The daring St Nazaire raid and the Welwyn Garden City commando
- Credit: Bundesarchiv
In the early hours of March 28, 1942, British commandos undertook a daring raid on the German-held dry dock at St Nazaire. Among them was a private from Welwyn Garden City.
In January 1942, the Royal Navy had a problem, and a big one too. The Tirpitz, the heaviest battleship ever built by a European navy, was launched into service.
The fear was that the mighty ship would break the naval blockade of the Atlantic and wreak havoc among the many merchant ships travelling from the United States to Great Britain with essential war supplies.
While Tirpitz’s size is what made her dangerous, it would also prove to be her downfall, with British planners quickly realising that the only dry dock on the Atlantic coast large enough to house her for repairs was at St Nazaire.
This problem had already spelled the end for sister ship Bismark, which was sunk by the Royal Navy while heading to the French port for repairs following the Battle of the Denmark Strait in May 1941.
While Tirpitz was busy harassing the Arctic convoys near Norway, it was decided that a new force of elite British soldiers would carry out a daring raid on St Nazaire to stop any chance of the ship breaking into the Atlantic.
In June 1940, following a request from the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, for a force that could carry out raids against German-occupied Europe, the Commandos were formed.
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It was decided the Commandos would make an amphibious landing at St Nazaire and destroy equipment and pumping stations vital to the dry dock’s operation to take it out of action.
Among them was Welwyn Garden City’s John Douglas Boyce.
Son of William and Elizabeth Ann Boyce, Private Boyce was just 23 when he was chosen to take part in Operation Chariot, the codename for the raid.
What Private Boyce, his comrades and even bombing raids from the Royal Air Force couldn’t destroy was the large dock gates. So, an even more audacious plan was drawn up.
An old US destroyer given to the Royal Navy, HMS Campbeltown, would be loaded with explosive and disguised as a German vessel before travelling up the Loire estuary to ram the dock gates.
Unsurprisingly, the dangerous plan was met with plenty of opposition, but in early March, the raid was approved, with Commandos and sailors taking part in extensive training, while the Campbeltown underwent vital modifications.
On March 26, the Campbeltown, two further destroyers and 18 smaller craft, departed Falmouth and headed for St Nazaire.
The flotilla would encounter its first problems on the morning of the next day when they were spotted off the coast of Britany by a U-boat. But, with the vessels sailing south, German command assumed the ships were heading for Gibraltar and posed no immediate threat.
That night, the Campbeltown – now flying the German naval flag as part of her disguise – and the landing craft approached the target.
To help avoid the three heavily-armed gun batteries on the shore of the Loire, the British ships used high tide so they did not have to sail through constantly patrolled main shipping channel.
Despite being spotted and the German’s demanding the ships identify, a captured naval signal book allowed them to maintain their disguise, buying them valuable time as they approached the dock.
Eventually, the German forces opened fire, but it was not enough to stop the Campbeltown, with the ship ramming the Normandie Dock gate and ending up about 10m inside the dock.
The Commandos disembarked as the second phase of the operation began, and while they took out vital pumping stations and port infrastructure, they suffered heavy casualties as the Germans reorganised.
The raiders were pushed back to the dock and a full evacuation was nearly impossible, with 215 men captured and 169 killed, among them Private John Douglas Boyce.
Little to nothing is known about the final moments of Private Boyce’s life, and he was buried alongside 254 other servicemen at the Escoublac-la-Baule War Cemetery – around eight miles west of St Nazaire dry dock.
When the remaining Commandos evacuated, the explosives aboard the HMS Campbeltown had yet to go off, but at 10am, with German soldiers searching the ship, more than four tonnes of depth charges finally went off.
The dry dock was rendered destroyed and wasn’t fully repaired until well after the end of the war in 1948, forcing Tirpitz to stay in Norway where it would be destroyed by another audacious raid, this time by the RAF in 1944.
The St Nazaire raid proved to be big success, but it came at the cost of hundreds of lives, including that of Private John Douglas Boyce. But their daring and bravery lives on in the story of that March night.