Dieppe: the bloody rehearsal for D-Day

The Dieppe Raid, which took place on 19th August 1942, produced very few victories. It was essentially an exercise on what not to do when attempting an amphibious raid, although many men fought bravely, and paid for their heroics with their lives. They were the troops of Major General John Hamilton Roberts’ 2nd Canadian Division and the Nos 3, 4 and 40 Royal Marine Commando, not to mention the men of the 14th Canadian Tank Battalion and the RAF. Out of 6,106 ground troops dispatched in the exercise, just 2,839 would return safely to base.

The idea for the raid came partly out of frustration at having no other way at taking a jab at the Germans post Dunkirk, and partly out of an urgent need for intelligence to help High Command piece together a plausible strategy for a full-scale cross-Channel raid. Capture of a port, they knew, would be necessary to allow supplies to reach the invasion force. The Commando Regiment, a special ‘raiding force’, had first been assembled in June 1940, and since then had achieved many successes. They had successfully gathered intelligence on the German radar system at Bruneval, they had blown up enemy ships in the harbour of Bordeaux, and they had destroyed a vital dry dock in the ‘greatest raid’ at St. Nazaire.

Inspired by these successes, High Command planned a sort of ‘smash and grab’ raid, the intention being to mount a frontal assault on a defended port, hold it for around 12 hours and get out again, hopefully having gathered vital intelligence and tested out the German defences. The defences in place, they knew, included two headlands overlooking the beach, from which guns could be fired upon it, a 10-foot sea wall, cliffs backing the shoreline, and more guns stored in hotels overlooking the promenade at the top. Although just 1,500 defenders were based at Dieppe, reinforcements and coastal batteries were in place to back them up.

The idea was that Nos 3 and 4 Commando would set off first to take out the coastal batteries, then the Royal Canadian and the Saskatchewan Regiments, in cooperation with the Cameron Highlanders, would attack the eastern and western headlands respectively to silence the guns. Meanwhile, the Essex Scottish and Royal Hamilton Light Infantry Regiments would attack the beach, backed by air support and the 14th Canadian Tank Battalion. The Fusiliers Mont Royal and No 40 ‘A’ Commando would be held in reserve, and only sent in once the sea wall was breached, and 50 US Rangers also took part.

The operation was a fiasco almost from start to finish, with High Command having woefully underestimated the weight of the defences manned by the well-organised Germans. First to come to grief was No 3 Commando, which had the bad luck to run into an escorted convoy before even nearing the beach. Shots were fired, and although the men escaped, the element of surprise was lost forever. At the time chosen for the landing, a little over 1/4 of the Commandoes’ landing craft made it ashore; the 120 men who made it to the beach fought as best they could in daylight, and against a pre-warned enemy, but as German reinforcements arrived they were pummelled, and had to surrender. All 82 men left alive were captured. No 4 Commando, meanwhile, had reached its objective and returned without incident, with the troops unaware of the peril their mates were in. It was a single victory amongst failures, at the cost of 45 lives.

The two units attacking the headlands met with catastrophe. The Saskatchewan and Cameron Highlander Regiments landed in the wrong place and found themselves sitting ducks, with just a single bridge connecting them to their targeted. By the time they were ordered to evacuate at 10am, 2/3 of them were dead or captured, while the rest reached safety. The Royal Canadian Regiment had even worse luck, finding themselves trapped on the beach, unable to scale the cliffs, with gunfire raining down on them. None returned, and 211 were killed.

The failure to silence one of the batteries and capture the guns on the headland sealed the fate of the troops on beach. Many landed alright, but they were fired upon from all sides. Even the tanks couldn’t withstand the battering, with 12 being disabled and the remaining 15 trapped. Valiantly, they managed to breach the sea wall, but even this action led to disaster. Hearing the wall was down, and not understanding the garbled communication that reached him on a boat offshore, Roberts sent in the reserves like lambs to the slaughter. The Fusiliers Mont Royal were utterly decimated immediately, but No. 40 Commando had better luck, thanks to the brave actions of the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Phillips, who managed to signal the retreat from the bow of his landing craft before being gunned down. The majority of the regiment wheeled around in time to avoid catastrophe.

As all this was happening the Spitfire pilots were trying frantically to protect their mates, but there were not enough of them, and they were outclassed by the German Focke Wulf Fw-190A aircraft 106 were shot down to the Germans’ 48.

It was a small and sorry band of survivors that made it offshore, with 1,027 having been killed and 2,240 left behind to be taken prisoner. These men were not totally lost in vain, as High Command learned that first, it would be extremely hard to assault an existing port, and if one was taken, it would be too crippled to be of much use. From this realisation the Mulberry Harbours were born. There were also lessons learned about the necessity of full naval and air support, if the troops were to reach the land relatively unscathed. However, this was of little comfort to the many Canadian and British families who were told of the capture or death of their brothers, sons and husbands soon after the tragic exercise. Thankfully, High Command, not wishing to have further blood on its hands, went right back to the drawing board, while Hitler deciding that the Allies were too inept to mount a successful amphibious raid, and would certainly follow the same plan of action if they did, rested easily. D-Day, two years later, would be a very different story for both sides.

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