Yellow Beach at Berneval-le-Grand

YELLOW Beach — Berneval-le-Grand

Wednesday, 19th August 1942

The Goebbels Battery

The Goebbels Battery, which consisted of three 170-mm and four 105-mm French guns captured in 1940, was located near Berneval-le-Grand about half a mile (0.8 km) from the sea. There was an observation post built on the cliff and the Goebbels Battery had been turned into a Stützpunkt (strongpoint). The estimated strength of the Goebbels Battery was approximately 130 coastal defence troops, who were billeted in nearby villages, who had to provide their own defensive positions; including machine gun and flak positions.

The Plan

No 3 Commando's plan to assault the Goebbels Battery was very simple. The main force was to land under Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Salter, their Commanding Officer, on YELLOW I beach and a secondary force under the Second-in-Command, Major Peter Young, was to head for the smaller YELLOW II beach where they would land and make their way up the cliff under cover of darkness via a path in a steep gully. Once on the cliff top, both of these groups would silently infiltrate around the flanks of the battery and attack it from the rear; surprise was key to their success.

Lt Col John Durnford-Slater and Major Peter Young

Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater and Major Peter Young.

What Happened

As Naval Group No 5, which was convoying the 325 men of No 3 Commando, 40 US Rangers and five Free Frenchmen from 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando, crossed the English Channel they had a chance encounter with a German convoy en route from Boulogne to Dieppe. The enemy convoy consisted of a coastal tanker and four freighters escorted by three minesweepers or armed trawlers. Typically, these escort vessels were equipped with a 37mm dual-purpose gun, four 20mm cannon, and several 12.7mm machine guns. The German escort vessels opened fire on the flotilla of landing craft and in the confusion that followed four of the landing craft were damaged and forced to turn back, seven others were dispersed and the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Durnford-Salter, was left marooned aboard the damaged SGB 5 with no communications. Thus the bulk of the commando force never made it to their intended destination and the necessary element of surprise they relied upon for the success of their plan was lost. Just seven LCPs pressed on towards Berneval-le-Grand intent on carrying out their mission.

Six of the landing craft carried 120 men, mainly from F Troop, and Captain Richard Willis took overall command; they were accompanied by the motor launch ML 346 and Landing Craft Flak No 1. This small force made its way towards the low section of cliff in front of Petit Berneval. Here at 05:10 hrs, 20 minutes behind schedule and in virtual daylight, they began their approach to unload onto YELLOW I beach. As they approached the defending Germans from III/571 Infanterie-Regiment opened fire with their rifles and a machine gun. A frantic fire-fight ensued and many of the Commandos were killed trying to exit their LCPs.

On the final run-in to YELLOW I, ML 346 and Landing Craft Flak No 1 did their best to suppress enemy positions on the cliff top, in order to cover the landing craft. On the cliff top was a large white house and what looked like a small chapel. These appeared to be used as cover for the enemy machine gunners and they were heavily engaged by ML 346's 3-pounders, Oerlikon and Lewis guns, and set on fire.

Captain Wills' men dashed across the beach towards the gully exits. Their intended exit was blocked with coil upon coil of dannert wire, laced with Teller mines on trip wires. Finding a second seemingly less heavily wired gully, Captain Wills set his men to work with wire cutters; it was a slow process, but the commandos forced their way up the cliff. As soon as they reached the top, they came under fire from German machine guns and Captain Wills was badly wounded, having been hit in the neck. Corporal 'Banger' Hall charged the enemy machine gun position and single-handed, in a near-suicidal charge, dealt with it using hand grenades and finishing off the opposition with his commando knife. Lieutenant Edward Loustalot, US Rangers, attacked the second position, but he was not so lucky and became the first American soldier to be killed in the European theatre of operations.

Lieutenant Edward Loustalot, US Rangers

Lieutenant Edward Loustalot, US Rangers.

Reinforced by twenty additional men from the sixth LCP under the command of Lieutenant Dreus, the commandos started to push on inland towards their objective. However, with the country offering shorter fields of fire than they had been able to appreciate from maps and photographs, movement towards the battery was slow.

By now III/571 Infanterie Regiment had begun to gather their forces and reinforce their cliff top positions. They had also called in close air support intent on forcing the invades back into the sea. The first reinforcements to arrive was a machine gun team sent forward to reinforce the defending German section. These were quickly followed up by eight men from a nearby Luftwaffe post that, lacking proper infantry training, soon fell victim to the highly trained commandos. Next came German fighter-bombers which raked the cliff tops with cannon fire. It was not long before the well-rehearsed German counterattack plans swung into action. Major von Blucher, the commander of the divisional reconnaissance and anti-tank battalion, had under command a company of his own men mounted on bicycles and a company of vehicle-borne infantry from 570 Infanterie Regiment in trucks, along with a company of engineers in the infantry role. In the face of this overwhelming force the commandos began to give ground.

As the German infantry closed in the men of No 3 Commando began to withdraw across the 500 yards or so back to the top of the gully up which they had climbed. During this fighting withdrawal they took a number of casualties including two more of the US Rangers, Lieutenant Joseph Randall and T-4 Howard Henry. Those that were wounded had to be left behind and were soon prisoners of the Germans. Captain Wills was carried down to the beach by Private Lerigo, but when they reached the beach it was apparent that there was no prospect of the few remaining wooden LCPs closing into the beach to pick up the surviving commandos. Captain Wills ordered the remaining commandos to head west along the beach to meet up with the Canadians at Puys. The Germans, however, had other ideas and they cut the commandos escape route forcing them into a cave. The Germans on reaching the cave fired into its entrance forcing the surviving commandos to surrender.

The other remaining landing craft, LCP(L) 15 commanded by Lieutenant Buckee of the Royal Navy Reserve, carried 20 men from No 6 Troop under Major Peter Young. As they approached the cliffs they spotted their intended landing beach, YELLOW II, and made for it. This smaller party of three officers and 17 men was armed with ten rifles, six Bren light machine guns, three Boys anti-tank rifles and two 2-inch mortars.

Major Young's small force fared better than that of Captain Wills and landed undetected within fifty yards of the exit in the near darkness five minutes before zero hour. The exit, which was via a steep path up a gully, was predictably blocked with coils of dannert wire piled ten feet high. The gully beyond was laced with some particularly vicious-looking barbed wire, which was pinned to the cliff by stout stakes.

Lacking the means to blow a route through or cutting the wire, Major Young's small force was faced with the challenge of picking their way through this obstruction. They climbed up the gully using the German wire as a rope and the iron stakes which secured it as a ladder. A rope made from joined toggle ropes by Drive J Cunningham also proved useful at one difficult point. After twenty minutes they had reached the top, cut and bleeding and with their uniforms torn, where Major Young scanned the sea with his binoculars. He spotted ML 346 and its small gaggle of craft heading for YELLOW I and felt that the original plan was still viable.

Sketch map of the action at YELLOW beach

Sketch map of the action of Major Peter Young's small group at YELLOW beach.

Thus reassured, Major Young led his small group inland towards the designated RV point where they took cover in the wood. After a quick recce, Major Young decided to move his men to Bruneval-le-Grand to meet up with the commandos coming ashore at YELLOW I. They had not gone far when the massive 170 mm guns of the battery opened fire. At the Bruneval — Dieppe road they stopped a frightened French boy who was on his way to fetch the doctor to treat his injured mother; she had been wounded by an RAF bomb that had missed its target. The frightened boy confirmed the location of the battery and over-estimated that is was manned by 200 or so German soldiers. Before moving on one of the commandos scaled a telegraph pole and cut the wire to Dieppe.

As Major Young's men reached the edge of the village the battery was bombed by six Hurricanes from 175 Squadron RAF. As they entered the village they were greeted by twenty or so enthusiastic inhabitants one of who pointed out the exact location of the battery. Moving up the main street they passed the local fire brigade putting out a house fire caused by the allied bombing. Soon, however, they came under fire from a machine gun positions in the church tower. Private Anderson fired his only weapon, a pistol, as the group went to ground. Captain Selwyn and Lieutenant Ruxton, armed with Thompson sub-machine guns, also returned fire though neither had any realistic chance of hitting the enemy at that range. They did, however, keep the heads of the enemy down while the 2-inch mortar was brought into action. After firing several rounds, they scored a lucky direct hit with a HE round and the machine gun in the church tower was knocked-out. An attempt was made to climb the tower to snip at the enemy with the Bren gun, but there were no stairs and this plan was abandoned. Then Major Young made his way through an orchard, passing a dummy AA gun, and into cornfields; where half-hearted sniping fire was opened on his men.

All the time the battery continued to fire upon the Canadian landings and, although it appeared only one gun was firing, Major Young was still determine to try to neutralise the Goebbels Battery. Still on their own, Major Young had noticed that their brief skirmish in the village had lifted his men's spirits, they had got their 'blood up', and he decided to move into the cornfields to harass the battery with small arms fire. By 06:30 hrs they had got to within 200 yards of the battery from where they commenced their harassing fire. Deliberately dispersed, Major Young's men did their best to simulate a larger force, by firing and crawling back out of sight before dashing to a new fire position. As a result of their small-arms fire, the German gunners were prevented from serving their guns, as they would have had to stand up in their open concrete gun positions.

It was at this stage that Major Young's men were thwarted in their attempt to get closer to the battery as ML 346, waiting off YELLOW Beach, opened fire on Goebbels Battery with her diminutive 3-pounder gun. Although the high-explosive content was relatively small, the shell splinters kept not only the battery's gunners heads down, but also Major Young's commandos back at a respectful distance.

Eventually the German gunners traversed one of the 170 mm guns inland, and the commandos saw the gun being depressed to engage them. When the gun fired, it was apparent that it could not depress sufficiently to engage Major Young's commandos and the shell passed overhead to explode about a mile inland. The commandos returned fire by shooting into the gun's 'black and yellow fumes,' which drove the gunners to cover. Thereafter, until 07:30 hrs, they kept the enemy gunners' heads down. Eventually, with his ammunition supply dwindling and no doubt that German reinforcements would soon be on their way, Major Young sent Captain Selwyn back to form a bridge-head on the beach. He was ordered to fire three white Verey lights if an LCP was available for evacuation and when these seen bursting in the sky Major Young began to withdraw his men.

This was no headlong dash to the beach; that would have been an invitation to the Germans to rush them and they had to be kept at a respectful distance. Thus the commandos 'leap-frogged' back to the beach from fire position to fire position. As they approached the cliff, Lieutenant Ruxton and Trooper About with Major Young gave covering fire with the Bren gun, while the remainder made their way through the wire. On reaching the gully down to the beach, Lance Corporal White stepped on a mine; but despite his terrible wound, he recovered the 3-inch mortar that had been abandoned on the beach, and successfully fired all four available rounds at the battery.

At 07:37 hrs, Lieutenant Buckee brought his LCP(L) 15 back into YELLOW I beach under the heavy covering fire provided by ML 346. This kept the Germans at the top of the cliff at bay while Major Young and his commandos clambered on to this single craft. Although they had failed to total neutralise the Goebbels Battery Major Young's small force had succeeded, albeit briefly, to divert the guns from their task of firing on the ships off the coast.

Of the 120 commandos that made it ashore at YELLOW I 37 were killed and 82 captured. Only Lance Corporal Sinclair managed to evade capture; he swam out to the LCPs as they were being driven further from the beach by enemy fire. All bar one of Major Young's small group that had come ashore at YELLOW II were taken off by LCP(L) 15 and rejoined the remainder of No 3 Commando at Newhaven.

For his actions at YELLOW Beach on 19th August 1942 Major Peter Young was awarded the Military Cross1. He was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his part in the raid on Dieppe.2

Captain Richard Wills spent the rest of the war as a Prisoner of War. He survived his wounds and returned to the UK following his liberation by General Patton's Third Army. For his actions at YELLOW Beach on 19th August 1942 Captain Richard Wills was awarded the Military Cross.3

Lieutenant-Colonel John Durnford-Slater's contribution to the raid on Dieppe was also recognised and he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.4

Lieutenant Edward Loustalot was originally interred with the Canadians at Dieppe, today his remains are buried in the Ardennes American Cemetery, Neupré, Belgium.

1. The London Gazette, Supplement No 35510, page 1506, dated 31 March 1942.8
2. The London Gazette, Supplement No 35729, page 4328, dated 2 October 1942.8
3. The London Gazette, Supplement No 37484, page 1170, dated 28 February 1946.8
4. The London Gazette, Supplement No 35510, page 1506, dated 31 March 1942.8
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