Raiding St. Nazaire, Part Four
By David Lippman
Our story began with Part One and continued in Part Two and then Part Three.
As the air raid ended, Campbeltown hit bottom in the shallows of the Banc du Chatelier with a grinding shudder. Her engines struggled to push her through and she did. Minutes later the old destroyer grounded again, but kept on pushing through.
By 1 a.m., the RAF planes were gone. Mecke was puzzled by how it was carried out. He said to a staff officer, “Some deviltry is afoot,” and signaled all of his command posts, “The conduct of the enemy aircraft is inexplicable and indicates suspicion of parachute landings.” He told his men to be on the alert for a possible seaborne landing, and turn off the searchlights until aircraft were seen by glasses, eye, or radar.
At 1:15 a.m., a lookout on the northern shore reported to Dieckmann that a force of “about 17 vessels” was heading into the harbor. Mecke phoned the Harbor Commander and asked if he was expecting any German ships to enter the harbor. The answer was no, and at 1:20 Mecke ordered, “Beware landing.”
With that, the Germans lit up all their searchlights. German sailors squatting in air-raid shelters or sleeping in bunks were ordered out of them and to grab helmets and rifles, to act as infantry in repelling any attack.
At 1:22 the five-foot Searchlight “Blue 1” led all the others in illuminating the British force. Ryder now played a trump card. Leading Signalman Pike, on MGB 314, was to transmit in German a long, delaying message with the codename of a German torpedo boat, using a code captured by British Commandos at Vaagso. Pike cleverly signaled “Proceeding up harbor in accordance with orders,” which was quite accurate, as long as nobody asked whose orders they were. “Two damaged ships in company,” he added. “Request permission to proceed in without delay.”
Campbeltown just before the raid, converted to
resemble a German torpedo boat.
That did the job; the Harbor Commander phoned Mecke to say that the ships had to be German. But there was still a problem: a German “barrage breaker,” Sperrbrecher 137, bristling with 20mm Oerlikons and an 88mm AA gun, moored in the middle of the harbor. Pike had to signal that one as well. As he did, a German light flak gun opened up. Pike coolly signaled “Being fired on by friendly forces.”
But as he did, Ryder knew the game was nearly up – he was six minutes from the South Caisson, and could not risk being hit by a shell before Campbeltown rammed the target. He ordered “full ahead,” and the Germans realized they’d been hoodwinked. If a German force was being fired on by friendly forces, they’d slow down, not speed up.
The Germans opened fire. Ryder raised a Verey Pistol, which contained a captured German Navy recognition flare to fire in just such a situation, and did so. The flare rose a few feet, then plopped sizzling into the water. It was an aircraft flare, and worse, it was the wrong color anyway. The game was up. Every searchlight and gun the Germans had now blazed away at the invaders.
“The match had been set to the conflagration,” wrote Holman. “In a second the whole river was covered with a fantastic crisscross pattern of fire, marked by the varied colored tracer shells and bullets. The roar and rattle of gunfire so filled the night that it was impossible to hear orders shouted only a yard or so from the bridges of the motor launches to the gunners on the deck below. Dozens of searchlights lit the scene, but accurate fire from the ships soon reduced the number.”
Ryder ordered his ships to open fire and crack on full speed, yanking down their German flags and raising White Ensigns as they did. On Campbeltown, Gunner Milne ripped a strip off the German flag and gave it to a delighted Captain Roy. Beattie ordered 18 1/2 knots, full ahead, and open fire. Commando Bren guns and mortars joined the destroyer’s Oerlikons and 12-pounders (manned by cooks and stewards), and the night air was filled with the flash of lights, the whiz of shells, and the roar of guns.
“Our motor gunboat blazed her way past the last barrier before the entrance to the dry dock,” Holman wrote. “She then swung round comparatively wide water, and while shells screamed over the top of us, we watched the Campbeltown finish her last journey by magnificently shooting up a German flak ship, which she left in flames before speeding up for the charge into the dock gates. She piled herself up on them with the sureness of a ferret diving in a hole.”
As the distance and minutes to the South Caisson ticked off, not one of the British ships was mortally hit. On Campbeltown, Able Seaman Bill Savage (right) opened fire with his Oerlikon on the Sperrbrecher, killing the gunners aboard it, exploding the 88mm gun’s ammunition, taking it out of the battle, earning himself a Victoria Cross in the process. Up on the bridge, Beattie, Montgomery, and Tibbits took shelter behind the armored shields. Montgomery stared at the bearded Beattie, profiled against the harsh light, and muttered, “By God! The absolute Elizabethan!”
Beattie, lightly hit by shrapnel, stayed at his post, as did his engine crews, who had to dodge shells and even bullets zipping into their spaces. On the upper decks, German shells wrecked Campbeltown’s Oerlikons and set the forward 12-pounder ablaze.
Now Beattie could see the South Caisson ahead of him. He steered 055 degrees, swinging hard to starboard, then port 25, 345 degrees . . . made a correction to 350 . . . and ordered, “Stand by to ram.”
Just before him, MGB 314 sheered off to starboard. The ancient destroyer, her fuses ticking, decks covered with shrapnel, wreckage, and bloodied bodies, raced forward. At her sides, Boyd’s and Irwin’s Torpedo MLs provided covering fire, engaging German guns.
At 200 yards away, an incendiary bomb or shell hit Campbeltown’s bow, and burst into flame. Her forecastle blazing, the destroyer held her course, everyone braced for the ramming and to leap ashore. Campbeltown dragged over the anti-torpedo net protecting the South Caisson. Fifty yards away. Beattie yelled, “Port 20,” and at 1:34 a.m., Campbeltown crashed into the caisson.
As she did, the destroyer crumpled back for a distance of 36 feet, leaving her forecastle deck projecting actually a foot beyond the inner face. Beattie turned to Montgomery, and said, “Well, there we are.” He glanced at his watch, and added, “Four minutes late.”
On shore and the invading ships, everyone watched the spectacle – the blazing ship, her innards torn open by the collision, fires raging on her decks.
Beattie stayed cool. He had forgotten to order “finished with engines,” which confused the black gang below, so they kept the machinery going. But once the Commandos were off, he ordered “abandon ship,” and personally inspected his briefly-held command to ensure everyone was up on the forecastle. Then Tibbits set off scuttling charges, which would ensure that Campbeltown would not float off her perch. From there, Beattie and his crewmen boarded MGB 314 to be evacuated, their task complete.
One of Campeltown’s crewmen, Chief Engine Room Artificer Harry Howard, recalled: “The ship was definitely well-jammed into the dock, a good 10 to 15 feet. The captain did his job wonderfully. The ship was doing about 15 knots at the time. We put on everything we had. Then the crash came and all of us were thrown against to the plates.
“When we recovered we had to wait for the order ‘abandon ship.’ I went to find out what was happening. I learned from the first lieutenant that all steam was finished, so I brought all the men up.
“I went on all-fours along the upper deck to where most of the men were still stationed in the shelter. The forecastle was blazing. There were showers of bullets of all kinds. As we climbed down the ladder on to the dock some of the men were hit. Others carried the wounded as we ran round the buildings, still under fire, to the point where the motor gun-boat was waiting. This was the boat that had put the military commander and the others ashore.
“Before we left I found that most of the men of my department were on board. There was a fusillade of bullets seeming to come from everywhere. For 50 to 70 yards after we pulled out it was terrible.”
Struggling with equipment, jammed steel ladders, and their own wounds, the Commandos debarked from Campbeltown, and headed off in the dark for their targets, brandishing Thompson submachine guns and explosive charges. Lt. John Roderick and his party were first ashore, headed to wreck light guns southeast of the caisson, set up a defensive position there, and blast the underground fuel tanks. They stormed the German positions with ferocity and hand grenades. A German threw a grenade back, and a Cpl. A.F. Woodiwiss of 2 Commando kicked it back at him. The Commandos silenced four guns and reached the fuel tanks. There they tossed incendiaries down the ventilators, but with little effect.
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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.