Updated: May 15, 2022
"When the Canadian battalions stormed through the flashing inferno of nazi defences, belching guns of our huge tanks rolling into the fight, I spent the grimmest 20 minutes of my life with one unit when a rain of German machine-gun fire wounded half the men in our boat and only a miracle saved us from annihilation."
Ross Munro, Canadian war correspondent, August 20, 1942
In the spring of 1942, the Allied situation looked grim. After the British evacuation at Dunkirk, Nazi Germany consolidated their hold on continental Europe. The inactivity on the Western Front meant that Germany could push deeper and deeper into Soviet Russia. Though hopes raised when the United States entered the war, they were still ramping up their military production and German U-boats were making transport across the Atlantic treacherous. Morale was sinking.
It was acknowledged by Allied command that a cross channel invasion would be required, but there was no agreement on when that should take place. The British had some plans in place, as early as 1941, for cross channel raids on French ports such as La Havre and Calais. These were meant to be used in case the Soviet Union was on the brink of falling to the Germans. When the United States entered the war, they agreed their primary focus would be on the defeat of Nazi Germany first before Japan. American General George Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff under President Roosevelt, assigned General Dwight Eisenhower to revamp one of these older plans as a joint British-American operation. Marshall believed that engaging in such an operation would help focus the American war effort. T the same time he worked on building up Allied forces in Britain with the idea that a larger-scaled operation would ultimately be needed.
The British on the other hand saw things differently. The memory of Dunkirk still fresh, the British were less keen on any immediate assault across the channel. Prime Minister Winston Churchill felt the American troops were not experienced enough and such an early assault on France was too risky. His strategy was to attack the periphery of German-held Europe and work inwards: North Africa, Italy, then France. He refused to support any immediate cross channel operation but proposed landing in French North Africa. He even agreed to let Eisenhower take charge of it.
During this debate, British forces, under the command of Lord Montbatten, were conducting raiding forays along the French coast. These raids were quick, simple, in and out operations. They were meant to shore up public morale and show the Soviet Union that the Allies were eager to open up the Western Front again. The raids were proving to be effective, and in the early spring of 1942, it was decided to expand the scope and size of these raids. The target would be the French port city of Dieppe on the Normandy coast.
The main objectives of the raid on Dieppe were to cripple the port facilities, destroy an airfield, take out several artillery positions, and raid the German HQ. At the onset of the war, the Canadian prime minister, a pacifist, allocated Canadian troops to Britain to be used as support but not in combat. Over time, the Canadian commanders in England were anxious to commit their troops to combat action. The bulk of those who partook of the raid were Canadians from the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, nearly 5,000 men in total. Along with the Canadians were 1,000 British commandos and 50 of the newly formed US Army Rangers. Given the code name "Rutter", the attack was to take place in July 1492. Except the weather was consistently poor, and British General Bernard Montgomery wished to cancel the whole plan. He feared the risk of leaks as time went by, but in an unusual move, he did not persist in his objections. (Montgomery would leave for North Africa prior to the raid.) A number of changes were made to the initial assault including reducing the amount of air support and eliminating a planned parachute operation. The operation was renamed "Jubilee".
The assault right from the beginning was at a disadvantage. There was very little accurate intelligence on the German positions. The Germans had built gun positions into the high cliffs where they were not seen on aerial photographs. Planners relied on holiday photos to judge the state of the beaches and their suitability for landing tanks. Germans were monitoring radio chatter, and it is possible that French double agents alerted them to what the Allies planned on doing. Regardless, "Jubilee" finally launched during the pre-dawn hours of August 19, 1942.
The plan had been to attack at five different points along 16 kilometers on the French coastline. Just before dawn, there would be two attacks to the East and two to the West of Dieppe. The main attack would occur half-hour later and focus on the port of Dieppe itself. Almost immediately, the landing forces ran into trouble. On the Eastern flank, the landing crafts ran afoul of a German convoy, and the element of surprise was lost. The crafts were scattered and few reached the shore. Landing at Puys, the Royal Regiment of Canada met with similar difficulties. They landed on a narrow beach fronted by high cliffs. They had required surprise and darkness. They received neither as the landing was delayed until after light and the Germans were ready with machine gunfire. Most of those who landed were pinned by the machine guns and the mortars, and they were unable to evacuate. They had to surrender but not before over 200 Canadians died, the largest toll by a Canadian unit for the entire war.
Meanwhile, on the Western flank, British commandos landed successfully, took out several German gun positions, and then withdrew as planned. At Pourville, Canadian forces landed with little resistance and advanced as far as the River Scie. Once beyond the river, however, they engaged in heavy fighting which forced them to withdraw while taking heavy losses. They were far short of their objective in Dieppe.
Despite the problems on the flanks, the main assault went on as planned. The Germans, hidden in positions along the cliffs and inside buildings, had been prepared for the attack. The Allied forces, landing on the pebbled beach in front of Dieppe, faced a barrage of machine gunfire. Repeated efforts to take the beach were pushed back each one taking heavy losses. And due to miscommunication, the reserves were sent in too soon. The infantry landing parties found themselves without needed support. The RAF was unable to clear the skies of the Luftwaffe, and they could only manage to protect the ships. The tanks, whose landing was delayed, proved useless. Besides the enemy fire, they could not navigate the beach or the seawall. Those armored vehicles that managed to gain the town were caught along the narrow streets. By the afternoon of August 19, the battle was over. None of the objectives were met.
Of the 6,000 troops that landed at Dieppe, 3,992 were killed, wounded, or captured including the first three Americans to die in Europe as a result of combat. By all accounts, the raid on Dieppe was a failure. Allied morale sank further while Hitler and the German High Command grew confident that their coastal defenses were capable of holding back any invasion attempt. The Germans doubled down on their efforts to strengthen the "Atlantic Wall." Churchill seemed vindicated in his belief that a cross-channel invasion was not feasible yet and support the strategy of attacking the periphery.
Dieppe had been conceived as a raid that grew too complex in its execution. Later on, the disaster would be spun as a trial run leading up to the Normandy invasion in 1944. Military historians debate exactly how much of a role the failure of Dieppe played in launching the Normandy invasion. Certainly, Allied leaders needed to justify the cost. There were a number of operational elements the Allies applied to D-Day that were perhaps unintentionally learned at Dieppe. They chose wider beaches so as not to bottle up troops. Tanks and other equipment were upgraded to maneuver on beach terrain. With portable harbors, the Allies didn't need to land near a major port city with stronger defenses. There was better intelligence about Geman positions. And secrecy was key. The British purposefully leaked disinformation about potential landing sights to keep the Germans off guard. And Allied commanders realized that a lot more planning would be required before they could attempt a large-scale invasion.
In the words of Lord Mountbatten: “The battle of D-Day was won on the beaches of Dieppe.”
The Dieppe Raid: The Story of the Disastrous 1942 Expedition: Robin Neillands