Raiding St. Nazaire
, Part Six
By David Lippman
May 2015

Our story began with Part One and continued in Part Two, then Part Three, then Part Four and on to Part Five.

While the Commandos who landed from Campeltown enjoyed great success, the MLs suffered utter disaster. One after another, German searchlights and guns located the fragile wooden launches and blasted them, often before they could land their Commandos.

It was a similar story each time. Lt. W.L. Stephens’ boat led the starboard column, and his ML was first to be hit – a single shell sent a sheet of flame into the air. One Commando, Lt. Micky Burn, was able to leap ashore as the ML was carried down by the current, the rest drowning or being captured. Behind Stephens was Lt. E.A. Burt, a peacetime Scotland Yard detective. Dazzled by the searchlights, he managed to land his troops and take on Smalley’s demolition party at the Old Entrance. As he sailed away, he saw Lt. Tom Collier’s boat from the port column drifting from hits. He came alongside to take off Collier and his men. Burt found his old friend Collier badly wounded, and refusing to leave and delay the evacuation. Collier said quietly: “I’ve had it, Ted. Get out quickly before the bastards get you, too.”

Burt ordered “full ahead,” but three German shells hit his engine room, and his boat was out of control, too. Both skippers had to abandon ship, the wounded going onto Carley rafts, drifting amid burning gasoline.

Motor Launches (ML) of the type used at St. Nazaire.

Next was Lt. Eric Beart’s ML, who had brought a rugger ball with him, hoping for a knock-up game on the pier while waiting for the Commandos to do their job. He never got the chance. His ship was enveloped in flames and he was mortally wounded. Of the 11 Commandos on board, only three survived.

Behind that was Lt. Bill Tillie, whose ML was hit by a shell and exploded behind Campbeltown before she could land her men. Tillie survived, but only two of his 17 Commandos lived. Behind him was Lt. Leslie Fenton, a film actor married to the actress Ann Dvorak. Unable to land his men, his ML took several hits that wrecked the steering gear and wounded him. He was able to withdraw. Lt. Mark Rodier, an officer who spoke several languages, was next with his ML bearing 14 Commandos. He sailed past wrecked MLs, pools of blazing oil, and men screaming in agony, but determinedly landed his men at Old Entrance, before taking off the crew of Campeltown and withdrawing.

The port column was headed for the Old Mole, and there was a terribly irony in their battle: five out of the seven MLs were able to withdraw safely to sea and three returned to England. But only one of them was able to land its troops on the mole, which stood 25 feet above water level at high tide, occupied by German emplacements for 20mm guns. The British Commandos faced having to climb up scaling ladders just to get onto the mole.

The lead vessel was Lt. C.B.S. Irwin’s Torpedo ML, with no troops aboard. His steering gear was hit immediately, and the ML began to drift. He managed to rig up auxiliary steering and withdraw. Next was Lt. T.D.L. Platt’s ML, with Capt. David Birney’s assault party. As they approached the mole, German troops rained grenades down on the fragile ML, killing all but six Commandos. Platt prepared to unload those, but a direct hit on his engine room turned his ML into a mass of flame. As his boat drifted away, he put the wounded on a Carley raft and ordered the Commandos to swim ashore.

Birney bailed out. An average swimmer, he was carried down the coast, and reached shore, exhausted, dying a few hours later in a French house. Two of his men did the same, and Troop Sgt. Major Ted Hewett later owed his survival to having a vision of Christ walking serenely upon the water, saying there was nothing to fear. Incredibly, that gave him strength…he swam to a ladder, climbed it, and reached the top. A group of Germans awaited him. At least he was safe and alive.

Behind Platt’s boat was Tom Collier’s, which carried Bill Pritchard himself. Collier’s was the only ML in the column to unload its Commandos, but his boat was hit while approaching the Old Mole a second time to prepare for withdrawal. Behind him was Lt. N.B.H. Wallis of Australia, carrying a Commando party and Gilling, one of the journalists, who stayed on the bridge throughout the battle. The fire was too hot for Wallis to approach the mole, so he had to abandon the attempt. Next were Lt. K.M. Horlock, Lt. Ian Henderson, and Lt. Dick Falconar, all of whose craft were driven from the Old Mole by heavy gunfire.

On Henderson’s ML, Lt. Ronald Swayne of 1 Commando was ready to lead his men ashore, but he agreed with Henderson that they could not land on the Old Mole. “You could hardly blame him because the fire was very intense indeed and there were burning MLs everywhere,” Swayne said later. “And so he eventually turned the ship around and we left for home with a lot of grumbling from my soldiers. They felt they’d come all the way to there – we’d been busily engaged in shooting up the searchlights and so on. I used a Bren gun till it was red-hot and changed the barrel and took all the skin off the inside of my hand. It was a frightfully inefficient thing to do because in our regular instruction as soldiers we were always taught not to handle the barrels when changing them except by this special handle. So I lost the skin on one hand. But it was very good target shooting and I think we did a certain amount of damage. But it was very sad. So Ian Henderson decided to turn for home and home we went.”

Pritchard’s team, however, made it ashore. They trotted over to the southeast corner of the St. Nazaire Basin, and found two German tugs, Champion and Pornic, tied up. Pritchard and his team placed limpet mines between the two ships, and sank them. Then they headed for the power station that controlled all the southern lock gates, and found no British troops there. So he headed back north to hook up with Newman, and was cut down by German fire. Pritchard’s last words were to order his men to report to Newman at HQ.

The remaining two vessels were MGB 314, the headquarters ship, which landed Newman to set up his HQ and Ryder to inspect Campbeltown, and Wynn’s MTB 74. He fired his delayed-action torpedoes at the Old Entrance gate lock. With that done, Wynn passed around a celebratory whiskey flask to his bridge crew, took off the crew from Campeltown, and headed out to sea.

After Ryder was sure that the scuttling charges on Campeltown were burning, he climbed back aboard MGB 314 to discover to his horror that most of his fleet were burning wrecks or fleeing the scene at high speed. Indeed, the Loire Estuary presented an appalling sight: burning boats spewing sheets of flame, burning patches of gasoline on the water covered with black smoke, men floating in the water screaming in agony from their wounds or silent in death. All lit up by searchlights, explosions, and gunfire. Ryder gasped, “Good Lord! What the hell do we do now?”

“Commander Ryder twice attempted to get alongside the mole,” Holman wrote, “which was still held by the Germans, but the fire power was intense, and we were driven off. The crew of the exposed decks – the Germans were able to fire down on them from concrete emplacements – fought with magnificent courage. Our MGB was the last of the small White Ensign armada left in the harbor. Although there was the possibility that we had been holed, and that damage had been done to vital controls, we made a full-speed dash down the river.”

Ryder had no means of evacuating the remaining Commandos on shore. But the task had been accomplished – Campeltown was wedged into the South Caisson, and the Commandos taken on board reported the targets around the drydock destroyed or damaged. He had no choice but to withdraw.

German soldiers gather badly wounded Commandos.

But nobody could tell Newman on shore. He had sprung ashore onto a wooden jetty at the Old Entrance in the dark, and walked to his headquarters site, and bumped into a German soldier in the dark. “Sorry,” Newman said instinctively, and the German immediately surrendered, talking loudly.

It turned out that the building that Newman had selected as his tactical HQ was being used by a German unit. Newman sent the prisoner into the building to tell his buddies to come out and surrender, but another German position opened fire on Newman’s crew, so they had to take cover behind the building.

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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.