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Calgary Tanks at Dieppe.

"It'll be a piece of cake," Ham Roberts told his officers in the wardroom of the destroyer Calpe as it slipped its moorings and headed out into the Channel in the gathering darkness.

The Commanding Officer of the 2nd Canadian Division was as optimistic as the planners of "Operation Jubilee," a "reconnaissance in force" to Dieppe on the French coast. On the flanks, the Royal Regiment of Canada and the Black Watch would land at Puys and hook inland, while the South Saskatchewans and Cameron Highlanders took Pourville and moved on to Arques-la-Bataille where the local German headquarters was believed to be located. British commandos under Lord Lovat would attack coastal batteries at Berneval and Vasterival.

The main attack, supported by tanks, fighter-bombers and naval gunfire would be launched against the town of Dieppe itself. The Essex Scottish and Royal Hamilton Light Infantry with Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal in reserve and a handful of American Rangers would land along a three-quarter of a mile arc of beach code-named Red and White beaches between the harbour mole and a point just beyond the Casino, a large, isolated building on the municipal promenade behind a low seawall. They would seize and hold the town until sunset, destroy the defences, take prisoners and be safely on their way home on the evening tide.

A TALE TOLD IN PASSING

The crews of the Calgary Tanks, after months of training in the English countryside and on the Isle of Wight, were also optimistic, having been informed that "intelligence reports indicate that Dieppe is not heavily defended and that the beaches in the vicinity are suitable for landing infantry and Armoured Fighting Vehicles." As almost every Canadian knows, Dieppe was a disaster and the infantry regiments were butchered on the beaches. But the Calgary story -- the first amphibious landing of the war involving tanks -- is too often forgotten, or told in passing as a footnote to the battle.

They were equipped with factory-new waterproofed Churchill Mark III tanks with extended intakes and exhausts carrying a crew of five, a six-pounder and Besa machine-guns; tanks that the military historian Correlli Barnett would later condemn as "mechanical abortions that foreshadowed the disastrous car models launched into world markets by the British automobile industry in the postwar era." Built by Vauxhall Motors, the heavily-armoured 40-ton Churchill had been developed in six months but would require another two years to correct design flaws. But on the morning of 19 August 1942, the Churchill's shortcomings were the least of the problems facing the crews.

Landing 15 minutes late due to a navigational error, the tanks were unable to provide close support for the infantry attack already faltering under murderous machine-gun, mortar and artillery fire from the town and gun emplacements on the headlands looming over the beach. Tank commanders had been told to expect a gentle slope made up of soft shale or pebbles "which may be expected to provide a good grip for tracked vehicles." Instead, they were confronted with a one-in-four gradient of slippery iron-hard chert many metres in depth which wreaked havoc with their tank treads. The first nine tanks to land lost their tracks or bogged down. As an after-action German report put it, "the shifting shingle on the beach proved a perfect obstacle, into which the tanks sank easily."

CARNAGE ON THE BEACH

Standing on the turret of "Bellicose" as his landing craft touched down, Lieutenant Ed Bennett saw a group of wounded men on the beach directly in front of him. "They were all gathered in a circle as though they were trying to help each other," he recalled. "And then like a film break a shell landed among them and when the flash disappeared, so had they ... I would have to say that at that point I felt sheer terror." Seconds later, an explosion knocked him to the deck, burning his face and injuring his right eye. Struggling to his feet, he climbed into his tank and started down the ramp followed by "Beefy" and "Bloody."

The beach was shrouded in smoke obscuring landmarks and littered with dead and wounded and tanks with tracks thrown or shot away, bogies and sprockets jammed with rocks. Bennett and his troop started along the shoreline and made it over the seawall onto the promenade, Le Boulevard de Marechal Foch, in front of the hotly-contested Casino. They were unable to break through into the town as the Germans had blocked every street leading from the beach with immense concrete barriers. Engineers and sappers wading ashore with gelignite and detonators to blow the obstacles were cut down on the beach, many of them incinerated as their packs exploded. Holding his swollen eye open with his fingers, Bennett swung his tank around and directed round after round into the Casino and surrounding strong-points.

"Company," "Calgary," and "Chief" landed in good order and opened fire on pillboxes and dug-in tanks. They scored several hits before bogging down. "Cougar," "Cheetah" and "Cat" stalled on the ramp of their landing craft after the crews failed to warm up the engines. Once clear, the leading tank lay down a chespaling track to help the others gain traction. They made it across the beach and over a low point in the seawall.

DIRECT HIT

Sergeant J.W. Marsh of the Black Watch, who was sheltering behind the wall, saw "Cougar" take several hits. "But it kept going," he said. "It went through the wire, but much to my surprise the wire seemed to spring back into place after the weight of the tank passed over it." After coming under fire from a captured French tank cemented into the harbour mole, it returned fire and scored a direct hit knocking the turret askew. "Cheetah" and "Cat" headed for an enemy pillbox slightly to their left. The German defenders ran and were promptly gunned down by the Essex Scottish.

An LCT carrying Churchills with special flame-throwing equipment came under heavy fire just east of the Casino, killing the captain and gun crews and wrecking the wheelhouse. It swung round in the tide and beached broadside. Arms and stores were taken ashore by forming a chain of men in the water. Lieutenant Jerry Wood watched the tanks lurch toward the seawall streaming sparks from shells hitting the turrets, then struggled back aboard after being hit in the shoulder. Mortar bombs crashed into the hold. "What I saw made my head spin," he recalled. "What I looked at was quite as fantastic as the Confederate hospital scene in "Gone With the Wind." The medics moved unobtrusively about their work in the worst mess you could imagine." An LCT coming in alongside was hit while unloading ammunition and was aflame from stem to stern with gasoline cans blowing up at intervals; it drifted away from the beach and sank. Only one landing craft in the second wave survived.

LCol J.C. Andrews, the Calgary's Commanding Officer, landed with the third wave. Moments before touchdown, a shell brought his landing craft's ramp crashing down 20 yards from shore. Thinking the boat had beached, he drove off and drowned his tank in deep water. The crew baled out safely and swam to shore but Andrews was killed at water's edge as he struggled through the surf. His commander's pennant continued to flutter from the radio mast of his submerged tank throughout the battle.

FIRE LIKE HAIL ON A ROOF

Major Gordon Rolfe, the Signals Officer, was towed ashore in a scout car by a tank. When the tank came under heavy fire and suddenly reversed at an anti-tank ditch, it rolled over his car crushing the front end and partially burying the rest. The radios were unharmed and, digging in behind the wreck, Rolfe and a corporal raised their aerials and set up the only communication link between the beach and General Roberts aboard the Calpe.

Of the 30 tanks which were run in, 27 made it ashore. Seven scout cars, including the Medical Officer's "Blitz Buggy," were destroyed on the beach. The seawall posed no major problem as 15 tanks made it up on to the promenade. Dick Clark aboard "Bolster" remembered having "no trouble at all when we got off the landing craft and we went right up to the Casino, although we had no idea we were going to land on a beach with stones the size of baseballs. There were several of us waiting for the order to advance into the town itself. We were just going around in bloody circles, using up our ammo, using up our gas, being shelled, rolling over people."

Ordered back to the beach in the early afternoon, with fire bouncing off them "like hail on a roof," the tanks fought on providing cover for the men pinned down behind the seawall. Lieutenant Jack Dunlap, the commander of "Bill," received a call from Rolfe to lay down smoke to screen the boats coming in to evacuate the troops. "Because my three tanks were a part of the rear-guard that day," he said, "I think my crews knew that the chances of leaving the beach were minimal." Rolfe sent his last signal shortly after 1 p.m. then set signal books and codes afire and blew up the remains of his scout car with a grenade.

TROOPS SURRENDER

Ammunition gone, immobilized, yet safe from small-arms fire and the ineffective German 37mm anti-tanks guns, the crews of several tanks settled down with mugs of tea and waited for the end. Dunlap recalls the final moments in the carnage that was Red Beach:

"When no more boats were seen to be coming in, the gunfire dropped off and became desultory. The whole beach and shoreline were a shambles of broken bodies, beached boats and derelict tanks. We observed troops surrendering west of our position, a movement that gradually swept down the beach toward us. Further resistance seemed futile. As the German troops appeared in our sector, we climbed out of the tank, raised our hands in the traditional manner and gave up."

Ten minutes later, General Roberts sent a terse message to Headquarters, 1st Canadian Corps: "Very heavy casualties in men and ships. Did everything possible to get men off but in order to get any home had to come to sad decision to abandon remainder."

Of the nearly 5,000 men who went ashore that morning, 902 were killed, over a thousand wounded, and 1,900 taken prisoner. Trooper George Volk, a hull-gunner, was the only Calgary to make it back.

In London, the poet Joyce Rowe wrote:

"And news again of men and planes and ships.

But I already know and feel my lips grow cold,

And my heart a hot, hard ball wedged in my throat.

I knew they could not all come back."

And every August, until he died, Ham Roberts would receive a piece of cake in the mail. An anniversary gift from an anonymous and embittered survivor.
COPYRIGHT 1999 S.R. Taylor Publishing
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Author:Twatio, Bill
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Nov 1, 1999
Words:1826
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