We crept out of Falmouth under cover of darkness, the chill night air broken by the hum of a powerful engine. Destination? Saint Nazaire, on the mouth of the Loire River on west coast of France.
Sixty-seven years earlier, 622 British commandos and sailors also left the Cornish harbour bound for Saint Nazaire. But for that brave number the journey had a very different purpose - Operation Chariot, one of the greatest (and certainly one of the most unbelievable) wartime raids. Ever.
Their mission was not to target the French port’s famous, and almost indestructible, German submarine pens but to irreparably damage the Forme Ecluse Loius Joubert, a dry dock better known simply as Normandie dock (after the cruise liner of the same name for which the dock was constructed in 1932). For the facility was the only place on the Atlantic coast large enough for the Germans to repair their giant battleship, the Tirpitz (sister ship to the infamous Bismarck), which was sitting menacingly in Norwegian waters. The Tirpitz posed a huge threat to the Allies’ Atlantic supply convoys and by destroying the dock it was hoped the Germans wouldn’t risk taking her into action in the Atlantic. Without the use of Normandie’, returning to Germany for repairs would risk running into the British Navy - who’d recently scored a major morale boost by sinking the Bismarck.
But when an air attack is too imprecise just how do you destroy a heavily guarded dry dock, partway up a shallow river estuary? With a whole heap of cunning, an immeasurable amount of courage and a great deal of high explosives!
Plan of Attack
I’ve long been fascinated by the story of Operation Chariot, and as its anniversary (28 March) rolled around it seemed the ideal time to pay tribute to those involved with a trip to the Normandie dock, and the memorial on the sea-front at Saint Nazaire.
It only seemed right to take a British bike to Saint Nazaire, and that really only gave us a choice of one machine for the 900-mile round trip - Triumph’s Tiger. Formerly a slightly podgy soft-roader, in 2007 Triumph gave the Tiger a bit more bite, building an all-new tarmac-adventurer around their latest 1050cc triple motor. Some owners may have been crazy enough to take their old Tigers away from the blacktop, but with 17in cast rims and radially-mounted brakes the new machine screams road-only. Perfect for a route which would take me down to Falmouth (to see the British memorial to the raid which stands on the harbourside there), back up to Plymouth to catch a ferry to Roscoff, down France’s west coast to Saint Nazaire, then back north to meet a return ferry at Caen. That was my plan set, but what about that of Operation Chariot? Well…
With help from French intelligence, a team of men headed by ‘Adviser on Combined Operations’, Lord Louis Mountbatten, hatched a plan to ram the dock with an explosive laden destroyer. Rather than exploding immediately, the charge would be delayed so that the ship could drop-off its commando passengers to perform further on-shore destruction, whilst another troop-carrying destroyer would accompany it and provide return transport. All the while, the RAF would run a diversionary bombing raid, in order to keep the German gunners occupied.
The admiralty was having none of it. Using two destroyers, and sacrificing one, was deemed an unacceptable waste and a huge risk. And Bomber Command didn’t seem sold on it either. But time and tide waits for no man, and when a date was identified that would allow a ship to sail in the shallows rather than the more heavily defended deep-water channel the admiralty conceded, and allowed the use of a vessel which ‘had seen better days’.
HMS Campbeltown had previously been the USS Buchanan - the Americans giving the ageing destroyer to the British Navy in 1940. Clearly the Germans weren’t going to allow a British ship to sale up the Loire unchallenged, so the Campbeltown was disguised to feature a silhouette similar to that of a German Möre class ship. Two of the four funnels were removed altogether, with the remaining pair slash-cut. The ‘big guns’ were removed, and armour was added to both the bridge and the decks, in order to give the 269 commandos onboard some protection.
The rest of the force would be carried on wooden motor launches - not really the kind of craft you’d want to take into the hellfire that awaited them in the Loire - and to make matters worse, these craft had their auxiliary petrol tanks mounted on-deck! In fact, so perilous was the mission that those taking part were initially given the option of pulling out, without fear of recrimination or reprimand. None did.
Two gunboats would provide extra support and the destroyers HMS Tynedale and HMS Atherstone would escort the ‘fleet’ towards their target. With the Campbeltown under the command of Lieutenant Commander Stephen ‘Sam’ Beattie, they sailed from Falmouth at 14:00 on 26 March 1942.