The Dieppe Raid, 1942
August 18, 2015
Wrecked and abandoned tanks from the Calgary Regiment litter the beach of Dieppe, in north-western France. The predominantly Canadian landings here ended in disaster but taught many painful lessons that would prove invaluable for the eventual Normandy invasion in 1944.
Canada's Disastrous D-Day Rehearsal
At dawn on August 19, 1942, 6,000 Allied troops, 5,000 of them Canadian, landed at the port of Dieppe. They were launching a raid in force, seeking to prove that a coastal city on the Northwest coast of Hitler's fortress Europe could be taken and held for a short time. By sunset almost 4,000 of those men had been killed, wounded or captured by the Germans. The battered survivors withdrew in disarray and the raid ended in disaster. Freeing Europe from Nazi tyranny was to be no easy task. Yet the lessons learned here at Dieppe would prove essential to the ultimate success of the Normandy landings two years later. As Winston Churchill was to say, the raid "was a Canadian contribution of the greatest significance to final victory."
This was the plan for landing at Dieppe. We'll start by examining the battle in the east, at Puys, and then look at the main landings in the centre. I wasn't able to get over to Green Beach. Map from Veterans Affairs Canada.
German troops on exercises in the hills above Dieppe. The small port facing the sea was bracketed by steep chalk cliffs honeycombed with German bunkers and defensive positions.
A German staff officer is driven through the streets of Dieppe. The Germans were well prepared for the assault and had been put on high alert in the run-up to August 19, tipped off by French double-agents that the British were showing increased interest in the area.
The Royal Regiment of Canada and some troops from the Black Watch landed here at Puys, codenamed Blue Beach. Their task was to storm ashore at this narrow opening along the cliffs that lined the beach, and advance inland to take German bunkers and artillery positions in the rear that overlooked the harbour where the main assault would occur.
As the fleet approached the coast in the early morning hours they ran into a small German convoy. The exchange of fire that followed woke up all the German defenders at Puys and when the Canadians came ashore the Germans were waiting for them. The result was a massacre.
Landings by Canadian troops and British commandos at Green Beach met with more success.
Canadian dead at Puys. You can see two German bunkers on the cliff in the background which were able put enfilade fire down on the beach. There was no cover for the men when they reached the seawall.
The Main Landings
The main bulk of the Canadian troops landed in front of Dieppe itself, in the teeth of heavy German fire. Many landing craft didn't even make it into the beach. The the tank support arrived late and the infantry were pinned down for the first minutes of the assault, causing chaos as men tried to press forward under withering fire from machine guns, mortars, heavy guns, and snipers. Eventually the tanks arrived, but the loose rocks of the beach meant they easily sank up to the axle and were barely mobile. Those that could get further inland were surprised by a massive wall that prevented them pushing into the city, another failure of Allied intelligence. Small groups of brave soldiers were able to push into the town itself, only to meet coordinated German resistance. A plaque beside the cathedral marks the spot where two Canadians were killed deep inside Dieppe itself.
As the beachhead became a bloodbath it quickly became apparent that the raiders were facing impossible odds. At 11 am the withdrawal began and by 2 pm it was completed. The tank crews bravely covered the retreating infantry, moving back and forth across the beach firing at any targets that presented themselves. Given the extreme conditions they were unable to reembark and all of the Calgarian tankers were either killed or captured.
German troops walk up and down the beach on the afternoon of August 19 as a pall of smoke rises from a destroyed landing craft. The Germans were intent on turning Dieppe into a propaganda victory and immediately dispatched photographers to the battlefield to record the event. All these photos were taken by a German propaganda company.
A German officer inspecting the battlefield stands over two Canadian soldiers shot down in front of a strand of barbed wire. The Essex Scottish and Royal Hamilton Light Infantry landed first on the beach and their armoured support arrived late. They faced withering machine-gun and mortar fire from the bluffs overlooking the beach and from within the town itself. Most were killed or captured.
Two knocked out Churchill tanks and an armoured car are stranded on the beach. This was the debut of the Churchill tank but the pebble beaches made it easy for them to become bogged down. You can see that the pier has been extended sometime since 1942.
This picture of an armoured car sunk to its axles in the pebble beach dramatically illustrates the difficulties posed by the beach conditions. During the Normandy invasion two years later all the major landing beaches were hard-packed sand, easy for men and vehicles to rapidly cross.
A Churchill tank stuck in an anti-tank ditch at the end of the beach. Today the spot is the site of a promenade.
Some tanks did make it off the beach, like Bert here, only to find all their routes of advance into the town blocked by anti-tank obstacles. They were forced to turn around and drive back and forth firing on German positions until knocked out or their crews forced to surrender. None of the tank crews landed on Dieppe made it back to England. The twin medieval towers in the background are now a museum commemorating the Dieppe Raid.
German troops inspect the same Churchill. In the background can clearly be seen the Chateau Dieppe, a 12th Century castle that overlooks the town. You can get an idea of how light the preliminary bombardment must have been by how little the castle has been damaged.
A third shot of Bert. Though most of the buildings on the waterfront have changed the church spire in the background can act as a reference point.
The raid's failure was the result of a mountain of planning errors. Where to even begin? Air supremacy had not been gained and the Germans actually inflicted greater losses on the RAF than the RAF did to the Luftwaffe. Distracted by the fierce aerial battle raging above the beaches, barely any tactical air support could be given to the troops on the ground. In an effort to spare the lives of the civilian population only a perfunctory naval bombardment had been made. While the desire to protect French civilian lives was laudable, it meant the German forces remained intact, and had their guns trained on the beaches when the landing craft approached. The choice of a well-defended port, bounded on both sides by steep cliffs, made the raid near suicidal from the get-go. As can be seen most tragically at the Beach at Puys, the geography limited the attackers to an easily predictable set of attack paths where the experienced Germans defenders concentrated their defenses. The Churchill tanks were inadequate, with guns too light to inflict any damage on German pillboxes, and they easily became bogged down on the pebble beach.
Yet all of these errors were rectified by 1944. The Allies returned to France with overwhelming air and naval support, attacking across sandy open beaches and avoiding heavily defended harbours altogether. They brought specialized tank support with them designed to destroy heavy defensive positions. War, especially modern combined arms warfare, has a steep learning curve, and the raid on Dieppe was no exception. Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Dieppe raid's commander, certainly justified the raid in these terms, saying "I have no doubt that the Battle of Normandy was won on the beaches of Dieppe. For every man who died in Dieppe, at least 10 more must have been spared in Normandy in 1944."
Nevertheless these flighty words offered little consolation to the thousands of families who had lost loved ones.
German generals tour the beach after the battle.
Fallen Allied soldiers float in the surf on the beach.
German troops inspect a destroyed Allied landing craft on the spot where a French family enjoys the beach today.
The Canadians Return, 1944
In the summer of 1944 the 2nd Canadian Division, the same unit that landed at Dieppe two years before, liberated Dieppe. They made an emotional entry into the city and staged a parade to mark the occasion. For the men who had left so many of their comrades behind on the beaches, it was a stirring triumph.
Pipers from the Essex Scottish lead a parade through newly liberated Dieppe two years later. Many of the survivors of the raid in 1942 reentered the port in 1944, this time as victorious liberators.
Thousands of French civilians turn out to cheer men of the 2nd Canadian Division as they march past Dieppe's town hall.