“Anyone arriving at Dieppe by modern ferry will at once be struck by the immense walls of cliff that greet you. It makes you realise the tremendous and daunting task that was given to the combined allied forces taking part in that ill-fated raid on Dieppe on 18 August 1942.”
THE words are those of Derek Leather, a Worthing amateur historian, and we were discussing my recent Bygones recollections of the wartime Dieppe raid, which involved many members of the services from this part of the world.
It transpires that Derek, with an almost obsessive interest in the raid since he was a boy, has been researching the subject for years and agrees that what at the time was labelled a total Allied disaster in fact turned out to be a costly – in manpower – but very worthwhile – in knowledge gained – rehearsal for D-Day, two years later.
Derek also pointed out that the raid was an astonishing catalogue of brave acts, the like of which have rarely been encapsulated in so few brief hours of deadly combat.
His researches have produced some priceless quotes from people who lived locally at the time of the raid and knew many of the troops who took part.
Mr P. Watson, of Littlehampton, was one. As a 13-year-old schoolboy, he befriended Canadian troops quartered in the houses and hotels in South Terrace, Littlehampton. Many belonged to the Royal Regiment of Canada.
“I remember my mother telling them they were to feel free to come into our house whenever they wished, for a cup of tea and relax and make it their home, which several of them did.
“They would bring us children huge comics so that we could follow the exploits of Dick Tracy. They would also give us sweets, which, of course, were on ration, and there were the cards from packets of cigarettes, showing aircraft silhouettes.
“When they went off on the Dieppe Raid, we hoped they would go in, fight the Germans, and blow up some important installations and come back without many losses. Instead, we later learned they had been pinned down on the beach and most had been killed, wounded or captured.
“We heard the fate of two of our friends, Dave the stretcher-bearer, who was taken prisoner, and Ray, who had one of his hands shot off. It was sad to know that so many likeable men were either dead, wounded or taken prisoner and that they had been unable to give the Jerries the lesson they hoped to.”
Canadian troops formed the main spearhead of the Dieppe Raid, with British commandos given the task of silencing the German defensive guns. Many of them had been billeted in Worthing and Mr Miles, then a young lad living in the town, befriended those who were billeted in Park Crescent.
“We used to be given big, blue bags of dried fruit; currants, raisins and sultanas. I had my first oranges off them. I had never seen an orange before in my life.
“They gave me cigarettes, with strict instructions not to smoke them but ‘take them home to your father’. They were in green packets and had pictures of aeroplanes on the back, which we used to tear off and swap at school.
“We used to go and clean their gear and polish their brasses and boots, clean up their leather and that sort of thing.
“Many of the Canadians had double-edged knives and they used to sit honing them and dragging them across the chin to see if they were sharp enough to shave with. I know they were restless and rather bored. They wanted to have a go at fighting the war.
“If only they had known what was in store for them.”
Mr Parnell, of East Preston, was landlord of The Three Crowns pub during the war years. “The French-Canadians were a pretty rough lot, many of them could not speak English. Some of our regulars did not get on too well with them.
“I used to tell the troops, ‘You know what will happen if you start a racket. I will put the pub out of bounds and then you’ll have nowhere to go.’ That was generally sufficient to calm them down.
“Many times, I found them very generous. Because of rationing, I never had any cigarettes to supply my pub customers, but it didn’t really matter while the Canadian troops were here. They had packets of 200 and the ‘locals’ were only too pleased to buy them at half price!”
While researching the background to the raid, Derek Leather was told by Mrs M. L. Rishworth, of Worthing, “The Canadians who came here were very much-loved boys.
“One night, in the Ball Tree public house, at Sompting, just before they left for the beaches of Dieppe, several of the soldiers walked in and each had knifed a single letter of the alphabet in the hair on the back of their heads. When they stood in line, it spelled the word VICTORY.
“TwO of our special friends came from St Johns, in Newfoundland, and they were staying in one of Worthing’s seafront hotels before embarkation. We never did hear if they survived. . .”
A Mr Aldridge, of Worthing, sounded an ominous note.
He told Derek Leather his uncle, who, in 1942, was a company commander in the Home Guard, had told him he was 100 per cent sure the Germans knew about the Dieppe raid a few days before it took place. It was leaked to them, he said, at the Cissbury Hotel in Findon Valley, which, in 1942, was a Canadian officers’ mess or a company headquarters.
He insisted it was there, through a Nazi spy or sympathiser, the Germans were tipped off about the Dieppe Raid. The rumour remains just that. It has never been proven.
Of the action in Dieppe during the raid itself, Derek Leather has discovered a mass of detail about the courageous actions of individual units, so much that they made the basis of a small privately printed book.
Under a blanket of the tightest security, more than 200 small vessels took more than 5,000 men on the Dieppe Raid on that fatal morning of August 19, 1942. Their fate was probably sealed by bad luck, when, at 3.47am, and only seven miles off the German-occupied French coast, they were spotted by the lookouts of a small convoy of armed German ships. They obviously raised the alarm among the German troops ashore.
This is not the place to detail all the heroism the next few hours were to witness but many medals for gallantry and valour were ultimately awarded, including at least two VCs.
Mr Miles recalled the Canadians and British Commandos who escaped, to return from the audacious attack.
“There were hundreds of casualties. Those who couldn’t be found places here went on down the line to different hospitals.”