In 1942, two and a half years after the Second World War, the British were facing a problem. While the British Navy commanded most of the Atlantic, the Germans had a significant advantage. The battleship Tirpitz, the largest European military warship ever built at that time, was built by total tonnage.
Instead of attacking the Tirpitz head-on, which could have been quite costly, they came up with an alternative plan that would effectively limit the battleship’s effectiveness.
Learn more about The Saint Nazar Raid, the most daring and audacious raid of World War II in this episode of Everywhere Daily.
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The Tirpitz was a monster battleship. It will be the largest European warship ever to be launched at sea. Imperial’s only Yamato-class battleship Japan and Iowa class battleships United States of america will ever be bigger.
It was part of the climax of the warship era which would soon become obsolete given the rise of the aircraft carrier.
Tirpitz was one of two Bismarck class battleships built by Germany. The second class was named Bismarck.
One of the reasons the British were so concerned with the Tirpitz had to do with Bismarck.
In the Battle of the Straits of Denmark in 1941 the British faced Bismarck, which was in Greenland and . was between Iceland.
Bismarck sank the battlecruiser, HMS Hood, with a loss of 1,415 men and severely damaged HMS Prince. Wales.
The British managed to damage the Bismarck, resulting in a chase across the Atlantic.
The problem with the Bismarck was that it was so big, there was little room for repairs. Notably, there was only one port on the Atlantic that could accommodate Bismarck: Saint-Nazaire, in the Brittany region. France.
After a long chase across the Atlantic the British eventually sank the Bismarck, which contained most of the ships of the British Home Fleet.
The British did not want to compete with the Tirpitz, as they did with Bismarck. One by one, the Tirpitz could take out any ship in the Royal Navy.
If Tirpitz manages to get into the shipping lane, it could wreak havoc on incoming supplies Britain from United States. In addition, with Tirpitz moved off the coast of Norway, it had a protected base to operate from the Norwegian fjords.
In lieu of taking Tirpitz directly, the British came up with another idea.
If they could put the port of Saint Nazaire out of commission, the Tirpitz would never risk going across the Atlantic. If St. Nazaire was not available for repair, Tirpitz would have to go past Scotland and the British Home Fleet to return to Germany, which would almost certainly spell its destruction.
Effectively flushing out the St. Nazar would allow the Tirpitz to be bottled in the Baltic Sea.
The question was how to do it.
The first idea was to send bombers and destroy it by air.
The problem with this is that the area around St Nazaire was heavily fortified with anti-aircraft defenses. Bombing in World War II was an extremely accurate affair. Entire squadrons would be sent on missions in the hope that a single bomb would hit a factory, and more often than not, they missed their target.
For the port of St. Nazar, they would have to hit the gates that separate the sea from the port, and this was not a great goal.
They came up with another plan instead. Too many audacious plans.
It was called Operation Rath.
The plan, in its simplest form, was to take an old destroyer, fill it with explosives, and sneak it into the dry dock gates at St.
The ship selected was HMS Campbelltown, a WWI era destroyer formerly named USS Buchanan in the US Navy. The ship was obsolete, so it was considered expendable.
They had to make the ship superficially like a German destroyer. He removed 2 of the ship’s 4 funnels and reshaped the rest. The illusion only had to work for a while.
Inside the ship were four tons of explosives in the form of depth charges which were mounted in front of the ship.
In addition to HMS Campbelltown, two other destroyers will be carrying 16 smaller ships carrying commandos. The commando’s job would be to destroy the pumps and mechanical equipment that were required to perform the dry dock function. Basically, waste as much as possible to make it as difficult as possible to get the facility back into commission.
Campbelltown’s commandos and sailors then fled in other boats.
The total size of the British Army was 346 Royal Navy and 265 commandos.
The small fleet left Cornwall at 2 pm on 26 March.
He encountered some French fishing boats, which he detained his crew so that they would not report anything ashore.
Just before midnight on the 27th, a bombing mission was dispatched as a diversion. Around the same time, as Campbelltown was getting closer to port, he raised the flag of the German Navy on the ship to enhance the deception.
At 12:30 on the 28th, the ship entered the estuary and attracted the attention of the Germans.
The British were on shore showing a light signal code that came from a captured German ship. However, the version of the code they had was out of date. Nonetheless, it gave him some extra time.
Eventually, the Germans began firing on the ship, and Campbelltown radioed the Germans that they were receiving friendly fire, giving them some more time.
Finally, the gig was up, and all the ships came under full enemy fire. At this point, Campbelltown fully advanced and was heading straight into the dockyard at 19 knots.
It broke through the torpedo net and entered the doors. The speed of the ship took it in 10 meters or 33 feet.
The commandos then dropped them on the dock to begin their scheduled demolition.
The commando part of the operation did not go as well as the Reming mission. While he got many goals, but not all of them were met. He was pinned down by the Germans who were on the defensive.
The major problem, however, was that several landing boats for the commandos were destroyed, and other evacuation boats could not reach the docks.
Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Newman, who was the commanding officer of the commandos, realized that a boat evacuation was not possible. He gathered the remaining 100 or so commandos on the shore and gave them three orders:
- to try my best to get back England;
- must not surrender until all our ammunition is exhausted
- Don’t surrender at all if we can help it.
The men tried to exit the dock area and into the city where they could hopefully reach the countryside. Most of them never made it this far and were eventually surrounded and captured.
HMS Campbelltown was supposed to explode at 4:30 a.m., but it didn’t.
After the attack, the next morning civilians were cleaning up at the docks and a team of German officers was aboard Campbelltown.
At noon, the explosives detonated and 320 French civilians and Germans were killed. The explosion caused more damage to the dock than the initial collision and commando raid. Had the explosion not occurred, the dock could have been repaired in a few months.
From a strategic point of view, the mission was successful. St Nazaire Dock was unusable for the rest of the war.
However, it came at a very high price. Of the 612 people who left England, only 228 returned. 169 were killed and 215 became prisoners of war. The 5 commandos stranded at the dock actually managed to get to Spain and found their way to Gibraltar and back to Britain.
89 awards were given for gallantry and bravery from the mission, out of which 5. also included Victoria Cross, the highest British military honour.
The Tirpitz remained a high priority for the British throughout the war and was eventually destroyed by the Royal Air Force in 1944.
The bell of HMS Campbelltown was rescued during the raid and was delivered to Campbelltown, Pennsylvania, for which the ship is named. When a new HMS Campbelltown was commissioned in 1988, the town rang the bell on the ship as long as it remained in service. The ship was decommissioned in 2011 and the bell was returned.
However, on May 21, 2020, the Royal Navy announced the construction of a new HMS Campbelltown. There’s no word yet on whether it will also carry the ship’s original bell.
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