Here is another piece of history from our indefatigable writer of historical tales, Paul Hannah.   This one is all about what had to be one of the most daring and desperate raids ever carried out intentionally.

Read on…………….

In WWII there were many small scale and several larger raids on the
coast of France.

Universally acclaimed as “The Greatest Raid of All” was the St Nazaire raid on March 28, 1942. The port had a vital dry dock as it was the only dock big enough to take Hitler’s pocket battleship, the successor to the Bismarck (sunk the year before), the Tirpitz .

HMS Campbeltown immediately before the explosion

The dock was over 360 m long and made of huge blocks of reinforced concrete, no bomb available at that time could hope to make more than a dent in it. Besides, to put the dock out of action, at least one of the 35 m thick steel gates at either end would need to be destroyed, no sabotage team could hope to carry sufficient explosives to do that and no bomb was accurate enough to get close.   As the Germans knew this facility was vital to their Atlantic domination aims, it was exceptionally well defended. Access to the dock was (and still is) through a narrow channel running close to the shore, so the Germans lined the shore with observation posts, searchlights,
anti-aircraft guns, machine guns and other artillery. A rowboat couldn’t get down that channel unobserved, and a battleship couldn’t pass unscathed.

For a long time, the St Nazaire dry dock was considered unassailable.

Unassailable to everyone except a young Naval Commander, John Hughes-Hallett.  In late January 1942, Hughes-Hallett was examining the charts around the entrance to the dock when he noticed something that neither the British nor the Germans had seen before. In the early morning of March 28 a spring tide and a flood tide would combine to raise the water level sufficiently to allow a small ship to reach the gates of the dry dock, smash into it and explode –  without using the channel and running much further away from the shore defenses than they were expecting. The idea was quickly passed up the chain of command until it reached the desk of Lord Louis Mountbatten himself. Mountbatten headed a unit called ‘Combined
Operations’ that planned missions involving two or more services. This was just the break they were looking for, but there was only two months to plan, prepare and execute the most daring and audacious operation of the war.

That very afternoon, Operation Chariot became the focus of British military planning at the highest level.

An old WWI destroyer HMS Campelltown, was selected for the mission and
began an extensive refit, One of her funnels was removed to make her look more like a German vessel and all extraneous equipment was removed to make her as light as possible. As every bomb maker knows, explosives are magnified if the bang can be contained momentarily, this is why a pipe bomb has a bigger destructive power than just a slab of C4. To this end the bow of the Campbelltown was encased in concrete and 24 anti submarine depth charges each connected by a rapidly burning fuse and also individually encased in concrete – totaling four and a quarter tons of TNT. Timing of the explosion would be critical as the men aboard would need to be able to get off and away from the ship, yet not long enough for the Germans to discover the plan and defuse the device. A simple clock could not be relied upon to survive the vibration of the old ship and the collision into the dock gate, so three time pencils were used. Time pencils were never regarded as particularly reliable, but they were all that could do the job at the time. They relied upon acid eating away at a wire which when dissolved, released a spring mechanism and a firing pin.

To ensure success, three identical time pencils were set in three separate depth charges, any one of which sufficient to set off the bomb. Hopefully, this simple device would set off the biggest single bang in the war so far and destroy the biggest dry dock in the world.

Early in the morning of March 28, Cambelltown was flying a German flag
and steaming with a flotilla of 18 smaller vessels loaded with commandos and their equipment. When they arrived at the port, they were challenged by a sentry station and they replied in German, hoping to buy a little more time. Eventually, the shore batteries opened fire but the increased distance gave the little flotilla a fighting chance.

The Commando groups landed, stormed the port and wrecked as much
equipment as they could and the Campbeltown put on as much speed as
she was able and slammed into the gates of the dry dock.

Not much else went to plan on the day, of the 622 British personnel engaged, less than half got away, 169 were killed and 215 more were
taken prisoner.

When the raid was over The Campbeltown was stuck fast into the gates of the dry dock and the Nazi command were bemused at the outcome. All of these dead men, all this time, effort and expense, just to present the Germans with another ship and a couple of days repairing the dock.

The British must be mad. Around thirty high ranking Germans climbed into the ship using the ladders the commandos had left. Some brought their girlfriends to admire the folly of the British.    Rumour went around that there was chocolate and cigarettes aboard so eventually some 400 Germans climbed aboard to search and joke around. Submarine commanders, gunnery officers, everyone wanted to see and laugh at the stupid British.

The commanding officer of the raiding force, Lieutenant Commander Beattie was captured and was getting very concerned that the time pencils had failed. He was doing his best to appear unconcerned and nonchalant while being interrogated by a gloating intelligence officer intimating that they must have grossly underestimated the strength of the gates. At that moment, inside a welded shut compartment taking up the entire bow of the ship a little piece of wire finally broke apart.  Inside the concrete blocks, the depth charges exploded. The bang was huge. The ground shook like an earthquake. Every one of the gawkers on board were killed along with a large number of those nearby. Gruesome bits of Nazis decorated the rooftops for miles around. It took them days to clean them up.

When everyone in the interrogation room had regained their composure,
Commander Beattie said to the stunned Nazi officer, “That I hope, is proof, that we did not underestimate the strength of the gate.”

The interrogation was cut short.

The damage to the dry dock was so great that it was not back in service for ten years after the war. The Tirpitz remained trapped in Norwegian waters until two and a half years later she was sunk by British bombers..

(c) 2018 Paul Hannah

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