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URNU students retrace St Nazaire raid escape routes for RM Charity

17 October 2022
Students and sailors hit the roads of France and Spain in the footsteps of wartime heroes to celebrate what is often regarded as the greatest commando raid.

Personnel from across the Royal Navy’s university units – both full-time serving sailors and students – cycled more than 1,100 kilometres in just six days, following the escape routes taken by some of those involved in Operation Chariot.

The attack on the dock facilities in March 1942 was aimed at knocking them out to prevent the Germans using St Nazaire as a base for capital ships.

The attackers succeeded – ramming aged destroyer HMS Campbeltown into the dock gate, before vapourising her as German troops inspected the vessel.
Two thirds of the sailors and marines involved in the raid were killed or captured; others sought to escape through occupied France.

A small number of raid participants succeeded in reaching Gibraltar, having navigated their way through Nazi-occupied territory, crossed the Pyrenees and made it to the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula through neutral, but pro-German, Spain.

Among the escape routes followed was that taken by Lance Sergeant Arnold Howarth who, aided by a French family, made for Bordeaux initially but was captured by the police and spent the rest of the war in prison in Nice.

The cyclists were accompanied by historians to put the attempted and successful escapes in context, and allowed them to pay their respects to all those who took part in the raid, including placing a plaque in a Pyrenees mountain pass to acknowledge the sacrifices made by the escapers – and their helpers.

Lieutenant Saffron Davies, in charge of URNU Wales, said the Pyrenees posed a “formidable” challenge to the cyclists – just as they had to every serviceman striving for Gibraltar 80 years ago.

“We climbed numerous cols [mountain passes] – perhaps most famously the Col du Tourmalet and d'Aubisque, frequently used as climbs in the Tour de France and seen as some of the toughest around the world.

“Whether a seasoned cyclist and racing the clock or a novice on two wheels, each col represented a personal challenge and achievement.”

University Royal Naval Units – URNUs – give undergraduates a taste of life in the Royal Navy in more than a dozen cities across the UK.

The riders hoped their 1,150-kilometre ride – averaging 140km and climbing 3,000 metres daily – would raise £2,000 for the Royal Marines Charity in what is the 80th anniversary year both of Operation Chariot and the first Royal Marines Commandos being formed.

Despite their achievement, they are still a long way short of their financial target:


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