In the town of Dieppe - on a beautiful day, one could walk the pebbled beaches of Dieppe's coastline, sample Dieppe's famous fresh scallops, or explore a 15th-century castle and the churches of Saint-Jacques and Saint-Remi. A sleepy coastal town in the Seine-Maritime department in France, Dieppe was built along the cliff side, overlooking the English Channel - facing north, towards England.
But in 1940, after the fall of France to the German Army, Dieppe would become a significant wartime target - and the events which would ultimately take place here would be a great disaster that would significantly affect generations of families living thousands of miles away.
By 1942, the Germans had demolished some of the seafront buildings, including the Mauresque casino to make way for two large artillery batteries - one at Berneval-le-Grand, and another at Varengeville. Although the great flanking cliffs of Dieppe made up a strong natural defense - the German Army would work tirelessly to develop lasting fortifications to aid in a strong coastal defense against the Allies, including a 1500 strong garrison covering every likely landing beach.
In the early waking hours of August 19th, 1942 - 5,000 Canadians, 1,000 British, and 50 US Army Rangers - led by the plan put in place by Vice-Admiral Lord Mountbatten - would storm Dieppe's coastline along six beaches. From East to West - Codenamed Yellow Beach, Blue Beach, Red Beach, White Beach, Green Beach and Orange Beach. The Royal Regiment of Canada would attack the Blue beach at Puys - on Dieppe's Eastern Flank. The main beaches, Red & White, lay directly in front of Dieppe and would be attacked by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, the Essex Scottish Regiment, Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, A Commando Royal Marines, and the 14th Army Tank Regiment. The Green & Orange Beaches to Dieppe's West targeted by the South Saskatchewan Regiment and the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders.
Those that landed at Puys were tasked to neutralize the German machine gun artillery batteries that were protecting Dieppe. With their initial delays delayed after running into gunfire from a small German convoy at sea - the smoke screen and the darkness of the night sky had lifted - exposing the Royal Regiment as they landed. With darkness and surprise lost - the Canadians here fought themselves pinned against the seawall - unable to advance.
Meanwhile - along the two main beaches - Red & White, four destroyers and 5 RAF Hurricane squadrons began their assault. At 5:23 AM the Essex Scottish, and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry began their harrowing landing.
The men expected to receive armoured support from an active fleet of Churchill tanks to join them. However, these arrived much later than planned. When the tanks did manage to make it to shore, a mere 29 tanks would turn up. During the assault, two of these tanks would sink, and another twelve would get stuck in the soft sand of the beach. Fifteen tanks would make it up and over the seawall but were then all blocked by a series of obstacles that no tank could overcome.
Without armoured support, and unable to clear and scale the sea wall - both the Essex Scottish & Royal Hamilton Light Infantry would suffer heavy losses. None of the tanks would make it back to England.
Out on the water, behind a smoke screen which clouded these dismal blows, Major General Roberts commanded two more reserve units, the Fusiliers Mont-Royal & the Royal Marines to follow the same fate as the Essex Scottish & Royal Hamilton Light Infantry.
At 0700 Hours, the Fusiliers sailed towards the Red & White beaches in 26 landing craft. Hit instantly with heavy machine gun & mortar fire, only a few of these men would manage to make it ashore.
Royal Marine Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Phillips stood on the stern of his landing craft. Quickly realising the terrible outcome - he desperately signalled for the rest of his men to turn back. He was killed mere seconds later.
Back on the Blue Beach - the Royal Regiment was suffering complete & utter annihilation. Over 200 of their men had been killed, and another 264 captured out of the total 556 in the regiment.
While the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders & the South Saskatchewan Regiment did manage to penetrate further inland than any other troop that day - they were also forced back and made to evacuate as strong German reinforcements rushed in.
In less than 10 hours since the Allied troops landed, a total of 3,367 of the 6,086 would be either killed, wounded and captured. A near 60% loss in fighting strength. Of the high Canadian contingent of 5,000 men, over 900 would be killed, and another 1,874 taken prisoner for a casualty rate of 68%. These staggering numbers are incomparable to the mere 591 casualties the German Army would suffer that day.
The Royal Navy would lose one destroyer, 33 landing craft, and 550 crew - dead or wounded.
For the Canadians at home - the events that took place that day would be a devastating blow.
The Dieppe Raid for the Allies was, in every regard, an overwhelming failure resulting in bloodshed and almost irreplaceable loss - which leads to the questions why and how was this planned?
The initial objective of the Dieppe Raid seemed simple enough - it involved seizing and holding the port city for a very short period -approximately two tides - to gather intelligence, yes, but also to prove that to the Germans that it was possible, before retreating again.
While there, the Allied offensive was to destroy all coastal defences, as well as port structures & all strategic buildings. The raid would provide a boost for morale, as well as the promise to the Allies of the East - who were suffering terrible losses along the Eastern Front - that the UK would relieve pressure by opening a Western Front in German-occupied France.
As we've seen, virtually none of these objectives would be met.
There were, however, pressures from other areas that made the Dieppe Raid an attractive next step. For example, one objective during the raid was to be carried out by RAF flight sergeant Jack Nissenthall - a radar specialist. His orders were to storm the Western beaches along with the South Saskatchewan Regiment - and with 11 bodyguards, attack the German Radar Station on the clifftop to the east of Pourville. His orders were to find more information about the performance of the German radar station. Although he was unable to reach his objective, he was able to cut the phone lines leading up to the station all the while under heavy machine-gun and mortar fire. Cutting communication forced the crew inside the station to resort to radio transmissions which the listening posts along the South coast of England were able to intercept. Jack Nissenthall's actions would help the Allies learn more about German's location, and it also shed light on the density of German stations. Sadly only Nissenthall and one other would make it back to England.
Perhaps even more intriguing, was one objective pressed by Bletchley Park to assist with the highly classified Ultra Project. The Enigma pinch - a 70-year old classified secret was discovered after 15 years of research spearheaded by the Canadian military historian, David O'Keefe. Many have suggested that the Dieppe Raid must have been a cover for something more. O'Keefe found just that. His research uncovered over 100,000 pages in classified British archives documenting an attempt to steal one of the new German 4-rotor Enigma machines, code books, and rotor setting sheets during the Dieppe Raid.
Intense pressure had been put on Bletchley Park to crack the Enigma code. By the year 1942, German U-Boats used their Enigma code as a powerful tool against American convoys transporting vital supplies across the Atlantic. The U-Boats even began attacking passenger's vessels. The presence of other troops landing at Dieppe would ultimately create the perfect distraction, as well as the support needed to carry out the risky, yet desperate mission.
Although the mission was also a failure - Bletchley Park would go on to crack the code by December that year.
But of the most pressing reasons behind the plan to attack at Dieppe lay with The RAF.
The Royal Air Force After the victory in 1940 over the Battle of Britain, the Royal Air Force became a powerful asset without having much to do. The Luftwaffe fighters were reluctant to engage in battle over the coast - instead forcing Spitfires to fly deep inland over France to seek combat. Doing this would pay a significant toll on the RAF's fuel supply - leaving the Spitfire's with a distinct disadvantage when they finally did catch up to the Luftwaffe for battle.
Thus, fighter command put immense pressure on the British so that a raid would temporarily seize a French port - provoking the Luftwaffe to draw its fighters to the coast of France. The RAF were convinced that a fight over the French coast would be the greatest air battle yet.
Indeed, the air battle over Dieppe during the raid would be one of the fiercest air battles since 1940 - just not in the way the RAF had so confidently anticipated.
Although the intense air fighting above supported the infantries below by preventing the Luftwaffe from making attacks on the infantries below - Allied forces would ultimately lose in the skies. In total, the RAF would lose 91 aircraft and 64 pilots. An additional 14 aircraft and 8 pilots from the Royal Canadian Air Force, as well as 6 British bombers, were lost that day. Whereas for Germany, only 48 aircraft were lost, 24 damaged, and a total of 13 pilots killed, 7 wounded. In a matter of days, the Luftwaffe in France was back to the full strength.
The Problems with the Plan
With all of these outside pressures - Britain, understandably, felt compelled to make a move at Dieppe. And with so much on the line, with so many missions at hand, one must ask - how did it all go so terribly? Where did it all go wrong?
Firstly, even though the RAF were confident in their ability to attack with force along the French coast, they were still hampered by having to operate far from the home base - the Spitfires, for example, were operating at the edge of their range. From Dieppe, a Spitfire could only stand to spend 5 minutes in the combat zone before having to retreat again.
But what about on the ground? The training for this mission although strenuous and continuous was also short lived with rehearsals formerly code-named "Operation Rutter" to test the feasibility of capturing a port in the face of opposition - would be cancelled and postponed. The operation that would ultimately be the Dieppe Raid was then renamed "Operation Jubilee".
Many military historians will point out that the main reason for failure at Dieppe was the pure absence of a sufficient artillery bombardment to support the infantries moving forward. A sheer lack of destroyers and navy support, tank failure, and a preoccupied air force left the troops on the ground completely exposed and alone - left to attempt the impossible, through barbed wire entanglements against heavy machine, mortar & grenade fire.
Canadian officers believed that the combination of speed, surprise and sheer shock of having the tanks and infantry upon Dieppe's coast line would be enough for the Germans to fall back. Unfortunately, that was a far-fetched assumption. Alas, the sheer number and size of dug in German gun positions were hidden along the cliff side and hadn't been detected by Allied air reconnaissance photographs.
The beach gradient and suitability for tanks were assessed only by holiday snapshots which only further contributed to the drastic underestimation of the German strengths at Dieppe as well a complete misunderstanding of the terrain. Furthermore, although extraordinary measures were taken to keep the Dieppe Raid a secret, the German's were also on high alert - warned by French double agents that the British were showing an interest in Dieppe. They also detected increased radio traffic and landing craft concentrated along the British Coastal ports.
Despite the terror and thoughtless loss that occurred along the French coastline of Dieppe that morning, lessons had been learned that contributed to the Allies' overall achievement in the Second World War.
Although Dieppe quickly turned into the Allies template for "What Not to Do" in wartime - the reaction to change was swift. They learned that the proper element of surprise was paramount - any schedule delay would risk their cover of darkness. Both aerial bombardment and artillery support were paramount in every offense; that heightened intelligence for locating enemy fortifications was paramount. There was also a need for proper re-embarkation craft, which was also addressed. From now on, armoured vehicles which protected the engineers so that they could perform their tasks during the battle were developed. Furthermore, a new policy was put into place so that officers investigated what the exact elements of every beach they intended to land upon were like - so that they could devise the appropriate vehicles to operate efficiently.
As Lord Mountbatten himself once stated - " I have no doubt that the Battle of Normandy was won on the beaches of Dieppe. For every man lost at Dieppe, ten more would be spared in Normandy 1944".
When reflecting upon the Dieppe Raid and it's outcomes, it's hard to imagine that it is the same beach we can walk barefoot in the sunshine today. I remember many beautiful summers, swimming in the water, enjoying scallops on the pebbled beach. The lessons may have been learned, the secrets discovered, but for many Canadians - the pain is still there. The terror, and the loss, still pertinent to remember. One must think of the human behaviour - the human perseverance - and what it takes to look around at your dire surroundings yet continue to move forward.
We'll never forget the loss experienced here, the sheer sacrifice, the terror the men who saw this beach felt.
With the 75th Anniversary of the Dieppe Raid upcoming, let us join together, not in pity or shame of what our forefathers had to witness, but in celebration and thanks that they would sacrifice so much for us. In their honour, we remember them by acknowledging the incredible event that took place here, and by keeping their story alive, we aim to never forget.
If you would like to join us on the upcoming program commemorating Dieppe's 75th Anniversary, or if you would like more information in regards to the events taking place on Dieppe's 75th, click here.
DIEPPE 75 REFERENCES
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Copp, Terry A Nation at War, 1939-1945. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-96887-505-6.
Copp, Terry and Mike Bechthold. The Canadian Battlefields in Northern France: Dieppe and the Channel Ports. Waterloo: WLU Press, 2011. ISBN 1-926804-01-5
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Henry, Hugh G. Dieppe Through the Lens of the German War photographer. London: After the Battle, 1993. ISBN 0-900913-76-2. A Canadian historian covers the actions of each one of the 29 tanks disembarked on the raid with photos, oral history and primary sources. The author later did his doctoral dissertation on the raid.
Hughes-Wilson, John. Military Intelligence Blunders and Cover-ups. Bath, Avon, UK: Robinson Publishing Ltd. 2004. ISBN 978-1-84119-871-2.
Król, Wacław. Zarys działań polskiego lotnictwa w Wielkiej Brytanii 1940–1945 (History of the Polish Air Forces in Great Britain 1940–1945). Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Komunikacji i Łączności, 1990. ISBN 978-83-206-0852-6.
Leasor, James. Green Beach. London: House of Stratus, 2011, First edition 2008. ISBN 978-1-908291-10-3.
Maguire, Eric. "Evaluation." Dieppe, August 19. London: J. Cape, 1963.
O'Keefe, David. "One Day In August : The Untold Story Behind Canada's Tragedy At Dieppe", Alfred A Knopf Canada, 2013, ISBN 978-0-345-80769-4.
Poolton, Jack with Jayne Poolton-Turney. Destined to Survive: A Dieppe Veteran's Story. Toronto: Dundurn Press 1998. ISBN 1-55002-311-X.