Just days after its 75th anniversary, historian GORDON LUCY explains why thousands of Allied troops were killed, wounded or captured during a disastrous attempt to show that a second front in western Europe could be opened
In addition to being the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Canadian Confederation, this year marks the centenary of the capture of Vimy Ridge (on April 9) and the village of Passchendaele (on November 6) in the Great War and the 75th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid (on August 19) during the Second World War.
These are all events which have an enduring and special place in Canadian history.
The Dieppe Raid was originally planned in June 1942 but was cancelled on July 7 (on account of bad weather).The future Field Marshal Montgomery had been involved in the initial planning but, conscious of the operation’s profound flaws, recommended that it should be abandoned ‘for all time’. However, at the insistence of Vice Admiral Mountbatten, chief of combined operations, the project was revived and launched as Operation Jubilee on August 19 1942.
The troops committed to the operation were overwhelmingly Canadian. Some 5,000 Canadian infantrymen were supported by the Calgary Regiment of the 1st Canadian Tank Brigade, 1,000 British Commandos and 50 US Rangers.
The assault began at 5.00 am but within six hours Allied commanders were obliged to call off the operation, as their troops were pinned down on the beaches by well-directed German firepower. Only small parties penetrated Dieppe itself. Of the 27 tanks landed, only 15 managed to cross the sea wall.
The scale of failure of the operation has given rise to persistent rumours that the security of the operation was seriously compromised. First-hand accounts and memoirs of many Canadian veterans focus on the evident preparedness of the German defenders, citing that, for example, upon landing on the shore, the landing ships were immediately shelled with the utmost precision as troops began disembarking.
The objectives of the raid included seizing and holding a major port for a short period, both to prove that it was possible and to gather intelligence. Upon retreat, the Allies also wanted to destroy coastal defences, port installations and strategic buildings. The raid was intended to boost morale and demonstrate the firm commitment of the British to open a second front in western Europe.
Virtually none of these objectives were met. Allied fire support was grossly inadequate and the raiding force was largely trapped on the beach by obstacles and German fire. Less than 10 hours after the first landings, the last Allied troops had all been either killed, evacuated, or left behind to be captured by the Germans. Instead of a demonstration of resolve, the fiasco revealed to the world that the Allies could not expect to invade France for a long time.
Of the 4,963 Canadians who took part in the raid, 3,367 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. All seven Canadian battalion commanders were wounded. British infantry casualties amounted to 275. The Royal Navy lost one destroyer and 33 landing craft, and 550 casualties. The RAF lost 106 aircraft, the RAF’s worst day during the entire Second World War, compared to 48 lost by the Luftwaffe. German ground casualties were just 591.
The Germans analysed the operation very closely and were unimpressed. Generalleutnant Konrad Haase thought it ‘incomprehensible’ that a single division could be expected to overrun a German regiment that was supported by artillery. Furthermore, he concluded that ‘the strength of naval and air forces was entirely insufficient to suppress the defenders during the landings’.
The Germans recognised that the Allies were certain to learn some lessons from the operation, with Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt observing: ‘Just as we are going to evaluate these experiences for the future so is the assaulting force... perhaps even more so as it has gained the experience dearly. He will not do it like this a second time!’
This lesson was not absorbed by Hitler. The Führer was to place great faith in the so-called ‘Atlantic Wall’ whereas Rundstedt, the German commander-in-chief West, was much closer to the mark when he described it as ‘just a piece of cheap bluff’.
For the Allies there were at least five critical lessons to be learned from the Dieppe fiasco:
1.The need for preliminary artillery support, including aerial bombardment;
2.The need for an element of surprise;
3.The need for proper intelligence concerning enemy fortifications;
4.The avoidance of a direct frontal attack on a defended port city; and,
5.The need for proper re-embarkation craft.
It would be difficult to improve on Andrew Robert’s verdict on the raid in The Storm of War (2009): ‘Efforts were made at the time and since, to present the Dieppe Raid as having taught the Allies valuable lessons about the way the French coast could be assaulted, which were subsequently put to invaluable use in Normandy in June 1944. In fact sheer common sense ought to have told the combined chiefs of staff that Mountbatten’s plan was misconceived from the outset, that tanks could not attack from shingle beaches with high esplanade walls, that proper sea and air support was required and surprise was essential.’
The courage and heroism of those who participated in the Dieppe Raid is not in question. Three VCs were awarded for the operation: to Captain Patrick Porteous of No 4 Commando, a Scot; to the Rev John Weir Foote, a Canadian Orangeman, a Presbyterian minister and chaplain to the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry; and Lieutenant Colonel Charles Merritt of the South Saskatchewan Regiment, whose father was killed in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. Porteous was seriously wounded and both Foote and Merritt became POWs.
Captain Foote coolly and calmly during the eight hours of the battle walked about collecting the wounded. His gallant actions saved many lives and inspired those around him by his example. At the end of this gruelling time he climbed from the landing craft that was to have taken him to safety and deliberately walked into the German position in order to be taken prisoner so that he could be of help to those men who would be in captivity until May 1945.