Disaster at Dieppe

August 19th marks the 72nd anniversary of the Raid on Dieppe, a bloody fiasco in which thousands of Canadians were killed, wounded or captured. 

Journalist and historian Rob Alexander of Calgary, Alberta joins Wartime Wednesdays today with this gripping description of his grandfather's experience on that terrible occasion, based on journals and letters.

Pictured here is Rob's grandfather Capt. Laurence Guy Alexander, medical officer for 14th Canadian Army Tank Regiment (The Calgary Regiment) taken in 1941. He was already a veteran -- the bar over his left breast pocket indicates the medals awarded for his service during the First World War.

By Rob Alexander

As a flat-bottomed landing craft pushed through the cold waters of the English Channel towards the coast of France, two members of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, Lt.-Col. Kenneth A. Hunter and my grandfather, Capt. Laurence Guy Alexander, sat against the ship’s bulwark, brewed some tea, heated a tin of stew and made bully-beef sandwiches.

That meal on Aug. 18, 1942 would prove to be the last both men would eat for nearly 24 hours. By dawn, their ship, Landing Craft Tank No. 8 (LCT 8), would be caught up in the maelstrom that was the Dieppe Raid of August 19, 1942.

They finished their meal, cleaned up and sat back to wait for dawn, expecting the raid to be a hit-and-run affair.

My grandfather, medical officer for the 14th Canadian Army Tank Regiment (The Calgary Regiment), expected to accompany the newly-commissioned Churchill tanks provided to the Calgary Regiment with his two medical vehicles through Dieppe, to provide medical aid to those injured during the planned attack on an aerodrome and German divisional headquarters.

This photograph shows The Calgary Regiment taken shortly before embarking onto landing craft for the Dieppe Raid, taken during an inspection by King George VI.

Hunter, commanding officer of the 2nd Canadian Light Field Ambulance, meanwhile, was aboard LCT 8 as an observer.

It was a long night for the 117 men aboard the landing craft. They slept little while waiting for the raid to begin, and finally, just before dawn, squadrons of Hurricane fighter-bombers screamed through the early-morning darkness towards the shoreline of France.

Bursts of yellow and orange and the bright arcs of tracers lit up the dark sky “like thousands of fire rockets in the sky,” as my grandfather recorded in his journal after the raid.

Waiting for their cue to land, the crew held the craft a few miles out to sea, out of the range of the heavy artillery guns mounted on the cliffs that flanked the seaside holiday town of Dieppe.

This aerial photograph shows the town of Dieppe during the raid of Aug. 19, 1942. Smoke rises from burning landing craft and from buildings facing the beach where the Churchill tanks of The Calgary Regiment landed. Dieppe’s harbor can be seen in the foreground of the photograph. 

My grandfather, Hunter, and a third doctor, Col. Morgan Smith, sat down in a space between a tracked carrier and one of the three Churchill tanks aboard LCT 8 to wait for the signal to load up.

“This inactivity, forced upon us, was a terrible and frightening thing. We were only inanimate beings, simple and small cogs in an inexorable machine grinding its way towards an inevitable end,” Hunter recorded after the war in a memoir he wrote about the raid.

Three 39-ton tanks – code-named Ringer, Regiment and Rounder – sat at the front of the 120-feet-long landing craft. Alexander’s two vehicles, a tracked carrier and a Jeep, sat near the back.

The steel sides of the 23-foot-wide landing craft rose from eight feet to 10 feet near the front. The bulwarks provided protection from small arms fire, but the open well where the vehicles and men waited would offer no protection from artillery shells and mortar bombs. At the stern of the craft sat an open deck with a wheelhouse.

Here’s a photograph of two landing craft tank (LCT) used by The Calgary Regiment at Dieppe. These landing craft are undamaged because they remained at sea and did not land during the raid. This photograph was taken on their return to England. 

As the sun crested over the horizon, aerial dogfights filled the sky with British Spitfires and German Focke-Wulfe 190s and Messerschmitt 109s turning and wheeling, each trying to win the draw.

“The Coast was now clearly visible,” my grandfather wrote. “Daylight had come. As far as the eye could see, the sea was covered with ships of all descriptions. We could see forms in near the shore, which we took to be our leading LCT.

"There was a deafening roar over all, and smoke from firing guns and smoke screens were making visibility difficult, but the firing from the shore batteries did not seem excessive and nothing was really bothering us then, as we were probably one-half mile from the shore.”

This drawing shows the flotilla of landing craft approaching Dieppe’s beach while the RAF and RCAF take on the Luftwaffe. The Germans lost 46 planes to the Allies 106, including 13 Canadian fighters. This was, according to the Canadian War Museum, “the most intense air battle on a single day in the whole war.” (London Illustrated News)

Finally, at about 7:30 a.m., LCT 8 received word it was time to make its run for the beach. Hunter wrote that he and Smith sat together with their backs against the high bulwarks, as my grandfather and his group of medics climbed into the ambulances.

“My tongue was as dry as a piece of leather,” Hunter wrote. “As I lit a cigarette, I looked at Morgan and saw him lighting his pipe. I was somewhat wryly re-assured when I saw his hands trembling as violently as my own.

"He turned to me and said, ‘Ken, you are a damned fool to be here.’ My reply was ‘I’ve known that for a long time.’”

LCT 8 passed alongside a long concrete jetty that forms part of Dieppe’s harbour and scraped in against the steep, stepped beach. The ramp dropped and the first Churchill tank, Ringer, accelerated with a roar and advanced down the ramp onto the beach.

Ringer immediately became mired in the smooth, rounded pebbles, blocking the landing craft’s ramp. Twelve engineers rushed from the landing craft to assist the stuck tank, but heavy machine gun fire cut down at least three men, forcing the rest to retreat back up the ramp.

This photograph shows the view from the southern headlands, looking down at the beach. The concrete jetty can be seen in the distance. The German defenders were able to fire down at the Canadian raiders from these cliffs. (Photo by Rob Alexander)

With the ramp still down, German rifleman and machine gunners fired into the open vehicle well; direct hits and ricocheting bullets bounced off the bulwarks and the tanks, peppering the men inside.

The barge pulled back into the Channel to await further orders. At 8:35 a.m., all alone, LCT 8 emerged from the smoke screen to make its second run towards the beach and the tall chalk cliffs flanking the town.

My grandfather wrote, “As we drew nearer the Beach the second time . . . we were caught in a terrific hail of fire from Shore Batteries, Field Guns, and a constant hail of Machine Gun fire and bursting shrapnel. The wounded and dead were everywhere. The fire grew worse as we drew nearer the shore. We were called to our stations. The motors of our vehicles were again started, and when we were within fifty yards of shore, all hell broke loose.

“The call for stretcher bearers was heard in all directions. We left our vehicles and climbed to the upper parts of the boat.

“On reaching the upper part, a shell exploded which knocked me back to the bottom of the boat – but I was unhurt. I climbed to the top again when another shell hit and blew me the opposite direction – right off the boat, but somehow I caught an Engineer's foot – and was pulled back on again.”

B-Squadron Churchill, Blossom, sits on the beach, its right track damaged by the smooth rocks built up in the wheels and track. Tank Landing Craft No. 5 burns in the background after being knocked out by heavy shellfire. (Rob Alexander collection)

As the ramp began to drop, a shell exploded at the front of the craft, severing the chains. The ramp plunged into the cold water, digging into the sand. The landing craft shuddered to a dead stop 20 yards from the beach.

Shells and mortar bombs were now hitting LCT 8 at a rate of one per minute.

The craft, my grandfather recorded, “was at a complete standstill. The skipper was wounded and ordered ‘Abandon Ship’ and then jumped into the water. The call came up from below to reverse the engines, and seeing no one on the bridge and discovered no living people left – everywhere were dead bodies, some badly mutilated, some not -- I shouted down that there were no living people above deck. I heard a call from the catwalk for help, and ran there to find it crowded with dead and dying men – all wounded, not one uninjured man.

“At this time a little distant from our boat, the sea was dotted with human bodies, held up by Mae West life belts and the Germans were pouring both Machine Gun fire and shells into their midst."

Infantry and tank landing craft make for the beach during the Dieppe Raid of Aug. 19, 1942. One landing craft carrying tanks can be seen to the right of the explosion, while another tank landing craft (unseen in the photograph) is in the middle of that plume of smoke and water. (Alexander family collection)

 

“Our boat was now hopeless,” my grandfather wrote of LCT 8. “All the Naval crew were either killed or blown overboard, and we floated sideways into the Beach, receiving broadsides from all of the shore guns. Machine gun bullets were beating a constant tattoo on the boat. Explosions were occurring inside and out, and at one time the inside of the boat was a sheet of flame.

“Men were blown overboard, many of whom I had just finished bandaging, when I turned back I found had been killed, and nearly all were blown completely off the ship . . . we floated helplessly in front of this range of guns until we were reported to the Navy to be absolutely out of action.”

During the devastating shelling, Maj. Marie Edmond Paul Garneau of the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade, who was also aboard LCT 8, managed to restart the ship’s engine and guide the craft away from the beach, freeing the ramp.

This is a naval chart dated April 15, 1943 of Dieppe and its beach, promenade and harbour. The Calgary Tanks attacked at Red and White Beaches. Red Beach was to the far right of the beach near the harbour jetty, while White Beach faced the casino to the left. (Rob Alexander collection)

With little capability to maneuver, LCT 8 ran parallel to the beach towards the jetty until a motor launch swept in alongside the craft and an engineer who had been blown through a hole in the engine room climbed back aboard and took command. The engineer guided the crippled boat a half-mile out to sea, when a shell hit the hydrogen tanks used to inflate a barrage balloon.

The hydrogen tanks exploded, injuring at least eight men and blowing a five-foot hole in the landing craft’s bulwark above the water line, according to Hunter. Oil and gasoline burned on the deck near the remaining tank. A black plume rose above the landing craft.

By now, over 40 men out of 117 on LCT 8 had been killed or wounded. The smoke stack and bridge had been blown away, and the hull was riddled with holes.

Once LCT 8 was safely out to sea, one of the larger ships in the flotilla lashed the crippled boat to its side and in heavy seas towed it safely back to England.

Churchill tanks of the Calgary Regiment litter the stony beach in this photography taken by a German war photographer, as Tank Landing Craft No. 5 continues to burn well after the raid had ended, the tank troopers had been taken prisoner and the flotilla had returned to England. (Rob Alexander collection)

My grandfather wrote: “Oil, water and blood were over everything – it was an awful mess – one Tank, my (Jeep) and carrier along at the front of the boat. We brought up the rear of the Convoy, being practically the last to leave the French coast, and thanks to Naval and Air Force protection, arrived safely in New Haven harbour without further incident at about 9 p.m. And were taken to our berth by tugs and unloaded at 11:30 p.m.”

My grandfather returned from Dieppe with a wound to his left ankle, a badly bruised tailbone and a cracked jaw. Hunter returned to his headquarters uninjured.

“I was exhausted, since I had not slept for over forty hours,” Hunter wrote. “So, even though I was a dirty, oil-stained apparition, I tumbled into bed and slept for 18 hours.”

My grandfather wrote in a letter home: “Now Dieppe is a thing of history and a memory intermingled with horror and pride at the way in which Canadians can face difficulties.

"Anything I saw in the whole of the last war – and I saw plenty there – nothing can in the slightest compare with (Dieppe).”

*****

Lt.-Col. Kenneth Hunter’s memoir was provided by his son Michael Hunter.

Rob Alexander of Calgary, Alberta is the proud grandson of Capt. Laurence Guy Alexander. He is a writer, editor, historian, and author of a non-fiction book called The History of Canmore. Thank you, Rob, for sharing this incredible account.

*****

STAR WEEKLY AT WAR

The Star Weekly was a Canadian newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. During the Second World War, a colour illustration with a wartime theme appeared on the cover each week. Here’s an image dated January 22, 1942 showing the RCAF attacking a submarine. To see my entire collection of Star Weekly covers, and I'm adding a new one almost every week, click: Star Weekly At War.

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During my research into Canada’s wartime past, I uncovered some fascinating facts and anecdotes. I’ll share them here and welcome feedback and stories of your own.

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