(WHTM) — This is the story of how an American-made destroyer serving in the British Navy attacked a French port to help neutralize Nazi Germany’s most powerful warship-and it has a local connection.
The H.M.S. Campbeltown (that’s right, just one L) started life as the U.S.S. Buchanan, a Wickes-class destroyer launched in 1919. In 1940, she was transferred to Great Britain under the Destroyers for Bases Agreement. She was renamed Campbeltown after a village in Scotland. (most of the destroyers were renamed for towns in the United Kingdom that shared names with towns in the U.S.) She spent 1941-42 on convoy duty.
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Meanwhile, the British navy was working on a plan to hamstring the Tirpitz.
The German battleship Tirpitz was the heaviest warship ever built in Europe. Anchored in a fjord in Norway, she presented a constant threat to convoys just by her presence. She was reasonably well blockaded by the British, but what if she slipped out of the fjord and escaped into the Atlantic?
Even a huge warship like Tirpitz can get damaged, or just need routine maintenance. This would require the ship to go into a drydock. And along the coast of northern Europe, there was only one drydock big enough to accommodate the Tirpitz, the Normandie Drydock at the port of St Nazaire, France. The drydock was built for the ocean liner S.S. Normandie, and when completed in 1932 was the largest in the world.
The British had already seen this scenario once. When the battleship Bismarck attempted a breakout into the North Atlantic in 1941, she was damaged in battle and tried to reach St. Nazaire to use the Normandie Dock. She never made it; the British caught up with her and sent her to the bottom. If the Normandie Dock was damaged or destroyed, the German Navy might not be willing to risk sending Tirpitz out into the Atlantic.
Thus Operation Chariot was born. The idea was to have a destroyer loaded with explosives ram the drydock. H.M.S. Campbeltown was selected for the task. She was loaded with over four tons of explosives to be detonated by a timer. Eighteen smaller vessels containing a force of commandos sailed with her, whose job was to do as much damage to the port as possible above and beyond what destruction the Campbeltown would produce.
On March 28, 1942, at 1:34 a.m. the Campbeltown hit the dock gates, driving the ship about 33 feet into them. Commandos from Campbeltown and the smaller ships swarmed ashore, attacking targets all around the harbor. Of the 612 men who part in the raid, 169 were killed and 215 became prisoners of war. 228 made it back to Britain.
At noon the Campbeltown exploded. Over 360 Germans were killed. The Normandie drydock would not be repaired until after the war. The Tripitz stayed in the fjords until she was sunk by British bombers in 1944.
In 1950 Campbeltown’s bell came to Campbelltown, Lebanon County. The British consul general at Philadelphia, James Robertson, made arrangements to present the bell to the town, in thanks for the U.S. Lend-lease efforts. For over thirty years it was displayed at the Campbelltown Fire Department.
Then in 1987, the Royal Navy announced it was building a new HMS Campbeltown, and could they please have their bell back? This did not go well with some citizens of Campbelltown, but after much discussion, sometimes acrimonious, they voted to send the bell back. Under the deal worked out, the bell would stay with the new Campbeltown until her end of service, then be returned to Campbelltown, PA
After 24 years of service, the new Campbeltown was decommissioned, and the bell came back to Pennsylvania in 2011. You can see the bell in the lobby of the South Londonderry Township building at 27 West Market Street, Palmyra, PA.
The Royal Navy is now building five new destroyers, one of which will be named Campbeltown. No word yet if they want the bell back.