Dieppe a Fortress

At 0523 hours, 19 August 1942, Captain Denis Whitaker and the men of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry listened as the hull of their flat-bottomed landing craft grated on the stone shingle of the broad beach fronting the French town of Dieppe. As the rising sun broke the horizon and revealed the outline of the town, Whitaker and his men peered over the ramp of the landing boat. They expected to see a town shattered by Royal Air Force bombs and Royal Navy shells, but to their shock they could see that even the storefront windowpanes were unbroken. Suddenly a hail of machine gun bullets peppered the side of the landing craft.

The Canadians had been promised that the town would be lightly defended. Instead they could see that Dieppe was a fortress, intact, and the Germans were ready and waiting. The ramp dropped and Whitaker and his men scrambled out onto the stony beach, bullets flying, bombs exploding. The bodies piled on top of one another.

How had this happened?

Plan Plagued by Weaknesses

The Allies knew that sooner or later they would have to cross the English Channel and try to dislodge the Germans from France. The British preferred to fight in Africa. But Stalin demanded a "second front" that would force the Germans to reduce their armies in the East, against the Soviets.

The Canadians also wanted some action.

In 1942, however, the Allies were far from ready for a full-scale invasion of France. As a compromise, the idea of a small raid on the French port of Dieppe, with perhaps 500 commandos, caught the imagination of British war planners. The raid would probe the German defenses, gather intelligence and with luck persuade the German leaders to divert forces from the Eastern Front.

As the top British brass, such as General Bernard Montgomery, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Winston Churchill himself, got involved in the planning, the plan grew and grew until some 5,000 Canadians were involved. The Canadians were assured they would be supported by the full weight of the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and paratroopers. And that the infantry would go ashore accompanied by dozens of tanks.

However, the Royal Navy decided that it could not risk sending battleships or even heavy cruisers off Dieppe, since they would be prey to the Luftwaffe. And even the most rudimentary knowledge of the beach at Dieppe would have warned that the unusual rock of the beach — comprised of an extremely hard mineral called chert — was totally unsuitable for tanks.

The plan's advocates nevertheless pushed the operation ahead relentlessly, persuading themselves that surprise would overcome all obstacles. In the event, all surprise was lost when the raiders encountered a German convoy enroute to Dieppe.

Assault, and Retreat

That August morning of 1942, the planning became a bloody reality as 4,963 Canadian soldiers waded onto the beaches at Dieppe, supported by 1,000 British commandos. By 0530 hours the attack was floundering badly. Two flank attacks had failed to seize the headland guns, sealing the fate of the men on the main beach. Tanks threw their treads as beach stones wedged in their sprockets.

Captain Whitaker led his men towards a large stucco building on the esplanade. They laid down smoke and "ran like hell." They cleared out the Germans but soon realized that it was pointless to try and proceed further. Any movement brought instant death.

Finally the word came that the navy would attempt to evacuate the men at 1100 hours. The Germans poured fire on the men dashing for the boats. Some refused to leave the wounded. Colonel Cecil Merritt and Padre John Foote both received the Victoria Cross for choosing to stay to help their men. At 1220 hours the order to withdraw was given, leaving 1,874 Canadians to surrender to the Germans.

Tragedy

Much has been made of the important lessons learned by the Allies at Dieppe, lessons that would contribute to the later success at Normandy in 1944 — but which were small consolation to the 3,164 Canadians killed or captured. This is the Dieppe conundrum.

Reflecting on it later, Captain Whitaker, who managed to reach one of the evacuation boats, declared that there are no pat answers for all the questions left by Dieppe. "Dieppe was a tragedy," he wrote, "not a failure."