In the dark early days of 1942, German U-boats were sinking Allied merchantmen faster than they could be replaced, and to this threat was added the lurking menace of German surface raiders. The Bismarck had been sunk but the battleships Scharnhorst and Tirpitz remained at large. Had these armour-plated monsters broken loose upon the N. Atlantic shipping lanes, the results for the Allied war and civil economy would be catastrophic. Battleships required a dry dock for servicing and inevitable repairs, and that of St Nazaire at the mouth of the R. Loire was the sole facility large enough to take a battleship. Operation Chariot was thus conceived in the first place by Winston Churchill as per his order of the day in 1940 to "Set Europe ablaze" to destroy the great Normandie dry dock and its associated facilities and also attack the U-boat pens whose massive concrete roofs rendered them impervious to bombing from the air. The essence of the plan was to sail an ex-WW1 American destroyer, now re-badged as HMS Campeltown into the massive gates of the dry dock and detonate the tons of Ammonal concealed in her bows while squads of commandos would land and wreak havoc in the docks.
This was my second experience of a lecture at the gleaming Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock, following an excellent one on the Spanish Civil War in May last year. The building is spanking new, all glass and open plan displays, and the walled gardens leading to it are a delight, full of Henryi lilies and Geranium Oxonianums – perhaps planted for their local name-association - with in the adjacent parkland a huge horse chestnut, a ditto sycamore and a noble walnut tree that must be the biggest for miles round, and laden with nascent walnuts. Add in the super-warm welcome from Brigadier David Innes, a trustee of the museum and a wonderfully ebullient, bustling host, and the museum's programme of monthly talks looks like a winner before the lecturer has even opened his or her laptop.
Our speaker was Nick Beattie whose father was one of the recipients of the five VC earned in the St Nazaire Raid. VCs are extraordinarily hard-earned and commensurately prized; five in one action speaks volumes for the degree of enterprise, danger and sheer courage on display that morning of 28th March 1942 on the coast of Occupied France as HMS Campbeltown and its flotilla of motor boats steamed in a smooth curve from Falmouth, giving a wide berth to first Lands End, then Ushant and Brest; thence to the mouth of the Loire and on into St Nazaire, a likely maelstrom of searchlights, heavy guns of up to 170mm and pom-poms galore. Mr Beattie concentrated on an overview of the strategy of the raid, the long haul across the channel and the arrival at the dry dock, characterised by astonishingly precise British navigation and some signals trickery.
This is the google age, where a few clicks at a keyboard give access to megabytes of even the most recondite of information. Our universities have found that the primacy of the filling their students' heads with facts has been increasingly outweighed by the need to promote critical thinking, even lateral thinking. I'm no history specialist, far from it, but in the case of military history, is it not more important than ever to evaluate sources and assiduously to gather oral history in order to furnish an imaginative appreciation of the experience of battle?
In the case of Mr Beattie, I thought he fell between the two stools of presenting on the one hand a fairly comprehensive if necessarily brief overview of the principal strategic and tactical aspects of the Raid, and on the other hand the relation of a few anecdotal accounts of the experience. For instance he seemed uncomfortable with a question about who precisely were the planners of the Raid, and a little vague about Churchill's input. We heard little about how the feat of rapid training from the drafting of the plan on 7th Feb 1942 and embarkation for the Raid on 28th March was achieved. Nor did we receive an informed opinion about the strategic success of the action measured against the heavy butcher's bill.
Anecdotal titbits were also a trifle thin on the ground and I was surprised by how little we heard of the heroic Lieutenant-Commander Beattie, the commander of the Campbeltown, who was taken prisoner by the German defenders. But Mr Beattie did succeed in sending me back to accounts of the action in search of understanding how the crisis of war and the heat of battle can drive apparently ordinary men to extraordinary feats of heroism.