Dieppe Raid, August 19, 1942: Tragedy Or Was It Worth It?

The Germans were waiting.....


In August 1942, the Allies launched a raid on Dieppe in northern France. Dieppe was to prove a bloodbath for the Allies but important lessons were learned for the 1944 D-Day invasion.

Dieppe was selected for an Allied landing in April 1942. Winston Churchill approved the raid for a number of reasons:
It would be "a reconnaissance in force"

It would "test the enemy defences" on a strongly held coastal sector of France.

It would "discover what resistance would have to be met in the endeavour to seize a port".

The Dieppe raid was the largest combined operation that had taken place up to that point in the war. It was to be a sea borne raid that had fighter cover from British airbases. There was never a plan to keep Allied troops permanently in their place in Dieppe had the landing succeeded. The plan was for the Allies to launch an attack, create havoc among the German defences in the Dieppe sector and then withdraw - all within the space of about nine hours, the time the tide would allow ships to come close into the shoreline. Such a raid needed perfect planning and the element of surprise if it was to succeed.

Dieppe was very well defended by the Germans who realised its value as a port. The beach area was about 1500 metres long with two headlands at each end. The eastern headland was called 'Bismarck' while the western headland was code-named 'Hindenburg'. 'Bismarck' was heavily fortified and riddled with tunnels made an aerial attack out of the question. The biggest problem 'Bismarck' posed was the fact that the Allies did not know how well it was armed. It was known that guns were in place at 'Bismarck' but no-one in the Allies ranks knew about the number or calibre of the buns there. 'Hindenburg' was less well defended but combined with the fire power of 'Bismarck', it still posed a major problem for the Allies.

August 18th was the last day that the tides would suit the Allies. On August 17th, 24 landing ships had taken on board their cargo - new Churchill tanks. Sixty fighter squadrons had been put on standby along with seven fighter-bomber and bomber squadrons. Air cover was to come mostly from Spitfire fighter planes. The heaviest gun carried at sea were the 4 inch guns of the destroyers that accompanied the flotilla. On the night of August 18th, 252 ships loaded with troops and equipment sailed from four south coast ports. They sailed behind mine sweepers and in near radio silence. At 03.00 on August 19th, they arrived seemingly undetected 8 miles off of Dieppe.

The bulk of the land attack was carried out by men from the 2nd Canadian Division supported by 1,000 men from the Royal Marine Commandos and some 50 US Rangers - the first Americans to land and fight in German-occupied Europe. The whole area to be attacked was divided into nine different sectors:

The raid started perfectly. 5,000 men were in their landing craft by 03.30 and five minutes later were heading for their target beach. Then problems occurred. The landing craft carrying the troops were meant to be lined up behind gun-boats. The landing craft for the Royal Regiment of Canada lined up behind the wrong gun-boat, which for the Royal Regiment of Canada would have taken them to the wrong beach. It took twenty minutes in darkness to sort out the problem. Then the gun-boat leading in No 3 Commando to Berneval unexpectedly came across five armed German trawlers. The ensuing fire-fight left the gun-boat beyond use and it left the 20 landing craft carrying the commandos unprotected. As it was, these twenty landing craft had skillfully dispersed in the darkness. However, it would have been impossible for the Germans on the coast not to have heard the gunfire. Any attack on the Germans at Berneval would, therefore, lack surprise. However, one landing craft did land unnoticed and its 20 occupants took out the Goebbels battery based there to such an extent that it failed to fire an effective shot during the time when the landings took place in Dieppe. However, this was the only success of the Dieppe raid.

Elsewhere, the gunfire had warned the Germans of an attack. The various other beach landings were a disaster. The Royal Regiment of Canada, landing at Blue Beach, was cut down by German machine gun fire. The regiment, delayed by 20 minutes by the gun-boat muddle, landed in daylight and paid an appalling price. Of the 27 officers and 516 men landed at Blue Beach, just 3 officers and 57 men got off.

A similar picture was seen on Red, White and Green Beaches. The Allies were unable to provide those attempting to land with sufficient cover. Air power was hampered by the fact that the whole beach area was covered in a deliberately laid smoke screen. However, the smoke meant that pilots could not support the ground troops adequately. The destroyers at sea experienced a similar problem. When four destroyers (Calpe, Fernie, Berkeley and Albrighton) went in dangerously close to the shore line, their four inch guns were no match for the multitude of guns the Germans had access to.

The tanks that had been loaded for the attack were of little use. Where they got ashore and were not destroyed by the Germans anti-tank fire, the shingle on the beach meant that movement was difficult at best, impossible at worst. Canadian Royal Engineers tried their best to help out the stricken tanks but in murderous circumstances. 314 Canadian Royal Engineers were landed at Dieppe; 189 were killed or wounded on landing - an attrition rate of 60%. Of the 24 tank landing craft, 10 managed to land their tanks - 28 tanks in total. All the tanks were lost, even though some did manage to leave the beach and get into Dieppe town centre - where they were destroyed

One serious problem - amongst many - faced the by the force commanders, based on HMS Calpe, was the lack of any decent intelligence coming back from the beaches. So many commanders on the beach were killed, that any intelligible information rarely came back. Therefore, for some time, Major-General H F Roberts, commander of the land forces, and Captain J Hughes-Hallett, commander of the naval forces, knew little of what was going on. As late as 08.00, Roberts ordered in more commandos to re-enforce the attack on White Beach.

By 09.00, it had become obvious what was going on and a withdrawal was ordered. While the men had practiced for a planned withdrawal, what occurred at Dieppe itself was basically getting as many men off as was possible in as short a time as was possible. By early afternoon, those who had survived the attack were on their way back to Britain. The return journey was free from any incident as the Germans did not seem interested in pursuing the Allies, though fighter cover was strong.

The raid on Dieppe cost many lives. Out of the 6,000 men who had taken part in the landings, 4,384 were killed, wounded or missing - a loss of 73%. All the equipment landed on shore was lost. The Royal Navy had lost 550 men and 34 ships. The RAF, in what was the largest single-day air battle of the war, flew 2,617 sorties and lost 106 planes, while the Luftwaffe lost 170 planes

What was learned from Dieppe? Clearly, the lack of any flexibility in Operation Jubilee was a vital lesson learned. Any future major beach landing had to have flexibility built into the plan. Secondly, the sea based fire power against coastal based gun emplacements was very ineffective at Dieppe. Neither 'Bismarck' or 'Hindenburg' were destroyed and the gunfire that came from both, led to many deaths on the beaches at Dieppe. At D-Day, this lesson was learned when the coastal gun emplacements of the Germans were heavily attacked before the beach landings took place.

Bodies of dead Canadian soldiers

But Antony Beevor, considered by some the most prominent military historian in the world, supports the argument that the Canadians mowed down or blown apart by overwhelming German firepower didn't die in vain.

"The Dieppe disaster had a fundamental influence on the planning for D-Day, albeit in mainly negative terms," said Beevor, author of D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, a 2009 international best-seller on the 1944 allied offensive that broke the Nazi grip on western Europe.

The failure proved that the Germans had so heavily fortified key ports in northern France that a direct raid from the sea "should be avoided at all costs," according to Beevor. "Dieppe was a terrible sacrifice, but at least the Allies learned from that mistake and saved perhaps thousands of lives later."

Roughly 5,000 Canadians took part in the 1942 invasion, along with 1,000 British commandos and 50 U.S. Rangers.

The British and American leadership were under pressure from Soviet leader Josef Stalin to open a western front on mainland Europe, and Canadian politicians and military leaders were pushing for their soldiers stationed in Britain to be involved in battle.

But the invasion, a "hit and run" operation aimed at determining if the Allies could briefly take and hold a key enemy port, ended in fiasco, with 3,367 Canadians killed, wounded or taken prisoner.

Military strategists underestimated German defences, including the power of the Nazi gun placements inside and above the towering cliffs, that allowed gunners to sweep the Dieppe beach with machine-gun and anti-tank crossfire.

Canadian tanks and soldiers had the added challenge of trying to get traction on a beach with large, roundish pebbles.

Those pebbles acted like tiny bomblets every time a shell went off, flying in the air and causing 20 per cent of the Canadian injuries, City of Dieppe guide Stephanie Soleansky said here Wednesday.

Julian Thompson, a retired major-general in the British Marines and a visiting military historian at King's College London, took an opposing view to Beevor's in an analysis posted on the BBC website.

"The disaster did point up the need for much heavier firepower in future raids," Thompson wrote. "However, it did not need a debacle like Dieppe to learn these lessons."

He cites the memoirs of General Leslie Hollis, a senior British military official who had direct access to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in concluding that the operation "was a complete failure, and the many lives that were sacrificed in attempting it were lost with no tangible result."


But Beevor said Hollis has underestimated the influence of the Dieppe failure on the subsequent technological developments that were crucial during the D-Day offensive, including amphibious tanks and the "Crocodile" flame-throwing tanks.

The Dieppe failure also led to the development of the two massive "Mulberry harbours" — 10 kilometres of flexible steel roadways floating on steel or concrete pontoons that allowed vehicles and supplies to be shipped via Omaha and Gold beaches to troops during the brutal battle that summer against German forces in Northern France.

The Canadian Department of Veterans' Affairs website acknowledges the division among historians but concludes that the lessons learned were at minimum responsible for saving "countless" lives during the June 6, 1944 D-Day assault.

EXPERIENCE OF TWO CANADIANS: Alan Saunders and Pierre L'hours.

The two men were among only a handful who could actually provide eyewitness testimony to the raid being honoured at wreath-laying ceremonies attended by Canadian, French and British officials and dignitaries, veterans and cadets, tourists and ordinary Dieppe residents.

Saunders was one of 1,000 Royal British Commandos who, along with 50 U.S. Rangers, assisted 5,000 Canadians on that doomed mission two years before the successful 1944 D-Day Allied landings that ended the brutal Nazi occupation of France.

He was brought to shore by a landing craft manned by L'hours, then a sailor with Charles de Gaulle's Free French forces, and now a close friend and fellow resident of the Isle of Wight.

Saunders and some fellow commandos were sent to the smoke-shrouded Dieppe beach that morning on the mistaken understanding that the Canadians had broken through Nazi defences and entered the town of Dieppe.

"But they were still on the beach, just slaughtered, slaughtered, slaughtered," Saunders recalled. Then 19, he found himself in a hellish scene, surrounded by burning tanks, Canadian bodies and body parts, with shells exploding and bullets flying.

The Allies, who relied on prewar British tourist photos to study the beach, didn't realize how difficult it would be for the tanks and men to gain traction.

"The beach was a nightmare. It was impossible to walk, and you could imagine the tanks trying to go up an incline of pebbles. They lost their tracks, and for the German artillery it was like a duck shoot."

Saunders was one of the few evacuated in an assault in which 3,367 Canadians and 275 British commandos were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. But the landing craft in which they were escaping was hit by a shell, so he and the other commandos jumped overboard. He said they swam for four hours before being picked up by a destroyer on patrol looking for survivors of the various land, sea and air battles that day.

Canadians captured by the Germans

The beach at Dieppe: Where it all happened

Shaken Canadians after they withdrew. These men were lucky to be alive

The Germans painted their cross on a captured Churchill tank and started using it!

 Commandos return to Newhaven after Dieppe

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