Just before 5am on 19 August 1942, the Allied forces launched a sea bound attack on the German occupied port of Dieppe on the north coast of France.
‘Operation Rutter’ as it was known was to prove one of the most disastrous missions of the Second World War, with a total of 3,623 men being killed.
The raid took place after Churchill gave the go ahead following pressure from the Soviet Union, who urged the Allies to relieve the pressure on them by opening a second front in north-western Europe, and secondly from Rear Admiral Louis Mountbatten, who also wanted to give his troops practical experience of a beach landing.
The element of surprise
At 4:50am the raid began, with some 6,086 mostly-Canadian men taking part. 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, but this didn’t really work because they had been spotted earlier at 03.48, with some exchanges of fire. Despite this, Number 4 Commando managed to storm the Varengeville battery – and it 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 – and 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 support.
This left them exposed to heavy machine gun fire from emplacements dug into a nearby cliff and meant that that 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 – and because the tracks of the tanks were not able to cope with the shingle beaches, they soon began to come off, leaving 12 of them stranded and exposed to enemy fire, with many losses.
Furthermore, two of the tanks sunk, leaving only 15 of them to get across the seawall and on towards the town. But because of many obstacles on the way, they were to never make it that far and were forced to return to the beach.
All of the crews that landed were killed or captured by the enemy. They were effectively sitting ducks.
Chaos and abort
If this wasn’t bad enough, another fatal error was made. Canadian Major General Roberts was unable to see what was happening on the beach due to the smoke screen that had been set to aid the mission. Because of this, he decided to send in the two reserve units, the Fusiliers Mont-Royal and the Royal Marines, and this only added to the chaos.
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 thus sent in to support – but because this was not the original intention they had to be re-briefed and were told to transfer onto landing craft.
Total and utter chaos ensued on the run in and most of the landing craft were 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 do it – and it greatly affected the planning and operation of the later Normandy Landings some two years later.
But that would be little consolation to the 3,623 men who died that day – and it 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 / Commons.