Dieppe: The Beaches of Hell

“Dieppe was a tragedy, not a failure.”

At 0523 hours, August 19, 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 RAF 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 that 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?

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. The Canadians wanted some action.

The beach at Dieppe. The tanks had thrown their treads on the hard rock (courtesy National Archives).

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 the British leaders. 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 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 5000 Canadians were involved. Amphibious attacks are among the most difficult military operations, but the Canadians were assured that they would be supported by the full weight of the RAF, the Royal Navy and paratroopers. But even as the Canadians trained on the Isle of Wight, the plan was collapsing.

Winston Churchill, afraid of alienating the French with the death of French civilians, decided not to bomb the French town. Then 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. Perhaps even worse was the almost complete lack of intelligence on the Dieppe topography. 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. Yet the Allies had been proclaiming just such an attack publicly, and indeed the Germans had been listening. In the event, all surprise was lost when the raiders encountered a German convoy enroute to Dieppe.

Of all the questions surrounding the planning of the ensuing disaster, one of the most puzzling is why commander Montgomery, with his reputation as a stickler for details and for his insistence on attacking with maximum firepower, showed such poor judgment. The answer will likely never be known because Montgomery personally burned the documents containing the answers.

That August morning of 1942 the planning became a bloody reality as 4963 Canadian soldiers waded onto the beaches at Dieppe, supported by 1000 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 baseball-sized 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 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 1874 Canadians to surrender to the Germans.

Much has been made of the important lessons learned by the Allies at Dieppe, lessons that would contribute to the later success at Normandy but which were small consolation to the 3164 Canadians killed or captured. The raid did dissuade the Americans and Russians from pestering Churchill about an attack on France. Hitler ordered 10 infantry divisions transferred to France from the Eastern Front. Nevertheless, almost all the principals “ran for the hills” when questions about the planning were raised. Churchill even tried to deny any knowledge of the raid for years afterwards. Mountbatten blamed the army, others the navy. Even our contemporary military leaders use the “Dieppe catastrophe” as a cautionary tale for an invasion of Iraq.

This then 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.”

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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