Jeremy Clarkson called it ‘the Greatest Raid of all’. Out of a total of several hundred men, 5 Victoria Crosses were won. This makes the St Nazaire raid possibly the most decorated operation for its size since Rorkes drift.
In 1942, the Bismarck had been sunk. Only the Tirpitz remained of the German Battleship fleet. Whats more, there was only one dry dock in Nazi-occupied Europe that was big enough to repair her, at St Nazaire in Brittany, France. Destroy that, the British realised, and the Tirpitz was hamstrung.
A daring plan was devised for 28 March 1942, codenamed Operation Chariot. A redundant Royal Navy Destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, would be rammed into the dock wall. Loaded with explosives, she was set to explode some time later. A flotilla of coastal forces boats would also bring in Commandos and Engineers. Once the operation was completed, it was planned to withdraw by sea. In the event, there was such heavy fighting in St Nazaire and so many of the flotilla’s ships were destroyed that only a fraction of the men escaped. Many were killed or taken prisoner.
But the dock was destroyed, and the Tirpitz was left stranded in Norwegian fjords until she was finally destroyed by the RAF in 1945. The allied shipping that was saved by the St Nazaire raid is impossible to quantify.
Captain Robert Ryder, the senior Naval Officer, won a VC for his leadership, and for exposing himself to fire whilst evacuating the Campbeltown.
Lieutenant-Commander Stephen Beattie, in command of HMS Campbeltown, was awarded a VC for gallantry shown in steering his ship into the dock walls in the face of blinding searchlights and under intense fire.
Able Seaman William Savage also received a VC for great skill and gallantry shown in manning a pom-pom gun on a Motor Gun Boat. Savage remained at his post, resolutely firing away until he was killed.
Sergeant Thomas Durrant, a Royal Engineer, was attached to the Commando forces. He was in charge of a Lewis Gun on a Motor Launch, and although wounded and with no cover, he carried on firing until taken prisoner. He died of his wounds the next day. He was awarded a Posthumous VC.
Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Newman commanded the commando troops, and received a VC for leading his men and directing operations with no concern for his own safety. He only surrendered once ammunition had run out.