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A “necessary evil”?

The Dieppe Raid

The beach of Dieppe covered in dead bodies and abandoned equipment after the raid (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)

On August 19, 1942 the Allies launched an attack on the German-occupied port of Dieppe on the northern coast of France. The result was a massacre, mainly for the Canadians as the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was selected as the main force of the frontal assault. The Canadian army pushed to head the mission because they were itching to see action in the war. In hindsight, the Dieppe Raid is considered a vital learning experience for later successes, particularly the 1944 D-Day landings, but the losses were hard to swallow at the time.
 
After the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the European mainland in 1940 (read our earlier article), Britain was unable to open a second front to relieve the Soviet Union since they had lost most of their equipment during the evacuation. The U.S. had already entered the war, but they also needed time to build up their forces. As a temporary solution, the British started carrying out small-scale Commando raids to harass and to tie down German forces in western Europe. Still, the Germans had 46 divisions in Europe, while more than 200 of their divisions were fighting on the Eastern Front.
 
The concept of the Dieppe raid was Churchill’s. He envisioned a similar raid to the one on Zeebrugge in the spring of 1918, which resulted in lifting morale during the First World War. The plan itself was drawn up under the supervision of Lord Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations and his naval advisor Captain John Hughes-Hallett from early April 1942. This was supposed to be larger and more complex than any other raids before. The planners were optimistic after the success of the recent St. Nazaire Raid (Operation Chariot). On March 28, 1942, Commandos managed to ram and blow up the dry dock of St. Nazaire with an old destroyer packed with delayed-explosives, thus rendering the port unusable for years and considerably shortening the German navy’s operational radius in the Atlantic.

Dieppe on the map (Photo: Google)
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The aim of the raid was to test the feasibility of capturing and holding an important port on the English Channel, a key element to any invasion of the European mainland. There was never any intention to occupy the Dieppe port permanently, but rather to create confusion among the German defenses in the Dieppe sector at dawn and then to withdraw. The mission was to gather intelligence, destroy radar and airport installations, test amphibious equipment and practice this type of assault with the coordinated approach of the army, the navy and the air force. Some say that the real main objective was to obtain one of the Germans’ Enigma cipher machines.
 
Among the conceivable ports, Dieppe was one of the nearest and was within the range of the fighters of the growing Royal Air Force (RAF) which intended to draw into battle and inflict serious losses on the German Luftwaffe. According to British intelligence sources the town was not heavily defended and its beach was suitable for landing. They were wrong in both aspects.  Still, the final decision was to launch a frontal attack on the harbor with support from paratroopers landing on the left and the right flank of the main force and to neutralize two German large-caliber coastal batteries (Battery “Hess” and Battery “Göbbels”, both named after German leaders) covering the beaches. The raid was named Operation Rutter.
 
The all-volunteer Canadian force of around 200,000 men was stationed in England from 1939 and was longing for participation in actual combat. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, led by Major-General John Hamilton Roberts from 1941, was selected to execute the raid. Roberts replaced the older officers with younger ones and improved the training of his men. The two brigades selected for the raid trained on the Isle of Wight isolated from the public. The original plan was to attack in early July but the convoy was spotted and attacked by German planes and the operation was cancelled. Mountbatten lobbied to Churchill to give it another try. The raid was eventually rescheduled for August despite concerns about secrecy being compromised since many of the landing forces knew now that Dieppe would be the objective. The operation was renamed to Jubilee. The paratroopers meant to provide support on the flanks before the landings were replaced by Commandos and the high-altitude aerial bombardment was replaced by strafing and bombing by fighter-bombers.

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Major-General John Hamilton Roberts, commander of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division (Photo: National Photographic Record)

The ground forces that took part in the raid included 4,963 men and officers from the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, 1,005 British Army and Royal Commandos and 50 of their American counterparts, the U.S. Rangers. The Rangers of the 1st Ranger Battalion, led by Captain Roy Murray, were embedded into different units to gain combat experience.
 
The landing was to take place on six beaches codenamed, from east to west, Yellow, Blue, Red, White, Green and Orange. The main frontal attack against the town would be on Red and White Beach supported by Churchill tanks of the 14th Canadian Tank Battalion. The naval support task force had 237 ships at hand but only 8 destroyers and a gunboat had larger-caliber guns. The Royal Navy refused to provide battleships for the raid fearing a loss of another capital ship due to aerial attacks.

The map of the operation (Photo: thepaintingchallenge.blogspot.com)

The German garrison facing the raiding party was the 302nd Static Infantry Division led by Generalleutnant Konrad Haase. The division arrived a couple of months before the raid and was tasked with occupational duties in a defensive role. Many of its first-class soldiers were transferred to the Eastern Front and were replaced by soldiers of lower quality and foreign conscripts from Poland, Russia, etc. Much of their equipment were outdated WWI weapons or arms captured from defeated armies. Still, as a deep-water port, Dieppe was relatively well defended by the Germans with machine guns, mortars and artillery in concealed fortified positions in the cliffs and the caves impervious to naval and aerial bombardment. The beaches were blocked by barbed wire and concrete walls. Additional reserves were available further inland.

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Generalleutnant Konrad Haase, commander of the German garrison in Dieppe (Photo: juntuanwang.com)

Unaware of the above, the Allied fleet set sail from 5 different ports on the south coast of England. The operation started already with an unfortunate event when the eastern flank of the fleet ran into a flotilla of German ships. The landing craft continued their journey, while escort ships engaged the Germans without compromising the mission.
 
The Commando raid at Yellow Beach on Battery “Göbbels” was unsuccessful and ended up in the evacuation of the soldiers, while the assault at Orange Beach managed to destroy Battery “Hess”, making it the only major success of the whole operation. The first American soldier killed in action in Europe in WWII was Lieutenant Edward Loustalot of the Rangers who was shot on Yellow Beach. Corporal Franklin Coons of the U.S. Rangers, embedded into the Commando assaulting Orange Beach, was the first American soldier to kill a German soldier in WWII. The commander of the Commando here was no other than Lord Lovat, who would later return and land with his Commandos accompanied by his Scottish piper on D-Day on Sword Beach and relieve the British paratroopers at Pegasus Bridge. His actions on D-Day were brought onto film in the 1962 war movie, The Longest Day.
 
The soldiers on Blue and Green Beaches were supposed to capture German strongpoints overlooking the site of the main attack. The attack on Blue Beach ended up in a tragedy with the landing soldiers mowed down on the beach in their landing craft or at the sea wall (from the 556 soldiers 200 were killed and 264 captured). The outnumbered troops at Green Beach could not hold the bridge they were supposed to take and hold. This prevented them from reaching the radar station and another battery. None of them managed to reach their objectives.

Dead Canadian soldiers on Blue Beach (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
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Thus, the main direct attack on the town and its port turned out to be failure from the start. Since the hidden German fortifications in the caves of the two headlands on the flanks of the Dieppe beach were still in German hands, they had an excellent field of fire and laid down enfilade fire on the landing troops. The infantry had no armored support because of the Churchill tanks’ late arrival. Most of the troops got shot or were pinned down by machine gun or sniper fire. A survival technique in the carnage was to play dead but this was hardly a solution against mortar fire. Most of the tanks got paralyzed on the loose pebbles of the shingle beach and were knocked out one by one by anti-tank guns. Those few that broke into the town could not advance further because of the concrete anti-tank walls blocking the streets.
 
While striving to lead from the flagship HMS Calpe, Major-General Roberts received misleading information about the landings in the fog of war and initiated the deployment of the floating reserve (Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal and the Royal Marine A Commando). The Fusiliers landed right in the middle of the bloodshed on the beach without any chance of finding cover. The Commandos sent to support them saw that the landing would be futile and managed to turn back with relatively light casualties. Preparations to clear the beaches began at 9:00 a.m. At 11:00 a.m., a general order to retreat was issued. The chaotic withdrawal from the main landing beaches began under heavy German fire causing numerous casualties. At 12:40 p.m., the HMS Calpe pushed close to the beach to inspect Red and White Beaches. Since there were no soldiers alive to evacuate it turned around and sailed home. The raid had officially ended. It lasted only 9 hours.

Lord Lovat and the members of his Commando after the evacuation from Dieppe (Photo: IWM)

The attack was a disaster and no major objectives were accomplished. More than 3,600 of the military force of 6,100 were killed, wounded, missing or captured. The naval casualties numbered 550. All the equipment landed on shore was lost. The RAF lost 106 aircraft, while the Royal Navy lost 33 landing craft and one destroyer. The German casualties totaled no more than 591 soldiers and 48 planes.
 
Not surprisingly, the German propaganda presented the raid as evidence of the superiority of the German forces and the weakness of the Allies. The footage of the prisoners, the wreckage of the tanks and the dead on the beaches was widely shown to the public. On top of that, the Germans managed to get hold of the secret plans of the operation from Brigadier William Southam when he was taken prisoner, and analyzed it thoroughly, stating that the plans were of surprisingly poor quality.

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German soldiers posing on a knocked-out Churchill tank after the raid (Photo: Reddit)

As a result of the debacle, Lord Mountbatten earned the nickname “Master of Disaster”. Similarly to earlier situations, he used his special ability to explain his failures and end up higher in the ranks. He claimed that the lessons of the operation had outweighed the cost and that the raid was a “necessary evil”. Canadians who participated in the raid never mentioned having fond memories of him.
 
After the disastrous operation, Major-General Roberts was never given operational duties again and commanded reinforcement units in the United Kingdom. He retired in 1945 after 35 years of military service. After the war he worked for the Imperial War Graves Commission. He fully retired in 1950. Instead of moving home to Canada, he moved to Jersey, one of the small Channel Islands belonging to England. He died there in 1962.
 
The 2nd Infantry Division was replenished and landed in Normandy in early July a month after D-Day. They were given the opportunity to return to and liberate Dieppe on September 1, 1944. A victory procession was organized in the town and a memorial service was held in the cemetery where the Germans had buried the fallen Allied soldiers. In 1949, the temporary war cemetery was replaced by the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery created by the Imperial War Graves Commission.

The memorial service after the liberation of Dieppe in 1944 (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)

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Many lessons were learned from the Dieppe raid. As a consequence, the British developed a whole range of specialized armored vehicles that became known as Hobart’s Funnies. The need for much heavier naval fire power was also brought to light, as well as the major deficiencies in RAF ground support techniques. Dieppe demonstrated that it was imperative to improve communications at all levels, as well as the importance of the use of prior aerial bombardment to destroy enemy defenses as much as possible. Harbors were never attacked frontally again; artificial Mulberry harbors were invented instead. In addition to Commando raids, air- and gliderborne troops were also used behind enemy lines to distract them and to slow down the deployment of reinforcements to the landing beaches. The element of surprise and the reliability of intelligence information was also of vital importance. Much of the success enjoyed on D-Day is attributed to these innovations and corrections.
 
Today, Dieppe and the nearby villages are peaceful holiday resorts with several monuments erected in the memory of all the fallen, including the U.S. Rangers who were the first American casualties of the war in Europe. Regardless of the failure of the operation due to serious mistakes in its planning, these are true tributes to the sacrifice and bravery of the soldiers who fought there.

The Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery with its unique layout of graves (Photo: Commonwealth War Graves Commission)
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