Lyster and Pittaway, Qualicam Beach, BC, 1990


Lyster and Pittaway, Qualicum Beach, BC, 1990 The Dieppe Raid on August 19, 1942 lasted only nine hours, but cost nearly 1000 lives. William Lyster and Bert Pittaway of The Calgary Highlanders were “Mentioned in Dispatches”. The navy gunners on their tank landing craft were killed or injured so Lyster and Pittaway took over the anti-aircraft gun and shot down a German aircraft. In 1944 the two sergeants were sent to officer training school in Sandhurst, where they both graduated (Lyster received the Sword of Honour for reaching the top grade). At the time of the photograph they were both living in Qualicum Beach, BC. Eswyn Lyster, a writer and wife of Bill, has kindly provided the following more detailed account: THE CALGARY HIGHLANDER MORTAR PLATOON AND THE RAID ON DIEPPE, FRANCE, 19, AUGUST, 1942 Of the six thousand men taking part in this disastrous raid on German occupied France, nearly five thousand were Canadian. Many books have been written about this action where Canadians suffered heavy casualties; very few record that a small group of Calgary Highlanders took part. That they all eventually got back safely to England allowed them to tell their story. I have been reviewing tapes and notes made in 1977 when I interviewed four men of the Mortar Platoon for an article that eventually appeared in the August 1982 issue of Legion magazine. A remark of Bert Pittaway’s on tape reveals the anonymity these men later felt, sometimes even among their fellow Highlanders – ‘(When speaking of the raid) a lot of people say “Calgary Highlander’s be damned,” but we were a special task force. We were to land on Red Beach and give covering fire to the RHLI . . . ‘ ( For planning purposes the eastern half of the mile-long beach was code-named Red Beach, while the western half was White Beach, with the Casino at its far end. The imaginary division between these two beaches was approximately in line with the tobacco factory, unmistakable among the buildings ashore because of its two tall chimneys.) One reason their comrades expressed disbelief was that the Mortar Platoon had been away for an extended period of time representing the regiment at a mortar school. The various mortar platoons were unaware that the most efficient among them would be chosen to take part in this raid on the coast of France. The rumour of a raid in force had been current ever since earlier in the summer when rehearsals for the raid had been held in great secrecy on the Isle of Wight. Early in July the raid was officially on, but on 7 July, after several days of bad weather, it was cancelled. The assembled troops returned to their bases, and more importantly to their favourite pubs where no doubt a few talked about the rehearsal. Why the raid was suddenly resurrected in August, with far less air and navy support and far less hope of secrecy; why tanks were not tried out in similar conditions before being committed to the sloping Dieppe beach with its deep shale; and why in the first place a frontal assault on a fully defended town was imagined to be feasible, has been the subject of bitter debate ever since. THE RAID In the early evening of 18 August, 1942, when the twenty-one men and an officer of the Calgary Highlander Mortar Platoon embarked on Tank Landing Craft (TLC) 6, Portsmouth harbour was jammed with craft, most of them loaded, or still being loaded, with men and vehicles. Only one of the Calgary Highlanders, Private Rhodes, had been involved in the rehearsal, but when he suggested they might be going to Dieppe he was met with ‘Pull the other leg, Rhodes.’ This group was beginning its third year in England, and like most Canadians were itching to get into the fight, finish the war and be allowed to go home, but surrounded by all this activity they told themselves it was most likely yet another of the interminable training exercises. Already aboard TLC 6 were Churchill tanks code-named BERT, BILL and BOB, and a bulldozer. At least fifteen members of the Calgary Tank Regiment were aboard, including Lt. Jack H. Dunlap commander of the tank BOB. There was also, according to eye witnesses, a company of Essex Scottish, some Toronto Scottish, and men of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps and the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps. At about 0900 hours the craft, skippered by Lt. Thomas Cook, RNVR, moved slowly away from the dock. Once clear of the harbour it joined other TLCs and many other vessels from ports along the south coast, taking their positions according to a master plan. They formed what would be the largest force ever to cross the English Channel, until the armada crossing on D-Day, 1944, would dwarf their numbers completely. Progress was slow, as in all convoys, because speed had to be kept down to that of the slowest vessel. TLC 6 had been riding smoothly for some time in the long twilight when the Calgary Highlander officer, Lt. F.J. (Jack) Reynolds, called his men together. They were going to Dieppe, he informed them, unfolding a map. They would land on Red Beach before sunrise to ensure maximum surprise. ‘We’re to set up at the tobacco factory, here, and give covering fire. At 1100 hours rendezvous here, at the church, and make your way back to the landing craft. Anyone who can’t rendezvous or get off the beach is on his own.’ He then distributed escape kits and packets of French francs. Private Bill Simpson was impressed. ‘This can’t be an exercise, the army doesn’t give money away unless it absolutely has to.’ A few of the men began writing letters, and Sergeant B. (Bert) Pittaway wondered how they imagined their mail would be delivered. ‘Here, Red!’ Someone pushed several pound notes into the hands of an amazed Private T.G. Anderson, paying off a poker debt. ‘Well, I’ll be a hairless Highlander, there should be more raids like this,’ was his comment. The men tried to settle down for the night in any corner they could find, and cursed the army brass which in its wisdom decided that blankets were not required for this short voyage. Anderson tried to make himself comfortable against some sacks which, by the earthy smell,were filled with potatoes. At about 2330 hours the craft slowed and the convoy passed in line astern through a swept section of the permanent minefield. They were then about halfway from their destination. TLC 6 rocked gently as, that obstacle overcome, the maze of ships resumed formation. The moon set at 0200 hours, and all was dark. At 0347 hours all hell broke loose when the lead vessels ran into an 8-vessel German convoy. Star shells burst in the sky and up ahead ships began exchanging fire. There was a tremendous explosion and in the confusion TLC 6 collided with another craft, spinning Anderson across the deck. ‘What the hell do we do now?’ he shouted, ‘Jump overboard.?’ Like many prairie boys he had never learned to swim. ‘We’ve had it,’ thought Pittaway. (On the tape Pittaway and Lyster laugh about the fact there were no lifebuoys or life jackets on board. ‘It was against marine regulations, or something.’) As suddenly as it had begun the firing ceased, and all was darkness once more. The men tried to settle down again, but in every mind was the awful thought that now the German defenses on shore would be expecting them. The diversion had also put them fifteen minutes behind time, minutes that would deny them the cover of the half-light of pre-dawn. Just before dawn Allied light bombers and fighters flew over low, on their way to pound the Dieppe garrisons. Sergeant W.L. (Bill) Lyster had just scrambled up to look over the side when with an ear-splitting roar the four-inch guns of the four escorting destroyers opened fire. Lyster called down: ‘Mortar Platoon, load your rifles.’ The craft was picking up speed and someone set his rifle butt heavily on the deck, perhaps to steady himself. A shot whistled past Lyster, just missing him. ‘Gees, did I hit you Bill?’ the man was almost in tears. ‘You just missed my ass, ‘ came the reply, ‘save your ammunition for the beach!’ They were getting ever closer to shore and up ahead the noise of battle could be heard as the first wave of TLCs landed. Shells clanged against TLC6, and Pittaway called to Anderson and some others who had been helping the galley crew peel potatoes from Anderson’s overnight pillows. They had scarcely joined the rest when the galley received a direct hit blowing an army service corps man into Anderson. They writhed on the deck, covered in a wet, sticky substance. The man shouted in a French-Canadian accent that he had been killed. ‘No you haven’t, you fool . . . ‘ Anderson shouted, ‘It’s those God-damned potatoes.’ Another explosion, this time hitting a smoke cannister, enveloped everyone in thick, acrid smoke. There were shouts of ‘Gas’, and for the second time that morning Pittaway thought: We’ve had it! This time we’ve really had it! But Anderson reaction was: it’s a good job it ‘s only smoke. Their respirators, like their blankets, were back at the mortar school. ‘Scared? You could write a book about how scared I was.’ -Bert PITTAWAY (from the tapes) A shell hit the engine room which burst into flames and in the wheelhouse the helmsman, overcome by fumes, lost control. As the craft swung hard to port Skipper Cook ordered a new man to take the wheel and with difficulty he corrected their course. Anderson manned a hose, only to find it had been shot so full of holes the water went everywhere but on the fire (ironically, in later years he would become Medicine Hat’s fire chief.) Others had better luck and got this fire under control, but the bombardment was increasing. A medic climbing the side to reach a stretcher for one of the casualties lost his balance. Below him stood an infantryman with his bayonet fixed. World War I rifles were still in use, their old-style bayonets long and deadly. As the medic crashed down the bayonet penetrated his thigh, driven in so deeply that, as other medics began working to extract the weapon, Pittaway saw that the tip had lifted the skin on the opposite side. According to Skipper Cook’s report, the new helmsman was killed and again the craft swung wildly off course. A third man suffered the same fate, and yet a fourth man took the wheel and righted their course. TLC 6 ploughed steadily on, at last entering the relative shelter of a smoke screen laid down earlier by the RAF, although many of the marksmen ashore were firing blind into the gloom. Suddenly they came out of the smoke into brilliant morning sunshine and an increasing storm of gunfire. Using a sinking TLC for cover they crossed the last stretch of water and touched down. The gates opened, the ramp fell and most of the men aboard had their first view of Red Beach. (But was it Red Beach? Lt. Dunlap from the vantage point of tank BOB recorded that as the ramp fell he was looking at the Casino, which as has been said, was at the far end of White Beach. Lyster and Pittaway also mention being somewhere between the Casino and the tobacco factory. ) Whatever its code name, the visible part of the beach was littered with dead and dying from the first wave of TLCs. We were just kids, Es. -Bill LYSTER, from the tapes. Dunlap led his tanks ashore. Both Pittaway and Lyster had the impression that they did not get far. The tanks were followed by the first wave of infantrymen, but caught in the murderous fire from the surrounding cliffs only a few made it to the sea wall. The *bulldozer attempted to leave, became stuck, and had to be backed in again. Aboard TLC6 the situation was chaotic, for with the gates till open they were an open target. Reynolds decided that bad as it was on board, it would be suicide to lead his men on to the beach. He ordered the mortars set up right there, but the slope of the deck made their operation impossible. Up on the bridge skipper Cook was still in command but most of his RN crew had been knocked out, including the pom-pom crews. The thirty or so men still on board fought fires, tried to comfort the wounded, and helped pull men aboard who were floundering in the shallow water in front of the craft. The tide was beginning to turn. ‘No more ashore,’ ordered Cook, ‘up ramp.’ But the mechanism had been damaged so, still fully exposed, the craft backed away, turned, and limped towards the anchorage offshore. Here a navy crew came aboard to deal with the worst damage. They were constantly strafed from low-flying aircraft, and volunteers were asked to replace the naval gunners. Lyster and Pittaway were among those who willingly manned the guns. Even in that exposed position they felt better to be hitting back at last. Having no experience with this type of gun it took them a while to co-ordinate the traverse and elevation mechanisms. With Anderson handling the clips of ammunition they practiced firing into the windows of buildings ashore hoping to take out some of the snipers. Every third shell was a tracer which helped considerably. They were told that planes flying below the thick haze which now hung over the battle area were free targets. RAF and RCAF aircraft flying that day had orders to stay above it. Word reached TLC 6 that they were to go back in. In later years Lyster, Pittaway and the rest could not remember how many times they traveled towards the beach, picking up men from the water and from damaged and sinking personnel landing craft that were ferrying other survivors towards them. As they recalled moving back and forth to the hospital ship their only memory was the fear that gripped their empty stomachs. By Anderson’s reckoning it was sixteen hours since they had last eaten. On one of these runs a Messerschmitt came through the smog and dived straight for them. Miraculously getting it into their sights, Lyster and Pittaway saw their tracers strike home. Pouring smoke and flame the plane passed over their heads and crashed into the sea. At last the order came to head back to England. None of the Highlanders remembered much about the return journey. There were seriously wounded men aboard, some of whom did not live to reach port. At one point there was a mild stir when they stopped to pick up a downed airman, and they vaguely remembered being taken in tow when their temporary repairs broke down, but mostly these twenty-two men slept. It was only after they arrived at Newhaven, had been interrogated, and were their way back to their regiment, that it really sank in what a close call they’d had. Nine hours of machine gun fire, heavy artillery, rifle shots, mortar fire and dive bombing; more ammunition concentrated into those nine hours, it is said, than in any similar period in battles Canadians fought later in the war; men hit all around them; yet apart from the scratch on Pittaway’s shoulder and a tear in Anderson’s battledress from a piece of shrapnel, not one of them had been touched. It was, as Pittaway put it, a bloody miracle. Footnote: In the summer of 1943 The Right Hon. R.B. Bennett, a former prime minister, and at the time Honorary Colonel of the Calgary Highlanders, was in England. He presented Pittaway and Lyster with scrolls acknowledging that they had been mentioned in despatches for their part in shooting down the enemy plane. Dunlap, and the other Calgary Tank crews landed by TLC6 who survived the raid, spent the next two years in a prison camp. Two of the helmsmen were also mentioned in despatches. Skipper Thomas Andrew Cook was awarded the DSO. Only a few of the men mentioned in this article are still living. Roberts and Anderson died a few years ago; Pittaway in October, 1995 and Lyster in December, 1996. -Eswyn LYSTER, Qualicum Beach, November 1997

Lyster and Pittaway, Qualicam Beach, BC, 1990

Lyster and Pittaway, Qualicum Beach, BC, 1990 The Dieppe Raid on August 19, 1942 lasted only nine hours, but cost nearly 1000 lives. William Lyster and Bert Pittaway of The Calgary Highlanders were “Mentioned in Dispatches”. The navy gunners on their tank landing craft were killed or injured so Lyster and Pittaway took over the […]
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Lyster and Pittaway, Qualicum Beach, BC, 1990 The Dieppe Raid on August 19, 1942 lasted only nine hours, but cost nearly 1000 lives. William Lyster and Bert Pittaway of The Calgary Highlanders were “Mentioned in Dispatches”. The navy gunners on their tank landing craft were killed or injured so Lyster and Pittaway took over the anti-aircraft gun and shot down a German aircraft. In...


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