A Bloody Miracle

January 13, 2014 by Legion Magazine

Published in Legion Magazine, August 1982

By Eswyn Lyster

Exclusive Audio Version:

 

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 Regt. 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.

Wearing good battledress, the men boarded a transport one afternoon. As usual, Pte. Red Anderson carried a base plate and sights. When Lieut. Jack Reynolds passed out special tags, Pte. 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.”

The truck headed south on the quiet Hampshire lanes. It was a warm summer’s day, Aug. 18, 1942.

Near 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 Regt. tank crews. 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, Man., 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.

Back at Halnaker Camp, near Petworth, Sussex, Capt. 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 a narrow walkway on the LCT to get a better view. As they cleared the harbor 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.”

“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.

“This is 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.”

Then he distributed escape kits containing waterproof maps and packets of French francs. Fingering the notes, Pte. Bill Simpson said: “This can’t be a scheme. The army doesn’t give money away unless it absolutely has to!”

But with 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.

Eventually one man began writing a letter. Others followed suit and Pittaway wondered how this mail would get to its destination.

“Here, Red, 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.”

The long 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 earthy 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.

At 02:00 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?”

“We can’t,” 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.’

But as 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 quite unaware it had been in the midst of a raiding force.

Just before 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 anti-aircraft fire.

With each 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 touch-down. 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.

“Gees, did I hit you, Bill?” The man was almost in tears.

Lyster was shaken. “You just missed my ass. Save your bloody ammunition for the beach!” he said, sliding down to the comparative safety of the deck.

Pieces of 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.

Now shells 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!”

Another 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 flames.

Anderson 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 wheel-house took a direct hit that killed the second helmsman.

Again 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 the shale. The gates creaked open, the ramp fell and they saw Red Beach.

Rough 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.’

With the 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.

The tanks 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 dead.

Two tanks 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 in to 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.

Aboard LCT 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.

The skipper 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? …”

The tide was rapidly going out. In a few minutes the LCT would be stranded.

“No more 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 signaled 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!”

The 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 coordinate 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.

Most 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.

New British 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.

Word came 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 fires started that day would deprive Frenchmen, already suffering enemy occupation, of several weeks’ tobacco rations.

A bearded 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.

In later years, Lyster, 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 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 death was surely 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.

After 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?”

Pte. 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.”

At Halnaker they had something less than a hero’s welcome. It was necessary to rouse Cpl. Barnes, the assistant quartermaster.

“What the hell did you do with your blankets?” he wanted to know. The strong smell of rum didn’t ease his suspicions.

Pittaway 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 every detail.

“Never mind that,” said Anderson, “how about something to eat.”

When Lyster 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.”

“Lucky?” said Pittaway. “Luck be damned. It’s a bloody miracle.”

Lyster 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 sound asleep.

 

Epilogue

 Next day the entire mortar platoon went on leave. When Anderson put his pass in his pocket he felt the piece of shrapnel, and said: “I wonder what they’ll expect us to do to get the next leave?”

Lieut. Reynolds discovered, quite accidentally, that he’d been officially reported missing. He cabled his wife: “Disregard any rumors. I’m OK.”

Several weeks later he learned, again quite by accident, that a man who returned from Dieppe with a deep bayonet wound to his thigh was in an English hospital facing a self-inflicted would charge. Reynolds gave evidence that resulted in dismissal of the charge.

Skipper T.A. Cook was awarded the DSO for his courage under fire. Two of the ratings who manned the wheel were mentioned in dispatches, as were sergeants W.L. Lyster and B. Pittaway for downing the Messerschmitt.

The war histories sum up the events on LCT 6 by stating that after some initial difficulties the craft reached the beach; that 30 men failed to disembark and, after 15 minutes, the craft withdrew.

 

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