Dieppe - August 1942

In the spring of 1940, Germany stood ready to launch an attack upon the west in an attempt to quickly bring the war to an end. Within a few short weeks the German Panzers broke through the French line at Sedan and drove through to the English channel, cutting off French and British forces in Belgium and forcing them to evacuate to England from Dunkirk. The rest of France quickly fell, well Britain with its empire held out alone refusing to negotiate. Hitler’s planned invasion of the British Isles was thwarted in the skies over England where the RAF turned back the Luftwaffe’s continuous attacks.

Hitler turned his attention to the east and on June 22nd 1941 launched the largest offensive in the history of the world when he attacked the Soviet Union and by December was at the gates of Moscow. Stalin joined Churchill in an alliance against Germany and pleaded for relief from the Allies as the German attacks hammered Soviet forces. In December of 1941 the US was attacked by Japan and within a week Germany also declared war on the US. The Grand alliance of Britain, the US and the Soviet Union was formed to fight against the Axis powers.  In the Spring of 1942 Germany launched another great offensive against the southern flank of the eastern front and drove deep into Russia, 
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 which threated to collapse  Soviet defenses and supply lines through the Middle East. Stalin was adamant that the only action which would stop the German drive and a complete Russian defeat was the launching of an invasion on the French coast by Allies.

From April 1st to the 15th 1942, Molotov the Russian foreign minister visited Britain and the US to encourage the invasion of France and the creation of a second front to relieve the pressure on Russia.

The campaigning by the Soviets to launch an operation against the German occupied French coast was enormous. Roosevelt and the American military felt that an attack was feasible and pressured Churchill to consider it. It was decided that a large raid would be targeted against the town of Dieppe in July of 1942 when the tides, weather and moonlight would assist the attack. 

Canadian troops had been in England and training since 1939 and had seen little or no action during the invasion of France in May of 1940. It was felt by many, both British and Canadian, that the use of Canadian troops was essential for political and morale reasons. The 2nd Canadian division was assigned to the raid.   

On May 20th , 1942 Canadian troops began training for the operation on the Isle of Wight. The operation was codenamed Rutter. The target date was to be July 4th. The planning was developed by combined operations under Lord Louis Mountbatten and the command of the operation fell under General Bernard Montgomery’s control.

It was felt that as a test run for a major invasion of France, certain concepts would have to be attempted. One of these was that it would be essential to capture a port so that additional troops and equipment could be landed quickly and a rapid buildup of forces achieved in order to resist the inevitable German counter attacks.   

Operation Rutter was assigned the task of landing troops and tanks on the beaches of Dieppe and its flanks further along the coast. Large bombing raids were planned for the night before the landing as well as the support of paratroopers on the flanks. The idea was to cut off the defending Germans in the town and at facilities on the flanks from larger German formations inland, capture Dieppe, destroy port facilities and military emplacements and then to evacuate quickly.  

Churchill felt that the other major objective of the raid would be to shock the German’s into realizing the vulnerability of their coastal defenses and incourage them to withdraw forces from the summer campaign against Russia and transfer them to the Western Front. Although this was the not the establishment of the second front which Stalin had demanded, it would show that the western allies were trying to assist in every way they could.

As July 4th approached, the weather turned bad and Operation Rutter was put on hold for 3 days waiting for the conditions to improve. They did not and the operation was cancelled.

The supporters of the raid quickly decided that a new date of August 19th could be targeted as the next day when the conditions would be right for another try. The operation was renamed Jubilee and the command of the operation was transferred from British to Canadian control when General Montgomery was assigned to lead the 8th Army in Egypt and General Carear of Canada lobbied for Canadian command.

By August 18th everything was ready to go and the weather was declared acceptable for the operation. That night saw the departure of over 230 naval vessels, for Dieppe, carrying 4,962 Canadian troops, over 1000 British troops and a contingent of American Army Rangers numbering around 50 men.

Unfortunately for the allied troops, the bombing sorties had been dropped from the plan, fearing that they might alert the German’s and the paratroopers were also removed from the attack. Churchill tanks were included as a part of the attack on Dieppe but it was not taken into consideration, that they might have issues with the larger, rounded rock beach that made up the landscape of the Dieppe waterfront. The tanks would bog down in these rocks as they became stuck in the tank tracks.

The attack on Yellow Beach at Petit Berneval, which was on the far left flank of Dieppe, was carried out by No. 3 Commando under Lt Col. Durnford Slater. Of the 23 landing craft sent in only 7 manager to land their troops. These crafts landed at Yellow I at about 5:10 am while only 1 craft managed to land at Yellow II. They ran into stiff resistance and as the Germans quickly reinforced their troops, the approximately 120 men of Commando 3 were trapped and 82 were taken prisoner.  On Yellow 2, 20 men had been landed led by Lieut. H.T. Buckee. They were unopposed and quickly scrambled up a gully and began to attack the Berneval Battery. Although they never had a chance of capturing the Battery, they were able to keep a steady fire on the German artillery troops which prevented them from firing on the allied ships offshore. By 7:45 am after 2 ½ hours of fighting, Buckee led his men back down to the shore and re-embarked them, without loss, onto the landing craft and evacuated. This was to be a bright spot of the failed Dieppe raid

On the extreme right flank of the attack which was the Varengeville Battery, No. 4 Commando, led by the dashing Lt-Col. Lord Lovat, landed on beaches Orange I and Orange II.  He led 252 men including the American Rangers, ashore and the first group attacked and mortared the German Battery while the Orange II group circled around behind the Germans and the Battery was neutralized. Lovat’s main group then charged with bayonet and destroyed the German position. Lovat’s forces suffered 45 casualties including 12 killed but had achieved absolute success and at 7:30 am, according to plan evacuated unto the landing craft.

The Puy’s attack on the left flank, closer to Dieppe, was carried out by The Royal Regiment of Canada, three Platoons of The Black Watch and assorted additional units, and was against a narrow gully with soaring cliffs on either side. The German defenders consisted of an Army Platoon and a Luftwaffe Platoon. The Puy's attack was named Blue Beach and the objectives were 4 inch gun batteries, machine gun posts and light flak installations. Because Puy's was so much closer to Dieppe it was essential that these Germany installations be neutralized, otherwise they would be able to pour fire down onto the main landing beach in front of Dieppe.

The landing of the troops became very confused and went astray quickly. The first troops hit the beach at 5:07 am which was 17 minutes late and the Germans were already fully alerted and waiting from them. The landing troops were subjected to a murderous fire as the ramps on the landing craft fell and many never made it off the ship. Two more waves landed and were also pinned down by concentrated German fire.  Although a small group managed to penetrate the defenses and clear some German positions, they were quickly isolated and later forced to surrender. The rest of the men were trapped and over 500 men were captured or killed. Only 67 men managed to evacuate the beach and return to England. This attack had failed completely and doomed the main landing at Dieppe to failure as the German units on the cliffs opened up on the Canadian assault force.

Green beach or Pourville on the right flank of the attack was the other objective just to the west of Dieppe and was also essential for the success of the attack main attack. Like Puy’s it had dominate cliffs on either side although the ravine leading up from the beaches was larger. The South Saskatchewan Regiment was landed according to schedule at 4:52 am and they achieved surprise.  Initial objectives were achieved by C Company but due to being landed on the wrong side of the small river running into the sea at Pourville, the Regiment had to attempt a river crossing to continue their attack. The Cameron Highlanders then landed and together they began to push inland towards their objectives and their expected meet up with tanks from the main Dieppe landing. As the morning wore on and no tanks appeared, the Cameron’s realized that they would have to begin to evacuate. The German resistance was not only growing but they were beginning to attack the Canadian troops. The Canadian’s retraced their route back toward the beaches. Lt. Col Merritt who had led the attack and was now orchestrating the rear guard action was the leader in the Canadian actions on Green Beach. Only through his and his group’s rear guard action were most of the Canadian troops able to evacuate Green Beach. Merritt was awarded the Victoria Cross.

The main Dieppe attack was carried out by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and the Essex Scottish with the 14th Tank Regiment contributing over 50 tanks. The Beaches were named Red and White with Red being on the left.  The town was to be bombarded by naval vessels and attacking aircraft right up until the actual landing at 5:25 AM thus allowing the troops to land and penetrate the defenses before the Germans had a chance to recover. Unfortunately the landing craft were 10 to 15 minutes behind schedule and this made all of the difference in the operation. The Germans emerged from their cover and were ready. The landing troops were subjected to a withering cross fire from several defensive positions including the Puy’s units. They began to take heavy casualties as they approached the beach and once the landing began were either killed as they leapt from their landing craft or for the most part were immediately pinned down.  Some troops managed to take the Casino and then rush into some of the streets of Dieppe where they occupied a theatre and tried to break out. By 10:00 AM they were forced back to the Casino on the beach.

The Essex Scottish led by Stapleton managed to lead a dozen men into the town on the left side of the beach and penetrate to the harbor but they were quickly overpowered and forced back to the beach. For the most part the Canadians were not even able to get off the beach. It was estimated that up to 40% of the Essex were casualties by 5:45 AM

The 14th Army Tank Regiment or Calgary Regiment became the first Canadian armoured unit to ever go into combat and was equipped with Churchill Tanks. The Tanks were to be landed in several flights and were to cross the sea wall and penetrate into the town of Dieppe and potentially connect with forces from the flanking attacks. Once their mission had been accomplished it was intended that they would return to the beach area where they would re-embark on the L.C.T. Landing Craft Tanks and return to England. 

Flight 1 which consisted of 9 Tanks in 3 L.C.T.’s landed late and of the 3 landing craft only one returned. 3 of its Tanks were able to get off the beach and crossed the sea wall. Flight 1A also suffered 2 L.C.T. casualties with only 3 Tanks getting off the beach. Flight 2 achieved more success with 7 of its 12 Tanks crossing the sea wall. The rest of the regiment was not able to land.

A Total of 29 Tanks were landed with 15 able to cross the sea wall but none were able to penetrate into the town due to anti-tank barriers. Of the 15 that reached the promenade, 5 were stopped there and the rest were forced to return to the beach area. No tanks were re-embarked but their presence was a positive force for the assault troops who would have surely suffered a much higher casualtiy rate without their help. Only one Tank crew member was able to escape back onto the evacuation vessels.

At 6:10 AM Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal were landed on Red beach as reserves who were intended to follow up the expected success but were immediately pinned down and suffered high causalities. The beach and communications with the command centres on the naval vessels was chaotic and confusing. No one seemed to really know what was going on and the German pressure was only intensifying.

Above the invasion beaches the air war had broken out in full force. Over 945 German aircraft were eventually committed to the battle. Attacks on the beaches and the naval forces were carried out and the Destroyer Berkeley was hit and had to be abandoned. 

By 9:30 it was apparent that the attack was bogged down and evacuation needed to be initiated. The landing craft were set to return at 10:30 AM, this was changed to 11:00 AM due to required organization time, and only personnel were to be re-embarked. The German fire was increasing and new German units were constantly arriving.  At 11:00 the craft began to go in. By 12:20 the decision was made to effectively end the evacuation and get the re-embarked troops back to England.  Some attempts were made by several destroyers to gather additional troops from the beaches but at 1:10 PM a signal was received that the remaining troops had surrendered. The raid was over.    

Of 4963 Canadian troops who had embarked and of the approximately 3960 who had landed, 2211 returned. General Roberts reported “Very heavy casualties in men and ships. Did everything possible to get men off but in order to get any home had to come to sad decision to abandon remainder. This was joint decision by fore commanders. Obviously operation completely lacked surprise”*

807 Canadians were killed in action, 28 died of wounds after the attack, 72 died in German prison camps, 586 were wounded, 1,946 became prisoners of war, 106 allied aircraft were shot down of which 13 were RCAF planes. Was the raid worth the cost?

This is the questions which always haunts battles and war. It can be said that without Dieppe the cost in lives on D-Day would certainly have been much higher. The diversion of German resources from the Eastern front was partially achieved as evidenced by the buildup of quality German forces after the raid and the Invasion of North Africa was probably made a little safer with France being pulled so directly into focus for the Germans. Although it was absolutely a failed raid, Dieppe could be viewed as a valuable sacrifice considering the effect it had on the overall war effort and even Prime Minister Mackenzie King, after his initial revulsion to the casualties, reconsidered the results and accepted that valuable lessons had been learned and that an overall impact on the war effort was a positive one. This serves as no compensation for those who died but no argument does for the victims of war

*Official History of the Canadian army in the Second World War Vol 1 - Stacey

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