Between the Covers: Dieppe - August 19, 1942

By: Jacques R. Pauwels

Canadian dead on Blue Beach at Puys. Trapped between the beach and high sea wall (fortified with barbed wire), they made easy enfilade targets for MG34 machine guns.

Canadian dead on Blue Beach at Puys. Trapped between the beach and high sea wall (fortified with barbed wire), they made easy enfilade targets for MG34 machine guns.

In the spring of 1942, Stalin was asking his western allies to open a second front in France, which would have forced the Germans to withdraw troops from the Eastern Front. Purely militarily, in the summer of 1942 it was already possibly to land a sizable force in France. The British had sufficiently recuperated from the troubles of 1940, and large numbers of American and Canadian troops were already on the British Isles, ready for action. 

Furthermore, the Germans had relatively few (and mostly inferior) troops available to defend thousands of kilometres of Atlantic coast. And these troops were not yet strongly entrenched: the fortifications of the famous Atlantic Wall would only be constructed late 1942 and spring 1944. A number of British and American army commanders, including Marshall and Eisenhower, were in favour of an early landing in France, and so was President Roosevelt. The latter had even promised the Soviet minister of foreign affairs, Molotov, that the Americans would open a second front before the end of the year. But the British prime minister, Winston Churchill, was against opening a second front. He liked the idea that Hitler and Stalin were administering a major bloodletting to each other on the Eastern Front, believing that London and Washington could benefit from a stalemated war in the east. Churchill still had much influence on Roosevelt, a newcomer to the war in Europe, so the opinion of the British leader ultimately prevailed, and plans for opening a second front in 1942 were quietly discarded.

Roosevelt discovered that this course of action — or rather, inaction — actually opened up attractive prospects. Defeating Germany would require huge sacrifices, which the American people would not be delighted to bring. Was it not far wiser to stay safely on the sidelines, at least for the time being, and let the Soviets slug it out against the Nazis? The Americans and their British allies would thus be able to minimize their losses. Better still, they would be able to build up their strength in order to intervene decisively at the right moment, when the Nazi enemy and the Soviet ally would both be exhausted. With Great Britain at its side, the USA would then be able to play the leading role in the camp of the victors and act as supreme arbiter in the sharing of the spoils of the common victory. In the spring and summer of 1942, with the Nazis and Soviets locked into a titanic battle, watched from a safe distance by the Anglo-Saxon tertius
, it did indeed look as if such a scenario might come to pass. 

In 1942 the British and the Americans were supposedly not yet ready for a major operation in France. Presumably, the naval war against the German U-boats first had to be won in order to safeguard the transatlantic troop transports. However, troops were successfully being ferried from North America to Great Britain, and in the fall of that same year the Americans and British were able to land a sizeable force in distant North Africa. Stalin continued to press London and Washington for a landing in France. Moreover, Churchill experienced considerable domestic pressure in favour of a second front, particularly from the side of the trade unions. Thankfully, relief from this relentless pressure came suddenly to the British prime minister in the form of a tragedy that appeared to demonstrate conclusively that the Western Allies were not yet able to open a second front. 

On August 19, 1942, a contingent of Allied soldiers, sent on a mission from England to the French port of Dieppe, seemingly in an effort to open some sort of “second front,” were tragically routed there by the Germans. The operation was code-named Jubilee. Of the 6,086 men who made it ashore, 3,623 were either killed, wounded, or captured. The bulk of the losses were suffered by Canadian troops, with nearly 5,000 men, including about 900 killed. In Canada the media and the public wanted to know what the objectives of this bloody raid had been, and what it had achieved. But the authorities provided only rather unconvincing explanations. For example, the raid was presented as a “reconnaissance in force,” as a necessary test of the German coastal defences. But did one really have to sacrifice thousands of men to learn that the Germans were strongly entrenched in a natural fortress — a seaport surrounded by high cliffs — which is what Dieppe happens to be? In any event, crucial information such as the location of machine gun positions could have been gleaned through aerial reconnaissance and through the services of the local Resistance. The raid allegedly also purported to boost the morale of the French partisans and the French population in general. If so, it was unquestionably counterproductive, because the operation’s outcome, an ignominious withdrawal from a beach littered with corpses, and the sight of exhausted and dejected Canadian soldiers being marched off to a POW camp, was not likely to cheer up the French. The affair actually provided grist for the propaganda mill of the Germans, allowing them to ridicule the incompetence of the Allies, and thus dishearten the French. Last but not least, Operation Jubilee was also claimed to have been an effort to provide some relief to the Soviets. However, it is obvious that Dieppe was merely a pinprick, unlikely to make any difference whatsoever with respect to the titanic fighting on the Eastern Front. It did not cause the Germans to transfer troops from the east to the west; on the contrary, after Dieppe the Germans could feel reasonably sure that in the near future no second front would be forthcoming, so that they could actually transfer troops from the west to the east. To the Red Army, then, Dieppe brought no relief.

Historians have mostly been happy to regurgitate these rationalizations of Jubilee, and in some cases they have invented new ones. Just recently, for example, the Dieppe raid was proclaimed to have been planned also for the purpose of stealing equipment and manuals associated with the Germans’ Enigma code machine, and possibly even all or parts of the machine itself. But would the Germans not immediately have changed their codes if the raid would have achieved that objective? The argument that the raiders would have blown up the installations prior to withdrawing from Dieppe, thus destroying evidence of the removal of Enigma equipment, is unconvincing because it presupposes that the Germans would have been too incompetent to find out that their top-secret equipment had disappeared.

After the June 1944 Allied landings in Normandy, code-named Overlord, an ostensibly convincing rationale for Operation Jubilee could be concocted. Dieppe was suddenly triumphantly proclaimed to have been a “general rehearsal” for D-Day, a test of the German defences in preparation for the big landing yet to come. Lord Mountbatten, the architect of Jubilee, who was blamed by many for the disaster, thus claimed that “the Battle of Normandy was won on the beaches of Dieppe.” A myth was born: the tragedy of Jubilee as the sine qua non for the triumph of Overlord. A very important military lesson had allegedly been learned in Dieppe: the German coastal defences were particularly strong in and around harbours. However, was it not self-evident that the Germans would be more strongly entrenched in seaports than in insignificant little beach resorts? One must also wonder whether information obtained from a “test” of the German coastal defences in the summer of 1942 was still relevant in 1944, especially since it was mostly in 1943 that the formidable Atlantic Wall fortifications had been built. Finally, the advantage of lessons learned at Dieppe, if any, were almost certainly offset by the fact that at Dieppe the Germans had also learned lessons, and possibly more useful lessons, about how the Allies were likely — and unlikely — to land troops. 

Here is an old philosophical conundrum: If one seeks to fail, and does, does one fail, or succeed? If a military success was sought at Dieppe, the raid was certainly a failure; but if a military failure was sought, the raid was a success. In the latter case, we would have to inquire about the latent
or real, rather than the manifest or apparent function of the raid. There are indications that military failure was intended. First, the town of Dieppe was known to be one of the strongest German positions on France’s Atlantic coast; this port, surrounded by high and steep cliffs, known to be bristling with machine guns and cannon, must have been a deadly trap for the attackers. The Germans ensconced there could not believe their eyes when they found themselves being attacked. One of their war correspondents, who witnessed the inevitable slaughter, described the raid as “an operation that violated all the rules of military logic and strategy.” Other factors, such as poor planning, inadequate preparations, inferior equipment such as tanks that could not negotiate the pebbles of Dieppe’s beach, make it seem more likely that the objective was military failure rather than success.

On the other hand, the Dieppe operation, including its bloody failure, actually made sense — in other words, it was a success — if it was ordered for a non-military purpose. Military operations are frequently carried out to achieve a political objective, and that seems to have been the case at Dieppe in August 1942. The Western Allies’ political leaders in general, and Prime Minister Churchill above all, found themselves under relentless pressure to open a second front, were unwilling to open such a front, but lacked a convincing justification for their inaction. The failure of what could be presented as an attempt to open a second front, or at least a prelude to the opening of a second front, did provide such a justification. Seen in this light, the Dieppe tragedy was indeed a great success. First, the operation could be presented as a selfless and heroic attempt to assist the Soviets. Second, the failure of the operation seemed to demonstrate only too clearly that the Western Allies were indeed not yet ready to open a second front. If Jubilee was intended to silence the voices clamouring for the opening of a second front, it was successful. The Dieppe disaster silenced the popular demand for a second front and allowed Churchill and Roosevelt to continue to sit on the fence as the Nazis and the Soviets were slaughtering each other in the east. This hypothesis also suggests an answer to the question why the lambs that were led to the slaughter of Dieppe were Canadian. Indeed, the Canadians constituted the perfect cannon fodder for this enterprise, because their political and military leaders did not belong to the exclusive club of the British-American top command who planned the operation and who would obviously have been reluctant to sacrifice their own men.

The Soviets would eventually get their second front, but only much later, in 1944, when Stalin was no longer asking for such a favour. When a second front was finally opened in Normandy in June 1944, it was not done to assist the Soviets, but to prevent the Soviets from marching to Berlin and winning the war on their own. As for the Canadians, they also got something, namely, heaps of praise from the men at the top of the military and political hierarchy. Churchill himself, for example, solemnly declared that Jubilee, described as “a Canadian contribution of the greatest significance to final victory,” had been the key to the success of the landings in Normandy. The Canadians were also showered with prestigious awards, including two Victoria Crosses, and this generosity probably reflected a desire on the part of the authorities to atone for their decision to send so many men on a suicidal mission intended to achieve highly questionable political goals.