers were interrogated in turn:

Beattie himself was interrogated by a senior naval officer who, after praising his seamanship, asked him how the British could be so stupid as to imagine that so huge a dock could be put out of action by a flimsy destroyer which the Germans would soon haul away; at which moment there was a violent explosion, the windows in the interrogation-room were blown in, and, rushing out, the naval officer got the answer to his gibe.

Not only had she exploded, but taken with her scores of German investigators, sightseers and souvenir-hunters. We heard the explosion in the guard-room and gave a big cheer. So that was that. The ‘paramount purpose’ had been achieved in full. The Tirpitz never did venture out into the Atlantic. The dock was not repaired till after the War.

See Michael Burn: Turned Towards the Sun: An Autobiography.

Keep up to date with all the latest news relating to the The Greatest Raid on Facebook.

German troops were crawling all over the Campbeltown on the morning of the 28th, they did not guess that she was packed with explosives. Around 360 men died when she exploded at noon.





Fighters clash over the Desert

27th March 1942: Fighters clash over the Desert

The enemy escort drew off some of our fighters, but other Hurricanes which had by now climbed to a dizzy height, dived like thunderbolts on the Stukas quickly followed by the top-cover Messerschmitt escort who were still higher. The first Hurricane to dive came streaking down the coast followed by a Messerschmitt, firing its cannons in furious bursts, peppering the air with black smoke puffs.




The end of Burma’s air defence – the retreat continues

26th March 1942: The end of Burma’s air defence – and the retreat continues

The main weight of the enemy attack was concentrated on the aerodromes at Magwe and Akyab. At the former, which was subjected to five raids, almost all aircraft of the two and a half squadrons located there were either destroyed or damaged. Akyab aerodrome was attacked three times by a total of 80 bombers with fighter escort, and nine of our aircraft were destroyed and a further six were damaged on the ground. In addition, an ammunition dump was hit and a hangar demolished.




Merchant ship supply lines stretched on all fronts

25th March 1942: Merchant ship supply lines stretched on all fronts

During the week ending the 25th March 897 ships, including 245 Allied and 22 neutral, were convoyed. Seven cruisers and anti-aircraft ships, two armed merchant cruisers, 68 destroyers (including 17 American and two Russian destroyers) and 114 sloops and corvettes were employed on escort duties.




Hardegan on U-123 strikes again

24th March 1942: Hardegan on U-123 strikes again

There – after 61 seconds – hit ahead of the foremost mast.  High, dark explosion plume and shortly thereafter the whole tanker seems to blow up.  He had a load of gasoline in the forepart.  Several explosions followed and we saw a sea of flames, which one observes rarely.  Just when we believed that he sank he used the radio.  Oops! 




Hitler warns of danger on European Coast

23rd March 1942: Fuhrer Directive No. 40 Hitler warns of danger on European Coast

The time and place of the landing operations will not be dictated to the enemy by operational considerations alone. Failure in other theatres of war, obligations to allies, and political considerations may persuade him to take decisions which appear unlikely from a purely military point of view.




Italian battle fleet attacks Malta convoy

22nd March 1942: Italian battle fleet attacks Malta convoy in Sirte Battle

A series of flashes in the smoke followed by a dull, rumbling boom announced the opening of the surface engagement. As if this was a signal, a formation of torpedo bombers flew into sight, skimming just above the sea. Simultaneously an even larger group of high level bombers were briefly glimpsed through the smoke and clouds on the opposite side of the convoy.




Heaviest bombing raid on Malta yet

21st March 1942: Attack on Malta intensifies

The heaviest attack which has yet been delivered against Malta was made on the 21st March, when Takali aerodrome was the main objective. A mixed force of nearly 220 enemy aircraft participated in this raid, and great devastation was caused among buildings, and a reservoir was destroyed. During the day small reinforcements of Spitfires and Blenheims reached the island.




A Soviet army is trapped in the northern pine forests

20th March 1942: A Soviet army is trapped in the northern pine forests

As soon as our howitzers fired the first ranging shot, it was apparent that the many tall trees in this virgin forest would pose problems beyond just obscuring my observation of enemy movement. If one of our shells prematurely collided with a tree on its ascent, its impact would cause the tree to fall or shower splinters that might injure or kill any friendly troops around it.




‘Typical Examples of Performance of His Majesty’s Ships’

19th March 1942: ‘Typical Examples of Performance of His Majesty’s Ships’

In an annex to the weekly Naval Military and Air Reports on the progress of the war, there was was a brief summary of the huge serviceability issues that arose from from warships being at sea for extended periods of time: