The Raid on Dieppe

The overall situation

In the spring of 1942, the Allies were losing WWII on all fronts. The Germans had penetrated deeply into Russia, the British Eighth Army in North Africa had been forced back into Egypt, and in Western Europe the Allied forces looked out from England at strong German defenses across the English Channel. German submarines were sinking shipping at will and the Royal Air Force was failing to dent Fortress Europe from the air.

In command circles, the Americans had entered the war after Pearl Harbor. The US was pushing England for an offensive, to open a second front which would draw German forces west and thus relieve pressure on the Allies' other new partner, Josef Stalin's Soviet Union. Otherwise, they intimated, they'd concentrate on Japan and leave England to her side of the fight.

Meanwhile Hitler's forces began huge defensive works along the coast of France, the Atlantic Wall, in anticipation of a seaborne incursion.

Operation Overlord was still far in the future. A forerunner of Overlord, Operation Roundup, had been proposed for 1943, but action was desired sooner by the US commanders. A dreadfully ill-conceived plan for an earlier invasion, Operation Sledgehammer, was debated throughout the first half of 1942, but the British resisted firmly and it was finally set aside in favour of Operation Torch in North Africa.

The tactical situation

Some success had been achieved by Royal Commandos in small raids at Vaagso and Operation Chariot, a successful raid on St. Nazaire's deep-water dry dock. It was decided to mount a much larger operation, Operation Rutter. Rutter would be a major raid on the French fishing port of Dieppe, at the mouth of the Arques river along the cliffs of the northern French coast.

Operation Rutter, was planned for July 1942. Canadians were to provide the main assault force. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division went to the Isle of Wight and began intensive training in amphibious operations. Unfavourable weather all through July prevented Operation Rutter from being launched, and it was abandoned. this seemed to spell the end, yet the Operation was soon revived and given the new code name Jubilee.

Historians argue whether it was meant to be a raid or an invasion, but there was no long-term plan in place for logistic support, which means the men were to attack, accomplish objectives, and withdraw -- a raid. Some have argued that Rutter was designed to test new assault techniques and equipment, and to aid in planning the great amphibious assault of Overlord. There is little documentary evidence to back this up.

The raid

The attack upon Dieppe took place on August 19, 1942. 6,100 troops attacked. Roughly 5,000 were Canadians, the remainder being British Commandos and 50 American Rangers. The raid was to be supported by eight Allied destroyers and 74 Allied air squadrons (including RCAF squadrons).

The plan called for attacks at five different points on a 16 kilometre front. Four simultaneous flank attacks were planned for just before dawn, to take out the coastal batteries on either side of the port and clear the way for the main assault. Just before dawn, the British No. 3 Commando was to attack 'Yellow beach' north-east of Dieppe at Berneval to eliminate the gun battery there, while No. 4 Commando did the same to the west at Varengeville. This would be followed half an hour later by the main attack on the port of Dieppe. Canadians would form the force for the frontal attack on Dieppe and also at gaps in the cliffs at Pourville (four kilometres to the west) and Puys (to the east).

The assault force approached the coast of France in the early hours of August 19. Almost immediately, the landing craft of the eastern sector encountered a small German convoy, and entered into battle. The noise alerted German coastal defenses, particularly at Berneval and Puys. The assault craft of the eastern commando force were scattered and their command craft was destroyed. Most of the unit never reached shore. One small party of 20 commandos managed to get within 180 metres of the battery and by accurate sniping prevented the guns from firing on the assault ships for two-and-one-half vital hours before being evacuated. The men from five other landing craft were not so lucky - they got ashore but were overwhelmed, and could not be evacuated. 37 men were killed and 82 captured, with only one man escaping by sea.

In the western sector, surprise was achieved by the commando force. The operation was completely successful. According to plan, the unit went in, successfully destroyed the guns in the battery near Varengeville, and then withdrew safely. Only once back at sea did they learn of the proceedings on the main beaches.

At Puys, 'blue beach', the beaches were extremely narrow and commanded by tall cliffs. A single gully led to the top, mined and crammed with razor wire. German soldiers were strategically placed atop the cliffs and along the beach in concrete pillboxes, armed with mortars and Spandaus. The beach was an obvious killing ground. Success depended on total surprise and darkness, neither of which prevailed. The naval landing was delayed, and as the men of the Royal Regiment of Canada leapt ashore just after 5am in the growing morning light they were watched with interest by the 60 German troops on the heights. Met with machine-gun fire from the alerted German soldiers, only a few men were able to get over the barb-wire seawall at the head of the beach; those who did were unable to get back. Only 20 men reached the top of the gully, to minimal effect. The rest of the surviving troops, together with three platoons of reinforcements from the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, were pinned on the beach by mortar and machine-gun fire. At 8am, they were forced to surrender. 209 men of the 546 man battalion lay dead on the beach or in the water. Another 262 were captured. This failure to clear the eastern headland would in turn enable the Germans to enfilade the Dieppe beaches and nullify the main frontal attack.

At Pourville, 'green beach', surprise was achieved, and opposition was light as the South Saskatchewan Regiment and Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada assaulted the beaches. Or more precisely, the beach: the plan called for the Saskatchewans to hit both banks of the river Scie but it had misfired, with all troops ashore on the western bank and their primary German opposition on the eastern side. When the Camerons hit the beaches* an hour later, 30 minutes later than planned, they too hit the wrong (western) side, and their CO was killed by enemy fire as he disembarked. Leaderless and lost, the Camerons hooked up with the surviving Saskatchewans. The combined force pushed towards Dieppe proper, but they were stopped well short of the town. Forced onto the defensive, both battalions were butchered during the withdrawal. (* cacknuk notes: "Like any true highland regiment, the Camerons were piped into battle ... the last Canadian regiment to have done so.")

The main attack was made across the pebble beach in front of Dieppe, red and white beaches. It was timed to take place a half-hour later than the flank attacks. Planned without apparent concern for the awesome challenges, Robin Neillands2 calls this part of the operation "Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg — in boats" (p. 208). He goes on to quote Winston Churchill's review after the raid: "... it would appear to a layman very much out of accord with the accepted principles of war...." Pillboxes, trenches, endless wire, mortars, concrete barriers, troops, and even a captured French tank cemented into place guarded the beach. Headlands loomed on either side — those meant to be secured by the doomed flanking assaults at Puys and Pourville.

As the main landing began, alerted German soldiers waited, concealed in cliff-top positions and in buildings overlooking the promenade. The Canadian Essex Scottish forces assaulted red beach, the open eastern section, and the enemy swept the beach with machine-gun fire. All attempts to breach the seawall were beaten back with grievous loss.

The Canadian Royal Hamilton Light Infantry landed at the white beach, the west end of the promenade opposite an isolated casino. They were immediately caught in heavy fire and pinned against the seawall.

Misfortune also attended the landing of the tanks of the Calgary Regiment. Timed to follow an air and naval bombardment, they were put ashore fifteen minutes late, thus leaving the infantry without support during the first critical minutes of the attack. As the tanks came ashore, they met an inferno of fire and were brought to a halt stopped not only by enemy guns, but also immobilized by the shingle banks and seawall. 15 of the 29 Calgary tanks negotiated the seawall, but found their way blocked by concrete obstacles which sealed off the narrow streets. With the sappers who could have cleared these barriers dying on the beaches behind them, the immobilized tanks continued to fight, supporting the infantry and contributing greatly to the withdrawal; the tank crews became prisoners or died in battle.

The last troops to land were the reserve, the Canadian Fusiliers Mont-Royal battalion and part of the Royal Marine "A" Commando. Lured in by a false report that the Canadians had secured the casino and were into the town, they landed only to share the terrible fate of the Canadians. They suffered heavy losses without being able to accomplish their mission.

In the air, the Allied air forces were able to provide protection from the Luftwaffe for the ships off Dieppe, but the cost was high. The Royal Air Force lost 106 aircraft, which the highest single-day total of the entire war. The Germans lost only 48.

The final act of the tragedy came in the panicked attempts to withdrawal. Destroyed signal corps, miscommunications, and a changed withdrawal time (from 10:30am to 11:00am) all led to confusion. The Saskatchewans and Camerons were meant to withdraw from the main Dieppe beach, but remained stuck at Pourville. By the time four boats tried to evacuate them from green beach at 11:00am, the tide was out, leaving over 200 yards of exposed beach as a new killing ground. 200 men reached the boats, which could hold no more than 120, and one of the boats promptly sank from enemy fire. At the main Dieppe beach things were worse, with the boats that approached subjected to storms of enemy fire. No boats got near the main beach before noon, and by 1pm most attempts at rescue had ended in failure and the evacuation was called off. All that remained was for the German troops to collect the wounded and take the survivors prisoner.

Operation Jubilee was over. Some claim that it was a useless slaughter; others make the excuse that it was necessary to the successful invasion of the continent two years later on D-Day. The Dieppe Raid was closely studied by those responsible for planning future operations against the enemy-held coast of France. Out of it came improvements in technique, fire support and tactics which reduced Operation Overlord's D-Day casualties to an unexpected minimum. The men who perished at Dieppe were instrumental in saving countless lives on the 6th of June, 1944. While there can be no doubt that valuable lessons were learned, a frightful price was paid in those morning hours of August 19, 1942. 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; 907 Canadians lost their lives.

  1. Information adapted from Veterans Affairs Canada:
  2. The Dieppe Raid, Robin Neillands. Aurum Press, 2005.


caknuck says: Like any true highland regiment, the Camerons were piped into battle (at Dieppe). "Never again would a Canadian Scottish battalion be piped into battle."

caknuck's references:

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