Dieppe is a sleepy resort town on the north-west coast of France, famous for its spas and the long, peaceful shingle-stone beach. On August 19, 1942, Dieppe was turned into a maelstrom of fire, lead and blood as more than 4,000 Canadians, 50 Americans and 200 British Commandos landed on the beach and were mercilessly mowed down by the German defenders.
The Battle of Dieppe, also known as the Dieppe Raid or Operation Jubilee, has gone down as one of the worst military disasters in Canadian history. While many historians have argued that at the time the raid served as a dress rehearsal for the D-Day landings 2 years later, new evidence has surfaced that suggest the Dieppe raid was intended to cover a British intelligence theft of a German Enigma device. Whatever the reasons, by the end of the day, 3,367 Canadian soldiers were killed or wounded, and nearly all the survivors of the 5,000-strong force were captured.
The raid had run into trouble before it even left England. German photo reconaisance aircraft had photographed the invasion fleet, which consisted of hundreds of destroyers, cruisers, battleships and landing craft assembling in port. All the men involved had been briefed as to their exact missions. When the raid was cancelled all the ships were disembarked and the thousands of young men fanned out to British pubs around the countryside. Word soon got out about the cancelled raid. Amazingly, Lord Louis Mountbatten of the British Admiralty then put the raid on again two days later!
Any German who didn’t know about the raid by this point learned about it as the armada sailed across the English Channel in the dead of night on August 18/19, 1942. The convoy ran into a German E-boat patrol and a vicious naval firefight erupted in the dead of night only a few miles from the Dieppe beaches. All the German defenders were alerted and rushed to their positions hours before the first troops were scheduled to hit the beach.
At 04:50 on August 19 the first landing craft steamed towards the beaches, laden with infantry and tanks. As the sun rose the landing craft hit shallows and the ramps came down. The men inside were immediately mowed down by hails of machine gun, rifle and mortar fire.
Dieppe is a shingled beach surrounded on three sides by high cliffs. The German defenders had turned these cliffs into fortresses complete with bunkers, tunnels and artillery and anti-tank gun turrets. The town itself, fronting the sea and protected by a high concrete sea wall, was completely reinforced by no less than 3 regiments of the crack 302nd German Infantry Division, which was resting in France after a gruelling year fighting in Russia.
Every artillery shell that exploded on the beach turned the stone shingles into deadly flying shrapnel. The Churchill tanks assigned to the landing couldn’t get any traction on the wet, slippery stones and they became sitting targets for the German gunners in the cliffs above.
Men raced from their burning landing craft across this hellish beach for the dubious safety of the sea wall, but German machine guns on the cliffs were able to rake the sheltering Canadians as they huddled in fear for their lives.
In the skies over Dieppe the single largest air battle of the Second World War raged as every German fighter and bomber was scrambled and met by more than 1,000 Allied warplanes. German Stukas dived onto the beach and onto the flottilla of ships offshore, sinking nearly a dozen. The sounds of machine guns and explosions in the sky matched those of the land below, and by the end of the day more than 500 plans had been destroyed, with about 250 on each side (which the Allies could afford and the Germans couldn’t).
Communications broke down and the fleet commanders waiting on destroyers at sea couldn’t see the beach through all the smoke, so they sent in the reinforcing waves of infantry. The beaches were not clear, however, and these waves met the same fate as the initial landing wave. Soon the entire Dieppe raid force was either dead or cowering under heavy fire against the sea wall.
The American Rangers who landed on the left flank of the beach managed to knock out their assigned target: a massive naval gun battery protecting the shallow harbour, but they were too few in number to help the Canadians being slaughtered on the beaches below.
As the scale of the disaster became apparent, individual landing craft tried to approach the beach to rescue what soldiers they could but with the tide going out and German shells crashing around most were unable to get closer than 2 km. A few brave men tried to swim out to the landing craft, but only 47 were plucked from the beach to return alive to England.
By 5 pm the battle was over as the Canadian survivors, exhausted, without ammo, wet and cold, began to surrender in groups to the Germans.
The Dieppe Raid has gone down in military history as a textbook example of what not to do. While valuable lessons were learned that were later applied to the D-Day landings (sand beaches, more tank support, tighter security, secure flanks, airborne drops), the raid itself has been wrapped in contraversy since news of it broke in the Canadian papers the next day. Whatever the causes of the raid, Dieppe is one of the reasons Canadians keep Remembrance Day such a solemn occasion.