The Dieppe Raid

Posted by Nick Efstathiadis in ,

By M.R.D. Foot | Published in History Today Volume: 42 Issue: 8 1992

Operation 'Rutter' was launched on August 19th, 1942. Here, M.R.D. Foot reassesses views of the Allied attack on the German-occupied port of Dieppe.

As Bernard Fergusson (later Lord Ballantrae) wrote in his book The Watery Maze (Collins 1961): ‘The Dieppe raid has become distorted in the public memory, and much rubbish has been talked and written about it'. The concept of the raid, of August 19th, 1942, was certainly Churchill’s: for over two years he had been prodding the chiefs of staff for aggressive action against the enemy across the Channel. When he appointed his old friend Keyes to run combined operations, he remembered Keyes' big raid on Zeebrugge in the spring of 1918, which had given the nation's morale such a lift, and when he appointed Mountbatten to succeed Keyes in October 1941, he made no secret of his desire for something of the same sort to be done again.

Fergusson, again, has summed up the strategic need for a raid on a port, to find out whether we could capture one: until this had been put to a practical test, the business of re-invading Europe could not start to go forward. Among the conceivable ports, Dieppe was one of the nearest and most suitable for the trial of strength.

Mountbatten's Combined Operations Headquarters (COHQ) began work on Dieppe as a target early in April 1942; operation 'Rutter' was rapidly mounted, and was ready to sail by mid-June. He had a partly experienced

force of marines and commandos, longing to take part; but higher authority laid down that the raid was to he conducted by the Canadian army, three divisions of which had been kicking their heels in England for too many inactive months. COHQ prepared a plan for encircling Dieppe by a double pincer movement, carried out by parachutists landing east and west of it. Major-General J.H. Roberts, GOC 2 Canadian Division, the force commander, denounced this as too complicated, and preferred a direct frontal assault on the beach. In this he was supported by the commander-in-chief, South-Eastern Command, his military superior, Montgomery – at the time a temporary lieutenant-general, not yet famous. Channel weather then turned bad. 'Rutter' was stood down; whereupon – it seemed, behind everybody else's back – Mountbatten suddenly remounted it, renamed 'Jubilee', and it took place after all.

By bad luck, the easternmost landing party bumped into a German coastal convoy in the small hours, and surprise was lost. The raid appeared to be a failure: 2,000 Canadian soldiers were left in enemy hands, nearly 1,000 were killed, and the main assault never got off the main beach into the town. Ever after, Mountbatten has been accused of having mounted the raid from motives of self-seeking, without regard to the casualties. The newspapers owned by Beaverbrook, who had formerly been his friend, turned savagely against him: Beaverbrook was too pig-headed a Canadian patriot ever to forget the dead of Dieppe.

The latest full analysis, Brian Loring Villa's Unauthorised Action (OUP, 1989), however, suggests that other powerful figures in the British high command stood back and allowed Mountbatten every chance to make a fool of himself, because they were jealous of his promotion, which they thought exceeded his merits. Jealousies among high commanders are common form – consider how much Stalin's generals distrusted each other in the advance on Berlin in 1945, or look at the history of the Crusades. Villa has taken much trouble to establish that the chiefs of staff never recorded their approval of the revival of 'Rutter'; he forgets that on very secret matters they never recorded their approval at all (their papers say virtually nothing about decipher and very little about other secret services).

It is true that when the raid took place Nye, Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, was astounded to hear of it; this does not mean that Brooke, the CIGS, who was out of the country at that moment, had not been told. There was so much else, and so much else that was bad, going on at the time that he may not have mentioned it when briefing Nye before he left – particularly if Mountbatten had urged on him how secret it must he. Of course the security staffs suspected that the Germans had got some forewarning of the raid; it turned out that they had not.

Brooke and Churchill had just been visiting Moscow, to explain to Stalin that there would be no second front in 1942; they had then gone on to Egypt, to replace Auchinleck as commander-in-chief by Alexander, and to put Gott in command of the Eighth Army. Gott's unexpected death in action led them to send for Montgomery instead. They, and the whole nation, had been badly shaken by the loss of Tobruk in June. Tobruk had acquired a great newspaper reputation for having withstood a six months' siege in 1941, though the local soldiers knew that this time round it was indefensible. The fact that Rommel's advance had been stopped for good at First Alamein (July 1st-3rd, 1942) only became clear in retrospect. The Asian war was not going well; that the naval battle of Midway, also in June, had turned the tide in the Pacific is also clear in retrospect, but, again, could not be seen then through the fog of war; U-boat sinkings in the Atlantic continued to be terrifying. In short, the state of the war was then such that any offensive gesture by the British was better than none.

By mere chance, the present writer was posted to join COHQ, as a GSO 3 (intelligence), by noon on August 20th, 1942, the day after the raid. The corridors were full of agitated staff officers, calling over the forenames of their missing friends, and adding 'we've made a God-awful balls of it, and must make sure we don't make the same mistakes again'. They did not: this was the raid's historic value.

2 Canadian Division had never been under fire before, with an unhappy result: the first thing many soldiers did on being shot at was to lie down. Having once lain down, they were disinclined to get up again; one of the reasons for the raid's failure. To counter this, the army instituted 'battle schools', in which live ammunition was used – a convenient means by which sergeant-majors could allegedly put a few of the real bad hats in their battalions into non-fatal hors de combat . But much more importantly, these schools were a means of getting infantry used to the rudiments of battle, and less inclined to lie down and stop the moment things turned tough.

As John Hughes-Hallett, the naval commander, said at the time – if we could not capture a port, we would have to take one with us. A still more important result of 'Jubilee' was that the design and development of the artificial 'Mulberry' harbour now began in earnest, with all its attachments: a vital constituent of 'Neptune', the Normandy assault phase of 'Overlord' (codeword for the allied re-entry onto the Continent of June 5th and 6th, 1944) at a spot quite unexpected by the enemy. For the Germans supposed 'Jubilee' to prefigure another and a much more fully organised attack on a major port as the necessary first stage of the allied invasion, and disposed their forces accordingly. This was a strategic gain of critical import.

COHQ had early noticed the need, in any combined operation, for a headquarters ship, and had had one ready for 'Rutter'; she was unavailable for 'Jubilee', and Major-General Roberts the force commander on a destroyer was no better off than Hamilton had been at Gallipoli on April 25th, 1915: he was at the mercy of wherever naval necessity took the vessel in which he was embarked. This mistake was not repeated; indeed for 'Neptune' every army commander down to brigadier had his own headquarter ship from which he could run his own battle.

There was a tactical gain also. The Churchill tanks which the landing force had used at Dieppe had practised at Pevensey Bay, Caesar's and William I's landing-place; the shingle at Dieppe proved impassable for most of them, all the same. Much more trouble was taken thereafter to find out the exact constituents of every conceivable landing beach, through the activities, once deadly secret, of Combined Operations Pilotage Parties inspired and instructed from COHQ.

One other stern and vital lesson was learned at Dieppe; the need for a proper bombardment policy. When Mountbatten asked Pound, the First Sea Lord, for a battleship to support 'Rutter', Pound told him he must be joking. On Normandy D-day, seven battleships and two monitors were available in the bombarding force: because by then the allies had obtained, what Goering could not obtain for Raeder in 1940, air superiority over the Channel. Bomber Command and the USAAF were both persuaded to join in, and between them delivered over 5,000 tons of bombs onto the German beach defences just before the troops went in: a much more substantial air effort than Leigh Mallory (younger brother of the man who vanished near the summit of Everest in 1924) had obtained at Dieppe, where only Fighter Command had been involved, and had lost over 100 aircraft for fewer than fifty German ones shot down. Over 14,000 allied air sorties on Normandy's D-day did not elicit 100 German sorties in reply.

Moreover, COHQ had devised a new kind of small warship, the landing craft tank (rocket). This could discharge a thousand rockets at once, with devastating effects at the receiving end: a vastly superior force compared to the destroyers and single-seat fighters that had given fire support at Dieppe. Plenty were available to make sure that the 'Neptune' landing succeeded; as it did.

There was a consequence of literary note: one landing craft tank was commanded by William Golding the novelist (recently knighted), who found himself discharging his rockets at the original of the beach at Balbec which Proust had made immortal with his Jeunes Filles en Fleur . He has never recovered from the cultural shock; several excellent, pessimistic novels have been the direct result.

M.R.D. Foot was formerly Professor of Modern History at Manchester University and is the author of several books on SOE.

The Dieppe Raid | History Today

This entry was posted at Thursday, August 18, 2011 and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the .