The bold raid on St Nazaire

My wife and I were babysitting a motel. Heritage listed, it was all upstairs and downstairs with the emphasis on stairs:

My wife and I were babysitting a motel. Heritage listed, it was all upstairs and downstairs with the emphasis on stairs: it had no lift. Mr and Mrs X arrived. An English couple, they proved to be elderly and, what’s more, Mrs X had recently come through surgery and chemo for abdominal cancer. We’d placed them in a delightful period room upstairs but 15 stairs were now a real problem. (The booking agent knew but failed to advise.) Heavily booked, we made our apologies and asked if they’d bear with us for a few minutes while we phoned a regular client who might allow them her pre-booked ground floor unit. They’d hear nothing of it.

Mr and Mrs X – Ian and Beryl – were so impressed with our motel, our town and our care, they asked to stay four nights rather than the one originally planned — provided they could retain the same room, which they loved! It took a bit of juggling but we managed it.

On the second evening, I sat and chatted with Ian. He mentioned being in the Royal Navy during World War II. When I said I was reading an article on the daring English wartime raid on St Nazaire, Ian said, “I was on that raid!”

We discussed it that night, and then maintained correspondence about it and other matters for a long time after they returned to England.

This, then, is the story of the audacious raid on St Nazaire in March 1942… combined with a friend’s personal recollection.


The Germans built their greatest battleship, Tirpitz, capable of ranging the Atlantic and a certain scourge to Allied shipping. Large and fast, with guns bigger than any the RN possessed, she could out-shoot any ship they were able to bring against her. Tirpitz created a problem for the Germans too because, being so big, she needed a huge dry-dock for inevitable wartime repairs. Docks available in North Germany would mean a dangerous journey through the narrow Skaggerak as well as the North Sea or the English Channel. There was only one suitable dry-dock on the Atlantic coast, Normandie at St Nazaire in German-held France.

The British, realising the essential nature of the location, wanted to put it out of action. Blanket bombing was out of the question due to the potential for a huge numbers of French civilian casualties. A naval bombardment would be difficult because Normandie was located five miles up the River Loire. No under sea operation was possible because of anti-submarine netting.

Ian recollects, “I joined the navy on August 14, 1941 aged 18, doing 10 weeks training at HMS Collingwood and becoming an ‘Ordinary Seaman — Hostilities Only’. I joined HMS Atherstone and was on convoy duties from Milford Haven, through the English Channel to Immingham (on the Humber) and back.”

A daring and extremely bold plan was hatched. The RN took a small, elderly destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, removed two of her funnels and reshaped the remaining two, adding painted plywood parts to her superstructure to make her silhouette look a little like that of a German Mőwe-class destroyer. A massive quantity of explosive –- greater than 4 tonnes — was located in a metal container concreted into her bow section, to be fired by fuses on an eight-hour delay timer. Her mission was to ram at high speed into the massive 35-foot thick lock gates then blow them asunder. She would be accompanied by 15 motor launches (MLs) carrying commandos and a motor gunboat (MGB-74) for firepower, all under the provided protection provided by a pair of Hunt-class destroyers, HMS Atherstone and HMS Tynedale.

Ian remembers, “We sailed out well into the Atlantic before turning back towards France. We saw a French fishing vessel and the Atherstone took possession — the crew came on board us. The French ship was sunk, the idea being that the French could not pass on information (about the raid). The Campbeltown, MLs and MGB went in on the raid and the two destroyers remained outside the harbour to escort (survivors) back to United Kingdom. Our ship’s number L.O.5 had to be painted out so we looked a little like a German destroyer, and we flew the German flag except when we were in action – then the German flag was lowered and the White Ensign raised.”

The raid on St Nazaire had begun.

The second part (to follow next week) will tell of the success – or otherwise – of the raid and more about my friend Ian’s involvement.

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