It is one of the most famous battles in Canadian history and was a pivotal moment in the history of Canada. It was also a dark day for the country as many soldiers would lose their lives.
At the time of the raid in August of 1942, most of continental Europe was under the control of the Germans, who were entrenched on the continent. The Raid on Dieppe was the attempt to dislodge the Germans from their foothold and while it would fail, it would result in important lessons being learned by the Allies, which they would use in the successful D-Day invasion of 1944.
Unlike D-Day, which consisted of the Americans, British, Canadians and many more, the Dieppe Raid had 6,100 troops, 5,000 of which were Canadians. The rest of the Troops were 50 American Rangers and 1,000 British Commandos. Support for the raid came from eight Allied destroyers and 74 Allied air squadrons, eight of which came from the Royal Canadian Air Force.
The Allies did not have the strength to attack as they would on D-Day yet, but the Raid on the French port of Dieppe would allow them to gain experience for the planning of a larger assault, and to test new equipment.
For the Canadians, they were spending most of their time training in Britain and were itching for battle. No Canadians had taken part in any major battle since the Battle of Hong Kong two years previous. The Canadian public was also waiting to hear about Canadians going into battle, so Dieppe was coming at just the right time for both the public and the soldiers.
Corporal Robert Prouse of the Canadian Provost Corp would state after the war: “I was bored to tears with the long inaction and was itching for battle.”
Commanders began working on a raid that would take place in July under the codename of Operation Rutter. The Canadians would be the main assault force and the Second Canadian Infantry Division was on the Isle of Wight by May 20 of that year, training for the amphibious operation. The raid would be moved though due to poor weather in July and there was talk of abandoning the raid. Instead, it was revived and given a new name, Jubilee.
On Aug. 19, 1942, the Allied force would attack at five different points on the front running 16 kilometres long. Four flank attacks would happen at the same time just before down, followed by the main attack on Dieppe half an hour later. The Canadians would be the force for that main attack, while also providing help at the cliffs near Pourville to the west.
Major General J.H. Roberts, the commander of the Second Canadian Infantry Division, would tell his men before the raid, “Don’t worry men, It will be a piece of cake.”
Those words would haunt him for the rest of his life.
There were some bad omens before the attack even started. The craft-carrying ship, the Duke of Wellington, was loaded with Canadian soldiers who were preparing their hand grenades. One grenade was trigged accidently and the soldiers attempted to throw it out a porthole but it missed and bounced back, killing one person and injuring eighteen.
The Eastern Flank of the attack force would meet unexpected problems almost immediately. As the assault force approached the coast of France, the landing craft in the eastern flank encountered a German convoy. The violent sea fight would alert the German coastal defenses, allowing them to man their defenses and costing the Canadians the element of surprise that was so crucial. The crafts carrying the British commandos that were going to destroy the coastal batteries at Berneval were scattered and most of them did not reach the shore to accomplish their mission. The commandos who did were overwhelmed by the Germans firing at them.
The Royal Regiment of Canada would arrived at the eastern flank beach and found it was extremely narrow and the German soldiers were on the cliffs ready for the Canadians to arrive. With their naval landing delayed slightly, they arrived just as the sun was coming up and were met with violent machine gun fire from the Germans. Only a few of the Canadian soldiers were able to get over the seawall at the head of the beach. Those who did get over soon found out they were unable to get back. The rest of the eastern flank attack force, which included The Black Watch, were pinned on the beach by the artillery and machine guns of the Germans. For those who landed on the eastern flank of the beach, 200 were killed, 20 died later from their wounds and all the rest were taken prisoner. It was the heaviest toll suffered by any Canadian battalion in a single day during the entire Second World War.
Over on the Western Flank, there was still elements of surprise to the attack thankfully. The units were able to land as planned and destroy the guns at Varengeville. The Canadians were able to surprise the enemy at Pourville, and the South Saskatchewan Regiment and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada attacked at the beach, meeting light opposition at first. The Camerons began to push towards the inland airfield objective but were halted at three kilometres by the Germans. The South Saskatchewan Regiment was also halted before getting to the Town of Dieppe. Meeting heavy opposition from the Germans, both units attempted to withdraw and would suffer heavy casualties as a result. Thanks to the bravery of those on the landing craft, which came to the shore amid heavy gunfire, most of both units were able to re-embark on the ship, albeit with many wounded. The rearguard sadly could not be evacuated and would surrender when they ran out of ammunition.
For the central attack in front of Dieppe itself, this was supposed to take place 30 minutes after the assaults on the eastern and western flanks. Unfortunately, the Germans were well-prepared for the Canadians main attack. The Canadians attempted to breach the seawall but were pushed back with heavy casualties. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry landed on the west end of the Dieppe promenade and cleared out an isolated casino of German troops and were able to enter into town. They then engaged in vicious street fighting in the town itself.
Major General Roberts believed more troops had made it into Dieppe than had actually made it there and he sent in his reserve unit, the Fusiliers Mont-Royal, to take advantage but they would be hit heavily, with 119 soldiers losing their lives.
Lt. Col. Dollard Menard of the Fusiliers would say later:
“The second the boat scraped the beach, I jumped out and started to follow the sappers through the barbed wire. My immediate objective was a concrete pillbox on top of a 12-foot parapet about 100 yards up on the beach. I think I had taken three steps when the first one hit me. You say a bullet or a piece of shrapnel hits you but the word isn’t right. They slam you the way a sledgehammer slams you. There is no sharp pain at first. It jars you so much you’re not sure exactly where you’ve been hit or what with.”
The Calgary Regiment were supposed to land after a round of intense air and naval bombardment but they arrived on shore 10 minutes too late, which left the infantry without support during the first minutes of the attack. They too were stopped by the seawall, but the tanks would come ashore and were able to overcome the seawall. The tanks would then meet concrete obstacles that sealed off the streets of Dieppe, leaving the tanks immobilized. They continued to fight and would help many soldiers withdraw from the area. Unfortunately, the crews in the tanks would either die in battle or become Prisoners of War.
In the air, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force protected the ships off Dieppe from the German air force. It would come at a terrible cost with the Royal Air Force losing 106 aircraft, while the Canadians lost 13 aircraft.
One pilot who had his plane shot down was William Aldcorn of Cadillac, Saskatchewan. He had enlisted with the RCAF in 1939 and took part in the Dieppe Raid when his plane was shot down over the English Channel. He would parachute out after his plane caught fire, surviving after he hit the water. He would spend 40 minutes in the water until a rescue boat arrived. On the boat was a photographer who documented the rescue for the CBC.
By the afternoon, the attack was over and the debate over it would soon begin. While some see it as needless slaughter of Canadian troops, other feel it was necessary to make a successful attack on D-Day two years later.
Over the course of the battle, 907 Canadians would be killed with the Royal Regiment of Canada suffering the worst, losing 227 soldiers on that day. Of the 600 Royal Regiment soldiers who landed at the beach, 65 made it back to England that day. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry would lose 197. In addition to the soldiers who lost their lives, another 586 wound be wounded and 1,946 would be captured. In all, of the 5,000 Canadians who took part in the attack, 67 per cent would be killed, wounded or captured. The amount of Canadians taken prisoner was more than what the army would lose in 11 months of fighting in Northwest Europe from 1944 to 1945.
One story of being a prisoner of war comes from Lloyd Knibbs. Coming from Huntoon, Saskatchewan, Knibbs had joined the Winnipeg Cameron Highlanders in April 1940 and would take part in the Dieppe Raid where he survived the attack but was taken prisoner. Taken to Stalag 8B, the prisoners were handcuffed for the day as punishment for the attack. Over time, the prisoners would dig a tunnel in the camp and several would escape, including Knibbs. Unfortunately, he didn’t speak German and was quickly picked up and sent back to the camp. The prisoners were allowed to send one censored letter and four censored postcards each month. At Christmas 1942, they sent a photograph of their group in their uniforms. The Red Cross would send them food parcels and cigarettes as well, which they bartered with the Germans. In November 1943, Lloyd was among 22 Canadians moved to Stalag 2D in northern Germany to begin working on a potato farm. In February of 1945, they left the camp with a German officer and in May they met the Russian Army and then arrived at the American front lines. In July 1945, Knibbs would finally return home.
Another prisoner of war was Tom Melville. He was a sports editor with the Regina Leader-Post when he enlisted in 1939, taking part in the raid and becoming a prisoner-of-war. He would survive the war and return to Regina, eventually becoming the editor of the newspaper from 1964 to 1973.
August Delwo had joined the army in 1938 and trained as a commando. In Dieppe, he was wounded and captured and spent two years and nine months in a prison camp. He was of German heritage, which he kept secret for as long as he could. When it was discovered he could speak German, the German soldiers made him work as an interpreter. As the war was ending, August, along with several hundred other POWs, was forced to take part in the 1,500 Mile Death March during the Russian winter, with many POWs losing their lives along the way. Delwo would survive the war and return to Canada.
Dieppe would show the Allied commanders what not to do in an attack on the Europe mainland. The Dieppe Raid allowed the Allies to see they needed to have:
- Preliminary artillery support
- Proper intelligence concerning enemy fortifications.
- The avoidance of a frontal attack on a defended port.
- Proper re-embarkation craft.
Admiral Mountbatten, who helped plan the raid, stated “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.” Nonetheless, in Canada Mountbatten was seen as a controversial figure for his willing sacrifice of so many Canadian soldiers.
Winston Churchill would say, “My impression of Jubilee is that the results fully justified the heavy cost,” and he would add that it was, “a Canadian contribution of the greatest significance to final victory.”
No one faulted the Canadians for the failure of the raid with many stating the Canadians fought bravely in the face of a determined enemy and it was the circumstances outside the control of the soldiers that would result in the failure.
The official battle report from the Germans after the battle would say, “The enemy, almost entirely Canadian soldiers, fought – so far as he was able to fight at all – well and bravely.”
The reports back home highlighted Dieppe as a successful raid and something that was needed for a successful attack later.
There would be many citations in the battle for Canadians, including two Victoria Cross. Charles Cecil Merritt had landed with the South Saskatchewan Regiment and Lt. Col. Merritt took charge of getting across the bridge, walking into a storm of fire on the bridge and leading his party across by his sheer will and bravery. He would be wounded twice and he commanded the rear guard action that allowed the majority of units to re-embark at the beach. Merritt would be captured and become a prisoner of war. He would survive the war and be released from military service in 1945, going on to serve as a Member of Parliament for Vancouver from 1945 to 1949 and would pass away on July 12, 2000. Merrit would say after the war: “We were very glad to go, we were delighted. We were up against a very difficult situation and we didn’t win but to hell with this business of saying the generals did us dirt.”
John Weir Foote was a member of the Canadian Chaplain Services and was the first member of that unit to be awarded the Victoria Cross. He would continually expose himself to intense fire over the course of eight hours to help move the inured to an air post, saving many lives in the process. At the end of the eight hours he jumped off the landing craft that would have taken him to safety and walked right up to the Germans to be taken prisoner so that he could serve as minister to the Canadian prisoners of war. He too would survive the war and would serve as an MPP in the Ontario Legislature from 1948 to 1959. He would pass away on May 2, 1988.
Sergeant David Lloyd Hart would be awarded the Military Medal for his efforts during the rain when he maintained the only line of radio communication between the men on the beach and the commanders at sea. He would save the lives of 100 men through his work with the signals, allowing them to retreat. Another interesting fact about Hart is that he would become the longest serving officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. He would serve for 81 years in active and honorary roles until he died in March 2019 at the age of 101.
Another decorated soldier in the battle was Beach Comber, a Canadian war pigeon. During the raid, Beach Comber carried a message from the Canadian Army to alert commanders of the landing, marking the start of the Dieppe Raid. Beach Comber would be awarded the Dicken Medal, often seen as the animal Victoria Cross, and is the only Canadian war pigeon to be awarded the medal and one of only three Canadian animals to be honoured.
One really strange story from the raid comes from the Daily Telegraph crossword puzzle from Aug. 17, 1942. It featured a clue that said “French port (6 letters)” and the answer was Dieppe. The War Office suspected that this was intelligence being passed to the Germans and Lord Tweedsmuir, a senior intelligence officer with the Canadian Army, was called in to investigate. After an exhaustive inquiry that included MI5, it was determined it was a complete and remarkable coincidence.
Today, the Town of Dieppe is filled with symbols of Canada and maple leaf flags. The promenade at the seafront has a park and several memorials to the Canadian regiments.
Information comes from Veterans.GC.Ca, Junobeach.org, Warmuseum.ca Wikipedia, the Canadian Encyclopedia, Canada’s History, Hope, Home, Happiness, Cadillac Prairie Heritage, Regina The Street Where You Live, Memories of Gatchell, the Canadian Amphibious War