Corpses on the beach next to two Churchill tanks of the 14th Armoured Regiment (Calgary) stuck in pebbles. Behind them, thick smoke coming from LCT 5.
Department of National Defence / National Archives of Canada C-014160.
In 1942, the Combined Operations Headquarters had good reasons for attempting a raid on Dieppe: on the eastern front a decisive battle was pitching the advancing German troops against the resistance of the Red Army and the Russian people. Stalin asked Churchill and Eisenhower to help the USSR by opening up a Western front in continental Europe, to prevent Hitler from throwing all the might of his armies against the Soviets. As a result, Great Britain planned a series of major raids against German defence installations along the Channel. Only one such operation was actually conducted: Dieppe.
The Allies’ long-term goal was to get a foothold on the continent and set up a bridgehead from where ground forces could move into Europe. But before it could attempt a large-scale landing, the Combined Operations Headquarters had to test some of its assumptions in real action. Would it be possible to capture a fortified seaport large enough to be used afterwards by invading troops, and that, without destroying its infrastructures? Amphibious landing techniques had been successfully tested in previous operations but how would the new barges designed to carry tanks and heavy artillery behave? There was a need to test the complex combination of land, naval and air manoeuvres required by a large-scale invasion in real action conditions, in order to check the efficiency of new equipment, communication lines and chains of command. The August 19th, 1942, raid was to answer all those questions.
Dieppe was a seaside resort in Normandy, built along a long cliff that overlooked the Channel. The cliffs are cut by gaps through which the Scie and Arques rivers flow to the sea. The city boasted a medium-sized harbour that carried a special significance for French Canadians as it was a departure point for ships sailing off to New France. In 1942, the casino on the boardwalk had been partially demolished by the Germans to facilitate the defence of the coast. They had set up two large artillery batteries in Berneval and Varengeville. For the British Commanders, Dieppe was also within the range of the RAF’s
On August 19th, 1942, the ground forces that were taking part in the raid included 4,963 men and officers from the 2nd Canadian Division, 1,005 British commandos, 50 US rangers and 15 Frenchmen. A fleet of 237 ships and landing barges, including 6 destroyers, brought them near the seashore. In the air, Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force bombers and fighters took part in the operation. Although some questioned the very concept of a full frontal assault on a fortified position, the British and Canadian strategists were in agreement with the military doctrines that prevailed at the time and success was likely.
At Dieppe, 907 Canadians, including 56 officers, lost their lives in a battle that lasted for only nine hours. A total of 3,369 men were killed or wounded. At Dieppe, the Canadian Army lost more prisoners than in the whole eleven months of the later campaign in North-West Europe, or the twenty months during which Canadians fought in Italy.
6,108 men took part in the raid (from the Land Forces), 1,946 were taken prisoner, 2,460 were wounded. 4,963 were Canadians (907 fatalities), 1,075 were British Commandoes (52 fatalities), 50 were American Rangers (3 fatalities), with 20 others.
In addition, the Royal Navy suffered 75 killed, with 269 missing or prisoners. Overhead the RAF and RCAF lost 119 aircraft - the highest single-day total of the war (62 fatalities) while the Luftwaffe lost just 46.
Dieppe was a pathetic failure. Sixty years later, it seems obvious that Jubilee was a bizarre operation with no chance of success whatsoever and likely to result in a huge number of casualties. In August 1942, British and Allied officers did not have yet the knowledge and combat experience to make a proper assessment of the risks of such an operation. This catastrophe was useful precisely in providing that knowledge which was later to make victory possible.
The Dieppe fiasco demonstrated that it was imperative to improve communications at all levels: on the battlefield, between the HQs of each unit, between air, naval and ground forces. The idea of capturing a well-defended seaport to use as a bridgehead was dropped after August 19th, 1942. In addition, the raid on Dieppe showed how important it was to use prior air bombings to destroy enemy defences as much as possible, to support assault troops with artillery fire from ships and landing crafts, to improve techniques and equipment to remove obstacles to men and tanks.