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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : St Nazaire Raid

28-29 March 1942

Location: Normandie Dock, St Nazaire, France
Players: British Combined Operations, Royal Navy, commandos, Lt-Commander S H Beattie, Commander Ryder, Colonel Newman.
Outcome: HMS 'Campbeltown' exploded, dry dock at St Nazaire disabled, 169 British men lost, 150-300 Germans killed.

The British raid of St Nazaire proved to be a feat of planning. This preemptive strike was intended to deny the Germans of a dock big enough to service the German battleship Tirpitz. The British did not want it to enter the Atlantic; they had learnt their lesson from events involving its sister ship, the Bismarck. Weighing in at 42,000 tons, these monster ships proved a formidable threat to the Allies.

The raid was mounted by the British Combined Operations HQ. On the night of 27/28 March, a naval force and army commandos crossed the Channel. Luckily no enemy aircraft were encountered and although HMS Tynedale saw and attacked U-595 unsuccessfully, the U-boat did not report anything significant.

The force approached the dock via the Loire estuary. HMS Campbeltown, a US destroyer commanded by Lieutenant Commander SH Beattie, was disguised as a German MOWE class torpedo boat. She was filled with explosives to be detonated after the commandos and demolition squads (a total of 621 men) had done their work.

An attack from the air had been planned, but the RAF refused to carry out bombing of a built-up area in such poor weather conditions. HMS Campbeltown still succeeded in bluffing her way through and rammed the caisson (port gates) while the commandos landed to destroy the machinery. Sixteen motor launches transported the commando force and demolition squads to land. They were lead by Commander Ryder, Royal Navy, and Colonel Newman.

The Germans tried and failed to pull Campbeltown off the gates. The delayed action fuses did not activate until nearly noon on 29 March. The Germans had not searched for explosives and many died; the figure was estimated at between 150 and 300. Two days later, delayed action torpedoes were fired at the entrance to the old dock and caused considerable confusion among the remaining garrison.

A total of 169 of the 621 men involved in the attack were killed. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded, along with 80 other medals.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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