WAREHAM, England — Robert Ryder, who won the Victoria Cross for leading British naval forces in a daring 1942 commando raid on a German base at St. Nazaire in occupied France, died Sunday aboard a yacht in the English Channel. He was 78.
Harbor authorities at Wareham said the retired captain was sailing to Brittany with two other former Royal Navy officers on the yacht Watchdog when he became ill and his companions radioed distress signals. A French helicopter lowered a doctor to the yacht, 16 miles off Guernsey, but he found Ryder dead of an apparent heart attack.
In 1942, the Germans had turned St. Nazaire on the French Atlantic coast into a heavily fortified base for warships and submarines. To prevent the dry docks from being used by the formidable battleship Tirpitz, Ryder led an assault in which the destroyer Campbeltown, packed with explosives, sailed undetected up the Loire River, rammed the lock gates and blew up. The Campbeltown had once been the U.S. destroyer Buchanan.
The commandos suffered heavy losses, with many killed or captured, but Ryder got back to England on a gunboat. His Victoria Cross, Britain's highest decoration for bravery, was one of five awarded for the raid.
Ryder, called "Red" because of the initials of his three given names, Robert Edward Dudley, was a Conservative member of Parliament from 1950 to 1955 and a successful businessman. He occasionally joined shooting parties with Prince Philip, husband of Queen Elizabeth II and also a former navy officer.