Lieutenant John Roderick M.C. Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur

I was 23 years of age at the time of the raid. I took over 3 Troop from Godfrey Franks in late 1941. I had Bung Denison and John Stutchbury as my Section Commanders. Bung, for the Raid, went with one of the other parties while John remained in mine. Speaking for myself, I thought we were a very happily constituted troop with a great deal of enthusiasm and sparkle. TSM Smith, with his Guards training, helped to provide the necessary leavening of Guardlike behaviour. John Stutchbury was, with Bill Watson, the youngest officer in the Commando and full of the “offensive spirit”.

Lieutenant John Roderick M.C. Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur

Lieutenant John Roderick M.C.
Chevalier de Legion d’Honneur

I find it difficult at this stage to differentiate between the jobs done by the members of the party. We had all trained together for so long and I had chosen them because of my confidence in how they would react in the situations in which  we found ourselves. Woodiwiss did not get a Military Medal for any particular action but for his overall behaviour and grasp of the situation. He was a particularly bright, intelligent and enthusiastic NCO with considerable courage. The other members of the party would not have done any better and I was very proud to be associated with them.

For the approach up the estuary we got into our positions on the starboard side [of the Campbeltown] lying on the deck between the protective steel plating specially fitted for us. Behind me I had Cpl Finch while about half way down the line came John Stutchbury bringing up his part of the Assault Party. Cpl Donaldson with one of the bamboo ladders was badly wounded, and died later when the fight started. Above our heads was one of the Oerlikon Platforms and it was the noise from these and the stuff coming towards them that at one moment made me reach out behind me to find whether Cpl Finch was still in position following a particularly dirty explosion – Cpl Donaldson was a big loss to us, he was quite one the nicest members of the Troop. A quiet, soft spoken Scotsman with a charming smile and a most proficient soldier.

With regard to our feelings at this time I think they were ones of relief that at last we had got going. I had no illusions, I think, on the possibilities in front of us. My main concern was that I hoped I would behave myself throughout the action and not through my inadequacy, let the party down.

The run-in was desperately exciting. The suspense over the haggling about who or what we were, the opening fire from the banks, the silence and then the final opening up of all the guns. One was filled with admiration for the gun crews who suffered severe casualties, I think. Lying behind them we were not entirely inactive as our Bren guns were fitted for this phase with large pans of ammunition which we fired out at as many possible targets as we could make out.

The task of my assault party as far as I can remember in detail was

  1. To engage and destroy the guns and crews on the area south of the Normandie Dock.
  2. To form a defensive perimeter to prevent infiltration of enemy forces towards the direction of the “Campbeltown” and pumping stations etc.
  3. To do damage if possible to old storage units.

Following the crash of the bows which came with suprisingly little jolting I went quickly forward to reconnoitre the way off the ship; it was a bit of a shambles with many wounded chaps lying about the dock. Flames met me in opening the forward companionway door and I had to shut it quickly. On trying again shortly afterwards they had died down. The gun in the bows of the ship was looking somewhat cockeyed and I could see no obvious signs of life around it. Bill Copland gave us his usual morale boosting order as we quickly made our way off the Campbeltown.

Our bamboo ladders had been damaged by gunshot prior to getting off, Cpl Donaldson had charge of one of them when he was killed. However I managed to find a length of cable down which we clambered onto the dock gate, covering our actions as best we could. There was and had been a hell of a lot of firing going on, it was difficult to pinpoint where it was coming from. I cannot remember seeing gunfire coming from the first gun emplacement. I went forward with Cpl Howarth and an explosive of some sort passed over my head and wounded him in the leg. We finished off the crew and moved on with John Stutchbury and his section covering fire in turn. We next had to clear the ground leading to and over the oil storage tanks. There was a number of Nissen huts into which we threw grenades with the most terrific bangs and in another concrete building we killed a further batch of the enemy. There is no doubt we killed two more. There was, I believe, a light gun of some sort at the top but I did not go up and see – by this time we were advancing round the seaward side of the oil tanks. John Stutchbury was being given covering fire as he went forward to engage a third group of the enemy. We had quite a large area to cover and with our reduced numbers it was a full time job keeping our eyes open to all around us. Cpl Donaldson was not with us, Cpls Howarth and Simpson had been ordered to return to the main casualty point because of wounds. During this third phase, the lookout mistakenly reported that the withdrawal signal had been given so we started to retire in order, back over the ground we had come.

We had, as a party, to try and do some destruction to the old storage units and attempts to do this failed – it was as much as we could do to maintain our position on the ground and maintain the defensive perimeter that was one of our main objects.

The withdrawal involved us retracing our steps back across the bows of “Campbeltown” which was uncannily silent in contrast to the bangs going on around. I could see nor hear any sign of life on her. Our movements were obviously being watched as we had to move in between bouts of fire. It was while running for cover, carrying the Bren guns, that I was shot through my left thigh. It came as a complete surprise. I was only aware of being knocked head over heels and the Bren leaving my hands. I moved quickly behind a stanchion and eventually made my way towards Col Newman’s assembly point where the rest of my party had foregathered.

From this point the story changes from one of my particular party to the breakout towards the town budge, with Donald Roy, Hopwood, “Tiger” (Bill) Watson and others acting as forward section. This stage was particularly exciting and fraught with surprises, as all house and street fighting must be. It was during one of these scuffles that Tiger Watson was shot through the humerus and I gave him an injection of morphine. Tiger Watson was from the Black Watch and with John Stutchbury the youngest officers in No 2 Commando. They were greatly respected and loved on all sides.

On leaving Tiger as comfortable as possible, Hoppy Hopwood, Sgt Alf Pearson and one or two others whose names fail me were searching through some warehouses as attempts to get across the bridge at this time were suicidal. It was about this time I was wounded in the head by a grenade. It was decided that we should find a suitable place to hide and this we did making a nest of full cement bags high off the ground. Alf Pearson had been badly wounded through the left shoulder and was out of active participation and we were by this time a pretty ropey lot. We did, however, have a very nice hideout and on a number of occasions in the next few hours groups of Germans who were by this time into the area with reinforcements passed us by in their search parties. It was only in the light of day at about 10.30am that a German searching high up in a warehouse on the other side of the road unfortunately saw a bandaged head or limb through some bomb damage in our warehouse wall and gave the alarm. In next to no time the place was alive and we surrendered ourselves. Opposition would have been simply futile and life was still very sweet. Our captors were not particularly pleased and pushed us against a wall and searched us. We thought we’d had it! However, we were pushed on to a small vessel lying in the river basin and that’s where we were when the Campbeltown exploded with the most almighty bang. We were left with our guards but everybody else ran to see what it was all about. Shortly afterwards we were bundled into a truck and taken into the town where we were put into a private type house prior to being moved to the hospital at Le Baule.

Cpl Howarth I did not see again following his instructions to proceed to the main assembly area. He was, however to turn up in Spain and so returned to England. He later died of wounds received elsewhere.

Our casualties were surprisingly low:-
Cpl Donaldson killed
Cpl Howarth, Lt Stutchbury, Cpl Simpson and myself wounded.

I cannot remember anyone else being wounded but I may well be wrong here. I think without any exaggeration we killed at least our own numbers and possibly more.


Operation Chariot - The Raid on St Nazaire

Aerial View St Nazaire - Normandie Dock
The port of St Nazaire in Brittany is a

Journal 34 - Commando

Journal 34 COVER

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