- Wright, Ken
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
While the commandos were fighting for survival ashore, the motor launches were fighting their way back out to sea. Of the seventeen boats that came with Campbelltown, only eight were able to eventually make it back out to sea. Around 5.30 am, Motor Launch 306 was approximately 45 miles out to sea. All onboard were eager to rendezvous with the patrolling destroyers Atherstone and Tynedale and to return to England. Their anticipation of the homeward bound journey was shattered when Lieutenant Swayne was summoned to the bridge with the news that a faint outline of five German destroyers had been spotted in the distance, on an almost parallel course with the motor launch. The five destroyers of the Kreigsmarine 5th Torpedo Boat Destroyer Flotilla had been on patrol near where the U-593 had reported contact with a group of British ships. In fact the German ships had been exchanging blows with the two British destroyers and were suddenly ordered to return to St. Nazaire due to an enemy attack on the port facilities and to intercept anyone attempting to return to England.
The motor launch was a B-class Fairmile craft, 112 feet (34 m) long and 19.5 feet (5.9 m) in beam. Built of mahogany, they had very little armour and were extremely vulnerable to fire. Armed with a 20 mm Oerlikon for air defence, four WW I vintage Lewis guns and depth charges, the launch was not exactly equipped to take on five enemy destroyers. On Lt. Swayne’s orders, power to the two 650 hp petrol engines were cut and the motor launch was brought to a standstill. Everyone readied themselves for action. The German ships passed close to the motor launch but it remained unseen in the early morning darkness. However, Jaguar, commanded by Kapitän-leutnant F.K. Paul, the last destroyer in the line to pass, began to turn out of the line and approach the stern of the motor launch. Switching on her main searchlight, Jaguar illuminated the motor launch and both sides opened fire almost at the same time. The destroyer’s search light was the first victim and there was darkness again for a few moments before the battle begun again with the scene illuminated by a second searchlight.
It was an uneven battle from the start and the outcome a foregone conclusion but the British were going to fight no matter what. Like its namesake, Jaguar circled its prey, illuminated in the searchlight’s harsh light. The German heavy machine guns began to cause casualties and started a small fire on the bridge of the motor launch. With both ships maneuvering to gain an advantage, the destroyer almost rammed the launch and only quick action by the helmsman on the launch averted a collision.
The launch was struck a glancing blow with no damage but four men were thrown overboard. The destroyer continued to circle but at a distance where the main armament could be depressed low enough to be used. A 4.1 inch shell hit the motor launch wheelhouse, killing and wounding a group of men.
The battle was not completely one- sided as the Germans were also taking casualties even though they had the advantage of firing downwards, and the British were forced to fire upwards. On the launch, dead and dying men of the army and navy were strewn about the deck. Sergeant Tom Durrant, a member of the Corps of Royal Engineers with No. 2 Army Commando had been wounded three times whilst manning a twin Lewis machine gun. He continued to fire at the destroyer which had edged closer. Kapitän-Leutnant Paul hailed the launch in English calling on the British to stop shooting. His answer was more fire from Durrant’s machine guns at the destroyer about 30 yards or so away. Sgt. Durrant was only managing to stay upright because of his grip on the gun mounting but clearly he was weakening. The destroyer was almost alongside and again Kapitän-Leutnant Paul called on the British to stop firing and surrender. His answer was another burst of fire from Sgt. Durrant, the bullets stitching holes across the destroyer’s navigational table and just missing Kapitan-Leutnant Paul’s head by inches. The Jaguar went astern far enough to depress her guns and resumed firing in the pre-dawn light. Sgt. Durrant was hit again and collapsed on the deck, unable to continue. He had been hit at least sixteen times and was in great pain. The enemy ship had edged back along side the launch and Lt. Swayne decided enough was enough, hailed the destroyer and offered to surrender.