THE FRENCH VIEW OF OPERATION CHARIOT

While researching for his book storming St. Nazaire Jim Dorrian obtained from the Association Prehistorique et Historique de la Region Nazairienne accounts of the night of the Raid by French people living in the Old Town. Jim has kindly sent us copies for our archives. In the following account Madame Loreal, in 1942 a young bride-to-be, remembers the 28th March:

“In 1942 we lived in the Place de la Vieille Eglise, in the village of Old St. Nazaire. Our building, once an hotel, housed nine families. on the ground floor were the offices of the Loire Fluviale, (Loire River Authority). We were on the first floor, my future in-laws on the second, Mme and M. Pelou on the third. Every air raid we would all meet up in the cellar.

The narrow and tortuous streets are connected by little alleyways and winding steps which climb or descend between illmatched houses. It is in this setting, suitable for traps and ambushes, that operation Chariot took place. There have been for a while now frequent bombings and multiple alerts.

On Friday the 27th, the same as every night, my parents and I wait a little before going to bed. Will there be an air raid? Yes or no? I decide to go to bed. “Air raid! ... my mother cried: “Let’s go down to the cellar!” ‘lob no - I want to sleep”.

My father loses his temper, and all three of us go downstairs with our suitcases. Our vaulted cellar has two exits. We arrived via the corridor and stairs, but there is another door, padlocked, which opens onto the courtyard which leads, by a narrow path, to the Place de la Vieille Eglise.

Suddenly a crack of gunfire. We hear hasty footsteps in the corridor. It’s the voice of Gerard Pelou, who shouts out: “Are you there. Whatever you do, don’t move ... the English are landing”. Being part of the Defence Passive, he leaves just as quickly.

There is panic in the cellar as we envisage a lengthy battle. Haven’t they told us on the radio from London to have food reserves. At the moment we have nothing in the cellar, absolutely nothing. What to do? What are we going to eat. We hear the sputtering of the machine-guns, the banging of grenades exploding an the ground.

Our house is on the corner of the Place de la Vieille Eglise and the Rue Vieille Ville. It’s the old Hotel Blanconnier. We are in the middle of the battlefield. Along the length of the cellar windows, from the pavement, we hear the noisy clattering of the German boots, then the discreet, muffled steps of the English. In the morning we will find shutters, windows and furniture pierced, or scarred by machine-gun bullets.

Meanwhile someone is coming down the cellar stairs, arriving in the corridor and speaking German. Behind the padlocked door we shush: some of the English have disappeared into the alleyway and established a defensive position. In our cellar we are cornered.

Suddenly a German sailor, in a white cap, navy blue jacket, white fabric trousers, with one arm wrapped in a kitchen cloth stained with blood and a rifle held in front of him, shouts.. “Tommiesill “Tommies!” “Nix Tommies! 11 ici Francais” we replied.

Fortunately the English, who must have realised what was going on, kept quiet. The German leaves. We stay hidden away in the cellar. I am sitting in a wheelbarrow. We hear shouts in the square, where they fight hand-to-hand, and the murmurs of the English taking cover behind our door.

At last, a lull. My father says, “I’ll try and go to see what’s happening”. He gets to the first floor and half opens the shutters. Quickly he comes back down, telling us, “The gunboats are burning ... the Loire is on fire”.

At last, at daybreak, we go back upstairs to our apartment. Feet clad only in slippers, a coat over the top of pyjamas, I am frozen when I finally get to bed.

All of a sudden there are sounds of boots on the stairs. The doors are thrust open. A German comes into my bedroom, throws back the bedcovers and sheets to the foot of the bed, and sticks a revolver and torch under my nose. Then he let loose a volley of blows at my small corner cupboard, hoping to find an Englishman behind it ... they searched in all the houses.

On top of the Pilots’ building the Germans have installed a cannon. During the night of the Commando it causes huge damage to the disembarking troops. The English will succeed in taking the building, and will turn the gunners into mincemeat. They will then use the cannon against the Germans. Very early on the Germans will remove their dead, so they won’t be in evidence when people open their shutters.

At the Pilots’ building a decapitated corpse has been forgotten about. I can see it from my window. A Frenchman, too curious, moved forward to examine him more closely. At the same time a German motorcyclist, in grey oilskins, on his motorcycle/sidecar, sees him. He charges at him and, mad as hell, chases him. our compatriot owes his salvation to his frantic escape through the alleyways of Old St. Nazaire.

A lorry passes by, and people throw bodies one on top of the other, the bodies of the Scots recognisable by their kilts. I notice that one of them was cut to pieces. Someone told me that an Englishman had been shot down when he had gone to place an explosive charge intended to blow up the rotating bridge.

During the Saturday morning everyone was dazed and distraught. They kept themselves to themselves, wearing their identity cards, which were needed to move around and pass over the bridges.

Towards midday a friend and I go to the small square close to the Old Mole, and we tell each other about the night. All of a sudden a terrible explosion - the Campbeltown, embedded in the gate of the Joubert dry dock, just blows up with the Germans who were close by. Some Englishmen have stayed on board, even knowing the time of the explosion. We receive, full in the face, the force of the explosion, and we see a huge black cloud, as well as a mass of debris. Filled with panic we escape, each going our own way. We wouldn’t see each other again for two years.

Sunday is calm. Monday we can sense the tension everywhere. The Germans are nervous, furious, and accuse the French of having helped and hidden the English. A renewal of tension at the end of the afternoon. The gates at the Old Entrance, (close to 1’Espadon), explode as a result of a timing device. The situation is so fraught that my future mother-in-law, who is at the hairdresser’s, takes the ferry on leaving, to escape to St. Brevin.

We are at home, on the first floor, when the anti-aircraft guns, perched on the top of La Glaciere start to bombard our building. Plaster falls everywhere and the stairwell is covered in it. We each arm ourselves with our small suitcases. The Germans are in the corridor. Their rifles, bayonets fixed, are trained on us. They order us downstairs. We move forward with rifles at our backs. We are lined up in the square, in front of a wire fence. Machine-gun bullets deafen us. We try to lie on the ground to protect ourselves. That is forbidden us.

About 5.00pm we are taken to a small park where a bunker has been built. Women and children are ordered inside. They refuse. We will enter with the men, or we won’t go in. The Germans threaten to shoot the men if we don’t go inside. Forced to obey, the women worry. “What will they do with the men?” They have a right to worry. The soldiers were “foaming at the mouth” and resembled monsters: were they drugged? I heard one of them say, in bad French, “If it was up to me I’d kill them all”.

After a while someone brings us out. What a relief, the men are still there! They put us into columns of four and we are taken to another bunker, on the Boulevard de Mer, opposite the primary school. This time they make us all go in.

With no light, no food, not even a drop of water, we are all here, sprawled in cement dust, which stains our clothes. The night passes with nothing to eat or drink, in terrible anxiety. Guards, demanding silence, are placed at all the entrances.

On Tuesday those who are close to the entrance see buses arriving. They make us all get out. Two buses move forward. Women and children must get in one, and the men in the other. The other buses come forward two by two, and are filled in the same way. By chance my parents and I get in the same bus, it was the last, and everybody crammed in. Five or six guards watch over us, demanding silence always. Without a word we go in convoy towards the station, by the rue de Nantes. On the pavement people watch us uncomprehendingly, others wave 11au revoir”. Where are we going? Chateaubrian? We end up at Savenay, on the racecourse, which is a huge mess - it’s a prison camp with round-roofed huts.

The split is done in the same way we got onto the buses. Later during the day those in charge tell us that on no pretext must we leave the huts at night because the guards would shoot us. They bring us a meagre meal made up of a crust of bread the size of a fist, and in a tin beaker we are given boiling hot tisane, which burns our hands. In the huts we find bedsteads, and two or three of us stretch out, our coats spread over our weary bodies. All night long the wind blows strongly and we can’t sleep, what with the noise of the metal sheeting, and the cold.

Wednesday April 1st we stay here. Towards midday the French and German authorities meet to discuss our freeing. There are about 1500 of us in the camp. A trough of water is brought to the front of each hut for our toilette. We wash our hands and faces. Twelve caught lice. Volunteers peel potatoes for a meal. We are given orders to march in columns to Savenay station. A train is waiting for us. I still hear the comment of one man to his wife, “Don’t get in; it is a train for prisoners!”

On return to St. Nazaire we are met by the authorities. Using loudspeakers the authorities warn us that we have one hour to go home and get what we need. Our apartments, our houses, had been pillaged. They send us to eat at l’ouvroir, rue de Croisic. we sleep at the nunnery, rue du Bois Savary. We are looked after by the services du Secours National.

A few days later, with the help of lorries, horse-drawn carriages, or by hand, we move what we have left. The Germans film us roping our furniture together and passing it through the windows. About 800 families are evacuated in the same way from Old St. Nazaire which will be totally destroyed by the Germans, with the exception of a few well-placed houses, which they will occupy.

The following Sunday - Easter Day - we have no house. In five days we have become homeless. A few people, during daytime, will shelter in the Church of St. Nazaire. They gave every family a space under Les Halles to store what was left. My parents will go to Noirmoutier. Before all that our wedding is brought forward and I stay in St. Nazaire.

Back