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The Greatest Raid Of All

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Operation Chariot

In the early hours of March 28th, 1942, the docks of Saint-Nazaire, France, were the focal point of a scene that could be described as something from a Hollywood movie. Under the cover of darkness, an explosive-laden destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, rammed the gates of the German-held dry dock as the clock ticked down to what would be her utterly devastating curtain call. What prompted this audacious move by the Allies, and did they succeed? Read on to find out more!

From the very outbreak of WWII, German heavy raiders posed a constant threat to British convoy routes in the Atlantic. Although threats from the likes of Admiral Scheer, Scharnhorst, and Gneisenau were mostly foiled by British battleships, the dry docks in Saint-Nazaire played a key strategic role in facilitating the harassment and had to be eliminated.

However, there were a couple of key obstacles to overcome in order to achieve their objective. The first concerned the delivery of the explosive payload, with airborne torpedo raids being negated by the shallow waters surrounding the dock. This made it impossible for their torpedoes to effectively operate. The second issue came in the form of the sturdiness of the dock gates themselves. This factor posed a real challenge, in that a significant amount of explosives would be required to destroy them. A complex problem such as this demanded a complex and unorthodox solution...

The Ship

It would soon become clear that in order to breach the dock gates and cripple Saint-Nazaire's dry dock infrastructure in a meaningful way, a ship, laden with explosives, would have to be sacrificed.

Built as the Wickes-class USS Buchanan (DD-131), HMS Campbeltown stood as a perfect example of the first class of oceanic destroyers put into service by the US Navy. Flush-decked, with four smoke stacks and strong torpedo armament, these ships were "just fine" by the end of World War I, but hopelessly obsolete by the 1940s. A total of 50 of them—an assorted fleet of Wickes, Caldwell and Clemson classes—were given to Britain in exchange for military bases in 1940.

After being renamed as HMS Campbeltown (I42), the destroyer served under both British and Dutch flags. It’s ironically speculated that the story of her career, plagued by collisions with other ships, might be the reason why, when looking for a ship to blow up, she was seen as a suitable candidate.

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