When it comes to Canadian military disasters, it is hard to top the Dieppe Raid. In the early morning hours of August 19, 1942, an Allied attack (4963 Canadians, around 1000 British troops, and 50 United States Army Rangers) took place in the small German port city of Dieppe. It was over before noon. Of the 6000+ men involved, 3367 became casualties. With regards to Canadian troops, 916 were killed, 586 were wounded, and 1946 were taken as prisoners of war.
So what the heck happened? How did things go so poorly, so fast? Did any good come out of the failed raid or was it just a grade A military screw-up?
Canadian troops disembark from a landing craft during training exercise before the raid on Dieppe.
Things weren’t looking that great for the Allies in early 1942. The Germans were deep inside Soviet territory, (Stalingrad had yet to happen), and we were not making any grounds on the Western and North African fronts. A full-scale invasion of Western Europe was not feasible at this point, but how about a smaller one? Joseph Stalin was adamant that the Allies needed to launch a second front in France to help alleviate the mounting pressure on the Soviet army and citizens. Canadians politicians were itching for our soldiers to finally see some military action. We had been training in Britain for two years at this point and had yet to be involved in real combat.
The objectives for Operation Rutter (later known as Jubilee) were to:
1. Launch a western front in Europe.
2. Seize and maintain control over a major port for a period of time to prove that (a) we could actually do it and (b) to gain intelligence.
3. Destroy coastal defenses and strategic buildings during the retreat.
4. Boost morale.
What Actually Happened
Long story made short? We failed to achieve any of our objectives.
Map of Dieppe depicting the plan for invasion.
The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division under Major-General J.H. Roberts attacked Dieppe in a double pincer movement (in four sections). At the Blue Beach, soldiers arrived late and were gunned down by the Germans upon arrival. At the Green Beach, troops arrived on-time but had to cross a heavily defended bridge and that didn’t go too well. At the Red and White Beaches where most of the soldiers were situated, these men were also mowed down by bullets. Backup support arrived late, the Germans had a higher ground advantage, and the tanks were limited in movement due to large pebbles on the beach. Worst of all, Roberts (who was on-board the HMS Calpe and had no idea how things were going) ended up sending in even more men and these last minute regiments (two in total) were destroyed. The withdrawal began at 11 am and we were gone by 2 pm.
Why Things Went Wrong
Some of our errors were obvious—like wear a watch, guys—but others were beyond the control of the soldiers:
Poor Planning – Officials knew fully well that Dieppe was a heavily guarded port, but still went after it anyways. The original plan for a full-on aerial bombardment was called off due to fear of civilian casualties, as was a parachute operation on the flanks. Planners used tourist postcards (Dieppe was a seaside resort in Normandy) to assess the beach terrain. German gun positions alongside the cliffs were not spotted by Allied air photographers. Attacking a beach with cliffs was a terrible idea because it gave the Germans the much desired higher ground advantage. The element of surprise was a key part of the operation. Finally, putting Roberts on a ship with poor communication resources probably wasn’t the best idea.
The Germans Knew? – When veterans of Dieppe speak about the battle, they always mention the extent to which the Germans seemed prepared. Some are convinced that they had to of known about the attack due to just how precise the shelling of Allied landing ships was. It didn’t help that the BBC had been broadcasting warnings to civilians in the area to leave the coast due to the high probability of action. Furthermore, the raid was scheduled for June, but poor weather prevented that from happening. As such, the Germans had even longer to prepare for combat. However, to this day there is not definitive proof that the German army was aware of Operation Jubilee. Rather, they were aware of an impending attack somewhere along the coastline and sought to prepare themselves. Hence, making surprise a key part of one’s plan isn’t always the wisest of decisions.
Lack of Experience – At the time, officials were heavily criticized for relying so heavily on Canadian regiments given their inexperience in battle. However, scholars note that even seasoned professionals would have had a equally difficult time given the ill-planning by superiors.
“Dead Canadian soldiers lie where they fell on “Blue Beach.” Trapped between the beach and fortified sea wall, they made easy targets for MG 34 machine guns in a German bunker. The bunker firing slit is visible in the distance, just above the German soldier’s head.” – German Federal Archives.
People are divided into two camps when it comes to Dieppe. Camp A, is the Winston Churchill (postwar) view: “My Impression of ‘Jubilee’ is that the results fully justified the heavy cost” and that the “Canadian contribution [was] of the greatest significance to final victory.” This perspective is shared not only by the Canadian government then and now, but by all of those responsible for the military disaster. This view stems from the fact that Allied officials learned the following lessons:
1. Assaults on heavily defended ports = bad idea.
2. Proper enemy and area intelligence was essential to success.
3. Communication on the battlefield, between the headquarters of each unit, and between air, naval, and ground forces all needed to be vastly improved.
4. Heavy firepower from air and sea raids to support ground troops was necessary.
5. Aerial bombardment before the battle to destroy enemy defenses as much as possible was probably a good idea.
6. Better technology and tanks were needed to get the job done.
Then there is Camp B, which can be summed up as follows:
Many feel that the lessons learned were common sense and calling the events at Dieppe “necessary” skews the truth. It was understandable that the Canadian government and the Allies would put a positive spin on event during the war in order to keep morale up and to use it as propaganda. These ideas should have dropped away postwar, but instead they were incorporated into the legend of D-Day. To argue the success at Normandy could not have happened without Dieppe glosses over the facts. Ultimately, if military officials had planned out things better, the disaster could have been avoided.
Hindsight is 20/20 though.
I hate ending on such a negative note, so I turn it over to you now. What do you think about the ill-fated Dieppe Raid? Do you agree with the positive spin Churchill and the others put on it? Was Dieppe necessary for the successful assaults on North Africa, Italy, and D-Day?
Note: Major General Roberts actually had no part in the planning and was never blamed for the failure of Dieppe. He was actually awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his efforts in the battle. However, six month later he was relieved of duties and transferred to the Canadian Reinforcement Units because he was seen as tactically weak during Spartan, a large-scale exercise in preparation for D-Day.
Landry, Pierre. “The Dieppe Raid” Juno Beach Centre. The Juno Beach Centre Association, 2003. Accessed from: http://www.junobeach.org/canada-in-wwii/articles/the-dieppe-raid/
“Major-General J.H. Roberts,” Juno Beach Centre. The Juno Beach Centre Association. n.d. Accessed from: http://www.junobeach.org/canada-in-wwii/articles/major-general-j-h-roberts/
Maguire, Eric. “Evaluation.” Dieppe, August 19. London: J. Cape, 1963. (Churchill quote).
“The Dieppe Raid” Veterans Affairs Canada, Government of Canada. 2014. Accessed from: http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/history/second-world-war/dieppe-raid
Thompson, Julian. “The Dieppe Raid,” BBC, 2011. Accessed from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/dieppe_raid_01.shtml
All historical pictures (originally) from Library and Archives Canada, except where noted.