The 1942 Dieppe Raid and its influence on D-Day

Royal Navy during Dieppe raid
Landing Craft Mechanised Mark 1 on exercise before Dieppe

Was the Allied disastrous raid at Dieppe on the northeastern coast of Normandy in August 1942 an important learning experience that set the stage for a successful D-Day invasion two years later? Historian Jonathan Carroll examines the planning, decisions and the actions as well as the resulting debates and explanations of Operation Jubilee and its failure.

No Jubilation in Operation Jubilee: The 1942 Dieppe Raid and its influence on D-Day

By Jonathan Carroll

Knocked out tanks strewn across the beach, burning landing craft adrift or sinking just offshore, the Luftwaffe in control of the skies as thousands of Allied prisoners are marched away under guard while the Allied fleet steams back to England in defeat. It sounds like a perverse what might have beenon Omaha Beach on D-Day, but this was August 19th 1942 and the battered British and Canadian forces at Dieppe on the French coast had surrendered. When visiting Normandy or lecturing on Operation Overlord, I have often been surprised by guests and students alike who have not heard of the Dieppe Raid. Depending on whom you ask, it is either infamous or an unknown. In history books Dieppe earns either an entire chapter or barely a footnote. However, its influence on the planning and timing for Operation Overlord cannot be overstated.

Historians of the Second World War focus on the struggle between Roosevelt, Churchill, and their respective military commanders on when the cross-channel invasion was to take place. Though Overlord ultimately occurred in 1944, the invasion of Normandy represented the culmination of a years’ long struggle between Allied planners, in which Dieppe played a major, though unintended, role. The Arcadia conference dictated that Germany should be defeated first, yet no consensus existed on how to achieve this. The British and Americans drew up invasion plans or dusted off some old ones. For instance, Operations Rutter and Sledgehammer were designed as British contingencies in 1941; quick cross-channel invasions of the port cities of Le Havre and Calais if the Soviet Union was about to collapse. George C. Marshall tasked his planning officer, Dwight Eisenhower, with converting Sledgehammer into an Anglo-American operation to take place in the summer of 1942. Additionally, Marshall proposed two other concurrent operations; a massive build-up of forces in Britain (Bolero) for a subsequent large-scale invasion of France in 1943 (Operation Roundup). There was a hitch, the British were against any early cross-channel invasion.

The resulting debate reflected the different strategic assessments of Allied planners. Marshall wanted a simple goal to focus American industrial power; a quick direct assault across the channel. Churchill and Brooke preferred to work from the periphery inwards, so North Africa, then Italy, and then France. For the British, any early assault on France was too risky. Dunkirk was a raw memory, and Churchill believed that American forces were inexperienced, having not yet faced the Germans in battle. A peripheral strategy was a safe space for the Americans to learn their trade instead of rushing into a cross-channel invasion with raw troops. Consequently, Churchill refused to support Sledgehammer. Additionally, he feared that inactivity in Europe would make Roosevelt focus on the Pacific theatre, Churchill suggested Operation Gymnast (the Operation Torch landings in French North Africa). To sweeten the deal, Churchill endorsed Eisenhower as the commander for Gymnast. In the middle of this debate the disastrous raid on Dieppe took place.

Some call Dieppe an experiment, a prelude to D-Day, but it is important to emphasize that it was a raid, a complex one, but a raid nonetheless. Starting in 1942, the British Combined Operations Headquarters under Lord Mountbatten carried out several raids to boost public morale and to convince the Soviets that the Allies were serious about opening a second front. Bruneval and St. Nazaire had shown the efficacy of raid operations, Dieppe was the next iteration. Dieppe was the first large offensive in Europe since Dunkirk. It was the first Canadian action of the war, but also marked the inaugural use of the new American Rangers. Recently formed by Brigadier General Lucien Truscott, who was inspired by the British Commandos, 50 members of the 1st Ranger Battalion participated in the Dieppe Raid to gain experience in amphibious operations.

Dieppe Raid beaches
Dieppe Raid beaches

The plan was as follows; British Commandos would land to the east and west of the port of Dieppe, destroying several artillery batteries and radar installations, while two armored brigades from the Canadian 2nd Division landed in the port itself, sabotaged the port facilities, a nearby airfield, and raid the German 302nd Division’s headquarters. The force of 6,000 would then withdraw and re-embark for Britain. The goal was to test German coastal defenses and reaction times, test Allied combined arms cooperation, and draw the Luftwaffe into a costly large-scale engagement with the Royal Air Force. In all respects the raid was a disaster.

Some evidence suggests the Germans knew the raid was coming due to lax British security measures. Also, the fleet carrying the raiding forces encountered a German convoy in the small hours of August 19th  1942 which caused the 302nd Division at Dieppe to be on full alert. The flanking attacks by British Commandos landed at 0450, and the Canadian brigades began landing at Dieppe proper at 0520. In nearly all instances the Germans were ready and waiting. Intense fire prevented most of the Canadians and British from getting off the beaches. Those that did, were captured or killed. The heavy Churchill tanks of the Calgary Horse could not penetrate beach obstacles, and like the landing craft, were easy targets for German artillery. Despite the unfolding disaster Major-General John Hamilton Roberts, the force commander, committed his reserves, believing the German defenses were about to be overwhelmed. As a result, the Les Fusiliers Mont Royal  battalion landed at 0700 onto a chaotic beach dominated by withering German fire and littered with hundreds of bodies and burning vehicles. As to the Royal Air Force’s plans for striking a blow against the Luftwaffe, the venerable RAF Spitfires were outmaneuvered by the new Focke-Wulf 190 and suffered heavy losses.

German MG34 medium machine gun emplacement

A German MG34 medium machine gun emplacement

The situation at Dieppe became untenable, German reinforcements were arriving steadily, the Luftwaffe presence was growing, and Allied casualties were mounting—the commanders made the decision to withdraw. Landing craft came inshore to pick up survivors. Many were swamped by troops desperate for evacuation or were destroyed outright by German fire. Those that could not escape surrendered. By 1400 it was over. Of the 6,000 troops that landed, 3,922 were either killed, wounded or captured. Among the dead were three American Rangers, the first Americans dead in Europe as a result of combat.

The consequences were widespread. British and Canadian morale plummeted; Germany’s soared. For Hitler and the German High Command, their victory at Dieppe suggested that any Allied invasion could be defeated on the beaches. Efforts to build and strengthen the Atlantic Wall were redoubled, and the concept of static coastal defenses with a mobile reserve was born. The disastrous raid occurred after Churchill refused to commit to Sledgehammer. Its result vindicated his opinion that a cross-channel invasion was simply not feasible in 1942. The subsequent encounter between the inexperienced Americans and Rommel’s Afrika Korps at Kasserine Pass in Tunisia further reinforced his view that a peripheral strategy was the right decision. Moreover, due to the Battle of the Atlantic, the Operation Bolero, the buildup of U.S. military in Britain, never reached the point of enabling a 1943 Operation Roundup invasion either. This made the British/American debate largely academic in hindsight.

Dieppe was never envisioned as an experimental cross-channel invasion, but the raid had a major impact on the planning of Operation Overlord (the 1944 iteration of Roundup). Outnumbered second-rate German troops had defeated the British and Canadians. But their expectation of attack and strong prepared defenses made up for these shortfalls. Thus, Allied planners chose wide open beaches in Normandy for the invasion. This prevented forces being bottled up on the beaches as at Dieppe, and allowed space for large numbers of troops and vehicles to be offloaded quickly. Supplying any cross-channel invasion was of course critical, but Dieppe showed that attacking a defended port was simply too costly and risked destroying the port facilities themselves. Having learned this, the Allies solved the vital need for port facilities by the subsequent development of the portable Mulberry Harbors.

The Lessons of Dieppe

Canadian wounded at Dieppe
Canadian wounded and abandoned Churchill tanks after the raid at Dieppe. A landing craft is on fire in the background.

The lessons ran deeper still. The inability of the Canadian tanks to deal with beach obstacles required a solution. Major-General Percy Hobart, an armored warfare theorist and founder of the famous Desert Rats, examined the Dieppe experience to develop specialized armored vehicles. The result, dubbed “Hobart’s Funnies,” was a series of vehicles designed to breach the fortifications of the Atlantic Wall. Hobart modified existing Churchill and Sherman tanks to create flamethrower, anti-mine, and bridge-laying/bunker busting tanks. As such, when the British and Canadians landed at Gold, Juno, and Sword beaches on June 6th 1944, Hobart’s Funnies proved decisive in allowing a swift breach of the German defenses—with a corresponding reduction in casualties. The Canadians at Juno fought ferociously, penetrating the farthest inland on June 6th , to avenge their defeat at Dieppe.

After the war, there was controversy over the disparity between the heavy American casualties at Omaha compared to those on the British/Canadian beaches. The use of Hobart’s Funnies was highlighted, as General Omar Bradley did not have them amongst his forces. There is still debate on this. Some scholars suggest that Bradley turned down the British offer of these vehicles in preference for using American weaponry. Others counter that Bradley would have welcomed such assets but that Allied industrial priorities were focused on mass production of weapons with wide applicability, thus limiting the production and availability of Hobart’s Funnies.

The staggering losses for no appreciable gain at Dieppe created a scandal that forced many associated with the raid to attempt to justify the cost in light of the lessons learned; undoubtedly to stave off recriminations. Regardless of their spin, Dieppe was an unmitigated disaster showcasing how unprepared the Allies were in 1942 for any large amphibious operations. However, the law of unintended consequences meant that a raid on the coast of France designed to boost morale not only had the opposite effect, but also ended up shaping the eventual invasion of France in 1944. Lord Mountbatten, an architect of the raid, claimed that “the battle of D-Day was won on the beaches of Dieppe.” While certainly trying to justify the disaster, there is a certain truth in his claim. Many operational elements of the Overlord planning can be traced back to the costly lessons unintentionally learned at Dieppe in 1942.

About Jonathon Carroll

Jonathan Carroll is a military historian and former infantry officer in the Irish Defence Forces. Currently completing his Ph.D. at Texas A&M University, Jonathan specializes in twentieth century military history in Europe and the United States, and is currently researching the military intervention in Somalia from 1992-1995.

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