15. British Surprise Attack Wrecks Germany’s Main Dry Dock on the Atlantic
On March 28th, 1942, British Commandos and the Royal Navy launched a surprise attack against the Normandie dry dock in Saint Nazaire, on the Atlantic coast of German-occupied France. It was the only dry dock on the Atlantic that could accommodate the Kriegsmarine’s giant battleships Bismark and Tirpitz. Its destruction would mean that if those battleships broke into the Atlantic Ocean and were damaged, they would not be able to make repairs in a convenient port on the Atlantic. Instead, they would have to go all the way back to Germany. That would entail running the gauntlet through British-controlled waters in the English Channel, or the naval chokepoint of the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap north of Scotland.
A flotilla of 18 small craft was assembled to take the Commandos to Saint Nazaire and back. They were accompanied by an obsolete destroyer, HMS Cambeltown, packed with concealed high explosives that were hooked up to delayed action timers. Upon reaching the port, the Cambeltown rammed the gates of the Normandie dry dock, and came to rest above them at an angle.
Unaware of the destroyer’s deadly cargo, the Germans concentrated on fighting the Commandos, who had disembarked to attack and destroy other vital installations and machinery around the port. During the fighting, almost all the British small craft that were supposed to take the Commandos back home were destroyed, leaving the raiders stranded. The surviving Commandos tried to make their way into the French interior, but most were killed or captured after their ammunition ran out.
The raiders’ losses were heavy: 169 killed, 215 captured, plus the loss of 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 Cambeltown as it rested above the dry dock gates, its explosives went off. The ensuing blast killed hundreds of Germans and wounded hundreds more. It also accomplished the mission’s primary objective by putting the Normandie dry docks out of commission for the remainder of the war, plus five more years beyond that.