During World War II, there were many ingenious and courageous raids, but only one would come to be known as “The Greatest Raid of All” – the British raid on St. Nazaire.
Since the beginning of hostilities, the German Navy had wreaked havoc on shipping in the Atlantic. With the fall of France, the Nazis had ample facilities on the Atlantic to service their fleet, well away from areas patrolled by the Royal Navy.
The British wanted to take this away and force them through the English Channel or the GIUK (Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom) gap, which they heavily defended. To do this, they devised a daring raid that would put the port of St. Nazaire out of action.
The plan, codenamed Operation Chariot, was to assault the port with commandos supported by a converted destroyer, the HMS Campbeltown. The British planned to load theCampbeltown with explosives and then ram it into the dry docks where it would detonate. The commandos would also land and destroy the port while up-gunned motor launches searched for targets of opportunity.
The raiding force consisted of 265 commandos (primarily from No.2 Commando) along with 346 Royal Navy sailors split between twelve motor launches and four torpedo boats.
The raiders set out from England on the afternoon of March 26, 1942, and arrived at the target just after midnight on March 28. At that point, the Campbeltown raised a German naval ensign to deceive German shore batteries. However, a planned bombing by the Royal Air Force put the harbor on high alert, and just eight minutes from their objective they were illuminated by spotlights.
A gun battle between the approaching ships and the Germans ensued. At one mile out, the British raised their own naval ensign, increased speed, and drove through the murderous German fire. The helmsman of the Campbeltown was killed, his replacement wounded, and the whole crew blinded by searchlights. At 1:34 a.m., the destroyer found the Normandie dry dock gates, hitting with such force as to drive the destroyer 33 feet onto the gates.
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