Chances are you’ve never heard of Leslie Ellis – his passing this past summer made no newspaper headlines; no television or radio broadcaster uttered a word about him. At 92 years of age, his longevity set him apart from most. And while I am sure he experienced his share of personal triumphs and tragedies in all those years of living, his anonymity would have been assured had it not been for that one fateful day 70 summers ago. That day was Aug. 19, 1942, the day the Canadians landed on the northern coast of Nazi-occupied France at Dieppe, Puys and Pourville. It was a day Ellis would never forget, and neither should we.
Dieppe always was a summer holiday kind of town. Known as the “poor man’s Monte Carlo,” Dieppe is just two hours by car from Paris. Its two-kilometre-long beach, great restaurants and lively casino made the area well known to French and British vacationers in pre-war days. To the east and west, Dieppe’s smaller neighbours, Puys and Pourville respectively, enticed sun seekers and artists, including Gaugin and Monet, with quiet beaches and beautiful scenery. This part of France should have remained nothing more than a sleepy summer getaway. Aug. 19, 1942 changed everything.
“It felt like just another exercise,” or so Ellis thought as he and his comrades in the Royal Regiment of Canada made their final run into the beach at Puys. Part of the first wave of the assault, Ellis would be one of the first to land on this stretch of hostile shore codenamed “Blue Beach.” The pre-dawn darkness still concealed the Canadian landing craft but Ellis knew they were running late for the planned 04: 50 landing. Dawn was fast approaching and that eerie pre-light time known as nautical twilight would soon reveal their movements to anyone on shore.
The Royal Regiment’s assault on Blue Beach was one of five landings along 16 kilometres of coast that morning. Code named Operation Jubilee, the “Raid in Force” was supposed to unfold in two phases. Flanking attacks just before daylight at 04: 50 to the extreme west and east by British Commandos were designed to knock out heavy guns situated on the headlands; these guns posed a real threat to the seaborne assault. Inner flanking assaults by Canadian units at Pourville to the west of Dieppe, and at Puys to the east, were designed to eliminate gun emplacements overlooking Dieppe’s beach and harbour. Once these heights were neutralized the main assault would go in 30 minutes later on Dieppe’s beach.
Precise timing was critical in the Jubilee plan. The Royal Regiment had just 30 minutes to breach the 2.75metre seawall, scale the 25metre cliffs, get up into the headlands and neutralize a host of gun positions before the main assault went in at Dieppe. It all looked good on paper but at 05: 00, 10 minutes after the Royals were scheduled to land, the landing craft assaults (LCAs) of the first wave were still at sea. Worse still, it was getting light by now, the element of surprise was gone and the landing craft carrying Ellis and the first wave were clearly visible to the German defenders at Puys. At 05: 07, in daylight, the first LCAs dropped their ramps and the Germans opened fire.
Ellis was lucky. He was about the fourth man out of his craft and in his haste to get on to shore he jumped into the water before the ramp was even fully down. Getting nothing more than his feet wet, he managed to race up the beach to the seawall. Ellis’ speedy headstart jump probably saved him because, as he looked back towards the shoreline just seconds later, withering machine gun fire was sweeping the beach, cutting men down as they tried to get ashore. In mere seconds, Blue Beach turned into a killing zone.
The beach at Puys is just under 200 metres wide and ringed by 25 headlands at either end that provided the defender every advantage. The Canadians landing that morning were fired upon from front, sides and even from behind – such was the relative position of the cliffs to the beach. Of the approximately 100 Royals in the first wave, only about 15 even made it to the seawall.
In a matter of minutes most were dead, dying or wounded.
Those who made it to the wall had to scale its 2.75-metre height and get through a tangle of barbed wire along its top. Getting over the wall and through the wire would have been difficult enough during a training exercise. Doing so while under constant fire from all sides should have been impossible. And yet, somehow, Ellis found a way. I had the opportunity to ask him once how he managed to do it. Ellis found the stairway that led from the beach to the top of the seawall. Once there he faced a mass of triple concertina-style barbed wire (cylinder-shaped coils of wire). It was “just like a tube,” he recalled. “I just crawled right through and got up into the hill.”
With the Germans’ attention focused on the beach, Ellis’ movements uphill went undetected. From his new vantage he could see the houses in the village. He observed a German pillbox on the opposite heights. Dust flying around the pillbox indicated it was being fired upon by the Royals from the beach, but Ellis did not see any activity in the pillbox. However, he noticed tracer bullets coming from some bushes next to the pillbox. All Ellis could make out was “a gleam of white,” which he took to be the face of the German gunner. A sniper by training, Ellis set his sights for 650 yards and fired at the white gleam. The tracer fire immediately changed direction upwards to the sky. The gunner had fallen back, dead, his finger still on the trigger.
Incredibly, that was the first and last enemy Ellis saw that morning. Looking back towards the water he saw the landing craft of the second wave approaching. Knowing what was in store for them, he began to make his way back down to the beach. Partway down he came upon a badly wounded Canadian and half dragged, half carried the man until he came upon more barbed wire. He started to make his way through with the wounded man in tow and encountered what he believed to be some communication wires. Giving these a tug, Ellis triggered either a booby trap or mine. The explosion killed the injured soldier and wounded Ellis in the face, hand and foot and ruptured his eardrum.
Ellis’ ordeal was not over. Making his way back to the seawall he leaped over the wire and landed in more wire back on the beach. He immediately noticed there was little movement on the beach now. The dead and dying were scattered from the shoreline to the seawall. In the haze he observed an LCA attempting to take men off the beach. Despite his wounds, Ellis helped shove the overcrowded boat back into the water. So swamped was the boat that Ellis recalled the naval rating on board hitting the soldiers trying to climb in from the sides.
Something told Ellis not to enter that boat. Minutes later the boat had capsized, probably hit by a mortar round. At that moment, Ellis decided to swim for it. He took off his boots and stripped off his equipment and swam for his life – literally. A German sniper fired at him, just missing his nose by inches. He played dead for a while before resuming his swim. With his strength almost gone, Ellis came across a dead soldier floating in front of him; he removed the dead man’s lifebelt and carried on. The last thing he recalled before blacking out was an image of some men in a dinghy. These men saved Ellis, and eventually they were all picked up by the Royal Navy.
The survivor defied all the odds. Ellis was the only man in the Royal Regiment to make it over the seawall at Blue Beach and return to England. By all rights, the morning of Aug. 19, 1942 should have been his last. How he survived is nothing short of a miracle. Of the 554 Royals who assaulted Blue Beach 70 summers ago, 227 were killed, 136 wounded and 264 taken prisoner.
Ellis’ first combat action was his last. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, a rare award for bravery second only to the Victoria Cross, for his actions at Puys. He remained in the Army but never saw combat again. He had seen more than enough. Just a month before the 70th anniversary of the raid was commemorated in Canada and France, Ellis passed away – quietly. How unlike the end for so many of his comrades all those years ago.
Take heed of the inscription on the Royal Regiment of Canada Monument at Puys: “You who are alive on this beach, remember that these men died far from home so that others, here and elsewhere, might freely enjoy life in God’s mercy.”
Lest we forget.
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