Raiding St. Nazaire, Part Five
By David Lippman
Our story began with Part One and continued in Part Two, then Part Three and on to Part Four.
The Germans were counterattacking, and Roderick got word just after 2:30 a.m. that he had to withdraw. He did, his men climbing over the now empty, silent, and abandoned hulk of Campbeltown towards the rendezvous point at Old Mole.
Captain Roy’s Scotsmen headed for the pumping house and its two roof-mounted 20mm guns. Incredibly, the German gunners were fleeing for their lives, presumably terrified. Roy led his men to the back of the building where he found them coming down an outside staircase. Roy’s men opened fire and brought at least two down, hurled grenades onto the roof to silence any opposition, and charged up the stairs. Nobody was there, but the guns were intact. Roy and Lance-Sergeant D.C. Randall set demolition charges to blow them up.
“There was,” Randall recalled later, “an atmosphere of quite extraordinary serenity and detachment from the hurly-burly below and around. The crisscross streams of colored tracer not far above our heads seemed only to emphasize and bear witness to unreality.”
With that done, Roy and his team headed for Bridge G over the Old Entrance, to set up a bridgehead there, so that Commandos could withdraw through it to the Old Mole for re-embarkation. The bridge was undefended. His 13 men dug in, waited for enemy counterattack.
Wounded survivors of ML306.
Meanwhile, the five demolition parties went to work. Lt. Stuart Chant had the big pump house, Lt. Christopher Smalley the winding house for the South Caisson, while Lt. Robert Burtinshaw was to wreck the South Caisson with the “wreaths” as a back-up if Campbeltown did not explode. Lt. G. Brett was to place “wreaths” on the North Caisson, and Lt. Corran Purdon drew that caisson’ s winding house.
Chant, a Gordon Highlander, stockbroker, and footballer, lost one of his four men, Sergeant W. Chamberlain, before he debarked – Chamberlain was hit by shells and was unable to move. Chant was wounded, too. No matter – Chant and his three other sergeants lugged 189 pounds of explosives and Chamberlain off Campbeltown. Still carrying Chamberlain, the party went to the pump house, finding it barred by a heavy steel door. While wondering what to do, Chant was joined by Montgomery, who whipped out some spare explosives and clamped them to the door. The two officers stood back, and Chant tried to light the fuse with bleeding fingers.
“Bob, for God’s sake help me light this bloody thing,” he whispered to Montgomery, “the chaps will think I’m scared.”
Montgomery did, the charge went off, and Chant’s team charged in. They had rehearsed this part repeatedly. Battle was tougher, though. They climbed down four flights of stairs in smoke and darkness, leaving Chamberlain up top, carrying his share of the explosives, and set the charges around the four impeller pumps, which looked like gigantic life belts, Chant taking care of Chamberlain’s assignment and his own, despite his own wounds. But once started, it all went according to rehearsal, with Sgt. A.H. Dockerill singing “Blue Birds over the White Cliffs of Dover,” while they placed the charges around the tubes, connected the safety fuses and percussion igniters, and unreeled three feet of safety fuse.
One problem: they had a delay of 90 seconds to reach the surface, and Chant’s wounded knee was slowing him down. He ordered everyone else out first but himself and Dockerill – still singing – and the two pulled the pins and the slow fuse. Then Dockerill and Chant lumbered up the stairs in the dark as quickly as possible, Chant hopping two steps at a time.
They emerged into the blaze of searchlights and explosions and everyone took cover behind the pump house’s anti-blast wall. Montgomery was there and ordered them further off. As soon as they had done so, the pump house exploded with a great roar that was heard all around St. Nazaire, and pieces of concrete spewed in all directions. At the very least, with the pumping house destroyed, the drydock would be out of operation for months.
Smalley and his team had a different set of problems in their attack on the winding house. Nobody was wounded, but their igniters and cordtex didn’t work. They tried again with fresh igniters and safety fuses, and the winding house’s machinery went up with a shattering concussion, sending bricks spewing down on motor launches on the river and nearly hitting Ryder, who was standing on the caisson, watching Campeltown sink.
Smalley himself did not fare well either – as he clambered onto Burt’s ML 262, he struggled to free its jammed Oerlikon and the weapon exploded, killing him instantly.
As the explosions went off, Colonel Newman said to journalist Holman, “There got the first demolitions. I told you they would get in.”
“Heavy fire was coming from the direction of the main basin and also across the harbor,” Holman wrote. “The glare of fires from both burning and German and British vessels made a light nearly as strong as the searchlights. Inshore great fires were raging in many places, and the battle was intensified from time to time by a shattering explosion. A big burst of fire went straight down the inner basin, indicating that the Commandos had secured yet another position and were raking the U-Boat moorings with mortars and Brens.”
Burtinshaw’s team assessed their caisson, and it was obvious that Campbeltown had torn into it solidly, so they were sent to reinforce Purdon.
That team, tasked with the North Caisson’s winding house, ran off up the western side of the drydock in the night, coming under fire from German troops in an air-raid trench near the drydock’s big crane. The British killed everyone in it with grenades, and headed on to their target.
While Burtinshaw and his men protected Purdon’s rear and guarded the bridge leading across the harbor to the mainland, Purdon tried to shoot off the winding house’s lock. No luck. The half-Chinese Cpl. Ronald Chung smashed it open with a sledgehammer, and the crew stormed in, placing charges on the spokes of the driving wheels and motors.
For them, the war is over.
Finally, Brett’s team stormed the North Caisson under heavy fire, Brett himself twice being wounded. They struggled to open the hatch that would let them into the caisson’s interior, so they could place the “wreaths” inside it, but failed. Burtinshaw tried to blast open the door with a clam and a limpet, but also failed. Under heavy fire from a drydocked German tanker’s guns, Burtinshaw ordered everyone out to attack the gun crews. The men did so. When they returned, they could not find Burtinshaw. His body was found later.
Sgt. Frank Carr took over, and figured that the underwater charges had to be blown – at the very least, they could punch holes in the caisson. He cleared everyone off the caisson, walked back to the western side, took up the igniters, and pulled the pins. The wires burned through in 60 seconds, and a thunderous boom that sounded like a bass drum being hit went off. Through the din of explosions and battle, Carr heard water shooting into the caisson – mission accomplished, time to withdraw.
The Commandos made their way south through smoke, shattered buildings, and fires, toward the bridge over the Old Entrance, where they presumed their pals who had landed from the Motor Launches would be waiting to establish the withdrawal point at the Old Mole. They were wrong.
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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.