In the early dawn of August 19, 1942, an ambitious raid took place along a 16 km front around the French port of Dieppe.
This raid was planned to test the resilience of German coastal defences. Over 6,000 soldiers, of whom 5,000 were Canadian, landed at five different points along the coast. The soldiers immediately found themselves under attack and flanked by high cliffs that allowed the Germans to bring heavy fire down upon them.
By the early afternoon, the attack was over. Over 900 Canadians were dead, 500 wounded and almost 2,000 taken prisoner. The raid on Dieppe had been a complete disaster. Although a frightful price was paid, the mistakes were carefully studied and invasion strategies reexamined. It has often been said that the invasion of Normandy, two years later, was won at Dieppe.
The Allied situation in the spring of 1942 was grim. The Germans had penetrated deep into Russia, the British Eighth Army in North Africa had been forced back into Egypt, and in Western Europe the Allied forces faced the Germans across the English Channel.
Dissension among the Allies led British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to initiate a plan to resolve problems he faced. The Germans were knocking at the doors of Moscow. The Russians under Stalin were pushing for more action to ease the pressure. They wanted the Allies to open a second front which meant an invasion. This would force the Germans to move troops westward and relieve the pressure on the eastern front.
The Americans were tired of sitting in England and were pushing for an invasion as well. Admiral King, Chief of Staff, threatened to pull all American forces to the Pacific. To this point in time small Commando raids were being used to test the defences of the western wall.
Since the time was not yet ripe for mounting the full scale invasion of Western Europe, the Allies decided to mount a major raid on the French port of Dieppe. The raid would provide an opportunity to test new techniques and equipment, and be the means to gain the experience and knowledge necessary for planning the great amphibious assault.
Accordingly, plans were drawn up for a large scale raid to take place in July 1942. It was called Operation Rutter. Canadians would provide the main assault force, and by May 20 troops of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and the Calgary Tanks were on the Isle of Wight to begin intensive training in amphibious operations.
When unfavourable weather in July prevented Rutter from being launched, it was urged that the idea of a raid should be abandoned. However, the operation was revived and given the new code name, Jubilee. The port of Dieppe on the French coast remained the objective.
The attack upon Dieppe took place on August 19, 1942. The troops involved totalled 6,100 of whom roughly 5,000 were Canadians, the remainder being British Commandos and 50 American Rangers. The raid was supported by eight Allied destroyers and 74 Allied air squadrons, of which eight belonging to the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Major General J.H. Roberts, the Commander of the 2nd Canadian Division, was appointed Military Force Commander, with Captain J. Hughes Hallett, as Naval Force Commander and Air Vice Marshal Leigh Mallory as Air Force Commander.
The plan called for attacks at five different points on a front of roughly 16 kilometres. Four simultaneous flank attacks were to go in just before dawn, followed half an hour later by the main attack on the port of Dieppe itself. Canadians would form the force for the frontal attack on Dieppe and would also go in at gaps in the cliffs at Pourville four kilometres to the west, and at Puys to the east. British commandos were assigned to destroy the coastal batteries at Berneval on the eastern flank, and at Varengeville in the west.
On the Beaches
The first of the Canadians to land, the South Saskatchewan Regiment was headed towards Pourville, some four kilometres west of Dieppe. The first soldiers hit the beach at 0452, almost on time. The surprise was real and the soldiers managed to leave the landing crafts before the enemy could fire.
Unfortunately the landing crafts had somewhat drifted and most soldiers of the battalion found themselves west of the Scie River rather than east of it. Because of that apparently minor mistake, the regiment, whose objective was the hills east of the village, had to enter Pourville to cross the river on the only bridge.
Before the Canadians had a chance to reach that bridge, the Germans were in position, blocking their progression with a wall of machine gun and antitank artillery fire. Dead and wounded soldiers piled up on the bridge.
Lieutenant Colonel Merritt, commanding officer of the South Saskatchewan Regiment, stepped forward, bare headed, his helmet in his hand, and shouted to his men: "Come on over, there's nothing to it!". The assault resumed but nothing could be done. The South Saskatchewans’ and the Cameron Highlanders of Canada, who joined them soon, were unable to reach their target.
Close by, other troops from the Cameron Highlanders, under Major A.T. Law, moved inland towards Petit Abbeville. Cut off from their battalion, they were forced to retreat and be evacuated.
Merritt's courage allowed most of the South Saskatchewans’ and Camerons to be evacuated but a small rear guard detached to hold the Germans back, did not make it. Merritt was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The Left Flank: Berneval and Puys
The situation on the left flank proved to be a disaster even before the first landing. An hour before the scheduled landing time, the ships carrying the No. 3 British Commando encountered a German convoy with an armed escort. Fierce fighting followed that disorganized the manoeuvres of the landing crafts and only seven out of 23 reached the Berneval beach. The firing alerted the Germans who met the Commandos with strong opposition.
Only one craft escaped the attention of the enemy and 17 men and three officers from No. 3 Commando managed to land without being seen. Edging their way through a gully, an unbelievably bold movement, they got near their target, a German artillery position on the hill above Berneval. Unable to destroy it, they took shots at it with such intensity that for an hour and a half, the Germans were unable to take aim at the Allied ships.
The Royal Regiment of Canada, plus three Black Watch platoons and one artillery detachment, experienced unbelievable bad luck on the Puys beach. Their task was to neutralize machine gun and artillery batteries protecting the Dieppe beach. Problems started during the crossing of the Channel and the barges arrived in disorganized waves, the first ones already twenty minutes behind schedule. By then, the darkness and smoke screens that should have concealed their arrival had been lifted and German defences were on high alert.
As soon as they reached the shore, the men found themselves pinned against the seawall and unable to advance otherwise than in full view of the enemy. Since no ship could get close without being targeted and probably sunk, the survivors of the Royals and Black Watch were forced to surrender. Of the 556 men and officers of the Royal Regiment of Canada who sailed for Dieppe, over 200 lost their lives in action and 264 were captured, among them several wounded.
The Front Attack on Dieppe
Meanwhile, before Dieppe, four destroyers were pounding the coast as landing crafts approached. At 0515, five RAF Hurricane squadrons started bombing the coastal defences and set a smoke screen to protect the assault troops. Between 0520 and 0523, assault troops from the Essex Scottish Regiment and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry landed on the beach, dashing through barbed wire and other obstacles littering the ground beneath the seawall.
Poor timing proved fateful: the tanks of the 14th Armoured Regiment scheduled to arrive at the same time were late and, as a result, the two infantry regiments had to attack without artillery support. Landing crafts were hit or destroyed before or after the landing, making the retreat even more problematic. Whole platoons were annihilated as soon as they set foot on the beach. Hiding behind the partly demolished casino, groups from the RHLI and the Essex Scottish succeeded in sneaking into town and fought gallantly. They were, however, unable to neutralize the enemy and to reach their assigned targets.
The Calgary Regiment tanks arrived soon after the infantry: 29 got off the Landing Craft Assault (LCA) but two fell into deep water. Of the remaining 27, 15 made it across the seawall between the beach and the boardwalk, as it was not very high in places. Without engineers, they were unable to eliminate obstacles that blocked their way into the city and were forced to return to the beach where one after the other they got hit or bellied in the beach shingle. Still able to fire, the 14th Regiment's tanks protected the infantry's retreat to the very end. The tank crews paid a heavy toll for their gallant behaviour as they were all made prisoners.
On Her Majesty’s Ship Calpe, Major General Roberts and Captain John Hugues Hallet, commanding officers of the ground and naval forces respectively, had only a vague notion of the actual situation. Following an ambiguous message that could be understood to mean the Essex Scottish had indeed entered the city, Roberts ordered the reserve troops, the Fusiliers Mont Royal, to land in order to exploit that gain.
Under Lieutenant Colonel Dollard Ménard, the FMRs boarded their 26 landing barges at 0700. They sailed towards the beach at full speed but the Germans hit them with heavy machine gun, mortar and grenade fire. Bullets bounced off the sides of the crafts and many fusiliers were hit even before landing. Unable to resist such a powerful enemy, the FMRs were decimated, only a few men managed to edge their way between houses.
At 0900, Hughes Hallett and Roberts had to face the evidence: the Germans were still in control of the hills and were firing without mercy at the beaches. Orders were given to evacuate at 1100. The landing crafts sailed back towards the beaches under a smoke screen cover and partially protected by RAF fighters.
Evacuation took place in utter confusion as fighting was still going on nearby. At 1220, the beaches could no longer be reached even if men were still there. HMS Calpe made a last attempt at 1248 and headed for the shore with two boats. The fleet then sailed back to England. The Dieppe raid was over. Some 3,367 men, including 2,752 Canadians remained on the beach, dead or soon to be made prisoners.
The Dieppe story made instant headlines worldwide. Unfortunately, the British Army's press services did not mention the part played by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. It was several weeks before Canadian public opinion realized what a failure Operation Jubilee had been, and how many of its own had died in action.
Exhausted but alive, these men are happy to be back in England after nine hours in the Dieppe inferno.
Lessons Learned from Dieppe
Dieppe was a disastrous failure. Sixty years later, it seems obvious that Jubilee was a bizarre operation with no chance of success whatsoever and likely to result in a huge number of casualties. In August 1942, British and Allied officers did not yet have the knowledge and combat experience to make a proper assessment of the risks of such an operation. This catastrophe was useful precisely in providing that knowledge which was later to make victory possible.
The Dieppe fiasco demonstrated that it was imperative to improve communications at all levels: on the battlefield, between the HQs of each unit, between air, naval and ground forces. The idea of capturing a well defended seaport to use as a bridgehead was dropped after August 19th, 1942.
In addition, the raid on Dieppe showed how important it was to use prior air bombings to destroy enemy defences as much as possible, to support assault troops with artillery fire from ships and landing crafts, to improve techniques and equipment to remove obstacles to men and tanks.
The true meaning of the sacrifices made at Dieppe was made obvious two years after this ill fated date, when on D-Day the Allies gained a foothold in Europe to free the continent from Nazi aggression.
In recent years, new information has become available which has shed new insights into the reasons behind the Dieppe Raid,
These revelations have been brought to light by the Canadian military historian, David O'Keefe, who published his findings in his meticulously researched book, One Day in August, The Untold Story behind Canada's Tragedy at Dieppe.
In his book, Mr. O'Keefe uncovered irrefutable evidence that the Dieppe Raid was in fact a cover for an attempt to capture, or "pinch", critical intelligence materials vital to the cryptographic efforts of the code breakers at Bletchley Park.
In fact, as David O'Keefe describes in his book, the "operation to capture German cryptographic code books and other intelligence information formed the basis of the operation. The Dieppe Raid was intended to conceal this secret mission."
Even though the mission to capture these documents ultimately failed, the revelations that the Dieppe Raid itself did have a larger and more significant underlying purpose, does, after all these years, provide us with some comfort and satisfaction, that all those brave young men who stormed the beaches of Dieppe that day, did not all die for nothing.