The Commando raid on St. Nazaire

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.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

David Tait May 30, 2014 at 6:06 pm

I picked up a paperback copy of Robert Lyman’s “Into the Jaws of Death The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint Nazaire” for £2.99 at my local discount bookshop ‘The Works’, this afternoon.
website TheWorks.co.uk
Its RRP is shown as £9.99
I feel thats a bargain as the original publication was only a year ago.

Pete May 17, 2014 at 12:42 pm

I recall stories of this raid when I was younger from my relatives … I just came across this site and the remarkable story of courage and determination by all involved in this raid… And still some 70 years on it makes the hairs on my neck stand up… It was and is the greatest raid of all… And will stand as a testimony in history to all those involved and especially those that gave their lives that day…
I still get a wry smile thinking of those Germans around and on the ship when it finally exploded … Of course not for their loss of life but more for the sense of the idea that the raid had failed up till that moment…. They are true heroes one and all…. And each and every man worthy of many more honours than the ones given…..
I certainly won’t forget the men or the price they paid… Thank you

Roger S Clarke May 13, 2014 at 6:40 pm

What gallant, brave men were these who gave it all for our freedom. We should be truly honored that they were on our team, not the Germans.

Paul Bradley April 20, 2014 at 10:16 pm

Hi Ken Rainbird,

My Uncle, Walter Rainbird, born in Nottingham, some time prior to 1933 (not sure how much older he was than my mum) was definitely a cook on HMS Campbeltown at this time.

He definitely took part in the raid and had a whole bunch of clippings and stories and even went on an organised visit back to St Nazaire in the 1980s on the QE2.

Unfortunately he has passed away now, some 10 years or so ago.

Cheers,

Paul

Keith Goodwin February 6, 2014 at 1:53 pm

I have just found my relative Kenneth L Hills , thanks to the St Nazaire Society, in the Roll of Honor. Sadly he was one that never made it back as Sub Lieutenant on one of the Small Ships ML262

Editor January 20, 2014 at 5:55 pm

It is possible that

http://www.commandoveterans.org/site/history

might be able to point you in the right direction.

ken rainbird January 18, 2014 at 3:48 pm

I recently found that a walter.e.rainbird was a cook on HMS Cambeltown at the time of
operation charriot & would like to find out if walter is connected with my family tree?
can anyone tell me his date of birth & where he was born?
many thanks
ken

David Tait November 15, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Shaun,
If you could post the full name of your grandfather that would be most helpful. I would like to ask one of my colleagues to check out what other information we have on him.
Our web site ‘The St Nazaire Society” is showing signs of age but we anticipate having an updated version available either before or shortly after Christmas. In the interim you might like to use the Facebook link hereon to “The Greatest Raid”. James Dorrian’s web site “chariot-heroes blogspot.com” is also very informative.
David Tait
P.R. St Nazaire Society

shaun bayford November 6, 2013 at 11:02 pm

This is a great site , My Grandad is in one of the pictures , Sadly his no longer with us but he made it home after the war .

Peter Stanley October 30, 2013 at 10:54 pm

Readers of this site interested in the raid on St Nazaire may wish to know of my 2009 book Commando to Colditz: Micky Burn’s Journey to the Far Side of Tears – The Raid on St Nazaire, published by Murdoch Books, Sydney, and still available. It tells the story of Captain Micky Burn, 2 Commando (pictured on this site), before and during the raid and in captivity. Of the 28 men in Micky’s troop 14 died in the raid and half of the survivors (including him) were captured. As the title suggests, Micky ended up in Colditz. The book explores the relationships between Micky and his men, and between the families of those killed and captured in the raid during the months of anxiety and grief that followed. It was based on Micky’s own archive and interviews I conducted with him. Sadly, he died in October 2010.
Prof. Peter Stanley
University of New South Wales, Canberra
p.stanley@adfa.edu.au

David Tait October 30, 2013 at 3:15 pm

I understand the movie “Turn Towards the Sun” starring Michael Burn, MAY be available on Amazon by Christmas.
Do you know of Robert Lyman’s book Into the Jaws of Death:The Gallant 600 of the St Nazaire Raid? Robert is speaking at The National Army Museum, Chelsea, at 7.00 p.m. 5th December 2013 (advisable to book ticket in advance).
David Tait
P.R. St Nazaire Society

Ted Greenwood June 1, 2013 at 8:53 am

I have just read and enjoyed R.E.D. Ryder’s book. The Attack on St. Nazaire.
i followed up with the Google website. I’m too young to remember the WW2. born 1943 but it’s wonderful to read of these heroics.

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