David Rowlands: Military Artist
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The Raid on St Nazaire, 28th March 1942   The Raid on St Nazaire, 28th March 1942

“A deed of glory intimately involved with high strategy” Winston Churchill.

In early 1942 Britain's very survival was threatened by the success of German U-Boat raids on shipping in the Atlantic. Their mighty battleship 'Tirpitz' posed an even greater threat. ‘Operation Chariot’, a sea-borne commando attack, was launched on the huge 'Normandie' dock in the heavily defended St Nazaire harbour. Destruction of the dock would deprive the Germans of the only repair site on the Atlantic coast big enough for the 50,000 ton 'Tirpitz'.

Accompanied by 18 small craft of Coastal Forces, HMS Campbeltown boldly steamed up the Loire estuary under intense German fire, and struck the caisson of the dry dock at 0134 hrs. The Commandos rapidly disembarked from the bows and set about destroying the dock installations. Of the 622 who set out from Falmouth 169 died, 200 became prisoners and only 242 returned home. Five Victoria Crosses, four DSO’s, seventeen DSC’s and eleven MC’s were awarded in this daring and brilliantly successful raid.

The St Nazaire Society, which is made up of the survivors of the Raid, felt that the deeds of the Army Commandos were not well-known enough, and a dramatic painting would help to perpetuate the memory of their achievement. I was invited to attend two of their committee meetings, and it has been a pleasure and an honour to meet these modest heroes, and to listen to their stories.

I drove to St Nazaire and in company with Charles Nicol, a French historian and expert on the event, I walked all around the scene of the action at the Normandie dock. I read everything I could lay my hands on about the Raid, and the National Maritime Museum provided me with copies of German photographs of HMS Campbeltown in the dock the morning after. I interviewed all the surviving Commandos who are depicted in the scene, as well as James Dorrian, author of the book 'Storming St Nazaire.’ It was quite complicated working out what each soldier was carrying: assault parties, demolition parties and their protection parties all had weapons and equipment specific to each task they were allotted to carry out.

I produced several sketches of the Raid, and the Charioteers selected the view showing the Commandos disembarking from the fore-deck of HMS Campbeltown. The painting shows HMS Campbeltown at 0137 hrs, three minutes after ramming the gate of the dry dock. Under intense German fire and searchlights, the assault parties led by Lt. J M Roderick and Captain D W Roy have already rushed from both sides of the ship down onto the caisson. Coming down the steel and bamboo ladders on the port side are the protection parties of Lts Denison and Hopwood, with the demolition parties carrying their heavy bergen rucksacks full of explosives close behind them. Capt. R K Montgomery RE is among them. The imperturbable Major W O Copland, with his rifle slung over his shoulder, coolly encourages each party as it emerges onto the fo'c'sle. Holding the steel ladder are Lts N T B Tibbits RN and C H Gough RN, laughing and cursing.

The picture was commissioned by the St Nazaire Association, and was unveiled at the 60th Anniversary Reunion at Falmouth in April 2002. The following year it was presented to the National Army Museum to be put on permanent display.

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Printed image size(s): B2 only (58 x 38 cm)

Owner: The St Nazaire Society and the National Army Museum

Price(s): £65