By Larry King
Walking on shingle gets you nowhere; at every step smooth rocks underfoot are propelled backwards, like pacing on a pebbly treadmill.
Army boots would help, a bit, but if one must scramble ashore, as soon as possible, why not choose a hard sandy beach? Especially if heading towards a deadly artillery fusillade pouring hot lead from sheer cliffs above. Ducks in a shooting gallery serves as a banal analogy for what occurred here on 19 August, 1942.
We were stumbling over the Dieppe beach, attempting to get a feel, however superficial, of what it must have been like on that date. Landing craft had crossed the English Channel conveying nine Canadian regiments towards the French port of Dieppe, arriving at dawn.
Flanked five kilometres to the east and west of this flotilla were two British Commando units.
“Operation Jubilee”, code name for this raid, was to be cruelly mocked forever by the result; by early afternoon, over 3,400 of the 6,100-strong force were casualties, 962 fatal, the worst Canadian military disaster ever.
The principal killing ground stretched across this shingle to the foot of the cliffs. To an armchair general reconnoitring this site, the grisly results were predictable.
British Prime Minister Churchill was under increased pressure, by this time from his Allies. With Europe under Hitler’s thumb and Russian defences reeling under Hitler’s relentless Blitzkrieg initiated in June, 1941, Russian dictator Stalin demanded that Britain assault Hitler’s western flank to provide some relief for his beleaguered Red Army. Churchill also knew that President F.D. Roosevelt was being urged by some advisors, thinking Britain was just marking time, to switch America’s top priority to defeating Japan.
Churchill, though, doubted the wisdom of an amphibious landing along Hitler’s Atlantic Wall just yet; Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, and industrial machinery needed much further weakening.
However, when the invasion came, it would require a well-coordinated army-navy-air force endeavour. The major difficulty would be putting men and matériel ashore against fierce resistance.
Such rehearsed landings were occurring along the British coast under live fire, but not at the participants. Raids on French ports had occurred, but no attempted landings. Roosevelt urged Britain that June to make a “sacrifice” landing that year, even if just to demonstrate to Stalin that such an endeavour was premature.
“But why here?”
Jubilee’s planners knew well the geography of Dieppe greatly favoured defenders. But a tantalizing question persisted: could a well-prepared force capture a Channel port, leaving its harbour facilities relatively intact? To do so would be a godsend for shipping massive quantities of matériel needed for an Allied advance across western Europe against a well-entrenched, dogged foe.
“Then why Canadians?”
Cynicism persists throughout Canada more than 70 years later, “colonials” sacrificed again as “cannon fodder”.
That was the “accepted truth” recalled from my home region, the base of the “Essex Scottish” regiment, one of the doomed seven; only 51 of its 553 members who landed returned that day.
However, Canada’s brass also approved the plan, even pushed for our participation. Confined to patrolling the English coast since 1940 to forestall a German invasion, our boys were eager for “real” action. (That April, Roosevelt had proclaimed these Canadian soldiers as “raring to go”.)
They were not reluctantly dragged into the fray.
But was the Dieppe raid merely a sacrificial gesture to demonstrate to Stalin and the Americans that further weakening of German defences was still needed before the invasion, or did it make a critical difference to D-Day’s success?
Military planners rely on good luck as an input into such ventures; it is often the least reliable.
A German convoy disrupted the landing schedule, warning defenders, providing them with ample time to re-emerge after an initial aerial/naval bombardment and train their guns on late-arriving soldiers struggling to offload heavy equipment onto traction-free shingle.
Their procedures, craft and tanks, as then constituted, proved ill suited for such a landing.
The Luftwaffe held supporting RAF/RCAF pilots at bay, strafing the beach. The Canadians fought bravely and well (as German reports fully confirmed), but futilely, for seven hellish hours.
Back to the drawing board. Lessons were learned for D-Day. No assaulting a heavily defended port, artificial harbours (“Mulberries”) would substitute.
Deception was critical; German command was fooled into believing the invasion would aim at another port, Calais, partly because of Dieppe.
Improvements were made to the landing craft; more buoyant heavy vehicles to be offloaded were devised.
By then, the Luftwaffe and German navy were decimated, incapable of opposing the landings. Two more years of day-and-night bombing of German industry had hampered its war production while the overall quality of the defending troops on the Normandy beaches far from Calais was less formidable.
As we ambled through Dieppe’s cemetery, where repose 850 Canadians, wanting to support Huie’s view, feelings ranged from poignancy through anguish.
“Jubilee” was not among them.
Larry King is a former teacher in Sierra Leone and Toronto, retired and searching for memoirs of Canadian military history. He can be reached at: email@example.com