Few of those with a basic knowledge of the Second World War would have heard of the Allied raid on the Northern French port town of Dieppe in August 1942. A likely reason is that it ended in complete failure for the Allies. And as the age old proverb goes, history is written by the victors, so why would a military disaster be given such attention? However if one is to fully understand how the Normandy landings on D-Day became a success, then it all starts with the fatal raid on Dieppe.
In 1942 the Allies were still reeling from Axis victories over the previous 3 years. Outside of Moscow, in the Winter of 1941, the Soviets had halted the German offensive, yet the Red Army was proved yet again no match for the Wehrmacht in the face of a renewed German offensive towards the Caucuses oil fields. In the deserts of North Africa, the British and its commonwealth were fighting Rommel’s Afrika Korps and it’s Italian allies in a seemingly never ending seesaw battle. The Americans had joined the war, but they faced immediate set backs in East Asia where the Japanese made quick work of ill prepared defences. Now facing the Germans and Italians in Europe, and the Japanese in Asia, the British and Americans made an agreement on a joint war strategy focusing on defeating Germany first. With British interests at threat, Churchill managed to garner support for a joint Anglo-American invasion of North Africa to defeat the Afrika Korps. The next step for the Western Allies would be the invasion of mainland Europe.
After a year of war with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union had suffered extortionately high casualties that outweighed any losses suffered from the Western Allies after 3 years of war. The casualties suffered during the Blitz, for example, would have been little more than a footnote in the list of atrocities suffered by the Soviets. After Hitler declared war on the Soviet Union, Stalin continuously called on the British, and later Americans, for an invasion of Western Europe – a 2nd front to relieve the pressure on the Red army. Even after briefly stopping the Germans outside Moscow, the renewed German offensive led Stalin to begin accusing Churchill and the British of Cowardice, yet the Soviets chose to overlook every logistical problem which the Allies faced – One Soviet General making a fool of himself by arguing to American generals that a cross channel invasion would take little more effort than a large river crossing. Churchill was forced, time and again, to remind Stalin that while the Soviet Union was a land animal, Britain was a sea animal and knew the true difficulties a seaborne invasion presented.
Back in the West, after the Luftwaffe were unable to defeat the RAF in the skies over Britain, its bombers had switched to night attacks. For the RAF pilots, who over a year ago were the knights of the sky that had saved the empire in its most dire moment, boredom set in as German planes were absent from the skies during daylight. The RAF demanded an opportunity to strike a killing blow against the Luftwaffe but for this they needed to draw them out into battle during the day. When British intelligence agencies broke the German codes, information showed that the Luftwaffe would be launched en-masse in defence of Hitler’s Fortress Europa should the allies choose to invade. But the British and it’s commonwealth could never hope to match the German army in France, and the Americans were not nearly well enough trained or experienced to support them. The RAF wanted an opportunity to draw out the Luftwaffe but they knew an invasion of Europe was not realistic whilst the battle in North Africa was not yet decided. As an alternative, a large scale raid on an Atlantic seaport followed by a short occupation was considered to placate the RAF and give them their opportunity.
Vice-Admiral Louis Mountbatten (a relative of the Royal family) was given the task of planning the raid. Bernard Montgomery, who would soon achieve fame for his exploits in North Africa, was actually involved in the initial stages of the planning but suggested the operation should be abandoned. Following pressure from the Canadian Government, who were eager to see that their troops saw combat, the Canadians were selected to be the main invasion force. Supporting them would be regular British troops, Commando’s and American Army Rangers. The planners decided on Dieppe, with a major seaport as well as a town available for occupation with only a short distance to the UK, it seemed an ideal testing ground for a seaborne assault.
In hindsight the plan was doomed for failure. But in 1942 modern seaborne invasions were an untested obstacle, the Allies were learning as they went. The plan that was decided upon called for an occupation of the town, so a bombardment of Dieppe and it’s defences, littering the streets with rubble, would only hamper the allies movements once they got off the beach and so the bombardment was cancelled. Another factor was the fear of harming French Civilians and further alienating the Vichy France Government. Newly developed ‘Churchill’ Tanks were planned to land along with the infantry on the beaches, the planners believing that seeing the invasion force would shock the defending troops enough to give up the fight, but that was not to be the case. Naval support of the invasion was limited to the transportation and only small support by destroyers. Attempts to get a battleship were denied by the Royal Navy for fear of risking capital ships where air supremacy was not achieved. The RAF on the other hand had offered massive fighter support.
On the 19th August at around 5am the first allied troops landed on the beaches under the morning sunrise. Royal Marines and Canadian infantry landed against fierce German resistance. On the main beach Allied destroyers lightly shelled the landing grounds with small arms whilst fighter bombers put up a smoke screen. The first wave of Canadian infantry were met with heavy machine gun fire which tore through their ranks. Tanks which had been intended to support the infantry became either bogged down in the shingled beach, or hit tank obstacles and were unable to exploit any areas for a breakout.
For the first wave of Canadian infantry the opening scenes of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is probably the closest depiction of what it would have been like. They faced the same, if not worse fire than the Americans later endured on Omaha beach on D-Day. This is clear when looking at the casualty list
for the Royal Canadian Infantry, who out of 556 men lost 227 killed, the rest later being captured by the Germans. It is a telling statistic of the deadly fire the Canadians were forced to withstand. The smokescreen, intended to protect the Allied troops, backfired and instead obscured the beach from view of the Canadian officers off shore. In desperation they sent in reserve units, but these troops soon realised the operation had failed as German defences continued to cut down Allied infantry all along the beaches.
At 9:40 the withdrawal began. Tanks that hadn’t yet been knocked out switched to defensive roles supporting the infantry as they fled back to the sea for evacuation. But for most units that were pinned down and stranded on the beaches, it was too late. By 14:00 the withdrawal had been completed. When the Allies counted their losses they must have been astonished. The majority of the troops used in the operation were the Canadians who numbered just under 5,000. Following the fiasco the Allies had suffered 3,367 casualties: 916 men were killed (907 Canadians) and the rest were either wounded or taken prisoner. The Canadians had suffered an appallingly high casualty rate of 68%.
For the RAF it was a narrow victory. They had been the driving force behind the raid, but rather than delivering a decisive blow to the Luftwaffe, they failed to recognise that the air war over Europe was one of attrition that could not be won by a single engagement. Losses were comparable between both sides, but with the industrial capacity of the USA, Canada and Great Britain, Germany was never able to match their output in numbers of aircraft and trained pilots. By 1944 the battle of attrition in the skies over Europe had steadily destroyed the fighting capabilities of the Luftwaffe. Although the skies over Dieppe saw some of the fiercest battles since the battle of Britain, the raid on Dieppe faded into just another battle in the skies over Europe.
For the Allies it was undoubtedly a massive set back in their war against Nazi Germany, but in many ways they were the beneficiaries. Following the raid the German propaganda machine made quick work in displaying the poor inept planning of the Allies and ridiculed the attempt. German generals were bemused at the plan and amazed that the Allies would have attempted to capture such an ambitious target with wholly inadequate support. The Allies on the other hand learned valuable lessons.
Knowing a cross Channel invasion was at some point necessary the Allies used Dieppe to learn what not to do for the Normandy invasion. Rather than attacking a well defended port it was decided that beaches which led into open country would be the main target, where troops could later move inland and capture a port. They also discovered the need for complete surprise, as well as an appropriate bombardment of the landing areas from the sea and air.
The failure of the tanks manoeuvring on the beaches of Dieppe was a major issue. The planners had not thought to test whether the tracks were suitable for the beaches and as a result many of the tracks became jammed due to the shingle. As a result the Allies realised they needed modified versions of current tank designs to carry out the tasks of a seaborne invasion. The result of this ingenuity came from the British general Percy Hobart, whose creations were nicknamed ‘Hobart’s funnies’. They included floating tanks which proved incredibly valuable during D-Day.
Other realisations were the need for a sustained artillery and air bombardment prior to landing to ‘soften up’ the beaches. This was rejected in Dieppe for fear of damaging the town and therefore German gun emplacement and bunkers were all in place to meet the defenders. Another was the need for an airborne assault in order to block reinforcements from inland and to disrupt lines of communication for the front line defenders.
Although Dieppe provided these lessons, the Allies still took time to put these into practice. Later in 1942 the Americans landed in Vichy controlled north east Afirca. Then in July of 1943 the Allies invaded Sicily with a combined sea and airborne assault. Later that year in September they invaded the southern Italian mainland and carried out another invasion further up the coast in January of 1944.
When the Normandy invasion came around, the Allies were by no means experts, but it’s safe to say they had learned their lessons, and they made concerted efforts to utilise these on June 6th 1944. For anyone that has researched the planning of the Normandy invasion, it is clear that it was a logistical nightmare for the Allies to coordinate the combined arms of Army, Navy and Air forces from a number of nations, some of whom speaking multiple languages. But they managed to pull it off with careful planning and determination.
When Canadian families learned that a family member had fallen during the raid on Dieppe it must have been devastating. I’m sure some felt their loved one had sacrificed their life for an insignificant target. But as horrible it is to say, the sacrifices were necessary for the future success of the Normandy invasion. The Allies unfortunately, as all people need to do, had to learn from mistakes and it was this flexibility and willingness to learn that eventually allowed them to overcome Nazi Germany in the European theatre.
Written by Jonny Morris