Portsmouth, England — Midnight, March 27, 1942: A small British squadron makes its way up the Loire estuary to St. Nazaire.
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.
All but one of the ML skippers and almost all the crews were strictly amateur sailors - a movie actor, a Scotland Yard detective, an insurance broker, a schoolmaster. None of the ML captains had ever before operated in formation. Few had previously been called on to sail far from the shore. They belonged to Coastal Forces, rudely nicknamed by some as the ''Costly Farces.''
Ryder had exactly two weeks to prepare this unlikely force for what somebody said was ''the sauciest thing since Drake.'' That his odd band of brothers entered the Loire at midnight in perfect formation after nearly 36 hours at sea, including 14 hours of total darkness, was nothing short of astonishing.
The Campbeltown joined the assembled force in Falmouth Harbor, Cornwall, March 25. She was commanded by Lt. Comdr. Sam Beattie, who was also to win the Victoria Cross. Next day at 2 p.m., in bright spring weather, the force sailed with an escort of two destroyers under the pretense of being an antisubmarine squadron headed for Gibraltar. Its total strength was 611 men.
Although detected at sea by at least one U-boat and by spotter planes, the cover story held. No special offensive action was taken against the force by the Nazis.
When darkness fell March 27 the task force turned northeast for St. Nazaire. At 12:30 a.m. March 28 it entered the Loire estuary. When challenged from shore a signal was sent back by lamp that the ships were proceeding up harbor in accordance with orders. There was some perplexity ashore. Then the enemy realized what was up: an hour up the estuary, with a little more than a mile to go, the shore guns opened fire.
The Campbeltown and all her escorting boats replied. Searchlights picked out every ship. The harbor ws a maelstrom of gunfire and flames. Campbeltown was repeatedly hit. But she increased speed to 20 knots and with her fo'castle ablaze rammed into the great dock gates. She was to blow up in the morning, completing the destruction of the dock entrance.
Commandos jumped ashore, many from Campbeltown, some from the first MLs in the two columns. But the small, wooden, gasoline-filled boats took a terrible pasting. Four blew up immediately. Six more caught fire and became drifting, blazing hulks. All suffered severe casualties. The intended capture of the stone pier had to be abandoned, leaving no way home for the raiding commandos ashore.
The commandos, however, demolished all the machinery and working parts of the great Normandie Dock in less than half an hour. It was never used again during the whole of the war. Writing of it afterward, Brig. C. E. Lucas Phillips said: ''This brilliant and remarkable feat, carried out at night, under a vicious fire and by a handful of men, is unique in military and naval annals. No other example exists of damage so vital and so far-reaching in its results being carried out so swiftly and with such economy of force.''
Some 200 Army and Navy men were taken prisoner. One hundred fifty-nine others were killed. Seven of the original 17 boats survived and three even made the full journey home, the others having to be scuttled at sea.
Such, in brief, is the story of the raid.
My own memories of it begin before we sailed. We were shown a model of the dock to be attacked, though we were not told where it was. But I knew where it was, instantly. I'd sailed right past it as a teen-ager. As I remembered it, the dock was six miles up the deepwater channel. I said to my skipper, ''I don't think we are coming back.'' In which assessment I proved to be quite wrong. But only just.
I vividly rmember the final approach the night we attacked: One ML breaks down. We take aboard their commandos. Meanwhile the rest of the task force disappears, swallowed up in the darkness. The moon is hidden behind thick overcast. We roll in an eerie swell and feel very much alone.
The transfer seems to take forever. But we use the time to fill our empty fuel tanks on deck with sea water, reducing the risk of explosion.
We head for ''Point Z'' where the submarine HMS Sturgeon should be acting as a navigational beacon, flashing ''U'' if uncertain of her exact position, ''M'' if certain. We find her. But Sturgeon has switched her light off!
''We'll go and ask,'' says the skipper. But as we close, Sturgeon dives. We shout at her to come up. She doesn't. The dim shape of a British destroyer also fades as she too becomes wary, fearing we must be part of an enemy patrol.
Now we are alone. We are about 30 miles off France and 350 miles from home port. We have no navigational instruments except a magnetic compass, a ruler, and a pencil. The commando captain says, ''You've got to get us in. We're the bridgehead party!''
''We'll get you in,'' our skipper promises.
He is calm and resolute, this gentle schoolmaster. We steam on full speed on a made-up course. The funnel gets red hot.
There is a feeling of euphoric, elated disbelief as we catch up to the others just as they are entering the estuary. . . .
Then the tremendous noise we all make our high-speed gasoline engines going flat out. . . . No bombing raid to cover the noise. . . .
Searchlights suddenly . . . tracer from everywhere . . . shells . . . flames . . . chaos in the dark. . . .
I go to the fo'castle to prepare to scale a 16-foot ladder to tie the boat up. . . . The commandos provide covering fire. . . . But our landing is repelled. . . . Two MLs by the jetty catch fire. . . . I find I'm the only man still standing up on the fo'castle. . . . The forward gun gone. . . . Our gunner and my covering commandos have all fallen. . . . A terrible desolation sweeps over me.
To port an ML skipper puts his own undamaged boat alongside another that is fiercely blazing and takes off every survivor. . . . We try again. . . . Can't make it. . . . Make smoke instead.
Withdrawing, find an ML, its officers wounded, being taken out uncertainly by the coxswain and crew. . . . Tell them to follow us. . . . Immediately a German destroyer arrives. . . . We have no guns but a commando with a Sten gun comes up to me and asks, ''Boarding stations, sir?'' He puts new heart into me. . . . Our own destroyer Tynedale then moves into view, engaging the enemy ship. . . . We steal away over the shallows with the officerless ML following us, worried by the amazing phosphorescence which seems to light us up. . . .
We find two other boats at dawn at the rendezvous. . . . Two destroyers appear from the east. . . . Theirs or ours? . . . Ours!
At this time we felt ourselves failures. We knew nothing of Campbeltown's complete success or the incredible exploits of the demolition parties ashore.I did not know the full story until long after the war.
Meanwhile the effect of the raid on the Nazis had been staggering. Adolf Hitler blew up in a fury. He had reason. Only four days before he had issued a warning that British landings with limited objectives were to be expected.
Virtually every Nazi concerned with security in the St. Nazaire area was disciplined. Hostages were also taken from the local population, for it seemed inconceivable to Hitler that so much strategic damage had been done by a few commandos acting on their own.
Nazi troop dispositions in the West were hurriedly altered, slightly but significantly reducing Nazi strength on the Russian front.
We in the Royal Navy went off on survivor's leave and soon got new assignments. In most cases our paths never crossed again.
So this 40th anniversary has very special significance for us, just as it has for those brought so close by comradeship in battle and in imprisonment.
That the Queen should, without demur, lend her royal yacht for the occasion is not only a great honor, it is what has made the reunion possible. Without her generosity half the survivors would not have been able to make the trip.
There will be some 120 on the dockside at St. Nazaire, plus 120 next-of-kin and relatives and the Royal Marine band and all these admirals, prefects, mayors. And we will remember our friends, celebrate an impossible success, and reflect a little perhaps about the words ''duty,'' ''resolution,'' ''humanity,'' and ''alliance.''
Looking back, St. Nazaire was indeed ''the greatest raid of all.''