Air-Sea Rescue saved airmen shot down during the Raid on Dieppe

A group of Second World War airmen, wearing a variety of military uniforms, stand and talk together in front of a propeller-driven aircraft.
In November 1941, a group of pilots from the RCAF’s 401 squadron discuss their missions with their squadron leader, following a highly successful sweep of their Canadian squadron over the English Channel and Northern France. From left to right are Pilot Officer Ian Ormston, Pilot Officer Don Blakeslee, Squadron Leader Norman R. Johnstone, Sergeant Don Morrison; Sergeant Omer Levesque. Sergeant, later Pilot Officer, Morrison was shot down and rescued by an Air-Sea Rescue launch during the raid on Dieppe on August 19, 1942. PHOTO: DND Archives, PL-4939

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By Major William March

The Raid on Dieppe, France, 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. Some method had to be found to create a foothold on the continent, and the Raid on Dieppe offered invaluable lessons for the successful D-Day invasion in 1944, saving countless lives in that momentous offensive.

Canadians made up the great majority of the attackers in the raid. Nearly 5,000 of the 6,100 troops were Canadians. The raid was supported by eight Allied destroyers and 74 Allied air squadrons, eight belonging to the Royal Canadian Air Force. Although extremely valuable lessons were learned in the Raid on Dieppe, a steep price was paid. Of the 4,963 Canadians who embarked for the operation, only 2,210 returned to England, and many of these were wounded. There were 3,367 casualties, including 1,946 prisoners of war; 916 Canadians lost their lives. (From the website of Veterans Affairs Canada)

The water was cold, damn cold!

Yet the numbing shock to mind and body had to be ignored as fingers fumbled to inflate the one-man dinghy now so vitally important to survival. A subtle hiss of air brought with it a sense of relief as the small rubber craft took shape. Then, with a few hearty tugs and awkward squirms, a tenuous escape was made from the clutches of the English Channel. Wet, half-sick from unintended gulps of sea water and bleeding from a small cut over one eye, the Canadian fighter pilot spared a moment to reflect on his current predicament.

It seemed only brief moments ago when, after escorting American B-17 bombers attacking an enemy airfield at Abbeville, France, Pilot Officer D.R. “Don” Morrison and the rest of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 401 Squadron had flown to Dieppe, adding their aircraft to the aerial umbrella over the beaches. In a sky filled with friend and foe, he had quickly lined up behind a Luftwaffe Focke-Wolfe (FW) 190 and, closing to within 20 metres, destroyed the enemy aircraft. Elation was short-lived as debris from his victim damaged the engine of his Mark IX Spitfire. Moments later, now piloting an un-cooperative glider, he unceremoniously exited the aircraft less than 100 metres over the water. Sitting in a dinghy, under the protective watch of orbiting Allied fighters, he erected a signal flag and waited for the arrival of a nearby Air-Sea Rescue (ASR) launch. All in all, it had been an exciting morning for Pilot Officer Morrison, but the day was far from over.

One of the lesser known stories surrounding the Dieppe Raid is the bravery and sacrifice of the members of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) ASR organization. Formed in 1918, the Marine Branch of the RAF provided water-borne backup to flying boats for a myriad of duties—not the least of which was rescuing downed aircrew. Fourteen ASR high-speed launches (HSL) were sent out from various English ports in support of the attack on Dieppe. And, as he climbed aboard HSL 177 the morning of August 19, 1942, Pilot Officer Morrision became one of the estimated 13,000 airmen rescued by the ASR during the Second World War.

After being given dry clothes and having his head wound looked to, Pilot Officer Morrison was informed that the launch would remain on station until the evening. From his unexpected front row seat to the action, the Canadian pilot would later recall that “We saw an attack by German bombers on the returning convoy beaten back by heavy [anti-aircraft] fire from the ships. We saw the explosion and pall of black smoke caused by two Spitfires colliding head on. We watched gunfire from the shore batteries being returned by the ships and saw some Bostons and destroyers laying down smoke screens to protect the convoys.”

More frighteningly, he watched another rescue launch, HSL 122, attacked by two FW 190s and set afire. Another ASR boat, HSL 123, moved into assist and was in turn severely damaged by the enemy fighters. Abandoning the now fiercely burning launches, survivors in the water were strafed by the German aircraft.

Allied fighters moved to intervene and Pilot Officer Morrison prepared to “watch the show” when the launch he was on came under attack by six enemy aircraft. Along with the rest of the crew he “scrambled for cover—those winking gun flashes from their wings scared the daylights out of me. I had just watched them set the other two rescue boats on fire.” Fortunately, after a brief assault the German fighters flew off looking for other prey. The damaged, but still serviceable, launch moved in company with a small naval ship to the aid of the burning ASR vessels.

Pilot Officer Morrison and the crew of HSL 177 “started to pick up the survivors from the two furiously burning launches. Their fuel and ammunition supplies were exploding, and many of the men in the water were screaming with pain. They all seemed badly wounded, and several of us dived overboard to help lift them up the boarding nets. We picked up 14 survivors and the navy boat picked up four more – there should have been 22!”

One of the men rescued by Pilot Officer Morrison was Leading Aircraftman Albert Dargue, the RAF medical orderly on HSL 122. Ignoring his own serious injuries, Leading Aircraftman Dargue had treated the seriously wounded and was preparing to assist in their transfer to HSL 123 when it was heavily damaged. As the fire spread on both launches, the order was given to abandon the vessels at which time the medic inflated the lifejackets on the wounded men and pushed them overboard before he fell into the water. Weakened by his own wounds, and exhausted from his exertions, he drifted helplessly in the water until Pilot Officer Morrison came to his assistance and brought him to safety. With a full load of injured and wounded, HSL 177 returned to its home port at full speed.

For his efforts that day, and perhaps in recognition of the dedication and bravery of all the personnel in his trade, Leading Aircraftman Dargue was awarded a British Empire Medal (Military). The citation read “Leading Aircraftman Dargue was Nursing Orderly on a High Speed Launch during the combined operations on 19 August 1942. In spite of wounds, he endeavoured to carry out first-aid to the wounded until he was picked up in a seriously wounded condition. The courage and valuable services rendered by Leading Aircraftman Dargue are typical of the high qualities displayed by the nursing orderlies, who have carried out hazardous operations in High Speed Launches which play an essential part in Air Sea Rescue.”

Of the 14 ASR launches that stood watch in the waters off Dieppe, three were lost to enemy action. Fourteen officers and men paid the ultimate price in living up to the ASR motto: “The Sea Shall Not Have Them”. Records are spotty, but between the ASR crews and naval ships some 32 Allied airmen, including six Canadians, were plucked from the sea. Unfortunately, a small number succumbed to their wounds.

Pilot Officer Morrison, who survived the war with a Distinguished Flying Cross and a Distinguished Flying Medal, summed up his experience thusly: “Our squadron had performed many searches for downed airmen in support of the rescue launches. But until I spent that day on HSL 177, I had never realized how difficult their work was. Those men of the Air Sea Rescue Service operated in fair weather and foul, often within sight of the French coast and within range of the German coastal artillery. They had little armament—only Vickers and Lewis guns—and no armour plate. They were brave and gallant men—some of the true unsung heroes of the war.”


In the skies above: Dieppe, August 19, 1942

411 Squadron at Dieppe

The 1942 Dieppe Raid

Image gallery

  • A group of Second World War airmen, wearing a variety of military uniforms, stand and talk together in front of a propeller-driven aircraft.
  • A boat moves quickly across the water.
  • A man sits in a tiny boat in a swimming pool with several men in military uniforms watching from the edge of the water.
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