HISTORY

Flashbacks to the beaches of hell

Reliving the Dieppe disaster 50 years ago

August 17 1992
HISTORY

Flashbacks to the beaches of hell

Reliving the Dieppe disaster 50 years ago

August 17 1992

Flashbacks to the beaches of hell

HISTORY

Reliving the Dieppe disaster 50 years ago

The 50th anniversary of one of the most controversial battles of the Second World War falls on Aug. 19, the date when an Allied force of 6,100 men tried—and tragically failed—to attack Germanoccupied France at the port of Dieppe. Five thousand members of the force were Canadian and 3,367 were killed, wounded or captured. In Dieppe: Tragedy to Triumph, a dramatic new book, Brig.-Gen. Denis Whitaker, a Canadian historian who was an infantry captain on the main beach that day, and his wife, Shelagh, present evidence that a cast of about 20 characters, from Winston Churchill down to some Canadians, sought to avoid any responsibility for the Dieppe raid’s military stupidity, tactical errors and human costs, even to the point (notably in Churchill’s case) of falsely denying knowledge of the military plans.

Those coverup attitudes were adopted mainly to avoid fuelling accusations among Britain’s allies, especially in Canada and Australia, that London was using Commonwealth troops as cannon fodder. At the same time, the authors argue, the British and some of the Canadian commanders clearly if secretly regarded the raid as a political necessity and its disastrous result as a strategic political success—mainly in convincing the hard-pressed Russians and the Americans that an invasion of France at that stage would fail.

During their research, the Whitakers interviewed many of the raid’s survivors. In the book’s most dramatic sections, many of those who lived through the day ’s carnage, including Whitaker himself, provided eyewitness accounts. Excerpts:

0347 hours (3:47 a.m.), Aug. 19, 1942:

A star-burst splintering the night marked the beginning of the end for the Dieppe raiders. The section of the flotilla carrying Lt.-Col. Dumford-Slater’s British No. 3 Commando had been intercepted by a German convoy. There was a burst of machine-gun and pom-pom fire. Flares exploded in the sky and searchlights

Dieppe: Tragedy to Triumph, Copyright © 1992 by Denis and Shelagh Whitaker, published by McGraw-Hill Ryerson Limited.

pinned down the hapless men as they were strafed. In the brief but violent firelight, casualties were severe. Worse, the entire coastal defence system was alerted.

0440 hours: The second-in-command of No. 3 Commando, Maj. Peter Young, swiftly took charge. With only his single boatload of men, he headed for the designated landing place. “There I was with 18 men when I should have had 150,” he recalled. “We had no torpedoes to blow holes through the first thick coil of

barbed wire, but fortunately the Germans had strung the wire on pegs all the way to the top of the cliff. We started up one side. I fell off. We tried the other side. I got part way up, pulling myself up on the wire, hating it, using the only foothold we had, the German pegs. My rifle fell to the crook of my arm. I swung away from the cliff. I thought, ‘Oh Christ, if I fall off this time I won’t have the guts to start over again.’ My toe stuck in a cleft and up we went.”

0453 hours: Surprise on the eastern flanks of the attack by 3 Commando and the Royal Regiment of Canada was now lost. Unaccountably, to the west of Dieppe the alarm had not yet been sounded. Here, there was still a chance. Lt.-Col. Lord Lovat, commanding officer of 4 Commando, was nearing his objective, Hess Battery. Faces blackened, stocking caps pulled low over their brows, Lovat’s commandos were set to leap from their landing craft the moment they touched the shore. “To run a mile at speed, we had to cut down on equipment,” Lovat recalled. The commandos went in wearing denim trousers and running shoes and they carried only light weapons. “Certain chosen men wearing leather jerkins literally charged into the wire, rolled about and tried to flatten it,” said Lovat. The rest of the British unit ran over the backs of their comrades and set off on their race against the clock.

0452 hours: At the moment when the Royal Regiment of Canada was supposed to be setting foot on Blue Beach under cover of darkness, the battalion was still two miles out to sea. Eight minutes later, German infantry commander Hauptmann Richard Schnösenberg, through his binoculars, saw “a big shadow in the mist.” These were the first boats of our convoy coming in, he thought. Then the fog lifted a little and he saw the Union Jack hanging on the mast. I said, ‘It’s the English! Fire!’ In the moment when I gave the order, I saw the whole beach. They came swimming along like little ducks, hundreds of landing craft.” The Canadians were literally mowed down as they poured on to the beaches.

From his bunker near the castle on the west cliffs overlooking Dieppe, the commander of the 75-mm gun battery, Lieut. Wilhelm Schlie, heard the alarm and started sprinting towards his post, dressing as he went. “I pushed my helmet on and ran, still wearing sandals,” he recalled. “The infantry battalion commander, Capt. Ullrich, said: ‘The English are there! You must shoot barrage fire (Speer-feuer) instantly!’ As my eye became accustomed to the dawning, dusky light I saw all over the sea, points, little points. I said, amazed, ‘My God, are all those English?’ Ullrich said, ‘Now quickly ... this is getting serious.’

0510 hours: On 4 Commando’s front at Varengeville, Maj. Derek Mills-Roberts heard a shattering noise. The six-gun battery Hess, the commando objective, had opened fire on the British flotilla. The guns had to be silenced. But it would be 50 minutes before Lovat’s men

took up their position behind the battery for the attack. “I had to improvise as fast as possible,” Mills-Roberts recalled. Abandoning stealth, his men raced behind him through the wood towards the battery. Their first mission was to shoot the German sentries; for this, they had to find a vantage point for their snipers. “I could see the German gun crews,” said the major. “In number 1 gun, there was even a cook wearing a cook’s hat. Our sniper got himself into a comfortable position at a bam window overlooking the guns. We waited, noticing the beautiful day, the bees buzzing. The rifle cracked; it was a bull’s-eye, rather like shooting a member of the church congregation from the organ loft.”

0523 hours: The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLl) landed on the main beach just three minutes late. Recalled co-author Denis Whitaker, then a platoon commander: “As our landing craft moved towards shore, the sun was just rising and I could see the dim outline of the buildings along the Dieppe front. We cruised on; the shore came into focus. We looked at one another. Something was terribly wrong. Everything was intact! We expected a town shattered by the Royal Air Force’s saturation bombing the previous night. Half-standing in the centre of the bow of the boat, I was able to peer over the top of the ramp. The west headland loomed darkly. An awesome-looking castle crowned its heights. The cliffs were

dotted with caves. They would be ideal locations for defensive weapons.

“The craft drove on to the beach. My stomach jumped up to my throat. This was it! The ramp dropped. I led the 30-odd men of my platoon about 25 yards up the stony beach. We fanned out and flopped down just short of a huge wire obstacle. Bullets flew everywhere. Enemy mortar bombs started to crash down. Around me, men were being hit and bodies were piling up, one on top of the other.”

Cpl. John Williamson, RHLl: “Being so green, we had loaded ourselves down with so much ammunition we could hardly walk. When the craft hit the beach, I stepped off and fell flat on my face in the bloody water. I struggled to get up, but with all this ammunition, as well as my battle dress and heavy hobnailed boots, I was weighted down. Tracer started coming at us even before we got to shore. We said, ‘What the hell goes on? This wasn’t supposed to happen.’ Then I was hit. Soon there was only one man left in our platoon who was not killed or wounded.”

Cpl. Jack Brabbs, RHLl: “The guys helped me back from the wire. I got near a tank but it was drawing all sorts of fire. My lips were smashed by pieces of stone that shattered when hit by bullets or mortars.”

Whitaker: “The machine-gun fire was intensifying. Mortar shells were falling all around us and snipers were hitting the men with deadly accuracy. Much of this fire was coming from gun positions in caves we didn’t know existed. This was the enemy that had been described to [Maj.-Gen. Hamilton] Roberts as ‘1,400 poor-quality German troops.’ ”

Lieut. Walter Höpener, 12th Field Company, 571 German Infantry Regiment, Puys: “As the landing ramps fell and the attackers sprang firing on to land, they met the destructive fire of the two heavy machine-guns. An inferno began which was to last almost three hours. In our post, two young soldiers who had only been here a few days threw up constantly. It was their first action. We were amazed at the attacker, who fought with bravery against an

opponent who could not be seen. Taking cover behind their dead comrades, they shot uninterruptedly at our positions. Thus, with their bodies, these dead soldiers provided their comrades with the last service of friendship.” 0600 hours: When the Allies surged onto Green Beach, they expected to make an unopposed landing against a quelled enemy. Instead, the determined defenders greeted these new invaders with a rain of fire.

Pte. Herbert Webber, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada: “Our first casualty was C Company’s sergeant major. He got hit right in the head and was killed instantly. It was through him that [Lt.-Col. Alfred] Gostling was killed. He looked over and saw that the CSM was hit but he didn’t know he was dead. He stood up and yelled, ‘Stretcher-bearer, stretcher-bearer!’ Just then he was shot.”

0700 hours: Capt. H. H. Ditz, battery commander, 302nd German Infantry Division: “The smoke from our shells mixed with the artificial smoke so that soon the whole valley of Dieppe lay under a white carpet out of which the houses appeared like shadows. I looked on the beach; the artificial fog [was] growing thinner. The picture which presented itself

could teach any man what fear means. The beach was strewn with infantry equipment: machine-guns, packs, grenade throwers, munitions. Two whole regiments were clinging tightly against the concrete wall, seeking protection from our artillery fire and from the machine-gun fire of the beach company.” 0700 hours: Lieut. Thomas L. Taylor, C Company, Royal Regiment of Canada: “As we touched down, we heard a sound you could never forget: a tremendous ‘rat-tat-tat’ as blistering volleys of machine-gun bullets raked the armored door of my landing craft. That gun was trained directly on us. The naval commander wanted to know why I was not getting out—he said he had to get back to England! Of 30 men,

only 10 of us made it to the wall. We scrambled up the cliff. One of my men, he had always been a bit of a rebel, stopped halfway to light a cigarette and that’s when he got it. The others, who were more disciplined, made it up.”

Pte. Ron Beal, Royal Regiment stretcherbearer: “About 50 per cent of the battalion, three to four hundred men, were against the wall. There were wounded men out on the beach calling for help. At this point, no one was venturing out there. Anything that moved, they just opened up everything. Machine-gun fire was bouncing off the stones. I ran out of bandages, ran out of morphine.”

One landing craft managed to get in and try to evacuate the troops. Overloaded and under heavy fire, its doors could not be closed because of the dead piled on the ramp. It finally capsized and sank, with its captain and crew killed. A pitiful handful of Royals swam out to other boats and escaped from Blue Beach: 209 men died on it.

0830 hours: The remnants of the Royal Regiment of Canada surrendered.

Pte. Reg Hall, Royal Highland Regiment of Canada (Black Watch): All of a sudden a German officer came along the beach carrying a

white flag. He said, ‘It’s all right boys, put down your arms and your ammunition.’ Then we all marched out.”

0940 hours: Allied headquarters sent a signal to all assault forces: VANQUISH noo HOURS. An evacuation attempt would begin. The Germans continued firing.

Schlie, German 75-mm gun battery: “We noticed they were trying to re-embark those people who were still on the beach. We naturally kept shooting as long as they were in range.”

On White Beach, RHLI padre Capt. John Foote had moved calmly through the terrible morning searching out the wounded and carrying them to a makeshift aid post behind a landing craft that had beached broadside. It, at least, offered some protection from the fire. The injuries were appalling: men had limbs tom off, muscles spilling out of their thighs, guts being stuffed back into stomachs, ears ripped off, eyes blinded. The burly padre lifted many wounded lads into his arms and carried them to the waiting craft. But he refused all offers to be evacuated. “My place is with my boys,” he said. Almost 200 of “his boys” died on the beach that morning; 175 more were marched off, with Foote, to spend three wretched years in prisoner-of-war camps. (Foote later received the Commonwealth’s highest military honor, the Victoria Cross.)

Lieut. Jack Dunlap, Calgary Tank Regiment: “As the boats appeared, they came under intense fire. Some boats were swamped by too many men, sunk by gunfire or forced to turn back with partial loads. Casualties on the beach and in the water were unbelievable.”

Whitaker: “The worst part was the dash for the boats amid a hail of bullets and mortar or shell fire. I expected every step to be my last. I waded until the water was chest deep before reaching a landing craft. I saw one of my men, Al Reiger, swimming. We passed beside him and I reached out and grasped his hand. But I couldn’t hold him. I assumed that he drowned because he was never heard of again. The helmsman would not go back for him— that was to me very disturbing.”

1300 horn's: VANCOUVER. With heavy heart, Maj.-Gen. Roberts signalled the code word that ordered the entire naval force to head back to England. Eight minutes later, from the beaches of Dieppe, more than 2,000 men watched the last British vessel disappear over the horizon; 1,874 of them were Canadian. (The rest were commandos or personnel from the Royal Navy.) Sapper Lieut. W. A. Millar of the Royal Canadian Engineers signalled.

1358 hours: After firing 7,458 field rounds, the German artillery fell silent. The battle for Dieppe was over.

In the southern Ontario village of Winona, two weeks after the raid, the stunned residents read the casualty lists in the newspaper, column after column. Awakening, like the rest of Canada, to the extent of the disaster, they realized for the first time how it affected their small hamlet.

They had no young men left. Every single lad of the town of fighting age had been killed or taken prisoner in one short morning. □