Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Saint-Nazaire, Raid on (28 March 1942)

British commando raid on the French port of Saint-Nazaire on the Bay of Biscay. The port of Saint-Nazaire had one of the few dock facilities capable of accommodating the German battleship Tirpitz and was the only such facility on the French coast. The plan to raid the port was developed by Captain J. Hughes-Hallet of British Combined Operations. Known as Operation chariot, it called for commandos to ram a ship loaded with explosives into the dock itself to demolish it while other forces landed to destroy additional port facilities. Wrecking the dry dock might prevent the Germans from sending the Tirpitz from Norway on a sortie against the Atlantic convoys because she would lack repair facilities in France.

On the afternoon of 26 March 1942, the British strike force sailed from Falmouth. Commander R. E. D. Ryder had charge of the naval forces, and Lieutenant Colonel A. C. Newman commanded the landing party. The naval force centered on the destroyer Campbeltown (the obsolete former U.S. Navy Buchanan acquired under the Destroyer-Bases Deal) and naval launches. The Campbeltown was packed with four tons of timed explosives. Destroyers Tynedale and Atherstone provided escort. The flotilla, flying the German naval ensign and flashing German recognition signals, entered Saint-Nazaire harbor early on 28 March. At 1:30 a.m., the Germans, although initially fooled, opened fire with shore artillery, but the darkness hampered the accuracy of their fire.

At 1:34 a.m., the Campbeltown slammed into the dry dock's outer caisson at 18 knots. The force of the impact crushed the bow for 36 ft and drove the ship onto the caisson a full 12 inches into the steel gate, while some 260 commandos poured off the Campbeltown and launches to destroy machinery, several buildings, bridges, and smaller vessels. German reinforcements arrived, and the firing soon became intense. Although 3 motor launches and the 2 escorting destroyers escaped to Britain under air cover, most of the commandos were left behind.

At 10:30 a.m., high-ranking German officers and engineers were at the dry dock to inspect the damage when the explosives in the destroyer's bow detonated. Another charge aboard a motor torpedo boat destroyed the lock gates of the Saint-Nazaire basin. Some 400 Germans were killed in the raid, most of them in the explosion aboard the Campbeltown. Among the dead were 2 of the commando officers, who had refused to reveal the presence of the explosives. The British lost 2 motor torpedo boats and 14 motor launches. Of 621 raiders who participated, 169 were killed and 200 captured; 5 escaped to Spain. The British had achieved their primary objective, as the Germans were unable to use the dry dock for the remainder of the war. Operation chariot has been dubbed the "greatest raid of all."

Stephen Patrick Ward


Further Reading
Dorrian, James D. Operation Chariot: St. Nazaire Raid 1942. London: Leo Cooper, 1997.; Gerrard, Howard. St. Nazaire 1942: The Great Commando Raid. London: Osprey Publishing, 2001.; McRaven, William. Spec Ops: Case Studies in Special Operations Warfare. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1996.
 

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