EIGHTY years ago today, in the pre-dawn darkness of the English Channel, one of the most controversial and tragic operations of the Second World War began – the Dieppe Raid.
Carried in 250 ships, a force of 6,000 troops – 5,000 of them Canadian – launched an amphibious assault on the heavily defended German-held French port on the Channel coast. Overhead, the largest single air battle of the Second World War developed as 800 RAF fighters and 100 light bombers clashed with the Luftwaffe.
But within hours, despite their outstanding bravery, more than 1,000 Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen were dead – mostly Canadians who were cut down as they made a head-on attack against the town’s main seafront area, which was a virtually impregnable fortress.
In the aftermath, military chiefs tried to justify the slaughter by claiming invaluable lessons had been learned. The brutal truth was that the men’s lives had been thrown away by the arrogance and stupidity of their leaders in trying to carry out a plan that was fatally flawed from its inception.
The impetus for the Dieppe operation came because the war was at its nadir for Britain in 1942. Hitler had conquered much of Western Europe and was about to launch a renewed offensive against Russia. U-boats were threatening to cut the Atlantic convoy lifeline, while in North Africa Tobruk had fallen to Axis forces. Japan was overrunning the Far East and Pacific.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill was under intense political pressure at home, and from his American and Soviet allies, to show Britain was still ‘in the game’ and could do the Germans serious harm. The RAF was steadily ramping up its bombing raids on the Reich, but the Soviets were demanding a second front in the West to divert Hitler’s armies from their embattled motherland.
No Allied invasion of Europe was yet feasible: D-Day would not take place until June 1944. However, Combined Operations – headed since October 1941 by the ambitious, over-promoted Lord Louis Mountbatten – had carried out a series of successful small raids on German bases in occupied France. Although such attacks were mere pinpricks, they were the best Britain could offer on the European mainland.
So planning for a large-scale assault on Dieppe, codenamed Operation Rutter, began early in 1942, overseen by General Bernard Montgomery in conjunction with Combined Operations.
Canadian military chiefs, whose troops had been kicking their heels since arriving in Britain late in 1939, lobbied successfully for their soldiers to form the bulk of the raiding force, although they had never seen combat.
Training and exercises went ahead for Rutter, even when it became obvious that the split-second timing and co-ordination needed for even a slim chance of success was almost impossible to achieve.
Finally, after bad weather delayed the raid and German aircraft spotted the assembled ships in the Solent in early July, the operation was shelved because security was assumed to have been compromised. Montgomery left for the Middle East, where he would find fame in November that year with his victory at Alamein.
However, Mountbatten and the Canadian top brass argued that Rutter was still possible, and it was revived under the codename Jubilee.
Unlike earlier smaller raids, the operation had no specific major objective. Its stated purpose was to take control of Dieppe for a short while, destroy installations, gather intelligence and prisoners, then withdraw a few hours later.
But Dieppe, defended by 1,500 German infantry, was arguably the last place anyone should have chosen to mount such an assault. Heavy guns were dug in on the cliffs either side of the port to cover the seafront and beach, where a formidable array of firepower was entrenched.
Along the promenade and sea wall, machine guns and mortars were sited in pillboxes and caves dug into the cliff faces, able to pour a deadly crossfire on any seaborne invader. A fortified casino and a tank embedded in concrete added to the defenders’ arsenal, while roadblocks prevented easy access into the town.
The beach was strewn with deep entanglements of barbed wire, while the sloping shoreline itself was a daunting obstacle. Instead of smooth, hard sand, it was composed of chert – a deep, slippery shingle of fist-size stones.
The basic Jubilee plan was for flank attacks by British commandos on the clifftop gun positions, and a direct seaborne assault by Canadian infantry and tanks on the main port. The fatal flaw was that to avoid a traffic jam of naval craft, the commandos would have to go in half an hour ahead of the main attack, inevitably alerting the whole German garrison.
A massive sustained bombardment from the sea and air might have softened up the seafront defences to give the head-on attack some prospect of making headway. But the Navy refused to risk its battleships in the Channel, supplying only smaller destroyers, while no heavy bombers would be provided by the RAF. The Jubilee planners decided to go ahead nonetheless.
As dusk descended on Tuesday, August 18, the flotilla set sail from the south coast of England for the 70-mile crossing to Dieppe. Approaching the French coast early on August 19, they ran into a German convoy and the ensuing skirmish alerted the onshore defenders. From then, the mission was all but doomed.
The seaborne attacks on the clifftop guns were unsuccessful, with the exception of that carried out by No 4 Commando under Lord Lovat. Both Canadian and British forces fought valiantly to attain their objectives, but were thwarted in the face of murderous German fire.
Directly in front of Dieppe, the major disaster unfolded. As the Canadian landing craft approached, Allied fighter-bombers swept in to strafe the seafront, momentarily suppressing the defenders. But when the infantry started to come ashore, the Germans opened up with a devastating hail of machine gun bullets and mortar bombs. The thick shingle impeded the troops and many were mown down by the relentless fire sweeping the beach. The tanks arrived late and some became stuck near the water’s edge, unable to gain traction on the shingle. Those that did make it to the sea wall could get no further.
Almost incredibly, some soldiers managed to fight their way into the town itself, but were soon overwhelmed. Most died trapped on the beach. Some four hours after the raid began, a general withdrawal was ordered.
The tragic toll was 907 Canadian soldiers killed, 2,460 wounded, and 1,946 taken prisoner. A further 190 Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen – most British – died. The overall casualty rate for the soldiers and marines was almost 60 per cent, a shocking figure.
No sooner had the raid ended than the obfuscation started. It was initially claimed that the operation had been a success, achieving all its objectives. It was only when the casualty list filtered through that it became apparent Dieppe had been a blood-soaked fiasco.
Ever afterwards, Mountbatten and others pushed the lie that lessons learned from the raid made possible the successful Normandy landings two years later. Even now, 80 years on, that is still the received wisdom in many quarters.
Mountbatten said: ‘The Duke of Wellington is credited with having said that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. I have no doubt that the battle of Normandy was won on the beaches of Dieppe. For every one man who died at Dieppe in 1942, at least ten or more must have been spared in Normandy in 1944.’
It was blatant, blustering nonsense. By 1942, planning for the invasion of Normandy was already in hand, with the specialised equipment used in the operation being devised. No ‘lessons’ were learned from Dieppe that could not have been deduced by military planners sitting safely in Britain.
You didn’t need to squander the lives of hundreds of brave men to learn that it was folly to attack a well-defended port head-on without an effective bombardment. Or that it was folly to alert the Germans half an hour before the main assault. But under pressure to act, and in pursuit of prestige, the Jubilee top brass had closed their eyes and ears to these unpalatable truths.
The stark fact is that the only lesson learned from the Dieppe Raid is that it should never have been allowed to happen.