British reconnaissance aircraft brought back pictures in February 1942 that suggested the Germans had built a new and effective radar network along the Channel coast of Occupied France. On the recommendation of an RAF scientist concerned with intelligence matters, R. V. Jones, British commando forces, under the direction of Admiral Louis Mountbatten, drew plans to raid one radar site and capture the gear and the German operators. Mountbatten chose as his objective an installation on Cape d’Antifer, a 400-foot chalk headland near the village of Bruneval, about 12 miles north of Le Havre.
In the late afternoon of February 27, a force of 120 British commandos, led by John D. Frost, boarded twelve Whitley aircraft. Later that evening, in a snowfall, the commandos parachuted into fields near the radar site. In a brief but eminently successful operation, which cost only two men killed, Frost and his men got the gear, captured a German operator, and were evacuated by Royal Navy vessels that nosed up to an accessible beach nearby. From the booty acquired, the British were able to deduce a great deal about German radar technology and production. The great success of the “Bruneval Raid” encouraged plans for larger raids on the French coastline.
Hitler was enraged by this raid, which made a mockery of his overhyped beach defenses. He demanded an investigation of the state of all German coastal installations in Occupied France. The review concluded that, owing to the shift of German ground and air forces to the Soviet Union and Kriegsmarine forces to Norway, the Atlantic U-boat bases in particular were inadequately defended against attack. On March 26, Admiral Raeder relayed Hitler’s “strict orders” that pending Army and air reinforcements, all U-boat commands near the coast were to “pull back” to safer ground.
The U-boat command structure, from Dönitz on down, was dismayed. Dönitz and his staff, and the seven combat flotilla commanders and staffs, were deeply entrenched at Brest, St. Nazaire, Lorient, La Pallice, and Bordeaux. Apart from the massive U-boat pens, the Germans had built elaborate communications facilities and rest camps for crews. To move all this away from the coast was to require a massive effort at the time all energies were directed at the U-boat campaign in the Americas.
As Dönitz viewed Hitler’s “strict orders,” he and his Kerneval staff had little choice but to return to Paris. “This is a regretted step back where administration is concerned,” he logged, “since the direct contact with the front—that is, the personal touch between commanding officer and his operational boats and crews—will not be possible to anything like the same extent from Paris.” Accordingly, he directed the staff to explore alternatives—the city of Angers, for one—that would leave him “as far forward as possible.”
London and Washington worried constantly that the Tirpitz, like the Bismarck, might sortie from Norway into the North Atlantic to raid merchant ships and troopship convoys. It was believed the Tirpitz was likely to conclude such a sortie at St. Nazaire, where a huge dry dock had been constructed on the Loire River for the giant, 83,423-ton French luxury passenger liner Normandie.* The British therefore put in motion a scheme to mount a commando raid on St. Nazaire, primarily to destroy the dry dock and discourage a Tirpitz sortie, but also to do whatever other mischief it could.
The armada transporting the commando force sailed from Falmouth on the afternoon of March 26, the same day Raeder relayed Hitler’s order to relocate U-boat coastal installations. Deceptively flying Kriegsmarine flags, the armada consisted of the ex-American four-stack destroyer Buchanan, renamed Campbeltown, a gunboat, a torpedo boat, and sixteen motor launches, escorted part of the way by two other British destroyers. A total of 353 Royal Navy personnel manned Campbeltown and the eighteen small craft, which carried 268 commandos who had trained tirelessly for the mission. The fleet of small craft was to descend upon St. Nazaire in the middle of the night and land the commandos. Stripped of unnecessary gear—and weight—and loaded with three tons of TNT, Campbeltown was to wedge herself into the lock of the Normandie dry dock. A delayed-action fuse was to explode the TNT after the commandos had withdrawn in the small craft.
As the armada approached the coast of France early on the morning of March 27, Gerd Kelbling in U-593 discovered it. Released from the reshuffled Westwall group, Kelbling was returning to France. As he reported the force to Kerneval at 7:20 A.M. (“three destroyers, ten torpedo boats”), the two escorting destroyers, Atherstone and Tynedale, spotted and attacked him, holding him down for many hours and preventing follow-up reports. Kerneval made the mistake of dismissing the formation as one probably “returning from a mine-laying expedition off the French-Biscay coast.”
A British submarine positioned off St. Nazaire on the evening of March 27 transmitted beacons to guide the commando flotilla to the mouth of the Loire. As part of the plan, the RAF bombed St. Nazaire at 11:00 P.M., but that was probably a mistake inasmuch as it woke up the town and alerted the military defenses. As the armada proceeded up the Loire at 1:30 A.M., March 28, the Germans detected it and illuminated it with searchlights. An enormous, confused firefight ensued. Campbeltown stearned ahead full speed and at 1:34, rammed the lock per plan, and wedged herself firmly in the dry dock, but the time fuse on the TNT failed.
Soon after the first shots were exchanged, Dönitz was notified. The initial, panicky report gave the impression that an Allied force of “twenty cruisers and destroyers” was assaulting St. Nazaire and that even heavier warships might be standing off the mouth of the Loire. The stream of follow-up but exaggerated reports indicated that the Allies were mounting a major invasion. Accordingly, forty-one minutes after the first alarm, Dönitz sent a message to all U-boats at sea that were east of 29 degrees west longitude: “Make for St. Nazaire at highest speed. English landings in progress.” Five boats that were outbound to the Americas reversed course; the four boats of group York, already inbound to France, rang up full speed.
There were two U-boat combat flotillas based at St. Nazaire: the 7th, commanded by Herbert Sohler, and the 10th, commanded by Günter Kuhnke. When the senior officer, Sohler, established contact with Dönitz, he reported that all headquarters offices and the U-boats had been stripped of “secret documents” and that all crews at the rest camp in La Baule had been evacuated inland to the town of La Roche Bernard. In accordance with orders issued by Dönitz on March 14, demolition charges had been set to prevent any U-boat from falling into enemy hands.
Confused and furious fighting raged in St. Nazaire for several hours, during which German forces gradually got the upper hand. They sank or severely damaged fourteen of the eighteen British small craft; only four motor launches finally made it back to England. The Germans killed or captured almost half (171 of 353) of the Royal Navy personnel and all but five of the 268 commandos. (Of these, eighty-five naval personnel and fifty-nine commandos survived the war.) But the raiders achieved their goal: the faulty fuse on the TNT in Campbeltown finally detonated at noon—about eight hours late—destroying the lock and killing a number of Germans who were on board the vessel attempting to defuse the TNT. Some military and civilian sightseers were also killed. Total German casualties as a result of the raid were sixty-seven killed, sixty-two severely wounded, and seventy-four slightly wounded.
The repercussions of this raid were far-reaching. On the afternoon of March 28, Hitler directed Dönitz to move U-boat headquarters and the submarine crews to “a safe place.” At 10:00 A.M. on March 30, Dönitz reactivated his headquarters in a building on Avenue Maréchal Manoury in Paris, linked by teletype to the radio facilities at Kerneval. In response to Hitler’s usual demand for an investigation, the Berlin-based Army generals, Alfred Jodl and Wilhelm Keitel, denigrated the performance of the Kriegsmarine. Viewing the criticism as a personal insult, Admiral Raeder not only vigorously defended the Kriegsmarine’s performance to Hitler, but also demanded an official apology from Hitler’s lackey, Keitel, thus sharply widening the growing gap between himself and Hitler’s inner circle.