A photograph taken by the occupying Germans of HMS Campbeltown at the St Nazaire dock before its explosion

Heroism and high strategy

The story of how British commandos did the impossible


This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Operation Chariot, the Raid on St Nazaire, has long been known as “The Greatest Raid of All”. The audacity of the plan, the lethal danger of the operation, the inadequacy of the equipment provided, the astonishing courage of the participants and the spectacular success of its primary object have ensured its place in the annals of British martial heroism. 

The Greatest Raid: St Nazaire, 1942: The Heroic Story of Operation Chariot. Giles Whittell (Viking, £20)

In the early hours of 28 March 1942, a force of 623 commandos and naval personnel stole up the Loire estuary to attack the port of St Nazaire. Leading the force was HMS Campbeltown, a superannuated destroyer acquired from the Americans, which had been converted into a floating bomb by the addition of four tons of high explosive secreted in her bows. 

The plan was that she would ram the steel gate of the port’s immense dry dock where the charge would explode, demolishing the dock gate. The commandos would then swarm ashore to attack the dockyard installations, particularly the pumps and winding mechanisms which operated the dry dock. With the dock out of action, Hitler would not risk his battleship Tirpitz in the Atlantic where she could wreak havoc among the convoys supporting the war effort in Britain. This was the immediate, supposed object of the raid.

Giles Whittell’s new book is not the first full-length history of the event. C.E. Lucas-Phillips’s account, The Greatest Raid of All, was published in 1958 followed 40 years later by James Dorrian’s Storming St Nazaire, which remains the most detailed, authoritative account of the operation. In 2013 Robert Lyman published Into The Jaws of Death which told the story of the raid anew, with a greater concentration on the genesis and planning of the operation. 

In 2007 Jeremy Clarkson took time away from messing around with cars to make a documentary for the BBC about the raid. The result was an “affectionate and enthralling” piece of television which brought the exploits of the Charioteers — as the men who took part in the raid have always been known — to a wider audience. 

“It was the fact of the operation that mattered most”

Although the ostensible object of the raid was to discourage the Germans from risking the Tirpitz in the Atlantic, it is now known that, by the spring of 1942, the German high command had already decided to keep the battleship moored safely in a distant Norwegian fjord. Accordingly, destroying the dry dock at St Nazaire was, strategically, a futile gesture. 

The real point of the raid was to demonstrate that the British were still up for a fight. The early months of 1942 represented the low point of British fortunes in the war. In February, Singapore fell to the Japanese, a military calamity as well as a huge blow to Britain’s prestige and her standing as an imperial power. 

Three days earlier, the flight of the German battleships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and the cruiser Prinz Eugen up the Channel from the French port of Brest in broad daylight was a humiliation for both the RAF and the Royal Navy. Some demonstration to her US and Soviet allies that Britain still had the fighting spirit required to win the war was urgently needed. Operation Chariot provided that evidence. 

Dorrian acknowledged this and Lyman hammered the point home: “the Charioteers succeeded spectacularly simply by virtue of raiding … voicing through decisive action Britain’s collective determination to continue fighting”. Whittell agrees, stating that “it was the fact of the operation that mattered most”. He goes much further, however, in emphasising the broad strategic significance of the raid on St Nazaire by including in his book a coda describing Winston Churchill’s circuitous journey to meet Stalin in Moscow in August 1942. 

The entire force was short of ammunition

He flew from England to Moscow in an immense loop via Gibraltar, Cairo, and Tehran in an American B-24 Liberator piloted by William Vanderkloot. Once he’d arrived in the Soviet capital, Churchill was able to use St Nazaire to convince Stalin that the British were in earnest about taking the fight to the Germans in their continental stronghold. This was what the prime minister meant when he described Operation Chariot as “a deed of glory intimately connected with high strategy”.

Whittell’s book offers a good account of the essential elements of the raid and, although it is lighter in its description of some of the operational detail than its three predecessors, it loses nothing in conveying the courage of the British commandos and seamen in the face of suicidal danger. 

On the other hand, it incorporates some fresh background material. We hear, for example, of the pre-war life of Micky Burn, one of the commando officers, in which he had met Hitler and had an affair with Audrey Hepburn’s mother. Whittell also includes a smattering of new material from the German archives, which throws more light on the raid as seen from the point of view of St Nazaire’s defenders. 

Nor does he avoid criticism of the way in which the raid was planned: it was, he writes, a “turkey shoot; a massacre, foreseeable and foreseen”. The whole operation had about it “a distinct sense of amateurs giving it a go”. The Fairmile motor launches in which many of the commandos sailed were unprotected, inflammable deathtraps, wholly unsuited to the demands of the operation. The entire force was short of ammunition, while the planned diversionary air raid was a fiasco which succeeded only in alerting St Nazaire’s defenders to the fact that something was afoot.

The book does contain one or two errors of fact. Whittell states that “Every naval officer except Ryder [the commander of the naval contingent] was a reservist.” This was not the case: Sam Beattie, the captain of the Campbeltown, Bill Green, the navigator, and Nigel Tibbits, the explosives expert, were all regular naval officers. 

Likewise, his assertion that “no one who landed on French soil returned to England on the launches or destroyers” does not hold water: Ryder and Signalman Pike both went ashore at St Nazaire and returned to England the following day. The diagram of the port installations at St Nazaire confuses the pumping house and the southern winding house, both important targets for the commandos.

These quibbles apart, The Greatest Raid is an excellent addition to the literature about the attack on St Nazaire. The calm, steely courage and fighting spirit of the Charioteers, which made the operation a success, suffuses Whittell’s book. As one of the surviving commandos, Micky Burn, said half a century after the raid, “What I think we all did … had a spiritual as well as technical and tactical importance. What it comes to is that we did the impossible.”

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