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Farewell to last hero of St Nazaire World War II Raid

Wolverhampton | News | Published:

A war hero who was the last surviving member of 'The Greatest Raid of All' has died aged 95.

John Rafferty, of Coven, near Wolverhampton, served as a Royal Navy mechanic during the St Nazaire Raid of March 28, 1942, during which he was captured by the Nazis and kept as a prisoner of war for more than three years.

Operation Chariot saw the British disguise the redundant destroyer HMS Campbeltown as a Swastika-emblazoned German warship and pack it with explosives in a ploy to blow up the key German-occupied port in Normandy.

The then 21-year-old chief petty officer John Rafferty was aboard the ML177, a support vessel whose mission was to take the raiders home.

The attack was successful with Campbeltown careering into the docks and delayed-action explosives erupting several hours later in a bang which could be heard 50 miles away. It rendered the docks useless for the rest of the war.

But the Germans opened fire on the 19-strong British fleet, killing 169 of the 611 sailors and capturing 215 - including CPO Rafferty, who was the last person off his boat along with Lieutenant-Commander Stephen Beattie.

John would spend the remainder of the war as a PoW at the Marlag und Milag Nord camp in Germany, although his family were initially told he was dead.

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The battle, that saw a record five Victoria Crosses awarded, has become known as the Greatest Raid of All Time.

Daughter Kathleen Watton, 67, who now lives in Ireland, said her father gradually opened up about his time in the war as the years wore on.

John Alan Hamilton's oil painting of the 1942 raid shows the horror of the battle

She told the Express & Star: "When I was younger he never discussed the war. It was gone. He didn't want to mention it.

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"But when he did start talking about it in the later years he said it was a big adventure. It was all exciting.

"He just passed it off.

"But in later years he had quite a few bad nightmares relating to the war.

HMS Campbeltown was rammed into the Normandie Dock gates at Saint-Nazaire in 1942

"We went down to one of the commemorations with him and he told me what had been on his mind.

"A lot of his friends had been killed and when he ended up a prisoner of war he felt very lonely, because he was in with a load of commandos.

"His mother had been told that he was missing and presumed dead.

"For a long time she didn't know he was a prisoner of war. She thought she had lost him and had a shock when she found out he was alive."

Of the 600 Royal Navy men and commandos who set off, 169 were killed and 215 captured

After the war John, a keen artist, studied at the London College of Arts before going on to work as an electrician for Contractor Switchgear in Wolverhampton. He then became landlord at the Roebuck Inn in Horseley Fields.

Before retiring he worked as a caretaker at Highfields School in the city.

He had married in 1946 to wife Hilda who passed away several years ago.

As well as Kathleen, John also raised his step-daughter Shirley from the age of six, and had two grandchildren, and four great grandchildren.

Since November he resided at Springfield House care home in Codsall but for the last 15 years he lived at School Lane in Coven which is where he became good friends with neighbour Roy Wheatley, 80, who saw him on a daily basis and carried out everyday duties for the former Navy man.

He said: "People in the village, or even in the same street, didn't know what he had done for them.

"I didn't know to begin with until I saw a photograph of him and remarked on that. He told me a little bit about what he did but not going into a great deal of detail.

"He said to me regarding the raid 'We were the AA of the Navy, we went in to rescue the boats but unfortunately got caught as well',

"To John it happened yesterday. It had gone. That was John for you.

"I think it is very important that people know what he did.

"I have been looking after John since Hilda died.

"I will certainly miss him. It was a privilege to have known him."

Niece Maureen Lloyd, of Coseley, also paid tribute.

She said: "When I was told what he had done, I was flabbergasted. I couldn't believe he had gone through so much.

"He was just such a lovely man.

"He was very loyal and went to every commemoration right up until when he physically couldn't go anymore."

John passed away in hospital from pneumonia on Sunday, April 17.

His funeral will take place at St Paul's Church in Coven at 10am on Monday, May 9.

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