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.
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.
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.
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.
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.