Kilt-wearing Bretons are organising a memorial service on Tuesday for one of the British Commandos who died after the ‘greatest raid of all’ when a warship was rammed into the dock gates at Saint-Nazaire.
The 1942 raid, which Winston Churchill said cut the war ‘by six months’, saw 169 Commandos and Royal Navy seamen killed and more than 200 taken prisoner as they closed off the Atlantic port to the Nazis’ giant battleships.
The Breton group – who wear kilts as a tribute to Commando Tom McCormack of the Cameron Highlander’s and Liverpool Scottish, who died of his wounds after the raid – will gather at Rennes Cimetière de l'Est on Tuesday afternoon at 15.00.
Tom McCormack was one of the raiders from 2 Commando, many in kilts, who stormed ashore with other units from wooden motor patrol boats on March 28, 1942, as an explosives-laden HMS Campbeltown was rammed at full speed into the dry dock gates.
He was badly injured and died two weeks later on April 11 in the Rennes German prison-hospital and was buried there, in Section 18, the only one of the Commando raiders not buried in Saint-Nazaire.
When news of his death spread round the Pays-de-la-Loire capital in 1942, thousands joined a spontaneous demonstration – the first against the Nazi occupiers.
He had been one of a landing force of 256 officers and men who landed in an operation that chief of Combined Operations Vice Admiral Louis Mountbatten recognised amounted to a suicide raid.
He told their commander: “I’m confident that you can get in and do the job, but we cannot hold out much hope of you getting out again. Even if you are all lost, the results of the operation will have been worth it. For that reason I want to tell you to tell all the men who have family responsibilities, or who think they should stand down for any reason, that they are free to do so, and nobody will think any worse of them.”
None pulled out and as the Germans poured fire on to their flotilla of wooden motor boats and the destroyer Campbeltown steaming up the Loire estuary only 113 Commandos made it to shore – some armed only with a pistol and a 90lb pack of explosives.
The attack has been called the ‘greatest raid of all time’ and saw five Victoria Crosses awarded as well as four Croix de Guerre in a total of 74 decorations awarded.
It prevented the German Navy from sending its giant Tirpitz battleship out of its Norway fjord to attack Atlantic convoys as the only place large enough to carry out any repairs needed was the dry dock at Saint-Nazaire.
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The Campbeltown, loaded with hidden explosives, blew up one day after smashing into the dock gates – killing a group of senior German officers who were examining it and more than 300 others.
A commemoration ceremony for the 75th anniversary of the raid was held in Saint-Nazaire on March 28.