‘It was one of those enterprises which could be attempted only because in the eyes of the enemy it was absolutely impossible.’ Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, describing the Second World War raid on Saint-Nazaire.
On 28 March 1942, 621 men of the Royal navy and British Commandos attacked the port of Saint-Nazaire in occupied France. The mission has been dubbed ‘the greatest raid of all time.’ It was certainly daring, audacious in the extreme and terribly dangerous – less than half the men returned alive. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded, two of them posthumously. As the title of this new book on the raid states, the men went Into the Jaws of Death.
Historian, Robert Lyman, has written much about specific aspects of the Second World War, with books about the Cockleshell Heroes, the Siege of Tobruk, Kohima, the Middle East during the war, and a biography on General Bill Slim. Now, Lyman has turned his attention to the Saint-Nazaire raid. Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire is a detailed book on the raid: the reasons that lay behind it, the preparation, the training, the raid itself and its aftermath.
A Bleak Time
Early 1942, as Lyman reminds us, was a bleak time for the Western Allies during the Second World War – British forces had just surrendered their garrison at Singapore; Britain was losing the Battle of the Atlantic; and wartime austerity was beginning to bite. In Europe, following the fall of France eighteen months earlier, Nazi occupation had been firmly established; and the first deportations of Jews residing in France had just begun.
Britain’s high command was gripped by fear of Germany’s huge battleship, the Tirpitz, a massive ship, a sixth of a mile long. Its sister ship, the Bismarck, had been sunk in May 1941, but the Tirpitz still roamed large. The only dry dock on the French coast capable of accommodating such a ship was to be found at the port Saint-Nazaire, a town of some 50,000 people. If the Normandie dock, as it was called, the largest dry dock in the world at the time, could be put out of action, then the Tirpitz’s activity in the Atlantic would be severely constrained.
Thus, in late February 1942, the British command settled on their objective – to attack Saint-Nazaire. They had only four weeks to devise and execute the plan before the spring tides turned against them. The problem, however, was that the port was heavily defended by the occupying Germans. The idea of an aerial bombardment was immediately rejected because of potential French civilian casualties. The plan they came up with instead was to ram an ‘expendable vessel’ packed with timed explosives into the Normandie dock and destroy it. The vessel they found was old American destroyer, the HMS Campbeltown, built in 1919 and now obsolete. And so Operation Chariot came into being. The force involved two additional escort destroyers and sixteen smaller ships.
Commandos on board the Campbeltown would jump off the ship, attack dock installations, pumping stations and the U-boat pens, plus a nearby power station, bridges, and locks, before meeting up at a spot called Old Mole to re-embark on a number of Motor Launches and head home. Sending a small force against a heavily-defended dock needed the element of surprise.
(Pictured: two of the participating commandos: Corporal Bert Shipton, left, and Sergeant ‘Dai’ Davis).
The attack would involve 621 men, a mixture of Royal Navy and commandos. They were to be split into three teams – assault, demotion and protection. The wartime commandos had been established in 1940, conceived, in Lyman’s words, in the ‘midst of failure’ following the loss of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. Their task was to carry out small but daring raids against the territories of Nazi-occupied Europe. Raiding was, writes Lyman, a ‘gut reaction to the impotence felt’. But this, the raid on Saint-Nazaire, would be the most daring yet.
In preparation for her final journey, HMS Campbeltown was modified to make her lighter and, by removing two of her four funnels, to make her look more like a German destroyer.
28 March 1942
And so at 2 pm on 26 March, the convoy set off from Falmouth in Cornwall. All but the most senior knew nothing about the mission until they had boarded and were on their way to France. Many suffered from seasickness; others prayed. Two Scots changed out of their trousers and into kilts – if they were to die, they said, they wanted to be properly dressed. This sort of small but fascinating detail is where Lyman’s book comes alive. Despite knowing they were embarking on a suicidal mission, the overall atmosphere was ‘calm, confident and cheerful’.
Just minutes from their target, the Campbeltown was spotted by German searchlights. Warning shots were fired but the ship was able to return a message using German codes, winning them a couple of invaluable minutes before the Germans realized they had been duped. A firefight ensued. Thus, under heavy and sustained fire, the destroyer, packed with 4.5 tons of explosives, picked up speed and still managed to ram the gates of the Normandie dock.
Although the raid came as a complete shock to the Germans, they reacted quickly, poring troops into the port. Gunfights took place all around the docks and in the streets of the town. As the convoy prepared to retreat, having completed its objectives, a number of men were still unaccounted for. Many had been killed, others were forced into surrendering; five of them managed to slip into the French countryside and eventually made their way all the way down to neutral Spain, and from there, back to England. Most of the smaller ships had been destroyed.
(Pictured, the HMS Campbeltown rammed against the dock gates shortly before exploding).
Meanwhile, German officers inspected HMS Campbeltown smashed up against the dock gates. At noon, on 28 March, the timed explosives detonated causing a huge explosion and further destroying the dock. 360 Germans were killed. The dock remained out of commission for the rest of the war and indeed was not fully operational again for over a decade.
The raid had been a complete success in that all its objectives had been realized. But the cost was heavy: of the 621 commandos and sailors who participated in the raid, only 228 made it back to England; 169 were killed and a further 215 were taken prisoner. There were awards aplenty to acknowledge the sacrifice and astonishing bravery – 89 medals were awarded, including five Victoria Crosses (two posthumously).
The raid, writes Lyman, gave Britons hope at a low point in their history. It was a ‘gutsy plan, requiring luck, bluff and surprise in abundance to come off’; a plan that had a ‘chance of succeeding by virtue of its very audacity’. The raid certainly left the Germans feeling vulnerable – after all, the enemy had managed to penetrate even their stoutest of defences. Seven months later, on 18 October 1942, Hitler issued his infamous ‘Commando Order’. In direct violation of the rules of war, it commanded the immediate execution of any captured commando, even those wearing uniform and attempting to surrender.
And what of the much-feared Tirpitz? As hoped, she never again ventured into Atlantic waters, confining herself to the Norwegian fjords where she was sunk by the RAF on 12 November 1944.
Robert Lyman’s 300-page book is certainly detailed and well-researched. The recruitment and training of the commandos, especially, make for entertaining reading. The raid was relatively small in scale but, as we learn, the amount of planning and attention to detail is astonishing.
The heroes of Saint-Nazaire deserve to be remembered and Robert Lyman has helped ensure that they are.
(Pictured, the Saint-Nazaire Raid memorial in Falmouth, Cornwall).
History In An Hour
Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire by Robert Lyman, published by Quercus, will be available as paperback from 3 April 2014.
See also article on the Dieppe Raid, 1942.