The Greatest Raid: Operation Chariot

9 Oct



In the spring of 1942, the German Reich was at the height of its power. Almost all of Europe, from the Caucasus to Brittany, from the Crete to the North Cape, was subjugated beneath the might of the Nazi war machine. The vast expanses of the western Sahara, from Casablanca to El Alamein, were beneath the Fatherland’s control. The Allies had suffered extensive defeats, at Smolensk, Vitebsk, Orel, Kursk, Kiev, Paris, Eben Emael, Rotterdam, Tobruk, El Agheila, and Bizerte. Yet they were suffering from one rather serious, looming problem. The entire German surface fleet, drastically reduced in size following the sinking of both the Graf Spee and Bismarck at the hands of the Royal Navy, was operating out of fjords along the western Norwegian coast, as well as ports in northern Germany, and those ships operating in eastern German waters would be forced to cross the Kattegat and Skagerrak Straits between Denmark and Sweden, costing them valuable time. And, with the introduction of the United States into the war in December 1941, the German Kriegsmarine found itself horrible outnumbered in terms of surface warships, yet their submersible fleet was a force to reckon with. Operating out of ports in western France, namely Lorient, as well as ports in Norway such as Bergen, Trondheim, and Narvik, the U-Boat wolf-packs, managed under the brilliant command of Admiral Karl Doenitz, laid waste to entire Lend-Lease convoys sailing the three thousand miles between the Canadian Labrador coast and the American New England coast to the Irish Sea between Ireland and Great Britain. Yet the U-Boat fleet could not operate as the entire arm of the Kriegsmarine by itself. Although extremely effective, sinking approximately six million tons of Allied shipping in the Atlantic in 1942, the most successful year for the U-Boat wolf packs, the U-Boat became virtually useless when the British Intelligence, MI5 and MI6, shattered the German Enigma encryption device, allowing them to read the encrypted codes being sent between U-Boats operating in the Atlantic. Yet the surface fleet was in even worse shape.

With the sinking of the Graf Spee in December 1939, and the loss of the Bismarck at the hands of Royal Navy Admiral Tuvey in May 1941, the surface fleet was in shambles. The Germans maintained the Admiral HipperScharnhorst, and Gneisenau, as well as the Prinz Eugen and Seydlitz, yet that was not enough. They had their ace in the hole, the Bismarck‘s sister ship: Tirpitz, first declared operational in January 1942. As 1942 dawned, the fate of Germany’s surface fleet seemed bleak. Two of her three greatest warships had been lost, while the third was damaged and virtually trapped in Norway, the Royal Navy holding her hostage. Tirpitz would need to breakout into the Atlantic, to terrorize Allied shipping. Yet due to her massive size, there were only a select few ports that could handle her. The Norwegian fjords and Saint Nazaire, France, the largest port in the world at the time. Saint Nazaire would place Tirpitz, rapidly becoming the scourge of the Atlantic for her ever-looming presence, although she never struck, in an ideal position. With Saint Nazaire being located just south of the Brittany Peninsula, it would allow the Tirpitz to outflank the southern end of the island of Great Britain and sail directly north into the Atlantic, as well as being able to save hundreds of hours by not having to sail around the northern end of Iceland and fall upon the United States, Royal, and Royal Canadian Navy convoys operating in the Atlantic through the Denmark Strait. This cost German warships time, the one supply they never had enough of, as well as costing them another desired munition: the element of surprise. Yet once the Tirpitz slipped out of Saint Nazaire, she could easily disappear into the vast reaches of the Atlantic, an enigmatic shadow that never appeared until it fell upon Allied convoys without any degree of warning. This caused fear among the British, who knew the value of Saint Nazaire, and knew also that as long as that port was operational, the Tirpitz could be serviced within it. In the spring of 1942, a plan was hatched that could save the war in the Atlantic.

When the Tirpitz was declared operational in January 1942, the British had already gone to the drawing board, developing plans on how to sink the massive warship. The British wanted the neutralize Saint Nazaire for two reasons: 1) they wanted to keep the Tirpitz bottle-necked in the North Sea, and 2) keep the massive warship from ever entering the Atlantic. If Saint Nazaire was damaged, the British guessed the Germans would never risk sending Tirpitz into enemy waters without a proper port capable of servicing her in the event she was damaged. The same circumstances had befallen the Tirpitz‘s less fortunate sister ship, Bismarck. In March 1942, the British Special Operations Executive, the forerunner of Cold War-era intelligence services alongside the American Office of Strategic Services, drew up a plan for the assault, code-named Operation Chariot. The mission was relatively simple: two destroyers would be requisitioned from the Royal Navy and lightened, primarily by removing armor, improving their speed and agility. Then, the first destroyer would be packed with explosives, from Composition B, RDX, Amatol, and other trinitrotoluene-based explosives, as well as a full compliment of Royal Commandos under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Charles Newman. The explosives-packed warship would subsequently be rammed into the Normandie dry dock, the massive facility able to house the Tirpitz, and her compliment of Commandos would be emptied into the port’s surrounding facilities, equipped with the necessary sabotaging gear. Following their disembarkation, the ramming destroyer would then be destroyed, effectively eliminating the Normandie dry dock. The Commandos would then destroy surrounding equipment and gun emplacements. Simultaneously, bombers from RAF Bomber Command would fly in and strike targets surrounding Saint Nazaire, to keep some of the pressure off the Commandos. Following the completion of their work, the second destroyer would sail in and evacuate the Commandos. When the plan was presented to the Admiralty, it was immediately denied. The Admiralty knew, better than anyone, that they could not spare two destroyers, with a risk of one or both of them being destroyed in the process. SOE informed them that they could provide a Free French destroyer for the operation, yet the implication of a French warship being utilized meant that they would also have to utilize French troops, increasing the amount of man being utilized. Finally, the Admiralty settled upon utilizing the HMS Campbeltown, an old World War I-era American-made Lend-Lease Wickes-class destroyer, alongside a handful of motor launches. The Campbeltown would be packed with explosives while the motor launches would be utilized to evacuate the Commandos. On March 3rd, 1942, the Admiralty approved Chariot.

On March 28th, Chariot went ahead as planned. The shallow waters within the Loire Estuary leading into Saint Nazaire meant that the Royal Navy would be forced to lighten the Campbeltown, by removing her compliment of four-inch guns, depth charges, and almost all of the equipment in her internal compartments unless what was absolutely necessary. The wheelhouse was thickened with armor-plating, and a full compliment of Oerlikon 20mm autocannons were added alongside the bridge, while a rapid-firing 12-pounder gun was added on the bow to increase firepower. In the meantime, just before the convoy departed from England, an antiquated S-class Royal Navy submarine, the HMS Sturgeon, would move on ahead of the group and assist in guiding the convoy into the Loire and into Saint Nazaire. The Campbeltown and the small contingent of destroyers operating with her would disguise themselves as German warships by raising the ensign of the Kriegsmarine. At 01:22 Hours on March 28th, the first warships entered the Loire. At the same time, RAF Bomber Command commenced its bombing run, flying at altitudes above 6,000 feet. The bombers were supposed to remain over the harbor for one hour to draw German attention away from the sea, and were ordered to strike at only military targets, an order issued by Prime Minister Winston Churchill just before the mission, further complicating matters. Yet foul weather over the port meant that only four of the bombers actually struck anything at all, while an additional six struck targets outside the city. In the meantime, the ships entered the port. The commandos laid low while the ships moved in to improve the disguises. The Germans switched on searchlights, bathing the squadron in intense light. After ordering them several times to identify themselves, and after the British inability to do so, the Germans opened fire. The Kriegsmarine ensign was lowered and replaced with the Royal Navy ensign, and the destroyer increased speed, steaming toward the dry dock. The German attempts to stop the warship failed, and the destroyer struck the dock. The explosives within the holds had been timed to go off hours after the Commandos had disembarked. The commandos moved out into the port, destroying everything they could find, from dock installations to moored U-Boats within the harbor. Yet with the increasing amounts of German fire, the British soon realized they could not escape by sea within the port itself, and chose rather to finish the mission the hard way: fighting their way through Saint Nazaire into the surrounding countryside and boarding the rescue ships there. At 06:30, the Commandos, having lost 169 men killed and 215 wounded, boarded the torpedo boats, and escaped the French countryside, the Wehrmacht on its heals. The next morning, the torpedo boats arrived back in England unaided, and the Campbeltown detonated, killing 360 German troops. The exact number of German casualties during the raid itself are unknown. The raid was incredibly successful, and in spite of the British losing the majority of their operating strength during the raid, all objectives were achieved, especially the destruction of the dry dock. For the remainder of the war, the Tirpitz was forced from fjord to fjord in Norway, and was finally sunk in November 1944 on the RAF’s fourth attempt to sink her. 


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