In 1942, two and a half years into the Second World War, the British were facing a problem. While the British Navy mostly commanded the Atlantic, the Germans had one significant advantage. The battleship Tirpitz, the largest European military warship ever created at that time by total tonnage.
Rather than attack the Tirpitz head-on, which could be quite costly, they came up with an alternate plan which would effectively limit the effectiveness of the battleship.
Learn more about The St. Nazaire Raid, the most daring and audacious raid of World War II, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
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The Tirpitz was a monster battleship. It would be the largest European battleship ever put to sea. Only the Yamato class battleships of Imperial Japan and the Iowa Class battleships of the United States would ever be larger.
It was part of the peak of the age of battleships which would soon become obsolete given the rise of the aircraft carrier.
The Tirpitz was one of two Bismark Class battleships that were created by Germany. The other was the namesake of the class, the Bismark.
One of the reasons the British were so concerned with the Tirpitz was because of what happened with the Bismark.
In 1941, the British encountered the Bismark in the Battle of Denmark Strait, which was between Greenland and Iceland.
The Bismark sunk the battlecruiser, HMS Hood, at a loss of 1,415 men and critically damaged the HMS Prince of Wales.
The British managed to damage the Bismarck, which resulted in a chase across the Atlantic.
The problem with the Bismark was that it was so large, there were few places it could go for repairs. In particular, there was only one port on the Atlantic which could accommodate the Bismark: Saint-Nazaire, in the Brittany region of France.
The British eventually sunk the Bismarck after a long chase across the Atlantic which involved most of the ships in the British Home Fleet.
The British didn’t want to have to take on the Tirpitz like they did the Bismark. One-on-one, the Tirpitz could take out any ship in the Royal Navy.
If the Tirpitz managed to get into the shipping lanes, it could wreak havoc on the supplies coming to Britain from the United States. Moreover, with the Tirpitz having moved to the coast of Norway, it had a protected base to operate from in the Norwegian fjords.
In lieu of taking on the Tirpitz directly, the British came up with another idea.
If they could take the port of St. Nazaire out of commission, then the Tirpitz would never risk going into the Atlantic. If St. Nazaire wasn’t available for repairs, the Tirpitz would have to sail past Scotland and the British Home Fleet to get back to Germany, which would almost certainly spell its doom.
Taking out St. Nazaire effectively would bottle up the Tirpitz in the Baltic Sea.
The question was, how to do it.
The first idea was to send in bombers and destroy it from the air.
The problem with this is that the area around St. Nazaire was heavily fortified with anti-aircraft defenses. Bombing in World War II was an extremely imprecise affair. Entire squadrons would be sent on missions in the hopes that a single bomb would hit a factory, and more often than not, they missed their target.
For the port of St. Nazaire, they would have to hit the gates which separated the sea from the harbor, and that wasn’t a big target.
They came up with another plan instead. A much more audacious plan.
It was dubbed Operation Chariot.
The plan, in its simplest form, was to take an old destroyer, fill it with explosives, and ram it into the gates of the dry dock at St. Nazaire.
The ship selected was the HMS Campbeltown, which was formerly a WWI era destroyer in the US Navy called the USS Buchanan. The ship was obsolete, so it was considered expendable.
They had to make the ship superficially look like a German destroyer. They removed 2 of the ship’s 4 funnels and reshaped the remaining. The illusion only had to work for a little while.
Inside the ship was four tons of explosives in the form of depth charges which were mounted in the front of the ship.
In addition to the HMS Campbeltown, two other destroyers 16 small ships would accompany it carrying commandos. The commando’s job would be to destroy the pumps and mechanical equipment which were necessary for the dry dock to function. Basically, wreck as much as possible to make it as difficult as possible to put the facility back into commission.
The commandos and the sailors on the Campbeltown would then hop into the other boats and make their escape.
The total size of the British force was 346 Royal Navy and 265 Commandos.
The small fleet set out at 2 pm on March 26 from Cornwall.
They encountered a couple of French fishing boats, which they detained their crew so they wouldn’t report anything back to shore.
Just before midnight on the 27th, a bombing mission was sent out as a diversion. Around the same time, as the Campbeltown was getting close to the port, they raised German naval flags on the ship to enhance the deception.
At 12:30 am on the 28th, the ship entered the estuary and got the attention of the Germans.
The British were flashing a light signal code to the shore which came from a captured German ship. However, the version of the code they had was out of date. Nonetheless, it gave them some extra time.
Eventually, the Germans began firing on the ship, and the Campbeltown radioed in German that they were receiving friendly fire, which also gave them some more time.
Finally, the gig was up, and all the ships started getting full enemy fire. At this point, the Campbeltown went full steam ahead and was going at 19 knots straight into the gates of the dock.
It tore through the torpedo net and smashed into the doors. The momentum of the ship took it 10 meters or 33 feet into it.
The commandos then spilled out onto the docks to begin their assigned demolitions.
The commando part of the operation didn’t go quite as well as the ramming mission did. While they got many of the targets, they didn’t get all of them. They were pinned down by germans who were in defensive positions.
The big problem, however, was that many of the landing boats for the commandos were destroyed, and the other evacuation boats weren’t able to reach the dock.
Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Newman, who was the commanding officer of the commandos realized that evacuation by boat wasn’t going to be possible. He assembled the 100 or so remaining commandos on shore and gave them three orders:
- To do our best to get back to England;
- Not to surrender until all our ammunition is exhausted;
- Not to surrender at all if we can help it.
The men tried to break out of the dock area and into town where they could then hopefully get to the countryside. Most of them never made it that far and were eventually surrounded and captured.
The explosives on the HMS Campbeltown were supposed to detonate at 4:30 am, but they didn’t.
In the aftermath of the attack, the next morning civilians were at the dock cleaning up and a team of German officers was on board the Campbeltown.
At noon, the explosives detonated, and 320 French civilians and Germans were killed. The explosion damaged the docks far more than the initial collision and commando raid did. If the explosion hadn’t gone off, the docks might have been repaired in a matter of months.
Strategically, the mission was a success. The St. Nazaire docks were unusable for the remainder of the war.
However, it came at a very high price. Of the 612 men which set out from England, only 228 returned. 169 were killed and 215 became prisoners of war. 5 of the commandos who were stranded on the docks actually managed to make it to Spain and found their way to Gibraltar and back to Britain.
89 awards for gallantry and bravery were awarded from the mission, including 5 Victoria Crosses, the highest British military honor.
The Tirpitz remained a high priority for the British throughout the war and it was finally destroyed by the Royal Airforce in 1944.
The bell from the HMS Campbeltown was salvaged during the raid and it was given to Campbeltown, Pennsylvania for who the ship was named. When a new HMS Campbeltown was launched in 1988, the town lent the bell back to the ship for as long it remained in service. The ship was decommissioned in 2011 and the bell was returned.
However, on May 21, 2020, the Royal Navy announced the construction of a new HMS Campbeltown. There is no word yet on if it too will carry the original bell of the ship.