Operation Chariot

The St Nazaire Raid or Operation Chariot was a British amphibious attack on the heavily defended Normandy dry dock at St Nazaire in German-occupied France during the Second World War. The operation was undertaken by the Royal Navy and British Commandos under the auspices of Combined Operations Headquarters on 28 March 1942. St Nazaire was targeted because the loss of its dry dock would force any large German warship in need of repairs, such as Tirpitz, sister ship of Bismarck, to return to home waters by running the gauntlet of the Home Fleet of the Royal Navy and other British forces, via the English Channel or the GIUK gap. The Tirpitz was the biggest German ship there was, this dry dock at Saint Nazaire was the only place on the Atlantic that could be used by the Tirpitz should it need repairing. The only other place was for it to travel home via the Norwegian Fjords, and this route would have taken so much time if it needed to go for repair. So the dry dock at St Nazaire was vitally important to the allies that it be destroyed.

The obsolete destroyer HMS Campbelltown accompanied by 18 smaller craft, crossed the English Channel to the Atlantic coast of France and was rammed into the Normandy dock gates. The ship had been packed with delayed-action explosives, well-hidden within a steel and concrete case, that detonated later that day, putting the dock out of service until 1948. The big problem with this plan was down to the little boats that the commandos were having to use, they were basically made from wood and used for near coastal sailing. They weren’t exactly made to carry lots of men, equipment, weapons or munitions. Finally, there was an exposed metal fuel tank on the top of them making them your least favourite ship you’d like to be on.

A force of commandos landed to destroy machinery and other structures. German gunfire sank, set ablaze, or immobilised virtually all the small craft intended to transport the commandos back to England. The commandos fought their way through the town to escape overland, many having to head towards Francos’ Spain but many surrendered when they ran out of ammunition or were surrounded by the Wermacht defending Saint-Nazaire.

Of the 611 men who undertook the raid, 228 returned to Britain, 169 were killed and 215 became prisoners of war. German casualties included over 360 dead, some of whom were killed after the raid when Campbelltown exploded. To recognise their bravery, 89 members of the raiding party were awarded decorations, including five Victoria Crosses. After the war, St Nazaire was one of 38 battle honours awarded to the Commandos. The operation has been called The Greatest Raid of All within British military circles.

Ben Davidson

Hello, I have been studying all aspects of history for about 25 years. I have a BA History from the University of Bedfordshire. My historical areas of interest are anything really, but I specialise in 19th - 20th century Britain, America and Ireland. I am also strongly aligned with most military history, really enjoying WW2 and the US Civil War. Chuck in the king or queen and Bob's your uncle.

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