Lesser Known Facts About World War II

The Normandie dock in 1942. Wikimedia

18. The Commando Raid That Wrecked Germany’s Naval Strategy in the Atlantic

Germany’s conquest of France in 1940 gave it control of the French Atlantic coast and ports, with great consequences for the war at sea. During the First World War, the German navy had been confined to the Baltic and North Sea. To break out into the Atlantic, it would have had to run the gauntlet of British-controlled waters in either the English Channel, or the naval chokepoints of the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap north of Scotland. In WWII, by contrast the capture of France’s Atlantic ports allowed the German navy to operate directly on the Atlantic.

One of the most important Atlantic naval facilities was the Normandie drydock in St Nazaire. It was the only Axis-controlled drydock on the Atlantic that could accommodate the giant German battleships Bismark and Tirpitz. Its loss would ensure that if those battleships broke into the Atlantic Ocean and suffered damage there, they would not be able to return for repairs at a convenient haven on the Atlantic. Instead, they would be forced to return all the way back to Germany, through choke points controlled by the superior British navy. So on March 28th, 1942, the British launched Operation Chariot: a surprise attack against the Normandie drydock, carried out by British Commandos.