Thursday, November 5, 2015

Memoirs re Combined Operations - A. G. Kirby, Dieppe

The Dieppe Raid: August 19, 1942 - Part 3

"Chuck Rose (front), Canadian member of Combined Ops, tidies
up a landing craft, location is likely Southern England, circa 1942"
Photo courtesy of Lloyd Evans, formerly RCNVR, Combined Ops

- Monday, August 17th, 1942

Monday morning, August 17, 1942, dawned clear and sunny, keeping alive a string of perfect days that had lasted now for about a week. After breakfast, I noted with only mild surprise, that there seemed to be an increase of traffic on the river. About a half dozen R boats were slowly making their way up river in rather random fashion and there seemed to be more craft tied alongside now. Well, perhaps not, after all I must admit that I have not been too observant of the overall situation. Come to think of it, I now see a number of Tank Landing Craft over on the far bank. Were they there all along? I'm not really sure now, oh well, it looks as if this is going to be an even bigger operation than it first appeared. Mr. Leach was on board the craft at the time that I arrived, which somewhat surprised me. I was not accustomed to seeing officers on the job at this early hour. "Good morning Sir", I greeted, as I managed a reasonable salute, stepping on the foc’sle and maintaining my balance in spite of the rocking motion I caused by this action. "Good morning Canada," he replied, "When the others get here you might inform them that we are shifting our berth some time this morning. I'll be here when that occurs, but in the meantime, I want them to remain, either on board or on the jetty close to the boat, and under no circumstances are they to go ashore. As soon as I get back I will confirm that to them in person, but I want you to see that they understand this until then."

"Right Sir", I replied, wondering what on earth is eating this guy. Now and then, he seems to be a pretty reasonable person, for an Officer, then suddenly he reverts to the old R.N. nonsense of "Bullshit and gaiters" and "God save the King". I was glad to see his commissioned carcass floundering across the rolling, bobbing decks of the inboard boats as he made his way to the jetty.

In a few minutes, Hop arrived, closely followed by P.O. Grear, and I gave them the message, along with my opinion of being confined to the boat like a bunch of kids. In typical juicer* fashion, they disagreed with me, suggesting that there may have been other things that we did not know of. If that were the case then why did he not tell us.

Looking out over the river, I noticed that landing craft were still making their way upstream and I couldn't help wondering why. There goes R-84, McKenna’s boat, along with the rest. By 1000, our outboard craft had let go and followed the procession. Just then our "one stripe wonder" returned and told us to get ready to move as soon as traffic permitted. Within a few minutes, it looked pretty good to me, so I got Leach's permission and asked Grear to start the engine.

After about ten minutes of cranking the battery finally died and I commented to Grear, "I thought you had that problem solved. Isn't that why you were fussing around with the Engineering Officer the other day?" "That's true," he replied, "but we didn't get to the bottom of it. However, I managed to get a spare battery, in a couple of minutes I'll have it connected and we can try again." "Well Chief, I sure hope you don't leave us stranded with a dead engine on a cold and lonely beach, during this exercise, especially if it's a long way from home," I chided. With the new battery in place the engine took hold after about a minute or two of cranking and I felt just great after we had slowly backed away and I put her ahead. Empty, as we were, the boat almost jumped as I poured the power to her. This was the first time I had handled this boat and I was really pleased with the way she responded, especially with her excellent acceleration.

These "R" boats, sometimes called "eureka" boats, were a very nice craft to handle. Made in Detroit by the Higgins Boat Co., they were constructed completely of wood. The keel and frames were built of 1" thick plywood, while the plating was 3/8" plywood. They were the fastest of the landing craft on which we had trained. So we found them a pleasure to drive around, but they offered no more protection than a cigarette paper when we came under small arms fire. One other defect we all agreed upon was the very noisy engine exhaust. You could hear them coming from miles away on a still, calm night. Up to now, that had been very important, as all the "Combined Operations" raids to date had been surprise landings, taking place in complete darkness, or on very remote locations, to supply free French partisans, retrieve information, or to effect some local destruction, with the landing craft sneaking in and unloading before they were discovered by the enemy. The British assault landing craft were nicely plated with 1/4" armour plate and had very quiet running Ford V8 or Chrysler 6 engines, and were much preferred by all of us for an operation against an enemy held beach. The "R" boats did not have a front loading ramp, and actually looked more like a cabin cruiser, with a windshield for protection against the weather across the front. They were 37 feet long and 11 feet in the beam, with a covered "well deck" spanned by metal U shaped beams which supported a canvas cover. Running fore and aft along the bottom of the well, were three very low benches, on which the troops sat astraddle, looking forward. The engine, a "Hall Scott", 6 cylinder, about 250 horsepower and gasoline powered, sat right in the middle of the well, where it served to keep the boat stable in rough weather. Our fuel was right across the stern in two eighty gallon tanks, which gave us an endurance of sixteen hours at eight knots.

Above two photos found at Historical Firearms

'Hard at Work' at Higgins' Factory.
Photo found at National WW2 Museum

As we slowly moved up river the traffic became congested and we had to heave to a few times to facilitate other boats getting into position and to avoid collision. As we passed under the bridge that carried the road into the town of Newhaven, I noticed for the first time, a very large camouflage net stretching across the river from one side to the other, like a huge circus tent. At this point the river must be two hundred yards wide and the net was supported by very large wires anchored at concrete pillars on either shore. The whole thing stretched along the river for about four hundred yards. I don't know how I could have missed seeing this massive structure before, but I suppose that speaks well for the effectiveness of the camouflage. Under the net were dozens of landing craft, moored in rows and held in place by lanyards anchored to the large suspension wires.

After about an hour or two, we were finally berthed where the Beachmasters wanted us, and fortunately for us, we were on the outside, next to the shore. We spent the balance of the day helping other boats into position and to secure their moorings. As we were about to leave for supper, our buddy Leach, told us we were not allowed to leave the jetty and there would be no more shore leave until further notice. Actually, we're all too tired to worry about going ashore anyway, but it galls me to be told that we can't.

After supper, Lantz, McKenna and I were sitting on bollards on the jetty, passing the time with small talk, when we noticed the air was getting chilly, so we headed toward the freight shed to sit on our beds and keep a little warmer. I looked out across the English Channel and was about to remark how dark it was looking on the horizon, when I noticed the sky light up towards the east. Tracer paths were shooting up into the half light of the sunset sky, over the town of Eastbourne. This is a very nice little east Sussex city, much larger than Newhaven, but still small by English standard, facing out towards France, just 70 miles southeast, across the English Channel.

Damage done to Eastbourne by bombing raids

When the flashing sight of an air raid, is seen from a safe distance, it always seems to me to look quite unreal. More like a fireworks display, than the terrifying struggle of concentrated weaponry, with the attendant rending of buildings and bodies, that it really is. As the sunlight retreated even further over the horizon, the vivid red and orange flashes of the bombs exploding in and around Eastbourne seemed to scream out to us of the untold suffering and anguish of countless women and children, unable to react in any way, to ward off the vicious onslaught of the venomous Dorniers and Heinkles that thundered overhead. Though the concentration of anti-aircraft fire seemed to make it impossible for any machine to survive over the town, the relentless thunder of engines continued to rain a veritable hell of blast and fire on to the defenders of this once beautiful fishing community. The holocaust continued until after 2300 and then, as abruptly as it had started, it was over. We lay down and tried to sleep, but it was apparent to me, that Lantz and McKenna were having the same trouble that I was in putting out of my mind, the fact that the raging fires and pain and terror were continuing, and would go on until daylight, and beyond.

Part 4 to follow.

* Juicer, in Navy lingo, is a member of England's Royal Navy

Unattributed Photos by GH

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