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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.