Monday, November 9, 2015

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

The Dieppe Raid: August 19, 1942 - Part 6

"Troops coming ashore from a landing craft under a smoke screen during
Combined Operations training at Inveraray, Scotland, 9 October 1941. 
Photo credit to World War II Today

Wednesday Morning, August 19, 1942

Shortly after midnight, the moon had descended below the horizon and although the night was clear it was quite black. Suddenly, dead ahead of us, from the stern of R-84 came a flashing light, dot dash dash dot - - the Morse letter "P". S/Lt. Leach saw it the same time as I did and before I could say anything to him he warned me that that was the signal for refueling. "As soon as we receive the Executive signal," he said, "I want you to cut the power and come to a stop. We are going to refuel now so we will have to shut off our engine and lie to while we are doing it." While we were waiting, I asked if we could leave our engine idling while we fueled, as we were having trouble starting it and we may not be successful this time and have to be towed the rest of the way. He thought about it for a few seconds and then agreed.

Just when the signal light blinked dash dot dot dash - - the Morse for "X", I cut the throttle and we coasted to a stop. What a relief to cut that engine noise. A big cheer came up from all the Camerons as they began a major shift to relieve aching muscles and sore joints. Hop and I jumped onto the upper deck and cut loose the gas cans and began pouring them into the two fuel tanks at the stern. A small flickering light appeared from down inside the craft, as though someone was trying to light a cigarette. I shouted at the top of my voice, "For Christ sake, put that bloody light out, we're pouring gasoline up here and the fumes will be running right down inside the well. Do you want to die even before you hit the beach?" I said that still thinking that we were headed for an exercise, and quite unaware of our final destination.

"Part of the assault fleet gathered for Operation Jubilee"

As we emptied the cans, we threw them over the side hoping that they would sink. After fueling was completed, we could hear the engines of our accompanying craft starting and we all began to jockey about to keep our proper station. Hop took over the wheel to give me a break after more than four hours of watching that little blue light on R-84's stern. Gradually, R-84 began to put a little distance between us and Hop poured on the power and we were back to the grind. I went down inside and sat on the top of the engine casing beside a couple of soldiers, who were now wide awake and chatting with some of the others. "Anyone here from around Woodstock?" I said. "Woodstock, Woodstock," was the reply. "Where the hell is Woodstock?" "Southern Ontario," I answered. "Ontario, Ontario! Is that in Canada? Never heard of it." The fellow beside me leaned over and said quietly, "The Camerons were recruited in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, through Winnipeg." I couldn't resist the chance to counter so I shouted "Winnipeg, Winnipeg! Where the hell is Winnipeg? It must be somewhere beyond Sioux Lookout, but I hear there isn't anything beyond Sioux Lookout!" "Kill him, kill him," went up the shout, just as the Platoon Lieutenant called for silence and instructed everyone to listen while he went over the plan one more time. I listened intently as he continued.

"Now, we expect the beach to be heavily defended, so we have to get across about ten or twenty yards of stoney footing to reach a sea wall, our first cover, just as fast as possible. Taking cover behind this wall, we will organize our sections while No. 1 Platoon finds the breach in the wire along the top of the wall that has been left by the south Saskatchewans. It is essential that we go through that breach the very second that we find it because from that moment on, the breach will be a prime target for machine gun fire." As I listen to him trying to make himself heard over the noise of the engine, a chill begins to creep over me as I slowly absorb the fact that we really are about to land on enemy territory. And even worse, the south Saskatchewan Regiment will be landing ahead of us so the defences will be already in action by the time we hit the beach. My God, why couldn't we be first, then by the time the enemy are in action we may be back off the beach and out of range.

Because my mind is racing about with the possibilities suggested by what I have heard so far, I only hear part of what he said afterwards, but I am astounded when he mentions meeting with the Calgary tanks at Four Winds Farm, about four miles inland and then continuing on to attack an airport nine miles from the beach. I am convinced that this must be the second front, and there must be hundreds of landing craft coming in behind us. My mind swirls with the gravity of what I am hearing. Naturally, I am a little nervous about my own safety, but my overriding feeling is one that is much harder to describe. Transcending my fear is a feeling of betrayal at not being told about this by our own officer. Neither I nor any one of our group, would give up a chance to take part in a real operation against the enemy, no matter what the outcome may be, but I somehow feel cheated by Leach's refusal to let us in on any of the information, even at the last minute. I am certain that the Camerons knew about this before they loaded. After a few minutes of trying to rationalize everything in my mind, I turned to the soldier beside me and asked, "Where in the hell are we going anyway?" Somewhat startled he fired back, "Don't you know? You are supposed to be taking us there. If you don't know, how in the hell are you going to get us there?" "I don't need to know in order to get there. I'm just following the boat in front of me," I replied, "don't worry about that, soldier, we'll get you there, on time and in the right place, but I'm curious about where that is." "It's a coastal town called Deepy," he volunteered, "somewhere in France."

Shortly before 0400, the sky ahead of us suddenly lit up with a myriad of tracer paths knifing into the heavens. Though momentarily startled, we were more dismayed than surprised. We all realized that we were getting close to our target, as the Infantry briefing indicated a touch down time of 0500. Now it appeared that the enemy was awake and at action stations. Our hope of a surprise landing was dashed as we thought we were looking at German anti-aircraft fire in response to an R.A.F. bombing raid. A few minutes later the light on the stern of R-84 began to drift off to starboard and Hop had to adjust our course to 180 in order to keep her dead ahead. I turned to Leach and addressed him. "We've swung around to 180 Sir. Are we heading into Deepy now?" "That would be about right," he answered, "but the pronunciation is Dieppe, not Deepy." "Well you have to realize Sir," I countered with my best Canadian sarcasm, "in the absence of information we are operating completely on hear-say." His silence told me that he did not give a damn what I, or any other lower deck rating thought. I remained beside him in silence as our frail wooden hull continued to be bullied through the calm French waters of the Channel by our faithful Hall Scott. That five minute pyrotechnic display that we saw before 0400 was not repeated, and now, about 0500, the night was lifting and we could see R-84 completely and even beyond. We had now passed our touch down time, daylight was fast approaching and we could not yet see our target. Just then our course swung back to port and settled on 160. "If it's O.K. with you Sir,” I said to Leach, "I'll leave Hop on the wheel for the landing and I'll take care of the smoke generator and the bicycle." "As you wish," was the reply.

About 0515 we could just make out the coastline through the morning haze and it looked like cliffs, still no fire from the enemy, and we can't see any activity ashore. Then our Flotilla leader turned 90 degrees to starboard and we began to parallel the shoreline about one or two miles out. Now we could see flashes of artillery or mortar fire ashore but we were drawing no fire ourselves. Then, all our craft turned 90 degrees to port and we headed into the beach in line abreast. Just as I was climbing up onto the stern to ignite the smoke generator, all hell seemed to break loose, the water ahead of us began to erupt like a massive sea volcano as a rain of mortar fire descended upon the water in front of us. Smoke billowed from our generator and piled up behind us in great clouds that obscured everything in that direction. Plowing through the wall of mortar fire the noise was deafening, but more than that the concussion of each burst pressed on our ears as though we were being smitten with giant pillows. I looked down along the line of landing craft and so far no one seemed to have been hit yet. The Germans seemed to have our range now as the explosions were gushing water all around us. How they could be landing so close without hitting us was almost unbelievable. I am half soaked from the water cascading down on me as I crouch down behind the smoke generator. 

"Landing crafts of troops taking part in Operation Jubilee, Dieppe, Aug.
19th, 1942. On left, a smoke screen conceals them from enemy fire."
Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada

Looking over the top of the canvas cover, I see the Cameron Platoon Commander pointing off to his right. Looking in that direction, I am amazed at the sight of a piper standing up on the foc’sle of the second boat over, playing away as though he was alone in a field of heather in the rolling hills by Loch Lomond. Shortly before touching the beach the din is joined by the staccato chorus of a number of automatic weapons from the cliffs that spring from either side of the stoney beach in front of us. The roar, the crash, the rattle and smash have reached such a crescendo that it fairly blocks out my ability to appreciate what is taking place around me. Just as I feel the grinding of the hull on the beach, I step forward and undo the lashings on the bicycle on the canvas cover. As the last of the Infantry is jumping down to a dry landing on the stones, I shout to the closest man to take the bike. He looks at me for an instant in disbelief as I attempt to hand it to him, then, ignoring me, he turns and runs for the sea wall, scrambling for all he is worth, stumbling over the bodies of his dead and wounded comrades. I drop the bike in the stones, turn and run back toward the rear of the boat, shouting to Hop as I go, "all clear, all clear, get us to hell out of here Hop!"

As I crouch down behind the still smoking generator for shelter, I burn one of my hands on the hot side of it, as Hop backs off the beach, turns seaward and pours the power to old R-135. I am so glad to hear that engine bark that I am unable to feel any pain in my burned hand. Very shortly, we are buried in the smoke that we had laid down all the way in, and the thought strikes me that I am now on the wrong side of the smoke generator to receive any shelter from it. Jumping down into the now empty well deck, I notice light coming in through the starboard side where we took a burst of machine gun fire. Fortunately for us it caused us no serious damage and nothing was hit on the engine. Charging out through the smoke, we all prayed that we didn't hit anyone coming the other way as we couldn't see beyond our own bow. Good old Hop was clever enough to note our course coming in so that he was able to take us out to safety through the smoke and I thanked our lucky stars that these juicers make such great sailors.

We soon cleared the smoke and sailed out of range of the fire coming from ashore, then picking up the remainder of our Flotilla, we proceeded in line ahead, over to a destroyer and hove to along side of her. Everything looked just great, we have all of our boats and we are sure that we have put the Infantry where they belonged. I can't pick out McKenna's or Lantz's boat from here but I can count twelve boats, so they must be here. Our damage is minimal, with about twenty small holes in the starboard side from small arms fire, but looking around, it is apparent that some of the other boats are not so lucky. I can't get over my admiration for Hop and Grear for the way everything went. Even Leach begins to take on a semblance of humanity.

"Dieppe’s pebble beach and cliff immediately following
the raid. A scout car has been abandoned."
DND / National Archives of Canada

More to follow.

Unattributed Photos GH

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