Excerpt from Tragedy at Dieppe

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Tragedy At Dieppe, Mark Zuehlke

Chapter 18: Murderous Crossfire
“It is vital to the success of the operation as a whole that White and Red Beaches be in our hands with minimal delay,” Operation Jubilee’s military plan had asserted. The beach facing Dieppe was about a mile long. White Beach stretched a half mile from the western headland, with Red Beach then extending east to the harbour mouth. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry was to capture White Beach, the Essex Scottish Red Beach. A first flight of nine Calgary Regiment tanks would land alongside the infantry assault wave. Detachments of signallers, engineer assault teams, and ordnance and provost personnel tasked with assisting the engineers were also included. The engineers were carrying ashore large amounts of equipment and explosives to “clear the necessary beach roadways and remove obstacles to enable the tanks to enter the town.” Touchdown was slated for 0520 hours, immediately following an “intense direct bombardment by four destroyers and Locust.” Between 0515 and 0525, five cannon-firing Hurricane squadrons would repeatedly strafe the beachfront.

As the landing craft headed shoreward, Lieutenant Colonel Bob Labatt realized his earlier misgivings about the operation had “completely disappeared. We were launched upon a daring expedition—undoubtedly the most hazardous operation ever undertaken by Canadian troops,” the Riley commander wrote. “I was elated to think that we had been amongst those chosen to carry it out. I was pleased to realize that I was not scared.” The men around him in the LCA sat with “gas capes slipped on back to front as a protection against the spray. There was no false bravado. They talked in low voices, checking over their various tasks in the coming operation.”

As the sky lightened, Labatt discerned “vegetation and buildings showing black on top of white cliffs. Soon we were able to pick out landmarks made familiar by previous study of the model. We were headed dead for our beach, the piece of black horizon between the West Cliff and the Eastern Heights. We kept steadily on. The light became better and soon the buildings of the town showed up.” Labatt’s LCA made directly for the casino, with the other landing craft formed alongside in line. “The sea presented an inspiring picture. Hundreds of small craft heading for the land with fast support boats zigzagging well ahead—and astern the large tank carriers pushing up milk white cushions under their square bows. Everything was deathly quiet on the beach… Suddenly there was a roar overhead and a flight of hurricanes swept low over the water and attacked the buildings immediately ahead with M.G. and cannon fire. Flashes of flame ran up and down the esplanade as the bursts exploded… It was all over quickly, too quickly. The men who had been standing up to watch… were disappointed. ‘Is that all?’ they asked.” The landing craft were about five hundred yards from shore and had not yet been fired on.

As the beach became visible, Captain Denis Whitaker realized things were “terribly wrong. Everything was intact! We expected a town shattered by the RAF’s saturation bombing the previous night. We thought we would see a lot of damage to the seafront buildings from the shelling. There was no sign of bombing. The window panes were glittering, unbroken, in the reflections of the sun’s first rays.”

Fellow Riley Lieutenant Lou Counsell and his No. 16 Platoon of ‘D’ Company “were all a little disappointed by the smallness of the air support… the fighter attack seemed to be over in a moment.” Bafflingly, only senior regimental officers knew there would be no saturation bombing of Dieppe and had not passed this information down to junior officers. On seeing “no evidence of bomb damage as they landed,” Counsell said later, “you felt let down.”

Signaller Private Alf Collingdon was in Counsell’s lca. Pointing out the castle on the headland, he asked, “Sir, are you going to be king of the castle when we take it?”

“You can bet on it,” Counsell replied, “but we’re going to have to get there first!”

Observing from Calpe, Captain John Hughes-Hallett thought the air support and fire from destroyers “appeared to be as effective as could be expected.”Albrighton, Bleasdale, Berkeley, and Garth had begun shooting at 0515 hours. American Brigadier Lucien Truscott, on Fernie as an observer, was surprised by “the relative ineffectiveness of the 4-inch destroyer guns.” A naval officer nearby said they had known “such support was inadequate, but that it was the only solution possible since cruisers could not be risked in such restricted waters.”

Fifty-eight Hurricanes mounting four 20-millimetre cannons each carried out the strafing attack. The first thirty-four-strong wave targeted light-gun positions, and the pilots reported shells striking “gun-posts, buildings and wireless masts.” Both headlands were wreathed in thick smoke clouds as the destroyers fired smoke shells and smoke-laying aircraft swept in. More smoke roiled along the beach. While the smoke provided protective cover for the Hurricanes, it also prevented the pilots from targeting specific machine-gun or artillery positions. So they just wildly strafed the beach and buildings behind. Anti-aircraft fire was immediate and intense, hitting seven Hurricanes. Flight Sergeant Stirling David Banks, a nineteen-year-old RCAF pilot from Prince Edward Island serving in RAF’s No. 3 Squadron, was struck by heavy flak. Last seen “trying desperately to ditch on the sea,” he died in the crash. After two strafing runs, the leading squadrons broke for home. The two following squadrons attacked anti-aircraft batteries on the western headland, but due to smoke and poor light were unable to gauge the damage caused. Five Hurricanes failed to return from the attack.

None of the supporting fire hindered the waiting Germans. From an observation post alongside the western headland’s castle, Dieppe’s naval port commandant saw the artillery and machine-gun positions cease firing blindly the moment the fighters departed. They now switched to observed fire “on the transports,” which had now “become visible.”

***

“Suddenly all hell broke loose.” No. 2 Provost Company’s Corporal Bob Prouse aboard LCT5 saw “mortar shells… exploding all around us… As we drew closer the Navy gunner… handling the Bofors gun suddenly disappeared in a puff of smoke.” Essex Scottish private Stanley Carley’s hell started “two hundred yards from the beach [with] a terrific amount of machine-gun fire and artillery… being sent at us.”

“They greeted us not only with M.G. fire, but also mortars and anti-tank and infantry guns from concrete emplacements along the seawall. The surface of the water was hidden by spray,” Lieutenant Colonel Labatt wrote. “The towers of the casino loomed above us. We could see them firing from the upper windows and gun emplacements on the ground floor level. I shouted to [Captain Denis Whitaker] to get busy with the Bren and everyone else to prepare to move. Gas capes were thrown under foot and the Mae Wests deflated. Whitaker had time to get off two mags from the Bren before we touched down.”

“Where was that weak demoralized enemy with puny weapons that we had been told was defending the town?” Whitaker wondered. “Dieppe was a fortress, and the Germans were obviously ready and waiting.”

Lieutenant Fred Woodcock, commanding No. 17 Platoon of ‘D’ Company, was in the LCA landing closest to the western headland and under intense fire from positions around the castle and casino. He thought it “unbelievable that anyone survived.” Woodcock yelled at Private W.A. Korenblum, “Take the Bren.” Korenblum “fired a clip at the flashes on the cliff… Then we were hit. The Bangalore torpedoes exploded among the toggle ropes and grappling irons. I only remember the sound, because I was blinded. The boat filled with water and I was soon up to my neck. I couldn’t hear at all after that for a long while, but later there were faraway noises as if I were listening to something over a very poor connection on a long distance phone call. It seemed that my limbs wouldn’t move. I wanted to brush the blood from my eyes, and I couldn’t. Then, a long time later, I would feel something touching my face and I realized that it was my hand.” Only Woodcock, blinded for life, and Korenblum survived. The rest of No. 17 Platoon died before landing.

The first landing craft reached White Beach at 0520 hours and Red Beach three minutes later. Lieutenant Commander Colin McMullen, responsible for navigation, reported none of the LCAs or LCMs sunk on the approach.

“The keel grated, the ramp swung down,” and the Rileys “surged out” behind Labatt. “Drinks—Newhaven—tonight,” the LCA captain shouted, as Labatt passed. “There was a momentary lull in the firing as we touched down, then it opened up again with terrific intensity.”

Thirty-five Rileys and eight 7th Field Company engineers piled out of one LCM. Despite the rain of fire, engineer Sergeant George Hickson calmly assessed the casino’s defences. The Germans had recently begun demolishing the three-storey white building to create a large strongpoint amid its ruins. But so far only the southwest corner had been torn down. The strongpoint’s defences were, however, well advanced.

A 40-millimetre rapid-fire gun was concealed by a heavy pillbox directly in front of the casino, and a heavy gun in a solidly constructed emplacement anchored the northwest corner. Two machine guns fired from either flank of the casino. The northeast corner was guarded by a large sandbagged emplacement. East of the casino, just back of the promenade, was a very large, low building. Aerial photographs had failed to reveal its purpose, but Hickson saw now that it housed at least one anti-tank gun and numerous machine guns. All around Hickson, men were falling or already lay dead on the rocks. Fire seemed to be coming from every which way. Hickson ran for two dense wire obstacles fronting the casino, which was where his “Hicks Party” of engineers and thirty-five Rileys were to rendezvous. They would then push into the town to destroy the post office’s telephone exchange, blast its safe and loot any documents found, and then rig a torpedo dump under the eastern headland for demolition. Hickson already knew this tidy scheme was doomed.

***

“The instant we jumped from our boats… we were… swept with a murderous crossfire, which took a heavy toll of our ranks,” ‘C’ Company’s Private J. Johnston reported. “We raced to the first wire entanglements and threw ourselves flat. We crawled under the wire and made a dash for a low brick wall which was three bricks high. We then returned the fire which was still intense.”

Private Herb Prince realized “the German sniper is a real specialist. They are wonderful shots and go for the officers and NCOs. We found that they are mostly all planted on roofs or in very high buildings… The Germans seemed able to lay down mortar bombs where they damn well pleased.” Having only just gained the wall, his ‘C’ Company platoon had its officer wounded and all NCOs killed. Company commander Major C.G. Pirie crawled over to Prince “and told us to stay put.”

‘D’ Company was shredded. The company was to have consolidated next to some houses at the western headland’s base, and it was towards those that Lieutenant Lou Counsell had led No. 18 Platoon. Counsell saw two wide gaps in the wire obstacle ahead. Unaware that none of the beach was mined, he warned his men to keep clear of the gaps and instead began opening a path with wire cutters. Corporal Percy Haines joined Counsell. While they were cutting, Haines heard Counsell yell to him. “I went over… and found he was wounded. I put a dressing on the wound. While I was doing that he got another in the hip, so I told him we would have to move. I helped him back to the water’s edge. On the way back he got hit a third time. I then got dressings on all wounds and told him to lie quiet, while I went for a stretcher… On the way I received a shrapnel wound in the shoulder and before I could get back to Lieutenant Counsell I was all battered up myself.”

Captain Jimmy Brown, meanwhile, had been knocked down by a bullet in the side when he tried to reach the gap Counsell had started. Private Alf Collingdon tumbled behind a low shingle ridge nearby and looked around to see his two fellow signallers from ‘D’ Company—Private Stanley Chadwick and Corporal Clarence Foster—lying dead. Also dead was ‘D’ Company commander Captain Bud Bowery. Company Sergeant Major H.E. Bell, face slashed by shrapnel, crouched close to Collingdon. Private Tod Sullivan simply sat down, dazed, blood streaming from a head wound. ‘D’ Company was effectively finished.

To the left of ‘D’ Company, ‘B’ Company had charged straight for the casino. Slipping and sliding in the loose rock, Captain George Matchett got halfway there before a machine-gun burst killed him.

Lieutenant Jack Halladay and Major Frederick Wilkinson, the battalion’s second-in-command, reached a shale ridge facing the casino and began shooting at a nearby pillbox. Wilkinson was shot in the shoulder and fell wounded. Halladay crawled ahead to the seawall and hunkered with some ‘B’ Company men. Germans in the casino chucked grenades at them. Private Harvey Dicus was killed, and several men, including Halladay and Lieutenant Johnny Webster, were wounded. After having his arm and leg wounds bandaged, Halladay crawled along the seawall to find ‘B’ Company’s commander. Halladay saw Major Norry Waldron—he of the Groucho Marx moustache, who had been the bane of all Rileys during training—walking calmly along, about twenty yards away. Suddenly, a sniper’s bullet struck and killed Waldron. Spotting the sniper in a casino window, Halladay fired a Sten burst that sent the man sprawling out of sight.

Spotting some ‘B’ Company Rileys trying to knock out a machine gun firing from the top corner of the tobacco factory, Halladay went down to the tide line, where a 3-inch mortar crew was set up. He pointed out the target, but each time the mortar fired, its base slipped in the loose rock and the round was thrown astray. After several failed shots, the crew abandoned the mortar and crawled towards the seawall. On the way, the mortar team leader, Sergeant William Joseph Bennett, and two men were killed by fire from a hidden machine gun to their left. Lieutenant John Counsell of ‘C’ Company’s No. 14 Platoon was wounded. Shrapnel wounded Halladay again in the arm and leg, rendering him incapable of crawling up the sloping beach. He instead found cover behind a low hump of tide-piled rocks.

Lieutenant Colonel Labatt, meanwhile, saw a “terrific fight” developing in front of the casino and “scrambled towards it. To stand up on that beach meant instant death. Halfway through the wire I stuck, the strands above me thrumming like banjo strings as they were hit. This wire was on the crest of a roll on the beach and while very exposed, it commanded an excellent view. From a hollow just ahead a section was firing like mad at the pillbox [fifteen yards] ahead [and on the casino’s northeast corner]. Then I noticed one lone man worming his way through the jungle of wire surrounding the emplacement. He reached it, then having pulled the pin from a grenade, he stood up and shoved it through a loophole. Without waiting he rushed around to the back and seconds later I saw his helmet being jerked up and down on the end of his bayonet as a sign of victory.” Private Hugh McCourt was quickly joined by his platoon section and led them into the casino. Within a few minutes, however, the twenty-one-year-old from Eganville, Ontario, was killed.

Lieutenant Johnny Webster and Corporal C.W. Cox managed to blow a gap in the wire that enabled a handful of men through. One of these, Corporal P. Sandy of No. 12 Platoon, saw a pillbox full of Germans about ten feet away. The platoon sergeant and Corporal T. Wilkinson “were closest to the pillbox and they each dropped 36 grenades which temporarily stopped the fire from this point. Just beyond the pillboxes, against the Casino, near the corner, was a round barricade… of sandbags. There was no roof over it. By this time at least seven of the boys were either dead or dying. I made a dive into the sandbag position where Lieutenant Webster, Privates Wheeler and Addis and about six men were. Lieutenant Webster’s legs were pretty badly shot up from shrapnel. Private Wheeler had got the fingers of his left hand shot off while aiming a Bren. Private Addis had a wound near the left eye. Private [Harry] Minnett had a wound on the left side of his mouth.” The men regrouped and snuck along the seaward wall until they ducked into the casino. They found it jammed with remnants of the entire battalion.

‘B’ Company had been blocked by a pillbox containing a machine gun that “practically wiped out No. 11 Platoon,” Corporal T. Wilkinson recalled. “It was quite impossible to get near the casino as long as this pillbox was in operation as it was [able] to sweep the beach with fire. We therefore put smoke over a low wall behind which we were taking cover. Private [Harry] Wichtacz went over the wall, around the back of the pillbox and placed in it a bangalore torpedo, destroying the pillbox and its crew of 14 Germans. This brave and hazardous operation opened up the way for the advance on the… casino.” Wichtacz “was hit by a burst of machine-gun fire which later necessitated the amputation of his leg.” He would be awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery.

Captain Tony Hill and Company Sergeant Major Jack Stewart had been pinned down with about fourteen ‘B’ Company men in a hollow of shingle. “We had better get out of here,” Hill shouted, and led a dash to the casino. Going straight through the front door, they were surprised to meet no resistance.

Captain Dennis Whitaker’s platoon had reached the casino just ahead of Hill’s group. They faced two or three dozen Germans. Most of these men threw up their hands in surrender. A short firefight ensued between the Rileys and a few Germans who chose to fight. Although most of these were quickly killed, a few managed to escape out a back door and fled into the town. Whitaker led his men through a main salon—absent any furniture and partially torn down—to the building’s east side. Looking out a window, Whitaker saw below it a long slit trench held by German infantry. Quickly positioning a Bren gunner and a Boys anti-tank rifle manned by Private Tommy Graham at windows, “we took them by surprise and cleared up this position,” Whitaker wrote. Spotting a machine-gun post in the hotel next door, Graham “let more shots go… and there was a flash from it and it was never heard from again.” Running downstairs, Graham charged into the slit trench without considering that the cumbersome anti-tank rifle was his only weapon. The trench was filled with dead Germans. Creeping forward, Graham peered around a bend and saw two who were unscathed. Quickly loosing a .55-calibre round from the anti-tank rifle, Graham killed one of the men and wounded the other.

For more than an hour, the Rileys battled for control of the casino. Corporal George McDermott glanced into a room and “saw three enemy, one of them had his rifle pointed my way. I left and worked my way close enough to throw a grenade. They didn’t seem afraid, and threw one back, hitting me on the right foot. I ran about 25 feet before it went off, knocking the rifle from my hand. I came back and threw another grenade. When I moved ahead this time, they had gone, leaving a pool of blood, a rifle, three grenades and two bayonets.”

Captain John Currie, sent by Labatt with reinforcements, joined McDermott in searching rooms towards the building’s western end. They were soon driven back by artillery and mortar fire hammering down on the casino from positions on the western headland. Entire sections of the building were shattered, their ceilings and walls collapsing, as Rileys dashed through the warren of rooms.

Labatt, meanwhile, had established his headquarters against the headland’s cliff face so that he was sheltered from the positions above. Deafened by a shell blast, Labatt shouted into the wireless handset, “Get Johnny Forward, get Johnny forward.” “Johnny” was the call sign of Calgary Tank Regiment’s Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Andrews. Labatt knew that the Rileys had to get tank support now, or the assault would run out of steam—if it had not already done so.

***

The Essex Scottish had been caught in an even more desperate situation. Captain Dennis Guest’s ‘A’ Company set down immediately left of the most easterly Rileys and became entangled in a wire obstacle at the tide line. Raked by machine guns, only thirty-five men followed Guest in jumping the wire. The other seventy-five lay dead or wounded on the wire or in the surf. At the seawall, the survivors faced another wire obstacle that was three feet high and fifteen feet wide. As all the company’s mortars and bangalore torpedoes had been lost, they could not get past the wall or return the heavy fire coming from the headlands.

“The first blast of heavy fire” striking No. 9 Platoon “stunned us for a moment,” Private Eugene Cousineau wrote, “but we soon recovered and when we reached the protection of the wall most of our section was present. We could not see the fire of the Germans who were hidden in the buildings along the water front, but the machine-gun and mortar fire was very intense, the [81-millimetre] mortar being very effective and apparently laid along a very definite pattern. The beach being all shale made the fire of the mortars and artillery extremely damaging.”

Guest led the men along the seawall to a position facing the tobacco factory. Here a concrete support projected from the wall, and nearby was a breakwater. ‘A’ Company tucked in between these two structures and gained a little flank cover. “At this time the morale of the men was very high,” Cousineau noted, “despite the heavy fire and continual casualties. The men were all smoking and laughing.”

The seawall “was covered by a large amount of heavy wire, and beyond that lay about 100 yards of open ground, and then the first row of buildings, which were full of machine-gun posts and snipers. We set up two or three Brens on the wall and fired [at] the windows from one end to the other and I believe inflicted considerable damage as we silenced the fire of several machineguns and snipers.” Private Robert Kearns “tried to cut through the wire, but was killed almost instantly.”

Private Stanley Carley’s platoon was tasked with protecting Lieutenant Colonel Fred Jasperson’s battalion headquarters. They found cover behind a small embankment of stones pushed against the first wire barrier by the tide. “There were a lot of men killed going from the boats to the barbed wire. Then everyone took cover for a minute as the machine-gun fire was terrific.” Carley watched as one company crossed the wire and “a lot of men dropped.” Carley’s commander, Lieutenant Jack Kent, led the platoon seventy-five yards to the left. After chucking smoke grenades over the wire, the men crossed and used the covering smoke to gain the seawall and take cover in a large hole fronting it. The hole was already crowded with men from ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies. An officer yelled that Jasperson’s orders were for everyone to stay put.

Coming off an LCA, ‘C’ Company’s Lieutenant Peter Ambery had been struck in the right side by shrapnel. Waving his men on to the seawall, he slapped on a shell dressing to stem the blood flow and then ran to join them. Carefully raising one eye over the edge of the seawall, Ambery saw two pillboxes on the esplanade. A French tank protected by a concrete surround was near the base of the west mole, and a pillbox on the mole itself held an anti-tank gun that fired along the seawall’s length.

Ambery’s men thrust bangalore torpedoes deep into the wire but failed to blast open a path. Bodies dangling from the wire testified to the fate awaiting anyone foolish enough to try crawling over it. Ambery realized they were trapped.

By 0545 hours, Captain Donald MacRae, an attached Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlander officer, estimated the Essex Scottish had suffered 40 per cent either killed or wounded. Yet men continued to fight. “The 3-inch mortars were set up but almost instantly were destroyed by bomb or shell fire. Smoke cover was put over by the 2-inch mortars and the crossing of the seawall was attempted [but] met with intensive gun and mortar fire as well as LMG fire and almost all… the assaulting troops were killed or badly wounded.” A second attempt under smoke cover from the 2-inch mortars “suffered [a] similar fate to the first. By this time the wireless sets were largely destroyed; there being only the [No.] 18 set in ‘C’ Company still functioning. A third attempt on a reduced scale… to cross the wall… was met by a hail of fire causing most of the personnel to become casualties.”

Joined by Captain Walter McGregor, Ambery, meanwhile, had crept along the seawall to Jasperson’s headquarters. They found the situation there a shambles. Everyone hugged the wall, and Jasperson reported having no wireless contact with either his companies or Calpe. Only tanks could break the impasse.

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