- Wright, Ken
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
The bow of the destroyer was now wedged fast in the caisson and the stern began to sink. The sea cocks were opened and scuttling charges were fired to make sure the Germans were going to have a hard time removing the wreckage if the demolition charges failed to explode. The escorting gunboat and two launches attempted to suppress the German guns firing at Campbelltown as well as get into position to be available to extract the Campbelltown’s naval crew. It was now time for the seven parties of commandos to go to work and destroy the dry dock machinery and generally create havoc for the Germans but they were taking causalities even before they had left the Campbelltown. Steel and bamboo ladders were flung against the destroyer’s sides and the commandos scrambled over onto the harbour sides into the hell of blinding light, bullets, shells and into glory, if there is such a thing in death and destruction. It was also time for the naval crew to abandon the ship and attempt to get to the gun boat and the two launches to be disembarked from the dry dock area.
While some commandos from the Campbelltown went about their work of silencing gun positions, others went after the pumping station, winding machinery, bridges and other targets. The demolition teams, struggling with their loads of explosives, were escorted by well armed protection squads to ward off any interference by the Germans.
Outside the harbour entrance in the River Loire, the flotilla of motor launches was falling victim to heavy fire from the German shore positions as those in charge desperately attempted to get their teams of commandos ashore around the area of the Old Mole. This was the designated area that had to be secured for the launches to be able to take onboard the commandos for the return journey after the job was completed. The German defences were decimating the most valiant attempts to secure the Old Mole. Launches were hit, men were hit, men weighed down with equipment drowned in the strong current or burnt to death in the flaming petrol that was spreading over an ever-increasing area from the wrecked launches. Lieutenant Colonel Newman and his HQ team managed to get ashore as did a few other commandos but the planned combined attack by all the commando teams had disintegrated, leaving those from Campbelltown to do the bulk of the work.
Game of bluff
If the full attention of the Germans had been directed towards the air raid, as was originally hoped, the element of surprise that was so crucial for a successful landing by all commandoes may have been accomplished. It was only due to the brief but successful game of bluff so well played by Commander Ryder and German indecision that the flotilla got as far as they did. Captured documents and personal interviews after the war all indicate that this was the case. A few aeroplanes flying around rather aimlessly dropping a bomb here and there naturally only increased the suspicion of the Germans that something else was going to happen. Also the time difference between the end of the air raid and the estimated time of arrival of 1.30 am left the flotilla open to detection. One squadron leader back in England the next day when he found out about the raid spoke with tears in his eyes, ‘If you had only told us what it was all in aid of, we would have come down to nought feet and given them everything we had’.
As it was, the raiders achieved in approximately thirty minutes virtually all they had set out to do. Considering their small number, it was a truly magnificent effort. However, with mounting losses and the overwhelming superiority of the enemy defenders, it was time to assemble at the re‑embarking point at the Old Mole under control of Lt. Col. Newman. The commandos fought their way to the assembly area, arriving in groups only to be greeted by a heartbreaking sight. The river seemed to be on fire with floating wreckage mixed with the surviving motor launches attempting to get close to take them off. Commander Ryder in his motor gun boat, which had so far managed to stay unscathed, observed the impossibility of the remaining motor launches reaching the Old Mole to rescue the commandos, and made the strategic decision to withdraw all surviving launches back to the open sea. Newman and his remaining commandos were left to their uncertain fate. Virtually surrounded, the fit and wounded survivors attempted a breakout with the almost impossible objective of reaching Spain or making their individual way home by whatever direction or means. They managed to get out of the dock area, fighting bravely all the way but the arrival of several units of the regular German army put paid to any hope of progressing much further. It was now about 4 am and with no dishonour, they began surrendering in groups or as individuals.