The Dieppe Raid, despite the fact that it helped the Allied leaders to plan the crucial Normandy invasion strategy, is generally considered a resounding failure for Britain and Canada. Of the key objectives, very few were met. Of the men who made the invasion, very few returned. In fact, one of the only benefits derived from the exercise was that it caused the Germans to underestimate the strength of the Allied forces and the intelligence of their leaders next time around.
The idea behind the raid was three-fold. First, Lieutenant General Montgomery hoped that it would conclusively show whether it was possible to capture a harbour on the French mainland within a few days of an amphibious invasion. Second, he hoped to weaken the enemy by destroying crucial German defences and gaining intelligence about Germany’s capabilities. Third, the raid was intended to appease the Canadians, whose government was pressing to for their forces to be included in the action, and the Russians, who were calling on Britain to support them by taking some of German heat off Russia’s back.
So, a plan was formulated, at first titled Operation ‘Rutter’. Designed to kick off on 7th July 1942, the idea was that the Canadians would be in charge of the main thrust, with the British as support. Initially it had been planned that British paratroopers would attack the battalions on either side, to help to distract the German troops from the frontal assault, but that job instead fell to two troops of Marine Commandos since the weather wasn’t suitable for parachuting. The whole attack, in fact, had to be shifted to 19th July thanks to the weather, and was renamed Operation ‘Jubilee’ after the plan changed.
Of the Commando troops, No. 4 was to attack on the west to destroy the batteries at Vasterival and Varengeville-sur-Mer, according to ‘Campaigns of World War II Day by Day’, edited by Chris Bishop and Chris McNab, while No. 3 was to head east to Berneval with the same intention. Once the Commandos had done their jobs, the six battalions and armoured regiment of the 2nd Canadian Division would mount the frontal assault. It was to be delivered at several locations, at Dieppe Casino by the Essex Scottish and Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, at Pourville by the South Saskatchewan Regiment and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, and at Puys by the Royal Regiment of Canada. Tank support was to be provided by 27 Churchill tanks and the 14th Canadian Army Tank Battalion, while the Fusiliers Mont-Royal and Royal Marine ‘A’ Commando would be held in reserve. In all, 4962 Canadians, 1000 British, 50 US Rangers, 74 squadrons on aircraft and 237 naval craft would be called into play.
Things may have started to go wrong before the attack even took place. The German response was so carefully planned and co-ordinated that it has been speculated that French double-agents warned Germany of Britain’s interest in Dieppe; or it could just have been that this seemed a logical place to attack, and increased radio traffic or the amassing of boats had tipped them off. For whatever the reason, the Germans were ready and had plans in place to combat just such an attack. Unluckily, at 3.35am on 19th August, when No.3 Commando was approaching the shore they ran into a German convoy. Shots were fired, alerting all the ground troops of approaching trouble, and No.3 Commando’s landing vessels were scattered in the scuffle that ensued. Only 17 men, with their three commanding officers, landed bang on time, though 140 eventually made it to shore. The ragged arrival schedule meant that it took a while to organise their attack, and ultimately the Unit failed to destroy Goebbels Battery at Berneval. Still, they eventually reached it and caused such havoc among the German gunners that no shots were fired from this area at the main assault.
Meanwhile, No.4 Commando, against the odds, pulled off a ‘perfect storm’. They met with very little resistance, and managed to approach their two targets, destroying a nest of machine guns in the process, assault the main battery, blow up the guns, and be on their way out to sea again by 7.30am.
However, that was it for success stories that day. The element of surprise had been lost by the time the Canadians attacked at 4.50, and the carefully laid German plans came into play. The British and Canadians had not spotted the heavy machine guns at either end of the beach, and the shingled slopes were less flat than they had appeared in postcards of the area studied by those planning the attack, so much less accessible to tanks. Those that weren’t picked off by the raking of the two guns dived for cover in potholes on the beach, where they came under fire from mortar bombs. Leaders were carefully pinpointed and targeted by snipers, so the troops were in chaos and unable to work together effectively as an organised group.
They weren’t the only ones. All the Canadian forces launched on the beach that day suffered horribly. The naval fire by destroyers had next to no effect, and it had been judged that battleships would be too vulnerable that close to shore so none were present to help. The air support was not as great as had been originally planned, since there had been worries about French civilian casualties; the Luftwaffe was more than a match for the planes that were present, and the British pilots had their hands full. The tanks struggled to cope with the shingle and sea walls, so although one or two made it to the promenade and managed to fire at the gun-points, all were eventually broken, and many of the crews killed. Worst of all, the navy had laid such an effective smoke screen to shield their approach that the Canadian Major General Roberts couldn’t tell what was going on. The reserve Fusiliers Mont-Royals and Marines were launched like lambs to the slaughter, and they too were gunned down.
Finally, at 9am, the seriousness of the situation was realised and the naval ships were sent to pick up as many troops as they could recover. Under heavy fire, that wasn’t many. In the end, ‘Campaigns of World War II Day by Day’ estimates that 215 Canadian officers and 3164 men, 279 Royal Navy or Commando Officers and 726 British troops of other ranks were left behind (out of 5000 Canadians and 1000 British troops, remember). One destroyer and 33 landing craft were lost, as were 106 aircraft. The Germans, meanwhile, lost 591 men and 48 planes, as well as the destroyed guns. A resounding British failure.
So, what had been learned? In ‘The World War II Collection: D-Day to VE Day, General Eisenhower’s Report 1944-45’, Eisenhower wrote of D-Day, ‘The layout of the defences which the Allied armies had to breach in order to establish their beachheads of French soil had been largely determined by the Germans’ experience at the time of the Dieppe raid in 1942. This raid convinced the enemy that any attempt at invasion could, and should, be destroyed on the beaches themselves, and the defence systems subsequently constructed on this principle were lacking in depth.’ The Germans underestimated the Allies’ ability to land on French soil after Dieppe, to their cost.
The Allies, meanwhile, learned that effective naval and air support was needed to protect raiding troops, that a frontal attack was not a good idea, and that a harbour could not be captured within days- hence, they brought a floating harbour to protect the boats when they attacked on D-Day. Most importantly, they learned not to underestimate the enemy-to ensure that their intelligence about the enemy’s defences was flawless- and that the element of surprise was absolutely crucial if they were to succeed in landing. ‘Operation Bodyguard’ might never have been thought of if it weren’t for the devastation of Dieppe. Still, one has to wonder if the same things couldn’t have been learned through a series of shorter, sharper Guerrilla raids. Sacrifices were always going to have to be made to win the war, but did they have to be quite so big?