St Nazaire 1942 is an excellent narrative summary of the famous British commando raid in March 1942. While this raid has been covered in detail in a variety of other books, this latest edition of the Osprey Campaign series adds detailed maps and diagrams that help to make sense of a very confusing night action. However, the author Ken Ford has not followed the standard Osprey Campaign format very closely, which will upset some readers.
Instead of the standard sections on opposing leaders, plans and forces, the author begins with sections that outline the reasons for the raid, the planning phase, training the raiding force, the Royal Naval forces involved, and the enemy. While many details about leaders, tactics and equipment are included in these sections, the information is not as well packaged as usual. Furthermore, the author provides little information on the German perspective; only one leader is detailed and there is little information on Luftwaffe/Kriegsmarine patrols around St Nazaire. German anti-invasion plans and mine defenses are not discussed. Intelligence collection about the target is only mentioned in terms of aerial reconnaissance, with no mention of either Enigma or the French resistance. No formal order of battle information is provided for either side, although much of the data is embedded in the text.
The raid itself is covered in excellent detail, with three sections covering the sea approach, the run up the Loire River and the actual assault. There are three 3-D "Bird's Eye View" maps: the raid at H+10 minutes, the commando attacks in the dockyard and attacks in the Old Town. There are four 2-D maps: the port itself, the route to St Nazaire, the path up the Loire River, and the dockyard targets. In addition, there are three battle scenes depicting HMS Campbeltown charging toward the dock, the demolition of the Pump House and the final breakout attempt. Numerous excellent photographs also complement the text.
The greatest flaw in this volume is the total lack of analysis. While the raid was a brilliant success in terms of the objectives achieved, the virtual destruction of the raiding force needs closer examination. Based more on brawn than brains, the British plan relied primarily on raw courage and luck to gloss over major flaws in the plan. The British raiders were incredibly lucky in passing undetected within 750 meters of German coast defenses around St Nazaire and by the time they were spotted, the Germans could not stop HMS Campbeltown from ramming the dock. However, the British did little to interfere with German coastal defenses other than an ineffectual air raid and crude deception efforts; had the Germans spotted the British ten minutes earlier the raid would probably have ended as an utter failure. Furthermore, the lack of a viable evacuation plan - other than cruising past fully-alerted German defenses in slow, unarmored launches - was a major flaw in the plan. The British were writing the book of how to conduct raids at St Nazaire and they made serious mistakes, fortunately which they learned from.
Another huge mistake, which was one of the great lessons learned from the raid, was that transporting troops into combat in thin-skinned vehicles is a bad idea. Of the 12 motor launches in the raid, 7 were sunk and 3 badly damaged; only 38 of 164 commandos on these launches were landed. British losses in these exposed, unarmored launches were horrific, and remind the modern reader of the similar American mistake in sending troops in thin-skinned vehicles into combat in Mogadishu in 1993 (and with the same result). There is not much discussion of alternatives to this type of raid and no discussion about lessons learned for future raids. Nor is the effect of the raid on the French population of St Nazaire discussed. Overall, this book is an excellent summary of the raid but the lack of analysis somewhat reduces its value as history.