The Greatest Raid
St Nazaire, 1942: The Heroic Story of Operation Chariot
London, UK: Penguin Books, 2022
Paperback 304pp RRP $35.00
Reviewer: Kevan Sanderson, January 2023
This raid was a joint Royal Navy/Commando mission to destroy the Normandie dock, the largest in the world when built in 1933 and the only one capable of servicing the German battleship Tirpitz, which the Allied feared would break out into the Atlantic. A specially lightened destroyer, HMS Campbelltown, would be packed with explosives and rammed into the dock gates intended to destroy the dock itself. Commandos carried on board would then disembark and use demolition charges to destroy secondary objectives including machinery, other installations and any U-boats or other shipping in the area.
The operation was successful because the explosion put the dry dock out of commission for the remainder of the war and the Tirpitz never entered the Atlantic. Because it was the first assault on German occupied territory it was a strategically diplomatic victory which greatly boosted morale at home and abroad.
Although successful, the operation was poorly planned, meagerly resourced and hampered by poor inter-service cooperation, especially from the RAF. Of the 620-odd participants only 228 made it back to England; over half were killed or wounded (169 killed), and the remainder were captured. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded for the action - the most for any single action in World War II.
Whittel’s writing left this reader inspired with awe at the audacity, courage and bravery of the men involved who achieved such success with so little support. How the men of ‘Chariot’ achieved what they did is the question often asked. A better question is why, and Whittell answers this by pointing the morale boost of showing the German ‘Fortress Europa’ could be successfully challenged, and by showing the rest of the world, including the USA and Russia, that Great Britain was not going to submit to tyranny.
Whittell’s book reads almost like a novel - gripping the reader and making it difficult to put down. It is superbly organised into three parts; pre-conflict activities and then the major operational events chronologically presented in two time periods. Several excellent clear maps are provided to facilitate the reader following the detailed actions. There are many clear and interesting pictures. Whittell also includes a one- or two-line bio of each of the main characters described in his book which I found very helpful and an interesting and poignant postscript. The final surprise of The Greatest Raid is an Appendix which is the actual Combined Plan for ‘Operation Chariot’. It is a masterpiece of brevity, which may account for why so much went wrong with the operation. Whittell has also included in the bibliography, a handy compilation of useful secondary sources, including How to Review a Book.
I recommend this book to anyone interested in the Second World War or Special Forces operations. It is also a good read and should appeal to any fan of action stories and ripping yarns - a true life thriller!
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.