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The 'Impossible Raid'

By John Allan May, Special to The Christian Science MonitorJohn AllanMay was at the time of the raid a sublieutenant, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. During the raid he served as first lieutenant (executive officer) of ML 466, one of the small craft from British Coastal Forces to attack the port. He came through unharmed. / April 1, 1982

Portsmouth, England

Midnight, March 27, 1942: A small British squadron makes its way up the Loire estuary to St. Nazaire.

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Its mission: to destroy the most heavily defended naval base in Nazi-occupied France.

And so began what to many is a footnote in history, an exploit barely mentioned in history books. But this brief, ferocious action was crucial in determining the outcome of the Battle of the Atlantic. The Victoria Cross, Great Britain's highest award for gallantry, was won by no fewer than five of the 600 raiders -- an all-time record.

This month will bring a ceremony that is part solemn remembrance, part celebration of that event. It follows and marks the 40th anniversary of ''the impossible raid,'' the seaborne British naval and commando raid on the Nazi stronghold. The Royal Yacht Britannia will sail from here April 22 for St. Nazaire; aboard will be wartime veterans, from former ordinary seamen and privates to former lieutenants and captains.

Prince Philip Duke of Edinburgh will participate in the ceremony in St. Nazaire. With him on the dockside, two French admirals, two prefects, two mayors; bands, crowds, newsmen, and TV cameras.

The local citizens of the city have remembered the fallen -- 159 British sailors and soldiers -- at a special service in March every single year since the Liberation.

One thing they especially remember is the fact that the Royal Air Force, because of heavy cloud, held back from bombing the dockyard as the raiders came in. The order for all three British forces was: ''Not one French casualty.''

This made the raid very much more hazardous. But in the end it made it very much more effective.

In 1947 French Prime Minister Paul Ramadier told British survivors, ''You were the first to bring us hope.''

Discarded three times in 1941 as impractical, the raid was finally launched in 1942 as ''a necessity.'' The chief planner was Lord Louis Mountbatten, later Allied commander in chief in Southeast Asia and after that the last viceroy of India.

The plan meant sending a single destroyer laden with explosives and escorted by small wooden coastal patrol boats on a 400-mile passage across the Bay of Biscay carrying 260 commandos into the most heavily defended naval base in Nazi-occupied Europe. They would have to enter in secret at midnight. It seemed impossible.

But this was the darkest hour: Pearl Harbor; Singapore. Appalling losses for shipping in the Atlantic. Great Britain alone in Europe and her oil reserves brought down almost to zero.

And now the Nazi battleship Tirpitz, the most powerful warship afloat, was getting ready to join the U-boat pack and deliver a final crushing two-fisted blow in the decisive Battle of the Atlantic.

St. Nazaire boasted the only dock on the Atlantic coast large enough to shelter Tirpitz. If that could be destroyed, the battleship could be destroyed, for the ship would have nowhere to run if engaged by the British. The dock had to go.

At Mountbatten's headquarters they realized they might lose every man. But they agreed that if the job was done . . . well, that would have to be accepted.

The speed with which Operation Chariot was mounted then matched the need. It was debated for the fourth time at ''Combined Ops'' headquarters Feb. 19; approved Feb. 25; the Task Force commanders briefed Feb. 26; the plans made final March 3.

The commandos were placed under Lt. Col. Charles Newman, the Royal Navy force commander being Comdr. R.E.D. Ryder. Both were to win the Victoria Cross. Newman's men were already highly trained for just this sort of work -- on a challenge, they broke the British Army's marching record (63 miles in 23 hours) as part of their training. But the naval forces were chosen from what happened to be handy.

The old four-stack, formerly American, destroyer Campbeltown was selected as sacrifice. She was quickly transformed into a reasonable copy of a two-stack Nowe-class Nazi destroyer. Her escort consisted of 16 112-foot motor launches (MLs) with a top speed of 18 knots, one 110-foot motor gunboat capable of 26 knots, and one faster 70-foot motor torpedo boat fitted with special leapfrog torpedoes.