- Wright, Ken
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
An obsolete destroyer, HMS Campbelltown, was chosen as the ‘ram’ ship. Originally USS Buchanan of the United States Navy, she was transferred to Britain early in the war as part of a ‘Bases for Destroyers’ deal between the two countries. With some alterations at the south yard of Devonport dock yard, Campbelltown was altered to resemble a German destroyer of the Möwe class as part of the deception element. Bomber Command was to allocate bombers to bomb German positions around St. Nazaire to distract German attention away from the dock area, in keeping with the absolute need for surprise.
The mission, codenamed ‘Operation Chariot’, left Falmouth at 2 pm on 26 March 1942 with Commander Robert Ryder in overall command, while Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie RN commanded the destroyer. With one motor gunboat leading followed by two motor torpedo boats, the Campbelltown and fourteen motor launches were manned by naval personnel with a number of commandos aboard each motor launch under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Augustus Newman. Three additional motor launches followed in case of breakdowns. The flotilla was escorted most of the way by two ‘Hunt’ class destroyers, HM Ships Atherstone and Tynedale.
The night passed uneventfully and at dawn on the 27th the German ensign was raised on the three destroyers as part of the deception. The raising of the German ensign was to prove most useful not long afterwards. About 7 am the following day, the flotilla was approximately 160 miles westward of St. Nazaire when what appeared to be a stationary submarine was spotted on the surface several miles distant and Tynedale was dispatched to investigate.
The submarine, later identified as the U-593 commanded by Kapitän-Leutnant Gerd Kelbling, saw the approaching destroyer and, assuming it was one of their own, fired a white five star recognition rocket to which the Tynedale replied with five long flashes. This lucky guess reply seemed to satisfy the U-Boat and allowed time for the British destroyer to get within a gunnery range of about five thousand yards before hauling down the German flag, raising the White Ensign and commencing firing at the submarine. Fortunately for the Germans, the Tynedale fired too early and, with shells creating fountains of water all round her, the U‑Boat managed to crash-dive. A depth charge attack was carried out on the estimated position of the U-Boat which forced it to the surface. Again the U-boat came under a concentrated attack before diving once more. This was not to be the last time the British destroyer and the German U-Boat were to meet.
A two hour search by Tynedale and Atherstone was carried out but nothing was found and it was assumed the submarine had been hit and sunk. The two destroyers were then ordered to take a south-westerly direction just in case the U-Boat had not been sunk and they were under observation. This proved to be a wise move by Commander Ryder, as the U-593 had not in fact been sunk and remained submerged for five and a half hours. Just prior to the attack, U-593 had observed the destroyers and the motor launches and, assuming they were German, did not report the sighting to Group Command West. After the attack, and with the U-Boat’s listening device indicating the enemy was heading west, a report was sent to the effect that three British destroyers and ten motor torpedo boats were heading west. In one of those strange twists of fate that can happen in war, U-593 was to clash again with Tynedale twenty one months later in the Gulf of Bougie off Tunisia in the Mediterranean. The British destroyer sank with a loss of 66 officers and men.
German Command West received the U‑Boat’s report and, based on the information given, assumed the British were withdrawing after mine laying operations or were possibly on passage to Gibraltar. Commander Ryder’s shrewd decision to lay a course south west and the wrong information given to German command had saved the operation for the time being.
The next problem the flotilla faced was approaching a French fishing fleet shortly before noon. It had long been suspected that the Germans placed observers equipped with wireless sets onboard French fishing fleets and as two vessels were well apart from the rest, Tynedale and Atherstone were dispatched to sink both these fishing boats after taking off the crews. The fishermen assured the British that there were no secret radios placed amongst the fleet and they involuntarily became a part of the operation.