An auction at Bonhams in Edinburgh today, 2nd October 2013, will see the hammer come down on a rare Springbank single malt whisky, distilled in 1993 and bottled privately in 2012 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of HMS Campbeltown’s epic role in ‘the greatest raid of all’ in World War II.
This was on 28th March 1942, when the new Combined Operations, pioneered here in Argyll, masterminded a joint operation between the Royal Navy and the Commandos, especially, perhaps, 2 Commando. This was the Special Boat Service and the raid was Operation Chariot.
The raid was from the sea, on the German controlled docks at St Nazaire on the north bank of the Loire on the Atlantic coast of France – particularly on the Normandie dry dock there.
The purpose of the raid was to put the dry dock out of action to prevent any German capital ship in need of repair – and Bismarck’s sister ship, Tirpitz [declared operational in January 1942], was a major concern – from making use of the easy bolthole of the French Atlantic port and forced instead to make the longer and riskier passage back home.
The plan was for the elderly destroyer, HMS Campbeltown, to be lightened to get her over the sand banks in the Loire estuary [most of her innards were cut out of her to do this] – armoured to protect commandos on board and jam-packed with explosives.
In a nutshell, Campbeltown was then to ram the dock gates; the commandos were to leap ashore and do as much damage as they could; the ship would then explode; and 18 smaller ships that had come over with Campbeltown would come in, pick up the crew and the commandos and get them out to safety.
In the event, the German counter-attack destroyed or damaged most of the smaller ships, leaving the shore party with no transport out. Many of the commandos were killed in action.Many more had to fight their way out through the town to try to escape overland. These men had to surrender when, surrounded, their ammunition ran out. They were taken prisoner. A force of 662 had left Britain on the operation. 169 were killed. 215 became POWs. 228 returned.
But later on that day Campbeltown blew up, putting the dock out of service for the remainder of the war and for almost a decade afterwards. The raid was accounted a major success, despite its heavy cost.
What is to be auctioned today is a unique square bottle, number 74 of the 200 produced – none of which were sold.
This bottle links a historic wartime raid by a new form of force born in Argyll; and a raid whose success was ultimately down to a old destroyer named for the Argyll port guarding the entrance to the crucial Firth of Clyde.
Bonhams expect this dram to go for up to £2,000, with the fact that it has never been sold enhancing its collectability.
Note 1: If you enter HMS Campbeltown in the Search box at the top right of this screen, you will find a range of articles on the complex and fascinating service lives of the two destroyers named Campbeltown, the ships bell, an American connection – and the last visit to her affiliate port of the last ship so-named.
Note 2: The top photograph shows HMS Campbeltown being lightened to get her over the sand banks and into the dock gates at St Nazaire. Two of her funnels have been cut away and the remaining two cut at an angle. This is a government image and is in the public domain.
Note 3: The photograph above shows HMS Campbeltown wedged into the dock gates at St Nazaire. It is in the German Federal Archive and is reproduced here under the Creative Commons licence.