Just four weeks after the raid on Bruneval, another combined operation was delivered on March 27-28, this time against the Nazi U-boat base at St. Nazaire. What follows is based on the official communiqués; accounts by Gordon Holman, Reuter's and Exchange correspondent, and other eye-witnesses, will be given in our next number.
All was quiet in St. Nazaire that Friday night. The tide was running high, and low clouds obscured the moon, now nearing the full. In the harbour basin German U-boats lay at anchor, where a quarter of a century ago a great host of Americans landed to help win the first Great War. Most of the town's population and the garrison were abed and asleep, but the German sentries were awake, and every now and then the searchlights swept the waters of the estuary. From north to south they wheeled and then back again, and for hours there was nothing to report. But at length – it must have been round about midnight – the probing finger of light picked out a number of darkened ships swiftly marking their way through the narrow channel which lies between the shore and a line of sandbanks. At once the alarm was given, and the curtain went up on a drama such as has not been played since the Zeebrugge raid of St. George's Day in 1918.
What followed has been tersely related in a series of official communiqués. The first, issued on the morning of Saturday, March 28, merely stated that "a combined operation was carried out in the early hours of this morning by units of all three Services in a small raid on St. Nazaire". The second, issued late the same evening, gave the news that a signal had been received from the raiding force which was now returning safely. Twenty-four hours later the third communiqué was much more detailed.
Carried out in the early hours of March 28 by light forces of the Royal Navy (under the command of Cmdr. R. E. D. Ryder, R.N.), Special Service Troops (led by Lt.-Col. A. C. Newman, of the Essex Regiment), and R.A.F. aircraft, the raid was primarily directed against the large dry docks and the harbour installations at St. Nazaire.
H.M.S. Campbeltown (ex-American destroyer U.S.S. Buchanan), with bows specially stiffened and filled with five tons of delayed action high explosive, forced her way through the doubled torpedo baffle protecting the entrance to the lock and rammed the centre of the main lock gate. The force of the impact was such that the destroyer came to a standstill only when her bridge was abreast the gate itself. As soon as the bows of the Campbeltown were firmly wedged, Special Service Troops landed as arranged and set about the work of demolition. The pumping station and dock-operating gear were destroyed, and other demolition work was carried out according to plan.
Meanwhile a motor torpedo boat had fired two delayed action torpedoes at the entrance to the U-boat basin and a motor launch had taken off the crew of the Campbeltown. A large explosion, followed by a smaller one, was seen and heard by out returning forces at 4 a.m., which was the time the delayed action fuses were due to go off.
The raid caused panic among the enemy, who fired indiscriminately at friend and foe. The enemy's 6-in. guns sank one of their own flak ships at the time she was engaging our returning forces.
Only a small proportion of the diversionary bombing could be carried out on account of low cloud for fear of inflicting casualties on the French civilian population.
Their task accomplished, our troops commenced to withdraw in motor launches detailed for the purpose to rejoin the covering force of destroyers. Enemy machine-guns appear to have prevented the full withdrawal of some of our forces.
Five German torpedo boats came into sight and opened fire on our motor launches. The escorting destroyers drove them off and forced them to retire. (Although classed by the Germans as torpedo boats, these vessels are similar to our "S" class destroyers.) Beaufighters, Hudsons and Blenheims of Coastal Command provided air protection to our returning forces.
As was only to be expected, the German High Command claimed that the raid had been a complete failure. But German war correspondents who were there paid high tribute to the British forces who had taken part in the operations. "Even after being isolated from the main force", wrote one correspondent, "certain British units continued bitter resistance. They established themselves in houses, and kept up fire from the windows, fighting with terrific fury."
Another wrote of Scottish troops who, wearing rubber-soled shoes, landed swiftly and silently on the shore without being seen by the German defenders; "they advanced on the town and established themselves in the houses, resisting every attack most stubbornly". Yet another, quoted by the official German news agency, revealed that it was not until 8 a.m. that the harbour and town were once again completely in German hands.
This last fact is eloquent of the magnificent stand made by those of the raiders who had been unable to regain the boats; it was proof that for four hours after the raid's end they maintained a fierce resistance. The Germans claimed about a hundred prisoners, and there were many casualties not only in the landing force but in the accompanying ships. When the expedition arrived back in port on Sunday, March 29, the White Ensign was flown at half-mast, and naval ratings were kept busy carrying the wounded men on stretchers to the waiting ambulances. But, as Gordon Holman wrote: "The men who paid the bill were the last who counted the cost."