- Evans, P.
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1999 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The attempts to reduce Campbeltown’s draft had only been partly successful, the additional weight of the concrete and charges could not be entirely offset, in addition the raid was one day earlier than the date specified by the planners. While crossing the mud flats Campbeltown grounded twice. Fortunately, she freed herself on each occasion, without having to reduce engine revolutions.
Once Campbeltown had reached the target, the Fairmiles were to break formation and make simultaneous landings of commandos to dislocate the U-boat base and to silence flak positions that could menace the withdrawal of the force.
The detail of the assault has been well described many times, however one unfortunate aspect is not so well known. The air-raid was planned to occupy the defences, including radar, and drown the noise of the Fairmiles. The RAF arrived exactly on time only to find the target completely obscured by cloud.
To avoid unnecessary casualties of French civilians Churchill had ordered that; ‘targets in occupied France were not to be bombed unless the weather permitted them to be identified’. In addition there was the danger to our own forces. The result was that the German gunners were ‘closed up’ at the sound of the aircraft. The effect is best described by Commander Ryder:
… In effect, the raid raised the alarm. Every gun was manned, patrols, fire parties, and others fallen in, and the gun control and look-out system thoroughly on the alert. The sky was completely overcast so that scarcely a bomb was dropped and there was little, if anything, visible overhead to shoot back at. Thus the surface attackers reaped every disadvantage in having their attacks heavily opposed by an enemy fully prepared. It required only a matter of seconds for them to depress their guns, all of which were dual purpose and sited for defending the waterfront, and to engage the wooden MLs with tragic results. In addition to the dock itself ‘the associated mechanisms listed as targets for the attack comprised the following’:
- Outer caisson – Destroyed by Campbeltown.
- Inner caisson – Severely damaged by hand placed charges.
- Withdrawing machinery for opening (1) and (2) – Both destroyed by demolition charges,in one case the building collapsed.
- The power station – Not destroyed, as it was situated in the Isle de St Nazaire.
- The pumping machinery – Entirely destroyed.
The success of the assault is now history, the use of Normandie dock was denied the Germans throughout the war. The article in the volume referred to is well named The Greatest Commando Raid of WW II. The words of Sir Charles Forbes, Admiral of the Fleet at the time of the raid are apt: ‘Without in any way wishing to belittle Zeebrugge, one should now talk of St Nazaire instead.‘ ((The Attack on St Nazaire. Introduction.))
Of the Fairmiles taking part 10 were sunk by the enemy, 4 were so badly damaged they had to be scuttled before reaching home and 4 returned.
The total number of personnel involved was 630. 215 were taken prisoner of war, 144 were killed or wounded and 271 returned to England.
In the few short hours of action bravery awards made were: Victoria Cross 5 ((Victoria Cross awards included Commander Ryder, Lieutenant-Commander Beattie and Lieutenant-Colonel Newman.)), Distinguished Service Order 4, Distinguished Service Cross 17, Military Cross 11, Conspicuous Gallantry Medal 4, Distinguished Conduct Medal 5, Distinguished Service Medal 24, Military Medal 15, Mentioned in Despatches 51, French Croix de Guerre 4.
Several Australians were among the Fairmile crews, J.G. Hall, C.W. (Bill) Wallach, P.W. Landy, N.B. Wallis and D.K. Croft. RANVR Lieutenants Wallach and Wallis were each awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
There are several books and publications dealing with St Nazaire, some have different statistics to others. In the preparation of this article I have relied upon the account by Commander R.E.D. Ryder VC, RN in his book The Attack on St Nazaire, published by John Murray, London, 1947. Unless otherwise stated all quotations, and the diagram of the approach formation ((The Attack on St Nazaire, page 51.)), are from this source.
Bill Wallach, in Melbourne and Don Croft in Sydney, members of the Fairmile Association, have been most helpful and I am grateful to them.