Infantrymen of Le Royal 22e Régiment board a Landing Craft, Infantry to move 150 miles along the coast at Catanzaro Marina, Italy. 16 September 1943.Credit: Lieut. Alex M. Stirton / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-188922 Restrictions on use: Nil Copyright: Expired
"The Stukas were overhead like flies. It just went on and on for days."
Our first raid was Dieppe,* of course, and we had been broken down into the 1st and 2nd Canadian landing craft Flotilla. The 2nd went in LCAs [Landing Craft, Assault] and the 1st was broken up through all British Isles. I was a coxn** of a Eureka, R-boat,*** they called them with an all-English crew.
We were carrying The Winnipeg Highlanders,^ the Cameron’s Own – The Queen’s Own [Cameron Highlanders of Canada]. When we were in the second wave… So you can be… Look, on an invasion you have three things going for you, you have heavy support from the sea, you have heavy bombardment, or else the element of surprise. Mr. Churchill had said, “We don’t want to bomb the French people. They are our Allies.” The navy had said, “We're not going to risk capital ships in that narrow waterway.” So there was the element of surprise. Going in we ran into a convoy, a German convoy, going around the [French] coast and the firing started. Well the Germans were sure twigged that something was coming. We were in the second wave and by the time we got in, boy, it was pretty hot. The Camerons started up their bagpipes and, of course, the guys were up on the side of the craft all set to go and I don’t think too many of them hit the beach alive. After we dumped them we backed out and we went into what they call a boat pool and they were shipping smoke around you, but you had to watch it because the destroyers were coming through and everything.
Anyway, we took a signal group in next because they were using these army [Wireless No.]18 Sets [radios] and the communications were terrible. Poor General Roberts^^ got nailed with that. But I blame Hughes-Hallett,^^^ who is [Vice Admiral] Mountbatten’s man.+ When the firing started with the convoy, Roberts evidently said, “Should we abort?” Hughes-Hallett said, “No, the men are all in the boats.” As if we came in LCIs [Landing Craft, Infantry] and got into (…) boats all the way into Newhaven [England]. So they didn’t abort and it would have been quite easy to do, you know, a blue flare or a blue star show. That’s all. Anyway, we went in the second time with a signal outfit because they are using these army 18 sets and they are not worth a damn. We landed them in and then came out and then we got another call to go in later on. And a LCF [Landing Craft, Flak], that’s landing craft support, cut in front of me [to indicate] “get out.” So we turned around and got out.
Well, we went down [to North Africa] and we had this damn LCMs [Landing Craft, Mechanized]. Going in and the British LCM has no steering power. They have a kedge anchor.++ You drop a kedge out and pay off and anyway we were going in and they have a three feet surf in a little place called Arzew [Algeria] which is 18 miles east of Oran [Algeria] and the officer – I didn’t have an officer in my boat, but there was an officer in the craft next to me – and he yells over, “No kedge!” I felt like saying, “Are you crazy?” but anyway we had no kedge and we lit in and we were supposed to be the second wave because I had a bulldozer and a couple of sleds of wire, American, onboard. We were the first wave and they finally got the sleds of wire off. No, the guy who was driving the bulldozer was standing up screaming at the guy who was supposed fixing on the sleds of wire, “Get out of there you, yellow bastard!” Anyway to come out, we couldn’t come because we starting to broach with this surf. So finally one of the guys and myself carried the kedge way out, paid off the wire and drove it in and then started hauling in on it and it didn’t work. Did it again, and this time it caught and we started to come off the beach. But I pulled my shaft on my port engine and so I went to port, started along and I wanted to get away from the beach but I couldn’t because the shaft was sticking out so far the rotor wouldn’t turn. Of course, every machine gun in the bloody hill was having a whack at us. So finally one of the guys went down and he pulled the propeller in. He pulled the shaft in so I was able to get turned and leave the beach and we’re throwing smoke pots [canisters to create smoke screens] off. They had these little smoke pots and we were throwing them off like crazy and we got to where we thought we were clear of the beach. At the back of the landing craft it had two big doors that opened out like that you see and they were open. This Yorkshire man, Price, he was one of my crew, he says to me, “Hey lad, what’s all the red stuff coming our way?” I said, “That’s tracer, you dizzy bastard.” Anyway, he wouldn’t so I had to do it. I yelled at the guy that was at the wheel to get down – he was up staring at his feet. We got out and we had to go back aboard the Dremondale to get the prop fixed and I told the guys to get their heads down because they hadn’t had their heads down for, oh about, 36 hours. So coming off in the morning a chief disciplinarian, which they decided we should have, says to me, “Why weren’t you off in here earlier?” “Because I told the guys to get their heads down.” Well he says, “I’m tired too, you know.” “Yeah, but there is a war on in there, you know.” Didn’t go down very good with him.
When we went into Sicily there were a bunch of Italians laying landmines and they told them to pick up and they didn’t want to so they started marching them all over the beach. When they stopped they wouldn’t march until we got them picked up. But, no, but then it started. The Stukas+++ were overhead like flies. It just went on and on for days. And as I said before, everybody knew where the bloody beach was and down it came.
I could tell a story perhaps that would explain. We had a lot of wounded and the CO [commanding officer] said “get them out to the hospital ship.” So, I got these guys on the landing craft, an LCM, American, and out to the hospital ship I went. Well there was a cruiser and a monitor circling around the hospital ship acting as artillery for the shore. But the range [bore] of those guns is fifteen-inch on a monitor and I think the cruiser was six-inch. They could have gotten away from the hospital ship and still accomplished what they wanted. But anyway the Stukas was over trying to hit them and here is the poor hospital ship right in the middle. Well, I went out and went alongside the hospital ship and it was real hairy getting out there. The stuff was coming down and water coming in from the bottom and we started slinging the wounded aboard. And being coxn I was higher up than most people and I was level with the lowest deck of the hospital ship and I heard a very cultured voice say, “Would you like a cup of tea?” And I turned and here was a nursing sister. An older woman. Impeccably dressed you know. And I said – I would have preferred something stronger – but I said, “Yes, sister.” So she brought me a cup of tea. And I said, “Just the cup, not the saucer.” I was shaking too much. I drank the tea and I gave it back to her and she said, “It’s not much fun in there is it.” And I said, “No sister, it’s not,” and she reached out and she touched my cheek and she said, “God bless you.” And then just then one of the guys yelled, “Let’s get the hell out of here!” So broke off their Red Crosses and we broke out the Lewis [light machine] guns and turned around and headed back and had a “rattlin’” good time going back. You know how effective you are. When you firing back, you feel better.
Anyway, we got back to the beach and blew off about three, four thousand rounds of ammunition and then we went away. Well a couple of days later the hospital ship was sunk and we had came back and the word was out that six staff and four patients were lost with it, went down. The bodies started coming up nine days after, and this day I was on the beach and a landing craft was towing in a nursing sister. And one of the officers said, “Bowen, bring your knife,” because you know the skin swells. It gets all distorted. The skin had swollen up over either a watch or an ID bracelet and they wanted to get an ID. So this officer said, “Bring your knife Norm and we will cut down and see if we can get an ID.” And I said, “Sure,” and I went over and I knelt down and I just looked and she had gray hair. I just had to go away myself and you know this is stupid. It is fifty-five years ago and I still worry and wonder.
*The 19 August 1942 Dieppe Raid against the French port of Dieppe
**Abbreviated title for coxswain, naval personnel in charge of a boat
***Ramp-bowed landing craft designed by American Andrew Higgins, whose designs led to the development of the other landing craft the Allies used throughout the Second World War
^Likely a reference to The Calgary Highlanders
^^Major-General John Hamilton Roberts, General Officer Commanding, 2nd Canadian Infantry Division
^^^Then-Captain John Hughes-Hallett, Royal Navy, Naval Commander for the Dieppe Raid
+Louis Mountbatten, 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Chief of Combined Operations (UK)
++A light anchor used to turn or move a ship
+++Junkers Ju 87 – German dive bombers
Interview with Petty Officer Norm Bowen FCWM Oral History Project
George Metcalf Archival Collection
© Canadian War Museum