This evening I watched the film ‘Attack on the Iron Coast '(1968) which like it’s sister film, The Gift Horse (1952) is based on the St Nazaire Raid or Operation Chariot, which was a successful British amphibious attack on the heavily defended Normandie dry dock at St Nazaire in German Occupied France during WW2.
This operation was undertaken by the Royal Navy & British Army Commandos on the 28th March 1942. St Nazaire was targeted because the loss of its dry dock would force any large German warship such as the Tirpitz or Bismarck to return to home waters via the English Channel which were heavily defended by the Royal Navy's Home Fleet. Since Normandie dry dock was the only facility in this part of the Atlantic Ocean with a dry dock large enough to accommodate, poor old Tirpitz never entered the Atlantic again, remaining in Norway until she was sunk near the end of the war by the Royal Air Force - but that's another story.
The main player in Operation Chariot was the obsolete destroyer, HMS Campbeltown (the ex US destroyer USS Buchanan which left the slips in 1919 and was the ‘gift 'as mentioned in ‘The Gift Horse’) . And below we see her in happier times as a ship of the line.
She was accompanied by 18 smaller craft to cross the English Channel to the Atlantic coast of France before being rammed into the Normandie dock gates. HMS Campbeltown was embedded instead of being sunk as you can see from the photo below.
The ship had been packed with delayed-action explosives, well hidden within a steel and concrete case, that detonated later that day, putting the dock out of service until 1955 and here we see her embedded firmly into the dry dock as photographed by a PRU Spitfire in 1943.
A force of commandos were landed after the gate ramming with the remit to destroy as much machinery and other structures as possible. Heavy German gunfire sank, set ablaze or immobilised all eighteen of the accompanying small craft intended to transport the commandos back to England. The commandos had to fight their way out through the town to try to escape overland. Despite a valiant attempt, many were forced to surrender when their ammunition was expended and they were surrounded. After the attack, 215 (36%) men were captured and interned in POW camps but the Germans respected their cunning and courage. Those men killed in action were buried in local cemeteries by the German occupiers and accorded full military honours.
After the raid, 228 (37%) men of the force of 622 returned to Britain with a combat loss of 169 (27%) lives. The men who took part in this attack received more awards for bravery then any other operation before or since – even Rorke's Drift!. In total, some 89 awards were made, including 5 Victoria Crosses, 4 Distinguished Service Orders, 4 Conspicuous Gallantry Medals, 5 Distinguished Conduct Medals, 17 Distinguished Service Crosses, 11 Military Crosses, 24 Distinguished Service Medals, 15 Military Medals, as well as 4 men being awarded the Croix de Guerre by France.
German casualties were over 360 dead, some killed after the initial raid action when HMS Campbeltown spectacularly exploded later that day.
OK, that’s the historical side covered so now for the fiction……. Attack on the Iron Coast was a Mirisch Films production and released in colour during 1968. The (poor quality by today’s standards) special effects were set up by The Bowie Corporation.
The cast was typically stiff upper lip British with fine performances by Maurice Denham, Andrew Keir, Mark Eden and Sue Lloyd with the brash Canadian Major masterfully personified by Lloyd Bridges.
Obviously, the constraints of budget and scale were applied as the lion hearted HMS Campbeltown was portrayed by an elderly minesweeper and the number of attending escorts was downgraded to four – a few differences from reality but still a fine film for all that.
A couple of howlers followed, the keen eyed viewer may have noticed that the supporting diversionary air raid footage was taken from The Dam Busters film of 1955. Of more interest to the military radio pundits will be the shocking observation of Maurice Denham restlessly prowling the operations room whilst a Pye C12 nestles comfortably atop a radiogram to the left of his shoulder – whatever would the VMARS committee say!!!!!.
To give it it’s full name, Wireless Set C12 was introduced in 1955 as the product of a five year long private development project by Pye to develop a hermetically sealed waterproof set as a replacement for WS19 so the one in the film had time travelled a bit to get back to 1942.
As to the radiogram, unfortunately, I cannot identify it but I do know that is neither an RGD or a Dynatron – poor form for the elite Combined Ops to have something lesser.
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- Tags: attack on the iron coast, bowie corporation, dambusters, HMS CAMPBELTOWN, lloyd bridges, maurice denham, NORMANDIE DOCK, OPERATION CHARIOT, pye c12, ST NAZAIRE, the gift horse, TIRPITZ, ws19