|The early months of 1942 were one of the darkest ever periods in Britains history. Her armies were being driven back in almost every major theatre of war. Whether in North Africa, Burma, or Malaya, the news was every- where the same. Critically short of supplies she depended for her survival on the vulnerable, lumbering convoys which brought her succour from America.
Already ravaged by U-boats this vital lifeline faced a new and mortal threat when in January the German super-battleship Tirpitz sailed north to Trondheim. This was the traditional first move of surface raiders preparing to break out into the wastes of the North Atlantic, and it prompted an immediate response from the Admiralty, who took urgent action to forestall her.
The Normandie in Dry Dock
Larger, faster and better armed than the very best ships the British could send against her, Tirpitz was vulnerable only in that the very size which made her so feared also imposed limits on her operational use. Only a handful of ports throughout the world possessed dry docks large enough to house her should she, like her sister-ship Bismarck ever be damaged in battle: and of these only one, the western French port of St. Nazaire, could be accessed directly from the Atlantic. Destroy the massive dry dock built there to house the liner Normandie and Tirpitz would be forced to return all the way to Germany for repair. Require her to run the gauntlet of air and sea patrols, and of the waiting Home Fleet, and it was judged that her masters might well rethink their plans to sail her.
Far too precise a target for heavy bombers, it was quickly realised that the Normandie dock could only be destroyed by landing a force of men and several tons of explosives from the sea. A daunting operation at best, its planning and execution were entrusted to Lord Louis Mountbatten, who as head of Combined Operations was a specialist in mounting raids on enemy territory. Drawing his resources from all three services he was asked to sail a task force more than 400 miles through hostile waters, land his troops against spirited enemy resistance, support them while they carried out their demolitions, and then take the survivors off again. Already at the limit of the resources then available, planning was further complicated by the fact that St. Nazaire lay six miles inside the estuary of the River Loire and was safely approached only by means of a narrow and very well defended deep-water channel.
With time at a premium Mountbattens staff produced a scheme which was as risky as it was audacious. Code named Operation Chariot, it relied upon surprise and the judicious use of captured enemy signals to sail the attacking force as close as possible to its target before it was spotted and identified as hostile. Eschewing the guarded channel it was planned to take advantage of the high spring tides and send a force of light ships into the estuary across the extensive shoals which were believed to make much of it unnavigable. The force would consist of an obsolete and specially modified destroyer - originally the USS Buchanan and now in British service as HMS Campbeltown - whose bows had been packed with explosives, and a fleet of Fairmile Motor Launches drawn from Coastal Forces. All of the ships would carry parties of highly trained Army commandos, the majority of them lying flat on the deck of the old destroyer. Approaching the port at the head of two parallel columns of Fairmiles, Campbeltowns job was to wrest every knot she could from her ageing engines, ram the outer gate of the dry dock and then scuttle herself with her charge placed tight against it while her commandos stormed ashore to do such damage as they could. The starboard column of launches would land their troops in the old Entrance, while those of the port column would be put ashore at the old Mole. The surviving ship would then wait in the estuary until the commandos had completed their demolitions, after which the survivors of all parties, including Campbeltowns, would be taken off again. As the launches raced for home they would leave behind the old destroyer secure in the knowledge that her charge would explode and blow the lock gate to smithereens, long after they were out of range.
With planning virtually complete, the various elements of the Chariot force began to assemble at Falmouth, their chosen port of departure. At this point it consisted of the Campbeltown, 12 Fairmiles, an HQ gunboat, an MTB and 2 Hunt class destroyers who were to act as an escort till almost within sight of the estuary. Only as the time for departure drew near was it realised that enemy vessels might be met within the estuary itself and that the force as it was presently constituted was too lightly armed to deal with them. To give it some teeth a last minute addition was therefore made, of half a flotilla of torpedo-armed Fairmiles based in Dartmouth. comprising 4 boats of the 7th ML flotilla, each mounting 2 torpedo tubes, this small but important formation was to become the Chariot striking force and acquit itself with distinction in the coming action.
Joining the main force just in time to take part in a dummy attack on Devonport dockyard the Dartmouth boats, MS 156, 160, 177 and 270, found that their peculiarily garish form of camouflage stood out like diamonds in the glare of searchlights, necessitating a hurried repaint prior to departure.
MLs 160, commanded by Lieutenant Tom Lizard Boyd and 270 commanded by Lieutenant C.S.B. Irwin, were stationed with the gunboat in the van of the force. Carrying no troops, their primar function was to clear the way of enemy ships and give covering fire to the Campbeltown as she ran in to ram the gate. MLs 156, commanded by the film actor Lieutenant Leslie Fenton, and 177, commanded by the gallant but ill-fated sub-Lieutenant mark Rodier, were stationed at the rear of the starboard column. Acting as troop carriers, their commando complements together comprised the assault group of captain Richard Henry Hoopeoper.
At two oclock on the afternoon of Thursday, March 26, the Chariot Force left Falmouth at the start of its long voyage south. Now consisting of 21 vessels in all, and carrying a total of 246 soldiers, it was jointly commanded by Lieutenant Colonel A.C. Newman, and Commander R.E.D. Ryder, R.N. Apart from one inconclusive action with a U-boat whose captain wrongly reported both their course and composition, they enjoyed an uneventful voyage, arriving off the estuary mouth just after midnight on the 28th. Adopting their attack formation they stole across the shallows and when finally challenged from the shore pretended to be a German convoy returning to port. Flashing genuine German call signs provided by Intelligence, they confused the enemy for long enough to penetrate close to their target, then all hell was let loose.
Swept by fire from dozens of gun positions, both in the port itself, and on the north and south shores of the estuary, the ships began to take casualties immediately. Fuelled by petrol, several of the Fairmiles blew up when their tanks were pierced, while others took hits to their flimsy wooden hulls that forced them out of the line. Ahead of them all, held in the glare of many searchlights, the elderley Campbeltown, drew the worst of the German response. Her sides rippling with explosions she surged toward the lock gate while ahead of her the gunboat and the Fairmiles of Boyd and Irwin duelled with guns ashore. Boyds 160 engaged and damaged the shoreline batteries to the east of the dock which would enfilade the destroyers starboard side when she struck: Irwins 270 meanwhile took on the searchlights which were fixed upon her bridge and armoured wheelhouse. At 20 knots and with her commandos in position to immediately storm ashore, the Campbeltown hit the gate at 0134 hours. She struck dead centre and was hurriedly evacuated - no longer a ship but a time bomb ticking her way to destruction.
With the destroyer stuck fast in the gate the full fury of the German guns fell upon the hapless Fairmiles. Boyd, who took his 160 upstream in search of targets initially escaped the worst of it, but would later win the D.S.O. for his daring rescue of survivors from a burning boat. Irwin on the other hand was quickly hit and disabled. Forced to drift beneath the German guns while her emergency steering was rigged, the 270 nevertheless survived to limp to the open sea where she was later scuttled.
Of the intended landings at the old mole and old Entrance, little could be achieved in the face of withering defensive fire. only a handful of men were landed - far too few to be effective. Of the two Dartmouth boats carrying Hoopers party, Rodiers 177 did manage to pierce the German defences and put her men ashore; however Fentons 156 was hit early, disabled and forced to retire. with her steering shot out, only one engine working fitfully, and with both naval officers as well as Hooper wounded, it would have been suicide to go on. She too was scuttled later.
Nosing away from his landing point Rodier was hailed from the Campbeltown, and ordered to come alongside to take off survivors. While most of the destroyer ratings evacuated forward onto the dockside, her officers and a number of others, including wounded, waited on her stern to board the launch. Amongst the men taken off were the captain of the Campbeltown, Lieutenant Commander Beattie, her First Lieutenant, Chief Engineer, Surgeon, and perhaps most notably the brilliant young officer Lieutenant Nigel Tibbits, who had graduated from Dartmouth head of his term in 1930. It was Tibbits whose hands had been on the wheel when Campbeltown struck, and it was Tibbits who had devised the means by which the destroyer had been turned into such a potent weapon of destruction.
Backing away from the destroyers port quarter the heavily laden launch picked up speed as she headed seaward, a long trail of phosphorescence streaming out behind her. Almost within sight of safety she was first bracketed by salvoes of heavy shells, and then hit and stopped. Afire amidships, with petrol swilling about in the scuppers, and with wounded everywhere, she eventually burned to destruction while the few who survived the onslaught took to the water. Of the men so very recently taken from the Campbeltown only a handful, including Beattie, survived to be plucked from the sea in the morning. Most, including the gallant Tibbits, were lost.
Returning to the fray at the end of his sortie upstream, Boyd was met by the sight of boats burning and sinking in the fire-swept waters off the dockyard. He loosed a torpedo at a suspected enemy warship, and then proceeded seawards. Arriving off the old Mole he found the burning motor launch of Lieutenant T.D.L. Platt, which still had men on board. Ignoring the danger to his own boat, Boyd took the 160 alongside and held her there while Platts boat was searched for survivors and evacuated. Only when the last man was taken off did he attempt his own escape.
Missing the appointed rendezvous with the escort destroyers, Boyd teamed up with MLs 307 and 443, and turned north in the direction of home. When they finally berthed in Falmouth it was to find that they were the only vessels of the whole Chariot force to return.
Of the 611 soldiers and sailors who took part in Chariot, 169 were killed and 200, most of whom were wounded, were taken prisoner. Only 242 returned immediately to British shores.
When the Campbeltown exploded the following morning, carrying with her the massive outer gate of the Normandie dock, the destruction for which so many young men had sacrificed their lives, was finally complete. so well had they done their job, the dock could not be used again before wars end.