The men of
3 Platoon of the Calgary Highlanders had been away from their unit for
several weeks competing with mortar platoons of the Black Watch and
Maisonneuve Regiment. Battle schools, schemes, and exercises were so
much a part of the Canadian infantryman's life in England that nobody
thought it particularly significant when the Calgarians chalked up the
best score. Everyone's mind was on the scarcity of leave.
good battledress, the men boarded a transport one afternoon. As usual,
Private Red Anderson carried a base plate and sights. When Lieutenant
Jack Reynolds passed out special tags, Private Dusty Rhodes spoke up:
"Hey, you guys, we had these same tags on the Isle of Wight. I'll bet
we're going to Dieppe." But nobody else had been on that May exercise
for an assault that was cancelled because of weather conditions, so they
said, "Pull the other leg, Rhodes."
Lieutenant Jack Reynolds
(Calgary Highlanders Museum photo)
Sergeant William Lyster
(Calgary Highlanders Museum photo)
Sergeant Bert Pittaway
(Calgary Highlanders Museum photo)
Private "Red" Anderson
Joan Anderson Photo
(reprinted from the book Alberta in the 20th
Century, Volume VIII)
The truck headed south on
the quiet Hampshire lanes. It was a warm summer's day, August 18, 1942.
Portsmouth, progress was slowed by dozens of military vehicles, all
converging on the dockyards, where 3 Platoon marched on to a
flat-bottomed craft with a large 6 painted on its side. Officially it
was landing craft tank (LCT) 163, commanded by Thomas Andrew Cook, RNR.
Already it was crowded with three tanks, a bulldozer and Canadian
servicemen, including Calgary Regiment tank crews.
(Note - this was Number Six Troop of the Calgary Tank Regiment
under Lieutenant Jack Dunlap)
Reynolds led his men to a space between a tank and one side of the
craft. Sergeants Bert Pittaway and Bill Lyster, buddies since training
camp in Shilo, Manitoba, noticed that two tanks bore their Christian
names. Almost immediately LCT 6 began to pull away from the dock.
Everyone had the feeling of being inside an overcrowded box because the
steel sides of the craft only allowed a clear view of the sky.
at Halnaker Camp, near Petworth, Sussex, Captain John Bright,
adjutant of the Calgary Highlanders, was writing in the regimental
diary: "No. 3 Platoon (Mortars) was reported to be coming back to
camp but did not turn up. Further messages revealed that they
were putting on a demonstration for the RAF."
Anderson climbed up on a narrow walkway on the LCT to get a better
view. As they cleared the harbour he saw that other landing
craft, equally crowded, were ahead of them. Reynolds assembled
his men and announced: "We're on our way to France."
BERT and BILL disembarked onto the beach at Dieppe. BERT made it
to a point east of the Casino, where it had its left track blown
off. BILL also maneuvered in the vicinity of the Casino, firing
at various targets on the beach front and up on the west headland.
Above, BERT lies abandoned in front of the Casino.
ECP Armees Photo DAT 2126 L44
"I knew it" said Rhodes. This time nobody argued, but Reynolds could
tell they were still skeptical. Too much phoney war, he thought. Too
many schemes. His face serious, he read out the orders. Then he
unfolded a map.
the town of Dieppe," he said. "We'll be landing on this section of the
beach, code-named Red, just before sunrise. We're to set up at the
tobacco factory, here, and give covering fire. At 11:00 hours we're to
rendezvous here, at the church, and make our way back to the landing
craft. Anyone who can't rendezvous or get off the beach is on his own."
distributed escape kits containing waterproof maps and packets of French
francs. Fingering the notes, Private Bill Simpson said: "This can't be
a scheme. The army doesn't give money away unless it absolutely has
the clear, blue sky overhead and the leisurely progress it felt the same
as all those other exercises, even when the order came that steel
helmets be worn.
one man began writing a letter. Others followed suit and Pittaway
wondered how this mail would get to its destination.
I owe you." Someone pushed £6 in to Anderson's hand. Always a soft
touch for a loan and a good poker player to boot, he stood amazed as
debt after debt was paid. "Well I'll be a hairless Highlander," he
said. "They should put on more raids like this."
twilight faded in to a warm and cloudless evening. After a haversack
lunch the men tried to settle down for the long night. Anderson leaned
against some sacks almost as uncomfortable as the steel deck. By the
earthly smell he guessed they held potatoes.
LCT 6 had
been riding steadily in a calm sea, but about 23:30 it swayed slightly.
More ships were joining the small convoy and they jockeyed for position
as they passed in line astern through the swept section of a minefield.
Unaware of the hazards mere yards away, Reynolds and his men shifted
uneasily, cussing the army brass that in its wisdom had decided blankets
weren't necessary for this short voyage.
the moon set and in the darkness the men dozed fitfully. Only the even
throbbing of the engines broke the silence. They were travelling
slowly, keeping pace with the slowest vessels. They were not due in to
Dieppe until first light.
At 03:47 a
star shell burst overhead, illuminating the interior of LCT 6 like
sudden daylight. Up ahead ships were exchanging fire and the convoy
broke formation. As the star shell faded, a tremendous explosion lit
the sky and in the confusion another craft came partly across their
bow. The jolt skidded Anderson across the deck. "I can't swim," he
shouted. "What the hell do we do now? Jump overboard?"
yelled Pittaway above the din. "No bloody lifebelts. It's against
marine regulations or something." He was laughing nervously, but he was
thinking 'By God, we've had it.'
suddenly as the firing began it was over. Eyes strained by the sudden
glare of star shells and gunfire became accustomed once more to the
darkness. Only the stars shone brilliantly from the black, cloudless
sky. But sleep didn't come. In every mind was the dreadful thought
that by now the French coast must be on full alert. The men had no way
of knowing that the eight-vessel German convoy they'd encountered was
steaming to Dieppe unaware it had been in the midst of a raiding force.
05:00 Allied light bombers and fighters came out of the north flying
low, almost at mast level. Flashes of light and faint whomps showed
that the Dieppe garrison was under attack and was retaliating with
mile the noise grew louder and almost imperceptibly the sky began to
lighten in the east. Eventually Lyster scrambled up the side, but he
could see little more than the dark silhouettes of the other craft and a
false dawn reddening the sky over Dieppe. With an ear-splitting roar
the four-inch guns on several escorting destroyers opened fire on the
coast. Billows of white smoke rose from the shoreline ahead, signalling
that the forward assault landing craft were almost at touchdown. With a
curious, sick excitement, Lyster called down: "Mortar platoon, load
rifles!" The craft was picking up speed and someone set his rifle butt
down heavily on the deck, perhaps to steady himself. A shot whistled
past Lyster, missing him by inches.
I hit you, Bill?" The man was almost in tears.
shaken. "You just missed my ass. Save your bloody ammunition for the
beach!" he said, sliding down to the comparative safety of the deck.
shrapnel began clanging against the craft. Suddenly Reynolds, who was
squatting beside Anderson, said "My God, man, you just got hit!"
Anderson looked down at a long tear in his battledress trousers and a
piece of metal that lay on the deck between them. He thought shock must
have numbed his leg, but found his skin wasn't even cut. He dropped the
piece of shrapnel in his pocket.
were exploding inside the LCT and Pittaway called to some of his men who
had been passing time by helping the galley crew peel potatoes. They'd
scarcely joined the rest when the galley received a direct hit that
killed most of its crew. Then a mortar bomb exploded nearby and blew an
army service corps man into Anderson. They writhed on the deck, covered
with a wet, sticky substance, the man shouting in a French Canadian
accent that he'd been killed. "No you haven't, you fool...It's those
God damned potatoes!"
explosion, this time in the engine-room, sent thick, acrid smoke in all
directions. Shouts of "Gas!" went up. Pittaway, his throat searing,
thought for the second time that morning: "We've had it!" This time
we've really had it!" Their respirators were with their blankets back
at the battle school, but it was a smoke canister that had been kicked
loose by the explosion. The craft swung wildly to port as the helmsman,
overcome by fumes, lost control. Then the engine-room burst into
and a few others manned a hose, but it had been shot so full of holes
they doused themselves instead of the fire. Others had better luck and
a new helmsman took over. Now, only 70 yards from the beach, the
canister smoke mingled with the white smoke-screen drifting over them.
Still, the wheelhouse took a direct hit that killed the second helmsman.
the craft swung hard to port. A medic, who was climbing up to
reach a stretcher, lost his hold. Below him stood an infantryman,
his old-fashioned, long style bayonet fixed. The medic crashed
down, driving the bayonet through his thigh. Pittaway, who helped
two others pull the blade out, saw that it had pierced far enough
to lift the skin on the other side.
A new man took the wheel and within minutes he too was killed. A
fourth man brought the craft under control and they approached the
beach from a different angle. With yards still to go, they came
out of the smoke-screen in to brilliant morning sunshine and a
storm of gunfire. LCT 1 - officially 145 - was lying out of
action broadside to the beach. Using it as partial cover, they
crossed the last stretch of water. The men swayed as LCT 6
finally touched down on the shale. The gates creaked open, the
ramp fell and they saw Red Beach.
LCT 1 after the battle, lying at the eastern edge of the
ECP Armees Photo DAA 2815 L28
shingle sloped up to a huge roll of barbed wire parallel to the shore.
Beyond it, more beach ended at a sea-wall and promenade. Well back from
the promenade a row of buildings was dominated by the twin chimneys of
the tobacco factory. From his limited viewpoint, Reynolds could see
dozens of dead and wounded crumpled on the stones. "Red Beach," he
thought bitterly. "It's well named."
ramp down, their last bit of protection was gone. A shell hit the
nearest tank and ricocheted through Reynolds' men, just catching
Pittaway's shoulder patch. He had dodged instinctively to the left,
which saved his life. The Calgarians watched in horror as the shell
struck a man crouched nearby. The force lifted his steel helmet and
knocked him to the deck with part of his head torn away.
were ready to move, but the bulldozer was the first to trundle down the
ramp. Reynolds watched the operator with awe, thinking: "He's up there
with nothing around him but his tin hat and he's not batting an
eyelid." The bulldozer travelled only a few yards before the man was
followed, turning left and right. The first went about 10 yards, hit a
mine and lost its tracks. The second went a little farther before being
stopped by heavy gunfire. A third, the one called Bert, went straight
ahead and over the wire. As it lumbered on, the wire sprang back into
place, halting the progress of the troops who were pouring out of the
LCT. Caught in the murderous fire that seemed to come from all
directions, they were adding their bodies to those already strewn in
front of the craft.
6 the situation was chaotic. Medics, under heavy fire and often
injured, strove to comfort the wounded and dying. On the bridge skipper
Cook was still in command, but most of his crew were dead or badly
injured, including the gunners at the exposed port and starboard
anti-aircraft pom-pom guns. The 30 or so infantrymen still aboard
fought the fires and assisted the medics.
was calling "All ashore!" but Reynolds felt he would lose every man on
the beach. He ordered that the mortars be set up on deck. Anderson
began the drill, but found his base plate wouldn't grip on the sloping
deck. "I can't make the damn thing secure," he reported. Reynolds
swore. "Why the hell didn't they give us a few sandbags?..."
was rapidly going out. In a few minutes the LCT would be stranded.
ashore!" the skipper ordered. "Up ramp!" But the ramp chains had been
damaged and the struggling men could get it only part way up, so that
the doors would not swing shut. Slewing badly, the craft pulled off the
beach and came alongside LCT 1, which seemed about to sink. A line
thrown to the stricken craft was shot away in a hail of gunfire.
Abandoning the idea of taking it in tow, skipper Cook signalled to the
few survivors. They swam across to LCT 6, machine-gun fire dimpling the
water around them. Four ratings came aboard, followed by a young RNVR
sub-lieutenant, his wet, red hair gleaming darkly in the sunshine. "My
22nd Channel crossing," he grumbled, "and the worst one yet!"
intensity of fire lessened as LCT 6 moved in to deeper water and headed
for the main anchorage where the larger ships directing operations were
under aerial attack. The red-haired officer asked for men to handle the
pom-poms and Reynolds detailed Lyster, Pittaway and Anderson and other
groups to take turns. It was difficult at first, requiring two men to
co-ordinate the traverse and elevation mechanisms and a third to handle
the clips of ammunition, but despite their exposed positions these new
gun crews felt a surge of energy and a profound relief to be fighting
back at last, even if their accuracy left something to be desired.
casualties, including the man with the bayonet wound, were transferred
to the hospital ship. Only the most critically injured were kept on
board for fear they would not survive being moved. Among them,
miraculously, was the man with the head wound.
naval crews came aboard and worked on the steering mechanism. There was
constant harassment from enemy aircraft and those below were amazed to
see the red-headed officer above decks, coolly shaving off his day's
growth of beard. Reynolds and his men became aware of their itching
chins and their hunger. By Anderson's count it was 16 hours since they
had last eaten.
that they were going back in. Men were already awaiting rescue on Red
Beach under cover of a thick smoke-screen laid down by Allied planes.
Those on LCT 6 shrank from the idea, but the craft swung round and
joined a group of small assault boats heading in. The enemy were firing
blindly in to the smoke. The small boats, travelling faster than the
LCT, ran in to the fierce barrage with devastating results. Within
minutes many were holed or blown apart, the remains of their crews
struggling in the water. Up on the guns Lyster and Pittaway fired in to
the tobacco factory. They little realized that the firest started that
day would deprive Frenchmen, already suffering enemy occupation, of
several weeks' tobacco rations.
individual was standing in one of the surviving boats waving them in.
"He must be drunk," said Anderson, trying to account for the man's
disregard for his own safety. But drunk or not, he had a boatload of
Canadians and there were more in the water around him.
years, Lyster and Pittaway and the rest couldn't remember how many times
they travelled between the beach and the anchorage, picking up men from
the boats and the water. They could only remember the fear that gripped
their empty stomachs and made breathing difficult - and the bearded man
who always seemed to be waving them in.
On the last
run to the anchorage, a Messerschmitt came through the smog that hung
thickly over the battle area and dived straight towards them. Lyster
and Pittaway got it in to their sights and saw their tracers plunging in
to its belly. Suddenly the plane seemed to shudder. Pouring smoke and
flame, it passed over their heads and crashed in to the sea. An
almost-hysterical cheer went up from the dirty, weary men aboard LCT 6.
At last the
order came to head home. For most of the mortar platoon the journey was
a blank and there was only a mild stir when they stopped to pick up a
downed RAF pilot.
It was dusk
when they arrived back in England. They'd been away just over 24
hours. The wounded were taken off first, the man with the head wound
still living, although surely death was only hours away. Anderson
slipped on the gangplank and hung from the guardrail, his feet dangling
in space. "My God!" he thought, "I get this far and now I'm gonna drown
in a friendly port!" But strong hands soon pulled him to safety.
interrogation the men were given a stiff rum. On the journey back to
Halnaker Camp, Anderson couldn't stop talking. "Imagine," he marvelled,
"they kept asking me, what did I see? I said 'I saw a helluva lot!
and they said did I see any dead guys? I said 'I saw lots of dead
guys,' and they said did I see any planes and I said 'I saw hundreds of
planes.' Where the hell did they think I'd been?"
Simpson leaned towards Lyster. In the dim light of the truck he looked
anxious. "Sergeant, I've lost my rifle." Under normal circumstances
this was a cardinal offence. "Well, if that's all you've lost," Lyster
assured him, "you're damned lucky."
they had something less than a hero's welcome. It was necessary to
rouse Corporal Barnes, the assistant quartermaster.
hell did you do with your blankets?" he wanted to know. The strong
smell of rum didn't ease his suspicions.
grabbed him. "Look, we've been to Dieppe and we're cold, tired and none
too friendly." After that everyone wanted to help. They'd heard radio
reports of the raid and how the Canadians had suffered almost 3,500
casualties in a force of 5,000. The men at Halnaker wanted to know
that," said Anderson, "how about something to eat."
and Pittaway finally reached their quarters, Lyster said: "Bert, did you
ever imagine we'd be back here all in one piece? We're damned lucky,
all of us."
said Pittaway. "Luck be damned. It's a bloody miracle."
laughed. "Old Barney was sure we'd flogged those blankets. For a
second there I thought you were going to hit him." But Pittaway was