USS Buchanan (DD 131)

USS Buchanan, BIW Hull 78, launched on Jan. 2, 1919 and delivered 18 days later, was one of 11 Wickes and Clemson class “flush deck” destroyers built at BIW during the World War I era.  But it would be World War II when Hull 78 was the centerpiece of a daring scheme to hobble the Nazi fleet.

The “flush deck” class, numbering 273 ships in all, formed the bulk of the US destroyer force between the wars. Displacing around 1,200 tons, Buchanan was armed with four 4-inch guns and a heavy battery of twelve 21-inch torpedoes.

Joining the fleet just as hostilities concluded, Buchanan saw typical peacetime service, initially assigned to San Diego and cruising with the Pacific Fleet. With a surplus of war-built destroyers available, Buchanan was placed in reserve from 1922 to 1930 then alternated between active service and periods in reserve from 1930 to 1939.

Buchanan’s career took a more interesting turn in late 1939, when she transferred to the Atlantic Fleet and joined the Neutrality Patrol. This assignment saw the destroyer patrolling off the U.S. East Coast to protect U.S. interests and report the location of combatant ships before the United States entered WWII.

In late August 1940, with the United Kingdom in dire need of additional warships, the US and British governments concluded a bases-for-destroyers deal. In exchange for 50 old “flush deck” destroyers, the US received land to build naval and air bases in Canada and other British possessions in the Americas. Buchanan was among the ships to be transferred, and she immediately sailed for Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she was decommissioned and transferred to the Royal Navy on September 9, 1940.

Upon recommissioning as HMS Campbeltown, the old destroyer was assigned to patrol and convoy escort duties, including a period assigned to the Royal Netherlands Navy. Late in 1941 she was selected for her final mission, a bold raid on the German-held port of St. Nazaire, France. The audacious plan called for the destroyer to ram the gates of the largest drydock on the German-controlled Atlantic coast, to prevent its use by the Germans. By eliminating a critical repair facility, the British hoped to deter convoy raiding expeditions by German warships including the powerful battleship Tirpitz.

For this risky mission Campbeltown was modified to resemble a German torpedo boat, and her bow was packed with explosives. On the night of March 26, 1942, the destroyer and a flotilla of small craft boldly sailed into the port of St. Nazaire, bluffing their way past German harbor defenses. In the final minutes, as the Germans opened fire on the flotilla, the Campbeltown accelerated to full speed and rammed directly into the drydock gates.

With timers set on the explosives aboard Campbeltown, commandos scrambled ashore to attack other facilities in the port, and her crew began a risky escape by small craft. The explosives packed into the old destroyer finally detonated the next day, demolishing the drydock gates, putting the dock out of action for the remainder of the war. Campbeltown was destroyed as well, and her remains lay in the drydock for months afterwards.

The raid succeeded, though at the cost of 169 British sailors and commandos killed and 215 captured. The feared battleship Tirpitz never sailed to attack convoys, and remained hidden in Norwegian fjords until it was ultimately destroyed by British bombers.