Dieppe, German-Occupied France • August 19, 1942
Ever since the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) launched its surprise Blitzkrieg on the Soviet Union in June 1941 (Operation Barbarossa) the Allies had been sensitive to Soviet demands on the West to open a “second front” in Northwestern Europe. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill glommed onto the idea of a large-scale seaborne raid, or a “reconnaissance in force,” on the cross-Channel town port of Dieppe in Northern France. The raiding force would consist of roughly 5,000 Canadians, whose government pressed for a large role for their men in uniform; a much smaller commitment of British troops and marines (1,000); 50 U.S. Army Rangers; Royal Air Force squadrons; and a handful of Free French commandos. A parachute operation was canceled. The raid’s architect was British Chief of Combined Operations, Vice Adm. Louis Mountbatten, who had been agitating for a practical trial beach landing to gauge how long a piece of Axis real estate could be held against real opposition.
In the predawn hours on this date in 1942, August 19, the mainly Anglo-Canadian force launched Operation Jubilee. Miles from landfall, the Allied flotilla was discovered and a British gunboat leading the LSIs (Landing Ship, Infantry) got the worst of it in an exchange of gunfire with armed German trawlers. The Allied LSIs scattered for safety, ending up a long way from the prescribed route and unable to be at the right sector of the invasion beaches at the right time. Surprise lost, the Germans scrambled to man their defensive positions in preparation for the approaching landings. When the Canadians managed to reach the six narrow invasion beaches, four in front of the town itself and two on the eastern and western flanks, they were pinned down by lethal and accurate machine gun, rifle, and artillery batteries. Twenty-seven tanks that disembarked from Royal Navy craft were destroyed as soon as they came ashore. Near Puys (Blue Beach), one of four beaches adjacent to the town, just 60 out of 556 men of the Royal Regiment of Canada survived to return to England. Two hundred Royals were killed, pinned against the seawall and the cliffs above, and 264 captured. So it was up and down the beaches.
At eleven o’clock the withdrawal began. It was completed by 2 p.m. Losses from the raid included 3,367 Canadians (killed, wounded, or taken prisoner), 275 British commandos, and 3 U.S. Rangers. The casualties represented almost 60 percent of the 6,086 men who made it to shore. The Royal Navy lost one destroyer and 33 landing craft out of 237 vessels, suffering 550 dead and wounded. The RAF, spoiling for combat over the French coast, lost 106 aircraft (92 killed and wounded out of some 10,500 participants) to the Luftwaffe’s 48 aircraft. For the RAF it was the worst single day of losses in the war. German Army casualties were 591 out of roughly 1,500 men.
Dieppe grabbed Adolf Hitler’s attention. The Fuehrer ordered a speedup in constructing the Atlantic Wall along the Channel coast. To the Allies Dieppe proved the futility of making an unimaginative frontal attack against a well-defended port. Future Allied attacks, both in the Mediterranean (Operation Torch, Operation Husky, and Operation Dragoon) and cross-Channel (Operation Overlord), were conducted in remote locations by extremely powerful landing forces supported by heavy and concentrated air and naval bombardment right up to the waterline. Still, it’s open to debate whether the high degree of senseless slaughter, tactical blunders, and ill-fated miscalculations at Dieppe was essential to the successful 1943 and 1944 invasions of Western Europe.
”Hit and Run” Raid on Dieppe, France, Turns Into Allied Rout
Left: In the aftermath of the Dieppe Raid on August 19, 1942, abandoned Churchill tanks and dead Canadian soldiers (perhaps members of a demolition team) lie on the edge of pebble-strewn Blue Beach, which was situated at the foot of a sheer cliff. Nearly 60 brand-new Churchill tanks were allocated to support the infantry and commandos, to be put ashore by landing craft. Several of these heavy tanks in each of the four invasion “waves” were lost on or before reaching shore. Only 14 got off the pebble beach and past the seawall. Although the tanks were effective in engaging the defenders in the town’s buildings, their progress was blocked by concrete barriers; the demolition teams proved unsuccessful in accompanying the tanks. Some tanks were able to return to the beach once a withdrawal was ordered but none was taken off. Hitler was thankful that the Allies had left a hefty arsenal of weapons on the beaches, which provided the Wehrmacht with a close-up study of enemy weaponry.
Right: Canadian wounded and abandoned Churchill tanks lie on Dieppe’s beach after the abortive raid in the Normandy region of Northern France. The tracks of most of the Churchill tanks were stripped as they were driven on to the pebble beach, and the bogged-down vehicles became sitting ducks for withering German antitank guns. Tanks that did cross the seawall were stopped by concrete roadblocks. A landing craft is on fire in the background.
Left: Destroyed landing craft on fire with Canadian dead on the beach. The steep beach gradient can clearly be seen. A concrete gun emplacement on the right covers the whole beach. A pre-invasion bombardment of the beachfront had been planned from the beginning, but it was canceled due to the fear of harming French civilians and perhaps dampening a friendly reception to the Allies’ invasion of Vichy-held French North Africa, Operation Torch, less than three months away.
Right: Canadian dead from the Royal Regiment of Canada lie where they fell on Blue Beach near Puys, one of four invasion beaches opposite Dieppe town. Trapped between the beach and Dieppe’s high sea wall fortified with barbed wire, the Canadians made easy cross-fire targets for German machine gunners raking the beach from hardened bunkers. Although it is extremely difficult to see in this image, a bunker’s firing slit appears as a dark line just above and to the left of the head of a German soldier walking along the beach. Supporting fire by Allied naval destroyers was far too light to have much effect.
Left: German soldiers examine a Churchill tank at Dieppe, August 19, 1942. The Germans decided to reward the townspeople for not helping in the Anglo-Canadian raid—this by freeing French POWs originating and living in Dieppe before the Franco-German Armistice of June 21, 1940. To the delight of Marshal Philippe Pétain, head of the collaborationist French government, a train carrying around 1,500 French POWs arrived at Dieppe on September 12, 1942. Additionally, Hitler gave Dieppe’s citizens a gift of 10 million francs to use in repairing damage caused during the Anglo-Canadian raid as a reward for what he called the town residents’ “perfect discipline and calm.”
Right: Anglo-Canadian POWs at Dieppe are marched away from the port area. News media in Britain and the United States reported that the Allies had staged a successful raid on the enemy coast and hinted that Dieppe had served as a dress rehearsal for a much larger and more ambitious invasion in the future. They played down the casualties and losses of the operations. Prime Minister Churchill summed up the Dieppe raid this way: “Honor to the brave who fell. Their sacrfice was not in vain.”
History’s Raiders Series on “The Dieppe Raid”: Deadly Beach Assault