Tag Archives: Victoria Cross

The Forgotten Soldiers Of the Second World War

The Second World War was a truly global conflict, yet when talking of the British struggle against Germany we usually think predominantly of English men, but it was really the British Empire not Britain alone which fought the war. Millions of soldiers from Britain’s colonies served during World War 2, and many experts believe that soldiers from India were crucial to the winning of the conflict, yet they did not receive the same pay and conditions as the British soldiers they served beside, or recognition afterwards. There were just under 200,000 men in the British Indian Army at the outbreak of war in 1939 but over 2.5 million by August 1945, and these soldiers were all volunteers – there was no conscription of Indian soldiers because the struggle for Indian independence was at its height and to force men to fight for a government which they did not believe in could have been disastrous. It is true that many Indians signed up simply to provide for their families as there was a great deal of poverty in the country, but whatever their reasons for joining the army, this was the largest all volunteer force in the world.

 

Indian forces in North Africa © IWM (E 3660)

The British Indian Army fought in North and East Africa, Iraq and Iran, Syria and Lebanon, Hong Kong, Malaya, Borneo, Singapore, Burma, and across Europe. They first impressed British officers with their outstanding discipline during the chaotic retreat at Dunkirk before being sent overseas where they were instrumental in the victories against the Italians and Germans in North Africa. Indian soldiers also fought in Europe after D Day, but the vast majority of them served closer to home in the Far East where they fought the Japanese in Malaya and Burma (when the Japanese first attacked two thirds of the forces in the Far East were Indian not English). Thousands of Indian soldiers loyal to the British were taken prisoner when Singapore fell, and many of them were used as target practice or executed by Japanese soldiers. Other Indians, though, saw their captivity as a way to push their own agenda, and although they had been taken prisoner by the Japanese they formed the Indian National Army (INA) to work with their captors against the British in order to win Indian independence. Churchill was afraid that this attitude might spread amongst other Indian soldiers and so he promised independence to India after the war if the country stayed loyal until Germany and Japan had been defeated. Although the INA grew rapidly in the Japanese sphere of influence, most Indian soldiers who had signed up to defend the Empire refused to break their oath and for every one Indian who fought for the Japanese sixty-two remained loyal to the British. To encourage this the British began to promote more Indians as officers whilst the troops were being trained for jungle warfare. These loyal troops were eventually instrumental in defeating the INA, preventing a Japanese invasion of northern India and pushing the enemy back through the jungles of Burma.

British Indian Army in India © IWM (IND 3498)

The British Indian Army took heavy casualties during the war with 87,000 killed, 34,354 wounded, and 67,340 taken prisoner. The Indian soldiers showed great courage and bravery, in all 4,000 decorations were made including at least 28 Indians being awarded the Victoria Cross (numbers vary depending on which source you read), relative to their numbers this was more than in any other regiment during the war.

Indian Air Force in Burma © IWM (IND 3111)

After the war ended India gained her Independence and many Indians were embarrassed by the fact that so many of their countrymen had fought for the British so these loyal soldiers were forgotten, ignored, or persecuted. Members of the INA who had broken their oaths and fought against the British were given pensions by the Indian government, yet those who fought for the British were not. These are the ‘Forgotten Soldiers’ – forgotten both by the British for whom they fought and their own countrymen who, these loyal soldiers believed, had attained their independence in part due to the contribution which they had made to the war effort.

THE BRITISH INDIAN ARMY IN THE MIDDLE EAST, 1940-1943 (E 8771) Troops of one of the Indian mule pack companies watering their mules at drinking thoughs in a camp in Lebanon, 24 February 1942. Exact location unknown. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205409521

It was not until 2002 that Memorial Gates were erected on London’s Hyde Park Corner in memory of the men and women of the British colonies, including Indians, who volunteered to fight in both world wars. Under the dome of the small pavilion are the names of all those who received the Victoria Cross.

Memorial Gates, Hyde Park

The story of Indian during the Second World War is fascinating and complex. It is not possible to do it full justice in a short article such as this, but there is a compelling Timewatch programme which tells it in much more detail. You can find it (five parts) on Youtube, a fitting memorial to the Forgotten Indian Soldiers of the Second World War.

TIMEWATCH VIDEO    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TU1dQK-j-4   Timewatch part 1

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Imn5lFHdTE Timewatch part 2

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wGVCMn99JJI&t=11s Timewatch part 3

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uCYHvVFw1J0 Timewatch part 4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y_VjnK–TGU Timewatch part 5

Indian Forces in France © IWM (F 3923)
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Greater Love Has No Man Than This – Noel Chavasse

Following on from my previous article about the Royal Army Medical Corps I wanted to pay tribute to one of the heroes from the Corps who dedicated his life to helping those who had been wounded in battle, Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse.

Noel Chavasse VC

Chavasse was born in Oxford on 9th November 1884, 20 minutes after his twin brother Christopher. The family moved to Liverpool when their father, Rev. Francis Chavasse, was made Bishop of Liverpool. Both boys did well at school where they excelled at sports, before going to Trinity College, Oxford. After graduating with a First-class honours degree Noel continued to study medicine at Oxford, and during that time both he and Christopher represented Great Britain in the 400 metres at the 1908 Olympic Games. In 1909 Noel joined the Officers Training Corps Medical Unit at Oxford University, later being promoted to Lance-Sergeant. He passed his exams to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and was awarded the Oxford University’s premier medical prize, the Derby Exhibition. In 1913 Chavasse joined the Royal Army Medical  Corps as a Surgeon-Lieutenant in the Territorial 10th Battalion of the King’s Liverpool Regiment.

Christopher (left) and Noel

When war broke out in 1914 Chavasse, like many other young men, was eager to serve and was happy to be in France by the end of the year. He initially wrote home to say that as he was not particularly heroic he was pleased that doctors were not allowed in the trenches so he would run little risk. Yet the young doctor soon saw the horrors of trench warfare as men were rotated back from the frontline in terrible condition, and he wrote home to say that they all came to hate the war worse than they had thought they could. Yet, despite everything, Chavasse continued to work hard, being amongst the first doctors to use the new anti-tetanus serum to help the wounded, and when the troops in nearby trenches were terrified by the first use of chlorine gas by the Germans he arranged for his father to send a gramophone to help raise their spirits.

For a man who did not feel heroic Noel Chavasse was to become the most highly decorated officer of the First World War. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Bellewaarde near Ypers on 16th June 1915 where he spent 12 hours helping to treat and rescue casualties in no man’s land (more than 1,000 men died during that offensive). Chavasse was promoted to Captain in 1915, and was also mentioned in despatches later that year.

In 1916 Chavasse was awarded the first of two Victoria Crosses. His unit suffered heavy casualties at Guillemont on 9th August with 230 out of 600 men killed, wounded or missing. Chavasse worked for more than 24 hours, disregarding sniper, machine gun and mortar fire to tend the wounded, bury fellow officers and collect ID from the dead. Although wounded in the back by two shell splinters, he refused to retire behind the lines and worked on, rescuing men from as close as 25 yards to the German line. His VC citation read:

Captain Noel Godfrey Chavasse, M.C., M.B., Royal Army Medical Corps.

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty.

During an attack he tended the wounded in the open all day, under heavy fire, frequently in view of the enemy. During the ensuing night he searched for wounded on the ground in front of the enemy’s lines for four hours.

Next day he took one stretcher-bearer to the advanced trenches, and under heavy shell fire carried an urgent case for 500 yards into safety, being wounded in the side by a shell splinter during the journey. The same night he took up a party of twenty volunteers, rescued three wounded men from a shell hole twenty-five yards from the enemy’s trench, buried the bodies of two officers, and collected many identity discs, although fired on by bombs and machine guns.

Altogether he saved the lives of some twenty badly wounded men, besides the ordinary cases which passed through his hands. His courage and self-sacrifice, were beyond praise.

In a letter to his parents Chavasse described his work at the front line: “We found a man bleeding badly from one arm and held the main artery, and then we put a tourniquet on with a respirator string. Then I found that the arm was all but off and was only a source of danger. So I cut it off with a pair of scissors and did the stump up. We had to do everything by the light of an electric torch and when we got a stretcher it took us two hours to get him out of the wood… The mud was fearful. While I and my Corporal were dressing a case we both sank up to our knees in the mud of the trench. Men had to be dug out and some poor wounded of another battalion perished in the mud…We had one sad casualty. A poor fellow was crouching at the bottom of the trench when there was a slip which buried him, and he was dead when he was dug out. Both his brothers have been in the Scottish and have been killed. His mother committed suicide after the death of the 2nd. There is only a sister left.”

Memorial to Noel Chavasse

Chavasse’s second Victoria Cross was awarded for his actions during the period of the 31st July to 2nd August 1917, at Wieltje in Belgium. On 31st July Chavasse’s unit were trying to recapture Passchendaele Ridge at Ypres, and whilst tending the wounded he was hit in the head but refused to be sent from the line. The weather was terrible and he was under constant heavy fire, but time and again Chavasse went into no man’s land to help the wounded. Early on 2nd August he was resting in his first-aid post when it was hit by a shell. Everyone in the post was killed or wounded; Chavasse himself had at least six injuries but crawled for half a mile to get help for his colleagues. He was taken to a casualty station suffering from a serious stomach wound and died there at 1pm on 4th August 1917, aged 32. The citation for his medal read:

War Office, September, 1917.

His Majesty the KING has been graciously pleased to approve of the award of a Bar to the Victoria Cross to Capt. Noel Godfrey Chavasse, V.C., M.C., late R.A.M.C., attd. L’pool R.

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty when in action.

Though severely wounded early in the action whilst carrying a wounded soldier to the Dressing Station, Capt. Chavasse refused to leave his post, and for two days not only continued to perform his duties, but in addition went out repeatedly under heavy fire to search for and attend to the wounded who were lying out.

During these searches, although practically without food during this period, worn with fatigue and faint with his wound, he assisted to carry in a number of badly wounded men, over heavy and difficult ground.

By his extraordinary energy and inspiring example, he was instrumental in rescuing many wounded who would have otherwise undoubtedly succumbed under the bad weather conditions.

This devoted and gallant officer subsequently died of his wounds.

One soldier who witnessed Chavasse’s actions said “Gee! He did work! I was beginning to think he was not human, because nothing made him flinch or duck…The first wound that he received was in the head, and all he did was to take his tin hat off, put a bandage around his head, and carry on…This he did all day and all night until the next wound he got, in the side, did for him…a VC is too small a reward for such a man”.

The grave of Noel Chavasse

Chavasse is buried at Brandhoek New Military Cemetery, Vlamertinge. His military headstone is unique as it depicts two Victoria Crosses, underneath is an inscription chosen by his father: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”. Chavasse’s heroism is still remembered by the people of Liverpool where he came third in a BBC poll in 2003 to find the 100 Greatest Merseysiders, above Bill Shankly, George Harrison and William Gladstone, and behind only Ken Dodd and Lennon and McCartney.

Chavasse has had at least 16 memorials dedicated to him, more than any other VC holder, including one at Liverpool Cathedral. He is the only VC and Bar of World War I and one of only three since the honour was introduced by Queen Victoria in 1857.

In this video athlete Sally Gunnell talks about Noel Chavasse.

To war in an ambulance

As part of my background work for the novel I am currently writing I have been researching the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) which has proved to be a fascinating subject. Their Corps Day is 23rd June so it seemed appropriate that my article this month should be about these brave men and women who serve our soldiers in so many different ways.

The Royal Army Medical Corps (affectionately known as the ‘Linseed Lancers’) serve both at home and wherever in the world the British Army is on deployment as they are responsible for ensuring that servicemen and women, and their families, are fit and healthy. Members of the Corps not only provide emergency care on the front line or during humanitarian operations (such as after earthquakes or hurricanes) but are also responsible for providing routine treatment or long term care for soldiers as well as instituting health programmes and preventing disease.

The RAMC is non-combatant and subject to the Geneva Conventions. As such Corps members do not take part in attacks and are only allowed to use their weapons for self-defence. This has led to two traditions which make the RAMC stand out when on parade; firstly, officers do not draw their swords but salute with the right hand whilst holding their scabbard in their left; secondly, other ranks do not carry weapons when on parade. The Corps is also identifiable by its insignia which shows the Rod of Asclepius (a rod with a serpent entwined round it which was carried by Asclepius, the Greek god of healing and medicine), above the rod is a crown, and below it the Regimental motto In Arduis Fidelis (Faithful in Adversity).

The Royal Army Medical Corps was formed by Royal Warrant on 23rd June 1898 (120 years ago today) but the history of army medical services goes back much further than that.

A Standing Regular Army was only formed in Britain after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, and it was at that time that each infantry and cavalry regiment was assigned a Regimental Surgeon with a Warrant Officer as his Assistant. Although this was a step forward in the treatment of soldiers the Duke of Marlborough wanted to give even better care to his wounded men and so set up ‘Marching Hospitals’ to accompany his armies during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714), but it was not until the Peninsular Wars against Napoleon (1808-1814) that the army medical services were organised on a more formal basis.

James McGrigor

During the Napoleonic Wars Sir James McGrigor made changes to the army medical services in an attempt to make them more efficient, he continued that work following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Thanks to Sir James a system of casualty evacuation was set up which included the setting up of pre-fabricated huts to treat the wounded, and McGrigor’s system of registering casualties is still the basis of the recording of medical statistics today. McGrigor also set up the Benevolent Fund and the Widows and Orphans Fund to care for soldiers and their families.

Britain was at peace for almost forty years after the Battle of Waterloo and, unfortunately, during that time many of the lessons of the Napoleonic Wars were forgotten. When the Crimean War began in 1854 civilian departments were given responsibility for medical support and often met to make plans without consulting with anyone from the army. Needless to say, the results were disastrous. At this time a medical officer would be commissioned and wear the uniform of the Regiment he was assigned to but held no rank and so was under the command of his Colonel. The medical officer had no trained staff to help him treat the wounded, just a few men from the Regiment who he would try to give basic first aid training to. The lack of care meant that many soldiers died from wounds and disease who could have recovered under a better system. The telegraph (developed in the 1830’s and 40’s) meant that people back in Britain soon learned of the inadequate care being given to our troops abroad and the scandal caused a national outcry which led to Sir Andrew Smith, (the Director General of the Medical Services) urging the War Office to set up a proper medical corps. The response of the politicians? To create and send to the Crimea an ambulance force made up of 300 old army pensioners. Smith said that they could hardly carry themselves and would not be able to care for the sick and wounded. Smith’s prediction was proved true as the new corps was depleted by deaths from cholera with many of those surviving turning to alcohol. Smith finally saw progress when the Medical Staff Corps was formed in 1855, the instruction was that it should be made up of ‘Men able to read and write, of regular steady habits and good temper and of a kindly disposition’.

A tinted lithograph by William Simpson illustrating conditions of the sick and injured in Balaklava

The Medical Service continued to evolve, and by 1873 doctors who wanted to sign up needed to be qualified, single, and at least 21 years old; they also had to pass exams in physiology, surgery, medicine, zoology, botany, and physical geography including meteorology, as well as reaching a number of other standards including having been present at 12 births and having dissected the whole body at least once. Despite the changes, well qualified army doctors still did not hold military rank which often left them feeling excluded from decision making, they also had to serve longer in India than other members of the British Army (6 years at a time) and received less pay when serving there. Many members of the service felt that their treatment was discriminatory and they needed to have an identity of their own which would give them some kind of parity in service and in the awarding of honours. Finally, the two distinct parts of the Army Medical Services – the Medical Staff Corps (ordinary ranks) and the Medical Staff (officers) – were reorganised into the Roya Army Medical Corps by Royal Warrant on 23rd June 1898; officers were now given executive and administrative powers and the Corps was soon serving in the Sudan, and in South Africa during the Boer War when the Corps lost 743 officers and 6,130 soldiers in other ranks.

Stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War, including the future leader Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (Middle row, 5th from left).
Alfred Fripp

Many of the soldiers in South Africa were treated by civilian doctors who volunteered their support; their hospitals were much more efficient than those of the RAMC and, at the end of the war, some of those volunteers campaigned for the radical reform of the Corps. Alfred Fripp was key to this as he was friends with the new king, Edward VII, who made sure that the army paid proper attention to Fripp’s ideas. Fripp, and his colleague Cooper Perry, were instrumental in setting up the Hospital and Medical School at Millbank, London; in 1903 both were knighted for their services to the RAMC Committee of Reform. During the Boer War the medical services had treated 22,000 wounded soldiers yet spent far more time and resources on the 74,000 who suffered dysentery or typhoid fever. It became clear that the Corps needed to focus on preventing disease as well as treating the wounded, and by the outbreak of the First World War an anti-typhoid vaccine had been developed which had such an impact that a disease which had killed 8,000 in South Africa had a negligible effect in the trenches of Northern Europe.

Alfred Keogh

Sir Alfred Keogh (who had worked with Fripp and Perry on the RAMC Committee of Reform) was made Director General of the RAMC from 1904 -1910 and worked hard to ensure that the medical services were seen not as something separate from but as an essential part of the British Army. Keogh was again made Director General of the Corps (1914 -18) and presided over its rapid expansion. At the outbreak of war there were approximately 9,000 members of the ranks, at the end of the war there were around 154,000 as well as 13,000 RAMC Officers in service in all theatres of the war. Thanks to Keogh’s planning a chain of evacuation was set up to move the wounded back down the line through a series of posts, which streamlined and speeded up the care which could be given to wounded soldiers. A patient would typically go through the following posts:

 

Regimental Aid Post
Collecting Post
Advanced Dressing Station
Main Dressing Station
Casualty Clearing Station (some could take up to 1,000 patients at a time)
Hospital (either in France or England)

Please click here to see a remarkable video showing the work of the RAMC during the First World War. The film is held by the Imperial War Museum.

By the Second World War the RAMC was much more mobile and able to work more effectively on the front line, there were also developments such as the use of penicillin and blood transfusions which helped to improve the survival rate of the wounded. Since the end of the Second World War the RAMC has served with the British Army wherever they have been posted, from Northern Ireland to Cyprus, Korea to Afghanistan, and many more. There are a variety of careers open to anyone wanting to join the RAMC. Officers can serve as doctor, pharmacist, physiotherapist, environmental health officer, medical support officer, or a technical officer (e.g. biomedical scientist, radiographer, clinical physiologist etc.) whist ordinary ranks can serve as combat medical technicians, emergency medical technicians, pharmacy technicians and many more.

RAMC World War I memorial, St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh

It takes a special kind of courage to be in the middle of a battle and not to focus on the enemy but on the wounded instead; this has been recognised by the awarding of 29 Victoria Crosses to medical personal as well as 2 bars (a bar means that the recipient has been given a second Victoria Cross, and only 3 have ever been awarded). The corps also has one recipient of both the Victoria Cross and the Iron Cross, one officer was awarded the George Cross in the Second World War, and Private Michelle Norris became the first woman to be awarded the Military Cross following her actions in Iraq on 11 June 2006 when she was aged just 19.

Michelle Norris MC

In1856 Queen Victoria laid a Victoria Cross beneath the foundation stone of the Royal Victoria Military Hospital in recognition of the courage of those who have fought and died for their country. When the hospital was demolished in 1966 the VC, which is known as ‘The Netley VC’, was taken to the Army Medical Services Museum in Aldershot where it is now on display.
Those members of the Royal Army Medical Corps who have been awarded the Victoria Cross have truly lived up to the motto of the Corps – ‘Faithful in Adversity’.

Name Award Awarded while serving with Medal held by
Harold Ackroyd VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d The Royal Berkshire Regiment Lord Ashcroft Collection
William Allen VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d Royal Field Artillery Army Medical Services Museum
William Babtie VC Royal Army Medical Corps AMS Museum
William Bradshaw VC 90th Regiment (The Cameronians) AMS Museum
Noel Chavasse VC
and Bar
Royal Army Medical Corps att’d The King’s (Liverpool Regiment)
Bar: same
Imperial War Museum
Thomas Crean VC 1st Imperial Light Horse (Natal) AMS Museum
Henry Douglas VC Royal Army Medical Corps AMS Museum
Joseph Farmer VC Army Hospital Corps AMS Museum
John Fox-Russell VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d The Royal Welch Fusiliers AMS Museum
John Green VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d The Sherwood Foresters AMS Museum
Thomas Hale VC 7th Regiment (The Royal Fusiliers) AMS Museum
Henry Harden VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d 45 Royal Marine Commando AMS Museum
Edmund Hartley VC Cape Mounted Riflemen, SA Forces AMS Museum
Anthony Home VC 90th Perthshire Light Infantry AMS Museum
Edgar Inkson VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers AMS Museum
Joseph Jee VC 78th Regiment (The Seaforth Highlanders) AMS Museum
Ferdinand Le Quesne VC Medical staff Corps Jersey Museum
Owen Lloyd VC Army Medical Department AMS Museum
George Maling VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d The Rifle Brigade AMS Museum
William Manley VC
Iron Cross
Royal Regiment of Artillery
Awarded Iron Cross 1870
Private Collection
Arthur Martin-Leake VC
and Bar
VC: South African Constabulary
Bar: Royal Army Medical Corps
AMS Museum
Valentine Munbee McMaster VC Royal Army Medical Corps
Winning his VC during the relief of Lucknow, while serving with the 78th Highlanders
James Mouat VC 6th Dragoons (Inniskilling) AMS Museum
William Nickerson VC Royal Army Medical Corps Privately held
Harry Ranken VC Royal Army Medical Corps att’d King’s Royal Rifle Corps AMS Museum
James Reynolds VC Army Medical Department AMS Museum
John Sinton VC Indian Medical Service AMS Museum
William Sylvester VC 23rd Regiment (The Royal Welch Fusiliers) AMS Museum

They achieved much having dared all – Operation Chariot

The Second World War saw many acts of bravery, but the raid on St. Nazaire in March 1942 remains one of the outstanding acts of heroism during the war. So much so that ‘Operation Chariot’ has been called ‘The Greatest Raid of All Time’, and immortalised in film and book. So, why was the raid necessary? And what happened?

CHARIOT%20MEMORIAL%20CLOSE%20UP

In 1942 Britain was dependent on supplies from across the Atlantic if she was to survive the war, but that lifeline was constantly under attack. Supply convoys were frequently attacked by German submarines and surface raiders, but the biggest threat to shipping was the Tirpitz. No British or American ship could compete with her 15-inch guns and massively armoured structure. The Royal Navy hoped that a fleet could possible sink her, or at least damage her so much that she would be in need of extensive repairs, so relieving some of the pressure on the convoys. If they managed to damage the ship there was only one port in Axis held Europe large enough to accommodate her – St. Nazaire on the Atlantic coast of France. A massive dry dock had been built there before the war to accommodate a passenger ship called the Normandie. The port was now being used by the Germans to bolster their war in the Atlantic.

The British decided that this facility must not be available to the Tirpitz, and so an attack was planned to take it out. It would not be an easy task. Huge 35 foot thick gates, 167 feet wide and 54 feet high, moved on massive rollers to enclose a dock measuring 1,148 feet by 164 feet. This dock played host to small German warships and a fleet of U-boats which sortied out to seek and destroy the Allied supply convoys. To service and supply these was a collection of wharves, bridges and locks, a power station and underground storage for fuel. Minesweepers and searchlights constantly combed the area to prevent any Allied attack. In support of these were around 100 massive guns. To try to take out such an installation would seem impossible.

U boats at St Nazaire
German U-boats entering St Nazaire

Bombing the dry docks was not an option as chances of a successful raid were remote. 80 anti-aircraft guns surrounded the area, and bombing would need to be accurate to do the necessary damage, but such pinpoint targeting was not possible in 1942. Even blanket bombing the area would not work as there could be no guarantee of success, and such a raid was likely to result in many civilian casualties. An attack by the navy was also impossible as the ships would not be able to get close, thanks to the narrow and shallow estuary protected by submarine nets, which also ruled out an underwater attack.

It was therefore decided that a force of commandos would attack the docks at St Nazaire during the last week of March 1942, which would give them a two hour window of full moon and a flood tide, vital for the attack to succeed. The plan was for some of the commandos to travel on motor launches with a shallow draught so that they could move in the waters of the estuary without entering the heavily fortified areas. The lead boat was to be a motor gunboat which could use radar and sonar to help the attack. The final boat was a motor torpedo boat which would lay torpedoes with delayed fuses.

A British Atlantic convol
A British Atlantic convoy

It was a good plan, but the dock was so huge that it was believed that the boats and commandos would not be able to put it out of action alone. That was when it was decided to take a leaf from the history books. England had caused devastation to the Spanish Armada through the use of fire-ships; perhaps something similar could work in St Nazaire? An old ship reaching the end of her life, HMS Campbeltown, was chosen for this role and underwent a facelift which left her looking a little like one of the German Mowe class warships. Unlike a warship, Campbeltown was lightly armoured and gunned, but she did have 24 depth charges which were the key to the plan. The ship was to smash her way through the massive gates to be scuttled in the dock with her explosives set on a timed fuse. When this triggered it would, it was hoped, put the dock out of commission for the rest of the war. Whilst Campbeltown was being scuttled, the commandos were to target the guns, bridges, lock gates and power stations which made St Nazaire such a dangerous asset for the Germans.

The landing force of what was considered by most to be a suicide mission, was made up of 256 officers and men. Vice Admiral Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, told Lieutenant Colonel Newman (leader of the attacking force) that he and his men were, in effect, being sacrificed. He told him that ‘I’m confident that you can get in and do the job, but we cannot hold out much hope of you getting out again. Even if you are all lost, the results of the operation will have been worth it. For that reason I want to tell you to tell all the men who have family responsibilities, or who think they should stand down for any reason, that they are free to do so, and nobody will think any worse of them.’ Not one man took up the offer.

The training for the mission was intense, as was security. It would be a disaster if news of the target got out, so rumours were spread about that the force was going to North Africa, or possibly submarine hunting in the mid-Atlantic. No one mentioned France. By the middle of March, everything was ready. The force set sail from Falmouth on 26th March, heading out into the Atlantic ocean. The next day, the ships hoisted the German flag and changed course for St Nazaire.

At 11pm on 28th March the timer for the explosives on the Campbletown was set as the force made its way into the Loire estuary. Careful navigation of the sandbanks and shallows was essential, which slowed the flotilla down, and the force was spotted just before 1.30am. When the German guns opened up the false German colours were run down and the ships sailed into St Nazaire under the white ensign. As the Campbletown sped towards the dock gates she was raked with gunfire, but did not slow down, smashing into the gates at 1.34am, just 4 minutes behind schedule.

St. Nazaire, Zerstörer "HMS Campbeltown"

Many commandos never made it to shore, but those who did encountered fierce opposition from the defenders. They fought heroically as they planted their charges, all the time aware of the German guns pouring heavy fire onto the British boats which should have been there to extricate them and take them home. Newman was aware that the boats had been forced to withdraw and that he and his men were, effectively, stranded. He managed to gather together around 70 men, most of them wounded, and gave them the news that they would have to make a break across country, to make for Spain if at all possible, a journey of 350 miles. But the enemy were everywhere and, one by one, the raiders were shot or taken prisoner.

chario17
Captured members of the commando force

Other commandos, who had been on the flotilla as it withdrew, were taken swiftly north towards England, the ships fighting all the way. The enemy were now out in force, though, and not all of the ships made it home. Soon the fighting on both land and sea was over. In the dry dock 40 German officers went aboard the Campbeltown, gloating that the British had underestimated the size of St Nazaires defences. There were also another 400 Germans in the vicinity when the timer on the explosives in the Campbeltown’s bow reached zero and the ship exploded. The damage was so great that the dock was unusable for the rest of the war. The British had not underestimated the job after all.

No-one knows for sure, but it is thought that the Germans lost 60 officers and 300 men when the Campbeltown exploded. Added to those killed or wounded in the fighting, this was a great blow to the Germans. The British lost 169 killed with about 200 taken prisoner, most of them wounded, only 4 men made it overland to Spain.

Many of those who died in the raid are buried here
Many of those who died in the raid are buried here

Operation Chariot was a great success for the British. No one can calculate how many ships were saved, how much food and ammunition reached Britain which would, perhaps, have ended on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean if the raid had failed, but it was a very significant contribution to the Allied cause. Although the raid was a great blow for the Germans, the defenders recognized the amazing courage of the commandos who had taken part in the attack and mounted an honour guard over the coffins of the dead. This courage was also recognized back at home – 51 men were mentioned in dispatches, 74 British decorations awarded, 4 French Croix de Guerres, and 5 Victoria Crosses.

The heavily defended port at St Nazaire features prominently in my Second World War novel, ‘Heronfield’, which also recognizes the courage of those British men and women who served in the SOE behind enemy lines, and the members of the French Resistance who gave up so much to win their freedom from the Nazis. My characters may be fictional, but through them I recognize and pay tribute to the extraordinary courage shown by ordinary men and women in times of war. Ordinary men like these five who received the Victoria Cross for their role in Operation Chariot:

Citations for the five Victoria Crosses awarded to men who took part in the raid

Robert_Edward_Dudley_RyderCaptain Robert Edward Dudley Ryder, RN. For great gallantry in the attack on St. Nazaire. He commanded a force of small unprotected ships in an attack on a heavily defended port and led HMS Campbeltown in under intense fire from short range weapons at point blank range. Though the main object of the expedition had been accomplished in the beaching of Campbeltown, he remained on the spot conducting operations, evacuating men from Campbeltown and dealing with strong points and close range weapons while exposed to heavy fire for one hour and sixteen minutes, and did not withdraw till it was certain that his ship could be of no use in rescuing any of the Commando Troops who were still ashore. That his motor boat, now full of dead and wounded, should have survived and should have been able to withdraw through an intense barrage of close range fire was almost a miracle.

Stephen Halden BeattieLieutenant-Commander Stephen Halden Beattie, RN, HMS Campbeltown. For great gallantry and determination in the attack on St. Nazaire in command of HMS Campbeltown. Under intense fire directed at the bridge from point blank range of about 100 yards, and in the face of the blinding glare of many searchlights, he steamed her into the lock gates and beached and scuttled her in the correct position. This Victoria Cross is awarded to Lieutenant-Commander Beattie in recognition not only of his own valour but also of that of the unnamed officers and men of a very gallant ship’s company, many of whom have not returned.

 

William Alfred SavageAble Seaman William Alfred Savage, RN. For great gallantry, skill and devotion to duty as gun-layer of the pom-pom in a motor gun-boat in the St. Nazaire raid. Completely exposed, and under heavy fire he engaged positions ashore with cool and steady accuracy. On the way out of the harbour he kept up the same vigorous and accurate fire against the attacking ships, until he was killed at his gun. This Victoria Cross is awarded in recognition not only of the gallantry and devotion to duty of Able Seaman Savage, but also of the valour shown by many others, unnamed, in Motor Launches, Motor Gun Boats and Motor Torpedo Boats, who gallantly carried out their duty in entirely exposed positions against enemy fire at very close range.

Thomas Frank DurrantSergeant Thomas Frank Durrant, RE Sergeant Durrant, attached to No.1 Commando, was in the Royal Engineers. On 27th March 1942 at St Nazaire he was in charge of a Lewis gun on HM Motor Launch 306 which came under heavy fire during the raid, and although he had no protection and was wounded in several places he continued to fire until the launch was boarded and the survivors were taken prisoner. He died of his wounds the next day.  (It is believed that Durrant was wounded at least 25 times. He was captured and taken to  a German military hospital where he died of his wounds. A week later, the commander of the German destroyer which had captured Durrant met Newman in a prisoner of war camp and suggested that the Colonel might wish to recommend Durrant for a high award. Durrant’s Victoria Cross  is unique as it is the only award given to a soldier taking part in a naval action, and it was awarded on the recommendation of the enemy commander).

Augustus Charles NewmanLieutenant Colonel Augustus Charles Newman The Essex Regiment was attached to No.2 Commando. During the St Nazaire raid on 27th March 1942, Lieutenant-Colonel Newman was in charge of the military forces and was one of the first ashore, leading his men and directing operations without regard for his own safety. The troops fought well under his command and held superior numbers of the enemy at bay until the demolition parties had done their jobs. Newman then attempted to fight through into open country and did not surrender until all the ammunition was exhausted when he was then taken prisoner.

 

Other awards were granted for the St. Nazaire Raid: 4 DSO; 17 DSC; 11 MC; 4 CGM; 5 DCM; 24 DSM and 15 MM. Another 51 men were mentioned in dispatches, 22 of them posthumously.