Raiding St. Nazaire, Part Seven
By David Lippman
Our story began with Part One and continued in Part Two, then Part Three, then Part Four and Part Five then on to Part Six.
The Germans were now reacting with their usual efficiency. Sailors from various shore units were charging across Bridge D from the south side of St. Nazaire Basin, making up in numbers what they lacked in training - metalworkers and technicians from 2 Works Company, AA gunners from 703 Battalion, coastal gunners from 705 Battalion, crewmen from the parked tankers, even the Harbor Commander’s guard company - more than 280 in all.
Against this, Newman had 113 Commandos, 40 of them from demolition squads, only armed with pistols. At least the British were better fighters than the sailors, but the Germans had machine guns and 20mm Oerlikons on their side.
Newman, unaware that the ships were withdrawing, sent his men to destroy the gun positions near the Old Mole and prepared to evacuate.
As the Commandos regrouped, Newman learned from the Campbeltown parties that their objectives had been accomplished. Obviously it would be impossible to blast bridges and lock gates against an increasingly larger enemy. Time to head for the Old Mole and go home. “When the situation is uncertain or confused,” went a British Army saying, “collect your forces.”
Joined by Roderick and Roy, Newman led his men to the river south of the Mole, and suffered the immense shock of seeing the blazing MLs in the river. “Good heavens, Bill!” Newman exclaimed to Copland, “Surely, those aren’t ours!”
Copland could only stare in silence. Then Newman regained the sense of humor of a Commando. “Well, Bill, there goes our transport.”
With Germans surrounding his small force, Newman bore the sole responsibility. Yet he was calm. Later he said, “We were trained for it, you know.” But then, he asked Copland, “Should we call it a day?”
“Certainly not, Colonel,” Copland answered. “We’ll fight our way out.”
Newman agreed heartily. He decided to divide his force up into groups of 20, with orders to fight their way out of the dockyard, through the town, and break up into smaller groups, to head for the countryside, neutral Spain, and safety.
“The scene at the Old Mole (was) hard to describe,” Newman said later. “There were flames and smoke everywhere. Some wounded Germans were screaming down an alley and small-arms fire was coming from all the buildings around us. Our own chaps were forming a perimeter round the Old Mole; some railway trucks gave them cover and from behind these they were coolly returning the fire with ever-decreasing ammunition. When the group leaders came up to me or my orders, they saluted and grinned. I told them that, as usual, there was no transport to take us home, and that we should fight our way into the town and from there to open country. No one seemed at all surprised.”
Newman ordered his men to attack across Bridge D, into the town, and scatter once there into smaller groups, and make their way to neutral Spain, hopefully with help from French resistance. With about 100 men left, many wounded, some armed with only pistols, the Commandos broke out, relying on stealth, darkness, and training to reach the bridge through gunfire, flames, and even RAF bomb craters.
Newman set the example by refusing to take cover, staying on his feet and making jokes.
When the Commandos reached Bridge D, they found it defended by a line of German riflemen and a pillbox with machine guns. There was no room for finesse. Troop Sgt. Maj. Haines sited a Bren gun for covering fire, and Newman yelled, “Away you go, lads!” The Commandos charged and the astonished Germans shot high and wide – they’d been doing so all night, being sailors, not infantrymen – and the Commandos charged across what they would later call the “Bridge of Memories” and into the town.
Commandos taken prisoner following the raid on St. Nazaire.
There were some casualties. Lt. Tiger Watson was hit before they crossed the bridge. Sgt. Rennie was shot in the knee. A German grenade hit Corran Purdon in the leg and shoulder, and he fell on top of another Commando.
“We all went for it like long dogs,” Corran Purdon described it later. “I recall Donald Roy sweeping along the middle of the road, erect in his kilt, the cheerful Colonel Charles Newman, and the confidence-inspiring Major Bill Copland, who was a rock to us all. Other outstanding fire eaters included Lieutenant Johnny Stutchbury, Troop Sergeant Major George Haines, and Sergeant Challington. A hail of enemy fire erupted as we crossed the bridge, projectiles slamming . . . into its girders, bullets whining, and ricocheting off them and from the cobbles. There was a roar of gunfire . . . of varying calibers and the percussion of ‘potato masher’ grenades as we neared the far end. One of the latter burst at my feet and the explosion, combined with my own forward velocity, lifted me clean off the ground, wounding me in the left leg and shoulder. I remember landing on the back of the sturdy Stanley Day, No. 2 Commando’s Adjutant. I could feel my left battledress trouser-leg wet with blood, but, beyond a sense of numbness, my leg still worked and I quickly forgot about it.”
Copland ran straight at the pillbox, emptying his magazine into its firing slit, others following his example. Roy saw a German run out from it and hurled a grenade to put him down. Suddenly a German motorcycle combination with a machine gun in the sidecar emerged from around a corner, and every Commando in sight opened up on the attackers. The motorcycle spun into a café wall.
The Commandos kept running, 100 yards more, and then faced much tougher opposition. A German armored car rumbled up in the night, the lead element of the German Army’s 679th Infantry Brigade, a partially motorized outfit equipped with machine guns and much better-trained for ground fighting than Mecke’s sailor-technicians.
With the armored car’s appearance, the British began breaking up into separate parties. Copland jumped into an abandoned truck, and hit the only switch he could find that worked. It put on the truck’s headlights. Sgt. Denison showed quick wit, responding with one of the most common yells in wartime Britain: “Put out those bloody lights!”
Lacking maps of the town, bumping around in the dark, finding German troops at nearly every corner, the Commandos broke up into vague parties. German troops shot their weapons in all directions, adding to the terror and din. Newman squeezed himself into a doorway to avoid an armored car that was racing past.
The Commandos called this part the “St. Nazaire Obstacle Race,” as they climbed over walls, ran through back yards, and invaded chicken coops – virtually every Frenchman was raising chickens to supplement the tight German rations. Newman ran head-first through a window and entered a parlor with the breakfast chinaware all set up, so he carefully left through the front door.
By now it was 4 a.m., and the Commandos were short on ammunition, exhausted, and wounded – nearly three out of every four men had been hit. Some just found places to hide. Micky Burn and Rifleman Bushe tried the boiler room of a ship in the docks – they were caught anyway. Donald Roy, leading a party, sought water for his wounded men, so he went to a house. It turned out to be a police station. The French gendarmes were under orders to cooperate with the Nazis, so they summoned German troops.
Newman himself, with 15 others, hid in a large cellar equipped as an air raid shelter, complete with 18 mattresses. Only himself, Copland, and two others were not wounded. He intended to stay there until nightfall, and then break out, but if the Germans showed up, he would surrender.
He did. The German Army ordered a systematic search, and when the Wehrmacht men showed up, Newman went upstairs to surrender. To his amazement, the main German headquarters was across the street. The Germans stripped Newman and his team of their weapons and started interrogating them, with little success.
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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.