Raiding St. Nazaire, Part Nine
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, Part Seven and on to Part Eight.
Through good steering by Ryder and the MGB’s helmsmen, MGB314 managed to join up with Fenton’s and Falconar’s MLs and then Atherstone and Tynedale. The exhausted and wounded raiders were taken on board the two destroyers, Ryder himself going aboard Atherstone.
There he reported the raid’s achievements to Cdr. Jenks. No, he had not seen Campbeltown explode, but the demolition of the pump house and winding house would put the Normandie Dock out of business for a long time. On the other hand, the Old Mole landing had been a failure, and most of the raiding Commandos had been left ashore to face death or capture. All these serious human losses left Ryder extremely quiet, and Jenks said solicitously, “I’m sorry it was a failure, sir.”
Ryder answered, his expression unchanging, “Well, I personally saw Campbeltown firmly wedged in the lock gates and her fuses fired – objective No. 1. I was nearly killed by a piece of masonry from the pumping station blown up by the commandos – objective No. 2. I saw Wynn fire his torpedoes at the foot of the old lock gates – objective No. 3. I don’t see why you should call that a failure.” Ryder would receive a Victoria Cross for his leadership.
With that, the British prepared to withdraw. With Cleveland and Brocklesby on hand, Cdr. G.B. Sayer of Cleveland was now senior officer, and he ordered Curtis’s MGB and the two MLs scuttled as deadweight. The British reached home on March 29th, at 1:45 a.m.
However, there were still three MLs out there: Boyd, Horlock, and Wallis, who all somehow escaped the hegira of gunfire. Unnoticed by anyone, they sailed home together, shooting down a passing He 111, and reached Falmouth with fuel for one more mile of sea between them.
Back in St. Nazaire, the Germans were rounding up and interrogating British Commandos and sailors, hauling them off to their headquarters building. All were stripped of their kit, and when the Germans searched Newman and found his Commando knife, they became quite agitated, standing him and his party up against a wall as if to be shot. The Germans claimed Newman’s knife was an unlawful weapon and he and his party were not soldiers, but saboteurs.
“If you can find a single German soldier who has been stabbed in the back with a knife,” Newman roared, “you can take us all out and shoot us.” After a while, a high-ranking German came back and said, “Your explanation has been accepted,” and told Newman and his crew to put their clothes back on. He did, and later received a Victoria Cross.
At German headquarters, a requisitioned hotel near the harbor, the British PoWs were assembled. They refused to talk to their captors, but instead shared stories with each other, realized that their service as combatants was over, and wondered if they would survive the explosion they expected. At least one PoW was prepared – Lt. Stuart Chant sat on a pier near Campeltown, still wearing his tin hat, even though the battle was over, just in case he was close to the blast.
Germans examine the wreck of the Campbeltown.
The ship itself was quite the spectacle. The Germans did not seem to impose a cordon around it, and many German military men and their French girlfriends wandered about the wrecked Campeltown, snapping photographs or looting its stores of candy, food, and liquor. A group of technical officers were also on hand, trying to figure out how to shift the destroyer from its perch.
As the morning rolled on, firefighters began to clear the flames, propaganda cameramen took shots of wounded and dying British troops for German newsreels – to show the decadence of their enemies – and Sam Beattie was picked up from the wreckage of Rodier’s boat. The Germans, observing his rank badges, shrewdly hauled him off for interrogation, but the exhausted and cold Beattie wasn’t talking. His interrogator, who spoke good English, was.
“Your people obviously did not know what a hefty thing that lock gate is. It was really useless trying to smash it with a flimsy destroyer.”
At that precise moment – 10:30 a.m. – the glass from the window crashed to the floor and all of St. Nazaire was shaken by a gigantic explosion. Campeltown snapped in two, one of her funnels flying skyward like a rocket, in a blast that sent an enormous flash into the air. The explosion caved in the 160-ton caisson, and it flew backwards under the blast and water pressure. The two halves of Campeltown and vast amounts of water flooded into the drydock, flipping the German tankers in it against its walls. Steel debris from destroyer and caisson flew into the air and came to land all over the port, followed by human debris from anywhere from 180 to 300 Germans and Frenchmen on the ship. The drydock was destroyed – it would not be rebuilt until 1948 – making the raid, despite its difficulties and losses, a complete success.
The roaring and earthquake went on for a few moments, and then stopped. In the hotel, the British Commandos had their answer on how safe they would be from the explosion – just barely. They burst into laughter.
When the explosion ended, Beattie – the fifth VC recipient of the raid – calmly said to his interrogators, “That, I hope, is proof that we did not underestimate the strength of the gate.”
With that remark, the interrogation was ended.
When Campbeltown exploded, Cdr. Beattie was not the only British officer being told the raid was foolish – Sub Lt. Dark was on Jaguar, which had tied up 500 yards from the dock gates. A German officer had boarded the ship to conduct a preliminary interrogation, and he was just telling Dark that the British raid was a “mad thing.”
At that moment, Campbeltown’s 24 fused depth charges went off, shaking the German destroyer and sending steel fragments into the air, many of which landed on Jaguar, as it did on the rest of the town.
The explosion was one of unbelievable violence, showering water, bits of steel, and human fragments all over the port. For days dockyard workers cleared away the human remains and spread concealing and blood-absorbent sand.
The other impact on the Germans was panic – they raced out of doors yelling and shouting in best movie fashion, and opened fire in all directions, convinced there were still British Commandos loose in the area, or that the French population had organized a revolt.
When there were no further explosions or gunfire, the Germans resumed the easy task of securing the port area and began the more difficult task of controlling the flood in the drydock. Two tankers, the South Caisson, and the aft half of Campbeltown were flung about it like beachballs in a pool, and had to be extricated. More importantly, the water pressure on the North Caisson was immense, and it had to be protected from collapsing on its own.
On Sunday, March 29th, the situation was more orderly – all British troops had been rounded up, French workmen and German were at work cleaning up the various messes, and German officers and clerks toiled at interrogations and reports. All over the port hung the stench of cordite.
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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.