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The Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe – 2 The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1942 (in two parts) – Part One

July 10, 2014
1989 - 07 - France - Dieppe 33

Memorial to the Canadians who died trying to storm the heights at Le Puys, France – just north of Dieppe. on August 187, 1942. The Royal Regiment of Canada from Toronto suffered 97% casualty rate there

1. A family vacation in the Dieppe Region

A quarter of a century ago next month, our family was fortunate enough to spend two weeks on vacation in France, a week of that time vacationing in the region in and around Dieppe. Today, Dieppe is a small French port and fishing town of 35,000 in Normandy on the English Channel long frequented by British tourists who make the 70 mile journey across “La Manche.” It includes some of 16th century Europe’s best cartographers. Although its importance has dwindled some, Dieppe has a rich history; it was a key transit point in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries between the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas. It was in large measure from Dieppe and nearby ports that the Arcadians and Cajuns, who would make up the French-speaking populations of Eastern Canada and Louisiana, would depart.

The summer of 1989 was my third visit to Dieppe, the first two having taken place in 1965 when I lived as a “junior-year-abroad” student from St. Lawrence University in Rouen, France’s important port city between Paris and the English Channel. I returned in July 1989, a few days after the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille Prison in Paris, the event usually considered France’s “independence day”, the beginning of the end of the French monarchy.

The Fey-Prince family arrived the last week in July at Le Puys, a few kilometers north of downtown Dieppe where we had a room just up the gully from the Le Puys beach. We were informed (but by whom?) that in the summer of 1942 our youth hostel was nothing less than the Nazi SS headquarters for the area. What we were led to believe was a “château suite” morphed into a sparse, but ample room in a youth hostel filled with young Italians who seemed to begin the day talking even prior to awakening in the morning. Their chatter did not subside until well after they fell asleep.

the beach and cliffs at Le Puys. Note to rocks - mostly flint stones which made the landing that much more difficult. Also the narrow beach and the steep cliffs.

the beach and cliffs at Le Puys. Note to rocks – mostly flint stones which made the landing that much more difficult. Also the narrow beach and the steep cliffs.

2. Dieppe – August 17, 1942

Mid August 1942 was a time when Great Britain was still deeply worried about a possible Nazi invasion across the English Channel from France. Britain’s situation still looked grim. Nazi U-boats plying the North Atlantic had taken a terrible toll on British and American shipping. By then the Nazis had conquered much of Europe in the preceding three years. “The Battle of Britain”, the Nazi air assault on Great Britain, had been repulsed, but not without the British Isles having suffered terrible human and infra-structural damage.

By then the Nazi war machine had pushed deep into the Soviet Union and looked to be poised to take Leningrad (today St. Petersburg). A Soviet counter offensive had stopped the Nazi three-pronged drive (from the north, west and south) on the western outskirts of Moscow and pushed the German armies back a distance, but the Nazis were re-arming, preparing for yet another assault. The historic Battle of Stalingrad – the generally acknowledged turning point of the war in Europe – had not yet begun, although the starting round of fighting was just a week away, commencing as it was on August 23, 1942.

The British were in no position to launch a full-scale offensive on the European continent at that moment, having neither the manpower nor the supplies. To show that they still had a fighting spirit, as well as to keep the Nazi’s off guard, Churchill ordered the British military to launch a series of bold raids, hit and run ventures essentially, on the European mainland. Two raids, prior to the Dieppe Raid, were especially successful.

  • “Operation Claymore” as it was called was carried out on March 4, 1941, the target being the Lofoton Islands off the coast of northern Norway. A glycerine and fish oil factory (glycerine is used to make explosives) was destroyed along with some 3600 tons of fish oil and glycerine. The British returned to England with 228 German prisoners and 314 Norwegian volunteers. British destroyers destroyed some 18,000 tons of Nazi shipping as well.
  • Operation Chariot” or the St. Nazaire Raid, took place a year later on March 28, 1942. Considered “he Greatest Raid of All within military circles,” it was a successful British amphibious attack on the heavily defended Normandy dry dock at St Nazaire in German-occupied France at the mouth of the Loire River. The raid made the dock unusable as a major repair depot for large German destroyers and submarines. An obsolete destroyer, the Campbeltown, was loaded with explosives and programmed to explode at the entrance of the port, sealing it for the rest of the war. Still, the casualties were far heavier than the Lofoton Operation. Only 228 men of the original contingent of 622 made it back to Britain; 169 were killed and 215 became prisoners of war.

The Dieppe Raid,  which was eventually named “Operation Jubilee”, followed on the heels of the raid on St. Nazaire. It was a hit and run affair that turned into one of the biggest allied debacles of the war. According to military historian and author David O’Keefe, it was the largest raid of its kind in history and easily, as will be discussed below, the most tragic. It entailed some 5000 troops, most of them Canadian, to be delivered to the French coast at Dieppe on over 250 ships from different ports on the South English coast.

The plan was elaborate; it entailed landing five special forces combat groups at sites north, south and square in the center of Dieppe. The southern landings targeted Varangeville-sur-mer and Pourville, the northern components headed for Berneval and Le Puys. The task of these units both north and south of the center was to neutralize gun batteries and troop concentrations from the heights surrounding the city. These units were to move towards the center o f Dieppe, where they were, if successful, to join up with the main group whose stated mission was to seize the center of town and hold it for 17 hours, before withdrawing, prisoners in hand, to ships to return to Great Britain.

The Dieppe raid was a complete unmitigated failure, a debacle.

Taking especially high casualties were the sizeable Canadian units involved. According to David O’Keefe, of the 6000 military personnel participating in Operation Jubilee (of which 5000 were Canadian) 907 Canadians were killed, roughly one every five seconds. Another 2460 were put out of action, either wounded, made prisoners of war or went missing. By the end of August 17, 1942 a total of 3,367 Canadians, a full 68% of those who made the cross-channel crossing that day, almost all of them in their teens or early twenties, had become casualties.

One Canadian unit, the Royal Regiment of Canada from Toronto, suffered a 97% casualty rate in less than four hours of fighting on what the raid planners called “Blue Beach.” Blue Beach was the very same beach at Le Puys where we were staying the summer of 1989. Our lodging, the youth hostel located on the narrow road leading to the higher ground above the cliffs, was less than 100 yards from the beach where 47 years prior Canadians were slaughtered in droves, mowed down by machine gun and mortar fire from strategically placed bunkers on the hillside and cliffs.

View from the cliff just east of the entry to the Dieppe port below. The failed mission the Le Puys raiding party was to scale the cliffs there, reach higher ground and then secure the cliff in the picture, neutralizing Nazi gun emplacements. Never came close. From this location Nazi gunners decimated the Canadian troops attempting to land and seize the center of the town.

View from the cliff just east of the entry to the Dieppe port below. The failed mission the Le Puys raiding party was to scale the cliffs there, reach higher ground and then secure the cliff in the picture, neutralizing Nazi gun emplacements. Never came close. From this location Nazi gunners decimated the Canadian troops attempting to land and seize the center of the town.

3. The Dimensions of the Tragedy

It was in Dieppe, that summer of 1989, walking along the flint pebbled beaches of Le Puys with the high chalk cliffs above that I was able to appreciate the true dimensions of the Dieppe raid debacle. I would write a 2000 word piece about it at the time for “the Peace Courier”, publication of the World Peace Council for whom I worked at the time about the Canadian sacrifice. The article struck a chord, particularly not surprisingly, in Canada.

Frankly I was appalled.

Nancy, Molly, Abbie and I passed a memorial to the Canadian troops just up the coast to the east of the Le Puys beach. That year it was said that 47 years after the raid, Canadians visiting the region – and many did – drank for free in Dieppe bars and cafes in gratitude. There were a fair number visiting that summer.

Le Puys was very poor choice for a raid. The venture was doomed from the outset.

The chalk cliffs extended from their base as much as 700 feet vertically to the higher ground above. The actual beach itself is something of a misnomer. The distance between the cliffs and the shoreline during high tide is no more than thirty to forty feet, very narrow. At low tide it extends another hundred yards or so away from the cliffs but even then, the ground is literally saturated with flint stones, many the size of soft balls, making mobility for man and machine quite difficult. The narrow passage, a winding road, between the cliffs that leads from the beach to higher ground was, as I recall, no more than 50 yards in diameter and was somewhat steep on both sides.

These conditions alone made a successful assault to take control of the high grounds to knock out the German defenses highly improbable. A number of other circumstances, and some unforeseen events, sealed the fate of the Royal Regiment of Canada. Just before the raiding party was to land at Le Puys, it ran into a small German trawler convoy heading for Dieppe harbor. There was a firefight; the German ships involved were sunk, but the Nazi shore batteries and defense networks along the coast both from the north to the south of Dieppe were alerted that something was afoot.

It was one of those timely accidents that the German command of the heights above Le Puys conducted a fire drill immediately after this maritime firefight; as a result the Germans were fully prepared for the raid. Finally some of the ships involved in the raid lost contact while crossing the English Channel and arrived late at the meeting place several miles out at sea from Dieppe. As a result some units took the offensive in an uncoordinated manner. As serious, the delay meant that the raid began after dawn, with daylight exposing the whole operation. The element of surprise had been lost. If anyone was surprised that morning, it was the Canadian raiders, ambushed from almost all sides by a well-trained, highly skilled Nazi defense.

A stain glass window at the church in Varangeville-sur-mer, just south of Dieppe, another target of the raid. (1)

A stain glass window at the church in Varangeville-sur-mer, just south of Dieppe, another target of the raid. (1)

4. Gallipoli All Over Again?

It was difficult to avoid the impression that the Dieppe Raid, certainly that portion of it that landed at Le Puys (but in essence the whole operation) was essentially a suicide mission, poorly planned and executed in which, like Gallipoli in World War One, non-British troops were used as little more than cannon fodder. At Gallipoli, where Mustapha Kemal, later known as Ataturk, soundly defeated an Allied landing force with Australians and New Zealanders suffering the heaviest casualties. Like at Dieppe, the Allied Command failed to appreciate the difficulties in scaling the heights, this time along the heights embracing the Dardanelles. At Dieppe, it appeared the sacrificial lamb of choice was Canadian. Dieppe seemed little more to me than “Gallipoli II”, “Gallipoli Revisited” with the same British politician in charge (and trying to distance himself from ultimate responsibility) in 1915 as in 1942, one Winston Churchill.

As far as I could tell, walking along the Le Puys beach, the Dieppe raid made no strategic sense, none at all. The stated rationalizations given after the raid’s failure became known never held water. One excuse was that it was a trial run for the June 6, 1944 massive Allied invasion of Normandy – D-Day, and that the Dieppe raid gave Allied planners “valuable information and insights” as to how to proceed (and not proceed) with the major assault. Hogwash. The situations between the great Normandy invasion and the Dieppe raid have no comparison, either in size, scope nor topography. A second excuse proposed was equally fallacious: that the Dieppe raid was meant to support the Soviets, then facing down the Nazis on their own soil by drawing down German troops from the Eastern Front and repositioning them to the West by the Atlantic. No such thing happened and even had the raid succeeded there is no evidence, non at all that a major relocation of the Wehrmacht would have taken place.

Looking back at the Dieppe Raid from 1989, instead, it had the hallmarks of a military act of desperation on Churchill’s part, an attempt to pacify public opinion at home that London was still “in the fight” through a series of little more than over-dramatized and publicized pin prick military operations that in no way could compensate for the resounding British defeats at Dunkirk and in Asia at Nanking and Singapore. I turns out that I was far from alone in wondering about the goals of the raid and what appeared to be the unnecessary, reckless spilling of so much Canadian blood. The German high command, in evaluating the raid from their side, wondered about it too as have virtually all Canadians since.

As a Wikipedia history of the Dieppe Raid notes:

Senior German officers were unimpressed; Gen. Conrad Haase considered it “incomprehensible” that a single division was expected to be able to overrun a German regiment that was supported by artillery. He added that, “the strength of naval and air forces was entirely insufficient to suppress the defenders during the landings”. Gen. Kuntzen believed it “inconceivable” that the Pourville landings were not reinforced with tanks.

In Canada itself, understanding the goals for the raid have been an unending and painful national pastime, with books written, documentaries made, commentaries from the raid survivors collected. There was something missing, something that could not be explained by Lord Mountbatten’s well known strategic rashness and military shallowness, nor by Canadian military impatience to “get into the fight.” It is only in the past few years that the haze over Dieppe has somewhat cleared, what the main goal of the operation entailed and why it failed. David O’Keefe’s careful and professional quality research into the matter would break the enigma…so to speak, which will be detailed in Part Two of this essay.

End Part One…

(1) – If I am not mistaken, the Varangeville-sur-mer stained glass was done by Matisse, but I need to confirm it. That is what I recall my guide that day and life-long friend Corinne Dyel telling me. ..or was it another famous French artist?



The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 1

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 2 – Ben Bella

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 3 – Robert Merle in October, 1964

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 4 – “Fortunes de France” translated into English

The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 5: City of Wisdom and Blood

The Rouen Chronicles – The Literary Work of Robert Merle (in two sessions) – Notes

The Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe – The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1942 – Part One

The Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe – The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1942 – Part Two

The Rouen Chronicles: Arques La Bataille, Dieppe

The Rouen Chronicles: Amsterdam 1965

Rouen Chronicles: Ferid Boughedir

Rouen Chronicles: The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos

18 Comments leave one →
  1. Gordon Flowers permalink
    July 13, 2014 9:24 am


    Thanks for the articles. Have forwarded to others. It was a terrible lost in human lives. I have always wondered it it had something to do with suggestions of the phoney war on the western front and the hopes of Germany and the Soviet Union taking all the hits and then Great Britain with the USA walking in and removing two enemies at one time. That it was a show with heavy losses to say they were serious about taking on the Germans.


    Sent from the iPad of Gordon Flowers


    • July 13, 2014 9:30 am


      Are you familiar with O’Keefe’s book or his DVD? I find it very well done; am writing up a “Part Two” right now based largely on that.

  2. February 28, 2015 9:45 am

    War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


  1. Arques La Bataille, Dieppe | Rob Prince's Blog
  2. | Rob Prince's Blog
  3. The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 4 – “Fortunes de France” Translated Into English |
  4. Rouen Chronicles: Amsterdam – 1965 |
  5. The Rouen Chronicles – Rouen’s Jewish Heritage |
  6. The Rouen Chronicles: Arques La Bataille, Dieppe |
  7. The Rouen Chronicles – Ferid Boughedir |
  8. Rouen Chronicles: The Literary Work of Robert Merle – In Two Sessions – Notes |
  9. The Rouen Chronicles: The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos |
  10. The Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle – 1 |
  11. Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle – 2 – on Algerian Political Figure Ahmed Ben Bella. |
  12. The Rouen Chronicles – Robert Merle 3 – Robert Merle in October, 1964 – |
  13. Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 5: City of Wisdom and Blood |
  14. The Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe-2-the-botched-dieppe-raid-of-august-17-1942-in-two-parts-part-two/ |

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