Next week will mark the seventy-third anniversary of the disastrous Dieppe Raid on 19th August 1942 by British and Canadian troops.
For some time the Russians had been lobbying Britain and the Allies to open a second front in north-west Europe in order to relieve the pressure they were under from Nazi Germany in the east. Simultaneously Rear Admiral Louis Mountbatten, British Chief of Combined Operations had been pressing for permission for his troops to attempt a practical beach landing against real troops. Eventually Churchill had given in and authorised Operation Rutter (later, after a postponement from 7th July due to bad weather, renamed Operation Jubilee) a ‘hit and run’ raid on Dieppe.
British Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery’s South-Eastern Command was selected to provide the troops for the operation and – after eagerness expressed by the Canadian government for its men to be involved, Major General Roberts’s 2nd Canadian Division was chosen as the main force. In all just over 7,000 men took part in the raid – 5,000 Canadians, 1,000 British and 50 US Army Rangers.
The amphibious assault began at 0450 hours and just six hours the Allied commanders had been forced to call a retreat.
The original main objective had been to assault and capture the town of Dieppe for a short period, partly to prove that it could be done but also to gain intelligence. Meanwhile, as a distraction, British parachute units would attack the German defences on the headlands, on either side of the Canadians as they went in. Upon withdrawal the plan was to destroy coastal defences and other strategic buildings.
The raid has also been intended to boost flagging morale at home and demonstrate to the Russians that Britain and her Allies were at least doing something on the western front.
In the event, virtually none of these objective were met.
In the run-up to the start of the operation, several changes were made to the plan. The planned bombardment of Dieppe was reduced in order to reduce the number of French civilian casualties; the original battleships were withdrawn from the planned seaborne battering of the shoreline, for fear they would be more vulnerable than destroyers; and the parachute operation was cancelled because it was regarded as too dependent upon the weather.
Furthermore, intelligence upon the German defence was patchy and inadequate. The coastal defences to the side of the headland cliffs were not spotted by aerial reconnaissance experts and the assault planners made their calculations on the gradients of the beach and suitability for tanks only on the basis of 1937 holiday snaps. In consequence both the enemy’s strength and the problems of the terrain were badly under-estimated.
Worst of all the Germans were on high alert, having been warned that the British were taking an interest in Dieppe both by their own intelligence-gathering of British troop movements on the south coast and from information supplied by French double agents.
As part of the initial assault British No 3 Commando under Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater was to mount two landings eight miles east of Dieppe in order to silence the coastal battery near Berneval consisting of three 170mm and four 105 mm guns – this had to be out of action by the time the main force approached the main beach.
The Yellow Beach party received an unexpected assault from German seaborne boats as it went in – as a result the group was dispersed and other coastal defences alerted. On 18 commandos actually got ashore at the right place and, although they did their best to make a nuisance of themselves and caused the batteries to fire wildly for a period, in the end they had to withdraw faced with a superior force.
Meanwhile the accompanying mission of Lord Lovat and No. 4 Commando – together with the small US Rangers force – was to land six miles west of Dieppe to neutralise a coastal battery of six 150mm guns near Varengeville. This they accomplished and then withdrew at 0730 hours as planned – this was the only wholly successful British action in Operation Jubilee. Lord Lovat received the DSO and Captain Patrick Porteous the VC.
Elsewhere the main assault led by the Canadians was a near-catastrophe.
At Puys the Royal Regiment of Canada was destroyed (just 60 out of its total 543 men were later extracted from the beach). Half the South Saskatchewan Regiment were landed in the wrong place. As the Essex Scottish Regiment and Royal Hamilton Light Infantry went in, supported by 27 tanks of the 14th Canadian Army Tank Regiment, most of the tanks became instantly bogged down on the beach and were sitting ducks. The few others than got off the beach were then halted by the concrete road blocks.
Things became farcical as – unable to see what was going on because of the Allies’ own smokescreen, and acting upon incorrect information anyway – Major General Roberts (the Canadian commander) sent in his two reserve units, thereby reinforcing failure. When they became pinned down, he then ordered in the Royal Marine Commandos, a change of plan that caused immediate chaos.
As a result of the raid, casualties included 3,367 Canadians killed, wounded or captured (a casualty rate of 68%) and 275 British commandos. The Royal Navy lost a destroyer and 33 landing craft and 550 dead or wounded. The RAF lost 106 aircraft compared with the Luftwaffe’s 48. The total German casualties were 591.
The Dieppe Raid came to my mind yesterday as I joined a small group visiting the Pallant Gallery in Chichester to view the Sickert in Dieppe exhibition (cost £10 including gift aid).
As I made my way around the five rooms of excellently-appointed examples – together with their concise but illuminating accompanying notes – of Walter Sickert’s work produced in the French coastal town between about 1885, the under the influence of Degas, right through to about 1930 after the death of his second wife, I found myself ruminating upon my reactions as an onlooker.
It seemed to me that, whilst Sickert undoubtedly has a certain facility with composition and brush, for most of the forty year period he either lived in or visited Dieppe on holiday he was primarily interested in food, drink, socialising with fellow supposed bohemians and chilling out.
I don’t doubt that he was deeply in love with Dieppe, its ambiance and culture, but his choice of subject – street scenes, local architecture, the beach and a degree of everyday human activity beside the quay, in the casino or the high street – was disappointingly limited.
As were the range of colours he used in his works. If one was being churlish, one might have gained the impression that on a daily basis he was simply setting up his easel at various strategic points around the town, posing as “that weird British artist”, whilst waiting for the bars to open.
As I made my way back to my holiday seaside chalet afterwards, I wondered whether Sickert’s death in 1942 had been prompted by a reaction to the devastation wreaked upon his beloved Dieppe by Operation Jubilee …
[Editor’s Note: This is exceedingly unlikely – Sickert died on 6th January, over seven months before the raid.]