Remarkable stories of war told by those who fought for a proud nation. Their words. Their voices. Our first episodes tell riveting stories from World War II, then we move on to the Vietnam War and other dramatic conflicts.
In this episode, Maj James Dunning describes the infamous Dieppe Raid and becoming an instructor at Achnacarry Castle.
At 20 years old, James Dunning volunteered for the new special force that would become the Commandos (or British Commandos). The Commandos quickly became famous for their rigorous training, elite status, and their green berets.
Dunning fought with the Commandos during World War Two, most notably during Operation Jubilee. Better known as the Dieppe Raid, Operation Jubilee was a British amphibious landing on the shores of Dieppe, France on August 19th, 1942. The British considered it a failure due to the loss of almost 75% of their troops, but it gave them valuable knowledge and experience that would contribute to the success of the D-Day Invasion.
After Dieppe, Dunning trained to become an officer. He was sent to Achnacarry Castle in the Scottish Highlands, which served as a training ground primarily for the Commandos. He went on to become an instructor there.
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Today, we’ll hear from Maj James Dunning. Dunning served in the British Army during WW2 as a Commando, and fought in the unsuccessful Dieppe Raid in August of 1942. In this final part of his interview, Maj Dunning describes the infamous Dieppe Raid and becoming an instructor at Achnacarry Castle.
I'm going to set the scene. 1942, Hitler is marched into Russia hammering on the doors of Moscow. His forces are in, America is in the wall, their forces are over here. There is a human cry from the communists of the Soviet and in Britain for a second front now. Americans see no reason for second front. The British chiefs of staff, the combined chiefs of staff say, "No, we're not ready. There should be some big reconnaissance in force before we do a invasion of Normandy to see if we can capture a port." This is basically, without going into a lots of details, the idea. So with a lot of political pressure from Russia, America, and Canada, because the Canadians, a division had been in Britain since 1940, just kicking its heels and hadn't seen a shot fired in anger.
So it was decided to have a reconnaissance in force on a major occupied port. And the one selected was Dieppe. This plan was agreed early in '42 by Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, and was to go ahead. Then there was some difficulty in mounting it and they're ironing out the technicalities of whether should be preceded bomb by an aerial raid and bombing which would jeopardize and aggravate and probably kill a lot of French people and so on. And it was put on hold. There was further pressure from Stalin and Churchill and further pressure from America. And it was put on. And it was put on very quickly. And whereby in the first original plan, a Canadian division would land and with a great list of objectives, the two coastal batteries which dominated the beaches where they would be landing would be taken out by parachuters.
Because of the conditions, limiting conditions when the operation was remounted of employing airborne troops, they were taken out of the plan and two commandos were put in, number three and number four and what became number 40. Royal Marine commando had a role to bring back boats, but they weren't involved in knocking out the two batteries. So here we are, a new scheme, a new operation whereby three commando and four commando would take out the two batteries prior to the landing by the Canadian division on the Canadian beaches in front of the town and at two small results to the west and to the east.
Now four commando, which I will deal with, had the objective of what was called Hess battery. And that consisted of 675 millimeter of their equivalent guns. And that was about a thousand yards in land. And the plan was devised by Shimi, Lord Lovat. And we all had great respect for Lord Lovat. Not only was a brilliant leader, but he was a good tactician. And he decided that the plan would be very simple to knock out this battery. One group would land just on the beach a thousand yards from the target, climb the cliffs, and then engage that battery, a small ounce of fire, while his party, the main party, would do sweeping flanking attack and come into the rear of the battery. And ours and C troop was to get in front of the battery and engage with a small ounce of fire. And troops aren't major then. And I had with me the two inch mortar with Horn and Dale. Two good blows, two good buddies, number one and number two. Contrasting in personalities, Dale who was number one actually fired the thing, a Glaswegian, tough Glaswegian. Horn, a rather rural ruddy faced lad, as strong as an ox who could carry all the bonds and so on. So there we go.
We landed and got up to a position in front of the battery. We all got in good firing positions and we waited. It was no question of people getting up there and firing off. It had to be a really orchestrated crescendo, a fire. And so we all got in position and I got the mortar up in front. And mortar's a very haphazard, there's only a pipe with a firing pin at the bottom, you shove bomb down, that hits the pin, you turn the handle, and away it goes. There's no sight on it, you just point it in the direction and according to the range you want. So you just elevate it up or down like that. So we got in a nice firing position and we decided that we would fire right in the middle of the battery. We'd see the battery in front of us, and in fact, we'd just see a chap in white. So we assume it was the cook. Which suggested that they didn't know we were there before we opened up our fire. Because they started in the battery, the fire, while we were still in position. But we were told and we had implicated, "Not one bloke fires until you get the signal." And that was a whistle, whistle signal. And everybody takes sight, Bren gunners, snipers, but nobody fire until you... And so we thought we'd fire right in the middle. The first one went off and then the second to the right and then we thought, "Right, we'll put this one slightly in the middle over a little bit right there." And it was the luckiest shot of the wall because it landed plump into ammunition. And then it went up. By this time the battery had started firing, but after that it never fired again. And there was fire going on and a lot of people, Germans were killed in that area. But to the Germans credit, they rallied round and fired back and so on. But that was really, I must admit, a lucky shot. We thought, "Well, the bounty is somewhere in the middle." And they had snucked their ammunition there.
We didn't realize the impact it would make, quite frankly, because there's a lot of explosions that there'd been that they were firing off and we could see the continuation. But we didn't know really. The only thing we did realize that the guns didn't fire anymore and so, right. And then there's a flak tower on that and they were firing at us and some mortars were firing. It was just part of the scenario. And the Bren gunners on the flanks and our snipers were picking off people in the battery. A lot going on. Just one of the things.
See, our role was to knock out the battery and then reembark and then go round to be available as a reserve in case we were needed. Well, by the time we had reembarked and got in position to go and into this reserve, there had been this chaos at the actual landing. And I don't think that they knew, the control ships and that weren't really in the picture, didn't know, they knew that A, it was late. The whole main force was late and didn't assure, and the reports were bad. The armor, 34 tanks knocked out on the beach and the outcome, 4,000 or near enough killed, wounded and captured, but mainly Canadians. Overhead, tremendous dogfights, more than the Battle of Britain. We lost the British, Canadian, American Air Force over 100 aircraft that day and the Germans lost more. It was a decisive air battle. And that's often been neglected as one of the outcomes of the Dieppe raid, the decisive air battle over Dieppe that day. Coming back, incidentally, we picked up an American airman who parachuted down there on landing craft and we picked him up and brought him back.
The Germans hailed it as a second front repost. And a lot of people in this country said, "Oh, it was a second front effort, but it was never." And to give you one example, we didn't take any rations, hard rations, or anything. I mean, if we were going to stay there, we'd had some form of feeding arrangement. It was just a raid. Because of the success, that one success and that battery, the whole thing was held as a commando raid. In actual fact, the three and four commandos were only a small part of it, a very small part, some few hundred within a total landing force of over 5,000 of which 4,000 became casualties. Tragic, tragic. Many people, in fact, a very good friend, Pat Porteous, who got a VC to his dying day died only a few weeks ago, maintained that it should not have been held. All the lessons could have been learnt in exercises, but the pundits say, "No, we learned a very crucial lesson there that we could not capture a port." And then you've got the mulberry and the artificial harbor and so on.
We had a very well thought out and practice plan of thinning out. We who had been in the woods and engaged the battery on the onset, were responsible for what we call leapfrogging back. And to give a cover to the guys who'd been in the battery who were going to come down this path. It was not a question of right up sticks and [inaudible], for the boat. Thin out. One group go back two or 300 yards. And then when the last of the chaps on the battery, Lovat's group come through, they would come back through in turn, another group who'd gone through them in the first instance, what we call leapfrogging back down this path.
While we were going down there, we were mortared and there was some sniping and then there was another group actually on the beach. Sergeant Langlands and his section were actually on the beach to stop any Germans who might have come along the beach to interfere with our reembarkation. The landing craft had gone off and layoff and cruising around off where we had landed because we reembarked on the same beach that we had landed initially, underneath the two cuts in the cliff. And then they came in and we waited out because the tide was going out. We waited out and reembarked and there was a fair amount of sniping. But what we'd done, we had put down some large smoke canisters and the three inch mortar, not the two inch mortar, also put down some smoke which screened off the reembarkation area from both flanks. So we reembarked through smoke and the landing craft came in and the troops went. It went very well really considering the small ounce fire and that going on. No problem really.
Well, we lost, 19 men, and each year I go back and we have our own monument in Varengeville with all the names up there. And only this August I went and we read out the names or I read out the name. We had certain number of wounded, I can't off the top of my head remember the exact number. And one very brave medical orderly who stayed behind. He was perfectly all right. But he stayed behind to look after the wounded and he became a prisoner of war for the rest of war. And unfortunately were two of them, both medical orderlies, Joe Pesquali and his brother Jim. And one stayed behind ,the other continued to serve number four. And when Joe was released, he had find out that his brother had been killed on D-day, which was very sad to sacrifice your own self like that, incarcerate yourself in the prisoner war camp and then find that your brother had been killed subsequently. So that was sad. Yes.
I'll tell you one thing which I thought epitomized the horrors of war. When we went up to go to the battery, just to the right of the path, incidentally on the path were signs, “Achtung Minen” or “Danger Mines.” Very obliging, the Germans, they had signed where the minds were, of course that was for the local people and people like that. But we thought it was rather funny. Keep away from that side of the path because they had put notices up, danger mines. But growing up on the field on the right cattle were grazing. It was a lovely morning, beautiful blue sky, 19th of August. And they were peaceful, it was quite peaceful then, except for the aircraft, but relatively peaceful. When we came back, some of the cattle had been killed in the bombardment and that to me epitomized the horror of war. Just a little thing.
Well, I was Sergeant Major of C troop and then Lovat after Dieppe suggested that I should take a commission, become an officer in commando. And I was very honored and flattered and accepted that. And when I was commissioned, I was then sent up to Achnacarry. Everybody when they were commissioned had to go up there to certain administrative things to do. And you get commissioned, you have to have a bank account and all that sort of thing. Had no uniform and that. So while I was up at Achnacarry, which was the training center, the commandant, the CO, the Colonel there was a man who'd been the second in commander number four commando and knew me as a Sergeant Major. And he said, "I'd like you to stay here as an instructor." And I said, "Yes, I would. I'll do that for a while." I'm very keen on training. I like training, I like the physical side. And so he said, "Right." And he promoted me. I became a captain instructor, first teaching field craft. And then I had what was called a training commando. I had 200 trainees, had overall command of them in four troops of 50. And I enjoyed that. And then after 15 months I'd had enough of it and then I went to join a commando. But unfortunately I went parachuting and had a parachute accident. And when I came out of hospital, the war was finishing.
At Ring Way, the last jump was a night jump and it was from a balloon. And I had what they call late oscillation that was a swinging of the parachute. And I was pulling down on my back [inaudible], not realizing I was near the ground. And as I pulled down, so of course my legs came up and I drifted in hard on my spine and I fractured my spine at the base here. So I was in plaster, but I went parachuting again after the war and finished up in the parachute regimen at [inaudible].
So there we go. But Achnacarry was a marvelous training center, probably the finest there’s ever been. And when I wrote my book, Lord Lovat was all for me devoting the book purely to training. And he said, "And I hope you emphasize that at Achnacarry there was training by leadership. No bullying. No bullying” and that's very true. I mean, admittedly we shouted and chivied, but there was no malicious, because every instructor wanted to get his troop through. They were his lads and they wanted to get them through.
The death slide was... Achnacarry is the castle on the river arcade. It is the home of the chief of the Cameron clan. And all over the river, wide river, fast flowing, connects two locks and lovely beach trees all the way along great avenue. And from one side to the other, we had a slide, we had a rope bridge made of tugger ropes. And you crossed over the rope bridge. And to add the excitement, especially when the Rangers came up there, we used to throw explosives in. So that was shoot up water as they were crossing over the rope bridge. And then when they got to the other side, they climbed up a tree and they took their tugger rope up and slid down the death slide. And it was very, very exhilarating, very nice. But a whole way along that beach were a series of rope obstacle, well rope erections. So you had scrambling necks, a single rope where you went on what's called the leopard crawl and so on. And then two ropes and so on.
Darby's first battalion of Rangers had their blood bath at Achnacarry. And the great thing about Achnacarry, your training started before you ever reached camp because the Railhead Center was seven miles from camp. And when they arrived there after a long trek up from Glasgow across the highlands and the moats, you were told, "Right, get outside, put your tip bags on the trucks and get fell in." So you march the seven miles to Achnacarry. And when you got to Achnacarry, there was a guard room and along beside the guard room was a cemetery, with crosses and add on them, this man looked over the top of cover and stood around the side, that was fatal. He looked over the top and stood around the side. He'd get bumped off. This man didn't clean his rifle and so on. And the question always asked, "Are those true? Was that a true cemetery or not?" And the Rangers, when they came up, one of our guys said, "Jesus Christ, the son of the bitches, they kill us on the march up from the Railhead. And when we get here, they bury us." Yeah. So was it true or false the graveyard? Well that’s a conundrum that’s never been answered.
No one knew the word commando except those had been in the World War. But by 1942, the word commando and commando training epitomized the training of the elite forces. Not only the allies, but subsequently of all nations. And the green beret has been accepted as the symbol, together with cross, with the maroon beret. But that's a specific airborne symbol. Incidentally, the first airborne troops in Britain were Commandos. Number two commando was designated right from the start as the parachute commando, and they pioneered parachuting and became the first paratroops and eventually became the first battalion of the parachute regimen.
I don't think there's any one proud moment. There's so many moments that gave me great satisfaction. There are moments too, of course, when there are great disappointments. But I still meet up with my old comrades and there's something indefinable about the comradeship we enjoyed together. It's something you just can't put your finger on say there's one reason any more than I can say any one proud moment. The association I had with those chaps, many of them have gone now. Those who weren't killed in the war have suddenly gone. And it's a comradeship which was hammered out in training and forged in action. That was probably gave me the proudest thing, the association. That would be it I think. The proudest thing was known these guys and having served with them.
I would say after the war, I was a regular soldier. After the war, when I left Commandos because the army commandos were disbanded and the Royal Marines took over, I went back to my infantry battalion in Palestine and they were doing a lot of chaps, but there wasn't that edge, there wasn't that little something that bonded them together and made them. The morale not quite as high. It's a difference between a world beater as you might say in athletics or the national level, just that little bit of extra. And that came, I think, because of this thing I mentioned earlier, if you didn't have first class blokes, they were kicked out. Whereas in the infantry battalion normal regiment, you have to try and soldier on and make the best of the material you've got. You can't really pick and choose. You are landed and loaded with what you've got and we've got to make the best of it. And it's very difficult task, but it's a big difference between the two.
That was Maj James Dunning.
To learn more about Dunning and his experiences, check out his book, The Fighting Fourth. The link is in the show description.
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