The Greatest Raid: St Nazaire, 1942 – the heroic story of Operation Chariot

The superficial justification for Operation Chariot – the daring British commando raid on the French port of St Nazaire in March 1942 – was that it would deny Tirpitz a crucial repair dock.

The destruction of the fearsome German battleship obsessed Winston Churchill. And, if it could not be destroyed, then at least it could be denied a dock on the Atlantic coast, from which it might harass the Allied convoys from America.

In reality, however, Hitler had no intention of moving Tirpitz from its semi-permanent home in the far north of Nazi-occupied Norway. Besides, the British had other, more pressing reasons to give Chariot the green light.

As Taylor Downing explains on p.18 of this issue, by early 1942 the British war was going disastrously. A quick victory was badly needed to demonstrate to their American and Soviet allies that there was still fight left in them.

Germany was aware of this, issuing internal warnings of the possibility of a politically motivated strike on ‘valuable coastal assets’. But they dismissed St Nazaire as a target. Attacking it would be stupidly dangerous, even ‘suicidal’.

As Giles Whittell writes in this enjoyable new history of the raid, it was precisely the sheer dangerousness of the idea that so appealed to Churchill. Equally entranced by the prospect was Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Queen’s cousin. As the head of Combined Operations, it fell to Mountbatten to put the plan into action.

An obsolete destroyer – HMS Campbeltown – laden with explosives, would be rammed into St Nazaire’s dock gates and blown up. Undertaking this mission were highly trained commandos, who would return in a fleet of smaller craft.

Many of the men went into the mission on Benzedrine, an amphetamine widely available among troops at the time. The drug could keep them going for hours and dull all sense of anxiety. This would have been useful given the poor state of the pre-launch preparation, as well as the sheer odds against survival and success.

And yet, initially at least, the raid went well. ‘In the time it takes to get a meal delivered in a restaurant,’ Whittell writes, ‘the commandos had penetrated one of Hitler’s most heavily defended fortresses, blown up some of his most valuable machinery and made it look easy’. Campbeltown did eventually explode, killing around 300 people, most of them German troops.

But it was far from mission accomplished. As historian Peter Stanley said, ‘everything else was secondary [to the destruction of Campbeltown] but everything else went wrong’. The small boats intended to take the unit home were largely destroyed, leaving many commandos stranded or forced to escape by other means.

A then little-known side effect of Benzedrine, severe depression and listlessness a few hours after ingestion, exacerbated the casualties. Many soldiers who could have otherwise survived were chemically sapped of their will to do so.

The greatest raid then? Perhaps. It was bold and ambitious and achieved its primary aim of rendering St Nazaire unusable for the duration of the war. But, given that that the port was never likely to shelter Tirpitz, it was costly, with the death rate higher than in any other British raid in either war. It had the additional unfortunate legacy of spurring Mountbatten into launching the attack on Dieppe – a much more conspicuous failure – just four months later.

Giles Whittell’s book is well researched and compelling, providing plenty of detail on the build-up to and aftermath of the raid, as well as the German and French perspectives. But, above all, it is a tribute to the British commandos who risked their lives so heroically for the mission, however dubious its justification may have been.

Review by Calum Henderson
The Greatest Raid: St Nazaire, 1942 – the heroic story of Operation Chariot, Giles Whittell, Viking, hbk (£20), ISBN 978-0241508572.