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The Greatest Raid Of All Time

Operation Chariot- St Nazaire 28th March 1942

The aim was to deny dry dock facilities to the German battleship, Tirpitz.

Operation Chariot was an audacious Combined Operation raid on the port of St Nazaire in German occupied France. Packed with tons of high explosives, the destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, was rammed into the gates of the only dry dock capable of servicing the German battleship Tirpitz. Such was the damage, the dry dock was rendered unusable for the remainder of the war.

In the second week of January 1942, the powerful German battleship, Tirpitz, moved from the Baltic, through the Kiel canal and north to Trondheim on the Norwegian coast. From there, it had the potential to break out into the North Atlantic and to wreak havoc on allied Atlantic convoys. Commander Home Fleet, Admiral Tovey, said “to sink the Tirpitz would be of incomparably greater importance to the conduct of the war than the safety of any convoy." Churchill shared this view, commenting that "the entire naval situation throughout the world would be altered."

Four separate attempts to bomb the Tirpitz failed, with the loss of 12 aircraft. A different strategy was required.

The Germans needed dry-dock facilities on the Atlantic coast, before the battleship could be deployed effectively against allied convoys and the only suitable port was St. Nazaire. It lay on the north bank of the River Loire about 6 miles from the river mouth, which itself was about 6 miles wide. The Planning Division in the Admiralty, came up with the idea to destroy the lock gate at St Nazaire which would render the dry dock unusable. The idea was picked up by Captain Charles Lambe, he took the idea to Mountbatten, head of Combined Operations.

The target area was bordered by the River Loire, the waters of the outer harbour and the Basin of St Nazaire - a total area of less than one square mile. The heavy concentration of enemy defensive positions and troops in the area strongly reflected the importance of the port facilities to them. It was, arguably, the most heavily defended place along the whole of the German occupied Atlantic coast. In this confined space there were power stations, pumping stations, warehouses, lock installations and the old town of St Nazaire. Denying the Germans use of the dry dock would effectively neutralise the threat the Tirpitz posed. The estuary was a complex mixture of mud flats and channels. A frontal assault would, therefore, need a shallow vessel running on a high tide. Although heavily defended, the Germans were unlikely to have considered an attack across the mud flats and shoals. Painstaking planning followed and advice sought on the tides and winds.

The outline plan was simple. The selected vessel, packed with high explosives in the bow with troops and crew in protected areas, would ram the outer lock gate at speed and become firmly stuck there. They would then disembark and take cover behind a nearby air-raid shelter. The ship would then blow up destroying the gate.

A Motor Torpedo Boat would then approach to fire especially designed torpedoes at the inner gate which would collapse under pressure when the tide went out, damaging the submarines berthed in their protected pens. The troops and crew would then destroy as many dockyard targets as they could and withdraw in fast motor launches which had followed them in. All this was to be achieved under cover of an air raid.

The planners, themselves, had reservations about the withdrawal phase which was difficult to predict since much depended on the element of surprise and the effectiveness of the opposing forces. However, the risks were less than the potential rewards. Outside the planning circle, the Naval C in C Plymouth, thought the vessel would bounce off the gate, a view he maintained against the advice of the engineer who built it. He also thought that anyone within half a mile of the explosion would be killed.

Mountbatten conceded the point about the destructive power of the explosion and delayed action fuses were to be fitted to allow time for the troops and crew to evacuate the area. However, on the question of the use of a boat to ram the lock gate, he held firm. It was also decided to spread the raiding force between the main ship and the supporting motor launches, simply to avoid the total loss of the force in the event of disaster befalling the main ship.

HMS Campbeltown and an American destroyer was chosen to lead the operation. Her interior was stripped out, the bridge was armour-plated and additional protection provided for the Commandos she would carry. The accompanying motor launches, were to carry 150 Commandos. The boats were fitted with two Oerlikon 20mm guns and additional fuel tanks to increase their range. As the needs of the raid were reassessed, the motor launch fleet was increased to 10 and then to 14. Only one motor gun boat was available - MGB 314, a C-Class Fairmile, commanded by Lt. Dunstan Curtis. She would lead the attack with motor torpedo boat 74 in reserve. This was equipped with unproven flying torpedoes to breach the dry dock gates if HMS Campbeltown failed to reach its target.

The fleet sailed from Falmouth at 3 pm on the 26th of March. Motor gun boat 314, was at the head with two escort destroyers flanking the motor launchers and HMS Campbeltown. South west of Ushant, they came across a U-Boat and damaged it. They departed the area on a false course which the submarine duly reported to their command and control HQ. Five German torpedo boats left St Nazaire to engage the vessels but in entirely the wrong direction. They were still at sea during the raid.

Around midnight on the 27/28th March, the raiders saw bomb flashes and tracers light the sky. The diversionary bombing air raid had started but it lacked accuracy due to low cloud causing an alert in the town and its approaches, rather than the intended effect of keeping the German forces in their bunkers. The bombers had been briefed to target only specific military installations to avoid civilian casualties. Those who failed to identify their targets, did not drop their bombs.

Each boat flew the German flag to confuse the enemy and delay identification. Submarine, HMS Sturgeon, provided the exact position for entry to the estuary from which the raiding force was to make its run up the estuary. The Campbeltown crept through at 5 knots, touching the bottom twice. At 0120 hours, search lights illuminated the entire fleet but, for a short time, the Germans were reluctant to open fire possibly because of confusion caused by spoof signals and a general disbelief that such an audacious raid could be undertaken. The German flags were then replaced with White Ensigns when the fleet was still two miles from its target. The Germans responded with intense shelling and gun fire during the final 15 minutes of the run in, during which half the men aboard the motor launchers were either killed or wounded. The Campbeltown cleared the estuary and increased speed to break through the torpedo barrier and into the dock gate. The MLs were all but stopped, only two succeeded in landing their full complement of Commandos. Other MLs approached the landing zones, but were forced to re-embark their Commandos in the face of very heavy fire from 20mm cannons.

On shore fighting was ferocious and close quartered. At 0134 hours, Campbeltown was successfully driven at speed into the dock gates just 4 minutes behind schedule. Most of her crew were taken aboard MGB 314 while MTB 74 deployed her delayed action torpedoes in the foundations of the old entrance dock gate.

Captain Ryder, CO of the Naval forces, went ashore and satisfied himself that Campbeltown was both scuttled and embedded in the loch gate. At 0230 hours, Ryder decided to withdraw. By this time, more than half of his craft had been destroyed and the remainder were riddled.... if he didn't withdraw soon, he would lose them all.

MTB 74, departed the area of action to rendezvous with British destroyers in the open sea off the Loire. She carried 26 men on board and was accompanied by 7 other craft. She stopped to pick up two more survivors, but was hit by accurate shelling from shore batteries. Only 3 of the 34 aboard survived.

The remaining craft met the 5 German torpedo boats returning from their fruitless mission. In further enemy fire, more craft were destroyed or scuttled and their crews transferred to the remaining craft. Of the 18 coastal craft, which set out from Falmouth, only four returned. The delayed action fuses detonated the high explosives in the Campbeltown's hold at noon on the 28th. Forty German officers were aboard at the time and 400 other ranks were nearby on the quay. All were killed in the blast. The dock gates were destroyed and were not repaired until after the war.

On the evening of the 29th the delayed torpedoes were activated causing further damage and German casualties. Regrettably many needless French casualties were caused by jittery German soldiers who believed that the raiders were still in their midst.

Of the 241 Commandos who took part, 59 were posted as killed or missing and 109 captured. 85 Royal Navy personnel were killed or missing and a further 20+ captured. Many others were wounded. 5 other ranks returned to England via Spain.

The Tirptitz was never able to leave Norwegian waters for want of a safe haven on the Atlantic coast. The value of the shipping saved in terms of men, armaments and food, can only be guessed at but it was a very significant contribution to the Allied cause.

VC Winners

Captain Robert Edward Dudley Ryder, RN.

Lieutenant-Commander Stephen Halden Beattie, RN, HMS Campbeltown.

Able Seaman William Alfred Savage, RN

Sergeant Thomas Frank Durrant, RE

Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Charles Newman

The raid on St Nazaire, is a forgotten piece of British WW2 history. It truly shows Commando spirit and what can be achieved even when the odds are completely against you.

I am by no means a historian and any in accuracies in the blog can be easily changed just comment below. If you enjoyed reading about the assault on St Nazaire then you should defiantly check out The greatest raid of all time by Jeremy Clarkson. This can be found on YouTube and tells you the whole story along with revised imagery and video footage.

If you enjoyed this trip down memory lane feel free to like and comment below and next week I’ll be back to telling my story of Recruit training at CTCRM.

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