The Raid on Dieppe
By the spring of 1942, German fortunes were reaching ever increasing heights. In Europe the allied forces had been pushed back across the English Channel into Great Britain. The Germans infiltrated far into the Soviet Union and the North Africa, with the exception of Egypt, was theirs.
Shut out of the continental Europe, the British began launching a series of raids on German coastal positions. These small operations, many involving fewer than 1,000 men, had a variety of objectives, from the destruction of stores to the gathering of intelligence. Originated under the Chief of Combined Operations, Roger Keyes, all had taken place under his successor Louis Mountbatten. He planned Operation Rutter, a large-scale raid intended to capture and briefly hold a sizeable port so as to test new equipment and seize materials. The Allied were particularly interested in gauging and studying enemy reaction.
The site chosen for the operation was Dieppe, a beautiful seaside town built on a long cliff overlooking the English Channel that had achieved popularity with English writers and painters of the late 19th Century. Dieppe featured a fair-sized harbour that had, centuries earlier, been a key departure point for immigrants to New France.
The plan to use Canada’s troops was born through growing dissatisfaction among their ranks. Indeed, the Canadians in Britain, having undergone month after month of intense training were eager to experience combat.
The attack on Dieppe would be led by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and advance inland as far as Arques-la-Bataille, a village some 6 km to the south-east. There were to be two flanking attacks by paratroopers and a naval bombardment supported by more than 1,000 sorties by Allied air forces.
On 5 July, the Canadians boarded ships and prepared for battle, but on the eve of their departure Luftwaffe bombers swept across the Channel and attacked a flotilla of 250 Allied ships off Britain’s south coast.
As Operation Jubilee, the raid was rescheduled for the morning of 19 August. It was to begin just before dawn with four simultaneous front attacks along a front 26 km in length. Half an hour later, would come the main attack on Dieppe itself.
The assault was to be accomplished by the Canadians, who would also hold gaps in the cliffs at Puys, just outside the town, and Pourville, 4 km to the west. Meanwhile, the British Commandos were to destroy flanking coastal batteries at Bernaval and Varengeville.
After the night fell on the evening of 18 August 1942, more than 250 ships left ports along the British coast. The next morning, the landing craft carrying the British Commandos, encountered S-boats that were protecting a German tanker.
The ensuing battle alerted the German coastal defenses. Still at sea, the commandos craft were torpedoed and became scattered. The majority failed to reach shore.
The few commandos who did land attempted to engage their intended target, but as the destruction of the battery was no longer possible, they acted as snipers and managed to prevent the German guns from firing on the approaching Allied ships.
The commandos on the right flank destroyed the battery at Varengeville.
At Puys, the Royal Regiment of Canada had no choice but to land as dawn was breaking, well within the sights of the German mortar and machine guns. On the narrow beach, they struggled and died beneath high cliff. More than 200 soldiers were killed and of the remaining 297, only 33 managed to get back across the English Channel and the rest were taken prisoners.
At Pourville, to the west of Dieppe, the Germans were taken by surprise, but as the Canadians moved eastwards, their advance was halted by heavy fighting. The troops were forced to retreat, leaving all objectives unmet. The withdrawal was only a partial success as the Germans cut off the rearguard, making evacuation impossible. Ultimately, failure to clear the areas to the east and west of Dieppe permitted the Germans to fire upon the beaches from both sides and the Canadians were eventually forced to surrender, having run out of ammunition.
Meanwhile the assault on the eastern section of the beach by the Essex Scotish Regiment was strafed by machine-gun fire. The sea wall, proving an insurmountable barrier, became a point of death. Only one platoon entered the town.
Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal Regiment was then ordered on to the beach, only to be pinned down and exposed to German fire. Only 125 of their 584 members returned to Great Britain.
At the west end of the beach, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry landed and managed to clear pillboxes and a casino being used by the enemy for cover. The King’s Own Calgary Regiment with Churchill tanks, intended to land, but only 27 of the 58 tanks made it ashore. Of these a dozen were either unable to climb the pebbled incline of the beach or were simply incapable of negotiating the sea wall.
The final landing was made a group of Britain’s Royal Marine A Commando, but the formation suffered heavy losses and after hitting land not one of the 369 commandos managed to make it more than a few metres.
Just before 11:00, general Roberts ordered a general retreat.
Those fortunate enough to return did so under cover of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force. In the air, as on the ground, the losses had been great.
The Luftwaffe succeeded in shooting down 13 Royal Canadian Air Force planes and 106 aircraft of the Royal Air Force. The losses were the highest single-day total for the entire war.
The total casualties among the Canadians amounted to 3,367, of whom 913 were killed.
The debate as to the merit of the battle continues to this day. For many the Dieppe Raid was a senseless waste of human life, while many others argue that the knowledge gained through the Operation Jubilee was essential to the success of the D-Day Invasion two years later.
In Dieppe, the Avenue des Canadiens in one of the town’s major throughfares, and the Dieppe-Canada Monument is located in the Square of Canada, just south of where the Canadians first landed. As a feature of the tribute is a cast plaque which reads:
Le dix-neuf août mil neuf cent quarante-deux sur la plage de Dieppe nos cousins canadiens tracèrent de leur sang la voie de notre libération finale présageant ainsi leur retour victorieux du premier septembre mil neuf cent quarante-quatre.