HMS Campbeltown

Photo: HMS CAMPBELTOWN: German photo of HMS CAMPBELTOWN, taken before it exploded on March 28, 1942.

HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) was a Town-class destroyer that in the Royal Navy during the Second World War.


HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) was transferred to the Royal Navy in 1940 as part of the Destroyers for Bases Agreement. HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) was used in the St. Nazaire Raid in 1942.

Having been formally commissioned HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) took passage from Halifax to Plymouth, travelling via St. Johns, Newfoundland.

HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) began the Devonport repairs in January 1942. During this time, HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) was selected for a special operation and was withdrawn from regular service for modifications. HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) was to be used in OPERATION CHARIOT, a planned assault operation on the docks at Saint-Nazaire. In 1942 the German battleship TIRPITZ—anchored at Trondheim in Norway—was considered to present a grave threat to Atlantic convoys. Should TIRPITZ enter the Atlantic, the Louis Joubert drydock at Saint-Nazaire—which had originally been built for the liner SS NORMANDIE—was a vital target; it was the only German-held drydock on the European coast of the Atlantic that was large enough to service TIRPITZ. If this drydock could be put out of action, any offensive sortie by TIRPITZ into the Atlantic would be much more dangerous for the Kriegsmarine to carry out, making it less likely that they would risk deploying her.

OPERATION CHARIOT was a plan to ram an explosive-laden warship into the dock gates. Accompanying her would be a number of small boats carrying British Commandos, who would destroy the dock’s pumping and winding machinery and other infrastructure. The troops would then be evacuated by the small boats before the explosives in HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) detonated. A particular difficulty was that the dock was located several miles up the estuary of the Loire River. As an obsolescent destroyer, HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) was considered to be expendable and was selected to be the ram-ship. HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) spent February 1942 undergoing modifications. These included removing her third and fourth funnels, and having the remaining two funnels raked to simulate the structure and appearance of a German Raubvogel-class torpedo boat. A 12-pounder gun was installed forward and eight 20 mm (0.79 in) Oerlikon anti-aircraft cannons were mounted on the upper deck. Some extra armour was provided to protect the bridge structure, and unnecessary stores and equipment were removed to lighten her HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42).

An explosive charge consisting of 24 Mark VII depth charges—containing a total of 4.5 short tons (4.1 t) of amatol high explosive—was fitted into steel tanks installed just behind the steel pillar that supported her most forward gun mount. The charges were to be detonated by multiple eight-hour time pencils connected together by cordtex, set before steaming out and cemented in to prevent any interference with the detonation. HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) steamed from Devonport to Falmouth, Cornwall on 25 March to join the other ships that would take part in the operation. The crew—which would be evacuated with the commandos—was reduced to 75 men, under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Stephen “Sam” Beattie.

A flotilla of 21 vessels—HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42), 16 Fairmile B motor launches, one motor torpedo boat, and a Fairmile C motor gun boat acting as the troops′ headquarters—left Falmouth at 1400 on 26 March 1942, escorted for most of the crossing to France by two “Hunt”-class escort destroyers. Apart from a brief clash with German submarine U-593, whose captain misreported the task force’s course and composition, the ships reached France unmolested. One motor launch suffered mechanical problems and had to return to England.

The preliminary air raid carried out through heavy cloud by 35 Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys and 25 Vickers Wellingtons was much smaller than originally planned and was ineffective, merely alerting the defenders of something unusual happening. Nevertheless, by flashing genuine German recognition signals, the force, with HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) flying the flag of the Kriegsmarine, approached to within less than 1 mi (1.6 km) of the harbour before being fired upon. HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42)—as the largest target—drew most of the fire. During the final approach, the crew of HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) lowered the emblem of the Kriegsmarine and hoisted the fighting ensign of the Royal Navy.

At 0134 on 28 March 1942 four minutes later than planned, HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) rammed the dock gate. The Commandos and ship’s crew came ashore under heavy German fire, and set about demolishing the dock machinery. 169 of the raiders were killed (64 commandos and 105 sailors) out of the 611 men in the attacking force. Of the survivors, 215 were captured and 222 were evacuated by the surviving small craft. A further five evaded capture and travelled overland through France to Spain and then to Gibraltar, a British territory.

The charges in HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) exploded at noon, an hour and a half later than the British had expected. Although HMS CAMPBELTOWN (I42) had been searched by the Germans, the explosives had not been detected. The explosion killed around 250 German soldiers and French civilians, and demolished both the front half of the destroyer and the 160 short tons (150 t) caisson of the drydock, with the rush of water into the drydock washing the remains of the ship into it. The St. Nazaire drydock was rendered unusable for the rest of the war, and was not repaired until 1947.

The delayed-action torpedoes fired by the motor torpedo boat into the outer lock gate to the submarine basin detonated, as planned, on the night of 30 March. This later explosion led to panic, with German forces firing on French civilians and on each other. Sixteen French civilians were killed and around thirty wounded. Later, 1,500 civilians were arrested and interned in a camp at Savenay, and most of their houses were demolished, even though they had had nothing to do with the raid. Lt-Cdr Beattie—who was taken prisoner—received the Victoria Cross for his valour, and in 1947 received the French Légion d’honneur. His Victoria Cross was one of five that were awarded to participants in the raid, along with 80 other military decorations.

Complied by Thomas Joseph Simpson

HMS Campbeltown


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