Spring 1942, was a particularly stressful time for the Allied forces in World War II. Germany was firmly entrenched in Russia and ready to undertake offensives again, the United States was reeling from the loss of most of its island possessions in the Pacific, and the British were still enduring nightly visits by German bombers, and trying to fight Rommel in the deserts of Africa. Still standing on its own in the West, it needed to plant boots again on the sands of Europe to show the world it was serious about coming back to stay. And one needed to look no further than Prime Minister Winston Churchill to find the chief proponent for wanting to land somewhere on the continent and convince the newest and fragile ally, Joseph Stalin that Britain was serious.
All in Parliament knew though, that at least at that moment, there was no possible way for Britain or any of its growing arrivals of Canadian and American forces to open up a second front in 1942, and probably not in 1943 either. Demands beckoned them elsewhere, and there simply were not enough forces on land, sea or air to see such an expedition through to success. Therefore, something much smaller was wanted. Not an offensive, but more of a raid to surprise the Germans by taking and holding certain objectives for a short time, while simultaneously learning the amphibious techniques needed for when the allies would land again for good.
In April, Lord Louis Mountbatten stepped forward with a plan called Operation Rutter. With a target landing date between July 4 through 8, the proposal involved landing 12 divisions, including paratroopers and tanks, to assault and hold the harbor and beaches around the French port of Dieppe. They would be expected to overcome German defenses, destroy any strategic targets and seize any intelligence they could, before evacuating back across the channel under an umbrella of hundreds of Royal Air Force fighter aircraft. If all went well, they would learn invaluable things about future invasion sites in France and any modifications or weapons needed for victory.
The plan was roundly accepted, and tables of organization started to form with the necessary units to see the operation out. Strange, but true, most of the forces involved would not be British.
Churchill had been getting an earful from the Canadian government about getting their forces in action, and, after a few discussions, Rutter was given to them as a gift. Yet, as the forces gathered to train, they had no idea that behind their backs, the plan to use so many divisions slowly began to unravel, and that they would still assault Dieppe, but with a much smaller force.
Operation Rutter saw its end arrive at the last moment when the well trained force boarded transport ships and prepared to cross the channel. The order to sail was delayed, however, due to inclement weather over the beaches. During this time, German aircraft attacked a group of ships as they sat idle, and after much discussion, the determination was made that to launch the attack now involved too much risk and a possible compromise on secrecy. Operation Rutter was canceled even as the men walked down the gang ways and boarded trucks to take them back to their bases.
Churchill still wanted to go, and the idea seemed too bold to just waste away. Mountbatten modified his plan downward in size to offer it as a way to salvage all the preparation for Rutter. With agreements to go ahead, the operation was renamed “Jubilee,” and set for August 19. Operation Jubilee would involve the just the Canadian 2nd infantry division, four British Army Commando groups, No’s 3, 4 10, and a Royal Marine group, as well as a detachment of the U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion.
The force, totaling just over 6,000 men, would operate under command of Major General John Hamilton Roberts. They would hit six color-coded beaches (Yellow, Orange, Blue and Green), destroy coastal batteries, seize the town of Dieppe as well as the port, and hold it for a period of two tides before evacuating. To help this along would be 58 Churchill tanks to provide support and counter any attempts by German panzers to sweep the force back into the sea. Moreover, other defensive installations pinpointed were expected to be seized and destroyed before this time by predawn commando assaults.
After even more exercises to prepare them, the land forces boarded their transports once again, and sailed from the south coast of England on the night of August 18 for a morning landing, and hopefully, a great success. But unbeknownst to them, due to constant information from intelligence agents, the Germans were already expecting the arrival and had alerted their defenses at Dieppe for the impending attack.
At 0415 hours on August 19, the first landing craft carrying a group of Commandos set sail for the beaches to take out coastal batteries. They met with varying degrees of success, with one group exchanging fire with a German sea convoy, landing only 18 in their assigned area, while other groups hit their assigned areas but came under withering fire which pinned them down. The only bright spot came when a commando group, assisted by Rangers, scaled the cliffs on one beach and took out six artillery guns. All of these units remained on the beaches exchanging fire with the German forces, which, despite the commandos giving just as much as they took, kept inflicting casualties and only increased in strength as the hours passed by.
Offshore, under dawn twilight, the main landing efforts of the 2nd Division began after destroyers laid smokescreens and RAF fighter squadrons arrived overhead. Their first boots hit sand at around 0520 hours, and saw scores of men and units fall from crisscrossing machine gun fire and artillery shells as survivors dived into the pebble strewn sand looking for an escape from the slaughter.
Worse, the expected support from the armor was late. 30 minutes late, to be exact, and once they lumbered from the surf they started exploding as antitank guns zeroed on them. The flaming pyres signified what a costly morass the operation was plunging into, as thousands of men struggled to survive by finding whatever cover they could, and looking back to see scores of comrades lining the beach, their lifeless bodies being hit again and again without let up.
Only a small number of warriors got off the beaches, with none achieving their objectives.
In trying to take the town of Dieppe, the group that penetrated quickly came under automatic weapons fire, killing most. The port itself was left untouched as pillars of thick black smoke rose in the distance, and the air popped and rumbled with violence.
Realizing that what they had encountered was essentially a steel wall of resistance with almost no hope of overcoming, after five hours of the madness Roberts issued the order to evacuate immediately. So, beginning at 1100 hours, small remnants of units once containing hundreds of men rushed and even hobbled aboard praying for the ramps to rise and the craft to turn to and head back out to sea, starting a slow process that took five hours to rescue all those that could be reached.
Throughout that time, nearly 2000 others who were pinned down witnessed their only hope of freedom for the rest of the war disappear with each trek of those bobbing little boats. After all attempts to reach the water were thwarted and ammunition ran dry, they found no other alternative than to lay down their arms and wait to be taken into custody by their captors.
To their disgust, as quiet returned, Dieppe looked just like the pictures they’d seen of Dunkirk, only on a smaller scale. Around 900 dead, their equipment strewn everywhere, wounded cried out and 1,874 glum faced prisoners marched away with their hands over their head toward an unknown fate. While some may have questioned what was learned at least once, most had to have asked themselves the eternal question spoken by soldiers in all wars after a costly battle… Was it worth it?
As the last flotilla of ships disappeared over the horizon, such questions were already being raised in Parliament. Lord Mountbatten heard more and more reports about the fiasco, and spoke little about it until after the war, when he said, “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.”
Churchill was blunter. “My impression of ‘Jubilee’ is that the results fully justified the heavy cost and it was a Canadian contribution of the greatest significance to final victory.”
Looking over the results for history it must be said that Dieppe was a disaster. Were lessons learned? Probably. Was it worth it? Maybe. Regardless of these answers, one thing always follows the operation whenever it is discussed, even to this day. Controversy. And controversy may forever be the word used when analyzing this battle.
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