The Allied situation in the spring of 1942 was grim. The Germans had penetrated deep into the USSR, the British Eight Army in North Africa had been forced back into Egypt and in Western Europe the Allied forces faced the Germans across the English Channel.
Designed to foster German fears of an attack in the west and to compel them to strengthen their defenses in the Channel at the expense of other areas, the Dieppe raid would also provide the opportunity to test new techniques and equipment, and be the means to gain the experience and knowledge necessary for planning the full scale invasion of Western Europe.
Plans were drawn up for a large-scale raid to take place in July 1942. Canadians would provide the main assault force and by May, 20 troops of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division began intensive training in amphibious operations. When unfavourable weather in July prevented the raid from being launched, it was urged that it should be abandoned. However, the port of Dieppe on the French coast remained objective.
The attack on Dieppe took place on August 19, 1942. The troops involved totalled 6000 (5000 were Canadian; the remainder were British and American). The plan called for attacks at five different points on a front roughly 16km long. Four simultaneous flank attacks were to go in at dawn, followed half an hour later by the main attack on the town of Dieppe itself. Canadians would form the force for the frontal attack on Dieppe.
As the assault force approached the coast of France in the early hours of August 19th, the landing craft unexpectedly encountered a small German convoy. The noise of the sea fight which followed alerted German coastal defenses – those who reached the shore were quickly overwhelmed.
The beach tended to be narrow, with high cliffs overlooking, where the Germans were strategically placed. Success depended on surprise and darkness – neither of which our soldiers now had. The naval landing of the Canadians met violent attack from the German soldiers. The Germans had the advantage of high ground positions, where they could fiercely fire upon the beach.
The Main Attack
The main attack was to be made across the pebble beach in front of Dieppe and timed to take place half an hour later than on the flanks. German soldiers, however, waited in concealed, cliff-top positions – they soon fired on the beach with machine guns at the invading Allied troops. Timed to follow an air and naval bombardment, the Calgary Regiment tanks landed ten to fifteen minutes late, thus leaving the infantry without support during the first critical minutes of the attack. The tanks were brought to a halt by heavy German attack when they reached the shore. The raid also involved air battle – the RCAF lost 13 aircraft (RAF lost 106).
The Battle of Dieppe is often described as the single greatest tragedy experienced by Canada’s armed forces during the war. (Dead: 907; prisoners: 1874; wounded: 586). Even today, the record is not clear as to what sequence of events and which leaders were responsible for the disaster. Some historians believe that the Allied leaders (Churchill and Roosevelt) knew that the raid at Dieppe would not be successful. These historians believe that it was morally wrong for the Allied leaders to send the troops into Dieppe because of the huge loss of life that resulted. Other historians believe that the reasons and objectives for the raid, as well as the important lessons learned from the battle, justify the loss of life that occurred there.
The clips of information below are classified into the two different viewpoints that are explained above. Read the information and decide which interpretation you agree with.
View #1: Allied Leaders Knew the Raid Would Not Be Successful
The Allied leaders were aware that they probably could not win at Dieppe, but they knew that Dieppe was an excellent place to test the strength of Germany’s defenses before carrying out a full-scale invasion of Germany and its occupied territory.
Churchill was under pressure to show his good intentions to Stalin by mounting an attack on the Western Front.
The raid on Dieppe was scheduled for July 1942, cancelled and, against the advice of some military planners, was rescheduled for August 19, 1942.
On June 5, 1942, at a meeting presided over by General Montgomery, Allied army officers agreed to abandon the air and naval bombardment that would precede the infantry assault. (Hint: Many other army officers believed that this was a terrible decision. They did not believe that the Allied forces at Dieppe would succeed unless they were assisted by an air and naval bombardment).
Canadian leaders were sceptical of the basic plan but it would have been difficult to tell the political leaders they did not want to fight.
View #2: Lessons Learned Justified the Loss of Life
“Dieppe was one of the most vital operations of the Second World War. It gave the Allies the priceless secret of victory…If I had the same decision to make again I would do it as I did before.”
Before reaching the coastline at Dieppe, the assault force (Allied troops) accidentally encountered and exchanged shots with a German convoy heading for Dieppe. The convoy alerted the German defenders at Dieppe, and by 5 am, twenty minutes before the Allied forces touch down at the main beach, the Germans were prepared to defend themselves.
“Perhaps the most important lesson we learned was that no assault force against a defended position was possible without power from the sea and air. This was known by many military planners before Dieppe, but some planners felt that the element of surprise and the Commando support could replace it. Certainly as a result of the experience at Dieppe there was no major argument opposing the use of heavy ships and bombers against the coast of Normandy in June, 1944.” (This is the place and time when the Allies began to successfully defeat Germany and liberate Europe)
Failure on the main beach can be attributed in part to the late arrival of the tanks that were to provide covering fire. A navigational error was responsible for the ten minute delay.
German machine guns and field guns could infiltrate the entire beach where the Canadians landed. For example, at one instance a dozen Canadians were running along the edge of the cliff towards a stone wall. They carried their weapons and some were firing as they ran. But some had no helmets, some were already wounded, their uniforms torn and bloody. One by one they were cut down and rolled down the slope to the sea…