- Wright, Ken
- WWII operations
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2010 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Word of honour
The German captain was naturally suspicious at first, but once he had Lieutenant Swayne’s word of honour there would be no tricks, he allowed the survivors to come aboard. The British prisoners were treated with consideration and respect and the Jaguar’s wardrooms were used to treat the wounded.
The bodies from Motor Launch 306 were recovered and the Jaguar was about to return to St. Nazaire when the alarm was raised that two British destroyers were approaching. Kapitän-leutnant Paul was not about to take on two enemy ships so the captured motor launch was cast off and he made full speed for the protection of St. Nazaire, anchoring not far from the Campbelltown. As the British survivors were escorted off the ship under guard, the Jaguar’s captain called his ship’s company to attention to honour a brave foe and Kapitän-leutnant Paul personally took the salute. Sgt. Durrant finally succumbed to his wounds that morning. The commandos and navy crew on Motor Launch 306 were so close to rescue.
In St. Nazaire, German troops poured in, locked it down tight and began a massive search for any British soldier or sailor who may be hiding. At the dry dock, no time was wasted in assessing the damage to the caisson and a thorough search was conducted of the Campbelltown for any explosives. They were so well hidden that the Germans failed to find them. Although the ship was placed off limits, many curious visitors arrived and began exploring the wreck. The explosive fuses set for 5 am had failed, or so the British thought.
Almost five hours late, the acid ate through the copper wire that triggered the three fuses and the Campbelltown erupted with a massive explosion shattering the destroyer, the bow completely disintegrating. Pieces of metal and body parts showered down over about a mile radius. The force of the blast and the tidal wave of water smashed the 160 ton dry dock caissons inwards into the confines of the dock. The sea surged forward, taking with it the stern half of the Campbelltown and filling the area with assorted debris. Fragments of limbs, entrails and other body parts were strewn around the area of the blast to hang like grotesque decorations on wires or stick like plaster to walls or roof tops. It would take at least two days to clean up this gruesome human slaughterhouse. Estimates vary, but between 150 and 300 were killed, possibly more when the detonation occurred. Many victims were standing on the dock near the destroyer. Sadly, not all the victims were German military personnel, some were French dock workers and a few were women, possibly friends of high ranking German officers. To the captive British came the satisfaction the mission had been accomplished.
The Germans, under the impression that more commandos were landing, or those yet undiscovered were attacking again, were very nervous and shot at imaginary figures and even at each other until order and discipline was re-established. Four days after the raid, the dead of both sides were laid to rest by the Germans with due ceremony. A representative party of those British servicemen who were able to walk was in attendance. Those prisoners not in need of medical attention were transported to POW camp Stalag 133 outside Rennes in Brittany and the wounded were sent to a hospital in Rennes.
About a week later, a German naval officer called on Newman in the POW camp and said he wished to bring to his notice the gallant conduct of a sergeant in a captured motor boat ‘as you may wish to recommend him for a high award’. After the war, Lieutenant-Colonel Newman was repatriated home and using references from his diary under the heading, ‘Recommendations for awards’ and with additional testimony verifying Sgt. Durrant’s actions by the surviving officer commanding Motor Launch 306, Lieutenant R. Swayne, a recommendation for the Victoria Cross was lodged.
Recommended by the enemy
It is interesting to note that the Sergeant has earned himself a rather unique place in military history as he was an army man fighting a naval battle, in addition to the unusual circumstance of being recommended for an award by the enemy he had engaged in combat. At a ceremony held at Buckingham Palace on 29 October 1946, Sergeant Thomas Durrant’s mother was presented with her son’s posthumous Victoria Cross by His Majesty, King George VI. His medal is on display at the Royal Engineers Museum in Kent.