40 Cdo RM Dieppe 1942 - Major-General 'Titch' Houghton (1912 - 2011)
Updated: Aug 23, 2020
Major-General 'Titch' Houghton, who died January 2011 aged 98, was second-in-command of Royal Marine 40 Commando during the Second World War; captured in the Dieppe raid, he returned after three years as a PoW to take key roles with the commandos in peacetime.
'Titch' Houghton in 1947
Houghton's baptism of fire came on August 19 1942 during Operation Jubilee, when, in support of the main assault by Canadian troops, 40 Commando was to destroy port facilities at Dieppe and form a reserve. They crossed the Channel in the river gunboat Locust and arrived off Dieppe at about 0530, before disembarking into several LCAs (Landing Craft Assault).
As Locust attempted to force the harbour entrance, she came under heavy fire from German batteries which the preliminary bombardment had failed to silence. She was repeatedly hit and her captain withdrew: meanwhile, the Canadians were pinned down on the beaches by heavy fire and barbed wire entanglements.
40 Commando was now ordered to land at the eastern end of the beach, but as the LCAs approached the shore they came under intense machine-gun and mortar fire. The commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel JP Phillips, ordered them to retreat back out to sea.
In his landing craft, however, Houghton continued towards the shore, moving to the centre of the beach where he stormed the sands, his LCA blowing up behind him.
"Ironically the doctor was our first casualty," Houghton noted. "But further casualties quickly followed. We advanced as far as the promenade wall, where progress was barred by thick wire entanglements swept by enemy fire. Pinned in this position with practically no cover, unable to move forward and without any means of returning by sea, we concentrated our efforts on inflicting as much damage as possible on the enemy positions.
"Lacking any form of communication with our own forces, we continued until the official time of withdrawal had passed. The beach was strafed by our own aircraft at 1400 hours as part of the withdrawal programme, and it was just the luck of the draw that we found ourselves on the receiving end."
Of 370 officers and men in 40 Commando, 76, including Phillips, were killed. Houghton, after fighting against overwhelming odds, was taken prisoner, though for many months he was reported dead.
Later that year, in an act of vengeance, Hitler ordered commando prisoners to be shackled, and Houghton was handcuffed for 411 days. Afterwards he was awarded an MC for his bravery at Dieppe and for his endurance as a prisoner of war.
Robert Dyer Houghton was born on March 7 1912 and educated at Haileybury. He joined the Royal Marines in 1930 and served in the battleship Malaya before qualifying as a small arms instructor. In 1935 he commanded an anti-aircraft battery of the Mobile Naval Base Defence Organisation (MNBDO) which, following the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, was deployed to Egypt to protect the Mediterranean Fleet at Alexandria.
The MNBDO had been thrown together hurriedly and, while at Alexandria, trained together for the first time while on short notice to move to an advanced base in Crete. This situation was an excellent opportunity for a young officer, and Houghton, now 23, entered into his work with great enthusiasm, soon earning the respect of his men. By the time he returned to Chatham it was beginning to be recognised that he had considerable leadership potential.
Soon after the outbreak of war Houghton was promoted captain and appointed adjutant of the 1st Battalion, Royal Marines. He joined the RM Commando in early 1942.
Liberated from his prison camp in Germany in 1945, Houghton was briefly commanding officer of 45 Commando until selected for the Army staff course. On completion he was delighted to be given command of 40 Commando.
His leadership was tested when, in 1948, his Commando was sent to Haifa to cover the end of the Palestine Mandate and the withdrawal of British troops. Animosity towards the British from both Arabs and Jews was high, and there was looting and violence by extremists. Houghton's task was to keep the port open, and to mount searches to prevent arms being smuggled in from visiting ships.
In April a series of vicious skirmishes took place between Jewish paramilitaries of the Haganah and Arab forces, and Houghton had to keep the peace while some 37,000 Arabs were evacuated from Haifa. He also had to house and feed large numbers of refugees who sought sanctuary in the dockyard.
The final evacuation took place on June 30, smoothly and without incident, 40 Commando being the last to leave. For his outstanding leadership and distinguished service Houghton was appointed OBE.
He was subsequently appointed to the Joint Services Staff College; as staff officer (Intelligence) to the Commander in Chief South Atlantic; commandant of the Commando School; and as director of the Royal Marines Reserve.
In August 1957 Houghton was appointed Commander 3rd Commando Brigade, then based in Malta, where he devoted himself to bringing the brigade to a peak of efficiency and readiness for any emergency. He took his commandos to Libya, Turkey, Greece, Sardinia and Cyprus on a series of well-run exercises, and he oversaw pioneering trials of helicopters in commando assaults.
There were numerous trouble spots in the Mediterranean and, when Malta itself suffered politically-inspired unrest, Houghton's brigade assisted the police in quelling riots and restoring calm.
Houghton was insistent that the "fire brigade of the Mediterranean", as he called it, should be able to move anywhere at 12 hours' notice, and his orders were written for no fewer than 17 different scenarios. He was tested when, in anticipation of a political crisis threatening British nationals, the brigade's advance party flew to Libya, and the main body followed by sea. Before the main body landed, however, a greater problem arose in Cyprus, whereupon the rear party altered course and became the advance party to Cyprus, to be replaced in Malta by the advance party which returned from Libya. Houghton thrived on such situations.
In 1959 he was appointed commanding officer of the Royal Marines in Deal and commandant of the Royal Marines School of Music. His last two appointments were as Director Joint Warfare Staff, and Major-General Royal Marines in Portsmouth. He was appointed CB and retired in 1964.
In retirement he was president of 40 Commando Association and regularly attended reunions. In 1973 he was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of Sussex, and from 1968 to 1978 was general secretary of the Royal United Kingdom Beneficent Association.
Though naturally impetuous and forceful, Houghton was a more sensitive man than many appreciated. Like many short people, he unconsciously compensated by speaking louder than necessary, and if possible would seek a stair to stand on when communicating with others.
Though he always maintained that the interests of the service came first, he was a devoted family man. With his sons, he built a model railway in his garden at Lewes which still runs today. He was president of the Gauge One Model Railway Association for more than 40 years during which time he increased its membership 10-fold.
"Titch" Houghton (one of the few people in the Services given this nickname because he really was short) died on January 17.
He married Dorothy Lyons in 1940. She died in 1995, and he is survived by their two sons and a daughter.