Embarkation and Departure
Although it wasn’t until 18th August 1942 that the go-ahead for the Dieppe Raid was given, the preparations had started much earlier. The Churchills of the Calgary Tanks were hauled to Gosport for loading onto the Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) and the tank crews were receiving intelligence updates during hastily convened conferences, en-route to the port. The ships and landing craft were loading at Southampton, Portsmouth, Gosport, Newhaven and Shoreham. There was notable chaos at the embarkation points. Weapons were dumped in piles, as were unlabelled explosives for the engineers, the newly issued Sten guns hadn’t been cleaned since coming out of storage and only one man in The Camerons’ had fired a Sten gun before, their commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Gostling. The Camerons’ spent most of the Channel crossing cleaning and familiarising themselves with the weapons.
At Newhaven girls were standing on street corners crying, because their boyfriends had told them they were going to France on a raid. There were no guards to prevent troops from mingling with the public while they embarked. There was so much confusion at Newhaven that 3 Commando had to queue outside the port for three hours, while the local population wished them luck “over there.” Lord Lovat reported that there were empty trucks outside of the various pubs on the way to the port; he subsequently criticised the Canadians for their “light hearted” approach to the Dieppe Raid.
At Portsmouth 18 officers and 352 other ranks of the Royal Marine Commandos embarked in shallow drafted vessels such as the river gunboat HMS Locust. Their task was to steal the barges from the port, and quite possibly other classified activities. More of them in a later part. The US Rangers were split between various raiding groups to get a bit of “hands on” experience. On the docks there was continuing chaos as the troops embarked.. The 53rd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery received Bren guns instead of Bofors. There was no cleaning equipment and the gunners had to clean the weapons with petrol from the tanks. One Canadian Battalion (unnamed in the official report) thought they were embarking for another exercise in Dorset. There were two reported grenade priming incidents which resulted in the deaths of one man and forty-five injuries.
In support of the task force were the destroyers Brockelsby, Calpe, Fernie, Albrighton, Berkely, Bleasdale, Garth and the Polish ship Slazak. There were no guns on the ships above 4”. As the task force made its staged departure, on the command ship HMS Calpe Major-General Roberts received a signal from his superior, General Crerar. It said: “Good luck and give him the works.” Roberts dictated the reply: “Thanks, we will.” So set sail the 6,106 of the military force, of which 305 were Canadian officers with 4,658 other ranks, the rest being comprised of Commandos and other support troops.
RAF support would consist of five squadrons of Boston and Blenheim light bombers, two squadrons of cannon and bomb carrying Hurricanes and 56 squadrons of fighters, a concentration larger that Fighter Commanded fielded during the most intense fighting in the Battle of Britain. The aircrews came for Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, France, Poland, Norway and the United States.
Some notes on the Churchill Tank. The Churchill tank was designed as an “Infantry Support Tank” the last of such kind and built to a pre-war Staff Specification. It was to replace the Matilda and Valentine tanks. Because of its hasty development, there had been little testing, and the Churchill was plagued with mechanical faults. Most apparent was that the Churchill’s engine was underpowered, unreliable, and difficult to access for servicing. Another serious shortcoming was the tank’s weak armament, the 2 pounder (40 mm) gun, which was improved by the addition of a 3-inch howitzer in the hull to deliver a HE shell, albeit not on a howitzer’s usual high trajectory.
Another problem was the tank’s relatively small turret that prevented the use of powerful weapons; definitive versions of the tank were armed with either the QF 6-pounder or the derivative QF 75 mm gun. The 6-pdr was effective against armoured vehicles, but less so against other targets; the 75 mm was a better all-round weapon, but lacked in effectiveness against armour. Although the Churchills with their 6 pounders could outgun many contemporary German medium tanks (like the Panzer IV with the short-barrel 75 mm gun, and the Panzer III armed with the 50 mm gun) and the thick armour of all Churchill models could usually withstand several hits from any German anti-tank gun. In the later years of the war the German Panther tank had a 75 mm high-velocity cannon as its main armament along with increased protection, against which the Churchills’ own guns often lacked sufficient armour penetration to fight back effectively.
But whatever its weaknesses, the stupidity of the Dieppe Raid’s planning should have ensured that no tank at that time could have climbed up a steep, rocky and pebble strewn beach, surmounted a five-foot sea wall and merrily trundled into a well-defended town, where all the access routes had been blocked with tank obstacles and anti-tank guns. Yet amazingly, half of the tanks did make it up to the promenade, but got no further.
Yellow Beaches One and Two
No 3 Commando under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Durnford-Slater was tasked with destroying the German gun battery No 2/770, or as it was called, the Goebbels Battery. Most of the Commandos and a handful of the US Rangers were loaded into plywood Eureka Boats, which had sacrificed protection for speed and a shallow draught. The rest crossed the Channel on boards Motor Steam Gunboat No 5. The force left Newhaven at 20:30, MGB 5 leading the 23 Eureka boats, a flak landing ship (LCF No 1) and an armed motor launch to provide protection bringing up the rear. Within a few hours, some of the boats began to drop behind with engine problems and four of the boats returned to Newhaven.
British Radar on the Kent coast had detected a German coastal convoy leaving Boulogne and passed the information on to Portsmouth Radar. It was clear that the German convoy was heading for the ships and boats of the Jubilee task force, and two warning message were sent to HMS Calpe at 01:27 and 02:44. No further action was taken because it was assumed that the messages had been received. Neither was received by the task force due to faulty communications equipment.
At 03:47 the British and German ships collided and Lieutenant Berner in the German sub chaser fired star shells and then all hell was let loose. Motor Steam Gunboat No 5 took the brunt of the enemy fire and within minutes its main armament had been knocked out. Durnford-Slater recalled steam hissing out of fractured pipes as he sheltered on the armoured bridge, which was in a state of carnage. The Commando loosened his boots and inflated his Mae West in preparation to abandon ship. The flimsy Eureka boats fared little better and some of the Commandos jumped into the water as their boats were being shredded from under them. One of them was Captain John Smale and more of him later. However, it wasn’t a totally one-sided affair, as Motor Steam Gunboat No 5 had severely damaged the German sub chaser, which was unable to send a warning message as its radio antenna had been shot away.
By now LCF No 1 and ML 362 (Armed Motor Launch) had sailed in from the rear of the British convoy and joined in with the battle. The LCF’s two 4” guns had set Lieutenant Berner’s UJ 1411 on fire and it blew up with the loss of all on board. The Germans had the safety of their convoy to consider and they disengaged. The destroyers Slazak and Brocklesby, which had been tasked with the protection of the left flank of the task force, took no part in the brief but extremely violent action. The captain of the Slazak thought the firing was on land and when the Brocklesby moved out to investigate the star shells, the senior captain on the Slazak ordered the ship back on station. So the two destroyers maintained a defensive screen, to prevent a disaster that had already happened.
Durnford-Slater evaluated his position from the crippled Motor Steam Gunboat No 5. Only 5 of the original 26 Eureka landing craft remained with the mother ship so Durnford-Slater realised that the landing was off and set off in the gunboat to deliver the grim news to General Roberts on the command ship in person. But that wasn’t the true picture. Despite the ferocity of the sea battle, not a single Eureka had been sunk, and as so often happens in adversity, Lieutenant Alexander Fear RN in ML 346 took charge and rounded up any of the scattered Eurekas he could find and ordered: “Those who are mobile, follow me.” They would still head for Yellow Beach One. Also on course for the beach was a single Eureka with 20 Commandos under Major Peter Young. The landing craft under the command of Lieutenant Buckee, ignored the flashing light of Dieppe guiding the convoy in and headed for a black area of the coast. At 04:45 Buckee grounded the LCP on the pebbles of Yellow Beach 2. Major Young politely declined Buckee’s offer to boost the numbers with his crew of four sailors. The Commandos cleared the beach obstacles of barbed wire with Bangalore torpedoes and scaled the steep and narrow gully. Three officers and 13 ORs armed with One Bren gun, six Thompson sub-machine guns, three pistols, a 3” and a 2” mortar set out to destroy the Goebbels Battery of three 170mm and four 105mm guns. They had been forced to leave the 3” mortar behind on the beach in order to scale the cliffs
At the top of the cliffs, Young saw in the early morning light, five Eurekas heading for Yellow One further down the coast. Young led his troops, some of which were in a state of confusion, into a wood and gave them a pep talk to raise morale. “It will be something to tell your children” he urged them and then they headed out towards Berneval, just as the Goebbels battery opened fire.
Down on Yellow One, the five Eurekas had landed well behind schedule and it was broad daylight. As they approached they could see German defenders up on the cliffs. There was no garrison at Berneval as such, just some billeted troops and men from a Luftwaffe radar site. They had been alerted by the sea battle and would try to delay the Commandos until reinforcements were brought up. They opened fire as the Eurekas came up to the shore, killing Lieutenant Commander Corke, but the Commandos dashed across the beach into the cover under the cliffs. They had no scaling ladders or Bangalore torpedoes and had to queue one behind the other as the wire was cut by hand. The escorting ML 346 kept the Germans suppressed with its armament. A single machine gun proved more difficult and was eventually silenced by Corporal “Banger” Hall with grenades and bayonet. During the scaling of the cliffs from Yellow One, the German coastal tanker Franz, damaged in the sea battle, beached itself on Yellow One. ML 346 opened up with everything she had and the German crew went over the side and were shot at by their own men defending the cliffs.
While the Commandos were climbing up from Yellow One, Major Young led his men towards Berneval-le-Grand, where they intercepted a boy on a bicycle. The boy told them there were around 200 Germans in the battery, (actual number was 127). Young elected to save time by running through the town towards the battery, surprising some French fireman who were putting out a fire caused by a stray bomb. As they pressed on, Young’s men were fired on by a machine gun on the outskirts of the town, their first opposition. The machine gun was silenced by the 2” mortar.
Young wanted to direct fire down on the battery from the church tower, but there was no ladder to get up to the stairs ten feet above. Next they tried to work through orchards but was stopped by heavy fire and finally moved through a cornfield to bring harassing fire on the battery with their small arms and 2” mortar. The Germans turned a gun inland to fire at them, but couldn’t obtain sufficient depression and the shell screamed over the Commandos’ heads to explode somewhere in France.
They continued firing until they were running short of ammunition and then withdrew. The Goebbels Battery had been rendered temporarily impotent and Young headed back to Yellow Two with his men, with the Germans in hot pursuit. They recovered the 3” mortar and lobbed rounds at the enemy while the rest of the Commandos climbed on the Eureka. However the tide had partly gone out and they had to throw weapons and kit over the side to lighten the boat.
The retreating Eureka had picked up all the men it had landed, although German snipers on the clifftops gave it a hot send off. As it headed for home, Buckee’s Eureka passed close to a swimming Captain John Smale who had jumped overboard during the sea battle. Although he waved, he wasn’t spotted, he drifted past Dieppe during the height of the landings and finally made it ashore after thirteen hours in the water, long after the battle of Dieppe was finished.
The Commandos that landed on Yellow One managed to clear the obstacles and reach the village of Petit Berneval, where they killed three German soldiers and five Luftwaffe personnel. However, once the Germans realised that there were multiple landings along the coast, their reaction was swift and vigorous. Major von Blucher of the 302nd Division’s anti-tank and recce battalion and a company of the 570th Infantry Regiment spearheaded the counter-attack against the Commandos, joining the battle on bicycles. The Germans were particularly adept at swift counter attack and they pinned the Commandos in Petit Berneval. Unable to mount a concerted attack towards the battery, Captain Geoffrey Osmond decided to withdraw.
Back on Yellow One Beach, the landing craft retrieved the naval communications party, under heavy fire from the top of the cliffs. Nothing had been heard from the Commandos and an LPC became caught on the rocks. It was abandoned and set on fire and at 07:30 the boats withdrew as no further survivors had made their way to the beach. When the surviving Commandos fought their way back to Yellow One there was only derelict boats remaining. By the time they made their way down the cliffs, the Commandos were trapped on the beach with hundreds of Germans above and no chance of rescue, Captain Osmond gave the order to surrender. Despite being engaged from the rear by the Commandos, at no time was the Goebbels Battery put out of action and despite a valiant effort by the Commandos, the raid was a costly failure.
No 4 Commando under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel the Lord Lovat was on the extreme right flank of the Dieppe invasion force. Their target, the Hess Battery lay in densely wooded area behind Varengville Sur-Mer and was manned by No 813 Artillery Troop, 97 troops under the command of Captain Scholer. The battery comprised six 150mm guns, mounted on revolving platforms and embedded in concrete bunkers. The site was defended by seven interlocking defensive positions, with a double apron of barbed wire. Each position was manned by an NCO and four men. The disadvantage of the battery was that it was outside the defensive zone of Dieppe and as the guns didn’t overlook the sea, spotting was carried out from a nearby lighthouse.
To carry out his mission Lovat had 252 men, which included five US Rangers. In addition there were Naval Beach Parties and a correspondent from the Daily Herald. The plan was to land 88 men under the command of Major Derek Mills-Roberts at Orange Beach One, to advance inland and engage the battery with a frontal assault. Lovat’s group of 164 would be put ashore two miles east at Orange Two, advance up the river Saane, then head inland to take the battery from the rear. If all went well the Commandos would evacuate from Orange Beach One.
On board the Prince Albert after breakfast at 01:30, the troops checked their equipment and all items regarded as being too heavy were discarded. None of 4 Commando wore steel helmets, preferring cap comforters. Webbing bandoliers were replaced by light, cotton pouches and the Commandos blacked up. Before they manned their boat stations, Lovat gave the men a pep-talk about the vital nature of their mission. He was wearing corduroy trousers and his favourite sweater with “Lovat” embroidered on it. He carried a Winchester repeater sporting rifle, a rifle he had done a lot of shooting with and was very accurate. The Commandos clambered down into the landing craft, much bigger than Eurekas and they had steel sides for protection.
The naval officer, Lieutenant-Commander Hugh Mulleneux led the seven landing craft towards the French coast in Motor Gunboat 312, the lighthouse at Pointe d’Ailly was obligingly kept on. Three landing craft went into Orange Beach One, while the others headed for the much wider Orange Beach Two. The boats were spotted just before they beached and star shells went up into the early morning darkness. The men landing on Orange Two were immediately engaged by machine gun and mortar fire as they crossed the beach, suffering several casualties. As the boats pulled away, the Germans shifted their fire to engage them and Lovat had given instructions that any man who went into cover on the beach would be returned to their units. Coconut matting was thrown over the wire obstructions and the Commandos pressed on. Lovat spotted Captain Gordon Webb was carting his rifle over his left shoulder, and told him forcibly that he would be on a charge when they returned to England, however, Webb had been wounded in his right shoulder with shrapnel. Lovat’s men moved on at a fast trot, up the left bank of the river.
At Orange One, Mills-Roberts three landing craft made a landing just as three Hurricane fighter-bombers swept over their heads to attack the Hess Battery. Their advance off the beach and up the narrow gulley was blocked with wire, and the Commandos cleared it with explosives. Despite the delay in the gulley, Mills-Roberts group was still on schedule to begin their attack on the battery at 06:15, while Lovat attacked the battery’s rear with bayonets. But the battery suddenly opened fire of the multitude of ships, now clearly visible out to sea. Mills-Roberts decided that swift action was needed and throwing away all pretensions of stealth, he led his men through the woods to the battery.
As they cleared the woods, the perimeter wire lay ahead of them, so they went to ground. Mills-Roberts took two snipers with him and worked their way to the top floor of a barn. From this position they overlooked the battery and as the snipers opened fire, it was the signal for the rest of the Commandos to begin sustained fire. The Germans retaliated from a nearby flak tower, spraying the woods and mortar rounds came thumping down. The Germans were extremely adept in their use of mortars and the casualties among the Commandos began to mount. One of the sniper’s rounds hit a pile of bagged propellant in one of the gun pits and there was a huge explosion. While not actually knocking out the battery, the explosion had effectively silenced it for the time being and as the mortar fire grew heavier and caused more casualties, Mills-Roberts gave the order to withdraw back to the gulley.
Lovat’s group were covering the ground like racing snakes, their fitness honed in weeks of arduous training in Scotland. As Lovat’s group swung west towards the battery, they surprised a group of German artillery men climbing on a lorry, presumably to be driven to the battery. They were cut down without mercy and the Commandos moved on to a series of orchards. As they drew close to the battery, they were engaged from the flak tower and in the return fire a German was hit and fell to his death. A further two German in a slit trench were dispatched with bayonets, but the British casualties were mounting. The Commandos cut the wire and Lovat ordered a charge by firing his Very pistol.
Covered by smoke grenades they went in, cutting down and bayonetting any German they came across, in the confused fighting in the choking smoke. Captain Pat Porteous rallied the Commandos and led the assault, despite being shot in the right hand and arm. He grappled with a German on the ground, disarmed him and bayonetted him through the head. For this action in rallying and leading his men, Captain Porteous would be awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Germans made a determined fight to defend their battery and Captain Scholer sniped from the windows of his battery office. Trooper Dennis kicked in the door, sprayed Scholer with his Thompson and then grabbed whatever papers he could find. Meanwhile the demolition parties went to work placing the charges to destroy the guns, and when they went off the battery’s gun barrels were peeled open with the force of the charges. German prisoners were pressed into service as bearers to carry the wounded and Lovat and his men withdrew to Orange One, to rendezvous with Mills-Roberts.
The tide had gone out and it was a long wade out to the landing craft. The Germans carrying the wounded were unhappy as the water reached their necks, so they had to be persuaded at bayonet point. The boats withdrew under a smoke screen and Lovat went to HMS Calpe to report to General Roberts in person. Back on board the Prince Albert, the Commandos were able to watch over their heads, the largest air battle that had taken place up to then.
Within the battery perimeter the Germans lost 28 dead, 33 wounded and a further 35 killed in ambushes outside the battery. No 4 Commando lost 2 officers and 10 ORs killed, with 20 wounded. Thirteen men were left behind, posted as missing. The primary objective had been achieved after a stiff and bitter fight. The action at Orange Beach was a resounding success.
© Blown Periphery 2018