- Wright, Ken
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
At 8 pm the flotilla approached the entrance to the river Loire and, guided by the seaward navigational lights of the submarine HMS Sturgeon, began the final journey. This is also where Tynedale and Atherstone parted company with the rest of the flotilla to take up all-night patrol duties to escort returning motor launches after the raid.
At 11 pm the three pencil fuses to Campbelltown’s demolition charge were activated and set to go off at 5 am on the following day, 28 March. Close to 11.30 pm the sound of approaching bombers was clearly audible. This was the prearranged bomber raid on German positions as the diversionary tactic but the original allocation of aircraft had been cut back by Bomber Command due to operational requirements elsewhere. Only 35 Whitley and 27 Wellington bombers took part, and on orders from the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, to minimise French civilian casualties they were to bomb only targets that were clearly visible.
The battle of St. Nazaire began with German anti-aircraft fire and probing searchlights but instead of an anticipated rain of bombs, they fell in ones or twos. Unfortunately bad weather prevailed over the target areas and only four aircraft actually dropped bombs. One Whitley bomber was lost at sea. This was not the attention diverter the raiders had hoped for and only made the Germans suspect something else was going to take place. The flotilla entered the estuary of the Loire at 12.30 am, past the wreck of the Lancastria and past two harbour patrol boats who strangely, as it was later discovered, were not equipped with radios and could have warned German Command of the flotilla’s approach.
By 1 am the searchlights were switched off, the anti-aircraft guns were silent and peace returned to St. Nazaire. This was not a good sign, as the flotilla needed a further thirty minutes to get to the target area.
On the east bank the commander of the 809 Naval Flak Battalion happened to spot a group of small ships travelling in the direction of the port and reported the sighting to the Harbour Master, only to be admonished for looking in the wrong direction. The Germans were half expecting an enemy parachute landing. At 1.15 am another sighting was reported to the Harbour Master who asked HQ if they were expecting any arrivals. When the reply was in the negative, the alarm was raised and the entire German defensive system suddenly came alive. Everyone on or off duty scrambled to their positions.
For some unexplained reason, it was five minutes before the searchlights were switched on and those few minutes were invaluable for the attackers to get closer to their target. It was now 1.22 am with two miles to go. Suddenly, the harbour and the flotilla were bathed in light, naked and exposed. Speed was increased and now began an extraordinary game of bluff to gain the valuable minutes needed to reach their objective. The entire operation depended on what could be likened to a hand of poker and Commander Ryder on the motor gunboat escorting Campbelltown was to play the hand of his life and the lives of all who accompanied him.
As the flotilla proceeded up the harbour, two early German signal stations challenged Campbelltown and a few bursts of gunfire were fired from the shore batteries. Commander Ryder ordered his signalman to flash with his night signalling lamp a known German torpedo boat call sign, then signal they were proceeding up the harbour in accordance with orders. The firing stopped and several searchlights went off. However, another signal station further up the harbour continued to challenge and some more desultory shots were fired. Still in the glare of some searchlights Commander Ryder signalled that they were being fired on by friendly forces. The firing stopped and more time had been won. It was now 1.28 am with one mile to go.
Had they been a genuine unscheduled arrival, the ships would have stopped when first fired upon and sorted out the identification problem. The Germans finally realised this and as in a game of poker, the bluff was called and the game was over. All hell broke loose from both sides. Every German gun that had the flotilla in their sights began firing. The British kept to tradition by hauling the German flag down and in every ship in the flotilla, the White Ensign was raised and they began to return fire. Tracers arched from ship to shore and from shore to ship. Shells were bursting all around. Machine guns of various calibres pumped bullets at searchlights, bullets hit motor launches. The whole scene was one big, colourful but deadly fireworks display. The British were at a disadvantage being in the glaring light and not being able to clearly identify targets ashore but their ferocious response shocked the Germans and temporarily gained them the upper hand. Campbelltown began to receive attention from the Germans. It seemed every gun was firing at her, and her alone. Two hundred yards away the great steel caisson of the lock loomed ahead. Ripping through a steel anti-submarine net the Campbelltown rammed the gate at 1.34 am. Commander Beattie commented to those on the bridge, ‘Well, there we are’ and added that they were four minutes late.