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I Was There! - We Went With the Raiders to St. Nazaire

The War Illustrated, Volume 5, No. 127, Page 669-671, May 1, 1942.

Supplementing the official story on St. Nazaire (see page 627), here are eye-witness accounts by Gordon Holman, Reuter's and Exchange Telegraph correspondent, and men who participated in the operations.

Our journey to St. Nazaire was undertaken with an escort of destroyers (wrote Gordon Holman). There were alarms but absence of air attack. A dramatic moment came when at nightfall we changed direction and began our run into the enemy stronghold. The whole force moved silently and without the slightest glimmer of light. I was in a motor gunboat with Commander "Red" Ryder, and Lieutenant-Colonel A. C. Newman, commanding the naval and military forces respectively.

The German flak rose into the sky in staccato bursts of fire. As we entered the estuary tracer shells went up on either side forming a strange Gothic archway of fire.

Suddenly, as we pushed up the estuary towards our objective, two powerful searchlights swept the water, picking up the leading ships as if it had been daylight, and the Germans fired a burst of flak. There was a brief and tense interval and then there came another and more continuous burst of fire, which was answered by the Campbeltown.

The match had been set to the conflagration. In a second the whole river was covered with a fantastic criss-cross pattern of fire, marked by the varied coloured tracer shells and bullets. The roar and rattle of gunfire so filled the night that it was impossible to hear orders shouted only a yard or so from the bridges of the motor launches to the gunners on the deck below. Dozens of searchlights lit the scene, but accurate fire from the ships soon reduced the number.

The British force, which had been moving slowly, cracked on all the speed they had, and continued up river towards St. Nazaire and the docks. They went in face of fire from many shore positions which have the raiders all they had got. The Campbeltown attracted the defenders' attention and she continued on her way under constant heavy fire from both sides of the river.

Our motor gunboat blazed her way past the last barrier before the entrance to the dry dock. She then swung round in comparatively wide water, and while shells screamed over the top of us, we watched the Campbeltown finish her last journey by magnificently shooting up a German flak ship, which she left in flames before speeding up for the charge into the dock gates. She piled herself up on them with the sureness of a ferret diving into a hole.

Soon a new and even grimmer note was added to the constant cannonade by the roar of big explosions. "There go the first demolitions", said Colonel Newman. "I told you they would get in." He almost begged to be landed at once, so that he could get to his men on shore.

Even Germany Applauded

We would not wish to deny the gallantry of the British. Every German is moved by a feeling of respect for the men who carried out this action.

The crew of the Campbeltown under fierce fire forced their ship through the northern lock gates, and carried out a crazy enterprise as well as it could be done. They fought until death or capture.

Broadcast by a German naval spokesman, March 31, 1942.

Then our M.G.B. nosed her way round the stern of the Campbeltown, which was stuck up by the bows as if climbing a steep hill, and got alongside the jetty of a small inner harbour. Colonel Newman, giving a final tightening pull to his equipment, jumped ashore followed by his adjutant and small headquarters staff. "Good luck", we shouted, and he disappeared round some blazing buildings, towards the dry dock.

Heavy fire was coming from the direction of the main basin and also across the harbour. Screened from the former by some buildings, we lay alongside the jetty for a few minutes while survivors of the Campbeltown scrambled on board. We then headed out into the main channel again, and immediately came under the fire of German shore positions. "Round the corner" they swept the M.G.B. with rapid fire at a range of less than 50 yards. Although a number of the crew were wounded we replied with machine-gun and pom-pom fire. On the exposed forecastle gun a gunner took careful aim at a German pill-box and scored a direct hit, which caused the captain to shout from the bridge: "Well shot, do it again." But the gunner had fired his last shot he was killed immediately.

There was no sign of the pace slackening out in the harbour. The glare of fires from both burning German and British vessels made a light nearly as strong as the searchlights. Inshore great fires were raging in many places, and the battle was intensified from time to time by a shattering explosion. A big burst of fire went straight down the inner basin, indicating that the Commandos had secured yet another position and were raking the U-boat moorings with mortars and Brens.

Commander Ryder twice attempted to get alongside the mole, which was still held by the Germans, but the fire power was intense, and we were driven off. The crew of the exposed decks the Germans were able to fire down on them from concrete emplacements fought with magnificent courage. Our M.G.B. was the last of the small White Ensign armada left in the harbour. Although there was the possibility that we had been holed, and that damage had been done to vital controls, we made a full-speed dash down the river.

As it was the run was a nightmare experience in which one small M.G.B. became the target for literally hundreds of enemy guns at comparatively short range. Picked out by searchlights we made our best possible speed as gun after gun took up the attack. Only a hard turn to port prevented us running into a German flak ship lying in the middle of the river. She opened fire on the M.G.B. at 20 yards range, but with our last shells we silenced her, and then, as we escaped, saw her destroyed by the concentrated fire of her own shore batteries, who believed, apparently, that it was the M.G.B. lying disabled in mid-stream. Aided by this muddle, which was only one of many such incidents for the Germans, who frequently shot up each other in their anxiety, we raced down the estuary under the fire of the heavier batteries at the entrance. Turning and twisting to avoid the powerful searchlights, we reached the open sea. The deck was littered with wounded men. A young lieutenant crawled about administering first aid as best he could in the dark on the slippery metal decks.

Behind us was a scene of blazing destruction which reminded one of the worst London blitz nights. Fires raged everywhere, and the Germans were still shooting away madly in all directions. The Commandos, continuing their systematic destruction under the cover of assault parties, had clearly persuaded the enemy that large forces were still in occupation. The one tragic moment from our point of view came with the realization that some of the fighting Commando troops on shore could not be evacuated. Colonel Newman had probably realized the likelihood of this contingency arising while he watched the initial stages of the attack. He raised no question on the matter and not for one minute did he hesitate to go ashore and take his headquarters staff with him. The Commandos themselves in the heat of the battle were probably the least worried of all with regard to their own withdrawal.

The explosions round about the docks which the Commandos engineered covered the survivors from the Campbeltown with debris. The Commandos were fighting with great gusto on shore at this period. They had overcome all difficulties about landing and the speed of their penetration into the strongly held enemy forward position was a great achievement. Sweeping aside all opposition they went straight to their preassigned post, the covering parties getting their guns and mortars into position to hold off any enemy attempt to interfere with the destruction of the dock installation.

The highly trained key-men of this part of the operation were the demolition bodies. Working with a speed that must have amazed the Germans, they fixed heavy charges of explosives to bridges, dock gates, and important buildings and blew them sky high in a matter of minutes. One of the biggest bangs in the early stages was the explosion that accounted for the power-house of the dock. Another explosion almost certainly destroyed the gates of the main basin. Thunderous explosions were still going on when the last of the naval forces had to withdraw.

Chief Engineroom-Artificer Harry Howard was on the Campbeltown when she rammed the dock gate.

The ship was definitely well jammed into the block (he said) a good 10 to 15 feet. The captain did his job wonderfully. The ship was doing about 15 knots at the time. We put on everything we had. Then the crash came and all of us in the engine-room were thrown to the plates.

When we recovered we had to wait for the order "abandon ship". I went to find out what was happening. I learned from the first lieutenant that all steam was finished, so I brought all the men up.

I went on all-fours along the upper deck to where most of the men were still stationed in shelter. The fo'c'sle was blazing. There were showers of bullets of all kinds. As we climbed down the ladder on to the dock some of the men were hit. Others carried the wounded as we ran round the buildings, still under fire, to the point where the motor gun-boat was waiting. This was the boat that had put the military commander and others ashore.

Before we left I found out that most of the men of my department were on board. There was a fusillade of bullets seeming to come from everywhere. For 50 to 70 yards after we pulled out it was terrible.

A naval officer who played a leading part in the attack gave another graphic description of the scene.

How completely the raid took the Germans by surprise (he said) is shown by the fact that it was several minutes between the time their searchlights picked up the British ships as they made their way up the Channel and the time the firing started. It takes a lot of decision to start firing at a strange ship in your waters.

We saw a German guardship of about 600 tons and thought he was going to shoot us up, but before he could fire we got a direct hit on his gun.

As soon as the Germans on shore heard the firing they opened up on to this wretched flak ship of theirs, firing absolutely indiscriminately. They did not seem to mind where their own men were, but just blazed away. They were shooting at their own friends across the dock from the house-tops. Most of the opposition came from the house-tops some of the high houses have us a lot of trouble.

Campbeltown's Terrific End

I got the impression that they were ready for the air raid, but I am pretty sure they did not expect us from the sea, otherwise they would not have let us get so near to their dock wall before opening fire.

It was only after we had fired upon this flak ship that they began. Then they sent up fire the like of which I have never dreamed of. Our light craft replied with all the guns they had, but some of our ships were knocked out.

The Campbeltown actually got within a hundred yards of the lock gate before she came under fire. Then a terrific fire was opened on her from all sides, but she soon rammed the lock gate with a tremendous, splintering crash. As she struck I saw a large flash, but what caused it I do not know. Half the Commandos were crowded in the Campbeltown and as soon as she came to rest they leapt ashore.

Lieutenant-Commander Beattie went below with other officers to see that the fuses were all right for the main explosive charge, as the impact of the collision might have disarranged them.

Coming behind the Campbeltown I landed Colonel Newman on the south side of the old entrance to the submarine basin. He went up to join his men in that area.

After that I went across to see the scuttling charges of the Campbeltown go off. We then ordered in another of our light craft, which fired two delayed-action torpedoes at the little lock gate.

A house was burning fiercely not far away, throwing a lurid light over the quay. It had evidently been fired by the Commandos. There was rifle and machine-gun fire all over the place. I saw some men come round a building not far away. They wore blue dungarees, and I thought they were British until they opened fire on me.

I was ashore about a quarter of an hour waiting for Commander Beattie. I saw about 20 or more of the crew pass me on their way to be re-embarked. I expected the officers would be behind them, but I did not meet any. Commander Beattie was the principal performer in this raid. His name must be mentioned. He was seen ashore by his crew. Whether he lost his way behind some of the buildings I don't know. He may have joined up to fight with the Commandos.

We were unable to bring off Lt.-Col. Newman and some of his men, but I think myself he was expecting that and was perfectly prepared to go on fighting until it got daylight.

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