It’s been more than 60 years now, but as August 19 approaches each year, the memories keep flooding back for a dwindling group of Canadians who took part in a World War II raid which many say should never have happened in the first place.
Campbell River resident and former Calgary Tanks trooper Leaman Patterson is one of them.
For Patterson, his first engagement with the enemy, on the shell-torn beach of the French seaside resort of Dieppe, was his last. The tank he drove was among the last to arrive and the battle was already well under way when finally the ramp went down on the Tank Landing Craft (TLC) he was aboard. Patterson’s taste of warfare lasted only a scant four or five hours after that. He then spent close to three years as a prisoner of war.
Speaking of the tragedy of the 1942 Dieppe Raid a few days ago, Patterson told me that he has heard a wide assortment of reasons put forward for the doomed attack over the years. He’s not sure what to believe, but he knows and recognizes that sometimes in war, soldiers – sometimes hundreds of them – have to be sacrificed to make a point, perhaps as much with an army’s allies as with the enemy.
Many of the men who fought and died or were wounded and captured that summer’s morning had impulsively joined Patterson’s regiment as it was sent to training at Camp Borden in Ontario. They had heard that they, already enlisted in other forces, were probably going to be left behind while the Calgary Tanks went abroad to the fighting. So they leapt at the chance to join the Calgary Tanks.
And then, almost to a man, they were slaughtered in the Dieppe raid.
Rain of fire
The raid was a combined-forces operation with almost all Canadian ground-troops. The Calgary Tanks and their machines were expected to stay behind to try to give cover and covering fire to the retreating infantry as the British Navy tried desperately to take them off the beach, back to the safety of England.
The evacuation too brought more than its share of danger and death. On the steeply sloping beach, there was some cover from the deadly fire of the Germans in the town. When the retreating troops moved out to get aboard the waiting evacuation vessels, they were seen to come under devastating fire.
“I saw one craft. They were just pulling out and the Germans just dropped a mortar shell right on it and they were likely all killed,” Patterson said.
It was not the first or the last time he saw men killed and wounded that day as the Germans rained fire down on the invading troops from the tall buildings of the once-peaceful casino town and from the gun emplacements on the top of the high, sheer cliffs at each end of the small, deep bay.
“We didn’t really hear very much when the ramp went down on the TLC (Tank Landing Craft). There was some racket of the battle but we didn’t hear much because of the tank engines,” Patterson said, remembering the roar given off by two other tanks on the landing craft with him.
By then it was broad daylight. The attack had been meant to go in before dawn, under cover of darkness.
All three tanks in the TLC Patterson was aboard had been fully sealed in case they landed in five or six feet of water, and they had to blow their sealing off explosively once they reached the beach.
It was immediately after blowing that seal that Patterson saw his first death through the three-inch perspex of his driver’s slot.
“The first casualty I saw was a young engineer I had been chatting to the night before, who was meant to go up and blow up the concrete obstructions the Germans had put there. He tried to crawl up the bank (of the beach) with his explosives. His explosives kit was hit and was blazing. He must have been in agony. I’m glad I couldn’t hear him screaming.”
When it was his Churchill tank’s turn to leave the landing craft, Patterson followed the other two as they made towards the town. The others managed to get out of the sight of the deadly fire into the initial part of the town before the German gunners could get the range. But as Patterson steered after them and crested the bank of the beach, the tank instantly took a direct hit on its exposed front, totally destroying the steering column in his hands.
Patterson estimates his group had been on the beach no more than about five minutes. He was momentarily knocked unconscious by the blast and his co-driver alongside him received a neck wound which was pumping blood until they slapped a field dressing on it.
But the tank, which had been knocked some 30 feet back down the slope by the blast, was still operable. The steering was gone but it could still move backwards and forwards and the turret and its gun were still in good working order. So, directed by an officer on the beach picking targets, the tank, given the name Canny, popped up to fire a two-pound shell at selected targets and then quickly fall back behind the cover of the cobble-stone beach. That continued for some hours, until the tank had to be abandoned and one of the crew tossed in a special explosive to disable it and prevent it from falling into enemy hands.
“I got separated from the rest of the crew after that,” Patterson recalled. “We were all in a shell-hole and when I came out there was nobody around. I later remember being in a shell-hole and they were trying to get me with a mortar. They were getting pretty close too. I think I must have been a bit shell-shocked, because they found me wandering about the beach (after the cease-fire and surrender).”
Witness to execution
It was after that, Pattterson recalls, that he happened to witness a German officer execute one of his own men. The young private had been looting the Canadian dead and prisoners, taking anything he could. When he took a prisoner’s picture of his wife or family and the Canadian asked for it back, the private ripped it in two.
“The officer might just have come out of officer’s training - he was immaculate,” said Patterson. “He spoke to this private and the guy turned around, and the officer shot him right in the head, right in front of me. I have to admit I didn’t think much about it. He put his gun in his holster and looked a little sick and then just walked off.”
Patterson had been slightly but painfully wounded in the face by the mortar-shelling among the beach’s cobble-stones, and he was put into hospital in Rouen for a few days by his German captors. The Germans soon decided that Patterson was “malingering” as he put it, and he was then sent to catch up with the hundreds of other troops from the raid who were in holding camps waiting to be sent to POW camps. Those camps turned out to be not in Germany, but Poland.
Patterson therefore found himself on one of the infamous Death Marches with other POWs, as the Germans retreated before the Russians in the final stages of the war. For him the march began Robbie Burns’ Day in late January 1945 and lasted through to May, when he was finally liberated.
Patterson said he found life in the two POW camps he was mostly boring, with poor rations and food. He recalls seeing a sergeant escape carrying a small suitcase one day while the prisoners set up a diversion for the guards by staging a wrestling match. The most anxious time was when the prisoners from Dieppe were ordered tied up because some captured Germans had been tied up with short lengths of string - contrary to the Geneva Convention on the treatment of POWs - for taking back to England.
“After some weeks, Hitler ordered that they change that to (wrist) shackles and that went on for months,” said Patterson. “That was an anxious time because we didn’t know what to expect or what they were going to do with us. Eventually there was a prisoner exchange and the [German] prisoners from Canada told how well they had been treated over here, so they took the shackles off. We had to wear them from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and we used to use the key from bully-beef cans to unlock them. I spent a couple or three hours chained to a tree outside once or twice for going without my shackles.”
Was it necessary?
Patterson said while he remains unclear about the exact purpose of the raid, he thinks the commanders probably knew it was going to be a massacre but went ahead with it anyway, to draw pressure off the besieged Russians at Stalingrad and to make a point to the Russians that the Allies in England were not ready yet to mount a Second Front on the Atlantic coastline of Europe. No other frontal attack was ever made from the ocean on a fortified port during the rest of the war, and the D-Day invasion took place on beaches away from towns.
“I think it was probably done on purpose,” the 84-year-old said without apparent bitterness. “As you know, in warfare, to sacrifice 600 or 700 men to gain a point is peanuts and I believe it was to show the rest of the world we were not ready.”
Patterson said one other thing many of the tank commanders and drivers were not ready for was the cobble stones of the beach on Dieppe, which piled up on the tracks of many of the tanks, were carried round into the drive wheels, and there caused the tracks to snap and break.
Fortunately for him, he said, he and the people in the tanks in the troop aboard his landing craft were from agricultural parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan, used to working with tractors and tracked vehicles on farms. They spotted the danger and warned others not to turn their tank too sharply, to avoid the big stones piling up on the tracks.
His background on a farm in Alberta had served him well, but he still counts himself lucky not to have been among the 907 soldiers killed in the brief battle that day. A total of 119 Allied aircraft were also lost in an air-battle overhead, 13 of them from eight Canadian squadrons.
“A lot of good men went to meet their Maker that day,” he said.
Campbell River journalist Quentin Dodd is a regular contributor to The Tyee.