Friday, November 6, 2015

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

The Dieppe Raid: August 19, 1942 - Part 4

"Canadians treated landing craft like home, e.g., in Southampton"
L-R Don Linder, NA, NA, Doug Harrison, NA, Don Westbrook
Photo by Lloyd Evans, RCNVR and Comb. Ops, circa 1942

- Tuesday, August 18th, 1942

The morning of Tuesday, August 18, 1942 dawned as bright and full of hope as each day for the previous week had done. After breakfast, we were met at R-135 by Sub Lieutenant Leach and told that we had a busy day ahead of us. "Is this the big day Sir?" I asked, the first time that I had a chance to talk to him, and he replied, "What big day?" "Well....the day of the exercise. What all this fuss is about," I said. "Oh....we have a lot to do yet, but I expect we will be told in good time," was his reply. He seemed to me to be going a long way out of his way to keep something from us. I could not understand why an exercise would have to be so secret.

With the war now three years old, we were quite accustomed to the need for security and you can be sure that we were all quite happy as our ships sailed out of harbour on their various missions, that Naval security was reasonably good. Often, at sea, we would wonder if the enemy knew just where we were and what we were doing, whether we were unknowingly sailing into a trap that was about to spring, sending us all into oblivion, or, worse still, leaving us struggling in the icy North Atlantic, grasping at the flotsam of our sinking ship. I could not help but be impressed by the number of landing craft here. We all seemed to be preparing for something really big. There had been some talk for some little time about a second front, but no one expected anything like that this year.

About mid morning, a Navy lorry arrived on the bank nearest our landing craft, and we were issued a World War I Lewis gun, a brand new Thompson sub machine gun and a case of ammunition for each weapon. Later, another lorry arrived, and each craft received a smoke float, which we fitted to a bracket on the stern of the craft. These smoke floats were a large steel container which resembled a 45 gallon drum.

"Canadians in Combined Operations try out new weapons"
L-R, C. Rose, A. G. Kirby (?), D. Westbrook - English Channel
Photo by Lloyd Evans, circa 1942

They could be lit and dropped into the water, or left in their bracket to burn as we sailed. They would produce an extremely large volume of smoke for the purpose of hiding the craft from an enemy and making it difficult to hit us with gunfire. We had used these before, in practice landings, so there was nothing unusual about receiving them now. The weapons however, presented quite another matter. In our training, we were constantly landing heavily armed troops on beaches all over England and Scotland, and the soldiers often carried considerable quantities of ammunition with them, but on the landing craft, we had no need for weapons so we did not carry them on practice missions. We did a great deal of training with the Lewis gun and we all liked it. The fact that it was a W.W.I weapon was no concern for us, since it was light, reliable, and quite suitable for our purposes. The Thompson, by contrast, was a weapon of much larger bore, much shorter range, and far less accurate than the Lewis, with a twenty round ammunition magazine, it was just the thing for fighting in buildings or on streets, which is why it was so popular with the gangsters of the 1930’s. But why all this hardware to go on a practice run? The thought of all this ammunition in all the boats was enough to raise our curiosity. The more this exercise unfolds, the more it takes on the appearance of a genuine operation of some kind. Hop and I looked at each other with puzzled glances as we cleaned the grease from the guns and prepared them for use. Until the middle of the afternoon, we worked with them and loaded magazines, commenting on the significance of what was unfolding before us. Then about 1600, infantry units began to arrive on the shore near our moorings. I could see from our boat, the Canada flashes on their shoulders and was very anxious to talk to some of them to see where they were from.

"We were constantly landing heavily armed troops on beaches": Inveraray, Scotland
Photo credit to Imperial War Museum, London, UK

To my very great surprise, a tough looking soldier came up to the edge of our boat, wheeling a bicycle. "How'd you like to find some place for this", he said, as he lifted the bike up to me. I reached out and took hold of it and almost fell over the side from the weight of it, trying my best to make it look easy to this rugged young Canadian. "What's the idea of this?" I exclaimed. "Think we may not be back to pick you up afterwards?" He smiled as he turned away and I noticed the Cameron Highlanders shoulder flash under his Canada badge. Now when you pack thirty five heavily loaded Infantry men into a boat this size, there is hardly room to pack a newspaper between them, let alone a bicycle. After thinking it over for a moment I decided to lash it to the top of the tarpaulin that covered the well deck, our two machine guns and ammunition had to be stowed forward under the foc’sle deck, but as long as the Infantry was aboard there would be no need for them. Hop, Grear and I were slowly coming to grips with the notion that this might very well be the real thing and we were carrying out our jobs with that in mind. This didn't bother any of us, as we were all anxious to try out our skills in a real operational situation. We were however, somewhat galled by the fact that that damned Leach wasn't saying a thing about it.

"Some landing crafts were loaded with troops and their bicycles"
Photo credit to Pipes for Freedom 

It was now about 1700 as several more lorries arrived, loaded with what looked like four gallon cans. They backed down to the waters' edge and we began to unload them onto our boats. Sure enough they were cans of gasoline. We stowed them on the upper deck of our craft, lashing them along the side, eight cans to a side, making them fast to fittings along the edge of the well deck. As this was taking place, the order was shouted from boat to boat, "Out pipes, no smoking in the vicinity of the landing craft until further notice." As this work was being finished our "Lord High Admiral" returned and I immediately addressed him, "What in the world is all this petrol for, Sir?" "You never know," he said, "but I expect there may be some need for it." Then the thought struck me I'll bet we're going to deliver this gas to some partisan group, somewhere in enemy held country. Boy, that should be exciting. But why would we be taking such a large and heavily armed force, complete with tanks, for such a simple little operation? No, I'm afraid that nothing is coming together yet. We still are missing some significant information.

Poster found at Saltcoats Heritage Museum, Scotland

At 1730, S/Lt. Leach told us to go up to the field kitchen and get our supper, or tea, as he called it, then report back on board by 1830. "Are we heading out tonight sir?" I asked, as we all made our way up the bank of the river together. "We shall see, just don't be tardy in getting back to the boat," he replied in his typically indefinite manner. We went on up to the Army field kitchen, drew our meal, and sat where we could along the jetty, eating and discussing the situation between ourselves, that is Hop, Grear and I. We were mutually convinced that we were leaving tonight for a beach somewhere, but none of us seemed certain that this would be the real thing. "Well," said Grear, "I 'opes we're away from 'ere before the Gerries decide to give us wot Eastbourne got last night." "I agree with you there Chief," I answered, "but I can't quite understand, the way that raid keeps bothering me." In the past I have always been excited, and frightened, during air raids that I have experienced, but the minute they were over they passed from my mind and I just felt good that I wasn't among the casualties. This time I keep thinking about the poor devils that may have been smashed up and are lying in hospitals today in utter misery. Almost as if it were some kind of a premonition or something. Perhaps I'm just a little nervous about what we may be getting into tonight.

When we finished our meal, we slowly walked back to the boat together and I noticed, strangely, how my feeling of animosity toward my shipmates had vanished. I don't really know why, but ever since I had arrived in England last January, I have been harboring a bad feeling toward the English. Both my parents were English, my mother still carried more than a trace of English accent, and yet I felt compelled to look down on the juicers as something inferior. Perhaps it is just jealousy! Ever since the war started, I have wanted to be a part of it, to do something important, something outstanding, perhaps heroic, like the exploits of the sailors that I have read about in the papers since the day that hostilities began. Here, in the British Naval bases, you don't have to read the papers, you can talk to the very people who are making all this exciting news, and it always makes me feel so immature, so young, so inadequate. I expect that these feelings are what cause me to talk down to the juicers, just a vain attempt to make myself look bigger. Somehow though, tonight I feel different. I can't escape the feeling that tonight, we may need each other desperately. 

Cameron Highlanders Cap Badge

Back at the boat, a thought struck me and I asked Grear if it was possible for him to pick up a couple of extra battery cables from the Engineering Officer so that he could parallel our spare battery with our regular battery and thus keep it charged up, just in case we needed it. He agreed and off he went to try his luck. I just couldn't suppress the fear of sitting on a hostile beach with an engine that we couldn't start because of a flat battery. About 1900 the Camerons began loading and I hoped I would get a chance to talk to some of them. I wonder if some of them might come from Woodstock or nearby. Canadian soldiers have a reputation for being boisterous and I have always noticed when we work with them, that they seem to have a good time, even when they are working hard. They shout back and forth between themselves and generally make light of even the worst situation. Tonight however, there seems to be a rather serious mood among them.

It reminds me of the times when we have worked with the British Commando Regiments, very quiet and serious. The loading, with all the shifting and repositioning that had to be done to accommodate all the men and equipment, took about an hour. Finally, about 2000 we began to slip our moorings and very slowly made our way into midstream. There was a lot of jockeying for position, as every boat had to be in its proper location in order to keep the various Flotillas where they belonged. We were to take up position ten yards behind R-84, which was McKenna's boat, but he was about fifty yards from us at the moment, with three other craft in between. Eventually, after much cursing and shouting back and forth, we had R-84 about six feet in front of us and I shouted to McKenna to get that crate out of our way or we would run him down. He gave us a good natured wave and we all settled down to keeping station as we slowly made our way out of the harbour. The English Channel swell rolled very slowly and gently under our hulls as we picked up speed and the lines of landing craft began to stretch out ahead of us toward the southeast. The sun was very low on the horizon and as I looked out at the calm waters I was greatly impressed with a feeling of responsibility and elation. Here I am at the wheel of a landing craft, loaded to the gunwales with heavily armed, highly trained, strongly motivated Canadian soldiers, headed for what I hope is a real life battle. Imagine the letter I could write home telling of great deeds and brave conquests, if only it turns out to be true.

Darkness slowly settled on us and we eventually lost sight of all the landing craft around us. Guided only by the small blue light on the stern of R-84, we droned on relentlessly, through a night of almost tropical elegance. 

"Landing craft line up like ducks in a row"

More to follow.

Unattributed Photos by GH

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