H.M.S. Campbeltown began life as the U.S.S. Buchanan (DD-
After six months of service in the Atlantic fleet, she was transferred to the Pacific fleet where she was based out of San Diego. The U.S. had built over 260 of the ‘4 stack’ destroyers and, due to reduced peacetime manning, not all of them could be kept in service during the peacetime years. Buchanan was one of many placed in reserve where she languished from 1922 to 1930.
Recommissioned in April 1930, she rejoined the Pacific Fleet until being laid up again in 1937. She was brought back out of reserve again in September 1939 and was assigned to the Neutrality Patrol in the Atlantic as part of the Antilles detachment. Patrols in the Gulf of Mexico followed until September 1940 when she was ordered to Halifax, Nova Scotia as part of the famous ‘destroyers for bases’ deal with Great Britain. One of the first group of nine ships to be transferred, she was decommissioned and handed over to the Royal Navy.
The ship was renamed H.M.S. Campbeltown in honour of the Scottish town of Campbeltown located on the peninsula of Kintyre and also the U.S. town of Campbeltown in Pennsylvania. In company with other transferred destroyers she sailed for Belfast on September 15th. After an eventful and stormy crossing, at one point going dead in the water due to a booster pump failure, she arrived in Belfast on September 29th.
Assigned pennant number I-
On her return to service she was manned by a Dutch crew which operated her on the
North Atlantic convoy routes. A highlight of this time in service, in company with
other escorts of convoy SL-
St. Nazaire contained the only dry-
The immediate problem was to reduce the Campbeltown’s draft by four feet in order
to clear the shallow sandbanks of the Loire estuary leading to St. Nazaire. Her
guns, torpedo tubes, depth charges, boats and boat skids were all removed. In their
place a 12 pdr gun was fitted to the forecastle along with the addition of eight
single 20mm guns and three single 0.5” guns. Armour plate and splinter mattresses
were fitted to the bridge and around the emergency conning position. Parallel rows
of protective plating two feet high were fitted amidships for the commandos to take
cover behind during the run-
To give the ship a passing resemblance to German torpedo boats of the Mowe class, the forward funnels were altered in diameter and given a raked profile while funnels 3 and 4 were removed. As there were torpedo boats of the Mowe class based at St. Nazaire, it was hoped this deception would confuse the defenders and give the raiders a few vital extra minutes to close with their targets without being taken under fire.
Most importantly, 24 depth charges containing four tons of high explosives were cemented into the ship below decks behind the support pillar for the forward gun. Fitted with a 2.5 hour delay fuse to give the commandos time to get away, the subsequent detonation would hopefully breach the dock gate.
Despite the alterations, Campbeltown still drew too much water, so she was loaded with just enough fuel and water for the one way trip to St. Nazaire.
On the afternoon of March 26, 1942, the raiding force set sail from Falmouth. Aboard
the ships of the raiding force -
At 12:45 AM on the 28th, the force entered the Loire estuary. Campbeltown briefly
grounded twice but was able to proceed. At 1:22 AM with the force within 1¾ miles
of the dry-
Campbeltown worked up to 20 knots and despite nearly missing the entrance, barrelled into the dock gate at 1:34 AM, just four minutes behind schedule. She hit with such force that the top of her bow jutted right over the gate and projected a foot into the dock itself, with the lower bow a crumpled and twisted ruin up against the dock gate. This brought the explosives packed into the forward section to within five feet of the gate. Despite the maelstrom of fire, the commandos leaped onto the dock gate and sprinted for their objectives scattered around the dockyard, joined by their comrades landing from the motor launches.
The firefight went on until dawn when the remnants of the commando force either
withdrew or surrendered. Only four motor launches returned to the UK, the rest including
After the fighting was over, German forces went aboard the Campbeltown, still wedged
into the dock gate with her stern settled on the bottom of the harbour. While there
was extensive damage to the pumping equipment due to the commando demolition teams,
However, at 11:35 AM the four tons of explosives detonated, instantly vapourizing
the ship back to the first funnel and killing all the Germans still on board. The
dock gate was lifted out of its track and then swung back 90° allowing a tidal wave
of water to flood the dock and completely destroy the gate. The Campbeltown’s wreckage
came to rest halfway along the dock. With the gate demolished, the dry-
Five Victoria Crosses were awarded in the aftermath of the raid, with another 80 decorations and 51 Mentioned in Dispatches, making this the most decorated single day of the entire war. Campbeltown’s wreckage was broken up after the war, her name given to a Type 22 frigate in 1987 which carried the original ship’s bell until decommissioned in 2011. The bell is presently in Campbeltown, Pennslyvania.