The HMS Campbeltown was already a well-worn ship when the US Navy handed it over to the British during World War II, but that's what made it perfect for a daring raid on St. Nazaire!
The HMS Campbeltown was a British Town-class destroyer, which meant that it was not British at all. She was built as the USS Buchanan, a Wickes-class destroyer, at the end of World War I but was laid down too late to see action. Instead, the Buchanan spent the following twenty years on patrol around the world.
A “Neutral” Trade for The HMS Campbeltown
Like many American destroyers of this era, the Buchanan was the personification of the phrase “rode hard and put away wet.” The ship was run into the ground, operating from the Caribbean to Alaska to secure sea lanes, train cadets, and show the flag at friendly and neutral ports around the world. Then World War II came.
As German submarine activity ramped up in the Atlantic, the US Navy stepped up its own escort operations called the “Neutrality Patrols,” although there was nothing neutral about them. The Buchanan, along with dozens of other ships, worked around the clock to escort British destroyers off the American coast. Then France fell in 1940, and with the loss of this major ally, the British suddenly found themselves alone against the might of Nazi Germany.
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While the Roosevelt administration wanted to help, the US was still significantly constrained by the Neutrality Acts, which prevented arms sales to any nation currently at war with another. To skirt this law, the British and Americans negotiated a deal which swapped 50 old destroyers for 99-year leases on British bases across the Atlantic. The ships that the Royal Navy received in 1940 were all like the Buchanan — old, worn out, and technologically obsolete. But the deal was critical if only because it signaled America's resolve to keep Britain afloat through the dark period.
Saint-Nazaire’s Huge Target
When the Royal Navy took possession of the Buchanan in September 1940, it renamed it to Campbeltown. She then spent the rest of the year and all of 1941 in and out of English dockyards. The ship was worn out from decades of constant use, and she was only somewhat reliable as a convoy escort. Throughout this period, the Royal Navy also had bigger problems dealing with the two Bismarck-class battleships, which threatened to explode out of the North Sea into the Atlantic.
The British feared that if these ships could slip into the open ocean, they would wreak havoc on Allied convoys, who were largely protected by ships no better off than the Campbeltown. Once the German raiders passed the British Isles, which physically boxed in the North Sea, they could resupply at ports in occupied France. This would make the surface raiders almost impossible to catch and stop.
Then, in May 1941, the unthinkable happened: the KMS Bismarck made a dash for the Atlantic. In a legendary chase, the Bismarck outran British surface vessels for days as she made for open ocean. West of Iceland, a Royal Navy taskforce finally caught the Bismarck and forced her to stand and fight and the HMS Hood was destroyed in this engagement. However, the Bismarck was seriously damaged in the fight, so her captain decided to make for the French port at Brest for repairs. It was during this turn that Bismarck was fatefully torpedoed by carrier aircraft and then ultimately sunk by pursuers.
Although the threat of the Bismarck was eliminated, the Germans had already launched a second battleship of the same design, the HMS Tirpitz. It was more than capable of giving a repeat performance, and if the Tirpitz could get into a French port, she would be extremely difficult to contain.
Fortunately for the British, there was only one port on the western French coast that could accommodate a vessel the size of the Tirpitz — St. Nazaire. Located on the shore of the Loire opposite the city of Brest, St. Nazaire had become a major U-Boat base after the Germans occupied the region in 1940, but that is not what made the port important. In 1931, French shipbuilders laid down the SS Normandie, which was the largest cruise liner ever built at the time. To accommodate the project, a special dry dock was constructed and named after the liner. This was the only dock which was large enough for the Tirpitz, so Saint-Nazaire and its port facilities were critical for her operation. Making the target sweeter were the dozens of submarines based out of the port facilities that were actively attacking allied convoys coming across the Atlantic.
The Plan for Operation Chariot
Codenamed “Operation Chariot,” the raid on St. Nazaire had two parts. First, the HMS Campbeltown, which was rebuilt to look like a German destroyer, would travel into the port at night while flying a German naval ensign. The British hoped that Campbeltown would be mistaken for a German ship until it was too late. That was the moment when the Campbeltown would ram into the Normandie Dock at full speed.
Once aground, British soldiers from No. 2 Commando would abandon the ship and attack predesignated facilities across the port. At the same time, more commandos in motorboats would support the Campbeltown by attacking the ports lights, anti-aircraft guns, and garrison. They would also carry out the second part of the plan, which was to attack the “old gates” entry into the ship berthing area. Once the docks were destroyed, the commandos would escape aboard their launches. Then the Campbeltown, packed with four tons of Amatol set on a delayed fuse, would explode, taking the remains of the Normandie dock with her.
Executing The St. Nazaire Raid
The operation was set for the early hours of March 28, but things didn’t go according to plan. At the last minute, the British had modified the attack plan by moving the torpedo boats up to support the Campbeltown on her death ride. Once this small flotilla entered the St. Nazaire harbor, the Germans immediately fixed it with searchlights. Despite claiming that she was a friendly destroyer, the Germans opened fire on the Campbeltown and the motor launches using machine guns and small caliber anti-aircraft guns. However, the Campbeltown had been up-armored for this mission, so while a few casualties were sustained, little real damage was done. The motor launches, on the other hand, were savaged. Still, the Campbeltown and the four-ton bomb located below the bow carried on, undeterred by the volume of fire that increased when she hauled up the white ensign of the Royal Navy.
At 1:34am, the Campbeltown struck the Normandie Dock at a speed of 19 knots (about 23 mph / 35 kph). The impact destroyed the front of the ship and wedged it against the dock's gates. The commandos then flooded the ship, settling her firmly on the bottom of the channel to prevent quick removal. They then fanned out across the port and attacked their targets. The surviving motor launches also disgorged their troops and hit their secondary targets with delayed fuse torpedoes.
Fighting across Saint-Nazaire raged for hours as the British knocked the port out of commission. Their work was done by sunrise and the few remaining launches that were seaworthy transported a few of the remaining commandos back out to a pair of waiting Royal Navy destroyers. Only four of the sixteen launches and a third of the 600 commandos that set sail with the Campbeltown returned to England.
As for the rest, approximately 200 commandos surrendered when they realized that there was no chance of rescue. With this tremendous sacrifice, their mission succeeded. The bomb aboard the Campbeltown exploded at noon that day, completely destroying the Normandie Dock and along with two vessels that had been inside at the time. Further damage had been done to the old gates and much of the rest of the port facility. It would take months to bring the port back to full operations. However, the Germans never recovered from the attack, as the Normandie Dock was closed for the remainder of the war.