New royal frigate will be named for WW2 warship with Campbelltown connection

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England remembers Campbelltown.

And Campbelltown remembers the Campbeltown.

So, too, does the British Royal Navy, which is again honoring the valiant destroyer with a namesake ship.

Campbelltown – with the double “L” – is of course the community in southwestern Lebanon County, on the north side of South Londonderry Township. Campbeltown – with just the one “L” to its name – is a town (famous for its whisky) in Argyll and Bute, Scotland, near Campbeltown Loch on the Kintyre peninsula.

And then, of course, there’s the HMS Campbeltown, the ship that binds them together.

That ship, which exploded in a dramatic assault on a German shipyard during World War II, was honored when a second ship was named in her honor. Now, a third ship will bear the name — an unusual honor in Britain’s Royal Navy.

“The HMS Campbeltown is held in very high esteem by the Royal Navy because of the raid on St. Nazaire during World War II,” Steve Alger, a resident of Campbelltown and something of an expert on the ship and its history, explained. “It was the first major victory by the British over the Nazis.”

On the morning of March 28, 1942, the original destroyer ship HMS Campbeltown, packed with 8,500 pounds of explosives, rammed into the German-controlled port of St. Nazaire, France, causing a massive explosion and destroying a dock that was critically important for the German navy.

The ship was obliterated in the explosion, but the ship’s bell was saved and given to Campbelltown in 1950 in recognition of a special bond between the local town and the United Kingdom. Although it was loaned back to England for use on the second HMS Campbeltown, it was returned when that ship was retired from service.

The 30-pound bell is on display in the South Londonderry Township municipal building.

So, what’s the connection?

The original HMS Campbeltown was named as part of a destroyers-for-bases deal between the United States and the United Kingdom in September 1940. The U.S. had not yet entered World War II and, at the time, Britain stood alone against the forces of Hitler and Mussolini.

Under the agreement, 50 U.S. Navy destroyers were given to the Royal Navy in a trade for land rights on British possessions, rent free, to establish American naval and air bases in territories including Newfoundland, the Bahamas, Jamaica and Trinidad.

The ships bartered to England in the deal were Caldwell, Wickes, and Clemson-class destroyers, commonly known as “twelve hundred-ton type” ships or “flush-deckers.” Each was renamed for a town that shared a name in both the U.S. and U.K.

The HMS Campbeltown, originally the USS Buchanan, was obsolete and, like the other ships traded to England, was considered no great loss to the U.S. Navy. Built at the Bath Iron Works in Maine and launched in 1919, she had been placed into reserve in 1939.

HMS Campbeltown (Photo from Steve Alger’s collection)

Her entry into the Royal Navy was not auspicious. Following a month-long refit, the Campbeltown sustained damage after colliding with another ship during sea trials. After repairs, she struck and sank a British coastal trading vessel, then a few days later collided with another naval ship and required further repairs.

Over the next several months the ship was used primarily for escort and rescue missions, including a brief stint on loan to the Royal Netherlands Navy.

During repairs beginning in January 1942, the Campbeltown was selected for a vital mission, and the ship was pulled from service for special modifications.

“Operation Chariot”

The German battleship Tirpitz, which was an even heavier warship than her sister ship, the infamous Bismarck, was anchored the port of Trondheim, Norway. Allies feared the damage the Tirpitz could do if she entered the Atlantic and threatened vulnerable convoys. However, the British navy knew that the drydock on the Loire River at St. Nazaire was the only German-held facility on the European coast big enough to service the Tirpitz.

That made St. Nazaire a key target, since destroying the drydock meant the Tirpitz was unlikely to risk action in the Atlantic.

Operation Chariot was a plan to ram an explosive-laden warship into the dock gates. The Campbeltown was to be that ship.

As part of her modifications, the Campbeltown had two of her four funnels removed and the others realigned so she looked more like a German torpedo boat. The ship was lightened, and some guns and armor were added. Most vital to the mission, however, was more than four tons of high explosives fitted into steel tanks behind the forward gun mount.

With a crew reduced to 75 men, under the command of Lt.-Commander Stephen Beattie, the Campbeltown steamed from Devonport to Falmouth to join the flotilla that would accompany her on the mission — primarily smaller vessels carrying British commandos tasked with destroying machinery and infrastructure at the dock.

During a British air raid that served as a distraction, the small fleet made it within a mile of the harbor before the Germans began firing at them. The Campbeltown, the largest of the ships in the attack force, took heavy fire but, after hoisting the fighting ensign of the Royal Navy, the Campbeltown rammed the dock gate at 1:34 a.m. March 28, 1942.

“There were more Victoria Crosses given to the men who participated in that raid than Royal Navy men in any other battle,” Alger said. He noted, however, that the mission was planned well up to the point at getting the men to the target … “but extracting them was not well planned. Most of them were killed or captured.”

The commandos and ship’s crews landed after the collision and began destroying the dock infrastructure; of 611 attackers, 64 commandos and 105 sailors were killed, 215 were captured, 222 were evacuated on small boats, and five escaped and fled overland through France to Spain and British-held Gibraltar.

The Campbeltown, meanwhile, rested where it had crashed into the dock. Germans searched the ship but didn’t find the explosives, which went off at noon.

The blast ripped apart the front half of the ship, taking with it much of the dock and about 250 German soldiers and French civilians. The remaining drydock flooded after the explosion, and the facility wasn’t repaired until after the war was over.

A second Campbeltown

The ship’s bell initially resided in Campbeltown, Scotland, but in 1950 the memento was bequeathed to Campbelltown. According to a letter from then British consul-general H.C. McClelland, the gift was in thanks for the U.S.’s role in the lend-lease agreement.

For the next few decades, the bell was displayed outside Campbelltown Fire Company. Then, in 1982, the bell was returned briefly to Scotland for a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the St. Nazaire raid, returning to Pennsylvania the following year.

Read More: Eight decades after the HMS Campbeltown exploded in a strategic World War II raid, its bell resides peacefully in Campbelltown

Then, in 1988, the British navy asked for a two-decade loan of the bell — they wanted it to be installed on a new frigate, the Campbeltown‘s namesake, for its estimated 20-year active lifespan.

The second HMS Cambeltown. (Photo from Steve Alger’s collection)

The proposal was a contentious one. Some Campbelltown residents favored the idea, while others wanted the bell to stay where it was. Finally, the issue was decided at the ballot box, with townspeople voting to approve the loan.

The decision was made by a narrow margin of just five votes.

Alger entered the story in 1988, shortly before the second HMS Campbeltown was commissioned.

Steve Alger poses with Lucille Chryst and the famous HMS Campbeltown bell. (Photo from Steve Alger’s collection)

He served as a member of the local committee and was elected to take part in a commissioning ceremony in 1989. That started, for Alger, an ongoing fascination for both the ship and sister town.

“My wife and I have been over there many times, mostly because of our association with the bell,” he explained.

“I’ve been blessed to be associated with this,” he added. “Obviously I want the history of the bell to be curated and saved for posterity. … It’s important for my family, for the community and for the whole county.”

In fact, Alger was in for a little…

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