Lesser Known Facts About World War II

HMS Cambeltown, wedged atop the Normandie dock gates, and being inspected by Germans oblivious to its deadly cargo. Bundesarchiv Bild

17. Wrecking Germany’s Greatest Atlantic Port

The British Commandos of Operation Chariot were carried in a flotilla of 18 small craft, intended to be their ride back home after the mission. They were accompanied by an obsolete destroyer, HMS Cambeltown, packed with well-concealed delayed-action explosives. Upon reaching St Nazaire, the Cambeltown rammed the gates of the Normandie drydock, and came to rest above them at an angle. The Germans were ignorant of the destroyer’s deadly cargo, so they concentrated on fighting the Commandos, who were attacking other vital targets in St Nazaire. In heavy exchanges of fire, the Germans destroyed almost all the British small craft that were supposed to take the Commandos back home. Stranded, the Commandos tried making their way inland, but most were killed or captured after their ammunition ran out.

Heavy losses were suffered by the raiders: 169 were killed, and 215 were captured. They also lost 13 motor launches, a torpedo boat, a gun boat, and two airplanes. It was worth it, however. Later that day, after things had quieted down and the Germans began cleanup efforts, swarming aboard the HMS Cambeltown resting above the dry dock gates, the destroyer’s hidden cargo of delayed action explosives detonated. The massive blast killed hundreds of Germans, and wounded hundreds more. It also put the Normandie drydock out of commission for the rest of the war. The damage was so extensive, as a matter of fact, that it took five years after the war was over before the drydock was back in service.