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DIEPPE: “They Didn’t Have To Die!”

The bodies of Canadian soldiers—along with damaged tanks and landing craft—speak to the disaster at Dieppe, Aug. 19, 1942. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C014160]

The bodies of Canadian soldiers—along with damaged tanks and landing craft—speak to the disaster at Dieppe, Aug. 19, 1942.

When writing his epic multivolume history of the Second World War, Winston Churchill had to discuss what he called the “very controversial” Dieppe raid of Aug. 19, 1942. To those who were assisting him in his research he wrote, “it would appear to a layman very much out of accord with the accepted principles of war to attack the strongly fortified town front without first securing the cliffs on either side, and to use our tanks in frontal assault off the beaches.”

Layman or not, Churchill, of course, was precisely correct. But in the end, after strong protests from Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the architect of the raid, Churchill’s published account omitted almost all criticism. In fact, as we now know—thanks to a careful study by the British historian David Reynolds—Mountbatten was allowed to rewrite the draft to make it almost totally self-serving. Churchill had his share of blame for the disaster too. Reynolds notes sharply that Mountbatten, “this egregious political climber,” had been “absurdly overpromoted” by none other than the prime minister. No hands were clean in 1942 and Dieppe still besmirches reputations—except those of the soldiers, sailors and airmen who had the bad luck to be on, off and above the stony beaches around the old French port town that summer day.

The reasons for the raid made sense. In the summer of 1942, the Allies were losing the war. The Japanese had been checked, not stopped, at the great naval battle in the Coral Sea, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps was ensconced deep in Egypt, and the Red Army was in retreat once more as the panzers surged eastward toward Stalingrad. The Allies had no victories to their credit, and the pressure from Moscow for a second front was intense. So too, was the American Chief of Staffs’ desire for a small, limited-objective invasion of France. Churchill knew this would be a mistake. Without air superiority, without specialized landing craft, without more and better trained troops, a second front could only be a disaster. But a large raid on France, on Dieppe, might ease the pressure on Britain’s leader by doing something.

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Planning the raid on Dieppe, a reconnaissance in force, was initially a British show, bringing Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, commanding in the southeast of England, together with Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations. But when word of the planning leaked out and came to Lieutenant-General H.D.G. Crerar’s attention, he demanded that Canadian troops mount the raid.

A German officer (third left) surveys the damage. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C017293]

A German officer (third left) surveys the damage.

Crerar was acting commander of the Canadian Corps while General A.G.L. McNaughton was in Canada on sick leave. He had been Chief of the General Staff in Ottawa until recently and believed it vital for public opinion at home that Canadian troops, some in England for almost three years, get into action before the Yanks, in the war only since Dec. 7, 1941. Moreover, the Canadian troops wanted action, fed up with hearing the refrain, “Oh, he’s a Canadian, he doesn’t fight” from their girlfriends and British Tommies. Reluctantly perhaps, the British conceded that the Canadians could take on Dieppe, and Montgomery picked 2nd Canadian Infantry Division  and 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade for the operation, the 2nd being—in his judgment as the British Army’s pre-eminent trainer—the best trained and best-led in the Canadian Corps.

With their senior officers heavily involved in the planning, the Canadians trained hard for Operation Rutter, as it was dubbed, practising amphibious operations and stepping up their physical and tactical training. Crerar wrote that Canadian commanders of the raid “expressed full confidence in being able to carry out their tasks—given a break in luck.” By July 7, 1942, all the troops had boarded the transports for Dieppe, but after a combination of bad weather and raids on the ports by the Luftwaffe, the brass cancelled Rutter. The troops returned to their camps bitterly disappointed, and it would have taken a miracle for pub gossip not to have mentioned Dieppe as a target.

Good military sense suggested the raid be abandoned. Instead, all the senior officers involved, British and Canadian, decided the Germans would not suspect that the same troops would strike the same target. Now labelled Operation Jubilee, the raid was on once more.

Captured Canadians on the move. [PHOTO: CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—19900076]

Captured Canadians on the move.

There were, however, changes to the plan. Heavy bombers, intended in Rutter to soften up the defences, were eliminated from Jubilee; the Royal Navy, moreover, declined to provide battleships or cruisers to support the assault; paratroop landings on the flanks disappeared, replaced by seaborne commandos. But overall, the basic plan was the same: under the air cover provided by 74 squadrons of fighters and fighter-bombers of the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force, some 4,963 men from the infantry units of 2nd Div. and a regiment from 1st Canadian Armd. Bde. would land at Puys, east of Dieppe, at Pourville to the west, and on the stony beach in front of the town.

The commandos’ task was to eliminate German batteries. The two Canadian flank attacks were intended to move inland while the main force took the town and established a defensive perimeter. The line would be held just long enough to allow the port facilities to be destroyed.  Then, all going well, the Royal Navy would pick up the attackers and return them to England. Once more, Crerar opined that “given an even break in luck and good navigation” the raid “should” prove successful.

The plan, however, was badly flawed, so badly one might have thought Dieppe, a defended port that had hosted hundreds of British holiday-seekers every week before the war, was on the far side of the moon. The beach at Puys, where the Royal Regiment of Canada and three platoons of the Black Watch were to land, is tiny and overlooked by a cliff. The main Dieppe beach, the touchdown point for the Calgary Regiment’s tanks and infantry from the Essex Scottish and Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI) (with the Fusiliers Mont-Royal as the floating reserve), is made up of fist-sized stones (shingle) that could hamper armoured movement. Dominating the beach are sheer, forbidding cliffs. Moreover, the enemy had fortified the beachfront and the buildings facing the water. Only at Pourville—to the west—were the conditions at all satisfactory for the South Saskatchewan Regiment (SSR) and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders (QOCHC) to disembark.

Wounded troops are disembarked in England. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA183773]

Wounded troops are disembarked in England.

The confident Canadians sailed for France on Aug.18. Private Jack Poolton of the Royal Regiment of Canada recalled that his battalion left a rear guard. “Nobody wanted to stay on the rear guard. There was arguments going on, ‘I want to go, I want to go,’ and all this stuff. ‘No you’ve got to stay behind,’ and I remember [Lieutenant] Ryerson giving one guy an order. ‘I’m giving you an order…you stay behind.’”

The men who remained in England were the fortunate ones, for the luck that Crerar had counted on vanished almost immediately. The raiding flotilla bumped into a German coastal convoy, and the gunfire alerted the defenders ashore. As a result the landing came in late, and the defenders atop the cliff could see their attackers clearly.

Ross Munro of the Canadian Press went in with the Royals at Puys. “The Germans held a couple of houses and some strong pillboxes near the top of the slope [i.e., cliff] and from their high level they were able to pour fire into some boats, ours among them,” he wrote in a dispatch dated Aug. 20. “Several bursts from machine guns struck men in the middle of our craft. The ramp was lowered to permit the men to get ashore, but German fire caught those who tried to make it.” The slaughter was terrific, and only a few of the very brave and very lucky made it off the beach and up the cliff. The survivors on the beach waved the white flag at 8:30 a.m.; those atop the cliff held out until late afternoon.

Enemy fortifications are examined two years after the raid. [PHOTO:  KEN BELL, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA134448]

Enemy fortifications are examined two years after the raid.

At Pourville, the SSR landed in darkness and achieved surprise, but the RN unfortunately put part of the battalion ashore at the wrong place. The remainder, trying to cross a bridge over the River Scie, came under withering fire and were led across by Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt who displayed extraordinary sang-froid: “Come on over, there’s nothing to it,” he shouted. Merritt led attacks on enemy positions while the QOCHC, after landing with their pipers playing, moved inland as much as 2,000 metres before retiring to the beach. Merritt then organized the beach defences and some of the raiders managed to escape on the RN landing craft that bravely awaited them.

The larger disaster was on the main beach in front of Dieppe where the enemy, hearing the firing on the flanks, was ready. The Calgaries’ Churchill tanks came ashore late and had trouble advancing when their tracks became jammed by beach shingle. A few managed to get inland; most were immobilized but continued firing. The infantry landed just after the beach defences had been strafed from the air, but the Germans on the cliffs and on the town frontage recovered quickly and poured withering fire at the Canadians. Amazingly, some of the RHLI made it into town, but most of the Essex and RHLI troops died on the beach or took what shelter they could find. Making matters worse, garbled signals at 7 a.m. sent the Fusiliers Mont-Royal ashore where they too died en masse.


Reverend John W. Foote.

After the Puys surrender, the Germans let Jack Poolton go to the beach to collect wounded. “I made three trips…to bring wounded men up off the beach. So I seen the beach after, three times. It was unbelievable. There was boots with feet in them, there was legs, there was bits of flesh, there was guts, there was heads, there was, oh it was unbelievable. These were my regiment, these were the guys I lived with for the last two and a half or so years.”

German officers administered the coup de grâce to some of the mortally wounded Canadians on the beaches. Most of the less severely wounded eventually received adequate medical care from military doctors or religious hospitals, although the first hours and days were chaotic. After a horrific train trip to Germany, those taken prisoner were destined to spend almost three years in PoW stalags. Because the Germans had found Canadian orders that called for shackling prisoners, many of the Canadians would be chained for long periods in their camps. The stress of the raid and capture, coupled with long periods of mistreatment as prisoners, left many of the Canadian survivors with psychological problems, what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt. [PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES]

Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt.

Operation Jubilee was a debacle. Of the almost 5,000 Canadians on the raid, 907 were killed, 586 were wounded, and 1,946 became captives. Only 2,200 made it back home, many of them wounded, and many who had not been put ashore. The Essex Scottish was hardest hit, landing 530 and returning only 52; the Royal Regiment suffered 524 killed and wounded and brought back only 65; the RHLI  extracted 217 men and left 480 killed and wounded; the other  regiments suffered heavily too. In the air, the heaviest fighting since the Blitz was yet another Allied defeat with 106 aircraft shot down, while the RAF and RCAF confirmed only 48 kills. The RN saw more than one quarter of the vessels it deployed sunk and lost 550 officers and ratings. Total German casualties numbered at most 600, a small price to pay for gutting much of the infantry of a division, sinking ships galore, and winning the air battle. The reconnaissance in force had failed utterly. Crerar’s Canadians had run out of luck.

The initial press reports in Canada nonetheless proclaimed a great victory: “Every Objective is Achieved on 9-Hour Foray into France,” stated the Toronto Daily Star newspaper on Aug. 19. But when the endless lists of killed and wounded began to be published in Canada, the shock was terrific. In Britain, Mountbatten and Crerar quickly began to talk of the valuable lessons learned, lessons that would soon pave the way to a successful invasion of the Continent. The public relations plan for failure, prepared in advance by Mountbatten’s staff, had called for just such a response.

Soldiers arrive in England after the raid. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA197138]

Soldiers arrive in England after the raid.

What went wrong with Jubilee? First, no plan can ever rely on luck for success; this was especially true of a thoroughly inept operation with insufficient air and naval support. It was completely foolish for the British and Canadian planners not to have realized that German strength would be on the cliffs—where else would it have been posted? It was absurd not to have tested the mobility of tanks on a sloped, shingled beach. Errors were made in estimating German strength, and faulty communications from ship to shore added mightily to the losses. Adequate landing craft had not yet been developed, and Canadian training, while much better than two years before, was still not up to the standard required to beat the Wehrmacht.


Private Jack Poolton.

Years later, Kenneth Curry of the RHLI was asked what he thought of the raid. “Well, when I think of it…it’s very easy to get choked up. To me, it’s like yesterday. I lost my friends and I think it was a waste, a waste of a lot of good soldiers and the three boys I had in the mortar platoon, we were as thick as thieves and when I think, you know, they didn’t have to die, at least not like that. And sometimes I get very, very bitter, but then again, as I say there’s nothing I can do about it now, except, I got my memories. But some of them memories are…horrible ones. I couldn’t bear to repeat them, although, mind you, they’re still, they’re still, they’re still in my mind.” Curry added that he continued to have nightmares: “Oh yeah…they live with you… I’ve always had them. They’re not as bad as they were, but I’ve always had them. I guess I’ll have them until the day I die. I think if it wasn’t for my wife, that’s got me through a lot of the stuff, it can, it can be mind-boggling sometimes.” For all the death and suffering, Curry remains proud of his regiment: “I’m really proud to say that I was one of them. Very proud. But we’re getting, our ranks are getting…there’s not many left.”

A Canadian escorts a German captured during the raid. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA210156]

A Canadian escorts a German captured during the raid.

What then can we say of the Dieppe raid 70 years on? Unquestionably, it was a bungled operation that left families in Canada in grief and shock. The disaster shattered regiments, but the sobering realization that the Canadian troops were not yet battle-ready led to improved training. Moreover, better equipment reached the units, and operational planning at every level improved. Mountbatten, the progenitor of the raid, was promoted and dispatched to South East Asia as Supreme Commander. Montgomery went to El Alamein to find his destiny. Crerar eventually became First Canadian Army commander. The war went on. Only the vicious, unhealed scar of Dieppe remained—that and the rows of grave markers in the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery.


A German soldier points to Canadian soldiers lined up in the street after being captured. [PHOTO: REGIMENTAL SENATE OF THE ROYAL HAMILTON LIGHT INFANTRY]

A German soldier points to Canadian soldiers lined up in the street after being captured.


For Valour

Outstanding courage in the face of suicidal odds at Dieppe saw the Victoria Cross awarded to two Canadian soldiers. Reverend John W. Foote, chaplain with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire on the beach as he helped injured men reach aid stations. He declined to board a departing landing craft and instead surrendered to the Germans so he could stay behind and tend to wounded comrades. Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt received his VC for leading men from the South Saskatchewan Regiment across the heavily defended River Scie at Pourville. Before being captured, he killed a sniper and helped cover a withdrawal from the beach (Canada and the Victoria Cross poster, Part 2, January/February issue).


The beach after the raid. [PHOTO: LEGION MAGAZINE ARCHIVES]

The beach after the raid.


For The Fallen

The Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery is located on a hillside roughly five kilometres south of Dieppe. Of the 955 graves, 707 are Canadian, most of them victims of the raid. Some of the Canadian PoWs died in hospital in Rouen, France, roughly 60 kilometres away. Thirty-seven are buried there. Casualties from the raid who died in Britain are buried mainly in the Brookwood Military Cemetery, approximately 50 kilometres from London. Members of the Canadian Army reported as “missing and presumed dead” are commemorated on the Brookwood Memorial while those of the Royal Canadian Air Force are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial in southern England.


By The Numbers

6,000: Allied troops involved in the raid. Of these, roughly 5,000 were Canadian. The remainder were British commandos and 50 American Rangers.

907: Canadians killed. Of these, 807 were killed in action,  28 died of wounds and 72 died in captivity.

586: Canadians wounded.

1,946: Canadian prisoners of war.

106: Allied aircraft shot down.

13: Aircraft losses for the RCAF.


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