This week in history: British raid Nazi port at St. Nazaire

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, March 26 2014 3:03 p.m. MDT

HMS Campbeltown being converted for the St Nazaire Raid in 1941

Royal Navy

Enlarge photo»

In the early morning hours of March 28, 1942, British commandos embarked upon “Operation Chariot,” one of the greatest raids of World War II.

An island boasting a large population, Great Britain relied upon imports from its empire and the United States in order to sustain its war effort. Since its defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, Britain had developed the greatest navy in the world to protect itself and see to it that “Rule Britannia” did indeed rule the waves.

As it had during World War I, during World War II, Germany used U-boats to target British shipping in the hopes of bringing Britain to its knees. Though Britain had by far the larger and generally better navy, the Germans nevertheless boasted some of the largest battleships on the planet by the eve of World War II. Such battleships, if allowed to escape their German ports and make it to the Atlantic Ocean, would wreak havoc upon British merchant vessels carrying indispensable food and supplies.

In May 1941, the gigantic German battleship Bismarck had attempted to break out of the North Sea and begin its mission as a commerce raider in the Atlantic. The German behemoth was stopped and finally sunk, only at tremendous cost to the Royal Navy. The Bismarck, however, was not the only powerful battleship in the Kriegsmarine.

Construction began on the Tirpitz in 1936 and was completed in early 1941. More than 50,000 tons of armor protected its hulk, and 15-inch guns gave the battleship considerable striking power. No one ship in the Royal Navy could hope to go toe-to-toe with Tirpitz and win. The thought of Tirpitz breaking loose into the Atlantic filled the hearts of British leaders with dread. Underscoring the importance of this ship's ability to tip the strategic scales, Winston Churchill said, “The whole strategy of the war turns at this period on this ship.”

Attempts to sink the ship had proven unsuccessful. It was too well-protected in its German-occupied Norwegian harbor, and air raids could perhaps damage but most likely not destroy the massive ship. In short, the Royal Navy had to find another vulnerability, another way of taking out the ship without attacking it head-on. It found it in France.

In the 1930s, the French had constructed a massive passenger ship, the S.S. Normandie, at the dry dock in St. Nazaire, France. This dry dock had been the Bismarck's destination in 1941, and if the Tirpitz escaped the North Sea, it would head to St. Nazaire as well. Because of the ship's enormous size, the St. Nazaire dry dock was the only Nazi-controlled facility capable of repairing and servicing it once it reached the Atlantic. It occurred to the Royal Navy leadership that if they could take out that dry dock, they could effectively neutralize the Tirpitz by forcing it to stay in Norway.

Air raids were ruled out. Numerous anti-aircraft guns protected the port, and bomb damage could be repaired relatively easily. A commando raid was the only way to ensure that the port could be sufficiently damaged and permanently put out of commission. Lt. Col. A.C. Newman, commander of No. 2 Commando, was selected to lead the raid while a naval contingent would provide transportation and support. The commando mission would be to destroy as much of the dock's machinery as possible with explosives, getting men behind the armor and guns of the facility and blowing it up from the inside. In addition to the dry dock, the facility boasted a number of U-boat pens, which would also be targets.

The most important part of the scheme, however, fell under the naval contingent's purview. The HMS Campbeltown had been the USS Buchanan until the United States traded her and 49 other destroyers to the Royal Navy as part of a deal early in the war that saw the United States gain British naval bases around the world. The Campbeltown was cosmetically modified to more closely resemble a German destroyer, stripped of much of its armaments and loaded with explosives. The plan was to scuttle the Campbeltown inside the dry dock, rendering it useless for the remainder of the war.

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