St. Nazaire Raid Memorial - Atlas Obscura

St. Nazaire Raid Memorial

Falmouth, England

This modest site memorializes a World War II mission described without hyperbole as “the greatest raid of all.” 

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Dunkirk, D-Day, the arrival of Allied forces in Berlin: These moments are celebrated in British military history and remembered with great pride. But in Falmouth, a small seaside memorial reminds visitors that it was the launching point for an attack known affectionately as The Greatest Raid of All. Although its story is not as well known, it was one of the most daring missions of World War II, and a turning point in the conflict.

The plan, known as Operation Chariot, was for hundreds of sailors and commandos to sail a lumbering, obsolete destroyer, converted slightly to resemble a German vessel, straight into the heart of St Nazaire, one of the world’s most heavily defended ports at the time. The goal was to destroy the biggest dry dock in the region—the only place where Germany could easily repair damage to its largest naval ships. 

Before the British left Falmouth’s harbor, the men were all given the option to skip the mission. Not one opted to leave.

On March 28, 1942, the disguised destroyer, supported by a small flotilla, braved a whirlwind of bullets and artillery shells to successfully ram the dry dock. Once the ship lodged in the dock’s gate, the sailors disembarked, leaving behind explosives with delayed fuses inside the destroyer and running through German fire to successfully destroy more of the port’s infrastructure with additional explosives. Most were eventually captured by the Germans, as the support ships meant to pick them up were destroyed or cut off. But the raid was a success—the destroyer exploded, crippling the dry dock for the rest of the war.

It came at a high cost: Hundreds died on both sides, and more Victoria Crosses (Britain’s highest military award for valor “in the presence of the enemy”) were awarded than for any other mission during the war. But the dock’s destruction limited the effectiveness of Germany’s navy, helping to turn the Battle of the Atlantic in favor of the Allies.

While accounts of the raid are larger than life, the monument to The Greatest Raid Of All sits quaintly in the small harbor in Falmouth, Cornwall. Seagulls take off and land, water laps under the pier, and the occasional visitor can read quotes from the soldiers and descriptions of a mission known today as the Greatest Raid Of All.

Know Before You Go

The memorial is on the Prince of Wales Pier, near the point of departure for ferries.

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