2 Commando, St. Nazaire

Operation Chariot

"If any reader of this attempt to record the history of No. 2 Commando has gotten this far, he or she will have noted that the pride of place, on Page 1, has been given to the remembrance of the men of the Commando who died in the course of No. 2 Commando operations, including the men who did not return from St. Nazaire.

It now becomes a duty of this author to allow a similar pride of place in this account of St. Nazaire to the men of our brother Commando units who participated in the raid and remain alongside the Fallen of No. 2 Commando. It is with pride and a deep sense of comradeship that the author records those names. (click on the link below).

The Roll of Honour of Commandos who died during Operation Chariot.

To the other members of our brother Commando units who also fought alongside No. 2 Commando and who suffered wounds or capture, the author, some sixty-five years after the fact, offers his belated, sincere thanks.

The Nominal Roll of Commandos who took part in Operation Chariot.

In the lovely town of Ayr in Scotland, during the early weeks of 1942, the No. 2 officers and men were engaged in their normal training routines centered around our seat of power which was Number Two, Wellington Square, our H.Q. Absent from that location was Lt. Col. Newman, the C.O. Our Charlie was off somewhere and was gone for quite extended periods of time. Sgt. Blattner observed to this author that he thought ‘it a bit weird!’ He noted that Mrs. Newman had been seen that day, so the Colonel was obviously not on leave, and concluded that maybe, just maybe, something might be coming up. Meanwhile, the second-in-command, Major Bill Copland, continued to control the Commando giving no clues as to the reason for the absence of Charlie Newman. As it was, Bill Copland did not know anything more than we did, although he continued to act on some rather unusual requests relayed from Charlie who was ‘somewhere’ down South.

At the usual morning ‘roll-calls’, however, we could not fail to notice that five or six places in more than one troop were now ‘gaps’ in the ranks. The missing men had been sent off to various parts of the country and, reaching such unspecified destinations, were doubtless puzzled as to why they were being instructed in the technical matters of dry-dock pumping equipment, power-hoist motors and general dock and maritime installations. However, security was tight and the boys obeyed the Commando Commandment: ‘Thou shalt not run thy mouth in idle rumours’.

All our wonderings ceased when Capt. Mike Barling, our medical officer, was joined by a second doctor, Capt. Dave Paton. We knew then that we were not being given two ‘M.O.s’ for nothing. Something was in the wind for sure! The same day well over half the Commando was given instructions to report with full kits, which were to be turned into the unit storage shed. Some of the men who were not so instructed did not like being left out of the proceedings, resenting the slight – especially the ‘old hands’ who muttered about seniority or something.

The old cross-channel ship ‘Princess Josephine Charlotte’ conveyed the lucky participants-to-be from Ayr to Falmouth. Everyone’s morale was sky-high, the food was good, duty-free cigarettes abounded, and all was right in the Commando world, as we knew we were at last on our way to somewhere to actually do something!

The boys of No. 2 soon resumed training following disembarking from the ‘P.J.C.’. Nothing very much was different from the usual regimen of long, forced marches in daylight and darkness, weapons drills, and the usual emphasis on maintaining top physical condition. On March 18th Lt. Col. Newman finally outlined the details of the forthcoming operation to the assembled Commando. Charlie gave a remarkably clear and concise presentation of the overall objective, together with detailed descriptions of what the various tasks groups were expected to perform. It was amazing how the Colonel had condensed the 80 page operational order that he had received down to an easily-understood situation talk.  He concluded his informative duties with a question: ‘What do you think of that?’ He was answered by a roar of approval that shook the closed room where we had been assembled.

The briefing that the Colonel had conducted had not included the mention of the location of the objective, which resulted in ‘head-scratching’ from past geography lessons. Was it to be Cherboug? L’Orient? Brest? or, maybe, Le Havre? It was not until almost the eve of sailing on March 26th that the Commando knew that it had a one-night engagement booked for St. Nazaire.

If this author remembers correctly, it was on the minds of several of the men that many more officers were showing up at Falmouth. Indeed, there were 25 familiar faces of No. 2 Commando officers now present among us. As there were about 215 members of the Commando remaining in Ayr, and the total ‘table of organization’ was 26 officers – Who was minding the store? Someone suggested that the Padre was calling-the-role at the morning parades up there! Even Major Bill Copland, who had been in charge at Ayr, arrived and smiled his usual greetings. The mystery of ‘so many officers’ deepened when someone pointed out that there also were 15 more officers – the ‘guest-workers’ from the other Commando units. We were now looking at a total of 40 officers! Mathematics was quickly brought into play! The equation of 220 Commando other ranks divided by 40 Commando officers revealed the astonishing ratio of 5.5 – One officer for every five and a half men!

This author still wonders why so many officers were among us in those days. A Commando officer always was the man who led from the front. He was the most eager of the eager-beavers, but also very difficult to replace and train to the level of Commando expertise required. It is thought, looking backwards to those days in March 1942, that quite possibly some of the officers who were there could easily have been substituted for by the experienced sergeants and corporals who had been left behind ‘crying in their beer’ in Ayr. However, all this was conjecture on the part of the Commando men. The force assembled was what it was, the dice had been rolled, and that was that.

On March 19th, the Colonel told the men that Mountbatten, (Admiral Lord Louis), had informed him a few days previously that ‘We are writing you off!’ and that he was confident that the Commando force could get in and do the job, BUT ‘we cannot hold much hope of you getting out again’. He also passed on Mountbatten’s comment to the men which was to the effect that ‘any man could volunteer out of the forthcoming operation should he wish to do so’. Charlie, however, had been wasting his time in passing on Lord Louis’ offer. Everyone stayed put, satisfied in their work, and of course, laboring under that strange delusion – their own immortality.

Time in Falmouth passed. On the evening of March 25th, the Commandos boarded their motor-launches and passed into the care of the Royal Navy. For security reasons, everyone was ‘ordered below’ and thus passed the night and the following morning somewhat grumpily, ‘below decks’. At 2:00 p.m., March 26th, the motor-launches, together with the other vessels in the little convoy, sailed out of Falmouth harbor and set a course for St. Nazaire. Our motor-launch was just like the other 15, thirteen of which were carrying Commandos. It had a wooden hull and wooden decks and carried some light anti-aircraft armament. On its deck, aft, there were two large steel drums containing petrol. One of the men pointed out sagely, ‘those things will set us all up in a fireball if anything hits them’, and Cpl. A.H. Smith, acting in the role of a ‘counter-sage’, observed that we would hardly be able to make the return trip without refueling. Thereafter, we looked at the 500 gallon tanks with something akin to affection.

The naval force with its Commando passengers sailed on, first in its daytime cruising formation, and then to the night alignment until just after 8:00 p.m. on March 27th, when the force maneuvered into attack order about seventy miles off St. Nazaire. The disposition of the Commandos was that the attack (sacrifice) destroyer, H.M.S. Campbeltown, had on board 80 Commandos. Charlie Newman and his Commando group were in the motor gun boat (also of wooden construction like the motor launches), and 185 Commandos were being carried in motor launches. This was the ‘order-of-battle’ as the force entered the estuary of the River Loire.

Up ahead of the ships something was happening that did not fit the plan which had included a sharp, diversionary bombing attack on certain areas of St. Nazaire. There was no mass of searchlights with their beams of light crisscrossing in the sky. None of the 88 mm and 40 mm guns were pouring streams of shells upwards. These absent things we noted with some concern. Other benefits of the air-raid would have been many German soldiers and sailors, not employed on the guns, seeking safety in air-raid shelters. As it happened, the desultory far-off bombing that had occurred, put the German defenders on a high alert and they were ready with their searchlights and A-A guns which they depressed to low-angle use. Amazingly enough to the men aboard the M.L.s we were not subject to hostile fire until 1:22 a.m., about eight minutes before the Campbeltown was scheduled to ram itself into the caisson of the Normandie dock at 1:30 a.m.

The battle that was joined at 1:22 a.m. would last about four hours on shore in St. Nazaire and just a little longer in the estuary of the River Loire. The most important objective of the operation, the immobilization of the Normandie dock, was completed some hours later at about 9:30 a.m., when the huge charge of explosive encased in the bows of H.M.S. Campbeltown, detonated, lifting the caisson from its base. In general, the demolition groups who had wrecked or blown-up the ancillary machinery which operated the caisson, were drawn from the men of the other Commandos. The protection groups for these guest-workers were, in the main, the men of No. 2 Commando, who also had supplied the troops forming the assault parties.

Apart from the Commandos who had disembarked from the Campbeltown, the other No. 2 troops attempting to land from the motor-launches experienced severe difficulties. Illuminated in the glare of searchlights, they were subjected to a virtual storm of gunfire from the German defenders on shore. Many of the launches with their navy crews and Commandos were destroyed. Few of the M.L.s managed to land their troops. Most were destroyed when their intrepid sailor crews did everything that they could to fulfill their tasks.

This author did not see this incident, but it is said that Colonel Charlie Newman, on arrival at the theoretical re-embarkation point with his group of survivors from the previous fighting, remarked that ‘there goes our transportation home!’ He was, of course, regarding the burning hulks of the M.L.s in the river when he made that appraisal. It follows that Charlie and friends then attempted to escape to the countryside beyond the confines of St. Nazaire by fighting their way through the old town. The attempt to prolong the fight and evade captivity failed as they ran out of ammunition and were slowed down by the increasing numbers of wounded in their midst. Only five men from the Commando force succeeded in eluding the cordon of German soldiers who had just about entirely sealed off the streets and exits from the town. Cpl. Wheeler, L/Cpl. Douglas, L/Cpl. Howarth, L/Cpl. Sims and Pte. Harding all, somehow, managed to trek all the way through France and Spain to Gibraltar, from whence they were repatriated back to Britain and No. 2 Commando.

It is pretty much fair to say that if a Commando landed at St. Nazaire he was either K.I.A. or made captive. Those survivors of the raid were almost exclusively from the men of the M.L.s in the River Loire who somehow survived their ordeal in what seemed at the time to be a ‘river on fire’. Of the Commandos who had entered the Estuary some seven hours previously, 64 had been K.I.A. and 156 were being led into captivity. Among these, now prisoners-of-war, were over 80 men who were wounded in action. The Royal Navy casualties were even higher, as twice as many sailors had participated in the raid as there were soldiers present. 105 Navy men were K.I.A. and 106 were taken prisoner. Of the 18 motor launches that had entered the river on the night of March 27-28, 1942, only four eventually made their battered and bruised way back to Falmouth. Overall, out of a total of 611 Commandos and sailors committed, 403 would not return.

The comrades of the Commandos, the sailors of the Royal Navy, more than upheld the highest traditions of the Senior Service. If across the passage of time this author could convey a message to the Navy’s illustrious Admiral Horatio Nelson, it would read something like: ‘At St. Nazaire your descendants also fought in wooden ships, and they had hearts of oak, brave and true.’

Some ‘aftermaths’ of St. Nazaire are recalled. Among these are, Capt. Mike Barling returning to Ayr to find himself as not only the unit’s Medical Officer, but also, the senior rank present in No. 2 Commando.

Pte. Fred Peachey was in hospital at Devonport trying to recover from a serious wound that he received in the River Loire. Did this later-to-be Sgt. Peachey have any premonition that this was only the first wound he was to suffer? Fred was to be wounded again at Salerno and, for the third time, at Lake Comacchio.

Lieut. Joe Houghton was not very far away from Fred in the same hospital. It is as well that this super officer did not know that in less than seven months hence he would be executed near Berlin by some thugs carrying out Hitler’s commando execution order.

L/Cpl. Ivor Bishop, who had just seen R.S.M. Alan Moss make heroic efforts to save fellow Commandos and lose his life as a result, could have no inkling that he, Ivor, would be promoted so fast that he would be the new No. 2 Commando R.S.M. in far-off Yugoslavia two years hence.

Then there was the time about a month of so after the raid. The author was returning to his billet in Ayr, and Mabel, his wonderful, kind landlady, rushed out to meet him, tears rolling down her face, proclaiming: ‘Wicky is safe! Wicky is safe!’ L/Sgt. Lionel Wickson, who had shared this billet with us prior to leaving for St. Nazaire, had notified her through the Red Cross that he was a P.O.W., alive and well.

Somewhere, someone coined the phrase: ‘The Greatest Raid of All’, and since that time, those words have been used to describe the mainly No. 2 Commando operation at St. Nazaire. Whoever came up with that accolade? I don’t know who, but I certainly wish that he had not done so as it implies a sort of second-rate status to the many other actions that have been fought with equal bravery and losses in men by the other Commandos. This author has the opinion that no one Commando had any monopoly on efficiency, skills, or in the severity of the actions in which they fought. This author would have been proud to have served in any one of them!"

nb. The above  account is part of the overall history of No 2 Commando by Bob Bishop No 2 Cdo.

Is this defencless port the place
That once I came to wreck?
Is nothing manned at my approach,
And no one armed on deck?

No, nothing now’s afloat to sink,
Nor on the shore invade
These by the coach are teachers.
These in the boat want trade.

And over old unhappy things
Pacific Ledgers mount,
Deals must have duplicates, and lives,
That had no copies count,
And children come with flowers
To place where teachers bid,
Who never heard of Goering,
Or ask what Goebbels did . . .

O glittering wings, so suddenly
high in the vacant blue,
Stay, till to-day dies normally,
And normal nights ensue!

Never again the premature,
Never again the pain.
And a rose for those who went in first,
And where they fall remain.

Michael Burn 1997

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