Read review by Mark Simmer, British military historian here
Read review in Military History Now here
Read review in Military-History US here
‘This is a highly readable, informative, and entertaining account of a daring raid that has become a legend. Mr Lyman has done a good job of parting the veil of legend to present the facts behind the legend, which are extraordinary in and of themselves. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in WWII era special operations and the activities of the British Commandoes in particular.’ Military-History US
Review in EDP Weekend supplement August 2013
Commandos in most daring raid of the war
As a new book tells the true story behind the ‘greatest raid’ of the second world war, Steve Snelling recalls the East Anglian contribution to the spectacular commando attack on St Nazaire.
They were two of the bravest yet most modest men it has ever been my privilege to meet. In an age when the word ‘heroes’ has become a much abused and over-used epithet, Ron Butler and Bill King were genuine heroes.
Not that they ever described themselves as such. They regarded their actions as simply a matter of doing their duty, of doing what they had been trained to do.
It hardly mattered that ‘their duty’ in this instance involved a seemingly forlorn dash into one of the most heavily defended ports in Occupied Europe, still less that the odds of them surviving were so infinitesimally low as to render the operation well-nigh suicidal.
All that concerned them as they embarked on the most audacious raid of the second world war was that the death-defying mission they were tasked to carry out should be successfully accomplished, no matter what the cost.
And I well remember Bill’s blunt reaction to my suggestion that the plan of attack seemed the height of folly if not madness. “Absolutely crazy,” he nodded. “That’s the reason we got away with it!”
The attack in question was the assault on St Nazaire, the extraordinary attempt to penetrate the Loire estuary and destroy the world’s largest dry dock by ramming its huge gates with a destroyer laden with explosive which has gone down in history as the greatest commando raid of all.
Now, a little more than 70 years on, memories of Operation Chariot, as the mission was officially styled, have been stirred all over again by the publication of a powerful new study that sheds fresh light on a wartime exploit which continues to defy belief.
Into the Jaws of Death chronicles in masterly fashion a feat of unparalleled daring that yielded an unlikely strategic victory at one of the bleakest periods of the war.
Singapore had been surrendered following one of the most humiliating defeats in British military history, the battle of the Atlantic “raged unabated” and, as author Robert Lyman points out, “there were very few people who believed that the war was actually winnable”.
Indeed, Lyman believes that it was only against such a wretched backdrop that an enterprise so outrageous in concept and so outstandingly courageous in application could have ever been contemplated.
“The raid on St Nazaire was an incredibly risky operation,” he says. “The idea of packing tons of amatol into the bows of a destroyer, negotiating a river lined with enemy guns and then ramming it into some dock gates to explode a short while later after a force of commandos have demolished all manner of port facilities was an extraordinary one. It had never been done before, had never even been practiced before.
“Just about every single thing about the raid, not least the fact that single-hulled mahogany vessels crammed with commandos were allowed to go in with very little armament, smacks of desperation. And that was the whole point about it: this was a desperate mission designed to demonstrate Britain had the wherewithal to fight back at a time when, actually, it had very little to fight back with.”
Contrary to the widely held belief that the raid was conceived as a consequence of the threat posed by the German battleship Tirpitz, Lyman argues convincingly that the idea of wrecking the dry dock - the only one on the Atlantic coast capable of taking the giant warship - was secondary to Lord Louis Mountbatten’s determination to strike a blow against Hitler’s Reich.
“In order to sell the raid,” he explains, “he used the dread and the fear of the Tirpitz to gain authorisation. But while the primary reason for the raid was to demonstrate the viability of commando attacks and the martial virility of Combined Operations, it had the added benefit of denying the Tirpitz a berth on the French Atlantic coast and preventing her from ever coming out onto the high seas again.”
Lyman’s study shows how in a remarkably short time - a little over two months - the plan, which grew out of an earlier proposal, was finalised and a small armada of ships gathered to carry a force of commandos on their history-making mission.
The men selected for the operation were as desperate for action as Churchill was for a success to trumpet Britain’s defiance in the face of adversity. “They were exceptional men,” says Lyman. “They were all men of extraordinary independence and fortitude, remarkably courageous and determined, who would never give up and were certainly not put off by the knowledge that their chances of coming back were very small.”
Typical of these men were Ron Butler and Bill King. Like many on the raid, they were Territorial Army soldiers who had volunteered for ‘special service’ with the Independent Companies, originally recruited for the Norwegian campaign in 1940, which became the basis of the commandos.
Both were drawn to the new units by a desire for more excitement and, as Bill once put it, the chance to “do something”. The decision to put themselves forward for all the rigours of commando training with its gruelling fitness regime was one neither of them ever regretted. “It was great,” recalled Bill. “I loved it. The spirit among the lads was terrific. They seemed to be the cream, all volunteers, all men you could rely on.
“There was no such thing as failure in our eyes. If somebody came to the commandos and couldn’t stick it they were sent back, returned to unit. They weren’t given reasons why, no forms, no nothing, just returned to unit. It was pretty tough.”
In 1942, Bill and Ron were both at the peak of fitness when, as members of No 1 Commando, they were sent on a specialist demolition course. Not long afterwards, the two former Royal Norfolks found themselves part of a small team dashing around the docks of Rosyth, Southampton and Cardiff training to lay charges in harbour installations.
Though they didn’t know it at the time, they were preparing for a ‘top secret’ assignment in one of the most hazardous operations ever attempted by British forces.
Together with Sergeants Bill Chamberlain and Arthur Dockerill, they made up an East Anglian party under the command of a darkly handsome, rugby-playing officer, Lieutenant Stuart Chant. Their mission, one of the most important of all the demolition jobs handed to the raiders, was the destruction of the dry dock pumping station.
Even by commando standards, the risks involved were immense. So great, indeed, were they that Ron Butler remembered them being offered the chance to pull out. None did.
And so it was that they found themselves, in the early hours of Saturday, March 28, 1942, crouching behind steel screens spanning the stern of HMS Campbeltown, a hastily converted American Lend-Lease destroyer, as she steered a steady course into the gun-lined Loire estuary bound for St Nazaire.
Trailing in their wake was a small flotilla consisting of a motor gunboat, a motor torpedo boat and 16 motor launches crowded with teams of commandos who helped make up the 611-strong combined army and naval force bent on wreaking havoc.
The story of their role in the mission emerged separately, years apart, as the two veterans reflected on what Lyman describes as “the incomparably intense experiences” that set the St Nazaire raid apart from all others.
In a country cottage overrun with cats near Attleborough, Ron, a retired postman, remembered scraping over the mudflats as the force hoodwinked the Germans into thinking they were a ‘friendly’ force.
“They couldn’t believe we were British,” he said. “We were flying the Nazi swastika flag and we had been supplied with the German signals of the day.”
He heard the Campbeltown’s captain instructing his signaller on the messages to send in answer to the puzzled questions directed at them. “He told him to send them slowly,” recalled Ron, “as every second counted.”
The deception bought valuable time, but could not last. And when the storm finally broke, it was with a devastating ferocity. “There was Hell and all coming at us,” recalled Bill King, when we chatted at his home in Trunch, on the north-east Norfolk coast.
The retired manager of an auctioneer’s office who had worked as a market gardener vividly remembered being transfixed by the sight of the river criss-crossed with fire. “You could see it coming towards us,” he said, “but for every one shell you could see there were at least four you couldn’t.”
It was the beginning of what Ron would forever remember as the most exhilarating and terrifying few hours of his life. “Anybody who says he wasn’t frightened is either a liar or an idiot,” he said. “I don’t ever want to go through anything like that again.”
The noise was terrific as the Germans opened up with their heavy guns and the navy gunners responded. “We were so close to their batteries that the shells were going right through the ship and exploding the other side,” said Ron. “And just as the firing started, down came the swastika flag and up went the white ensign, and boy, did that make you feel proud.”
Lieut Chant and Sgt Bill Chamberlain were both wounded during the final run-in to the dock gates. “The ship took a real pounding,” recalled Bill King. “The navy boys were hellish good guys. They stuck to their guns all the way till they were killed or wounded.”
Almost miraculously, given the shot and fury of the night, the Campbeltown, her decks littered with bodies and her fo’c’stle aflame, smashed into the dock gates just four minutes behind schedule. “We expected a terrific shock,” recalled Ron, “but we got the surprise of our lives. We felt her ride the torpedo boom, but there was nothing like the shudder we anticipated… The ship cut right into the gates with the bows stuck right up.”
Seacocks were opened and explosives activated as the commandos scrambled down off the Campbeltown into the maelstrom of the docks. All of the pumping station party made it safely off the ship, including the injured Chant and the wounded Chamberlain, who passed his load of explosives to the others and hobbled after them.
“We just made a beeline for the pump room,” said Bill. “There was firing going on all around, but we just ignored it. The only thing in our minds was reaching the pump room and blowing those pumps up.”
According to Ron, they were saved by their commando covering party who swiftly subdued any opposition. “In no time,” he said, “they had cleared two pill-boxes with grenades and that allowed us to carry out our task.”
A plastic explosive charge unlocked the door and the demolition party dashed in. The serenity was in stark contrast to the mayhem outside. “There was a soft hum of machinery and a light shone from an upstairs office,” said Ron. “But we had to climb down 40 feet to reach the four massive, slug-like pumps. We had torches and we just hoped we wouldn’t take the wrong gangway.”
Incredibly, everything was laid out exactly as they had expected. “It went absolutely perfectly, just like clockwork,” said Bill. “There wasn’t an ounce of explosive wasted.”
Leaving Chant to set the fuse, the rest of them, with the exception of Chamberlain who had remained guarding the entrance, doubled up the stairs as fast they could. “Speed was of the essence,” said Bill. “We had as long as the fuse took to get out and if you didn’t make it up the stairs in time God help you!”
Dodging streams of bullets, they darted for cover, with Ron helping the limping Chamberlain into shelter seconds before the pumping station erupted with what Bill called a “huge whoosh” to rain concrete slabs all over the dock.
To complete the destruction, Bill returned with a sledgehammer he had carried with him to wreck the transformer pipes and gauges. “I just went along the glass panels, smashing everything in sight,” he recalled. “I really enjoyed myself. It was just a release of tension.”
Mission accomplished, they emerged from the ruined pumping station to discover that their escape had been cut off. The river was a mass of burning motor launches. With no way back, the surviving commandos fought their way out of the docks, across a bridge and into the town where they hoped against hope that they might elude the Germans and somehow contrive to reach neutral Spain, hundreds of miles to the south.
For most, including Bill and Ron, it was a vain hope. Captured before the night was out, they were already prisoners of war when the delayed explosion of the Campbeltown signalled the operation’s success with the destruction of the dock gates.
“Remarkably, through a mixture of chutzpah and great courage, they had pulled it off and spectacularly so,” says Robert Lyman. “So far as the commando objectives were concerned, the raid was entirely successful. They achieved everything they set out to achieve. The fact that it proved a raid too far for most of them was irrelevant.”
It was a verdict with which Bill and Ron, both decorated for their bravery, would have concurred. Neither had any regrets that the raid spelled the end of their active war and the beginning of three years’ captivity. Bill summed up their feelings when he said: “What mattered was that we did our bit and we did it properly.”
More than 70 years on, Norfolk’s heroes of St Nazaire have both gone, but, thanks to historians like Robert Lyman, memories of their impossible triumph live on to inspire a new generation.
Into the Jaws of Death, by Robert Lyman, is published by Quercus, priced £20.
Steve Snelling, August 2013
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