Raiding St. Nazaire, Part Ten
By David Lippman
Our story began with Part One and continued in Part Two, then Part Three, then Part Four and Part Five then Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight and on to Part Nine.
By Monday, March 30th, things seemed to be getting back to normal. The Germans rounded up trucks to haul off the British PoWs to a La Baule hotel, where they received medical attention and had their information taken for the Red Cross. As the trucks rolled out, the PoWs watched French workers bicycle or walk towards the port for another day of work.
Everything was quiet until 4 p.m., when the first of Wynn’s two delayed-action torpedoes exploded in the lock gate to the inner harbor at the Old Entrance, which did not break the gate, but frightened everyone, particularly the Germans. They became more alert, assuming the French were engaging in like-minded deviltry, and ordered a search of all houses in the vicinity, double-checks on identity cards, and a 9 p.m. curfew.
An hour later, Wynn’s second torpedo exploded, and a group of French workers, understandably terrified, raced to the bridge at the northern end of the St. Nazaire basin, meeting up with a group of Germans on guard duty. The Germans, nerves rubbed raw, opened fire, sending the French scattering, and causing other Germans to open fire. All night long German troops shot at anything that moved, mostly each other, killing French civilians, including women and children. The Germans shot some of their own Todt Organization workers, mistaking their khaki uniforms for British kit.
The Germans were furious over these two blasts, and took fierce measures. People living near the dockyard were hustled off in the middle of the night to prison camps while their homes were searched, either for explosives or British troops. The mayor and his advisors were yanked out of bed after midnight and hauled before a German colonel. The terrified mayor was told that any further incidents would lead to reprisals, in the form of execution by firing squad of one-tenth of the people in the quarter concerned.
The mayor and his aides in turn yanked printers out of their beds and had them prepare and display posters to pass on this warning.
Meanwhile, the cumbersome German chain of command reported on the raid all the way up to Adolf Hitler in Berlin, who greeted it with his usual fury. He was enraged that the occupying troops should have allowed the British to creep in under their noses and land a raiding force that had done so much damage. He ordered Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the craggy-faced Commander-in-Chief in the West, to personally hold an inquiry into the fiasco.
That at least gave Rundstedt something to do. The job of Commander-in-Chief West was limited and dull; he later told Allied interrogators that his only power was to change the guard in front of his gate at his palace at St. Germain-en-Laye, and that he spent much of his time reading detective novels. But Rundstedt was nobody’s fool – he had led powerful German forces to victory in Poland, France, and Russia – and went straight to work.
Soon enough he reported to Hitler that no German could be faulted for allowing the raid to take place, as the British were pretty capable warriors on their own. Hitler was not happy with this answer, and sent his Director of Operations, General Alfried Jodl, to the scene to write another report. Doing so enraged Admiral Erich Raeder, the Navy’s Commander-in-Chief. It was bad enough to have one Army flag officer investigating a Navy matter, but two was insulting. Hitler ignored the complaints.
Jodl proceeded to St. Nazaire, and quickly found scapegoats. He blamed the Navy for failing to anticipate possible British raids, drawing incorrect conclusions from U-593’s report, the lack of aerial reconnaissance, inadequate patrolling in the Loire Estuary, lack of radios in patrol boats, and there being only one German radio station in the Estuary.
The report also admitted the success of the British operation, the detail of planning and courage with which it was carried out, and added that had the RAF bombers been able to undertake their diversionary raid properly, the naval force would have steamed in undetected, landed all of its men, and caused further chaos.
This was not told to the German public, though. The Propaganda Companies sent to the battle scene provided newsreel footage of wounded and dying British troops, and desperate and shocked British Commandos being taken prisoner. They described the raid as a “lamentable fiasco,” adding that if this was an attempt to create a “Second Front” to relieve the Soviet Union’s struggles, then, “The hangover which will follow St. Nazaire and the British Maisky offensive will be felt not only in London and Washington but also in Moscow, for all European press comments agree that London has proved at St. Nazaire how much help it can give to Moscow. A new link in the long chain of England’s strategic and propaganda defeats, and a new proof of her military impotence.”
German photographers had a hard time finding dejected British prisoners.
The Germans did pay tribute to British courage. “We would not wish to deny the gallantry of the British,” a Navy spokesman said. “Every German is moved by a feeling of respect for the men who carried out this action.
“The crew of the Campeltown under fierce fire forced their ship through the northern lock gates, and carried out a crazy enterprise as well as it could be done. They fought until death or capture.”
The Germans could claim victory in the numbers game – the British had lost 169 killed out of the 611 who sailed, and most of the rest taken prisoner. The Germans had lost about 142 men.
But the raid had indeed achieved its major objective – putting the Normandie Dock out of business. The Germans used a suction dredger to build a sand dyke around the North Caisson to take water pressure off of it, and dredged up river silt to pile around the dock entrance to replace the South Caisson. That accomplished, the Germans began draining out the flooded dock. Doing so took nine months, revealing the hulk of Campbeltown, her bows blasted open into two semi-circles by the depth-charges, her upper works a wreck.
As matters developed, the drydock would not be put back into service until 1947, when the German MAN Company would install a replacement lock gate. The first ship to use the Normandie Dock would be an ex-German liner named Liberté in 1948, and the drydock has fulfilled its function for ship repair ever since.
Amazingly, Campbeltown’s ship’s bell survived the destruction and the war, and was given to the town of Campbelltown, Pennsylvania, as a gesture of appreciation toward the United States for the Destroyers for Bases Agreement. The bell would make another journey across the Atlantic in 1989, when she was lent by the town to the newly-commissioned Type-22 frigate HMS Campeltown. On June 21, 2011, when that ship was paid off after 22 years of honorable service, the bell again returned to Pennsylvania.
The impact of the Normandie Dock’s destruction on the war was a matter of some debate: neither Tirpitz nor any other major German warship sailed into the Atlantic on a raiding voyage after March 1942. Hitler became focused on Norway as the decisive point of the war for his surface ships, obsessed with stopping convoys to Russia, and fearful of a repeat of the Bismarck catastrophe.
The submarine pens of St. Nazaire, in fain stages of construction a month after the raid.
Nor did the raid achieve its second objective of rendering the U-Boat pens inaccessible at low tide – Wynn’s torpedoes caused two great blasts, but little else. It would take the RAF Bomber Command’s “Earthquake Bombs” to punch holes in the pens.
But the Germans did become increasingly fearful of British commando raids on their U-Boat bases – these were of great importance to the German war effort – and they had to divert increasingly scarce resources and manpower to defend them against further raids, draining the German economy and Eastern Front in Russia.
The British also had their own armchair analysis to do. The RAF’s commitment to the raid did not help at all. The Motor Launch crews showed ample courage and determination, but the MLs were just too frail for the task of a seaborne landing. Future amphibious raids and assaults would require heavier landing craft and greater fire support. The former were being built (mostly in America) and the latter would require planning.
However, the raid did have major impact on British and French morale. At a time when British arms were being defeated across the globe, a small band of troops had achieved a great success against great odds. The heroism was recognized. 51 raiders were Mentioned In Despatches, 22 of them posthumously. Fifteen Commandos received the Military Medal, including four of the five Commandos who evaded German search parties, reached the countryside, and made their way to southern France and home. Twenty-four sailors, petty officers, and chief petty officers received the Distinguished Service Medal. Four sergeants, including Troop Sgt. Major Haines, received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The Conspicuous Gallantry Medal, open to Royal Navy Warrant Officers, went to four men.
The Military Cross went to 11 Army officers, including Brett, Burt, Chant, Day, Etches, Montgomery, Purdon, Roderick, Swayne, Terry, and Watson.
The Distinguished Service Cross, given to Navy officers below the rank of Captain, went to 17 officers, including the commanders of six of the motor launches, Tibbits of Campeltown, and Wynn. As a PoW, the latter proved so annoying to the Germans that he was packed off to the legendary “bad boys” camp at Colditz. Because of his injuries, he was repatriated home, but not allowed to take part in the war. However, he persuaded the Admiralty to send him on a 1945 mission to bring supplies to released naval PoWs. Riding in a Guards Armored Division tank, flying the White Ensign, he drove with his supplies into Marlag-Milag Nord PoW Camp in North Germany, filled with naval and Merchant Navy PoWs, and released many of them, including his shipmate from St. Nazaire, Bill Lovegrove.
Four officers received the Distinguished Service Order, Boyd, Platt, Copland, and Roy. Finally, five Victoria Crosses were presented: Ryder, Newman, and Beattie, for their leadership, and Durrant and Savage, the latter posthumously.
These awards were considerable honors, but the French were also deeply affected. Two years after the war ended, St. Nazaire hosted a reunion for the survivors, with Newman and Ryder, now in dress uniforms, leading their now civilian-suited men across the “Bridge of Memories” as part of a ceremony to unveil a memorial to the raid, which included mounting a 12-pounder gun from Campbeltown on a stone on the Estuary.
At the ceremony, St. Nazaire’s mayor told the raiders the effect the assault had upon his nation at the time – despite German censorship, news of the raid had gone through France, electrifying citizens under harsh occupation, knowing that defeat was not certain. “You were the first to give us hope,” he said, recognizing their valor.
The Commandos were impressed, too. For decades, they would continue to make the trek back to St. Nazaire for the anniversary of the raid, in gradually dwindling numbers. For the 1982 service, they voyaged in the Royal Yacht HMS Britannia, and were inspected by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, himself a World War II naval officer.
They would also visit the Escoublac-La Baule Commonwealth War Cemetery, where some of their comrades-in-arms remain buried. The site had begun in 1940 with the burial of 17 Britons killed in 1940 fighting in the area, and then 21 who had died in local hospitals. Gradually more British servicemen were added with from the sinking of the Lancastria, the St. Nazaire raid, and airmen shot down in the area. Throughout the German occupation, Louise Jaoen, a resident of La Baule, dedicated all her time and energy to maintaining the graves. With money collected secretly from the generous local people, she provided a cross for every grave and small monument, had hedges planted, and employed a permanent gardener to tend the cemetery. Her devotion to this work was later honored by the award of the King’s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom. Today 325 Commonwealth servicemen are buried there, 74 unidentified, along with three Poles and a Merchant Navy seaman who died after the war.
The Germans also recognized British valor. After awarding Capt. Mecke with the Knight’s Cross for his swift response to the raid, they held a funeral at La Baule on April 1st, 1942, four days later, to bury the dead of both sides. Twenty British PoWs, under Commando Lt. “Hoppy” Hopwood, the remaining senior officer, were allowed to attend. Hopwood had led an escort group, and one of the men being buried was a man he’d escorted, Lt. Burtinshaw.
The Germans provided a generous wreath, placed Union Jacks on the British coffins, mounted an honor guard, and conducted a service with Protestant and Catholic Chaplains. After that, Hopwood and his men lowered Burtinshaw’s coffin into the ground and let fall the wreath. Three volleys of musketry were fired in respect, and the German officers saluted as well. Hopwood and his men, hatless, were unable to return the salute, but stood at attention.
Four days before, they had all been trying to kill each other.
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David H. Lippman, an award-winning journalist
and graduate of the New School for Social Research,
has written many magazine articles about World
War II. His new e-book, World
War II Plus 75, is now available. We're pleased to add his work
to our Daily Content.