Attack on the Iron Coast (1968)




Director:  Paul Wendkos.

Starring:  Lloyd Bridges (Maj. James Wilson), Andrew Keir (Capt. Owen Franklin), Sue Lloyd (Sue Wilson), Mark Eden (Lt. Cmdr. Donald Kimberly), Maurice Denham (Sir Frederick Grafton), Glyn Owen (Lt. Forrester), Howard Pays (Lt. Graham), Walter Gotell (Van Horst), John Welsh (Adm. Lord Cansley), George Mikell (Capt. Strasser), Ernest Clark (A.V.M. Woodbridge), Dick Haydon (Pringle).

British raid on large ship dock at St. Nazaire, France, March 28, 1942


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Canadian Major James Wilson watches film footage of the British fighting the Germans.  It shows a lot of the British being killed and having to retreat.  His assistant asks if Wilson wants him to stop the film, but he tells him to go on.  He watches for a little while longer and then has it shut off.  He says that La Plage was his baby and "I went wrong."   But, he says, it won't happen again.  He'll makes the next one go right. 

Major Wilson celebrates his birthday with his family and friends.  The male guests are military men too and they are soon talking shop.  Captain Franklin says that Operation Mad Dog is under heavy attack.  The Major already knows that.  He says they will just have to wait and see what happens at the meeting tomorrow. 

At the meeting one man, Captain Franklin, says that Operation Mad Dog is a lunatic operation. Wilson says that they have gotten a great deal of new information from the French resistance and now they have a very revealing picture of Le Claire's overall defense plan.   Franklin brings up La Plage again saying that 390 of 500 men were killed in a matter of minutes.  Wilson insists that it would be madness not to attack Le Claire.  As long as the port there is in business, German warships can be refitted, refueled and repaired in almost complete safety.  And that means more loss of thousands of tons of cargo meant for the war effort against the Germans. 

Wilson takes a look at the training for the Canadian commandos.  Franklin tells Lt. Cmdr. Kimberly that they've got to stop this operation.  Kimberly says it won't be easy stopping a dedicated man like Wilson. 

Wilson arrives home.  His wife gets him a strong drink.  The next day he helps train the commandos again.  Later, talking with Kimberly, Wilson asks where are the ships and equipment he ordered three weeks ago?  Supplies are tight these days.  Kimberly gets a telephone call from Franklin's office saying that Wilson's equipment will be in tomorrow.  When Wilson sees the ship he is getting, he is furious.  He tells Capt. Franklin and Kimberly that it is a garbage scow and is unacceptable.  He says that Franklin is deliberately trying to scuttle the mission because he lost his son in the La Plage operation.  And he even knocks his friend Kimerly down in his tirade against those working against him. 

When the Admiral comes down Wilson says he was promised a destroyer, two escorts and torpedo boats.  The Admiral thinks that Franklin has done well considering the situation and circumstances.  He himself has been unable to get from the RAF a firm commitment for the air support for the operation.  The Admiral tells Wilson that they are going over, unless Wilson himself cancels the operation.  Wilson is not about to do that, so he takes what he's been given. 

More training exercises and even ones under simulated battle conditions complete with explosions.  One commando is hurt and Kimberly rushes to save the man, but both men are hit by another explosion.   Kimberly's eyes have been affected while the commando dies from his wounds.  At night Wilson has nightmares about what happened.  He tells his wife that all of a sudden he is scared and wonders if he should have such power of life and death over the lives of others.  

Wilson comes under fire for the large number of dead and wounded commandos that have occurred under the training involving simulated battle conditions.  But it is Kimberly, now with bandages covering both eyes and his head, who defends Wilson.  He says that for every man they lose here in training, ten will survive at Le Claire.  He says:  "It's the price you pay for success."  Franklin says the operation should be postponed until Kimberly can lead it.  Wilson says the operation has to go off in six days or not at all.  And there is a rumor that the Ostwind will be in port on the assault day.  If the ship is there, they can wipe out one of Germany's largest battleships.  Kimberly suggests that Franklin replace him, but Franklin wants no part of it.  The Admiral, however, wants this operation and says Franklin will take Kimberly's place.  After the meeting, Wilson expresses his gratitude for Kimberly's essential support. 

The boats leave for the coast of France.  Wilson and Franklin communicate but it's not smooth.  Later Wilson asks Franklin for a truce, but Franklin only says he's not at war with the major.  The radar man picks up a signal and reports contact.  Aircraft closing fast.  Gun crews are ordered to hold fire until ordered to fire.  The German plane opens up on the boats and the boats open up with their guns.  Finished, the plane leaves.  The captain orders cease-fire. 

At Le Claire it's a normal night.  A messenger arrives.  Oberst is given the message:  "Coastal air patrol reports enemy minesweeper and escort intercepted at Red 4-7-1, course due east."  Another officer says that this is just the regular British routine.  But this is part of the British plan.  They want the Germans to think that the Mad Dog Operation is just another routine operation. 

The Captain announces that they have reached the halfway point.  Wilson then tells the commandos that their target is Le Claire, the German fleet's most vital and important installation on the French coast.  The bow of the mine sweeper is packed with high explosives like a floating torpedo.  They intend to drive right into the dry dock gates, but the ship will not explode on contact.  The men have five minutes time to get off the ship before it explodes.  The commandos will seek and destroy secondary targets.   After their mission is accomplished the men will be picked up by the launch boats.  If they miss the boats, then the commandos are to proceed to points Freddie, Charlie, Baker, their French underground contacts. 

The RAF reports to the Admiral that they have had heavy losses over Dusseldorf tonight.  The result is:  "The squadrons assigned to Mad Dog are not even respectable scrap."  The Admiral is worried for the men of the Mad Dog Operation.  Franklin receives a message that air support is unavailable and Mad Dog must be canceled.  His answer is:  "No reply."  With no reply, the Admiral sends out another message.  This one demands that they acknowledge the first message and cancel the operation.  Wilson is there when this second message arrives.  He takes it and hurries out to see Franklin.  Wilson wants to know why they have canceled the operation and why Franklin doesn't have a thing to say about it.  Frank replies that being closer to death has made him think.  Wilson did not kill his son.  He wants to complete the mission.  And that, of course, is music to Wilson's ears. 

Wilson double checks with Franklin that the ship's timing clock will perform correctly.  Franklin tells Wilson that with any luck the ship will be crawling with inquisitive Germans when she explodes.  They set the clock.  In exactly 60 minutes the ship will explode.  The commandos start putting on their black-face. 

A report comes into headquarters of an unidentified patrol along Battery D.  Herr Oberst starts getting concerned and wants his soldiers to find out what kind of launches are with them.  The German communications men at Battery D challenge the minesweeper.  The British stall by asking them to repeat the message.  Then they stall again by giving "Whitehall 1-2-1-2" as their identification code.  Oberst recognizes it as the telephone number of Scotland Yard. 

Franklin gives the command to deploy.  Oberst gives the command to sound the general alarm and send the message that all batteries are to engage the enemy.  Franklin tells Wilson that he has released the launches and they are on their way.  Just as the sirens start blowing, the commandos starting off-loading onto the docks.  They immediately start killing the sentries.  Then the gun firing starts.   B Battery is under attack.  Franklin gets the report that British aircraft are on their way in.  The Admiral gets the message that RAF reports seeing Mad Dog approximately three miles from target.     

The German big guns start landing shells very near the minesweeper.  On the docks a lot of casualties are being taken by both sides.  The minesweeper catches fire and the bridge is rocked by the shell explosions.  The mine sweeper is now taking a real beating, but the ship is now close to its target.  And they are soon coming in under the German guns.  They are now below the maximum depression of the German artillery.  The commandos start knocking out some of the German artillery.  Franklin shouts out:  "Stand by for ramming!"  The men below deck are ready to go.  The boat rams into its target.  The commandos onboard start pouring out onto the docks.  Oberst doesn't understand why the enemy ship rammed into the dock.  Don't the British realize that such an action can not harm the huge dry dock that has been stricken?  He gives the order to remove it. 

Wilson double checks on the minesweeper's clock.  He sees that one of the cables has snapped somewhere and he wants to find out where, but the ship is hit again and Wilson is knocked to the floor with lots of debris on top of him.  The Germans start arriving to check out the minesweeper.  There are only a few minutes remaining before the minesweeper explodes.  Franklin says he is going to go back to the wheelhouse to check on Wilson.  But Franklin is wounded and captured.  It's up to Wilson to fix the cable connection.  Franklin is marched over to headquarters for interrogation.  Germans start crawling over the minesweeper.  An officer sees Wilson working on the cables and fires at him.  But Wilson makes the connection and the minesweeper explodes with a ball of fire.   

Most of the Germans at headquarters are knocked to the ground as the blast rocks the building.  Just at this time the commandos break into the main office and start mowing down everyone except for Franklin.  Outside of headquarters, Franklin sees the wonderful sight of the docks burning wildly.  He gives the command to fire the signal for the men to retire.  Up goes the flare.  Wilson's assistant in command, Lt. Graham, says:  "It worked this time, Jamie." 


Good action film.  Great fight scenes at the end.  And with a good story!  And this one has no love story, which is rather unusual.  Lloyd Bridges as Maj. James Wilson and Andrew Keir as Capt. Owen Franklin were both excellent in their acting.  You could really feel Franklin's resentment of and anger at Wilson for allegedly killing his son in a badly planned raid. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

Historical Background:


1924-1928  --  a large dock was built at St. Nazaire, France to accommodate the Normandie liner; it was sometimes referred to as the Normandie Dock.

1942 (early) Ė the German U-Boat raids on transatlantic shipping threatened Britainís supply of food and arms.

The British planned a Commando and Naval Forces raid on the dry docks at St. Nazaire, France.  The forces were under the auspices of Louis Mountbatten's Combined Operations. 

"Normandie" Dock was defended by about 1,000 troops, with around 5,000 military personnel in the town. In fact, the German defenses at St. Nazaire were considered the second toughest in western France (after Brest). 

The former flush decked WWI Destroyer Campbeltown (originally the Buchanan of the US Navy) was converted to look like a German "E-Boat."  Additional support for the raid consisted of sixteen launches, one motor gunboat and one torpedo boat. The number of men involved in the raid was 611.  An air attack would provide a diversion for the raid. 

1942 (March 26)  --  the ships left Falmouth. 

1942 (March 28)  --   commencement of Operation Chariot.  The Campbeltown was loaded with explosives, and rammed into the "Normandie" dry dock. 

The dock was severely damaged and could not be used until 1947.

The British lost 169 killed with about 200 captured, while the Germans had 42 killed and 127 wounded.

The daring raid lifted Britainís morale.  Five Victoria Crosses were awarded, the largest number ever awarded for a single action:

1)  Commander R.E.D Ryder VC, RN, MGB 314

2)  Lieutenant - Commander S.H Beattie VC, RN Cambletown;

3)  Lieutenant - Colonel A.C (Charles) Newman VC, 2 Commando;

4)  Sergeant T.F (Tommy) Durrant VC, 1 Commando, posthumously awarded for his manning a Lewis machinegun during a fight between the launch he was on and the pursuing German destroyer Jaguar; and

5)  Able Seaman W.A (Bill) Savage VC, MGB 314

1942 (March 30)  --  as expected, the explosive charges dropped by MTB 74 at the lock gates finally detonated.



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