Sailors and marines remember ‘the greatest raid of all’ at 80th anniversary event in Falmouth

Topic: PeopleRemembrance Storyline: Remembrance

Sailors and Royal Marines paid their respects to the ultimate commando raid in Falmouth – 80 years after the attackers sailed from the Cornish port.

after the attackers sailed from the Cornish port.

The ships of Operation Chariot – codename for the attempt to destroy dock facilities at St Nazaire, then occupied by the Nazis – left the Fal in March 1942… and sailed into immortality.

Eight decades later, what became known as ‘The greatest raid of all’, was remembered as military personnel, council officials and members of the public gathered at the St Nazaire memorial on Prince of Wales Pier to pay their respect to courage and valour shown on what considered a certain suicide mission.

They were joined by a representative for the Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall and Mayors of Falmouth, Penryn and Helston, as well as the Royal Naval Regional Commander, Brigadier Jock Fraser Royal Marines, to remember the audacious raid.

Among the serving sailors present was Chief Petty Officer Lee Burkin, of P2000 patrol boat HMS Exploit. His Grandfather, Able Seaman Gerald Burkin, served in S-class submarine HMS Sturgeon which left Portsmouth ahead of the main convoy of ships for the raid.

The boat’s mission was to act as a navigational beacon, providing the exact position for entry to the Loire River, from where the raiding force was to make their run up the estuary.

Lee laid a wreath in honour of his grandfather and said: “I’m very proud of Gerald, my grandfather and his part in the St Nazaire raid onboard HMS Sturgeon. The Falmouth 80th Commemoration is a fitting tribute to the bravery of all the Sailors and Commandos of WW2.”

On March 26 1942, HMS Campbeltown accompanied by 16 motor launches packed full of Commandos and escorted by two destroyers, departed Falmouth with the intention of blocking the St Nazaire dock, rendering the port unusable by the German Navy – although it had already withdrawn its capital ships to home waters.

The raid was successful and Campbeltown, packed with explosives, rammed the dock and exploded, destroying the gates and knocking the giant dry dock out of action for the rest of the war.

Meanwhile, commandos transported in the motor launches landed and destroyed dockside installations, as well as demolishing much of the infrastructure around the port.

The cost of the raid was high. Of the 611 commandos and sailors who took part in Operation Chariot, 169 were killed and 200, mostly wounded, were taken prisoner.

Only 242 returned to Falmouth after the raid. Some of the dead lie in cemeteries in France, some were brought home to England, others have no known grave.
Only four of the motor launches made it home. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded, two of them posthumously.

At a separate ceremony in Falmouth cemetery, family members of Leading Seaman Bill Savage VC (MGB 314), and Motor Mechanic Tom Parker (MGB 477) laid wreaths at their graves.

“It is an honour to join the annual service of remembrance in Falmouth in commemoration of Operation Chariot, the St Nazaire raid,” said Brigadier Fraser. “This commando raid holds a special place in the heritage of our nation’s commando and amphibious forces.

“The dedication of the St Nazaire Society and Falmouth Town Council has once again enabled us to reflect together on the courage and commando spirit displayed by the 611 men who undertook the raid and to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.”

As well as inspiring future generations of commando raiders, Campbeltown’s actions have earned the return of the ship’s name as one of the five vessels in the Type 31 Inspiration class of next-generation frigates.

It is an honour to join the annual service of remembrance in Falmouth in commemoration of Operation Chariot, the St Nazaire raid.

Brigadier Fraser