In 1942, as Hitler’s troops marched relentlessly towards Stalingrad, Churchill was under pressure to supply a serious distraction in Europe.
Plans for a large scale invasion of Northern Europe were nowhere near ready but an idea to draw German troops from the Eastern Front and gain priceless information about enemy resources in France was being seriously considered.
Vice-Admiral Lord Mountbatten was planning to launch an attack on Dieppe, Normandy.
The Dieppe Raid, the Battle of Dieppe, Operation Rutter and later, Operation Jubilee
The attack started at 5am. By 10:50am Allied commanders were forced to call a retreat. By 3pm Allied troops were either dead, evacuated or left behind to be captured by the Germans. So what went wrong? Pretty much everything.
A force of thousands
The Canadian government put in a special request for their troop’s involvement so the attacking force included 5000 2nd Canadian Infantry. Also 1000 British troops from Commando 3, 4 and 10 (inter Allied), 50 United States Rangers attached to No. 4 Commando, 15 French Commando attached to No. 10 Commando.
They would be transported on 237 Royal Navy Ships and landing barges including eight destroyers.
The landing would be protected by 48 fighter squadrons of Spitfires, eight squadrons of Hurricane fighter-bombers, four squadrons of reconnaissance Mustang Mk Is and seven squadrons of No. 2 Group light bombers. There would be no bombardment of the port, to protect civilian lives and keep roads clear for the Allied assault.
The aim was to hold the port for a short time, gather intelligence and then destroy coastal defences and all strategic buildings before returning home, triumphant. The Germans would be intimidated by Allied strength and morale in the Allied countries would receive a huge boost. In 1942 the Allies desperately needed a victory.
A scene badly set
The attack was originally planned for July but after a delay due to bad weather, troop ships congregating in the Solent were attacked by enemy fighter bombers. Two ships were badly damaged and all hopes of a surprise invasion over. Troops and ships were dispersed.
As plans were made for a second attempt, French double agents warned that the British were showing an unusual amount of interest in Dieppe. Increased radio traffic and large numbers of landing craft in the South of England were also noticed by the enemy.
Intelligence on Dieppe in 1942 was patchy. Holiday photographs had been used to assess if landing vehicles could drive up beach slopes. Air reconnaissance missed two very large guns nearby and intelligence reports suggested the town was not strongly defended. They were very wrong.
They sailed early on 19 August 1942
Confident of success, Major General ‘Ham’ Hamilton Roberts in charge of the Canadian forces is reported to have briefed his officers ‘don’t worry men, it’ll be a piece of cake’.
The ship set off in darkness. Unfortunately also sailing through the channel that night was a German merchant convoy and although the ensuing skirmish with 3 Commando was minor, its effect was devastating. Hopes for a surprise attack were again thwarted as enemy along the beaches went on high alert.
Walking into a nightmare
The soldiers who landed on Dieppe’s beaches walked into a nightmare. To everyone’s surprise and horror, up on the cliffs on either side of Dieppe at Berneval-le-Grand and Varengeville two huge artillery batteries accurately shelled the coastline.
Neither gun had been spotted by air reconnaissance photographers in the lead up to the Raid. Both seemed prepared for the attack. Commanding officer Lt Colonel Labatt later said he saw mortar practise markers on the beach that looked recently placed.
Villas lining the seafront at Deippe and nearby villages had been fortified, machine guns and snipers cut down soldiers as they tried to run up a shingle beaches obscured by bodies. There was no escape.
Canadian war correspondent Ross Munro described the appalling scene unfolding before him:
‘They plunged into about two feet of water and machine-gun bullets laced into them. Bodies piled up on the ramp. Some staggered to the beach and fell. Bullets were splattering into the boat itself, wounding and killing our men.’
Just 29 tanks made it to shore where they struggled on the shingle. 15 made it to the sea wall only to become sitting ducks as their route was blocked by concrete barriers. No tanks would return to England and all crews were either killed or captured.
Above this carnage air support was hampered by limited flying time so far from England – Spitfires could only manage a few minutes of intense battle above Dieppe before needing to return home and refuel.
Some landing craft simply went the wrong way landing their troops in more dangerous territory. By 11am the situation was so bad Allies were desperately trying to retreat but many landing craft were directed away from beaches filling with soldiers needing rescue.
Lieutenant Edward V Loustalot, earned the unpleasant distinction of becoming the first US soldier killed in wartime Europe.
There were numerous incidents of incredible valour and many medals awarded, three were the Victoria Cross:
Lieutenant Colonel Cecil Merritt courageously led men from the South Saskatchewan Regiment across the River Scie at Pourville while under heavy attack. When it became clear they could go no further he led a perilous retreat that saved many men who were able to escape back to England. He was captured and spent the rest of the war as a POW. Colonel Merritt VC’s obituary gives full details here.
Pat Porteous of No. 4 Commando, while severely wounded, saved lives and led the successful attack on the Varengeville battery. Read the full incredible story here in Colonel Pat Porteous VC’s obituary.
Reverend John W. Foote, chaplain with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, braved enemy fire for 8 hours on the beach to bring the wounded to first aid posts. As the evacuation started he decided to jump off his landing craft to be captured, so that he could minister to the many Canadians who were taken as Prisoners of War. Read the Reverend Foote VC’s citation here.
A forgotten hero and the Pourville radar station
One of the top secret missions during the Raid was to thoroughly investigate the high powered Freya radar station above Pourville. For this task radar expert (and cockney) RAF Flight Sergeant Jack Nissenthall was attached to the South Saskatchewan regiment.
Before the mission Jack had been interviewed by the Senior Intelligence Officer at combined Ops. The aloof Wing Commander had been a close associate of British fascist leader Oswald Mosely. As he outlined the risks he said ‘Nissenthall, why should a Jew volunteer for such a dangerous operation? You will get nothing out of this you know’.
Nissenthall replied ‘We’re not given to expect something out of everything we do.’
At Pourville 11 men had instruction to get Jack to the radar station. Because of his knowledge they also had instructions to kill him if he fell into enemy hands. Jack carried a cyanide pill in-case they were not successful.
Defences were so strong nearly all of the unit were dead or injured by the time Jack got to the cliff. Taking the radar station was impossible but Jack bravely crawled around the back and cut all of their telephone wires. This forced the crew inside to radio all their messages. Transmissions that were quickly picked up in the south of England. Because of Jack’s bravery the Allies learned a lot about the location and density of German radar on the north French coast. The boffins also focused on developing radar jamming technology.
As Jack headed back through the village towards the beach he quickly met up with soldiers in retreat. They were under constant fire.
Gallantry with a Gauloises
Then, in the middle of the chaos, three elderly French WWI veterans in berets with their medals on full show appeared. One deliberately stepped into the line of fire, walking casually down the road smoking Gauloises. The nearest German officer ordered a ceasefire, they were under strict instructions not to shoot civilians. As the Frenchman walked past Jack and the Canadians he gave them a look that clearly said ‘I’m holding their fire, get out!’. Thanks to the gallant veteran’s bravery they made it back to the beach.
Of the 12 who headed for the radar station that day only Nissenthall and one other returned safely to England. After the war Jack Nissenthall shortened his surname to Nissen. He never received a medal, we cannot understand why.
Major General ‘Ham’ Roberts is seen by many historians as responsible for the Raid’s high death toll, for others he is a scapegoat and nothing could stop the tragedy once it had started. He was aboard HMS Calpe and communications from those on the beaches nearly impossible. Although he had little information he still decided to send reserve troops (Les Fusiliers Mont Royal) in as back-up, which just increased casualties. The first clear news about the Raid was when a call came in asking for landing craft to support an evacuation.
Major General Roberts was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He was also relieved of his command 6 months later.
In less than 6 hours, 60% of ground troops were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The Dieppe Raid left 1,027 dead (907 were Canadian) 2,340 troops captured and 106 aircraft shot down. The Royal Navy lost 33 landing craft and destroyer HMS Berkeley. Luftwaffe lost 48 aircraft and the German army had 591 casulties.
Victory for Germany
The Raid was promoted by Hitler as a great victory for Germany, the attack depicted as a joke. In a matter of hours pictures of dead bodies and shell-shocked troops appeared in papers all over the Reich and its occupied territories.
The Germans made a show of rewarding Dieppe for not helping in the Raid and freed 1,500 French POWs back to Dieppe in September. A gift of 10 million francs was also given to repair damage caused during the Raid.
Churchill said the Raid gave them ‘a mine of experience’. Any future attack on the enemy on the north coast of France would need: extensive air power, preliminary artillery support and aerial bombardment, the element of surprise, reliable intelligence about enemy fortifications and proper re-embarkation craft (a whole range of specialist armoured vehicles would be developed).
A direct attack on a well defended harbour would not be considered again; any attacked port became unusable. This decision led directly to the development of portable ‘Mulberry’ harbours.
Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten would later say:
“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.”
For Hitler another lesson had been learned. He knew that one day the Allies would try again, he said:
‘We must reckon with a totally different mode of attack and in quite a different place’
The attack would come almost two years later on 6 June 1944.
For years afterwards, on the anniversary of the Dieppe Raid, and because of the comment he made shortly beforehand, Major General ‘Ham’ Hamilton Roberts received an anonymous parcel containing a piece of cake.