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Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Raid on Dieppe, August 19, 1942

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Today in 1942, Allied forces raided the German-held port city of Dieppe located on the northern coast of France. The majority of the soldiers on the Allied side of the battle were Canadians, who were more than ready to contribute to the war effort. The raid became a painful lesson of how not to run an invasion.

The spring of 1942 was a dark time for the Allies. The United States had joined the war the previous December, but had yet to send a meaningful number of troops to England, the staging area for the expected cross-Channel invasion of occupied France. In the east, Stalin and his Red Army were being pummeled by the German war machine; at one point, even Moscow faced the prospect of being overrun. In North Africa, Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps was fighting hard against the British Eighth Army with some success, leading to criticism of Churchill and his cabinet in the London press.

The raid on Dieppe was not an answer to these challenges, but it was seen as a way to gain valuable intelligence and assess the Allies’ seaborne invasion capabilities under battlefield conditions. It is important to note that the raid was planned and executed without the approval of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, then the over-arching command authority for the Allies in Europe. Instead, it was the brainchild of the recently-promoted Chief of Combined Operations, Louis Mountbatten. This lack of command authorization would cost the raiders in terms of manpower, weapons and pre-raid intelligence.

The raid was initially planned for July, 1942, but an attack by German bombers caught the Allied armada still in port and did enough physical damage to delay the raid until August. What’s more, it made clear that the raid stood very little chance of maintaining the element of surprise.

The mission to Dieppe was formally code-named Operation Jubilee. It consisted of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, four British Commando units and 50 soldiers from the 1st United States Ranger Battalion. The naval forces consisted of 8 destroyers, one gunboat, two minesweeper flotillas, nine landing ships and 36 smaller craft. There was also many landing craft, bringing the total size of the fleet to 252 vessels. Providing air support were 72 squadrons from the Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force and the US Eighth Air Force. Most of the aircraft were Spitfires flown by not just British pilots, but by Americans, Czechs, Poles, French, Belgian and Norwegian pilots. It was truly an Allied effort.

The raid ran into trouble before the first boots hit the beach. Two of the British Commando units were spotted and attacked by German S-boats, resulting in losses. The Germans were now aware of the armada and alerted their coastal defense command. Surprise had been lost, if it had ever really been obtained.

The only bright spot of the morning of the 19th was the Number 4 Commando Group, which came ashore and destroyed their targets with little loss of life. This was the only success in the raid. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division came ashore in the center of the invasion beach with German forces waiting for their arrival. The tanks brought ashore could not leave the beach because of anti-tank walls, structures that the raid’s planners had not been aware of because their photos and maps were months old. The tanks tried to provide covering fire as some of the men were evacuated off the beach. Others made it inland only to be quickly surrounded by German forces, to which many surrendered. Fire support from the Royal Navy was largely ineffective because of a lack of heavy cruisers and battleships. While the destroyers came as close to shore as they could, their smaller guns could not penetrate the reinforced concrete of the coastal defenses.

At ten minutes before 11AM, the retreat order was given and the men who could make their way back to waiting landing craft did so. Nearly 6,100 Allied soldiers had taken part in the raid, although not all of those went ashore. 1,027 men were killed and 2,340 were captured. The total of fatal and non-fatal casualties was 3,367, more than half of the entire force. The Allied air forces lost 119 aircraft. The Germans fared much better, amassing only 311 casualties and losing 46 aircraft. From the Allied perspective, the raid against Dieppe was an unmitigated disaster.

Amazingly, the only commander removed from his position because of the raid was Major General J.H. Roberts, the commander of the 2nd Canadian Division. He commanded the division several more months after August, 1942 and was then moved to a command of reinforcement units. Roberts considered himself a scapegoat, and perhaps rightfully so---no other senior officer involved in Operation Jubilee received so much as a rebuke over the raid’s failure.

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