401 Squadron provides air cover during Dieppe raid

News Article / August 19, 2019

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By Major (retired) William March

The raid on Dieppe, France—Operation Jubilee—on August 19, 1942, was a pivotal moment in the Second World War. With virtually all of continental Europe under German occupation, the Allied forces faced a well-entrenched enemy. Canadians made up the great majority of the attackers in failed raid, which nevertheless provided valuable lessons for the successful D-Day invasion, two years later.

By the time Operation Jubilee began in August 1942, the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 401 “Ram” Squadron was an established fighter squadron although, as with most RCAF units, it was a mix of experienced pilots and men fresh from the training mill.

Their day-to-day life would have focused on learning the intricacies of their deadly craft, both as individuals and part of a flight, punctuated by fighter sweeps and escort duties. Fighter Command was very much in an offensive frame of mind and carried the fight to the Luftwaffe at every opportunity.

401 Squadron is formed

Ram Squadron was initially formed at Trenton, Ontario, as No. 1 (Fighter) Squadron on September 21, 1937. Mobilized for war at September 10, 1939 at Saint-Hubert, Quebec, it moved briefly to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, before proceeding overseas on May 28, 1940. After distinguishing itself during the Battle of Britain, and to prevent confusion in accordance with Royal Air Force (RAF) policy, it was renumbered “401” Squadron on March 1, 1941 while stationed at Driffield, Yorkshire.

When orders came for the squadron to move from Biggin Hill to the aerodrome at Lympne, both in Kent, on August 14, squadron personnel probably thought it was just another routine move. Moving units to different fields offered different training and combat opportunities while exercising the mobility of the ground echelon of a squadron.

The squadron aircraft arrived that afternoon and they found out they would be sharing their new “digs” with 133 “Eagle” Squadron. The new officers’ mess was located in the home of Phillip Sassoon, whose eclectic taste was marveled at by the Canadian airmen. Boasting a swimming pool out front, the mansion was decorated in wood and marble, reflecting both Egyptian and Turkish elements. The squadron Operational Record Book (ORB) while noting sardonically that “anyone would know that a woman had little to do with the interior decorating or architecture”, wistfully added that “133 Squadron, having been here before and knowing the layout, got the best rooms.”

Lead by Squadron Leader Keith Hodson of London, Ontario, 401 Squadron flew its first major operation from Lympne on August 17. Along with 64 and 402 Squadrons, they flew escort for twelve United States Army Air Force (USAAF) B-17 Flying Fortress bombers attacking the railway marshalling yard at Rouen, France. It was a busy day for Ram Squadron as they tangled with German Focke-Wulf 190s, resulting in the unit claiming one enemy aircraft destroyed, five probables and one damaged. Unfortunately, 401 Squadron lost one pilot killed—Pilot Officer Jack Kenneth Ferguson, 26, from Victoria, British Columbia—and another was severely injured.

The Dieppe Raid—morning

The operational tempo for a Canadian fighter squadron in 1942 left little time to mourn the loss of friend. Late in the afternoon the following day, 401 Squadron was briefed on their role for Operation Jubilee, a raid in force on the German-occupied French port of Dieppe. With the amphibious assault scheduled to take place at dawn on August, 19 401 would join two other squadrons escorting another attack by twenty-four B-17s. This time, however, Allied bombs would fall on the Luftwaffe airfield at Abbeville, France, seeking to destroy enemy fighters on the ground and deprive the Germans use of the aerodrome.

Although the squadron was placed on “ready status” at 0500 hours the morning of the 19th, they did not depart Lympne until 0935. Rendezvousing with the American bombers over Beachy Head, the strike package proceeded eastward towards the target. No German fighters appeared to contest the attack, but flak was heavy over the Abbeville airfield. Nevertheless, the B-17s carried out a successful bombing run, hitting the runway and damaging parked aircraft and nearby buildings. On the return trip, once the French coast had been reached, Squadron Leader Hodson was free to take his squadron to Dieppe. It was easy to find—aircrew just had to fly towards the dense columns of black smoke.

Gradually descending from an altitude of 7,500 to 3,000 metres, the Canadian fighter pilots quickly engaged their German counterparts. Squadron Leader Hodson damaged an enemy fighter before he spotted German Dornier (Do) 217 bombers moving towards the Allied naval vessels and attacked. Closing to within 45 metres, he opened fire on one of the enemy aircraft and “saw cannon shells hit and an explosion”, but had to break off before he could finish his victim.

A second bomber was engaged by Flight Sergeant Robert Mehew “Zip” Zobell of Raymond, Alberta, who had already damaged an enemy fighter. Return fire from the Do-217 damaged his rudder, wings and canopy, smashing his gunsight sending a splinter of glass into his left eye. He broke off combat and carefully nursed his wounded Spitfire back to England, landing safely. One other member of 401 Squadron, Flight Sergeant Stanley Cyril Cosburn of Calgary, Alberta, claimed another two Do-217s damaged.

The remainder of 401 Squadron mixed it up with FW-190’s with inconclusive results—except for Pilot Officer Donald Robert “Don” Morrison of Toronto, Ontario, who blasted one of the German fighters from the sky. Debris from the enemy aircraft severely damaged his Spitfire and he was forced to bail out. Picked up from the icy waters of the Channel by an RAF rescue launch, he did not return to his squadron until the following day.

The Dieppe Raid—afternoon

After returning to Lympne to refuel, rearm and grab a hurried meal, 401 Squadron embarked on its second mission of the day. At 1325 hours, Squadron Leader Hodson led nine other members of his unit into the air to provide high cover for the Allied withdrawal. They spent thirty minutes in the vicinity of Dieppe in constant contact with the enemy.

Almost all the members of 401 Squadron engaged German fighters with inconclusive results. There were some exceptions. Flight Lieutenant James Whitham of Ottawa, Ontario, and Pilot George Bremner Murray of Winnipeg, Manitoba, each claimed to have damaged and probably destroyed FW-190s. Their success was echoed by Pilot Officer Harold Andrew Westhaver of Vancouver, British Columbia, who claimed another enemy fighter damaged.

These successes came at a cost. Flight Sergeant Morton Haist Buckley of Lynn, Massachusetts, was Flight Lieutenant Whitham’s wingman when his section of four Spitfires tangled with four FW-190s. Two of the enemy aircraft attacked Flight Sergeant Buckley and, despite a hurried warning from Flight Lieutenant Whitham, the American pilot failed to take evasive action. His Spitfire crashed into the sea and no parachute was seen. During the same engagement Sergeant Leo Joseph Armstrong of Plainview, Nebraska, was shot down, but managed to successfully bail out. Climbing into his survival dinghy he was picked up by the Germans and became a prisoner of war.

The squadron flew its third and final sortie late that afternoon, but encountered no enemy aircraft. In two brief periods of combat, three of their squadron mates had gone missing and, although one would return to the unit and another was “safe” with the Germans, squadron personnel did not know this at the time. Despite their sorrow at lost friends and comrades, members of the RCAF squadron took pride in their part in successfully keeping the Luftwaffe at bay during the assault and withdrawal.

The day after Dieppe, 401 Squadron was again in the air once—again flying as escort for American bombers.

It was going to be a long war . . .


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