Operation Chariot – The Plan II

Last of the troop-carrying boats of the port column, Lieutenant Ian Henderson’s ML 306 would put ashore the third of the demolition teams targeting the New Entrance crossings. Consisting of eight other ranks commanded by Lieutenant Ronnie Swayne, and protected by Lieutenant Vanderwerve’s small squad, this team would aim to destroy the lock-gates and swing-bridge comprising target group ‘B’, and thus complete the isolation of the Old Town area. Generally speaking, all demolition parties were supposed to withdraw in the company of their protection squads; however, in the case of the New Entrance targets, in recognition of the fact that their very substantial construction might prevent their total destruction, it was decided that the protection squads of Watson and Vanderwerve should remain in place until the final stages of the withdrawal, to prevent German infiltration across what might be left of the structures.

As a final precaution, and irrespective of any other tasks they might have, all parties were warned of the absolute necessity of capturing and clearing the Mole. Should Birney fail for any reason to land, the first responsibility of any and all parties following behind was therefore to complete this one essential task.

As with so much of the overall plan, the assault on this all-important structure was a complex pattern of interdependencies, likely to succeed only if the majority of the parties actually landed, and in the order specified. Should this not be the case, then the chances of capturing the position were effectively almost nil. As the final assembly point for all retiring parties, its subjugation was critical to a successful withdrawal. And yet the most powerful weapons at hand to secure its defeat were the dash and élan of the men sent against it, allied to more good luck than any such lightly armed force had a right to expect.

While the boats of the port column were thus occupied, those of Billie Stephens’ column were to make straight for the Old Entrance and put the Group 2 Commandos ashore. There was a slight possibility that their forward progress might at this point be impeded by a boom. However, if it was not, then they would be free to select their own landing points, based on the degree to which enemy vessels already moored within the narrow cleft of water obstructed their access to the quaysides.

On landing, the Group Two parties were briefed to operate both north and south of the Old Entrance, combining with Campbeltown’s parties to dominate the vital triangle of land between the dry dock and the Bassin de St Nazaire, and working their way southwards through the warehouse area towards Bertie Hodgson’s domain. They would, with luck, complete the isolation of the whole zone within which the night’s demolitions were to be carried out and thus provide a secure haven through which a phased and orderly withdrawal of the northern parties might later take place.

First to storm ashore from Stephens’ own ML 192 was to be assault party ‘2D’, headed by the Group Two commander, Captain Micky Burn. Ultimately aiming to operate against targets on the neck of land which separated the Bassin de St Nazaire from the Bassin de Penhoët, Micky was first charged with ensuring that Campbeltown’s landings were not being impeded by the guns atop the pump-house. If these positions, numbers 64 and 65, were in the process of being dealt with by the Group Three parties, all well and good. If not, then Micky was required to subdue them before moving on. Within their own target area, his men were to knock out two wooden flak towers, as well as a possible gun position close by the Pont de la Douane. They would also be required to establish a blocking position at the eastern end of the inner caisson, to protect against attacks mounted from the area north of the oil-storage tanks.

Next in line should be Lieutenant Ted Burt’s ML 262, carrying the nine-man demolition party of Lieutenant Mark Woodcock, and the five-man protection squad of Lieutenant Dick Morgan. Woodcock’s job, in an area likely to come under fire from vessels in the Bassin, was to wire up the Old Entrance lock-gates and swing-bridge ready for demolition. Should the bridge be in place and crossable, then the lock-gates could be blown first, followed later by the bridge, once all the parties to the north had withdrawn across it. Should the bridge be swung back, however, then it was Woodcock’s job to open it to traffic. In the event that the bridge could not be moved, then it was to be demolished in place and the lock-gates retained intact until such time as all the Commandos heading for re-embarkation at the Mole had safely withdrawn across them.

Following close behind ML 262, Lieutenant Eric Beart’s ML 267 was scheduled to put ashore RSM Alan Moss and the remaining members of Newman’s small though invaluable reserve. While remaining at their Colonel’s immediate disposal, they were to engage enemy vessels in the nearby Bassin, as well as such U-boats as were not fully protected by their shelters’ massive concrete walls.

Fourth in line was to be Lieutenant Bill Tillie’s ML 268, carrying the five-man demolition team of Lieutenant Harry Pennington, their similarly sized protection squad under the command of Lieutenant Morgan Jenkins and a small addition to Newman’s reserve. With the party designation ‘2C’, Pennington’s and Jenkins’ Commandos were to move swiftly to Micky Burn’s position, destroy the Pont de la Douane and thus prevent the Germans from counter-attacking across it. Dominating the bridge and inner caisson area would be the cluster of guns atop the old Douaniers’ building. Should these be in action, then Pennington had the additional task of setting fire to the structure with incendiaries. Upon completion of all his tasks, he was then to withdraw, leaving Jenkins’ team to thwart any German moves to cross from the west bank.

Bringing up the tail of the column, the remaining torpedo MLs, Fenton’s 156 and Rodier’s 177, were to carry between them the twenty-eight men of Captain Hooper’s special assault party ‘2E’. Briefed to operate both north and south of the Old Entrance, they were to silence two gun positions right on the foreshore, which might or might not be in use on the night, and deal with any enemy vessels unfortunate enough to be trapped within the dry dock. Upon completion of these tasks, Hooper was to place his team at Newman’s disposal at the earliest possible moment.

As all three landings were designed to take place within the same slim envelope of time, the activities of Micky Burn’s group should neatly dovetail with those of Major Copland’s parties, landing from the Campbeltown on to the caisson itself. Of course this assumed that the old destroyer would make it as far as the dockyard, something no one dared predict with certainty, first because she would attract the fullest weight of fire from the German defences, and second because she might well run aground, especially with the operation having been initiated some days before the fullest height of the tides. Should she be damaged or become stuck, MLs 160, 270, 298 and 446 had been detailed to carry off her personnel and take her troops ashore. In this worst-case scenario, her charges were to be set to blow up some time after the last of the small boats had withdrawn. In her absence the attack on the caisson itself would be carried out with MTB 74’s special torpedoes.

Supposing Campbeltown did make it through, however, there would then be the problem of the caisson itself, which might or might not be closed on the night. If closed, it was to be rammed at speed so that the destroyer’s bows might ride over the top and provide a platform from which her troops could rapidly disembark. If open, then Beattie was to lay his ship alongside the dry-dock wall, port-side to, and scuttle her abreast the caisson sill, so as to gain the maximum effect from her eventual explosion. Should the dock be clear and the inner caisson closed, then Wynn was to pass by the destroyer and lay his special torpedoes against it.

In the event that the gods were riding with Campbeltown and that Beattie was able to ram the caisson as planned, then the disembarkation of her Group Three Commandos must be carried out in a blur of activity, before the stunned defenders could effectively respond.

During the run-in most of her demolition parties would be tucked away below deck, while the remainder, along with the protection parties and Roderick’s and Roy’s assault troops, would be sheltering behind the screens abaft the superstructure. While it was the job of the demolition and protection parties to hold themselves in readiness for their attacks on shore, the assault parties were under orders to supplement the naval fire-plan by firing on German positions as they came in to ram. For this purpose a 3” mortar had been installed on either side of the deck just forward of the bridge, the fire from which tubes, when added to that of Oerlikon, Bren and Tommy gun, would hopefully allow the destroyer to lay down an effective counter-barrage.

On ramming, it was the assault troops who were to disembark first, with the object of overrunning the defences in the immediate area of the caisson. Quickly clambering over the starboard bow, the fourteen-man team of Lieutenant Johnny Roderick was tasked with knocking out a cluster of gun positions, numbers 66, M70, M10 and 67, the first of which was in a sandbagged emplacement close by. Having cleared these and secured the right flank of the attack, he was then to establish a block with the object of preventing a counter-attack across the caisson. Should there be the opportunity to do so without weakening the block, his men had been instructed to attack the oil-fuel stores with incendiaries.

While Roderick was thus occupied, his opposite number, Captain Donald Roy, would be landing with his own fourteen-man team from the destroyer’s port bow. Roy’s primary target was the pair of guns emplaced atop the pump-house. High above the quayside, these would have a clear and unobstructed view along the full length of Campbeltown’s deck. Roy had arranged to attack them with scaling ladders and grenades, and, during the detailed planning stages on board the PJC, had called for a volunteer to accompany him as he attempted to storm the roof, a potentially lethal enterprise for which Sergeant Don Randall had offered himself. Having overrun these positions, Roy was then to move on to bridge ‘G’ and there form a bridgehead through which the northern parties could later withdraw.

In the wake of the assault teams, it would then be the turn of the demolition parties to disembark. The first of these, party ‘3A’, had the task of destroying a cluster of targets in the immediate area of the ramming point. Should Campbeltown not be positioned so as to ensure destruction of the caisson, then the team of Lieutenant ‘Burlington Bertie’ Burtinshaw was to attack it with man-packed explosives. To make doubly sure of putting it out of action, Lieutenant Chris Smalley’s team were meanwhile briefed to destroy the nearby winding house. As the dock could not operate without the means of pumping in and extracting a huge volume of water, the pump-house was a target of critical importance, whose destruction was entrusted to the five-man team of Lieutenant Stuart Chant. Entering the structure which housed the facility’s great electric motors, Chant was to descend into the depths where, some forty feet below ground, he would destroy the pumps themselves. Of all the targets to be demolished on the night, these were perhaps the most important as they contained special castings which the Germans could not easily replace. Protecting these teams, Roy’s troops having by this time moved off to form their bridgehead at ‘G’, would be the five men of Lieutenant Hopwood’s party.

In conjunction with these teams, the men of party ‘3B’, protected by Lieutenant Denison’s small squad, were to destroy the inner caisson and winding house. Lieutenant Gerard Brett and his team of six were to lay charges both outside and inside the caisson, entering the hollow structure by means of manholes in its upper surface; while close by Lieutenant Corran Purdon’s team of five were to destroy the winding house. In overall control of the Group Three demolitions was Captain Bob Montgomery, his deputy, Lieutenant Bill Etches, having a special responsibility for these ‘3B’ targets. Last to leave the Campbeltown would be Copland himself, who, with his own small party, was to move swiftly via Newman’s HQ to the Old Mole where, in conjunction with the Naval Piermaster, he would organize the withdrawal. On completion of their tasks on board ship, the destroyer’s crew were to disembark on to the quayside and wait to be taken off by MLs operating in the vicinity of the Old Entrance. Should this option be denied them, they were to make their way to the Mole and be put on board the MLs there

‘Zero hour’, the time at which Campbeltown was due to strike the caisson, was set for 0130 hours on the morning of Saturday the 28th. The absolute maximum time-on-shore allowed for was a mere two hours, with the last ML due to be clear of the Mole and starting its long voyage home by 0330 hours. In the case of an uncompleted major demolition, this deadline might be exceeded; however, Newman had made sure everyone understood the very real correlation between early withdrawal and their chances of making it back alive.

For those who made it safely through the maelstrom, seconds indeed would be the currency of survival, for the initial advantage won by the shock of their assault would quickly erode as resistance stiffened and the German forces manoeuvred to hurl the tiny assault parties back into the sea.

Immediately available to oppose them, in addition to Zuckschwerdt’s own Naval troops, would be a motley collection of units cobbled together from guard companies and ships’ crews, as well as technicians and workers operating in their secondary role as infantry. These would be equipped to hold the line until such time as heavily armed Wehrmacht units could rush to the port and mount a formal assault on the tenuous Commando perimeter.

Because of the ongoing work on the submarine pens and port defences, a contingent of workers from the Todt Organization were in place, who would fight if required. The Naval technicians of Nos. 2 and 4 Works Companies also had an infantry role and would be committed early on to help stem the tide of the Commando advance. The crews of the many ships in harbour would supplement the defence both by manning their vessels’ weapons and by contributing parties to help with counter-attacks on shore. For safety’s sake the highly prized U-boat crews were billeted out of harm’s way in La Baule; however, the support staff of the 6th and 7th U-Flotillas would defend their boats against attack, even to the point of destroying them should it prove necessary. Also under Zuckschwerdt’s control, as the officer commanding all the defences of both port and estuary, were the guard companies and harbour-defence vessels of the Harbour Commander. And lastly, anchored right in the fairway east of the Avant Port, was the stoutly built and well-armed Sperrbrecher 137, a ship of similar tonnage to Campbeltown herself, which the ‘Chariot’ force would have to pass en route to the landing places.

Packing a more professional punch were the soldiers of the 333rd Infantry Division, a brigade of whom were stationed just inland of the port. Much more heavily armed than the Commandos, this unit was capable of mounting and sustaining an attack which it must eventually win, unless the Commandos acted with such speed and resolve that their withdrawal could begin before the German unit was in position.

Regarding the withdrawal itself, this was planned to take place in four stages, the first pulling back all the demolition parties, except Woodcock’s by bridge ‘G’, and subsequent stages gradually shrinking the defended perimeter back to Birney’s bridgehead. Lieutenant Verity was to be in charge of filling the MLs with up to forty men each and sending them on their way, independently and at maximum speed, towards the point at which they might expect to rendezvous with Atherstone and Tynedale. After initial treatment at the RAP, wounded were to be transferred to the two MLs which had embarked the doctors at Falmouth. These, when full, would follow the rest. MLs too damaged to complete the return trip were to be scuttled at sea and those which survived the coastal guns were to form themselves into the semblance of a fleet, returning to Britain by the reverse of their outward route.

In the case of an emergency requiring the immediate evacuation of the force, the men would be recalled visually by the firing together of 35-star red and green rockets, and audibly, both by the sounding of the MLs’ klaxons and by the use of loud-hailers to pass on the code-word ‘Ramrod’. Any or all of these signals would prompt the immediate withdrawal of all ranks to the Mole, always assuming, of course, that someone had managed to take and hold it in the first place!

In essence this was the plan as it was to be carried out on the night, always providing that fate and the German defenders cooperated fully. It was a plan of rather alarming complexity which would certainly be judged audacious were it to succeed, and foolhardy were it to fail to achieve its targets. It pitted flimsy ships and tiny groups of men against the massed defences of one of the Reich’s most valued bases, whose five thousand-plus sailors and naval and army troops could be relied upon to mount a swift and punishing response. It depended to an inordinate degree on surprise and luck and was so susceptible to losses that the failure of even a handful of parties could seriously undermine the efforts and success of the whole. Apart from Moss’s tiny squad, there was no reserve to speak of, and therefore no means by which such failures could be made good.

Having grown from a clinical attack on the ‘Normandie’ dock to encompass a number of targets entirely unrelated to the threat posed by Tirpitz, the force contained rather more demolition troops than was perhaps wise, and rather fewer assault troops than it might reasonably expect to need. Indeed, the plan had evolved to become nothing less than a broad-spectrum raid, whose confused priorities had in the end prompted Newman to write to Haydon for clarification. Amidst the transparent enthusiasm of the underused Commandos to get to grips with the enemy at last, an objective assessment of the risks of such a complex distribution of parties seems to have occupied only second place. The plan in fact displayed a heady optimism more suited to a raid on a rival school than to a potentially lethal assault on such a gun-rich enemy stronghold.

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