Eighty years ago, in the early morning hours of Aug. 19, 1942, a flotilla of ships was crossing the English channel bound for Hitler’s Fortress Europe.
The ships were part of Operation Jubilee, an ambitious plan by the Allies to stage a raid on mainland Europe, testing the possibility of a full-scale invasion later. The plan called for Canadian, British and American commandos and infantry men, backed up with a contingent of tanks, to take the French seaside community of Dieppe for 12 hours, securing intelligence on Hitler’s war plans, before withdrawing back across the English Channel to safety.
Things in the raid did not get off to a great start.
As the flotilla was closing in on the French coast, the allied escorts ran into a German merchant convoy with an armed escort. A firefight ensued and surprise was lost. Many of the 23 British landing craft were sunk, or became so damaged they were forced to limp back to England. Only seven of the British landing craft were able to carry on with the mission.
The plan had called for a British team to hit a target west of Dieppe and a Canadian team to hit a target east, then have a direct assault on Dieppe in the middle.
Due to the firefight on the water, the remaining British landing craft hit their target at Petit Berneval 30 minutes late. This delay meant that the landing craft were hitting the beach as the sun was rising, giving the German defenders an easier time to pick their targets from the high ground. The delay also gave the Germans an opportunity to move reinforcements into position resulting in the Allied troops getting chewed up without attaining their goal.
A short distance east of Dieppe, at Puys, the Canadian contingent hit the beach just after 5 a.m. With the defensive emplacements at the top of the steep cliffs, and the ability to reinforce due to lost surprise, the Canadians hitting the beach walked into a kill zone. Those who weren’t killed ultimately surrendered.
The central assault was to be support by 29 tanks manned by the 14th Canadian Tank Battalion. While 27 of the 29 tanks made it ashore, only 15 made it past the beach before being blocked by concrete barriers. The tanks did as much damage as they could before being destroyed themselves.
Even with the failures east and west of Dieppe, the decision was made to proceed with the main assault. With the Royal Air Force flying strafing missions overhead and the tanks providing cover the soldiers hit the beach, but were unable to make much headway. By 11 a.m the decision was made to withdraw from the beach.
Picking up as many troops as they could under heavy fire, the landing craft ultimately were forced to retreat. By the time everything was over, more than 1,000 men lay dead and 2,300 captured were left behind; mainly Canadians. The RAF also lost over 50 men. Out of approximately 6,000 men sent on the raid, less than half made it back to safety.
While the Dieppe raid is remembered eight decades later as a Second World War Canadian tragedy, the lessons learned from it proved immeasurable and ultimately paved the way for the Allied invasion of Normandy in June 1944 and the eventual victory in Europe in 1945.