Monday, November 24th, 2008
The humble old trawler/mine sweeper but none the less H.M.S. [or H.M.T.] Picton Castle was apparently one of 17 (or 19) vessels that constituted the first Allied surface raid on mainland Nazi-occupied France during the Second World War. We expect that, being a mine sweeper, our ship was sweeping for mines. Possibly she was carrying out other tasks and duties as well. It is difficult or impossible for most of us to grasp the sense of duty, sacrifice and horror for those involved. Our Barque Picton Castle was laying in Saint Nazaire, France, a short walk from the dry-dock that was the very target of this raid. It has been fixed up since the raid and all is forgiven.
Along with many other steam trawlers, the Picton Castle was conscripted into the Navy in 1939 to fill an emergency need for mine sweepers and convoy escorts in and around the British Isles. While crewed largely with grizzled old salts of fishermen who, while perhaps lacking Naval discipline and polish, needed little training in handling mine sweeping gear, so similar to fishing gear it was. And seamanship? There wasn’t much any six week naval boot camp was going to teach these fishermen about the sea. These prosaic small vessels were often captained by young reserve officers with limited experience. Headquarters for the service were at Lowestoft at a place called “the Sparrows Nest”. A pretty rough and ready, rag-tag crowd they were. Dangerous, demanding work was their daily lot. Our little ship may well be the last HMS Royal Navy vessel from WWII in full active condition. She is the only one under sail, that’s for sure.
In March of 1942, in the dark days of heavy trans-Atlantic convoy losses, the British executed a raid at Saint Nazaire which was the first surface attack on German-occupied France in the war, in order to deny to the German Navy an Atlantic dry-dock for their two big Battleships the Tirpitz and the Bizmark. If they could put this dock out of action then these very scary ships would have to steam the long narrow waters past Denmark and Sweden to get to a dry dock in Germany and back again, making them much more vulnerable to Allied destruction. These two ships were of particular interest due to their ability to run ragged over desperately needed Atlantic convoys with impunity. The raid took place and is considered one of the outstanding acts of British heroism in the war. More Victoria Crosses were awarded in this raid than any other comparable action in the Second World War.
However, for the Allies this raid was not easily done or even conceived. The big dry dock at Saint Nazaire is not on the coast, it is way up a river. A force would have to approach Nazi-held France deep in the Bay of Biscay undetected and then steam miles up the River Loire. The river has strong tides, currents and sand bars and it is all very exposed. Alternately, bombing the docks successfully would have required pinpoint accuracy against a facility heavily defended with anti-aircraft weaponry. Area bombing might not have worked and would have been sure to inflict an unknown but certainly large number of civilian casualties. A conventional naval assault looked doubtful as well – submarine nets made a sub attack not on. Thus the raid on Saint Nazaire, “Operation Chariot,” was cooked up with Lord Louis Mountbatten at the head. It was to be a commando raid. And on paper, very, very bold. Their best advantage was that the Germans probably knew this and had thus dismissed the possibility of a raid of this nature in their planned defences.
The plan was to ram a fast ship full of explosives into the dry dock doors and blow the dock to pieces. Sounds simple, but simple and easy are not the same thing, they rarely are. They took one of Roosevelt’s fifty old “Lend Lease” WWI destroyers, the HMS Cambletown (formerly USS Buchannen, I think), and stripped her down, altered her enough to pass for a German destroyer as best they could and packed her with tons of explosives in the bow and set out from Falmouth, England with a bunch of support craft including, we are told, our Picton Castle. She must have gone ahead to sweep for mines as she was never that fast.
At 0130 in the morning the destroyer rammed the dry dock at 20 knots almost jumping over the gates and crushed and sliced about 40 feet of her bow. The commandos jumped ashore and ran off to do their work blowing up bits and pieces of the dockyard, quickly figuring out that getting back to England by their attending launches wasn’t going to happen as most of these launches didn’t make it. They were either captured or found clever ways to get back to England (by way of Spain), the ones that lived. It was probably a diversionary air raid that tipped the Germans off that something was happening. Anyway, by 1000 in the morning most of the survivors had been captured by the large German force. While they were being rounded up, the ship exploded. The Germans must have thought the wrecked ship was safe as there were about 250 aboard looking around, taking pictures or nearby, that died in the explosion. The blast also put this dry dock out of business until 1947.
The raid worked – the Tirpitz was effectively trapped and was destroyed before she could sink a ship. It was brave, audacious, horrible and successful. Many Allied supply ships got through to England that might not have. There was another consequence as well – sometime after this raid, Hitler issued an edict that any and all commandos, in uniform or out, surrendering or not, wounded or not shall simply be shot. This resulted in many dead commandos, and later, hung German officers at the end of the war. But the Germans who fought and picked up the commandos of Saint Nazaire were unanimous in their admiration of those warriors who had taken part in this infamous raid.