In the summer of 1942, continental Europe was referred to as “Fortress Europe”. By then, Nazi Germany had pushed east into the Soviet Union, enemy forces were advancing in North Africa, and the Atlantic had become a deadly place for Allied ships. The British Isles were the only Allied holdout following the invasion and occupation of much of western Europe. Europe’s west coast was “studded with enemy troops, machine guns, artillery, barbed wire, concrete pillboxes and offshore obstacles.” (Veterans Affairs Canada)
The plan to launch a raid on the coastal town in France was created early in April of that year, at Combined Operations Headquarters. A lengthy study of the practicability of such a raid was followed by an outlined plan that was produced in mid-May; the Chiefs of Staff formally approved the plan.
Dieppe, a resort town located at a break in the cliffs along the northwest French coast, was selected as the main target because it was within range of fighter planes from Britain. “In general terms the plan was to land a force of troops at Dieppe, supported by landings by Commandos on the flanks to knock-out gun positions overlooking the Dieppe beaches. Following much discussion it was decided not to precede the landings with either an air attack or heavy naval bombardment, nor was it agreed to use any form of airborne troops, although the landed troops would be given the support of a number of the new Churchill tanks.” (‘Dieppe, the Greatest Air Battle 19th August 1942’)
At first this raid was code-named ‘Rutter’ and was to be launched at the end of June 1942. However, circumstances caused its abandonment. Then political pressure was brought to bear to relieve pressure on the Russian front, and the raid came back to life near the end of July. The Allies needed to build up their military resources before taking on a full campaign and felt that a large raid on the coast of France could force the Germans to divert more of their military resources away from the Soviet Union and also help as planning took place for the full scale assault ahead. Thus, on July 27th, the Chiefs of Staff approved a new plan which was code-named ‘Jubilee’.
The Dieppe Raid “saw more than 6000 men come ashore at five different points along a 16 kilometre-long stretch of heavily defended coastline. Four of the attacks were to take place just before dawn at points east and west of Dieppe, while the main attack on the town itself would take place half an hour later. The raiding force was made up of almost 5000 Canadians, approximately 1000 British commandos and 50 American Army Rangers. As well, on that day, 60 RCAF fighter aircraft flew above the shore, supporting the raid.
Things immediately went wrong for the landing force on the eastern flank. They met a small German convoy and the ensuing firefight alerted the enemy. The forces that came ashore at Berneval and Puys were met with overwhelming fire and some of the heaviest Allied losses took place there. Some objectives on the western flank were met and the enemy gun batteries at Varengeville were destroyed. In Pourville, the South Saskatchewan Regiment and Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders came ashore and pushed towards their goals. The mounting German resistance, however, forced them to withdraw with heavy losses.”
The main force going ashore at Dieppe was running behind schedule and landed just as daylight was breaking. The German troops had been alerted and cut down many Canadians as they waded in the surf. However, many fought their way across the cobblestone beach to the protection of the seawall. Unfortunately, this same cobblestone beach and seawall made it difficult for the Allied tanks to move off the beach and the enemy fire prevented engineers from clearing the way for the tanks.
“Small groups from the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and the Essex Scottish Regiment were able to fight their way into the bullet-swept streets of Dieppe. It was clear, however, that the raid could not continue and the retreat began. Trying to evacuate everyone would mean the destruction of the Allied naval force.
Through great courage, many men were taken off the beaches under heavy fire, but by early afternoon the last boat had departed. Left in a hopeless situation, the remaining Canadians were forced to surrender. The raid was over.” (Veterans Affairs Canada)
The men who participated in the raid paid a huge price. Of the 4963 Canadians who went on the mission, only approximately 2200 returned to England and many of those were wounded. More than 3350 Canadians became casualties, including approximately 1950 taken as POWs. In addition, 916 died on the beaches. Those who were captured faced especially harsh treatment in POW camps and most of those would remain in captivity for more than two years.
Debate over the merit of the raid continues. “Some believe that it was a useless slaughter, others maintain that it was necessary for the success of the invasion of the continent two years later on D-Day. Without question, the Raid on Dieppe was studied carefully in planning later attacks against the enemy-held coast of France. There were improvements in the technique, fire support and tactics, which reduced D-Day casualties to an unexpected minimum. The lessons learned at Dieppe were instrumental in saving countless lives on June 6, 1944.” (Veterans Affairs Canada)