Tuesday 28 March 2017 marks the 75th Anniversary of the Raid on St Nazaire. Old Emanuel Seymour ‘Peter’ Pike played a crucial role that day.
Seymour Charles ‘Peter’ Pike DSM (Emanuel 1933–1937)
At Emanuel Seymour Charles, known as Peter, coxed junior rowing crews. He is seen in a photograph of one Emanuel crew on the hard just outside Tom Green’s Boat House which was adjacent to Barnes Bridge in the mid-1930s. Peter was also a member of the Tooting Sea Cadet Corps. Both roles would have allowed Peter to gain a familiarity with the sea and rivers from an early age.
He was also interested in languages and Emanuel in the 1930s had excellent German language teachers which proved essential to Peter in the Second World War. His father, Roy Seymour Pike, also attended Emanuel and served as a mechanical engineer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve during the First World War.
On leaving School Peter worked as a shipping clerk for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. As the impending European crisis unfolded he volunteered for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on 10 May 1939. After training in signals at the Royal Navy shore establishments, HMS President and HMS Pembroke between August 1939 and July 1940 Peter saw active service with the Dido-class light cruiser HMS Naiad which spent much of 1940 and 1941 on convoy protection in both home waters and on voyages to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Between April 1941 and March 1943 Peter served at various times in HMS Eglinton. However, it was his selection for a pivotal role in Operation Chariot – one of the most daring raids of the Second World War – that secured Peter’s name in the annals of that conflict’s history.
During the days of the British Expeditionary Force’s retreat from Dunkirk, Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Clarke, a General Staff Officer who was military assistant to the then Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir John Dill, contemplated how Britain might make its return to the continent. His thoughts drifted to historic examples such as the Boer Commandos in the Second Boer War who had harried the much larger British forces with their use of raiding parties. Out of these musings was conceived the idea for Combined Operations and the beginning of the Commandos.
In the summer of 1940 Britain’s war was defensive, with efforts concentrated in repelling a German invasion. However, Churchill and other like-minded individuals
wanted to take the offensive at the earliest opportunity. If raids on the continent were to be carried out the infantry would need naval support to land them at designated targets, hence the term Combined Operations – a force which utilised all three main services. In early 1942 such a raid was planned by Combined Operations Headquarters (COHQ), to attack the Atlantic seaboard dry-dock in the port of St Nazaire.
The ‘Louis Joubert’ (Forme Ecluse Louis Joubert) lock/dry-dock, as it was officially known, was constructed to accommodate the building of the 83,000-ton super passenger liner SS Normandie, after which the dock’s name became popularly known. It was a huge feat of engineering enclosed at either end by two gates or caissons. The ‘Normandie Dock’ could be used as either a lock or dry-dock, the latter requiring water to be pumped out by powerful machinery in the pump houses on the west side of the dock, where the hydraulic plants for operating the caissons were also situated. The caissons were structurally extremely strong, both to withstand the pressure of water from the outside and accidental ramming by ships, a fact that was critical in the planning of the raid on the dock.
St Nazaire, at the mouth of the river Loire could be reached by navigating the five-mile long Les Charpentier channel. Navigation of the channel required careful planning due to the features of shoals and mud-banks which could prove disastrous if the tides were misjudged. After the fall of France in June 1940, St Nazaire became one of five strategic positions for the German occupying forces along the country’s Atlantic coast.
The destruction of the dry-dock would reduce the threat posed by the German battleship Tirpitz which, in the event of engaging Allied shipping in the Atlantic, would require the dock at St Nazaire for maintenance between patrols. But according to Captain John Hughes-Hallett, who was Lord Mountbatten’s [Commodore Combined Operations] head naval planner at the Directorate of Combined Operations, the target’s location was chosen for two main reasons: firstly, because it was the furthest target which a raiding force could reach within a window of only one period of daylight and secondly, during the spring tides, vessels could pass over the shoal water to the south of the Les Charpentier channel, getting within reach of the deepwater channel close to St Nazaire. Central to the plan was the use of a ship packed with explosives, timed to go off after the Combined Forces attacked the dock area, escorted by a series of motor launches and machine gun boats. It was an audacious plan that relied on precision; timing was the key to the whole operation. The Attacking Force An ageing American destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, was chosen as the ship to carry the explosives with delaying fuses. Disguised as a German Möwe Class destroyer she was ultimately to be rammed into the Normandie dock gate. The base of operations was centred on Motor Gun Boat (MGB) 314 which, along with Motor Launches (ML) 270 and 160 would form the spearhead of the operation and it was in MGB 314 that Commander Robert Ryder directed the raiding force. In addition to MGB 314 there were sixteen motor launches, including 270 and 160, one Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) and two escorts, HMS Atherstone and HMS Tynedale that accompanied them for part of the journey.
A dress rehearsal for the raid took place at Devonport dockyard on the evening of 21 March 1942. Before and after the dress rehearsal the force assembled at Falmouth. At 1400 on 26 March 1942 the force sailed from Falmouth – destination St Nazaire.7 The raid ran into difficulty on the morning of 27 March when the force encountered a German submarine U-593 but fortunately the U-Boat, not realising that the force was heading for St Nazaire, signalled to German Group Command West that Ryder’s fleet was on course for Gibraltar, this was due to Ryder’s change of direction that the U-Boat mistook as their final destination.
Peter’s role in the attack
The details of the raid have been well documented in a number of books but here it is important to reflect on Peter’s role. On the night of 27 March 1942 MGB 314 became operational when Cdr Ryder transferred to it from HMS Atherstone, accompanying him were Colonel Newman, who led the Commandos on the raid and Peter in addition to several others. Being guided to the river Loire by the submarine HMS Sturgeon, the attacking force made its way up the river whilst the escorts Atherstone and Tynedale waited out at sea to cover the returning fleet after the raid. There was a diversionary attack planned by RAF Bomber Command over St. Nazaire for 2330hrs but it was unsuccessful due to low cloud. However whilst Peter was on the sea another Emanuel boy, Richard Ryder (Emanuel 1930–1935) was flying as an Observer on a Whitworth Whitley Mark V heavy bomber (Z9481) of 51 Squadron RAF, which, after returning from the diversionary operation over St. Nazaire, crashed at Great Whernside injuring the crew with Richard being thrown from the aircraft.
The force proceeded up the Loire estuary over the shoals in the hour after midnight on 28 March. It had got within two miles of the harbour before they were illuminated by No. 3 Heavy Coastal Battery. If they were going to reach their target they needed a deception tactic to hold the German defences off long enough – enter Peter Pike. Cdr Robert Ryder continues the story:
We were challenged from the shore, first by one of the coastal batteries and later from somewhere in the dockyard. It was for this moment that Leading Signalman Pike, who could send and receive morse, had been attached to my staff. The challenge was accompanied by sporadic flak, aimed indiscriminately at the force. It was 1.23am, we were a mile and a half from our objective; ten minutes at that speed. How long could we bluff? … every minute still counted. We did not know the correct reply to the challenge, but we instructed them to ‘wait’ and then gave the call sign of one of the German torpedo-boats known to us. Without waiting for them to consider this Pike embarked on a long plain-language signal. With an ‘urgent’ prefix, the gist of this was, ‘Two craft, damaged by enemy action, request permission to proceed up harbour without delay.’ Firing ceased. Without finishing the first message we made the operating signal to ‘wait’ again. We had to reply to the second station. We were about to give them a similar message when we came under renewed fire from the north bank, heavier than the first … Using our Aldis lamp, we made the international signal for ships or vessels being fired on by friendly forces. … Our bluffing had practically achieved its object.
In fact Peter had to deal with two German signals, one from the guard ship Speerbrecher and one on MGB 314’s port beam. He gained the force vital minutes and Cdr Ryder noted in 1947, ‘Information now available confirms the valuable part played by Pike in thus delaying the enemy’s fire.’ A little later, during the heated exchange of fire and lacking a sufficient report as to the Campbeltown’s placing and sinking Cdr Ryder disembarked from MGB 314 at the north side of the Old Entrance of the Bassin St Nazaire, at which point he later recalled, ‘…Pike, who, discarding his signalling apparatus for a broken bayonet which he had discovered, decided that a bodyguard was required.’ In a desperate situation and under heavy fire Cdr Ryder made the decision to evacuate, leaving the raid now in the hands of the Commandos who continued to fight onshore. As they made their escape with 40 extra men on board the MGB the scenes were distressing as Ryder recalled, ‘The decks everywhere were slippery with blood, making it difficult to walk between the wounded lying crowded together.’ On the morning of 28 March the delaying fuses on the Campbeltown sparked and she blew up whilst being inspected by a large party of German officers. The explosion rendered the dry dock inoperable for the rest of the war and Operation Chariot was a success, although 169 men out of 611 lost their lives. For his integral part in the success of the raid Peter was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
Peter later served again in HMS Eglinton and was serving in HMS Laforey during Operation Husky – the invasion of Italy when the Laforey sunk the Italian submarine Ascianghi, and also during Operation Avalanche – the Salerno landings in September 1943. Peter was at sea off the coast of Salerno whilst those he would have known through rowing at Emanuel, like Alan Skillern, were landing on the beaches.
Peter had much to look forward to writing to his mother on 23 September 1943 with the happy news that he was to get married after the war as his girlfriend Marian had accepted his proposal. However fate was not kind and Peter lost his life when the Laforey, on anti-submarine patrols, was sunk by a U-Boat, the U-223, on the evening of 30 March 1944. The U-Boat was then sunk by other British destroyers who had been in company with Laforey. Peter’s mother received several letters of condolence from friends of the family and also a survivor from the Laforey, one individual remarking, ‘I always shall remember Peter as one of the finest characters I came across in this country.’
In 2014 Peter’s cousin Patricia and her husband Tony travelled from Australia to London to bring items relating to Peter’s life for the Emanuel School at War Exhibition. You can read an earlier post about that visit here Emanuel Generations at Dacre Day