By Robert Lyman
In March 1942 British Commandos and the Royal Navy launched one of the Second World War’s most spectacular raids, on the German-held French Atlantic port of Saint-Nazaire. It was one of the top five British raids on European territory of the war, and without doubt the most dramatic.
An antiquated U.S. Navy destroyer, renamed HMS Campbeltown, had three tons of Amatol placed in her bows, sailed into the Loire under cover of darkness, accompanied by a handful of wooden-hulled Fairmile motor launches and motor gun boats, and rammed into the gates to the dry dock.
Commandoes debouched from her and proceeded to blow up vital dock installations. Several hours later, swarming with German sight-seers, the Campbeltown blew-up, putting the huge Normandie Dock out of commission for the remainder of the war. But casualties were heavy; most of the Fairmiles were destroyed and few men managed to escape back to England. Those not killed were to spend the rest of the war in captivity although amazingly, five managed to escape through Spain.
Why did Britain even consider this sort of ‘death or glory’ raid when casualties were guaranteed to be heavy? The truth is that in Britain the apparent hopelessness of seemingly endless war, reinforced by the randomness of death from the sky, reached a low point in 1942. The news was sometimes good, but more often horrifyingly bad. On the balance sheet of war the sinking the previous May of the predatory German leviathan Bismarck (56,000 tons) would be far outweighed by a sequence of unprecedented humiliations. Life was bleak, and dangerous, for soldier and civilian alike, and the news from the front was rarely anything but gloomy. As the new year of 1942 dawned the despair was compounded by the astounding reports of rapid Japanese gains down the Malayan Peninsula, including the startling news that the battleship Prince of Wales and the battle cruiser Repulse had been lost to Japanese air attack. To a British population imbued with the myth of their navy ruling the waves to enforce Pax Britannica, the loss of these capital ships – to Japanese pilots widely derided as having such poor eyesight as to be virtually blind – was almost incomprehensible.
With Britain struggling to fight back in Europe against the overwhelming might of the German war machine, Lord Louis Mountbatten, chief of combined operations and responsible for raiding, under intense pressure from Winston Churchill, came up with the idea of launching a spectacular attack on the enemy’s heavily-defended shore. The ostensible reason was to prevent the Tirpitz, sister ship to the Bismarck and at that stage a subject of much fear in Whitehall, finding its way back to sanctuary in a French port if it sallied out of its Baltic hideout: Saint-Nazaire had the only dry dock in the region able to take this monster battleship. But the real reason was much more prosaic: it was to show the enemy, and our friends (especially the United States and the Soviet Union), that Britain still had fight left in her and refused to bow to tyranny.
It was an extraordinary operation, which no one in normal circumstances would have contemplated. Operation Chariot was one of a number of pin-prick raids against the enemy in 1941 and 1942 undertaken by some of the most courageous men ever to have served Britain and its Commonwealth. Britain’s desperation to strike back actually increased the chance that a ‘rapier thrust from the sea’ (as Churchill described it) would be successful. Brazen and bold, a David versus Goliath type of strike, it had a chance of succeeding by virtue of its very audacity. It was a gutsy plan, requiring luck, bluff and surprise in abundance to come off. It also called for high-quality intelligence, excellent planning, the committed professionalism of all the servicemen involved, some of whom were highly trained volunteers, together with decisive and determined leadership.
Ultimately, despite the challenges faced by those planning and undertaking the raid, the attack was a success. Its triumphant denouement can be seen in part in the array of awards for bravery: five Victoria Crosses, four Distinguished Service Orders, 17 Distinguished Service Crosses, 11 Military Crosses, four Conspicuous Gallantry Medals, five Distinguished Conduct Medals, 24 Distinguished Service Medals and 15 Military Medals. Fifty-one men were “Mentioned in Dispatches”. Four men were awarded the Croix de Guerre.
Even at the time, it was clear that the publicity about the raid was overblown, relative to its tiny size and seeming strategic irrelevance, and in the context of the seismic military events taking place elsewhere. And yet, all the commentators at the time recognized the light that such raids shone in the otherwise Stygian gloom of the moment. The seemingly impossible had been achieved.
Morale at home had been improved, fighting troops were inspired, offensive momentum was maintained in the face of potential criticism that Britain was not doing enough to fight back against the enemy, and the enemy was forced to divert resources that would otherwise be used elsewhere.
It undoubtedly gave Britons hope, at one of the lowest points in Britain’s modern history. The fact that, straitened as she was, Britain could still launch damaging attacks on German-held Europe was a message of priceless value to Britain and her allies, a point understood only too well by Nazi propagandists, who attempted to discredit the raid from the very start.
But the butcher’s bill was high. Of the 621 men who departed Falmouth on the afternoon of March 26, 1942 (264 Commandos and 357 sailors), some 382 became casualties, including 169 dead. Two hundred and thirteen were taken prisoner (some of them wounded), while five escaped to Spain. The remainder, 234 in total, made it back to Britain. The commandoes suffered the worst of it: Seventy-two percent of their number were either killed wounded or captured.
Nevertheless, it had always been considered that Operation Chariot was a high-risk venture.
The idea of successfully ramming a destroyer packed with explosives into the heart of a strongly defended enemy harbour, there to self-detonate and destroy the largest dry dock in Europe, and to disgorge commandos to carry out additional dockside demolitions, was preposterous, unless of course one believed that the very audacity of such an operation might itself contribute to its success.
Indeed, the casualty figures for Operation Chariot were more severe in fact than those sustained during the Dieppe Raid later that year – an operation that has gone down in history as much for its many operational and tactical errors as for its human cost.
The Aug. 19 amphibious assault, widely regarded as a bloodbath, saw 4,963 Canadians deployed as part of a combat force of nearly 6,000 troops. Of this number 68 per cent of the Canadians (3,367) became casualties; 18 per cent were killed and 39 per cent became prisoners of war.
Operation Chariot, and other missions like it, were important because by virtue of raiding – the very act of taking the war to the enemy in Europe, at a time when Britain otherwise had few other offensive options – demonstrated through decisive action Britain’s collective determination to continue fighting, in spite of the seemingly enormous odds against them. In no small way also, through the courage and sacrifice of the Charioteers, Britain was able to serve notice to the subjugated nations of Europe that in time she would be back, and that they would no longer be slaves. This was their ultimate triumph.
Dr. Robert Lyman is the author of more than 12 books on military history. An officer in the British Army for more than 20 years, he is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Lyman’s latest book, Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid in Saint-Nazairewas published in hardback in 2013 with the paperback release set for today/3rd April 2014. He lives in Berkshire, England. Follow him on Twitter.