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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 surprise when he first got involved.
“My grandfather was on the committee when the original bell was brought over in 1950,” he said. “I never even knew that until 1988.”
According to a previous LebTown article, the second HMS Campbeltown led a less flashy career than its predecessor, often visiting Campbeltown in Scotland and docking in Philadelphia in 1992, when some Campbelltown residents were able to tour it. Prince Andrew served as the Campbeltown‘s flight commander from 1989 to 1991.
The second Campbeltown was decommissioned in 2011 and, in 2013, was consigned to the scrap heap. As promised, the bell was returned to Lebanon County after a brief stop in Campbeltown, Scotland.
At the time, Alger said, he was told by representatives of the Royal Navy “that we shouldn’t expect another HMS Campbeltown in our lifetime. It’s pretty rare that they rename a ship with that frequency.”
Never say never.
Third time’s the charm
The British Ministry of Defence announced in May the names of five next-generation Type-31 frigates for the Royal Navy. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Tony Radakin, said in a statement that the five ships, as approved by Queen Elizabeth II, will be HMS Active, HMS Bulldog, HMS Formidable, HMS Venturer and, yes, HMS Campbeltown.
The five vessels are known collectively as the Inspiration Class of ships, drawing their names “from former warships and submarines whose missions and history will inspire Royal Navy operations,” the statement explains.
Specifically, HMS Campbeltown symbolizes the “raiding from the sea” focus of the Royal Marines’ Future Commando Force, it says. Similarly, Active “signifies the forward deployment of Royal Navy ships to protect UK values and interests,” Bulldog “is focused on operational advantage in the North Atlantic,” Formidable “recognizes the history of aircraft carrier strike operations, and Venturer “promotes the navy’s technology and innovation forward-look.”
“Each of the names has been chosen for evoking those values we strive for: cutting-edge technology, audacity and global operations,” Radakin said. And, according to the statement, the ships “represent the best of Britain’s world-class shipbuilding heritage and will fly the flag for decades to come.”
The ships are expected to enter service by 2028. Each will carry a crew of up to 105 and will be deployed on duties around the world, working alongside new Type-26 frigates dedicated to submarine detection operations.
The new vessels are being built by Babcock at its dockyard in Rosyth, with the first steel cuts taking place this past summer.
Although HMS Active is named after a frigate used in the Falklands, the others all took their names from World War II-era ships: two destroyers, a carrier and a submarine. The Campbeltown, according to the release, is named after the wartime destroyer which led the “greatest commando raid of all.”
What happens to the bell now?
What the new ship means for the future of that bell remains a mystery, however.
Alger noted that he and his wife Susan are planning a trip to England next March “to participate in the 80th anniversary of the St. Nazaire raid.”
During the 75th anniversary, which he also attended, Alger said he was introduced to Prince Philip, who was at the time the Royal Patron of the St. Nazaire Society.
“This occurred immediately before it was announced that he was retiring from public duties,” Alger said.
The St. Nazaire Society, Alger noted, was once made up of survivors of the raid and their family members. Now, only relatives and associates remain, he said; the last survivor died of COVID-19.
“My wife and I, every five years, try to go back to London for the St. Nazaire Society. There’s a luncheon they hold around the date of the attack,” he said.
If all things go according to plan, my wife and I are hoping next March to go to the St. Nazaire luncheon — that will be the 80th — and then take an extended vacation through the UK, Scotland and maybe into Ireland,” he added. “That may be on our itinerary, to stop by the shipyard where they’ll be building it.”
There hasn’t yet been any communication from England with regards to the bell, but Alger said the subject still could come up.
“I suspect there will be some involvement between Campbeltown, Scotland, and Campbelltown, Pennsylvania, because of the bell,” he said. “I hope we don’t have the circumstances that we got involved with in 1988. … I hope the precedent was set that we don’t have to go through another vote.”
If the Royal Navy asks for the bell’s use again, he said, he “certainly hopes” the townspeople of Campbelltown will comply.
“I hope there isn’t any reluctance,” he said.
What about Campbeltown?
Besides his fondness for the ship, its namesakes and its history, Alger said he’s also gotten quite attached to the Scottish town that there’s the name.
While Campbelltown sits in rural surroundings, Campbeltown is a fishing village, with a half-moon harbor cluttered with little fishing boats, and ferry service to Glasgow, he said.
Another claim to fame, besides the famous ship, is a Beatle; Sir Paul McCartney bought a farm outside of the town early in his career, and he spent a lot of time there with his late wife Linda and their children, Alger said.
The connection between two disparate towns and the ship named for them is precious to Alger.
“I consider myself blessed to be associated with HMS Campbeltown,” he said. “And Campbelltown should feel proud of our affiliation with the historical events surrounding the HMS Campbeltown.”
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