Articles

That time 621 Brits rammed a suicide ship into a Nazi fortress

In 1942, a group of British commandos and sailors launched a daring raid to cripple the Nazi drydocks at St. Nazaire, France — the only facility in the northern Atlantic that could handle repairs to Germany's largest battleships.


The raid consisted of 18 vessels and 621 British servicemen who ran a destroyer loaded with explosives into the Nazi-held docks.

The drydock at St. Nazaire — often called the Normandie docks after the French passenger ship Normandie that the docks were originally constructed to support — was the only facility capable of repairing the legendary German battleship Tirpitz if it was damaged.

The Tirpitz was a strategic target for the British.

The HMS Campbeltown as it was being converted to resemble a German warship for the St. Nazaire raid. (Photo: Royal Navy)

Britain's audacious plan was dubbed "Operation Chariot." It called for the HMS Campbeltown, a former U.S. destroyer that was traded to the United Kingdom, to sail straight down the river approach to Normandie.

When it reached the target, the ship would ram the drydock at full speed.

The Campbeltown had a 4-ton bomb nestled in the hull that would be set to go off in the early morning hours after the ramming.

Fifteen motor launches — 112-ft. long wooden boats with little armor or firepower — along with a motor torpedo boat and a motor gunboat provided a 17-ship escort for the Campbeltown.

These ships were supposed to provide some cover for the destroyer and evacuate the sailors and commandos after the mission.

British Motor Torpedo Boat 74 before it took part in the St. Nazaire raid. (Photo: Royal Navy)

The entire convoy left England on March 26, 1942. Only a few senior officers believed the mission had any chance of success, and even those thought that there was little or no chance that any of the men would make it home alive.

The fleet sailed down to the entrance to the waterways and turned east for the final five-mile trip upriver. As they turned, the commander ordered the fuzes on the bombs be lit. The men had approximately eight hours until their ship would blow sky high.

A Royal Air Force bombing mission was supposed to distract the defenders for as long as possible, but cloud cover caused the crews to not drop their bombs for fear of causing French casualties. Instead, the circling planes just alerted the Germans that something was going on.

British commandos rush with scaling ladders. (Photo: YouTube/993ti)

The Campbeltown had been modified to make it appear a little like a German ship, and it flew a German flag. But the camouflage job wasn't particularly good.

The first few German defenses let the ships pass unmolested, but the flotilla quickly came under scrutiny.

Initially, British signallers using a stolen German code book were able to provide the right responses to challenges, but the Nazis got wise to the ruse and opened fire on the British.

Dozens of artillery emplacements and machine guns on both banks of the river started shooting the Campbeltown as other machine guns concentrated on the smaller ships.

The motor launches were quickly engulfed in flames as rounds pierced the external fuel tanks on the wooden decks and turned the boats into raging bonfires.

The Campbeltown proceeded upriver even after the helmsman was killed. The man who stepped up to replace him was also killed.

Finally, the scientist who had designed the bomb in the Campbeltown's hold stepped up and steered the ship forward.

The commandos and sailors silenced as many German guns as they could, but survivors said the ship was still alight with the fire and sparks kicked up by the constant volleys hitting the Campbeltown.

Despite the fierce fire, the Campbeltown was able to strike the dock and ran aground on its lip.

St. Nazaire, Zerstörer "HMS Campbeltown" The HMS Campbeltown sits on the lip of the Normandie dock after crashing into it. (Photo: German army archives)

The surviving commandos spilled off of the ship and rushed to their assigned targets, setting bombs on the pumping house, the winding houses, and the caissons that made the drydock work.

Despite the commandos wounds and fatigue, they got the job done, knocking out the dock's infrastructure.

But when they arrived back at their pickup point, nearly all of the motor launches were sinking or on fire. The commander gave the order for the men to disperse into small groups and attempt to fight their way to the Spanish border, 350 miles away.

British prisoners are escorted by German troops in the final hours of the St. Nazaire raid. (Photo: German army archives)

Most of the men were captured or killed during the attempted escape through the French city. The Germans treated the British fighters well, probably in honor of their bravery for having attacked a fortress at 10 to 1 odds.

Only 227 British troops made it out. Five fought their way to France, and 222 made it to safety on the surviving boats.

The prisoners left in the town were dismayed to see that the Campbeltown did not blow up on schedule. At 10 a.m., hours after the bomb was set to blow, the ship was covered in German soldiers.

Some of them were walking with their French girlfriends on the ship's decks.

According to Lt. Cmdr. Sam Beattie, one of the mission commanders who later received the Victoria Cross for his actions, was being mocked by a German officer for trying to break the docks with a flimsy ship when the bomb blew. Then the bomb went off.

The remains of the HMS Campbeltown sit in the Normandie dry dock after a bomb in the ship's hull rendered the docks unusable. (Photo: YouTube/993ti)

The resulting damage killed most of the men nearby and did so much damage to the dock that it wasn't operable again until 1947.

The mission resulted in the award of five Victoria Crosses and four Croix de Guerre, Britain and France's highest awards for valor. Another 80 awards were given to the men who carried out the raid.

transition

4 ways to strengthen your relationship with a military child

Tough. Adaptable. Resilient. Cultivated. Hardy. Well-rounded.

These are all words that have been used to describe military kids. They've certainly earned these badges of honor, but military kids are still young and in need of strong guidance along the windy road of military life.

And along the way, we parents often hear the chorus of military life echoing in our minds:

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

How R. Lee Ermey's Hollywood break is an inspiration to us all

While there have been many outstanding actors and celebrities who have raised their right hand, there has never been a veteran who could finger point his way to the top of Hollywood stardom quite like the late great Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey.

Keep reading... Show less
History

Check out these amazing uncovered photos of the great Ernie Pyle

On April 18th, 1945, war correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed by enemy fire on Iejima* during the Battle of Okinawa. At the time of his death, Pyle, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, was well-known for his intimate and personal storytelling that highlighted the experiences of the "average" soldier. Pyle was able to tell the stories of enlisted men because he embedded himself in their day-to-day lives; he didn't just observe their work, he lived, traveled, ate, and shared foxholes with them.

In remembrance of Ernie Pyle, the Unwritten Record presents photographs and motion pictures that highlight his work as a roving war correspondent during WWII.

Keep reading... Show less
Entertainment

6 things you didn't know about 'Top Gun' (probably)

In 1986, Paramount Pictures released Top Gun, a story about a hotshot naval aviator, nicknamed "Maverick," who had some extreme daddy issues. When the film landed on the big screen, it was an instant blockbuster, pulling in millions of dollars worldwide.

Filled with adrenaline-packed scenes, Top Gun inspired audience members of all ages to get out there and try to be the next hotshot pilot. After more than 30 years, moviegoers who have memorized all the film's catchphrases probably think they know everything there is to know about this action-packed classic.

Keep reading... Show less
Humor

8 reasons why peacetime training is just advanced LARPing

Live-action roleplaying is popular among nerds the world over. But what they don't realize is that the military hosts their own LARPing events to prepare for war.

While training for real-life combat, it's important that the military runs simulations that get as close to the real thing as possible. But, when you start to really break it down, it becomes clear that the government is spending tons of money on opportunities for advanced LARPing — as they should be.

Keep reading... Show less
History

The sweeping legacy of First Lady Barbara Bush

Former First Lady Barbara Bush, wife of 41st President George H. W. Bush, passed away in Houston, Texas, on April 17, 2018. The mother of 6 and grandmother of 17 was 92.

Only two women in American history have both served as First Lady and raised a son who would become president. The first was Abigail Adams, First Lady to President John Adams and the mother of John Quincy Adams. The second was Mrs. Bush, whose son George W. Bush would serve two terms as Commander in Chief beginning just 8 years after his father left office.

Keep reading... Show less
Entertainment

7 reasons Jack Burton was the warfighter I always wanted to be

Before joining the service, I thought everyone in the military was somehow fighting and killing bad guys. I looked to movies and television to try to put myself into the mindset of who I wanted to be if I had to fight a real battle.

Clearly, I no idea what I was getting into. That's where the similarities between Jack Burton and myself end.

Keep reading... Show less

6 exercises that you should be doing on chest day

Gym-goers the world over have proclaimed that Mondays are International Chest Days. This is because the chest is considered one of the most important parts of the male physique. Why? It's simple. Having a well-trained chest tends to draw wandering eyes while you're at the beach, and who doesn't want that positive attention?

Keep reading... Show less