75th Anniversary of Raid on St Nazaire

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)

Seymour Charles Pike 1942

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.

 

St Nazaire Map

Map of St Nazaire

 

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. 

 

MGB 314

MGB 314

 

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.

 

IMG_0001

Peter’s mother and uncle collecting his DSM from Buckingham Palace 5 Dec 1944

 
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

(Daniel Kirmatzis)

 

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An extraordinary week of research

In the past week I have lived an historian’s dream. It started on Saturday 11 May when I met the son of Wing Commander Richard Kemp Wildey, DFC. Richard “Dick” Wildey was at Emanuel between 1926 and 1935 and on leaving school joined the RAF. He served in Bomber Command, flying Ops with both 78 and 10 squadrons. Dick died on a mission on 15 October 1942. In the Emanuel School War exhibition in 2014 you will be able to discover Dick’s log books, a selection of his letters (over 150), service papers and his Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), awarded in 1940 for gallantry.
Richard and Eileen Wildey001

Dick’s brother in-law, twin brother of Dick’s wife, Eileen, was Douglas “Sammy” Hoare, who was an RAF pilot in No. 74 squadron. Douglas crashed over France in May 1940, his Spitfire having encountered enemy fire. He was a POW for four years until his release in the summer of 1944. Douglas spent time in Stalag Luft III, the famous camp which was depicted in the films The Wooden Horse and The Great Escape. Among other photos I have now secured the donation of Douglas’ copy of The History of Emanuel School, by C. W. Scott-Giles, that was sent to him by his parents for a Christmas gift in 1940, whilst he was a POW.
Emanuel School History POW Hoare
Emanuel School History POW Hoare inscription
Douglas Hoare Stalag Luft III second from right
Douglas Hoare, second from right, in Oflag XXIB “Schubin”

On 12 May I discovered another Old Emanuel veteran, having traced his family I am to interview him next week. He won an MC for bomb disposal work in the North African theatre. He has never recorded his memories so this will be a unique encounter. He served with the Royal Engineers in North Africa and Italy, having landed at Taranto, he witnessed the destruction of Monte Cassino and ended up building a hospital in Austria.

On 13 May I was doing some research on the British Library Newspaper Archive website and discovered that John Edgar Burns, son of the famous Liberal MP, John Burns (MP for Battersea and famous early 20th century socialist figure) attended Emanuel (1907-1910) and in the Emanuel archive is a photo of John Edgar as a young man. John Edgar served in the Royal Garrison Artillery in the First World War and suffered from shell shock. After the war he worked for the Imperial War Graves Commission but sadly died at the age of 26 in 1922. He is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Battersea Rise.
Burns, J_08

On 15 May I was on board HMS Belfast for a communications workshop given by the Imperial War Museum in preparartion for events commemorating the First World War. In the evening I was in Westminster Hall, meeting the nephew of a Major in the Royal Corps of Signals. He showed me the letters from his uncle concerning his experiences in Burma in the Second World War. The letters include details of the famine in Calcutta during the war and experiences of signalling whilst in combat againt Japanese forces.
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On Friday 17 May I received a phone call early in the morning from the cousin of the lead signalman of the St. Nazaire Raid, Seymour Pike. Having met Seymour’s cousin and her husband in the evening I now have copies of all his letters and papers, including a number of photos of him and a very special inscription from Commander R. E. Ryder VC to Seymour’s mother, Mrs. Nicholls in his book on the St. Nazaire Raid (Operation Chariot). Seymour won a Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) for the part he played in the Raid and I am now able to tell the story of Seymour’s service career for the first time in over 70 years. Seymour died on board HMS Laforey in 1944.
Seymour Charles Pike 1942
Ryder's book HR_Page_1
Ryder's book HR_Page_2

On Saturday 18 May I received a wonderful letter from another Old Emanuel who I got in contact with a couple of months ago and now have copies of a unique set of photos showing the 579 Army Field Company Royal Engineers building a Bridge near Salerno during the Italian Campaign and also a Bailey bridge being built in 1944.

It’s not every week that you get to discover so many unique aspects of a subject you thoroughly enjoy researching. It has been a privilege to share in these individuals’ life stories. I’m wondering what the next few weeks will bring? Well…another interview with a tank driver, who at the age of 20 was made a Captain and became Technical Officer of ‘C’ Squadron in the Burma Campaign. That will be on 1 June. So a busy few weeks of preparing interview questions, writing for the exhibition catalogue and discovering more about the lives of 1600 Emanuel boys who appear on the School’s First and Second World War Rolls of Service.