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Operation Chariot

The greatest commando raid

There is a memorial on the quay in the port of Falmouth, on the southwest tip of England, just 3 feet high and facing France. The words on it are understated:

OPERATION CHARIOT

From this harbour 622 sailors and commandos

set sail for the successful raid on St. Nazaire

28th March 1942.

168 were killed

5 Victoria Crosses were awarded.

It is a discreet physical memorial for one of the most successful British commando raids of all time, and mute testimony to what actually happened on the far shore in France in 1942.

BACKGROUND

In May 1941, the German battleship Bismarck, damaged in an engagement with the battlecruiser HMS Hood and battleship HMS Prince of Wales and needing repairs, had been sunk while making for St. Nazaire in occupied France. St. Nazaire was the only port on the Atlantic coast with a dry-dock facility, the Louis Joubert Lock (Forme Ecluse Louis Joubert – also known as “the Normandie Dock”), large enough to accommodate her. With Bismarck destroyed, attention shifted to her sister ship, Tirpitz. If Tirpitz ran loose in the Atlantic, British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill feared, “The entire naval situation throughout the world would be altered.” Given the losses of the Hood and destroyer HMS Mashona in the Bismarck engagement, along with almost 1,500 sailors, keeping Tirpitz at bay was a top priority.

The Normandie Dock at St. Nazaire was, however, an almost impossible target. The port lay 6 miles up the River Loire, all of it heavily protected, especially the central channel, with its lethal shallows on either side.

British naval thinking on containing Tirpitz was immediate, lateral, and preemptive. If Tirpitz was damaged, the only dry dock she could use remained the Normandie Dock. Remove it, and Tirpitz would have to run the gauntlet of getting back to Germany through the chokepoints that would become the Greenland-Iceland-United Kingdom “gaps.” Faced with this, Hitler might not risk trying to use her in the North Atlantic. The Normandie Dock at St. Nazaire was, however, an almost impossible target. The port lay 6 miles up the River Loire, all of it heavily protected, especially the central channel, with its lethal shallows on either side. Still, the need to keep the Tirpitz out of the Atlantic overrode all other considerations.

Tirpitz Alta Fjord

The Tirpitz in Alta Fjord, Norway. U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command photo

From May 1941 to January 1942, the British ran through a number of possible options for what became Operation Chariot. On Jan. 16, 1942, everything changed when Tirpitz left the Baltic and took position in a fjord near Trondheim, Norway. Bombing missions against her failed, so on Jan. 26, Churchill held an emergency meeting with the First Sea Lord, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound. Within 24 hours, the Combined Operations Directorate and its charismatic chief, Commodore Lord Louis Mountbatten, was tasked with planning and executing Chariot.

The Chariot plan, delivered in just four days, was simple and audacious. Like a latter-day Trojan horse, a surplus destroyer disguised and packed with delayed-action explosives would ram the gate of the Normandie Dock. Commandos in motor launches (MLs) would attack other key installations around the dock area. The MLs would then pick up the destroyer’s crew and commandos, and escape to an escort of destroyers waiting out at sea. The Royal Air Force (RAF) would provide a massive bombing raid as cover as the force went in.

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