THE DIEPPE RAID: THE COMBINED OPERATIONS ASSAULT ON HITLER’S EUROPEAN FORTRESS AUGUST 1942 – AN OFFICIAL HISTORY

April 16, 2020
Posted by: Rear Admiral Peter Sparkes

Operation JUBILEE, the Combined Operations raid on Dieppe on 19th August 1942, is still to this day, considered to be one of the most disastrous and controversial allied operations of the Second World War.

However, it should be acknowledged that Operation JUBILEE, initially named RUTTER, was formulated and executed at the nadir of allied fortunes. France had capitulated in 1940; Greece and Crete had fallen in 1941; Rommel was advancing menacingly towards Egypt and the Suez Canal; the Japanese had carried all before them in the Far East, including the disaster at Singapore; and there was a very real risk that the Battle of the Atlantic would be lost before the United States was able to mobilise and reinforce the European theatre of war. The raid on Dieppe was conceived after the daring commando raid on St Nazaire (Operation CHARIOT) as a means of carrying the fight to the Germans – demonstrating resolve to Stalin – whilst testing Hitler’s coastal defences, and ‘blooding’ Canadian 2nd Division, who had yet to see action. The wisdom of the enterprise and notably the operational design, was questioned by Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery, an officer not known for his caution, when he was appointed as the operational commander in April 1942. The intention was to conduct a limited amphibious assault, supported for the first time by tanks, to seize and nullify the port of Dieppe. The available, but manifestly limited, allied intelligence at that time assessed that the French port was only partially fortified and garrisoned by a second echelon battalion and auxiliary troops numbering no more than 1,400 men. Moreover, Dieppe could not be reinforced by more than 2,500 men within four hours. The Chiefs of Staff Committee, and subsequently the Prime Minister, were persuaded by Vice Admiral the Lord Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations, that a complex raid should be conducted. It was to be at divisional scale to determine whether a direct attack on a defended port was a reasonable operation of war, or whether invading forces should be landed on open beaches at a distance from an objective.

From the outset the raid’s operational objectives, the scheme of manoeuvre, and its command and control were confused. The covering air and maritime forces were in consequence inadequate, incoherent, and ill prepared. Notwithstanding this, Operation RUTTER was only cancelled on 7th July 1942, post a Luftwaffe attack on two key landing ships lying at anchor in Yarmouth Roads and in the face of deteriorating meteorological conditions. The allocated assault forces were then dispersed, but subsequently remounted, when Operation JUBILEE was instigated later that month, although both the naval and military commanders were changed out. Operational security was compromised when German aerial reconnaissance corroborated the reports of ‘agents’ and identified the presence of laden landing ships and craft on the south coast of England. The Wehrmacht’s defences along the sea wall were then bolstered in anticipation. Operation JUBILEE was designed as a “one tide plan”, with landings taking place along a 12-mile beach-front. Number 4 Commando was to land to the west of Dieppe on Orange Beach, with the objective of seizing and destroying the “Hess” Coastal artillery battery. Number 3 Commando was earmarked for Yellow Beach to the east and directed to neutralise the “Goebbels” Battery. Whilst the Canadian main body was directed to conduct a frontal assault on Green, White, Red, and Blue Beaches (from West to East) to seize the port, achieve their military objectives, including the capture of St Aubin Airfield, and withdraw ahead of German reinforcement. Six thousand allied troops, 237 naval units, and 74 aircraft squadrons were allocated to the highly ambitious, but time bound, mission.

The operation was again postponed due to inclement weather, but it was then subsequently executed on 19th August 1942. The element of surprise was compromised when the landing force happened across and engaged a German coastal convoy. Thereafter, the landings took place in the face of an alert, determined, and well-prepared opposition. There were modest operational successes at Dieppe, but the results were certainly not commensurate with the heavy casualties and material losses that were incurred. Four thousand, two hundred and fifty allied service men were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner of war – the equivalent German losses totalled 591. The RN lost 34 units sunk, including a destroyer (HMS Berkeley).

The excruciating drama and truly heroic endeavour of the Dieppe Raid is captured clearly and dispassionately in this compelling official account. The operational narrative and the painful lessons identified were first written in 1944, ahead of D-Day. Undoubtedly, it helped to inform, shape, and de-risk the development of Operation NEPTUNE / OVERLORD – how could it not. Post war the book and its very detailed Appendices were updated to reflect captured German operational analysis, which was equally instructive. This book is a seminal piece of work on amphibious operations and raiding, which we ignore today at our peril. Arguably, many of the lessons are not that relevant to raiding today, but nevertheless there is real resonance with what we are seeking to develop today in the Future Commando Force. I therefore commend this account to ‘amphibians’, Lovat and Dark Blue alike.