Just before 5am on 19 August 1942, the Allied forces launched a seaborne raid on the German-occupied port of Dieppe on the north coast of France. It was to prove one of the most disastrous missions of the Second World War. Within ten hours, of the 6,086 men who landed, 3,623 had been killed, wounded or became prisoners of war.
With Germany operating deep in the Soviet Union, the Russians urged the Allies to help relieve the pressure on them by opening a second front in north-west Europe.
Simultaneously, Rear Admiral Louis Mountbatten, wanted to give his troops practical experience of a beach landing, against real opposition. Thus Churchill decided that a quick raid on Dieppe, ‘Operation Rutter’, should go ahead.
At this point in the war, the Allied forces weren’t strong enough to mount a full-scale invasion of Western Europe, so instead, they decided to conduct a raid on the French port of Dieppe. This would also give them the opportunity to test new equipment, and gain experience and knowledge in planning a greater amphibious assault in future which would be necessary to defeat Germany.
Poor weather in July prevented Operation Rutter from being launched then, but despite many people involved in planning wanting to abandon the raid, the operation continued, under the new code name ‘Jubilee’.
The element of surprise
The raid began at 4:50am, with some 6,086 men taking part (around 5,000 of whom were Canadian). The initial assault involved attacking the main coastal batteries, including Varengeville, Pourville, Puys and Berneval.
These initial attacks were designed to distract the Germans from the ‘main’ operation – and were conducted by Number 4 Commando, the South Saskatchewan Regiment and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada, the Royal Regiment of Canada and Number 3 commando respectively.
The plan relied heavily on the element of surprise. However, this was foiled when the soldiers had been spotted earlier at 3.48am, with some exchanges of fire and the German coastal defences being alerted.
Despite this, Number 4 Commando managed to storm the Varengeville battery. This was to prove one of the only successful parts of the whole mission.
When the Royal Regiment of Canada later attacked Puys, just 60 out of 543 men survived.
Everything goes wrong
At around 5:15am the main assault began, with troops attacking the town and port of Dieppe. This was when the main catastrophic events began to unfold.
The attack was led by the Essex Scottish Regiment and Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and was supposed to be supported by the 14th Canadian Armoured Regiment. However, they turned up late, leaving the two infantry regiments to attack without any armoured support.
This left them exposed to heavy machine gun fire from emplacements dug into a nearby cliff, which meant they were unable to overcome the seawall and other major obstacles.
When the Canadian tanks did arrive, only 29 actually made it to the beach. The tank tracks weren’t able to cope with the shingle beaches, and they soon began to come off, leaving 12 tanks stranded and exposed to enemy fire, resulting in many losses.
Furthermore, two of the tanks sunk, leaving only 15 of them to attempt to get across the seawall and on towards the town. Due to many concrete obstacles in the narrow streets in the way, the tanks never made it that far and were forced to return to the beach.
All of the crews that landed were effectively sitting ducks, and were either killed or captured by the enemy.
Chaos and abort
Canadian Major General Roberts was unable to see what was happening on the beach due to the smoke screen that had been set by ships to aid the mission. Unaware of the mayhem and acting on incorrect information, he decided to send in the two reserve units, the Fusiliers Mont-Royal and the Royal Marines, yet this proved a fatal error.
After the Fusiliers made their entrance, they immediately came under heavy machine gun fire and became pinned down under the cliffs. The Royal Marines were subsequently sent in to support them, but because this was not the original intention they needed to be re-briefed quickly. They were told to transfer from gunboats and motor boats onto landing craft.
Total and utter chaos ensued on the approach, with most of the landing craft destroyed by enemy fire. At 11am the order to abort the mission was given.
The Dieppe Raid was a clear lesson on how not to carry out beach landings. The failures and lessons learned from it greatly affected the planning and operation of the later Normandy Landings some two years later, and ultimately helped contribute to D-Day’s success.
For example, the Dieppe Raid showed the need for heavier firepower, which should also include aerial bombardment, adequate armour, and the need for firing support when soldiers crossed the waterline (the most dangerous place on the beach).
These invaluable lessons for the successful D-Day invasion in 1944 saved countless lives in that momentous offensive, which created a foothold on the continent for the Allies.
However, that was little consolation to the thousands of men who died that day, with debates continuing on whether the raid was simply a useless slaughter after poor preparation. The failure of the Dieppe Raid was one of the harshest and most costly lessons of the whole Second World War.
(Header image credit: Canadian wounded and abandoned Churchill tanks after the raid. A landing craft is on fire in the background. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-291-1205-14 / CC).