August 19 by Mike Creasy
In the spring of 1942, an amphibious landing -code named Rutter - was planned against a small fortified port on the north coast of France. Allied commandos had begun conducting small raiding operations along the French and Dutch coastlines in the fall of 1941 in an effort to harass the Germans and gain combat experience, but most of these raids were small, night-time operations carried out by one or two gunboats. Operation Rutter would be larger, and would mark the first time that tanks would be landed on an enemy beach.
Canadian Army Commanders were anxious to get involved since the Canadians had been in England for the better part of three years, while the British Army was rebuilding following the fall of France and the epic retreat at Dunkirk in June 1940.
Senior Allied Commanders were also meeting in London in the spring of 1942, trying to hammer out a strategy to halt and then defeat the German war machine. In April, US General George Marshall, along with Winston Churchill and British Commanders agreed that a full-scale invasion of Europe should occur in 1943. They also agreed that a diversionary assault on the French coast (code named Sledgehammer) might be needed if things continued to go badly on the Russian front. Sledgehammer was intended to establish a permanent beachhead in Europe, using a force of at least 6 Divisions (60,000 to 100,000 men). By July, it was agreed that such an operation was not feasible, and attention shifted to a landing in North Africa in the fall of 1942.
However, Rutter; the operation that was more than a commando raid, but not an actual beachhead landing, had already been approved by the Chiefs of Staff. Planners were very clear that such a raid must be supported by heavy air and naval bombardment to neutralize the known heavy gun emplacements. The original plan called for landings on each flank to eliminate the murderous crossfire from the headlands, and allow tanks to be landed in front of the town. This would require a full day (two tides) to allow time for sappers and infantry to make their way from the flanks to the fortified gun batteries. Troops were trained and practice landings made on sandy English beaches. On the 2nd of July, 6,000 men were embarked on landing craft in preparation for the 70 km run to Dieppe, but the weather turned foul. The loaded craft were held for 5 days before the decision was made to scrap the operation and the disembarked units returned to barracks. Operation Rutter was cancelled.
Now the intrigue begins….. Churchill faced intense pressure to mount some kind of major raid. Stalin was screaming for a second front in Europe to slow the German advance, claiming that "the west" was purposely allowing Hitler to crush the Soviets. Roosevelt and the Americans were looking for some sign that England was going to be a serious player in this still expanding war. After all, if the British were going to fall to Hitler then surely the best strategy for the Americans would be to make peace with the Germans, and devote their full attention to Japan. This view had plenty of support in the United States.
The winter of 1941/42 was truly horrible for the allies: Pearl Harbour and the destruction of most of America’s battleships; massive losses in the Atlantic as U-Boats pummelled the merchant convoys; North Africa, where Rommel was earning his reputation as the "Desert Fox"; the new battleship HMS Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser HMS Repulse were sunk ; Singapore and the Philippines fell; bombing of English cities was a nightly occurrence; and the German Army continued it's rapid advances eastwards towards Moscow and the Caucasus oilfields.
Montgomery, the Sector Commander for the Allied Armies, was "strongly opposed" to reviving the Dieppe raid, because there was no chance of maintaining the element of surprise. Without his agreement, the revived plans could not go back to the Chiefs of Staff for approval. But there was a young "up-and-coming" star who headed the Combined Operations Committee under the Chiefs of Staff. Acting Admiral Louis Mountbatten (aka Prince Louis of Battenberg) was a confidante of Churchill's, a man who knew a thing or two about politics and show business. He was already busy making the Hollywood film In Which We Serve about his exploits in the destroyer HMS Kelly and he had a very good opinion of his own abilities.
Mountbatten had initially been appointed to the position as a junior Naval Captain, over the objections of many senior commanders such as Pound, Cunningham, Montgomery and others. Within months, he was elevated to acting Vice-Admiral!
Somehow, only days after the cancellation of Rutter, the operation became reborn. There is no record of approval by the Chiefs of Staff, and all available operational orders are ambiguous about who approved the new Operation Jubilee. Mountbatten, as head of the Combined Ops Committee, did not have the authority to proceed beyond planning such an event. Montgomery, who objected to the rebirth the raid, was cut out of the flow of information, as was the Naval Force Commander who also objected.
Canadians were not included in the flow of information at very high levels. Canadian Generals and their staff were dependent on British planners, not having much experience in the field, and were not able to look at the Mountbatten plan and see the problems that become obvious in hindsight. Experienced British Army planners, such as Montgomery, kept their objections to themselves.
The revived plan – now called Jubilee – would leave out the air and naval bombardments. In addition, weather conditions forced a time reduction from two tides (about 18 hours) to just one tide, yet there was no corresponding reduction or revision to the objectives for the flanking attacks. It was now not possible for the flankers to neutralize any of the fortifications, and since the bombardments had already been eliminated, there was no chance of success for the main landing force. This must have been apparent to at least some of the senior commanders before the raid began.
So, at 5 am on August 19, 1942, 5,000 Canadians began an assault on a well-defended location. The crossfire defence was murderous. The tanks either bogged down or lost their treads in the loose rock beach of Dieppe. By 11 am, the withdrawal order was given. 907 Canadians were killed; 1,946 were taken prisoner. The RCAF lost 10 pilots and 13 aircraft; the RAF lost 81 airmen and 106 aircraft.
In hindsight there is no doubt this was a terrible plan. Little of value was learned, and there was minimal impact on German troop dispositions. Many attempts have been made to justify the raid, but the facts remain: it was not reviewed and approved by the Allied Chiefs of Staff; nothing was learned that could not have been discovered in a well-planned exercise and the casualty rate was abominable. Many attempts have been made assign responsibility and/or offer justification in terms of insights gained, but these are all self-evident: good planning and communication is critical; heavy bombardment is vital and; tracked vehicles don't do well on loose stone beaches.
When you wake on August 19, take a moment to think of the thousands of young men who did their duty, and did it well.
Whoever was responsible - either by pushing a bad plan or by keeping quiet about it - must have carried that shame to their grave.
Dieppe - Canada's Forgotten Heroes, John Mellor, MacMillan NAL,1975
Out of the Shadows, W.A.B. Douglas, Brereton Greenhous, Oxford University Press, 1977
Unauthorized Action, Brian Loring Villa, Oxford University Press, 1989
Veterans Affairs Canada - vac-acc.gc.ca
Dieppe: Tragedy to Triumph, Denis and Shelagh Whitaker, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1992
The Canadian Army 1939-1945, Col. C.P. Stacey, King’s Printer, 1948