DIEPPE - TRAINING PERIOD
On May 18, the S.Sask.R. embussed for Southampton and moved thence by boat to Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Battalion Headquarters was established in Norris Castle near Osborne, one of Queen Victoria's favourite summer homes. Although the battalion did not know it, the 2nd Canadian Division had been selected to carry out a raid on Dieppe, and special training for this operation was about to begin.
Rugged assault training started immediately and consisted of forced speed marches, enarmed combat, breeching wire obstacles, street fighting, night compass work, and countless hours of practising landings from A.L.C.s. These small scraft were floated from a "Mother Ship" and were the same type as used by Commandos in their raids on enemy shores. The two landing ships alloted to the S.Sask.R. were the "Princess Beatrix" and the "Prince Albert."
The speed marches with full battle equipment soon made twelve miles in three hours a common occureence and helped put the men in tip-top condition. The Intelligence Section were kept busy learning German orders of battles, uniforms and identification, etc.
Enemy air stations were active daily, and several air raids on Southampton and Portsmouth were seen from the campsite.
Major 'Lefty' White attended one of those raids in person, nattily clothed in purple pyjamas and tin hat, thus providing a comic touch to the scene.
On 12th June, Exercise "Yukon 1" was the first of two full dress rehearsals for the raid on Dieppe. Although the troops and officers did not, at the time, know of the actual planned raid, most believed something to be "in the wind." Much to the amazement of the English officers refereeing the Exercise, the whole battalion got through the actual coastal minefields without a casualty.
Lieutenant-General Montgomery and Major-General Roberts made repeated visits to the training areas and were spectators at the final exercise "Yukon 2" when the Force made an assualt landing on the coast of Dorsetshire. The very rough trip in the A.L.C.s made more than a few good prairie men wish they had never seen the sea. HOwever, the exercises were carried out in good order and General Montomery congratulated all ranks on their showing.
On 1st July, the Battalion embarken on what was to be their final exercise of assualt training. Nothing happened until 3rd July when Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, came on board and spoke to the troops. He told them that only the weather would hold up a real raid on the town of Dieppe, France. Excitement ran wild as everyone realized at last "this was it." Detaild maps and orders were issued and studied by all ranks. All eyes were cast seaward for "weather." Finally on 7th July the raid was called off due to unsuitability of the weather for dropping off paratroops to protect our flanks. Disappointment was intense everywhere as the battalion went back to Norris Castle. Two days later it moved back to Wykehurst on the mainland. The troops all received a privilege leave to blow off steam after the extensive training program.
On 13th July, Sgts. Louis Greer and Vic Schubert were dispatched to Canada for O.C.T.U. course.
On 21st July, Major Kempton was posted to 2nd C.D.I.R.U. as Chief Instructor with rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. So again passed another of the original officers of hte regiment into higher army service. He, like Lt.-Col. Wright, seemed to be a very part of the flesh and blood of the unit. He was keenly disappointed on not going into "action" with the men with whomhe had trained from the beginning. Major Jim McRae's appointments as 2 i/c proved to be a very wise choice by Colonel Merritt.
On 1st August, the regiment moved into a tented camp at Toat Hill, near Pulborough, Sussex, which was to be a very wet, muddy place.
Training tempo had eased off somewhat and most of the men had had a well earned leave. On 17th August the planned exercise "Ford I" was cancelled. This was to have been a training transport move.
On 18th August, a sudden move order for exercise "Ford II" was received. This in reality was the highly secret security measure used to cover up the movement of troops to South Coast ports. Only the regimental senior officers, five in number, knew that this was to be the real Dieppe Raid. On arrival at Southampton the troops loaded on board the Princess Beatrix and the Invicta and the old maps and plans were studied and discussed again with redoubled fervour. This time weather was not the criterion as two commandos were to be used on the flanks instead of the paratroops. This was IT.
This was operation "JUBILEE."
This was to be a "Reconnaissance in Force" to test the great West Wall Defenses of Germany. Dieppe was picked because it was so typical of almost all the Channel ports and really suitable to test invasion equipment and tactics.
The Force was composed principally of Canadians from 4th and 6th Brigades of 2nd Canadian Division and the Calgary Tank Regiment. Detachments from the Black Watch, the R.C.A. and other arms, the Royal Marine 'A' Commando, and Nos. 3 and 4 Commandos together with a few American and French personnel completed the military component.
The role of the S.Sask.R. was to land astride the River Scie to the west of Dieppe at the village of Pourville and to establish a bridgehead through which the Queen's Own Camerons of Canada, were to pass an attack an airport and what was believed to be a division headquarters.
"B" Company, less one platoon, had the important job of clearing the left half of the village as quickly as possible. It was then to come into battalion reserve. Lieutenant Cunningham's platoon was allotted an objective on the right bank of the Scie River on the left of "C" Company. This is occupied successfully.
"A" and "D" Companies on the left flank were to be landed on the east side of the small River Scie and secure the high ground around a large R.D.F. station and along to the 'Farm of The Four Winds.' With these companies was a small Special Force under Lieutenant Les England who were to attack the R.D.F. station and secure, if possible, vital equipment and records.
On the right flank, "C" Company, with Lieutenant Cunningham's platoon from "B" Company, were to clear the right part of the village and secure the high ground along the right of the Scie Valley.
The final withdrawal was to be through the town of Dieppe, itself, and for this purpose the battalion, after the Camerons of C. had passed through, was to occupy a defensive position around The Farm of the Four Winds on the high ground controlling the left bank of the long valley of the river. It was thus to prevent counter-attack reaching into Dieppe during preliminary evacuation.
The launching of the landing craft from the landing ships went as smoothly as an ordinary exercise. The only event to mar the operation had been an unfortunate accident on the Invicta when a grenade exploded among members of Lieutenant Kempton's platoon in "C" Company, resulting in early casualties.
Nearing the coast, an unexpected sea battle on the far left flank of the fleet provided a spectacular prelude to the battle to come. Long lines of tracers and gun flashes streaked across the blackness of the night. Strange to see, too, was the blinking of the light house tower away off on our right. This apparently never had been extinguished during German Occupation.
At 0450 hours the Battalion landed on the gravel beaches in front of the sea wall at Pourville. The noise of running men in the heavy shingle sounded like thunder after the quietness of the approach, but apparently the garrison had been taken by surprize. It was a few moments before fire opened up but by that time all troops were safely under the lee of the high wall and cutting wire entanglements prior to attacking over it.
In the semi-darkness "A" and "D" Companies were landed West of the river instead of to the East and a good deal of the surprise element of battle was lost to these groups. It meant also that the companies must proceed through the village and across the river by bridge before assualting their vital ovjectives on the high ground overlooking the battle area.
"A" Company soon scaled the wall and moved off towards the high ground of their objectives. Some trouble was caused by a small bit of swampy ground but they used a local smoke screen and ran around it. A strong-point in a Pill-Box help up further advance until Pte. Charles Sawden rushed it alone and threw grenades into the holes of the Pill-Box, killing all six of hte garrison. In the meantime, "C" Company had cleared the village and captured 'La Maison Blanche' and taken a number of prisoners. Lieutenant Kempton's platoon established itself on the high ground to the right after minor skirmishes. Later on "C" Company was attacked by a large detachment of the enemy. It held its position until it received an order to withraw to the village. In this action, Lieutenant Kempton was killed while covering the withrawal of his wounded Sgt.
"B" and "D" Companies went through Pourville until they reached the bridge over the Scie River. Here they were help up by extremely heavy fire from mortar and machine guns. Some men managed to get across the bridge and a few others swam the river, but the whole attack had bogged down at the bridge.
Lieutenant-Colonel Merritt came along to see what the trouble was. Quickly sizing up the situation, he took off his helmet, which ahd always bothered him when under stress, and walked out on to the bridge and shouted out - "Come on, boys, they can't hit a thing. Come on, let's go over," and then proceeded to walk up the open road and across the bridge. Seeing this inspiring act of courage, the men got up out of the cover to charge across and up to the bottom of the high ground below the enemy positions. For this and other supreme acts of bravery, Colonel Merritt was later awarded the Victoria Cross. He was the first Canadian to be awarded this decoration in "Second World War."
"B" and "D" Companies were now pressing on, fighting savagely. They delivered a number of attacks on "The Farm of the Four Winds," eventually overcoming the numerous pill-boxes covering the area with fire. Colonel Merritt personally led some of these attacks, as did Major McTavish. One particular bastion was knocked out by Pte. Fenner, who walked stright up to it firing his Bren gun from the hip and then into the openings.
Progress, however, had been very slow and the objectives around the R.D.F. station remained in enemy hands.
Several outstanding acts of heroism were performed during those seven hectic hours.
At one spot, a platoon of enemy with four machine guns and a mortar, were holding a small sloping hill which Lance Corporal Berthelot and his platoon were trying to take. He and Pte. Haggard talked the situation over and decided to take the war into their own hands. Haggard gave early covering fire and Berthelot walked up the slope firing his Bren gun from the hip and then shooting down into the weapon pits until all were silence. Single handed, he had killed twenty-five Germans, and taken thirty prisoners. A few yards away, Corporal Scotty Mathieson with a Tommy gun advanced on a small post and added more scalps and prisoners of war to the platoon score.
Lieutenant England had been wounded and after being evactuated a short distance by stretcher bearers, Colonel Merritt picked him up and carried him through machine gun fire, later transferring him to Pte. Earl Williams who carried him to the regimental aid post. Seeing this display of coolness, the detachment went forward into another action.
Pte. "Silver" Stewart was stalking along a street. He spotted two of the enemy in a doorway about to ambush an S.Sask.R. patrol. In a flash he made a short headlong rush at the Jerries and slashed them to ribbons with his bayonet.
Corporal Joe Gregory had been covering the whole battalion area with his constant and accurate sniper fire. His exploits earned him the Military Medal but at the cost of one eye. Joe, later, was sent to Canada where he made many speeches across Canada on the behalf of the Canadian Army.
The first prisoner to be brought into Battalion Headquarters was a German Stretcher Bearer with his arm blown off by a grenade. Before the raid was an hour old, prisoners were being checked and guarded by the Intelligence and Provost Sections. Some French women in rather scanty attire had been rounded up in a house with partying German soldiers and added some moments of humour to this scene.
A mortar-bomb landed in the yard at Battalion Headquarters and a number of prisoners of war were killed. It may have been the bodies of these that were the excuse for Canadians being put into chains in German prison camps later on.
Fory minutes after the S.Sask.R. had landed and firmly secured the beachhead, the Queens Own Camerons landed and had the misfortune to have their commanding officer killed instantly as he stepped off the landing craft. The Camerons re-organized and attempted to proceed up the river valley towards the airport and Divisional Headquarters beyond but were only able to progress a mile beyond the billage of Pourville before meeting heavy resistance.
About noon orders came through to withdraw to the beach to be taken back to the landing ships, but by this time the enemy had extra fire-power mounted on the high cliffs ocerlooking the beach. A constant stream of metal was poured across the front and the boats could only be reached by runing across a hundred yards of open beach and through this hail of fire. The tide was reaching its low ebb and the small landing craft had a difficult time approaching through a curtain of fire and amid conflicting currents and shallows. Nevertheless, The Royal Navy brought their boats in despite all hazards and performed heroic feats in attempting to take the wounded men off under fire. Several boats received direct hits from mortars and many wounded men were machine gunned as they crawled or hobbled to the water edge. Again and again the Navy boys came in. They picked up as many men as they could and put them on the destroyers. They desisted only when orders came to abandon further attempts at rescue and sail for England. The Military and Naval Commanders sent these orders when it appeared that their rescues might only result in losing some of the men already on shipboard. German aircraft were continually attempting to bomb and strafe the beaches and the Fleet, but the R.A.F. were out in strength and kept a large umbrella of protection overhead at all times.
Lieutenant Les England had been severely wounded and had been put aboard a destroyer. He recovered consciousness to see a gaping hole at the water line near him and the water pouring in. He decided that he was in the wrong spot so he climbed through the hole into the water. He was then picked up and put on another craft. This was typical of many such incidents during that hectic evacuation. The S.Sask.R. had been more fortunate than other battalions of the Division. Of the 25 officers and 498 other ranks who had landed, 13 officers and 340 other ranks returned to England. Of this number, 7 officers and 159 other ranks were wounded. Lieutenants Dawson, Woolard, and Kempton had been killed. Listed as prisoners of war were Lt.-Col. Merritt, Majors McTavish, Orme and Lieutenants Currie, Conn and Cunningham. The casualties had been high and totalled 19 officers and 321 other ranks of the 523 who had landed:
Killed: 3 officers, 81 other ranks.
Wounded: 7 officers, 160 other ranks.
P.W.: 9 officers and 80 other ranks.
There were 24 wounded among the prisoners of war.
After the last boat had left the beaches, Lt.-Col. Merritt organized a defensive position along the seawall, which held out some time before capitulating.
When a surrender of the remaining forces appeared to be imminent, Colonel Merritt asked if anyone had a white flag. Major E. W. 'Lefty' White spoke up and said it was very much against his grain to show a white flag. He suggested Corporal Joe Waner, as an interpreter, give instructions to a prisoner to go out and tell the enemy to come in peacefully and take the surrender. Colonel Merritt agreeded to this plan and the action was carried out.
Walking down the road after the surrender, Major White put his arm around the very dejected Corporal Coxford's shoulders and said, "Well, Alf, we will see if these Jerries can play ball, eh?"
The remnants of the battalion and those of the Camerons were assembled and marched into Dieppe. They were eventually transported to prison camps in Germany.
Many interesting stories are told of incidents happening in the prison camps. In one of the assemblies shortly after the capture, the Germans ordered the prisoners to be "on parade" for some reason or other, and the men were slowly slouching to obey. Lt.-Col. Merritt called Sgt.-Maj. Dinty Moore to him and told him the S.Sask.R. would parade correctly and smartly at all times. The Sgt.-Maj. saluted smarty and, stinging under the Colonel's biting words, turned to the parade ground and barked his commands off in ceremonial drill fashion. The effect was magical and the men caught the spirit of the show and marched smartly out, formed into their groups and the parade was turned over smartly to Lt.-Col. Merritt, thus throwing defiance into the face of the enemy even in defeat.
Captain Osten became chief keeper of the distillery in his camp and apparently was very efficient. An ironically humorous story is told of Osten and a fellow Australian Kriegie. They slept on the two top bunks of the three tiered beds with a self-appointed "saver of souls" on the bottom deck. It was Christmas Eve, 1943, and Osten brew was taking hold, so the "soul-saver" decided it would be best if he slept on the top bunk to be out of the way in case of "accidents" from the celebrants. In the middle of the night he sung out of bed to answer the usual Kriegie thrice nightly "call of nature," forgot how high he was, crashed to the floow, breaking his arm, much to the amusement of the revellers.
The Canadian Kriegies were handcuffed and chained during daylight hours for 408 days in retaliation for the tying of German prisoners of war at Pourville. Many amusing yarns of Houndini tricks are told of the skill achieved in discarding the bindings whever the guards disappeared. Major McTavish was particularly noted for his exploits.