Express and Exploit remember wartime triumph and tragedy

The Royal Navy’s greatest raid – and its greatest tragedy – have been marked by two of its smallest ships on a visit to Saint Nazaire.

Patrol boats HMS Exploit and Express crossed the Channel to remember the hundreds of sailors and Royal Marines who stormed the French port in March 1942 – and the thousands of soldiers, sailors killed when an overcrowded passenger liner was sunk offshore two years earlier.

Operation Chariot, led by veteran destroyer HMS Campbeltown, sought to knock out the dock and facilities used by the German Navy to maintain and repair their capital ships such as the fearsome battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen.

The resulting attack succeeded – but at huge cost, for not half the 600-plus men who left Falmouth to take part in the raid returned.

To follow in the footsteps of our Coastal Forces forebears was truly humbling.

Lieutenant Ryan Greig RN

Ceremonies were held in the Cornish port last month by today’s Royal Navy and Royal Marines as well as veterans group.

Services also take place in Brittany, led by the Saint Nazaire Society – originally formed by survivors of the raid but now, with all the veterans gone (the last died just a few weeks ago), comprising their descendants and relatives, as well as historians.

They hosted the crew of both P2000 patrol ships during their visit to the port, guiding the sailors around the sites of the action in 1942 and put the raid into context.

Two memorial services were held – at Escoublac cemetery where many of the Chariot dead are buried – and at the Commando Monument in Saint Nazaire itself during two days of commemorations.

“To follow in the footsteps of our Coastal Forces forebears was truly humbling. To attend the two days of commemoration events and to speak to the members of the Saint Nazaire Society who knew, and were related to, the Charioteers was an honour,” said Lieutenant Ryan Greig, HMS Exploit’s Commanding Officer.

“The tour was incredible. We ended at the Normandie Dock where HMS Campbeltown impacted and a group of commandos fought ashore. It was a staggering history brought to life by walking the sights.”

His counterpart on HMS Express, Lt Thomas Sellen, added: “Following in the path of HMS Campbeltown and the Charioteers into the docks of Saint Nazaire was a humbling experience. Bravery beyond belief.”

Both vessels are on a pre-Easter deployment giving an extended taster of life in the 21st Century Royal Navy to students from universities in Wales (Express) and Birmingham (Exploit).

After two days in Saint Nazaire, the two small vessels sailed to a spot four and a half miles off the French coast in the middle of the Loire estuary where 79 years ago the worst disaster in British maritime history.

In June 1940 – two weeks after the evacuation of Dunkirk ended – the former Cunard liner turned troopship HMT Lancastria was ferrying British troops still stuck in France back to the UK.

Severely overcrowded, she was pounced upon by German bombers and hit by two 500lb bombs. She capsized and sank in 20 minutes. Around 2,500 men were saved, but anywhere between 3,000 and 6,000 Britons died – as many as four times those lost in the Titanic. The crew of both 2000s laid wreaths over the wreck.