Tuesday, 30 March 2010

'WAR GAMES' in SAINT-NAZAIRE, MARCH 2010



(Click on images below to enlarge)
40 feet down, in the bowels of the Pumping Station, Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Chant-Sempill recounts the story of his father, Lieutenant Stuart Chant, who in March 1942, although wounded, led his demolition team into the blackness to destroy the Station's four vital impeller pumps.


Remarkably, the battlefield at Saint-Nazaire remains today virtually as it was in March, 1942. Almost all of the original Commando and naval targets can be seen and experienced in their original form - their sheer size demonstrating the scale of the tasks assigned to such small and vulnerable Commando parties. For this reason the port has now become a destination for army groups seeking to study and critique both the planning and the execution of an operation considered by so many to be impossible.

The most recent army party, of 34 mixed ranks led by Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Chant-Sempill, arrived in port on March 24th for what was an almost forensic examination of Operation Chariot. Although the Normandie Dock is still in use and normally closed to the public, special permission was given for the men to visit the interior of the Pumping Station, South Winding House - and even the floor of the giant dock itself (above). The members of the party had been tasked with researching particular aspects of the raid, their individual presentations being given on-site as we moved around.

Unlike many battlefields, the one at Saint-Nazaire is compact and easily toured - the proximity of hotels, restaurants - even loos - only adding to its accessibility. On Thursday evening we had dinner in a bistro constructed within the huge Submarine-pen complex. itself only 100 metres from our hotel. Great company, great food and wine, and all the beauty of the Breton coast - can't wait for the next one!


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Following the departure of the army and prior to the ceremony planned for Sunday the 28th, we took the opportunity to film additional scenes for our documentary about the remarkable (Captain) Micky Burn, whose Motor launch was destroyed with the loss of so many of his men.

Closing on the Old Mole, filming the approach to 'Micky's Steps' where ML192 crashed in flames in 1942. The steep, narrow steps lead up to the lighthouse, where Sub-Lieutenant Collinson and others of the crew, sought shelter from the rain of fire. In spite of wounds and shock, Micky, alone of his party, made it to his target at the northern extremity of the dockyard.


On the Old Mole itself, where one of the German blockhouses once stood, with Breton musicians Jean-Paul le Strat and George le Corre playing for us in the biting wind (photo courtesy of Hubert Chemereau). 







The Old Mole was also the landing point of Second-Lieutenant (Now Dr.) Bill 'Tiger' Watson, who with his small Protection Party came ashore from Motor Launch 457. Here he is, complete with unnecessarily large bodyguard, during the commemorative ceremony held in Saint-Nazaire on March 28th. If only he had had back-up like this 68 years ago! (The photo was taken by David Tait, nephew of Lieutenant Morgan Jenkins, one of Micky Burn's Subalterns, who sadly died when Motor Launch 268 was destroyed close to the Old Entrance). 








The approach to the dockyard as HMS Campbeltown would have seen it. We are only a few hundred metres from the 'Normandie' dock caisson, yet it is hidden from view behind the Old Mole. Imagine the view from her armoured wheelhouse all those years ago, blinded by searchlights, assailed by fire from every quarter, plunging ahead at eighteen and a half knots, all the time aware that the tiniest error in navigation would cause the collapse of the whole operation......