ESCORT                                                       ISSUE 116

THE GREATEST RAID OF ALL

Part 1 of a review of the Flyhawk H.M.S. Campbeltown 1:700 scale kit by Rob Brown

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H.M.S. Campbeltown began life as the U.S.S. Buchanan (DD-131), one of the 111 famed four stackers of the U.S. Wickes class.  Built at the Bath Iron Works in Maine she was commissioned on January 20th 1919.

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-42, she underwent refit at Devonport until the end of November after which she joined the 7th Escort Group based in Liverpool.  Very shortly afterward, on December 3rd, she was involved in a collision with a merchant ship and was under repair in Liverpool until March 1941.

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-81, was the sinking of U-401 on August 3rd. Reverting to an RN crew in September 1941 she was assigned to Escort Group 27 on the West African route, where she shot down a German aircraft on January 25th 1942.  Defects and necessary repairs sent her back to Devonport in February 1942 where she was selected to be expended in Operation Chariot, a commando raid on the French Biscay port of St. Nazaire.

St. Nazaire contained the only dry-dock on the French Atlantic coast capable of berthing the German battleship Tirpitz.  To prevent the Tirpitz from being used against British shipping in the North Atlantic, it was decided to destroy the dock and the adjacent ship repair facilities.  After careful deliberation, the elected method of destruction was to ram an explosives laden destroyer into the dry-dock gates and blow them up while commandos were landed to blow up the dock pump buildings.  Casting about for a suitable candidate destroyer the planners settled on the Campbeltown, ready at hand at Devonport and already under repair.

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-in.

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 - 16 motor launches, MTB-74, MGB-314, and HMS Campbeltown - were the members of the commando raiding force.  All day during the 27th they gradually closed the French coast without being spotted by any patrolling German forces, timing their advance to arrive at the dry-dock gate at 1:30 AM.

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-dock gate, they were illuminated by shore-based searchlights.  For another four minutes they were able to press on by giving false answers to German challenges.  At 1:26 AM, the jig was up and the Germans opened up with everything that could be brought to bear.  The previously quiet and peaceful night was suddenly shattered by the rattle of gunfire, explosions, and streams of tracers arching through the night air.  Down came the German flags being flown at the mastheads, replaced by White Ensigns as the raiding force returned fire.

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 MGB-314 and MTB-74, having been destroyed during the heavy fighting or during the withdrawal.  Casualties were heavy; of the 622 Royal Navy and commando personnel, 169 were killed and 215 taken prisoner.

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, the dry-dock gate had only suffered minor damage, and it looked as if the major objective had failed.

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 Campbeltowns wreckage came to rest halfway along the dock.  With the gate demolished, the dry-dock was out of commission and would remain so for the rest of the war.  The little ship commissioned into the US Navy had successfully completed its final mission in another navy and on the other side of the ocean from where she was built.

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 ships bell until decommissioned in 2011.  The bell is presently in Campbeltown, Pennslyvania.