Raiding St. Nazaire, Part Eight
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 and on to Part Seven.
Back in the port, the Germans began mopping up, capturing Commandos who had been left behind with their wounds, like Lt. Stuart Chant. Gradually, as the sun rose over St. Nazaire, the Army troops assembled their prisoners, and brought in a Wehrmacht Propaganda Company, with notebooks and cameras, to snap photographs of the wounded PoWs.
As far as the Nazis were concerned, they had defeated an extremely incompetent British attempt to raid a major port, whose climax was jamming a destroyer atop the South Caisson of the Normandie Dock. Photos of the kilted Private Tom McCormack, nursing grave head wounds, made it into the German papers, one of the most tragic shots of the war, as he died two weeks later.
Sgt. Tom Mcormack, 1st Battalion, Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders.
Yet the battle was still not over. Out on the Loire Estuary, the battered survivors of the invasion fleet were headed back to rendezvous with Atherstone and Tynedale and their voyage home.
But now they came under heavy fire from radar- and searchlight-directed coastal batteries on both sides of the river, even a 9.5-inch railway-mounted battery at La Baule. One of these huge shells slammed down on Rodier’s boat, whose passengers included Lt. Cdr. Beattie and his Campbeltown crew. A shell knocked out Rodier’s engine, and Beattie ran down to the engine room to help repair it. Seconds later, another German shell hit Rodier’s bridge, killing him and wounding everyone there. The boat blazed, and three hours of firefighting was to no avail. Everyone abandoned ship and the only survivors of Campeltown’s officers would be Beattie and Tibbits.
Micky Wynn had a tough time with his MTB 74 as well. With her torpedoes fired and her deck jammed with Campbeltown sailors and Commandos, she also had a balky central engine. One of MTB 74’s odd problems was that when one engine broke down, all four others seemed to do the same, as if in sympathy. Worse, she had virtually no weapons.
Determined repairs got the engines working, and the MTB shot off downriver at a splendid 44 knots, too fast for any gun to hit, but dead ahead were Carley rafts full of wounded British sailors. Wynn stopped to take the survivors on board, and then his MTB was hit, smack on the bridge, with Wynn knocked unconscious and losing his left eye.
All hands had to abandon ship, and the dazed Wynn found himself clinging to a Carley raft in bitterly cold water with his executive officer, New Zealander Sub Lt. Arthur O’Connor, also gravely wounded. O’Connor called out to Wynn, “Good-bye, Mick. I’m leaving you now.”
“Don’t be a bloody fool, Arthur,” Wynn yelled. “Hang on!”
“It’s lovely, Mick,” O’Connor answered. “I am going. Cheerio.”
As the dawn rose over the Estuary, Wynn and four other sailors clung to the Carley raft, until they were pulled out of the water by a German gunboat. Aside from one other sailor, the remaining 36 members of Wynn’s crew perished.
The other MLs, still loaded with Commandos, also tried to slip out. Lt. Ian Henderson, a pre-war Lloyds’ underwriter, had a Commando demolition party under Lt. Swayne on his boat, which had never made it ashore. As they sailed back, Commando Sgt. Tom Durrant, frustrated at not being able to go ashore, snarled, “What have we come here for?”
The answer came around 5:30 a.m., when Henderson and Swayne peered through their binoculars and saw three German destroyers heading up-channel and straight for them. German Naval Group West had summoned 5th Destroyer Flotilla back to St. Nazaire on learning of the raid. Henderson hoped to sneak past the as quietly as possible, but would fight with his handful of machine guns against the German 4.1-inch guns.
Incredibly, the Germans did not notice the tiny MLs slipping down the Loire at first, distracted by the noise, fires, and general destruction. Then the destroyer Seeadler saw a shadow to port, and moved to investigate, flipping on a searchlight. It illuminated Falconar’s ML, White Ensign snapping in the wind. The two ships opened fire on each other with machine-guns, and Falconar’s Bren guns knocked out the German searchlight. Another came on moments later, and so did more from other German ships, lighting up Henderson’s ML.
The German destroyer Jaguar opened fire on Henderson’s ML, wounding British commandos and starting a fire on her bridge. The German bore down on the ML, trying to ram her, and Henderson swung to port at the last minute. Jaguar dealt the ML a glancing blow, but it was enough to hurl Commando Lt. J.E. Vanderwerve into the river and his death. Ordinary Seaman Rees was sucked underwater and lost two toes to the launch’s propellers.
Jaguar stood poised over the battered ML like a carving knife, German sailors pouring small-arms fire down on the British, who fired back. At his Oerlikon, Sgt. Durrant blazed away, ignoring his wounds. The Germans fired a 4.1-inch shell into the ML, killing Henderson and leaving Commando Lt. Swayne the senior officer standing. A German officer yelled, “Stop shooting! Don’t shoot!” at the British, asking them to surrender.
Instead, the gravely wounded Durrant opened fire again, covered in blood. Jaguar was too close to the ML to shoot back, so she moved away and opened fire, shredding Durrant with bullets. The agonized Commando sergeant kept firing, was hit again, and then collapsed on the deck, dying. For his defiance, he became the only Army soldier to earn a Victoria Cross in a naval action, doing so posthumously.
Swayne knew it was time to end the slaughter – 20 of the 28 men on the ML were dead or wounded, and yelled in English, then French, “I’m afraid we can’t go on.”
The German commander looked down at the ML for a long moment, then said, “You must not play any funny tricks.”
“No, I give you my word of honor,” Swayne answered, and Jaguar nosed over to take off the Britons. The Germans showed chivalry, taking the wounded men to the wardroom and officers’ quarters and shredding officers’ sheets for wound dressings.
Cdr. Paul, the German flotilla leader, invited Swayne down to his cabin for a drink, and said, “I wanted to compliment you on your brave fight. You had no chance, of course. Besides, I knew you would need a drink.” It was a pity, he added, that the Germans and the British should be fighting each other.
While the German flotilla, loaded with wounded and dying men, headed up the Loire to anchor near Campbeltown, unaware of her ticking fuses, Ryder, on Curtis’s MGB 314, headed back out to sea, the gunboat damaged and jammed with wounded and dying men.
Holman described the run as “a nightmare experience in which one small MGB became the target for literally hundreds of enemy guns at comparatively short range. Picked out by searchlights we made our best possible speed as gun after gun took up the attack. Only a hard turn to port prevented us from running into a German flak ship lying in the middle of the river. She opened fire on the MGB at 20 yards range, but with our last shells we silenced her, and then, as we escaped, saw her destroyed by the concentrated fire of her own shore batteries, who believed, apparently, that it was the MGB lying disabled in midstream. Aided by this muddle, which was only one of many such incidents for the Germans, who frequently shot up each other in their anxiety, we raced down the estuary under the fire of the heavier batteries at the entrance. Turning and twisting to avoid the powerful searchlights, we reached the open sea. The deck was littered with wounded men. A young lieutenant crawled about administering first aid as best he could in the dark on the slippery metal decks.
“Behind us was a scene of blazing destruction which reminded one of the worst London blitz nights. Fires raged everywhere, and the Germans were still shooting away madly in all directions. The Commandos, continuing their systematic destruction under the cover of assault parties, had clearly persuaded the enemy that large forces were still in occupation. The one tragic moment from our point of view came with the realization that some of the fighting Commando troops on shore could not be evacuated. Colonel Newman had probably realized the likelihood of this contingency arising while he watched the initial stages of the attack. He raised no question on the matter and not for one minute did he hesitate to go ashore and take his headquarters staff with him. The Commandos themselves in the heat of the battle were probably the least worried of all with regard to their own withdrawal.”
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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.