Tuesday, October 21, 2008

USS Buchanan (DD-131)/HMS Campbeltown

Figure 1: USS Buchanan (DD-131) at Balboa, Panama Canal Zone, 18 May 1936. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS Buchanan (DD-131) underway on 26 February 1919. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: USS Buchanan (DD-131) in port, probably at San Diego, California, circa the early 1920s. Note that the after 4"/50 gun is still mounted on her fantail. Also note the pattern of the numeral "3" painted on her bow. Courtesy of ESKC Joseph L. Aguillard, USNR, 1969. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: Destroyers in the Upper Chambers, Gatun Locks, during the Pacific Fleet's passage through the Panama Canal, 24 July 1919. Those present are: USS Wickes (Destroyer # 75) and USS Yarnall (Destroyer # 143), both at left; USS Philip (Destroyer # 76), USS Buchanan (Destroyer # 131) and USS Elliot (Destroyer # 146), left to right in the center group; USS Boggs (Destroyer # 136), USS Dent (Destroyer # 116) and USS Waters (Destroyer # 115), left to right in the right center group. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: USS Aaron Ward (DD-132) photographed during the early 1920s, probably off the U.S. West Coast. USS Buchanan (DD-131) is at left. Courtesy of ESKC Joseph L. Aguillard, USNR, 1969. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: View of British sailors learning about their new ships, a part of the Lend-Lease agreement in September 1940. In the background are the USS Buchnanan (DD-131) and the USS Crowninshield (DD-134). Courtesy Tom Kerman. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 7: HMS Castleton (ex-USS Aaron Ward, DD-132) and HMS Campbeltown (ex-USS Buchanan, DD-131) alongside in Devonport Dockyard after arriving from the USA in September 1940. Courtesy Bob Hibbert. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 8: HMS Campbeltown (ex-USS Buchanan, DD-131) under refit prior to the St. Nazaire raid. The bridge has been stripped, armoured, and has some of the splinter matting in place. The forward 4in/50 has been replaced with a 12pounder gun. Courtesy Robert Hurst. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 9: HMS Campbeltown, disguised as a German destroyer for the famous raid on St. Nazaire, France, in 1942. Campbeltown was built as USS Buchanan (DD 131), one of hundreds of "four piper" or "flush deck" destroyers constructed during the World War I era. Buchanan was one of 50 such ships transferred to the UK under the "Destroyers for Bases" deal, becoming HMS Campbeltown on 9 September 1940. She served the Royal Navy as an escort until early 1942, when she was assigned a role in the St. Nazaire raid. Courtesy Joe Radigan. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 10: HMS Campbeltown grounded on dry dock sill moments before detonating. Courtesy Joe Radigan. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 11: HMS Campbeltown as seen from alongside the Normandie Dock shortly before she exploded. On the left is one of the two tankers present in the dry dock. When the destroyer exploded, both tankers were swept against the dock walls by the inrush of water and sank. Courtesy Bob Hibbert. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 12: Aerial photo taken some months after Operation Chariot. The Normandie Dock has been sealed and work is in progress restoring the facility. In the middle of the picture, the stern half of the Campbeltown sits on the bottom, the forward section having been blown to pieces. Courtesy Robert Hurst. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 13: The wrecked Campbeltown (her foreends towards the camera) inside the lock. Note the Normandie's docking blocks, the ruined caisson at the right rear of the lock and the sand wall sealing all. Courtesy Robert Hurst. Click on photograph for larger image.

USS Buchanan (DD-131) was a 1,090-ton Wickes class destroyer and was named after Admiral Franklin Buchanan (1800-1874), who played an important role in the US Navy prior to the Civil War and then was a leading figure in (ironically) the Confederate States Navy during the Civil War. Buchanan was built by the Bath Iron Works at Bath, Maine, and was commissioned 20 January 1919. The ship was approximately 314 feet long and 30 feet wide, had a top speed of 35 knots and had a crew of 122 officers and men. Buchanan was armed with four 4-inch guns, two 3-inch guns, 12 21-inch torpedo tubes and depth charges.

During the early part of her career, Buchanan patrolled both the Atlantic and the Caribbean for the US Navy. In May 1919, she assisted in providing route protection for the trans-Atlantic crossing of the Navy’s NC flying boats. Buchanan then was assigned to the Pacific Fleet and transited the Panama Canal in July 1919. The destroyer served along America’s West Coast until she was placed out of commission in June 1922.

Buchanan was re-commissioned in April 1930 and continued working in the Pacific for seven more years. She was decommissioned in April 1937 (as newer ships were brought into the fleet), but was once again re-commissioned at the end of September 1939. It was necessary to re-commission the old destroyer because the outbreak of World War II in Europe forced the United States to enlarge its Navy for neutrality enforcement purposes. For the remainder of 1939 and well into 1940, Buchanan operated in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. In early September 1940, Buchanan was sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she was decommissioned and turned over to Great Britain as part of the famous “Lend-Lease” agreement, where fifty old American destroyers were given to England in exchange for basing rights in British possessions in the Western Hemisphere.

After its transfer to Great Britain, USS Buchanan became HMS Campbeltown in the Royal Navy. Campbeltown was initially based at Liverpool and served as an escort guarding the Western Approaches to Great Britain. She was transferred to the Royal Netherlands Navy in January 1941, but then was given back to the Royal Navy in September. Once back in the Royal Navy, Campbeltown resumed escorting convoys in the Atlantic, where she saw action against German U-boats and aircraft.

In January 1942, Campbeltown was selected to take part in “Operation Chariot,” which was the proposed commando attack on the German-occupied port of Saint-Nazaire, France. In 1942, the enormous German battleship Tirpitz was anchored at Trondheim, Norway, and was considered a major surface threat to merchant convoys headed for England. But, if the Tirpitz did enter the Atlantic, she would need a drydock big enough to handle her in case she was damaged or in need of repairs. The only drydock on Europe’s Atlantic seaboard that was large enough to accommodate Tirpitz was located at Saint-Nazaire. Originally built to service the huge French ocean liner SS Normandie, the drydock was now a vital military target.

The goal of Operation Chariot was to ram an old, expendable warship filled with explosives into the gates of the drydock. Accompanying this ship would be a number of small motor launches and motor torpedo boats filled with British commandos, whose mission was to destroy the drydock’s pumping and winding machinery. After the warship rammed into the drydock’s gates, the crew from the warship and the commandos were to be evacuated by the motor launches and the motor torpedo boats. After the commandos left, the explosives inside the warship would go off and the drydock would be destroyed. Needless to say, this was an extremely dangerous plan and its prospects for success seemed marginal, at best. But the Royal Navy thought it worth the risk if it kept Tirpitz out of the Atlantic and away from its merchant convoys.

Because of her age, HMS Campbelton was considered expendable and was selected as the ramming ship. On 10 March 1942, Campbelton arrived at Devonport, England, to be modified for this mission. All of her 4-inch guns were removed and replaced by a 12-pounder light automatic gun and eight 20-mm guns. Her depth-charge projectors and tracks also were removed and her bridge was protected with armor plating. Campbelton’s two after smoke stacks were removed and her two forward stacks were modified to resemble those of a German destroyer. This was done to confuse the Germans defending Saint-Nazaire into thinking she was a friendly German warship. The crew was reduced to just 75 men (under the command of Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie) and an explosive charge consisting of 24 depth charges containing a total of four tons of explosives was fitted into steel tanks just behind the steel pillar that supported her forward gun mount. The timed charges were set before the ship sailed and were cemented into place to prevent anyone from interfering with the detonation.

HMS Campbelton left Falmouth, England, on the afternoon of 26 March 1942 with only enough fuel for a one-way trip to France. She was escorted by a small flotilla of 18 motor launches and motor torpedo boats, along with two Hunt class destroyer escorts. The small task force made it successfully to France and the final attack on Saint-Nazaire began shortly after midnight on 28 March. The Campbelton and her escorts remained undetected until 0122 on 28 March, when searchlights illuminated the attacking ships. Campbelton increased speed to 19 knots and headed straight for the drydock gates under intense enemy fire. Numerous hits were made on the old destroyer but she kept on moving towards her objective. Then at 0134, Campbelton rammed the drydock’s gates, firmly wedging herself into position. Commandos and demolition parties went ashore in the face of heavy German fire and successfully planted demolition charges that destroyed the withdrawing machinery for opening the drydock’s gates and the pumping machinery for the drydock itself. Of the 611 men who took part in this operation, 169 (64 commandos and 105 sailors) were killed and 215 were captured. Only 222 were successfully evacuated by the surviving torpedo boats and motor launches that escorted Campbelton. Five other men made it to shore and successfully evaded capture by making an amazing journey through France to neutral Spain. The captain of Campbelton, Lieutenant Commander Stephen Beattie, was one of the men taken prisoner and later received the Victoria Cross for his part in the raid.

At first the Germans didn’t really know what to make of the attack. Campbelton was still wedged into the drydock’s gates and, even though the Germans searched the ship, nothing was found. Then at 1135 on the morning of 28 March, the hidden demolition charges on board Campbelton went off, creating an enormous explosion and causing the forward part of the ship to disintegrate. The huge blast killed approximately 300 Germans who were on board or around the ship and it destroyed the drydock’s gates, causing water to rush into the drydock and forcing what was left of the shattered destroyer into it. The explosion rendered the drydock at Saint-Nazaire unusable for the rest of the war and it wasn’t completely repaired until 1947. Tirpitz, therefore, would be unable to threaten Allied convoys in the Atlantic since it no longer had a usable drydock on the Atlantic seaboard.

Whether or not the raid on Saint-Nazaire was worth the price is debatable. The raid was technically a success, but it came at a very high price in human lives. In addition, with Allied naval and air power growing in strength throughout the region, one wonders if the Germans would have risked Tirpitz in the Atlantic even if the drydock at Saint-Naizaire were operational. After all, Tirpitz’s sister ship, Bismarck, also tried to enter the Atlantic to attack Allied shipping and didn’t succeed (even though HMS Hood was destroyed by Bismarck in the process). But the fact remains that Campbelton, which started life as a humble American destroyer, played a key role in one of the most daring, dangerous, and dramatic missions of World War II.