Saint-Nazaire: The Greatest Raid

Published 28th March 2017

The Royal Navy had a long established tradition of pursuing enemy vessels that had eluded them at sea back to their home ports, sending in fire ships to force fleets from their anchorages, or scuttling ships in harbour entrances in order to blockade them. These methods were further enhanced by forays mounted into enemy held territory using combined naval and assault forces: developments which foreshadowed the formation of Combined Operations and the Commandos during the Second World War. The raid on Saint-Nazaire of the 28th March 1942, which has since been written into the annals of naval history as The Greatest Raid, remains the pinnacle of those earlier achievements.

The target of this audacious raid, codenamed Operation Chariot, was the huge dry dock at Saint-Nazaire in the west of France. This modern purpose-built facility, constructed for the great passenger liner SS Normandie which had been built at Saint-Nazaire, was one of the largest dry docks in the world. The port provided direct access to the principal shipping routes of the North and South Atlantic, and so was of great importance to the German navy, which was otherwise confined to bases and shipyards on the Baltic, with the difficulties that entailed.

From July 1940 onwards Brest, Lorient and St Nazaire allowed the Germans to operate in the western approaches to the British Isles, sparing them the crossing of the Pas de Calais or the patrolled waters to the north of Scotland or Iceland on each foray. Raiders From The Sea: Rear-Admiral Lepotier: William Kimber & Co, London

Already home to flotillas of U-boats housed in reinforced concrete pens, the facility also held out the prospect of a safe haven for the large German battleship Tirpitz. This immensely powerful ship — without equal in the Royal Navy — had become operational in January 1942, immediately posing a grave threat to allied shipping in the North Atlantic. Had she to have slipped her secure anchorage in a Norwegian fjord, to wreck havoc amongst the vital allied supply routes in the North Atlantic, it would have become imperative for the Royal Navy to hunt her down and sink her, as they had done her sister ship Bismarck the previous spring. Bismarck which had famously sunk the Hood in that earlier encounter, had subsequently been damaged in a torpedo attack, and had been trying to make the port of Saint-Nazaire for repairs when she was caught and sunk — hence the concern that Tirpitz be denied a refuge there.

Tirpitz and the Dock at St Nazaire

Tirpitz was the largest of four great battleships built for the Kriegsmarine, all of them constructed in the period leading up to the Second World War. The ships, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Bismark and her sister ship Tirpitz, enjoyed superior armour and firepower to any Royal Navy ship at that time, having violated a treaty agreement on the maximum displacement of capital ships to achieve this. By comparison HMS Hood which was pride of the British fleet when it was sunk by the Bismark, had been laid down in 1916 and commissioned in 1920, so was already decades old by the time these modern battleships entered service with Hitler's navy. Tirpitz was commissioned in February 1941, and after working up in the Baltic was sent to Trondheim in January 1942, to help repel an invasion Hitler was convinced the Allies were planning for Norway, and to attack the Arctic convoys bound for Russia. Its presence there alone compelled the Royal Navy to hold a large element of the Home Fleet in reserve at Scapa Flow as cover in the event it should take to sea. The fear instilled in the Admiralty by a ship like the Tirpitz was understandable when viewed in the context of the military technology of the time, as although the era of the large battleship was effectively drawing to a close as advances in airbourne weaponery steadily eroded their advantage, the threat in 1942 to convoys and their escorts from a ship of this size, remained considerable.

Nothing would paralyse our supply system and seabourne trade so successfully as attack by surface raiders. Lord Sir Dudley Pound, First Sea Lord

Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was deeply concerned by the Kriegsmarine's capabilities, and on learning Tirpitz had been been discovered by air reconnaissance in Faettenfjord in January 1942 was to impress on Chiefs of Staff that “the destruction or even crippling of this ship” was of the utmost importance.

The whole strategy of the war turns at this period on this ship, which is holding four times the number of British capital ships paralysed, to say nothing of the American battleships retained in the Atlantic. I regard the matter as of the highest urgency and importance.Winston Churchill, The Second World War, vol IV, Cassell, 1951, p.98.

© Stian Ervik Wahlvåg
© Stian Ervik Wahlvåg
Displacement Water Line Length Overall Length Beam Draught Maximum Speed Crusing Speed
38,900 tons 226 m 235 m 30 m 9.9 m 31.5 knots 17 knots
Range Crew Deck Armour Side Armour Armamaent
10,000 nautical miles 1,800 men 50 - 105 mm 45 - 350 mm
20mm 10
37mm 16
105mm 14
150mm 12
280mm 9

In July 1942, she was indirectly responsible for the destruction of convoy PQ-17 without firing a single shot. In September 1943, while anchored in Kåfjord/Altafjord, she was attacked by British midget submarines and put out of action for the first time. Later subjected to continuous aerial bombings, the Tirpitz was finally sunk off Håkøy Island near Tromsø on 12 November 1944 after being hit by 5.4-ton ‘Tallboy’ bombs

The German battleship Tirpitz, lying capsized in in Tromso fjord, attended by a salvage vessel. The already damaged ship was finally sunk in a combined daylight attack by Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons RAF on 12 November 1944, (Operation Catechism). The hole in the hull by the starboard propeller shaft was cut by the Germans to allow access to salvage crews. © IWM (CL 2830)
Tirpitz being launched
Tirpitz lies at her berth in Foettenfjord, Norway
Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial of the German battleship Tirpitz moored in Narvik-Bogen Fjord, Norway
Fleet Air Arm personnel fusing bombs on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier. The bombs were then loaded onto Barracuda aircraft which attacked the German battleship Tirpitz in Alten Fjord, Norway
Lieutenant Donald Cameron RNR and the crew of X 6, one of the midget submarines that made a successful attack on the Tirpitz at Alten Fjord, on the deck of a ship
One of the Lancaster crew who took part in the final assault on Tirpitz using a 12,000lb TallBoy bomb
The wake of a fast moving motor boat hurries away from the battered Tirpitz can be seen as a huge cloud rises from an early bomb hit on the German battleship.
The German battleship Tirpitz, lying capsized in in Tromso fjord, attended by a salvage vessel. The already damaged ship was finally sunk in a combined daylight attack by Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons RAF on 12 November 1944, (Operation Catechism). The hole in the hull by the starboard propeller shaft was cut by the Germans to allow access to salvage crews

Operation Chariot is Conceived

Strategic bombing of St Nazaire had been ruled out because of the likelihood of large civilian casualties, and because of previous failures by the RAF to successfully bomb the dock, or target the warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau when they were in the port of Brest. In addition the geography of the Loire estuary afforded Saint-Nazaire considerable protection from any naval bombardment from sea. It was this seeming impregnability that the Royal Navy hoped to use to their advantage when conceiving of the operation, for as Lord Louis Mountbatten, head of Combined Operations, and instrumental in planning the raid said of it, “It’s the fact it is regarded as impossible that makes it possible; the Germans will never think we’ll attempt it.”

Since a large scale force was ruled out, the planners settled on a single destroyer whose bow was to be packed with high explosives, primed with delayed-action fuses, accompanied by a flotilla of smaller motor boats crewed by Coastal Forces. The destroyer would be used to ram the southern caisson or gate of the dry dock, while the small ships would assist in carrying out attacks on other chosen targets within the port. The vessels selected for the task were HMS Campbeltown, a veteran destroyer given to the Royal Navy by the United States; a single modifiied Vosper motor torpedo boat, MTB 74, equipped with specialist time-delayed torpedoes similar in function to depth charges; a Fairmile 'C' motor gun boat, MGB 314, which was to act as the command ship; and a flotilla of sixteen Fairmile 'B' motor launches — including four equipped with torpedoes — which in conjunction with Campbeltown, were to help carry in a commando assault force, and then extract them and the crew of Campbeltown on successful completion of their mission.

The Boats of the Saint-Nazaire Raid

HMS Campbeltown undergoing modifications at Devonport for the raid on St Nazaire.

HMS Campbeltown undergoing modifications at Devonport for the raid on St Nazaire. The raised steel plating visible on the sides of the ship forward, matched by an inner row of plating on the deck on both sides, was to afford protection to the commandos lying flat between them on the run in to the dock.

The compressed air system on the forward mounted tubes, was capable of ejecting the torpedoes some 150 feet1 over defensive netting. The torpedoes themselves had their own propulsion systems removed, and replaced with additional explosives fitted with time delayed fuses. They were intended to settle under or against their intended target, in a manner similar to a depth charge

MTB 74 was a boat with an usual history, having undergone special modifications while still under construction, in order to participate in a secret operation aimed at attacking the German battleships Scharnnorst, at her base in the port of Brest. This plan was originally conceived by Sub-Lieutenant 'Micky' Wynn RNVR who was subsequently given command of the boat. The bridge superstructure was cut to a bare minimum, with the upper deck equipment removed to mount her two torpedo tubes forward of the wheelhouse on the fo'c'sle, allowing them to be fired over defensive torpedo nets. In the event the operation was cancelled when her intended target famously fled the port of Brest in broad daylight, under heavy escort, to the safety of the Baltic ports, in an operation known as the Channel Dash. It was shortly after this that MTB 74 was chosen to participate in Operation Chariot to act as backup for HMS Campbeltown should she fail in her allotted task. In the event Campbeltown succeeded in her primary mission, and MTB 74 then attacked the secondary target of the Old Entrance. Her own task successfully accomplished, MTB 74 picked up some of the wounded, and headed back down the Loire estuary at full speed to escape out to sea, but was destroyed by gunfire from some of the shore batteries, when she stopped mid-channel to pluck further survivors from the water. Her maverick commander, ‘Micky’ Wynn was taken prisoner along with the other survivors from the boat.

A Fairmile ‘C’ Class Motor Gun Boat, MGB 328, of the same type as MGB 314 © IWM (A 7451)
The crew of MGB 314 with Bert Savage, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, shown standing far left of picture by the forward gun
Fairmile B Motor launch © IWM (A 13626A)
A Fairmile B fitted with torpedo tubes © Richard Bell

Fairmile B Motor Launch

The Fairmile ‘B’ Motor Launch was the largest numerically of the motor boat types used by Coastal Forces. Known as the ‘maids of all work’, they were primarily designed for use in patrol and anti-submarine warfare.

In the early years of the war when the threat of invasion from the continent was at its height, some motor launches had been equipped with torpedo tubes for use against a possible invasion fleet in the Channel.

Made entirely of wood, and fuelled by high-octane petrol, these light weight craft were met with a hail of high-incendiary shells and bullets from the German defences at St Nazaire.

It was soon clear that in this storm of flying white-hot metal they were vulnerable targets. The leading launch of the starboard flotilla was the first to suffer a fate which was to overtake all to many of her sister ships before the night's work was done.The Little Ships: Chapter VIII A very Gallant Company: Gordon Holman

The Planning for the Raid

Timing for the raid was critical, since the approach from sea would be up the well defended estuary of the River Loire, and would entail a hazardous passage for the flotilla up a shallow mid-channel, in preference to a dredged shipping lane, the Passe de Charpentiers, that ran inshore and closer to the heavily-armed German shore batteries. The raid was planned to take place during hours of darkness, but on a moonlit night, and crucially one with a high tide, to give Campbeltown the only feasible chance of clearing the sandbanks in mid-estuary. This constrained the choice of suitable dates, and the earliest opportunity was afforded by the night of the 29th–30th March, which was the date chosen.

Falmouth was settled on as the departure point for the raid, with the motor launches assembling there first. The officers and crew of the little ships were not told anything of the operation, and a cover story was put in place about a ficticious 10th Anti-Submarine Flotilla in training for a new role involving long-range patrols, to explain a large group of motor launches with additional fuel tanks on deck. The story was later elaborated upon with details of an overseas posting, which included the distribution of tropical kit to the boats.

The Commandos were to depart their base at Ayr in Scotland ten days prior to the date earmarked for the operation, and sail to Falmouth onboard their transport Princes Josephine-Charlotte, staying out of sight on arrival, and well apart from the flotilla of motor launches.

Campbeltown was to arrive at Falmouth at the last moment from Devonport, where preparations for the assault included alterations to her physical appearance to give her a silhouette more like that of a German Möwe class torpedo boat — a type of destroyer — in an attempt at forestalling challenges from the German shore batteries for as long as possible, while on the run-in to the target. She was stripped off all unnecessary armament to make her as light as possible, but given additional bridge armour, and then packed with high-explosive charges in her bow.

MTB 74 had been modified earlier, as part of an equally audacious plan to attack the two German battleships Scharnnorst and Gneisenau in the port of Brest, and to that end carried her two torpedo tubes forward of her wheelhouse to fire over defensive torpedo nets. That earlier operation was abandoned when the two warships famously escaped from Brest under heavy escort, and made a successful dash through the Channel in broad daylight to the safety of the Baltic. Now the modified MTB was to be used against the lock gates at Saint-Nazaire, should Campbeltown become lodged on sandbanks on the run in, or otherwise fail at her allotted task.

A training exercise for the motor launches and commandos was set up, making use of facilities at Devonport, since they somewhat mirrored those of St Nazaire in terms of layout and scale. The cover for this involved a well publicised test of the Devonport defences — Operation Vivid — whose participants were to include the Home Guard and Civil Defence. The 10th ML Flotilla with the commandos onboard were convieniently selected to play the part of an enemy assault force. The exercise proved a resounding triumph for the defenders, with the raiding party detected early and picked out by searchlights, making it difficult for the motor launches to keep their station, or find their assigned landing points, while the commandos met with stiff resistance at their landing grounds and were repelled. All in all a useful trial run, that was to arm the unsuspecting boat crews with a sense of the challenges that awaited them.

In the event, the operation was brought forward by one day, and after a discrete transfer of commandos from their ship to the motor launches, and a briefing onboard ship, the assault force of eighteen Coastal Forces craft, and HMS Campbeltown, set off from Falmouth on 27th March, 1942, accompanied by two Hunt-class destroyers, Atherstone and Tynedale who were to provide an escort, and tow MGB 314 and MTB 74 most of the way to preserve their fuel.

During an eventful passage, the escorts Atherstone and Tynedale broke off at one point to depth charge a U-boat spotted on the surface, and later sank a small French fishing trawler, after taking off her crew, to prevent the possibility of their course being disclosed. MGB 314 helped chase down a second French trawler which was dealt with in a similar manner by the escorts. On learning there were five German torpedo boats reported off St Nazaire, the Admiralty dispatched two more destroyers, Brocklesby and Cleveland to render assistance to the party on their return journey.

In the early evening of the 28th March, the flotilla of little ships suffered its first casualty when ML 341 developed engine trouble and was compelled to transfer her compliment of commandos to ML 446 and turn for home.

At eight o'clock that evening, the two escorts let slip their respective tows, and bade farewell to their charges to carry out a protective sweep to seaward, while Campbeltown and the flotilla of small ships turned determinedly for St Nazaire. Some two hours later the force rendezvoused with the submarine HMS Sturgeon at a designated point ‘Z’ fourty miles south-west of St Nazaire. Sturgeon provided a pin-point position to navigation officer Lieutenant Green on MGB 314, enabling him to chart an accurate course bearing for the centre of the Loire estuary.

HMS Campbeltown at St Nazaire, 27 March 1942: Wilkinson, Norman Mid 20th century © National Maritime Museum Collections

The Run-in to the Dock

A planned diversionary air raid by the RAF commenced on time at around midnight. This was revealed after the war to have achieved part of its aim by keeping the German shore radar installations looking skywards rather sweeping out to sea, and allowing the task force to advanced undetected into the estuary, but the inability to bomb as planned due to low cloud cover led to the bombers circling over St Nazaire for some time instead, which only served to alert the German commanders to the fact of something going on, and the order was now passed to the shore batteries to inspect the river closely for possible enemy activity.

There was a terrific fire-work show of red and white tracer from the left bank and green and white tracer from the right, with the Campbeltown and every little British vessel spitting fire towards the land.The Little Ships: Chapter VIII A Very Gallant Company: Gordon Holman

A number of search lights came on in the estuary, one of which briefly lit MGB 314, only to be extinguished again, before all the search lights on the both banks came on, lighting up the roadstead and the ships in it ‘as bright as day’, at which point the commanding officers of all the boats ordered full speed ahead. Commander Ryder on MTB 74 had fully expected the run-in to meet with intense fire from the shore and had issued instructions to the MLs about preserving the element of surprise for as long as possible by not opening fire prematurely. With about ten minutes sailing time left to the target, warning shots were fired at the flotilla in the river, the response to which was a masterful series of stalling manoeuvres carried out by the German speaking signalman on MGB 314, Seymour Pike, who equipped with a codebook containing current German signal codes, passed from side to side of the bridge answering challenges made from both shores, confounding the batteries momentarily with seemingly correct signals, gaining the flotilla precious minutes in which to advance still further up the river. Finally at some two miles out from the primary target, the German defenders grasped what was happening and opened fire from both sides, at which point Campbeltown and the rest of the boats replied with all of their guns.

St Nazaire Raiding Force

NoUnitCommanding OfficerDestinationFunctionFate
-MGB 314Lt Dunstan CurtisDestinationFlotilla Leader equipped with radar and ASDIC with which to depth sound the shallow approaches Destroyed
7ML 270Lt Stuart IrwinDestinationArmed with torpedoes, ML 270 was given a roving task and was to move up and down the estuary to draw enemy’s fireScuttled
8ML 160Lt Thomas BoydDestinationTorpedoReturned
-HMS CampbeltownLieutenant-Commander Stephen Halden BeattieSouthern Caisson, Normandie DockDestroyed
9ML 447Lt Thomas PlattOld MoleGroup 1F Captain David BernieDestroyed
10ML 341Lt Douglas BriaultOld MoleFunctionDeveloped engine failure while en route and returned
11ML 457Lt Thomas CollierOld MoleFunctionDestroyed
12ML 307Lt Norman WallisOld MoleFunctionReturned
13ML 443Lt Kenneth HorlockOld MoleFunctionReturned
14ML 306Lt Ian HendersonOld MoleFunctionSalvaged by the Germans
15ML 446Lt Henry Falconer, Sub-Lieutenant Hugh ArnoldOld MoleTorpedo (Commandoes from ML 341) Scuttled
1ML 192Lt Cmdr W L StephensOld EntranceFunctionDestroyed
2ML 262Lt Edward BurtOld EntranceFunctionDestroyed
3ML 267Lt Eric BeartOld EntranceFunctionDestroyed
4ML 268Lt Arnold TillieOld EntranceFunctionDestroyed
5ML 156Lt Leslie FentonOld EntranceFunctionScuttled
6ML 177Lt Mark RodierOld EntranceFunctionDestroyed
16ML 298Lt Neville Robert NockOld EntranceTorpedoDestroyed
-MTB 74 (No 17)Sub-Lieutenant Michael WynnDestinationTorpedoDestroyed
Able Seaman Bill Savage, from Smethwick

Able Seaman William Alfred Savage VC

Bill Savage was born in Smethwick in the West Midlands in 1912, and later moved to the Winston Green area of Birmingham after getting married. His widow Doris, reluctantly had to sell his Victoria Cross (VC) and other medals in 1990, and the former Coastal Forces Veterans Association were instrumental in helping to raise part of the £55,000 needed to purchase them for the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, where they are now kept.

More recently, on learning that the VC had been locked away in the museum for the past eight years due to lack of available display space, and only available for viewing by appointment, Sandwell Council which covers Smethwick, made a loan request to the Maritime Museum for the medal to be displayed in his home town. Birmingham Museums & Art Galleries had also expressed an interest in securing a temporary loan of the medals.

Citation for Valour

Able Seaman Savage showed conspicuous [gallantry and] skill and devotion to duty as gun layer of the pom pom in M.G. 314 during the St. Nazaire Raid. Completely exposed and under heavy fire from time to time, he engaged positions ashore with great accuracy. He also replied with vigorous and accurate fire against ships which attacked us on the way out. It is regretted that Savage was killed at his gun, but he is submitted that his high standard of devotion to duty should be recognised.R.E.D Ryder Commander R.N. 10th A/S Striking Force

Gordon Holman, a Fleet Street journalist embedded on MGB 314, wrote of the incident in his book The Little Ships:

An official account stated that Able Seaman Savage was killed when a salvo of shells from the big coastal guns straddled the gunboat when she was four miles out but I am convinced from my own observation that the intrepid gunner, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, died when he fired the shot that smashed the German pill-box inside the harbour. He who did his duty so well would have been glad that the citation expressly added that his VC was also “in recognition of the valour shown by many others unnamed in MLs, MGB and MTB who gallantly carried out their duty in extremely exposed positions against enemy fire at close range”.

The Victoria Cross posthumously awarded to Able Seaman William A. Savage. The VC was purchased by the National Maritime Museum following a successful public appeal in 1990 together with Savage’s Atlantic Star, 1939–45 Star and War Medal.

The Casualties

In addition to 31 casualties from HMS Campbeltown and 59 Commandoes posted as killed or missing, the following casualties are recorded for units of Light Coastal Forces:

MGB 314
Able Seaman William Alfred Savage
Able Seaman Albert Richard Carver Stephens
MTB 74
Telegraphist Daniel Bowyer
Able Seaman Eric Hargreaves
Able Seaman Charles Wilson Liddel
Sub-Lieutenant Athol Francis O'Connor
Leading Stoker Harold Simmonds
Petty Officer Raymond Reginald Ward
ML 177
Able Seaman John Brown
Ordinary Seaman John Gilbert Hextall
Leading Seaman Kenneth Kean Sleeman Pitt
Sub-Lieutenant Mark Fleming Rodier
ML 192
Ordinary Signalman Angus Edmund Hale
Able Seaman George Henry Hallett
Ordinary Seaman Hugh Wilson Little
Motor Mechanic George Snowball
ML 306
Motor Mechanic Alexander Leslie Bennett
Ordinary Seaman Thomas Norman Garner
Lieutenant Ian Bernard Henry Henderson
Leading Seaman Walter George Sargent
ML 447
Stoker 1st Class David Broome
Lieutenant Herbert Stewart Chambers
Able Seaman Harold Gordon Drapper
Leading Motor Mechanic Thomas George Parker
ML 262
Motor Mechanic Ronald George Gough
Sub-Lieutenant Kenneth Ian Hills
Stoker 1st Class Frederick Richard Winton Hollands
Able Seaman George Joseph Jones
Able Seaman William Jesse Martin
Able Seaman Stafford McKeown
Able Seaman James Donald Walker
ML 267
Ordinary Seaman Arthur Bartlett
Lieutenant Eric Henry Beart
Ordinary Seaman Gordon Bell
Leading Stoker Edward John Chick
Motor Mechanic Eric Edmund Kenningham
Able Seaman John Leech
Stoker 1st Class William Oliphant
Motor Mechanic Sidney William Roots
Able Seaman Albert Shepphard
Telegraphist David Morton Steele
Ordinary Seaman Harold Westcott
ML 268
Sub-Lieutenant Kenneth Bachelor
Motor Mechanic Albert Howard
Leading Seaman Kenneth Corderoy Kirkup
Able Seaman James William Nicholson
Leading Seaman Montague Rakusen
Able Seaman John Whan Smith
Petty Officer Motor Mechanic Lawrence Ferguson Wallace
ML 298
Ordinary Seaman Leonard Barber
Ordinary Seaman Douglas Clear
Able Seaman Edwin Dodd
Chief Motor Mechanic Ernest Benjamin Marsden
Stoker 1st Class James Keith Mathers
Chief Motor Mechanic Robert Ramsay
Stoker 2nd Class Leslie Charles Smith
Sub-Lieutenant Arthur Spraggon
Ordinary Seaman Gilbert Charles Swann
ML 457
Stoker 1st Class Edwin Charles Barber
Able Seaman George Brearley
Lieutenant Thomas Alexander Mackay Collier
Ordinary Seaman Leith Scott Dickson
Sub-Lieutenant Kenneth George Hampshire
Telegraphist Albert Hague Jones
Petty Officer Motor Mechanic Peter Mooney
Leading Seaman Slavoj John Onsorge
Able Seaman Joseph Parsons
German military stand on the bow of Campbeltown, spliced open on ramming the dry-dock gate, little realising the ship was packed with high explosives, primed to explode at any moment. © Bundesarchiv (Bild 101II-MW-3724-15)