Operation Jubilee: The Disaster at Dieppe

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The Disastrous Dieppe Raid That Carved the Path of All Future Allied Landing Operations

The Dieppe Raid which happened in Northern France, in 1942, positioned itself in history as ground zero for all large-scale invasion operations in WWII conducted by the Allied forces ― the most important being Operation Overlord, or the Invasion of Normandy on 6th of June, 1944. Even though the Dieppe Raid ended up as a complete disaster, with many lives lost and loads of equipment destroyed, it was a valuable lesson for the Allies, as they probed the defenses of German fortification in continental Europe. Operation Torch, which was the codename for Allied landings in North Africa happened just three months after the raid, and it was far more successful than the operation that preceded it.

Still, it was arguably a failure, since the British and Canadian forces underestimated the Germans who held the coast of Normandy with a firm grip.

Scottish Saskatchewan Regiment was Tasked with the Difficult Assignment of Completing Many Objectives, Including Overwhelming the Stronghold at Les Quatres Vents Farm

The Royal Regiment of Canada, along with elements of the Canadian Black Watch, would land on Blue Beach at the small resort village of Puys to secure the east headland at Berneval and capture a gun battery east of Puys. It was imperative that these eastern defenses be silenced ahead of the main landings.

In a simultaneous landing farther west at Pourville, the Scottish Saskatchewan Regiment would disembark on Green Beach. Theirs was a difficult assignment with a number of key objectives. First, they were to offer direct flank support to the landings on the main beaches by clearing the ridge to the east and capturing the radar station sited nearby, then they were to push on ahead and overwhelm the stronghold at Les Quatres Vents Farm, and finally take the battery on the west headland in the rear.

Thirty minutes later, with the beachhead at Pourville secured, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders would land in a second wave to pass through the Saskatchewans and link up with the main attacking force and its tanks to capture St. Aubin airfield and the headquarters of the German division at Arques la Battaille.

While the Camerons were coming ashore at Pourville, the main effort would see the Essex-Scottish Regiment land in eastern Dieppe at Red Beach and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry land in western Dieppe on White Beach.

To support the main landings, Churchill tanks of the 14th Canadian Army Tank Battalion would simultaneously undertake the first amphibious tank assault in history. Having been rushed into service despite limited trials and an unreliable reputation, the new Churchills were deemed ideally suited to infantry support and had been waterproofed and fitted with a unique exhaust attachment that would allow them to come ashore from a depth of up to seven feet.

A colorful unit called Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, made up of French Canadians, would be held in floating reserve. When Dieppe was secured, they would be landed to occupy and maintain an inner perimeter before forming the rear guard covering the final withdrawal through the town to the beaches. To add salt to the German wound, a Royal Marine cutting-out party, acting in the finest traditions of the navy, would dash into the harbor to remove 40 German invasion barges and take them back to England.

A U.S. Army Ranger offers a light to an English commando during training for the upcoming raid on Dieppe.

Steaming through the inky blackness of the English Channel, the convoy cleared the German minefields and arrived undetected eight miles off the French coast shortly before 0300 hours on the morning of August 19. Holding outside the range of German radar, the escorting destroyers immediately took up their stations east and west of the headquarters ship, HMS Calpe, to act as the eyes and ears of the expedition. Naval personnel aboard the landing ships began to lower the landing craft into the water. It was a noisy, tedious process leaving many convinced the sound must surely have carried to the German shore defenses—but it had not.

The commandos had already departed toward the two headlands as the troops destined for Puys and Pourville were loaded onto their landing craft. As officers moved reassuringly among the soldiers, the men began to blacken their faces and arms some rechecked equipment, many steadied their nerves with the repetition of orders, while others remained silent, lost in their own thoughts, wondering if they would survive the dawn.

As the LCPs took up station behind the gunboats leading them in, the most hazardous seaborne operation conceived or attempted up that point of the war was underway. There was no turning back.

The run in across the calm, misted waters was unfolding smoothly until some of the landing craft carrying the Royal Regiment of Canada mistakenly formed up behind the wrong gunboat 20 vital minutes were lost sorting out the confusion. Would they now be able to make it to the beach on time—or even in time to carry out their tasks?

This setback was followed at 3:50 am by the first disaster of the raid, when the gunboat and 23 landing craft carrying No. 3 Commando to Berneval were suddenly illuminated by star shells. Through pure chance, the small Allied force had blundered into a convoy of formidably armed German trawlers and E-boats making for Dieppe harbor. In the brief firefight that ensued, the lead gunboat lost her wireless station and was left a wreck, her guns knocked out and most of her crew wounded.

Many of the small wooden landing craft were sunk or scattered, making it highly unlikely that the commandos’ mission could succeed. Without communications, the gunboat was unable to report what had happened. The flashes of gunfire, however, had been observed from the command ship, leaving General Roberts gravely concerned. He knew that many lives hinged on the commandos successfully silencing the three 8-inch and four 4.2-inch guns of the Berneval battery.

Fortuitously, one of the landing craft, having avoided the engagement, held its course to land three officers and 17 men undetected on the narrow beach of Bellevile-sur-mer. Armed with only their personal weapons and one 2-inch mortar, the commandos scaled the cliff face to engage the Germans. Their harassing fire was so effective that the Berneval guns failed to fire an effective shot during the main landings.

Two British landing craft link up with a destroyer after returning from the beaches at Dieppe.

The No. 4 Commando contingent landed without incident on the extreme right flank. In a textbook action, the men blew up the six 6-inch guns of the Varangeville battery and by 0730 hours were on their way back to England. The mission, carried out with daring and skill, would be the only complete success of the entire operation.

By closely coordinating the timing of the flank assaults at Puys and Pourville, the invaders hoped to minimize the chance of alerting the Germans’ main defenses, but the Royal Regiment of Canada was already in trouble. Having not made up the time during the confusion on the run in, the Canadian force had broken into two waves instead of one and would hit the narrow Blue Beach at Puys nearly 20 minutes late and in full daylight. Their protective smoke screen, dispersed prematurely by the breeze, failed to conceal their approach as German gunfire confirmed that the element of surprise had been lost.

With bullets already striking the metal ramps, the tension was almost unbearable as the men steeled their nerves and moved to the forward section of their landing craft ready to disembark. When the LCPs struck the beach, the troops surged forward into a hell few could have ever imagined. Sheltered in trenches and pillboxes, the waiting Germans opened up with a heavy and murderously accurate deluge of fire. The effect was devastating.

The 300 yards from the shoreline to the head of the beach were soon littered with the bodies of the dead and wounded as most of the first wave was annihilated. The few who had cleared the shingle unscathed huddled for dear life against a 12-foot stone sea wall as German shells tore up every square inch of the beach behind them.

While teams tried to blow breaches in the wire, the men beneath the wall found themselves exposed to enfilade fire from a blockhouse overlooking the beach.

The concrete fortification claimed scores of troops as its guns swept the outer face of the wall until an officer, leading from the front, worked his way forward to throw a grenade through the embrasure, killing the occupants, then falling dead himself.

With fire raining down upon them from all angles, the men pinned on the beach frantically signaled the incoming troops to turn back but it was too late. The Germans, now incorporating mortars, let loose a frenzied inferno of explosives and flying shrapnel that cut the next wave to pieces. An officer recalled that within five minutes, “an assaulting battalion on the offensive [had been reduced] to something less than two companies on the defensive, hammered by fire they could not locate.”

With German guns commanding the only access point off the beach, the surviving Royals were trapped. As casualties mounted by the second, and with virtually no radio contact with the headquarters ship, the situation seemed utterly hopeless. Salvation arrived in the form of strafing runs by RAF fighters, supported by naval bombardment that had the German gun crews ducking for cover.

During the lull, the commanding officer, Colonel Douglas E. Catto, desperate to get his men off the beach and onto the high ground, sent Bren gunners to the western edge of the beach to subdue German fortifications on the opposite slope. Showing exemplary leadership, Catto and an NCO then scaled the western edge of the sea wall and began cutting through the wire by hand. Exposed to enemy fire, Catto toiled for over half an hour to clear a path, then rallied his men to follow him through. Only 20 made it before heavy machine-gun fire sealed off the opening.


Launch of the Jubilee association website. Preparations for the 70th anniversary of the Raid.

Mission statement and rules updated.

Refection work in the entrance hall of the museum by volunteers.

Transfer of the main headquarters on site inside the Memorial (place Camille Saint-Saëns) thanks to Dieppe municipality.

Mr Claude Gérard is elected president.

Commemorations :

Participation of two aeroplanes from WWII and “la Patrouille de France” thanks to grant received from the “conseil général” and private donors (including Mrs Monique Miquel-Moncomble and Mr Marcel Diologent).

Summer 2002 :

“Free day” in June and grand opening for the 60th anniversary of the Raid.

February 2002 :

Opening of the Memorial in the former municipal theatre.

End of 2001 :

The association is designated “maître d'oeuvre” in order to create a place of memory (see Memorial chapter).

Celebration of the 50 th anniversary of the Allied Raid.

End of 1989 :

The official Mission Statement was filed with the “sous-préfecture” and submitted to the “Journal Officiel”.

Creation of the association by a group of residents eager to keep alive an important event in our local history: the Anglo Canadian Raid of 19 th August 1942.

The wartime raid that shamed Mountbatten

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Tanks swarm Dieppe beach in 1942

The seaside resort of Dieppe this weekend had a solemn air about it. War veterans, mostly now very frail, assembled in northern France to remember the infamous raid that took place 70 years ago, an event that should

never have happened and remains to this day a source of controversy, bitterness and sorrow.

In the early hours of August 19, 1942, a mini-armada crossed the English Channel. It was the opening of Operation Jubilee, a seaborne assault on Dieppe.

It was a political gesture as much as anything, designed to appease the Russians fighting in the east and to show that the Allies could take a German-occupied French port if they wanted to.

The military objective was to blow up enemy defences in and around the town, destroy dock installations, cause havoc and even steal secrets from a safe, a job assigned to a marine who had been a burglar.

Remember, in spite of it all, he was a great man

An eminent biographer

The Allied forces would then nip back home having infuriated Hitler and placated Stalin.

Operation Jubilee involved a force of more than 6,000 troops, mostly Canadian (who were feeling left out of the war) alongside British Commandos and US Army Rangers.

There were 237 vessels, 27 tanks and 74 squadrons of aircraft.

Heavy bombers were ruled out to spare civilian casualties.

Dieppe was a bad target. It involved a beach, a sea wall and a tourist esplanade with coastal gun emplacements.

The idea was to land the Canadians and the British on an 11-mile front, the main attack centred on the port itself.

Tanks and troops would be disembarked and then take the town in a frontal strike.

It was doomed from the start.

On the way over the Allies ran into a German convoy and exchanged shots. The enemy alerted the garrison at Dieppe. Apprised of the danger all the defenders had to do was check their ammunition, stir their coffee and wait.

The tanks duly hit the beach – which had been poorly surveyed using some holiday snapshots – and were immediately bogged down in the shingle.

They were sitting ducks for German artillery.

Infantry were scythed down by machine-gun fire from pillboxes.

The attack became suicidal.

Commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel “Tigger” Phillips signalled to those following him that they should turn back but his warning was unseen or misunderstood and he was soon killed.

BY 11am Operation Jubilee had turned into a massacre.

Over seven hours 3,369 of the 4,963 Canadians sent to Dieppe were killed, wounded or captured.

The British Army lost about 250 men, the Royal Navy 550. All the tanks, a destroyer and 100 planes were lost – double the Luftwaffe’s numbers.

High up the l adder of command in England the buck was passed with lightning speed.

The cemetery outside Dieppe is full of Canadian boys in their late teens and early 20s who were later blamed for their lack of training.

One senior British officer even remarked on their poor conversational skills but experts now agree that even the most seasoned troops wouldn’t have stood a chance.

It was the old First World War story of lions led by donkeys, the donkey-in-chief being Churchill’s darling Admiral Louis Mountbatten, who as Director of Combined Operations was fully responsible for the fiasco.

Mountbatten had put in charge of the raid’s military intelligence a racing driver playboy chum, the Marquis de Casa Maury, a totally unqualified amateur from Cuba.

The blame, however, was shifted on to the Canadian task force commander Major-General John Roberts, who himself was the victim of poor information and the communications breakdown that characterised the day’s events.

Partly thanks to Dieppe, there has been a major shift in the perception of Mountbatten’s character in recent years.

Historian Andrew Roberts has dealt the hardest hammer blow to his reputation.

He has convincingly depicted “Dickie” Mountbatten as a psychopathically ambitious, vain, disingenuous, manipulative adrenaline junkie and a man who was utterly careless of other people’s lives.

Whether this view is fully justified is debatable but even at the time of Dieppe many military people were wary of Dickie’s cronyism and mad gung-ho schemes.

At the Admiralty he was known as the “Master of Disaster”.

One eminent biographer who admired Mountbatten became so sickened by his subject’s disrespect for the truth that he put a sign on his writing desk: “Remember, in spite of it all, he was a great man.”

Mountbatten was certainly great at public relations and the art of making sure no mud stuck to him.

Montgomery had always thought the raid was absurd and it is a tragedy that his view that it should be called off wasn’t heeded.

When the news came through of the scale of the disaster the press baron Lord Beaverbrook – owner of this newspaper and a Canadian – went puce with rage.

He would have been more furious had he known that vital intelligence from codebreakers at Bletchley Park had been ignored.

Beaverbrook went so far as to call Mountbatten a murderer.

Any stain on Mountbatten’s reputation was defl ected by the timely release, just after Dieppe, of a film based on his life as a naval officer, In Which We Serve.

Noel Coward showed him his fawning script based on the daring adventures of his ship HMS Kelly, which was sunk in 1941 during the Battle of Crete.

Mountbatten supplied Coward with vivid stories, stating that he and the survivors had been machine-gunned in the water, an event that appears in the film but which none of his shipmates recall happening.

COWARD played the Captain in the film that did a great deal to secure the Mountbatten legend in the general

public’s mind. Roberts states that Mountbatten saw it 11 times.

Mountbatten was as undeniably courageous in action (although foolhardy is the alternative word) as he was glamorous and things go terribly wrong in war but there is no excuse for inadequate preparation.

The Germans reviewed the raid and found they had been handed a major propaganda victory and they lost no

time in pointing out that the Allies’ planning had been totally incompetent.

Back home it was put about that Dieppe was an Allied success in that “the results justified the heavy cost”.

This became the official line pedalled by Churchill.

The mantra was that for every life lost at Dieppe the lessons learned saved 10 more on D-Day but those military lessons would have been obvious to Dieppe’s dimmest deck-chair attendant, ie don’t launch a frontal assault on a

heavily defended town without proper air cover or the element of surprise.

The truth is Dieppe saved no lives at all and cost a great many quite needlessly. Seventy years on the feeling of the veterans who returned this weekend to commemorate the sacrifice of their comrades must be mixed at very least.

DIEPPE: “They Didn’t Have To Die!”

When writing his epic multivolume history of the Second World War, Winston Churchill had to discuss what he called the “very controversial” Dieppe raid of Aug. 19, 1942. To those who were assisting him in his research he wrote, “it would appear to a layman very much out of accord with the accepted principles of war to attack the strongly fortified town front without first securing the cliffs on either side, and to use our tanks in frontal assault off the beaches.”

Layman or not, Churchill, of course, was precisely correct. But in the end, after strong protests from Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the architect of the raid, Churchill’s published account omitted almost all criticism. In fact, as we now know—thanks to a careful study by the British historian David Reynolds—Mountbatten was allowed to rewrite the draft to make it almost totally self-serving. Churchill had his share of blame for the disaster too. Reynolds notes sharply that Mountbatten, “this egregious political climber,” had been “absurdly overpromoted” by none other than the prime minister. No hands were clean in 1942 and Dieppe still besmirches reputations—except those of the soldiers, sailors and airmen who had the bad luck to be on, off and above the stony beaches around the old French port town that summer day.

The reasons for the raid made sense. In the summer of 1942, the Allies were losing the war. The Japanese had been checked, not stopped, at the great naval battle in the Coral Sea, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps was ensconced deep in Egypt, and the Red Army was in retreat once more as the panzers surged eastward toward Stalingrad. The Allies had no victories to their credit, and the pressure from Moscow for a second front was intense. So too, was the American Chief of Staffs’ desire for a small, limited-objective invasion of France. Churchill knew this would be a mistake. Without air superiority, without specialized landing craft, without more and better trained troops, a second front could only be a disaster. But a large raid on France, on Dieppe, might ease the pressure on Britain’s leader by doing something.

Planning the raid on Dieppe, a reconnaissance in force, was initially a British show, bringing Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, commanding in the southeast of England, together with Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations. But when word of the planning leaked out and came to Lieutenant-General H.D.G. Crerar’s attention, he demanded that Canadian troops mount the raid.

Crerar was acting commander of the Canadian Corps while General A.G.L. McNaughton was in Canada on sick leave. He had been Chief of the General Staff in Ottawa until recently and believed it vital for public opinion at home that Canadian troops, some in England for almost three years, get into action before the Yanks, in the war only since Dec. 7, 1941. Moreover, the Canadian troops wanted action, fed up with hearing the refrain, “Oh, he’s a Canadian, he doesn’t fight” from their girlfriends and British Tommies. Reluctantly perhaps, the British conceded that the Canadians could take on Dieppe, and Montgomery picked 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade for the operation, the 2nd being—in his judgment as the British Army’s pre-eminent trainer—the best trained and best-led in the Canadian Corps.

With their senior officers heavily involved in the planning, the Canadians trained hard for Operation Rutter, as it was dubbed, practising amphibious operations and stepping up their physical and tactical training. Crerar wrote that Canadian commanders of the raid “expressed full confidence in being able to carry out their tasks—given a break in luck.” By July 7, 1942, all the troops had boarded the transports for Dieppe, but after a combination of bad weather and raids on the ports by the Luftwaffe, the brass cancelled Rutter. The troops returned to their camps bitterly disappointed, and it would have taken a miracle for pub gossip not to have mentioned Dieppe as a target.

Good military sense suggested the raid be abandoned. Instead, all the senior officers involved, British and Canadian, decided the Germans would not suspect that the same troops would strike the same target. Now labelled Operation Jubilee, the raid was on once more.

There were, however, changes to the plan. Heavy bombers, intended in Rutter to soften up the defences, were eliminated from Jubilee the Royal Navy, moreover, declined to provide battleships or cruisers to support the assault paratroop landings on the flanks disappeared, replaced by seaborne commandos. But overall, the basic plan was the same: under the air cover provided by 74 squadrons of fighters and fighter-bombers of the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force, some 4,963 men from the infantry units of 2nd Div. and a regiment from 1st Canadian Armd. Bde. would land at Puys, east of Dieppe, at Pourville to the west, and on the stony beach in front of the town.

The commandos’ task was to eliminate German batteries. The two Canadian flank attacks were intended to move inland while the main force took the town and established a defensive perimeter. The line would be held just long enough to allow the port facilities to be destroyed. Then, all going well, the Royal Navy would pick up the attackers and return them to England. Once more, Crerar opined that “given an even break in luck and good navigation” the raid “should” prove successful.

The plan, however, was badly flawed, so badly one might have thought Dieppe, a defended port that had hosted hundreds of British holiday-seekers every week before the war, was on the far side of the moon. The beach at Puys, where the Royal Regiment of Canada and three platoons of the Black Watch were to land, is tiny and overlooked by a cliff. The main Dieppe beach, the touchdown point for the Calgary Regiment’s tanks and infantry from the Essex Scottish and Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI) (with the Fusiliers Mont-Royal as the floating reserve), is made up of fist-sized stones (shingle) that could hamper armoured movement. Dominating the beach are sheer, forbidding cliffs. Moreover, the enemy had fortified the beachfront and the buildings facing the water. Only at Pourville—to the west—were the conditions at all satisfactory for the South Saskatchewan Regiment (SSR) and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders (QOCHC) to disembark.

The confident Canadians sailed for France on Aug.18. Private Jack Poolton of the Royal Regiment of Canada recalled that his battalion left a rear guard. “Nobody wanted to stay on the rear guard. There was arguments going on, ‘I want to go, I want to go,’ and all this stuff. ‘No you’ve got to stay behind,’ and I remember [Lieutenant] Ryerson giving one guy an order. ‘I’m giving you an order…you stay behind.’”

The men who remained in England were the fortunate ones, for the luck that Crerar had counted on vanished almost immediately. The raiding flotilla bumped into a German coastal convoy, and the gunfire alerted the defenders ashore. As a result the landing came in late, and the defenders atop the cliff could see their attackers clearly.

Ross Munro of the Canadian Press went in with the Royals at Puys. “The Germans held a couple of houses and some strong pillboxes near the top of the slope [i.e., cliff] and from their high level they were able to pour fire into some boats, ours among them,” he wrote in a dispatch dated Aug. 20. “Several bursts from machine guns struck men in the middle of our craft. The ramp was lowered to permit the men to get ashore, but German fire caught those who tried to make it.” The slaughter was terrific, and only a few of the very brave and very lucky made it off the beach and up the cliff. The survivors on the beach waved the white flag at 8:30 a.m. those atop the cliff held out until late afternoon.

At Pourville, the SSR landed in darkness and achieved surprise, but the RN unfortunately put part of the battalion ashore at the wrong place. The remainder, trying to cross a bridge over the River Scie, came under withering fire and were led across by Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt who displayed extraordinary sang-froid: “Come on over, there’s nothing to it,” he shouted. Merritt led attacks on enemy positions while the QOCHC, after landing with their pipers playing, moved inland as much as 2,000 metres before retiring to the beach. Merritt then organized the beach defences and some of the raiders managed to escape on the RN landing craft that bravely awaited them.

The larger disaster was on the main beach in front of Dieppe where the enemy, hearing the firing on the flanks, was ready. The Calgaries’ Churchill tanks came ashore late and had trouble advancing when their tracks became jammed by beach shingle. A few managed to get inland most were immobilized but continued firing. The infantry landed just after the beach defences had been strafed from the air, but the Germans on the cliffs and on the town frontage recovered quickly and poured withering fire at the Canadians. Amazingly, some of the RHLI made it into town, but most of the Essex and RHLI troops died on the beach or took what shelter they could find. Making matters worse, garbled signals at 7 a.m. sent the Fusiliers Mont-Royal ashore where they too died en masse.

After the Puys surrender, the Germans let Jack Poolton go to the beach to collect wounded. “I made three trips…to bring wounded men up off the beach. So I seen the beach after, three times. It was unbelievable. There was boots with feet in them, there was legs, there was bits of flesh, there was guts, there was heads, there was, oh it was unbelievable. These were my regiment, these were the guys I lived with for the last two and a half or so years.”

German officers administered the coup de grâce to some of the mortally wounded Canadians on the beaches. Most of the less severely wounded eventually received adequate medical care from military doctors or religious hospitals, although the first hours and days were chaotic. After a horrific train trip to Germany, those taken prisoner were destined to spend almost three years in PoW stalags. Because the Germans had found Canadian orders that called for shackling prisoners, many of the Canadians would be chained for long periods in their camps. The stress of the raid and capture, coupled with long periods of mistreatment as prisoners, left many of the Canadian survivors with psychological problems, what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.

Operation Jubilee was a debacle. Of the almost 5,000 Canadians on the raid, 907 were killed, 586 were wounded, and 1,946 became captives. Only 2,200 made it back home, many of them wounded, and many who had not been put ashore. The Essex Scottish was hardest hit, landing 530 and returning only 52 the Royal Regiment suffered 524 killed and wounded and brought back only 65 the RHLI extracted 217 men and left 480 killed and wounded the other regiments suffered heavily too. In the air, the heaviest fighting since the Blitz was yet another Allied defeat with 106 aircraft shot down, while the RAF and RCAF confirmed only 48 kills. The RN saw more than one quarter of the vessels it deployed sunk and lost 550 officers and ratings. Total German casualties numbered at most 600, a small price to pay for gutting much of the infantry of a division, sinking ships galore, and winning the air battle. The reconnaissance in force had failed utterly. Crerar’s Canadians had run out of luck.

The initial press reports in Canada nonetheless proclaimed a great victory: “Every Objective is Achieved on 9-Hour Foray into France,” stated the Toronto Daily Star newspaper on Aug. 19. But when the endless lists of killed and wounded began to be published in Canada, the shock was terrific. In Britain, Mountbatten and Crerar quickly began to talk of the valuable lessons learned, lessons that would soon pave the way to a successful invasion of the Continent. The public relations plan for failure, prepared in advance by Mountbatten’s staff, had called for just such a response.

What went wrong with Jubilee? First, no plan can ever rely on luck for success this was especially true of a thoroughly inept operation with insufficient air and naval support. It was completely foolish for the British and Canadian planners not to have realized that German strength would be on the cliffs—where else would it have been posted? It was absurd not to have tested the mobility of tanks on a sloped, shingled beach. Errors were made in estimating German strength, and faulty communications from ship to shore added mightily to the losses. Adequate landing craft had not yet been developed, and Canadian training, while much better than two years before, was still not up to the standard required to beat the Wehrmacht.

Years later, Kenneth Curry of the RHLI was asked what he thought of the raid. “Well, when I think of it…it’s very easy to get choked up. To me, it’s like yesterday. I lost my friends and I think it was a waste, a waste of a lot of good soldiers and the three boys I had in the mortar platoon, we were as thick as thieves and when I think, you know, they didn’t have to die, at least not like that. And sometimes I get very, very bitter, but then again, as I say there’s nothing I can do about it now, except, I got my memories. But some of them memories are…horrible ones. I couldn’t bear to repeat them, although, mind you, they’re still, they’re still, they’re still in my mind.” Curry added that he continued to have nightmares: “Oh yeah…they live with you… I’ve always had them. They’re not as bad as they were, but I’ve always had them. I guess I’ll have them until the day I die. I think if it wasn’t for my wife, that’s got me through a lot of the stuff, it can, it can be mind-boggling sometimes.” For all the death and suffering, Curry remains proud of his regiment: “I’m really proud to say that I was one of them. Very proud. But we’re getting, our ranks are getting…there’s not many left.”

What then can we say of the Dieppe raid 70 years on? Unquestionably, it was a bungled operation that left families in Canada in grief and shock. The disaster shattered regiments, but the sobering realization that the Canadian troops were not yet battle-ready led to improved training. Moreover, better equipment reached the units, and operational planning at every level improved. Mountbatten, the progenitor of the raid, was promoted and dispatched to South East Asia as Supreme Commander. Montgomery went to El Alamein to find his destiny. Crerar eventually became First Canadian Army commander. The war went on. Only the vicious, unhealed scar of Dieppe remained—that and the rows of grave markers in the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery.

Outstanding courage in the face of suicidal odds at Dieppe saw the Victoria Cross awarded to two Canadian soldiers. Reverend John W. Foote, chaplain with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire on the beach as he helped injured men reach aid stations. He declined to board a departing landing craft and instead surrendered to the Germans so he could stay behind and tend to wounded comrades. Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt received his VC for leading men from the South Saskatchewan Regiment across the heavily defended River Scie at Pourville. Before being captured, he killed a sniper and helped cover a withdrawal from the beach (Canada and the Victoria Cross poster, Part 2, January/February issue).

For The Fallen

The Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery is located on a hillside roughly five kilometres south of Dieppe. Of the 955 graves, 707 are Canadian, most of them victims of the raid. Some of the Canadian PoWs died in hospital in Rouen, France, roughly 60 kilometres away. Thirty-seven are buried there. Casualties from the raid who died in Britain are buried mainly in the Brookwood Military Cemetery, approximately 50 kilometres from London. Members of the Canadian Army reported as “missing and presumed dead” are commemorated on the Brookwood Memorial while those of the Royal Canadian Air Force are commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial in southern England.

By The Numbers

6,000: Allied troops involved in the raid. Of these, roughly 5,000 were Canadian. The remainder were British commandos and 50 American Rangers.

907: Canadians killed. Of these, 807 were killed in action, 28 died of wounds and 72 died in captivity.

World War II: RAF Flight Sgt. Jack Nissenthall’s Secret Role in Operation Jubilee at Dieppe

On the night of February 27, 1942, British parachutists raided St. Bruneval on France’s northwest coast. They came away with the key parts of a German Würzburg radar set, one of a chain that directed anti-aircraft fire and controlled night fighters intercepting Allied bombers flying to inland targets. The coup enabled the British to develop countermeasures.

Another British attempt to steal German radar secrets was made nearly six months later. Overshadowed by the larger operation of which it was a part, it remains a lesser-known episode in World War II history. The second raid also proved a success, despite the fact that stubborn German resistance prevented the raiders from lifting any of the radar hardware. The target this time was Germany’s basic radar equipment–the Freya early-warning device.

Whereas Würzburg, operating at an ultrashort wavelength, had a range of only 18 1/2 miles, the larger but less precise Freya, using a longer wavelength, had a range of up to 125 miles. It could pick up Allied aircraft almost as soon as they became airborne. Working in tandem, the two radars posed a serious threat to the aerial offensive against Adolf Hitler’s Germany. To make matters worse for the Allies, they learned that the enemy had improved its Freya radar and intended to use it as the primary German radar defense network. This, of course, made the British more anxious than ever to confirm what they had learned and to discover what made Freya tick so that it could be neutralized.

As early as 1941, British listening posts had detected signals emitted by a new, high-powered Freya installed atop a cliff between the seaport of Dieppe and Pourville, two miles farther west. The site was marked as a potential target, one of the most convenient locations for a future raid. The St. Bruneval success made it unlikely that a similar foray against the Freya would succeed, however, since the Germans had significantly beefed up their radar station defenses after the earlier raid.

The opportunity to examine the instrument and remove its innards came with an operation known as Jubilee, a rejuvenated version of an earlier discarded plan. There were a number of reasons for Jubilee, not the least being American and Soviet pressure to open a second front against the Germans, an invasion of Western Europe that would help relieve the hard-pressed Soviets to the east. The immediate overall purpose of Jubilee, according to an official British history, was to ‘test the enemy’s coast defenses and discover what resistance would be met in seizing a port it also hoped to inflict wastage on the GAF (German Air Force), thereby giving some relief to Russia.’ Even though Allied capabilities precluded a full-scale invasion in 1942–as realistic planners fully recognized–a hit-and-run raid larger than the earlier Commando stabs would prove beneficial for planning the real invasion at some future date.

Jubilee’s target had to be a medium-sized and moderately defended port well within range of air cover. Dieppe was selected. Located only 67 miles from England, the city had hosted the Norman fleet that crossed the English Channel to land near Hastings in 1066. It had been occupied by the Germans once before, during the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian War.

As often happens during military operations, a simple and feasible plan was transmuted into an oversized scheme with proportionately greater risks. The final decision, based on incomplete intelligence, was for a mainly frontal assault on a well-defended gravel and pebble beach without preliminary air bombardment and with minimal naval fire support.

The operation would include Canadian (the main contingent), British, French and American elements. Fifty U.S. Army Rangers who participated in Jubilee would be the first American troops to land in Europe since World War I. Jubilee’s objectives were to destroy enemy installations (including the inland airfield at St. Aubin), capture Germans for interrogation, steal documents, bring back moored enemy invasion barges, release French prisoners, and tackle the Freya site atop its 300-foot-high cliff. The biggest such operation of the war, Jubilee received final approval only a week before it was launched.

As in the St. Bruneval raid, the unit assaulting the Freya site would have to include a radar expert. Twenty-four-year-old Flight Sgt. Jack Maurice Nissenthall of the Royal Air Force (RAF), who had volunteered for’special missions in which my expertise would be of value,’ was chosen for the job. An electronics specialist, Nissenthall was a cockney from London’s East End. His father was a Jewish tailor who had immigrated to Britain from Poland in 1912. Nissenthall had been working on radar since 1937.

Since the radar expert selected for the mission knew British secrets that had to be kept from the Germans, the printed orders received by officers in charge of the Freya assault team stated that the ‘RDF (radio direction finder) expert must under no circumstances fall into enemy hands.’ As a result, 10 riflemen of Company A of the Canadian 2nd Division’s South Saskatchewan Regiment were specifically tasked with providing protection for Nissenthall. If the RAF sergeant was in danger of being captured by the enemy, however, he was to be killed by his own bodyguards.

Operation Jubilee was launched during the breezy night of August 18-19. An invasion force of just over 6,000 men sailed southward from five southeastern British ports aboard 237 vessels, toward Hitler’s ‘Fortress Europe.’ Immediately facing them were about 1,500 soldiers of the Dieppe garrison, the German Fifteenth Army’s 571st Infantry Battalion, which was backed by other units of its parent 302nd Infantry Division, as well as by panzer forces farther inland. Their will and defenses had been strengthened in the wake of a July 9 directive from the Führer warning that ‘it is highly probable that an enemy landing will take place shortly in the area.’ The period from August 10 to 19 was designated by the German high command as ‘invasion possible’ because of favorable moon and tides.

At 3:48 a.m., the Allied armada ran smack into a five-ship enemy convoy. During the ensuing shootout, the convoy’s three small escort vessels battered one British Commando group’s landing craft before being counterattacked by the Polish destroyer Slazak. Two radio warnings from the British Admiralty about the convoy’s approach never reached the Jubilee force commander. Antenna damage prevented the German escort vessels from warning the mainland of the approaching invasion force, but, as it turned out, no warning was necessary.

Just minutes before a star shell triggered a 10-minute naval engagement, the operator in the tiny cabin beneath the cliff top Freya antenna had detected five columns of vessels about 21 miles offshore. He dutifully passed the information on to the men in the concrete-covered brick blockhouse supporting the Freya. Inside the three-room, sandbagged blockhouse sat a range reader and a plotter, connected by landline to the site’s command post and an analysis center located on the other side of Dieppe. Jubilee’s last veil of secrecy had fallen.

The alerted radar section commander reported the ominous radar contact to both army and naval units. The latter pooh-poohed the report, but the army did not. The navy would soon pay for its skepticism when its coastal artillery battery, unlike the army’s, quickly fell to a Commando attack during the battle that followed.

Trailing phosphorescent tails in the cold, choppy waters, the LCA (landing craft, assault) of two Commando groups made a run from their mother ships to beaches east and west of Dieppe. They landed mere minutes before 5 a.m. The Commandos were to silence the heavy artillery batteries flanking the city so that the tank-supported main assault against Dieppe’s narrow streets and cliff-hugging harbor could be made half an hour later.

The South Saskatchewan Regiment’s LCAs churned shoreward on the left flank of the westernmost Commando group. Their objective was the shoreline, designated Green Beach, at Pourville. Inside one of the landing craft was Jack Nissenthall–nicknamed ‘Spook’ by his invasion companions because of his intelligence mission–who was expected to return with a lot of answers to questions about Freya (and hardware to back those answers). Although he, too, wore a helmet and battle dress over an inflatable life vest, Nissenthall was armed only with a revolver. He carried a blue RAF haversack crammed with hand tools.

As the boats neared the beach, the men checked their individual weapons, and a container of rum was passed around. Enemy fire began shortly after the Canadian LCAs thudded onto Green Beach and dropped their front ramps. Company A was to scamper immediately up the western cliff slope to assault the radar site while Company C secured the village. Companies B and D were to move inland to establish a position to block enemy reinforcements. Another Canadian unit, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, which landed about half an hour later, was to speed inland against the St. Aubin airfield 3 1/2 miles away.

By the time Nissenthall and his group had crunched across the stony beach in the growing light to the protection of a sea wall topped with barbed wire, they realized that the navy had deposited them nearly 500 yards too far to the west. Instead of landing at the base of the Freya cliff on the other side of Pourville, Company A was in front of the German-occupied village. Using scaling ladders, they traversed the 8-foot-high sea wall, crossed a promenade and advanced into Pourville.

There were British planes overhead to provide cover for the Allied troops, but until the Luftwaffe arrived, the support they provided was mostly psychological. Small-arms fire and grenade blasts filled the air with smoke as the invaders fought their way into the town by fits and starts. An obscene trail of still and writhing bodies marked their progress. Following the shoreline through Pourville, Company A soon found the path to its objective blocked by pillboxes at both ends of a bridge crossing the small Scie River. Just beyond, an unpaved lane snaked up to the cliff, while the road turned right to run along the river. On top of the cliff, the Freya antenna methodically pivoted to and fro as it continued to track and report Allied aircraft movements.

If not for the boat handler’s error, the company would have landed on the other side of the bridge and probably already been on the cliff top. Machine-gun fire from the nearest pillbox dropped one Canadian after the other to the pavement. Finally, during a pause, one of the South Saskatchewans sprinted forward to lob two grenades through the firing slit of the pillbox. That did the trick. Led by their battalion and company commanders, the Canadians cleared the bridge and began to ascend the grassy height under fire from above and the right. Nissenthall and his bodyguards followed the advance, running between a stone church and a hotel to cross the body-littered bridge.

Shell bursts and small-arms fire followed the zigzagging soldiers up the mostly open slope. There now were only about 24 men left of Company A’s original 100. Nissenthall’s bodyguards were down to seven, three of whom were lightly wounded. The RAF sergeant later recalled being temporarily deafened when ‘one of the men carrying a backpack of mortar shells was hit and blown to pieces by his own shells’ only 20 feet away. Tossing smoke canisters and seeking what little cover they could find on the way up, the remaining men finally reached a point just below the top, where they stopped.

To the left was a sheer white cliff, with rocks and shingle below. Straight ahead, just to the left of the pebbly lane, lay the coveted Freya. It was protected by barbed wire, riflemen in slit trenches and machine-gun nests. Lying in a narrow, hedge-lined depression slightly downhill from the radar site, the company commander turned to Nissenthall and said: ‘Well, there it is. Take it if you want it.’

The radar antenna’s motions–limited to a 180-degree horizontal arc and pausing as it focused on individual targets–were revealing. They told Nissenthall that the Freya was a target-discriminating precision instrument and that it was connected to the operator’s cabin and blockhouse by coaxial cable–unlike British radar, which could turn through a full circle by using rotating electromagnetic coupling.

More detailed information could not be obtained by simple visual observation. Company A obviously was in no shape to attempt an assault to get closer, however. Clearly, help was needed, but the company’s radio was out of commission. After a brief discussion, Nissenthall and two of his bodyguards raced back to Pourville, which was now under steady fire from Germans on the high ground to both sides of the town. At battalion headquarters, the three men learned that shore-to-ship communication was virtually nonexistent.

Unable to enlist shipborne guns to soften up the Freya site as they had hoped, they gathered together a small mortar team. That effort was brutally aborted by a well-placed enemy shell. An unhurt but frustrated Nissenthall once more ran the gantlet of fire to rejoin Company A.

Less than two miles on the other side of the Freya cliff, the main invasion force, despite some initial successes, had bogged down and was being beaten back. The smoke of battle rose into a clear blue sky where dueling fighters fought for supremacy, raining empty shell casings over the countryside. From almost every direction came the thump of cannons and the chatter of small arms.

In desperation, Nissenthall made a second escorted return to Pourville to seek reinforcements. This time he returned with a mortar crew, which, while providing additional firepower, didn’t get the men any closer to their goal. The sergeant then decided to implement a suggestion made before his departure from England. If the Freya’s landlines to its command post and analysis center were severed, the radar crew would have to use radio to relay its information on Allied air movements. This radioed information could then be monitored to provide the British with a fairly accurate idea of the radar’s performance.

Nissenthall could see the critical telephone cables silhouetted against the sky about 120 feet away at the crest of the hill. On all fours, the sergeant left cover and started through the tall grass. He moved past a half-hidden machine-gun nest, the ground vibrating against his body from the weapon’s persistent chatter. Nissenthall made it undetected to a triple-pole cable support just outside the Freya perimeter, whose defenses were aimed to the front and sides but not the rear.

Nissenthall removed and pocketed two wire clippers from his haversack, and as he subsequently reported, ‘I wedged myself between the poles and worked my way to the top.’ There, 15 feet above the ground, he cut the Freya’s six outside communications wires. He quickly rejoined his companions, who apparently had been in no condition to weigh Nissenthall’s odds of evading death or capture.

Still hoping for a chance to take a closer look at the Freya, a haggard and sweating Nissenthall returned to Pourville for the third time. His intent was to commandeer a tank and batter his way into the radar site. (Original Jubilee planning, which had proved to be overly optimistic, had called for some of the Churchill tanks that landed at Dieppe to move inland toward Pourville and escort the raiders back to the seaport for evacuation after their mission was completed.)

This time, the Company A commander sent all seven remaining bodyguards to escort his’spook.’ After more than four hours of battle, Pourville was a shambles. The outgoing tide was exposing more bodies and discarded materiel. Nissenthall persuaded a number of Cameron Highlanders still in the village to accompany his small group as it set off to the southeast along a blacktop road on which the tanks were expected to arrive.

Reaching the village of Petit-Appeville about a mile away, the soldiers stopped at its crossroads to rest and wait. Before long, they heard the characteristic rumble and clank of approaching armor. The armor soon appeared–not British, but German tanks accompanied by bicycle troops. Nissenthall and the Canadians fled in panic as the enemy opened fire. Many fell en route back to Pourville, including another three of the sergeant’s bodyguards.

The Canadians in Pourville were at a last-stand stage while landing craft, slow-moving targets for German guns on the heights, did what they could to recover survivors. As casualties mounted and the defense perimeter shrank, Nissenthall, as yet unhurt, could not help but wonder what his chances were of staying alive. His escorts remained under orders to kill him if capture seemed imminent. If that was not enough, he also had to consider the cyanide pill he had been given as a last resort.

The escort destroyer HMS Brocklesby moved toward the beach, laying down a smoke screen to protect the milling LCAs. The warship’s 4-inch guns blazed at one major source of German fire, and a section of nearby chalk cliff blew apart. An eerie silence followed as other enemy guns stopped firing so as not to attract the ship’s attention. The beleaguered Canadians cheered, and a number of them took advantage of the lull to sprint across 200 yards of open ground to the sea, in hopes of being rescued. Nissenthall and his bodyguards joined them.

The Germans opened fire anew from nearby houses, the high ground and the sea wall over which the Canadians had leaped. Discarding their helmets and gear as they ran past the wounded placed beneath the sea wall, the men splashed into the water. The sergeant and his one remaining bodyguard, miraculously unhit by the hail of lead, dived beneath the surface and swam underwater as long as they could. Lungs bursting, they surfaced and continued seaward toward the landing craft popping in and out of the dark smoke screen. Their partly inflated Mae Wests enabled them to pause occasionally to rest until they were picked up by an LCA. Shell bursts pursued the boat into the smoke, then ceased.

As the boat emerged from the billowing murk, it was set upon by two enemy fighters. This was, to Nissenthall, ‘the most frightening episode of the whole raid.’ German 20mm cannon shells slammed against the small craft’s sides, and it began to take on water. The battered LCA slowly sank, even as its exhausted occupants were being hauled aboard an escort destroyer.

With the destroyer bringing up the rear, a variety of smaller vessels churned northward, away from the French coast. German air attacks continued as the battered flotilla crossed the Channel, overwhelming the outnumbered British Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes.

Operation Jubilee was a costly disaster. Numerous factors, including inadequate supporting fire and a delay in landing the tanks, had doomed it from the start. A withdrawal under fire began at 11 a.m. that fateful Wednesday and continued for about three hours. More than 3,600 men in the invading force were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The Royal Navy incurred another 550 casualties and lost a destroyer and 33 landing craft. The RAF lost 106 aircraft to the Luftwaffe‘s 48. German ground losses were only 591. Whether or not ‘the successful landing in Normandy (on June 6, 1944) was won on the beaches of Dieppe,’ as Combined Operations Command Chief Lord Louis Mountbatten stated, important lessons were learned from the mission and applied to future operations.

Nissenthall disembarked at Newhaven late that August 19. The next morning–in his own words, ‘dirty, dishevelled and unshaven’–he rode a commuter train to London. There, he reported to the Air Ministry building for a full debriefing. If the sergeant was disappointed that he had not been able to examine the Freya firsthand and return with its innards, he was pleased to hear that his severing the telephone lines had provided the Allies with priceless information. British eavesdroppers, listening to the temporarily open German radio plotting that directed Luftwaffe interceptors, learned much about both enemy aircraft control methods and the performance of the key Freya radar. One result was the creation of suitable jamming equipment, a task assigned to Nissenthall.

Nissenthall was unable to tell his story for 25 years because of the Official Secrets Act. His next assignment was in the Middle East, where he set up a defensive radar system. After the war he married, shortened his name to Nissen and moved to South Africa.

Years after the war’s end, the Company A commander, who had been captured at Pourville, got together with Nissen. As they reminisced, the former captain told Nissen that he had found the order he had received regarding his’spook’ so repulsive that he had put it out of his mind for 20 years and then wondered if it all had been a figment of his imagination. ‘Could you have shot me?’ asked Nissen. The answer was, ‘Yes, probably I would have.’ Nissen knew too much about Allied radar.

This article was written by Wil Deac and was originally published in the February 1998 issue of World War II.

Why Raid Dieppe?

Many factors contributed to the decision to mount a large raid into occupied Europe in 1942. The Soviet Union was pressuring the Allied forces to open a second front in Western Europe. The Allies, however, needed more time to build up their military resources before undertaking such a massive effort. They felt that a large raid on the coast of France, however, could force the Germans to divert more of their military resources away from the Soviet Union and also help in the planning for the full-scale Allied assault that would eventually have to take place.

Canadian soldiers had been training since the outset of the war in 1939 and, except for the Battle of Hong Kong, had yet to see significant action. There was political pressure at home to finally get the Canadians into battle, as well as impatience within the army itself.

Dieppe is a resort town situated at a break in the cliffs along the northwest coast of France and was selected as the main target of the raid partially because it was within range of fighter planes from Britain. The Allies&rsquo plan was to launch a large-scale amphibious landing, damage enemy shipping and port facilities, and gather intelligence on German defences and radar technology. Recent research has suggested that the desire to capture a top secret Enigma code machine and accompanying codebooks was also an important factor in mounting the raid.

First Blood for the Army Rangers at Dieppe

The Allied landing at Dieppe on the coast of France in August 1942 is scarcely mentioned in most accounts of World War II. When it is, it is called a precursor to D-Day a probing raid conducted to show the Allies how to use landing tanks or discover what the Germans were likely to do during an invasion or even a noble if bloody experiment that proved the difficulties of attacking fortified harbors.

In truth, Dieppe was an unnecessary and foreseeable fiasco, an avoidable bloodbath. It was launched not because of military necessity, but for reasons that included hubris, service politics, and “morale”—the 1940s term for public relations or propaganda, depending on your perspective.

The justifications of the men in charge have cast a shadow on the actions of the roughly ten thousand men who took part in the invasion and in the air war above the beaches. The soldiers’ bravery and sacrifice have been largely forgotten. Canadians made up the bulk of the force and suffered several thousand killed, wounded, or captured the battle shattered the Canadian 2nd Division and remains the greatest loss in Canadian military history yet even in Canada, veterans of Dieppe have had to struggle for recognition.

If the Canadians were forgotten, the U.S. Army Rangers who were there that day have been almost completely ignored. Yet the lessons of Dieppe—not those of tactics or strategies, but of what physically happens to a man when he is thrown into the hellfire of combat—are part of every Ranger’s heritage.

What was the American experience at Dieppe? In some ways, it was as varied as the historical references. Fifty soldiers were drawn from the 1st Ranger Battalion for the raid. Most went with two units of British commandos who attacked the gun batteries on Dieppe’s flanks a handful of them were assigned to Canadian units that attacked Dieppe and the closer shore guns essentially head-on. Where the bigger units succeeded, the Rangers succeeded. Where they failed, the Rangers mostly died or were taken prisoner.

In sheer numbers, the Canadian losses are so large as to be almost incomprehensible: of a force of 5,000, more than 800 were killed, more than 1,300 taken prisoner, and nearly 600 wounded. The Rangers’ contribution was much smaller, but on a proportional level their losses were just as brutal. Because of problems with their landing craft only 15 Americans actually went ashore of those, 3 were killed, 3 taken prisoner, and 5 wounded—a 73 percent casualty rate.

Remarkably, the 1st Ranger Battalion had been formed less than two months earlier and had not completed its training when it was tapped for inclusion in the battle. Rangers went on to play important roles in Operation Torch, the assault on Africa in the Italian campaigns in 1943 and perhaps most famously during D-Day at Pointe du Hoc and the surrounding area. Disbanded then reorganized, Rangers served during the cold war conflicts, in the first Gulf War, and in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, Rangers form an important part of the United States Special Operations Command. While there are still debates on how best to use them, there is no question that the soldiers are one of the most potent fighting forces in the world.

It all started in 1942, at Dieppe.

If Alex Szima hadn’t had bad luck, he might not have had any luck at all.

Then again, Szima was the kind of man who made a habit of turning bad luck into an opportunity. He’d managed to get a waiver to join the army, necessary because a six-inch scar ran down his cheek from his left eye. But as he went through basic training, it became clear from the comments of his instructors that the scar was going to disqualify him. Not that it gave him any trouble—he’d had it since an accident when he was younger—but the doctors and officers and just about everyone who looked at it thought it was going to get infected and maybe make his eye fall out. Plus it was hell to look at. Szima had busted his buns doing everything he could to win a place, but as soon as his ninety-day training period was over, he was getting bounced.

And then, three days before the end, he was shot. Some boob of a new trainee mishandled a Thompson submachine gun, and Szima landed in the base hospital with a slug in his thigh.

But that slug proved a blessing. Szima couldn’t be discharged from the army, not while an investigation was being conducted into the shooting. And then, somehow, the idea of bouncing him got lost, either in the paper shuffle or due to the growing need to increase the army’s size. Szima came out of the hospital with a cane and a promotion to private first class, not because of anything he did but because everyone else who’d gotten through basic by that time had been promoted to private first class too. He was assigned to the 1st Armored Division as a company clerk, and went to Ireland when the division, along with the 34th Infantry, became the one of the first U.S. divisions sent to Europe following Pearl Harbor. Along the way, he threw away his cane—and managed to lose the papers relating to the need to discharge him.

But Szima was bored pounding a typewriter. One day in spring 1942, he noticed a sign tacked on the bulletin board announcing that a new outfit was forming. There wasn’t much information about it, but the unit was going to be modeled after the British commandos. Szima knew it was finally his chance to leave the desks behind and get into action.

The unit was so new it didn’t even have a name. The order asking for volunteers stressed common sense and initiative, not strength, as qualifications. Volunteers who made it past the initial screening were subjected to exhaustive questioning to assess their character and makeup.

James Altieri, a technician fifth grade (essentially a corporal) with the 1st Armored Division, saw the notice too. He volunteered and found himself subjected to a withering cross-examination.

As an Italian-American, would he object to killing Italians in battle?

He admitted he’d prefer to fight Germans or the Japanese, but said he’d have no qualms about doing his duty.

Could he swim, a requirement for all soldiers in the new unit?

“Two miles was the longest I ever tried,” replied the corporal. It was a lie, but he’d heard the unit wanted strong swimmers.

“Have you ever been in any brawls,” asked the captain, “barroom fights, gang fights where people have been hurt bad?”

“Yes, sir. I grew up in a tough neighborhood,” said Altieri, who came from Philadelphia. “You either fought or you didn’t live.”

“No, sir,” said Altieri, surprised by the question.“I never went quite that far.”

“Do you think you would have guts enough to stick a knife in a man’s back and twist it?”

“I guess a fellow can do anything in the heat of battle,” said Altieri. “Sure, if it had to be done, I think I could do it.”

The truth was, Altieri didn’t even like to see chickens killed. Like most of the other volunteers in the unit, he had no experience when it came to killing, let alone the business of war. But like the others, he was willing to learn, if that’s what it took.

Altieri, Szima, and roughly eight hundred other men were chosen for the new unit. Within days, they were en route to Carrickfergus, a small town twenty miles north of Belfast, Ireland. They had barely found the barracks when they began training with the most basic of army exercises: marching. After about two weeks they were covering twelve miles in two hours. Men dropped from exhaustion quietly they were removed from the unit.

Each morning, Altieri thought he’d be gone by the end of the day. But the idea of returning to his unit as a failure pushed him on. He didn’t want to be branded as a gutless, all-talk wonder. Finally, after roughly three weeks, the troop was organized into a battalion with companies and a headquarters section. Altieri was still there.

As the training continued, the soldiers would look back longingly on those early marches. Their days were filled with live fire exercises, practice assaults—and even longer forced marches.

On August 2, 1942, Szima and three fellow Rangers—Staff Sgt. Kenneth D. Stempson, Cpl. William Brady, and Cpl. Franklin “Zip” Koons—were ordered to report to a lieutenant-colonel Lord Lovat at Portsmouth harbor.

Lovat was not only a lord he was also chief of Clan Fraser of Lovat. The tall, athletic, semi-eccentric Scottish aristocrat had Hollywood looks and a friendly nature, except when it came to battle. The Americans had been given firm instructions to use the term “Lord” when presenting themselves to him. Szima, anxious to make a good impression, spent at least an hour in the WC on the train down rehearsing his speech.

Szima barely got the word “Lord” out of his mouth before the lieutenant-colonel jumped from his desk and pumped his hand.

“Glad to have you aboard,” said the commando leader. He waved away the men’s attempts to produce their orders and sent them to find quarters.

From that moment on, they were part of the team. The first two nights after they arrived, Szima and the others practiced clambering into landing craft in the dark. Once they had that mastered, the Rangers and commandos rehearsed landings, finding their way to the rocky English shores in daylight and at night. In a typical drill, the Rangers and commandos would cross about forty yards of beach covered with barbed wire, mines, and tank obstacles, advancing as the lead team took out a simulated pillbox. They would then climb the cliff, often with the help of portable ladders carried in five-foot sections. Moving through the woods at the top, they would march to a mock battery where they would make their attack.

The Rangers and commandos spent eight nights practicing the assaults. The training here had a different pace than before the exercises were more specific, repeating the same problems over and over again. They began to seem like rehearsals.

Once the night assault practices were finished, the commandos and Rangers billeted with local families. In some cases the men became fairly close to the people who were boarding them, many of whom had husbands or sons in the service they might be treated as surrogate sons—and once in a while as replacement lovers. But in most cases the relationships were fleeting and superficial the commandos were just passing through, and experience had taught the women opening their homes that it wasn’t wise to get too close to people they might miss when they left.

The Americans were given allowances to cover their necessities, which were often stretched for the benefit of their allies. When the unit broke from training at lunchtime, Szima regularly treated his commando pal Jim Haggerty, an Irishman who’d joined the British army, to beers at a local pub.

High ground protected Dieppe to the west, to the right of the city when viewed from the sea. Lovat’s No. 4 Commando was given the mission of destroying a battery of six large guns about four miles west of Dieppe near Varengeville. The battery sat about three-quarters of a mile from the edge of chalky cliffs that overlooked the rocky beach. Topped with camouflage netting, the heavy guns and their crews sat behind a concrete and sandbag berm but were otherwise open to the air. An antiaircraft gun and an observation tower were immediately behind the battery the barbed wire defensive perimeter included machine gun emplacements.

The battery area was to the southeast of a lighthouse, which sat above the cliffs at Cap D’Ailly. This was a rural, wooded area of apple orchards and private yards. Varengeville was a small village, with even smaller hamlets scattered nearby. To the west, or right when looking from the water, sat the village of Ste. Marguerite near the mouth of the Saane River.

August 18, 1942, dawned dim and gray on the English Channel. The high winds of the day before had calmed somewhat, but they remained strong enough to foam the wave tips white. At Dieppe, the sky turned the water a darkish blue-green. Alex Szima and Zip Koons exchanged glances as they hustled to their spots on the Weymouth waterfront. The men had been told the night before to settle their bills because they were going on a two-day exercise. But most knew better: they were heading for a raid.

Later that afternoon the Rangers and commandos were mustered to attention to hear a visitor speak. It was Lord Mountbatten, the overall commander of the operation, who’d come aboard ship to give them a pep talk.

Mountbatten tried breaking the ice with a few off-color jokes, then got to his point. No matter what happened, he told them, they needed to hit their objective—the big guns. The job was critical: without it, the mission would fail. The guns had to be taken out. The guns. He couldn’t emphasize that more.

The commander was candid about the fact that the raid wasn’t intended as the start of a second front, but what he called “a reconnaissance in depth.” He was also candid about their prospects. “Tomorrow we deal the Hun a bloody blow,” Mountbatten said. “We expect over 60 percent casualties. To those of you that will die tomorrow, may God have mercy on your souls.”

Whatever his purpose might have been, Mountbatten’s dire prediction hit many of the men like a kidney punch. Speechless, Szima, Koons, Stempson, and Brady made their way to the cabin they’d been assigned, stunned by the enormity of what they were about to undertake. Szima came upon a sailor willing to sell a bottle of rum for a pound. The Ranger sped back to his companions to share. But the mood remained somber, despite the drinks. Koons was convinced he’d been selected for the mission because his company commander had it in for him.

“Captain Miller never did like me and just wants to get rid of me,” he blurted.

“Nah,” insisted Szima. “We’re going to be the 40 percent that survives.”

Before they knew it, the order came to board the landing craft. It was 2:30 a.m. They’d all been up for twenty-two hours.

The assault on the battery near Varengeville was to be made by two groups. One would land directly in front of the coastal battery near the lighthouse on a beach dubbed Orange One. Szima and Koons were in this detachment, commanded by Maj. Derek Mills-Roberts. The second would land to the west near Ste. Marguerite at Orange Two, swinging in a semicircle to attack the battery from the rear. Stempson and Brady were in this group, under Lord Lovat’s direct command.

As the boats neared the shore the lighthouse’s beacon stopped flashing. Star shells flew into the air from the tower nearby. The light caught the small boats, illuminating everyone, holding them for a long moment as the flares burned down.

Koons had calmed down considerably since his outburst aboard the ship. Or maybe he was just tired. He hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, and between his fatigue and the rhythmical rocking of the boat, he dozed off as the boats headed toward shore. Suddenly, seawater splashed on his face, and he woke to the buzz of two Spitfires racing overhead. The airplanes, only a few hundred feet over the ocean, fired at the lighthouse. Antiaircraft batteries began to respond.

I’m really in the war, Koons told himself.

The boats stopped with a rough grumble against the stones. The ramps fell and the men in the LCAs leapt forward. Szima and Haggerty splashed through two feet of water and ran quickly to the shadow of the cliffs, hunkering down as the team responsible for clearing the ravines scouted the two openings nearby, deciding which to use. The Germans had strung their spools of barbed wire across both ravines. The obstructions appeared less formidable in the wider gully to the west a pair of Bangalore torpedoes were put into place, and the concertina wire blown up.

The soldiers feared that the main path up the cut, a set of concrete and stone steps, had been mined. Clambering along the sides, they slipped on the wet rocks and mud, crawling at times just to keep moving. Spitfires continued strafing the lighthouse area, where a group of Germans was manning gun posts. So far, the commando group had not been engaged.

Szima and Haggerty ran past a stand of pine and fern to the narrow road that ended near the path to the beach. Small houses and buildings dotted both sides of the road there were small gardens and open fields. Near one of the houses, Szima saw his first dead man: a German soldier whose grenade had exploded when he’d been shot. The man was in pieces steam rose from his broken body.

Szima’s section began moving through the yards and checking the houses. Going through the first house, Szima found a locked bedroom door. He gathered himself, then took a step, raised his leg, and stamped his foot against the wood. The door flew inside a dead German lay on the bed.

Something moved in the corner Szima jerked and fired, so tense that his finger clicked off two rounds.

His target crumpled to the ground. When he regained his breath, he realized it was a blanket that had been tossed in the corner.

As his men cleared the hamlet near the beach and moved into position northwest of the German battery, Mills-Roberts took stock of the situation. The plan called for his team to engage the gun battery from positions directly in front of it at 6:30 a.m. this would draw their attention away from the rear and side of the gun battery as Lovat’s team approached to make the main assault. It was now 5:40 a.m. They were well ahead of schedule.

Suddenly, the ground shook with the report of a heavy gun going into action. The battery had been manned and began to fire at the main assault fleet in front of Dieppe. Mills-Roberts decided to attack immediately.

The German battery sat in front of a row of buildings nestled on the north side of the main road. It was bordered on the west by fields and yards. The commandos approached from the west and southwest, moving from the hamlet they had just secured to the one just behind the battery, and to the fields that were on the west of the big guns. Low hedges and wire fences marked the boundaries of the generously spaced yards dirt lanes ran at the sides. Some of the fields were filled with apple trees, and a number of commandos grabbed apples as they advanced, stuffing them into their pockets.

Germans sniped from the houses and fields. Running through the orchard, Szima heard a buzz and threw himself to the ground. A bullet grazed his watch cap—one of at least two that would knock it off during the engagement. Pulling up his rifle, the Ranger spotted the man across the road as the German took aim at a commando, Szima squeezed off six rounds of black-tipped, armor-piercing bullets into the man, blowing him to pieces.

Farther up the road, a sniper sat on a rooftop, dousing the road with gunfire. Once more, Szima worked himself around to a firing position his second shot sent the man crashing to the ground.

Even if he’d forgotten the maps and model he’d been shown, Szima would have known he was close to the battery by the report of the guns as he ran. The big cannons made a heavy therump as they fired, tossing their shells in the direction of the invasion fleet. Crossing the road in their direction, Szima spotted a stable in one of the yards and ran for it. As he reached the archway, someone yelled, “Watch out, Yank!” He ducked inside just as a German potato masher flew into the courtyard.

After it exploded, Szima caught a glimpse of Haggerty sighting his Thompson on the German nearby. He didn’t stop firing until he’d run through his fifty-bullet drum magazine.

Szima burst into the farm building. Seeing it was clear he climbed to the second story and found what he was looking for: an unobstructed view of the rear of the battery. The white work clothes and shiny helmets of the gunners ferrying shells to their guns made obvious targets.

The Germans were like puppets, Szima thought, watching them fall as he pumped the trigger. He sighted, pressed the trigger, sighted again. The bang of the gun as it fired was followed by a loud ping as the armor-piercing bullet hit the helmet and went through the soldier’s skull. He hit another man whose helmet flew upwards, spinning twenty-five feet or more in the air.

Koons’s squad found a similar vantage point in a barn nearby. Koons zeroed in on the battery and began shooting. A German went down then another. Then another and another. It was almost surreal. He had a perfect vantage, and he became almost a machine, firing at the enemy. The words of the men who’d trained him, the instructor who’d taught him to shoot, the experience of the range and years of hunting—all of that was working somewhere on an unconscious level. He was just doing his job, sighting and firing so quickly he lost track of how many men he hit.

As the harrying fire began to have an effect, German snipers began shooting at the buildings. Szima moved to another spot and began firing again. The snipers chased him from the second spot. This time the Ranger jumped down and landed in a manure pit. He had a hell of a time clearing his gun, but managed to do so and resumed firing.

By now a German 81mm mortar crew had rallied to their weapons, and began lobbing their large bombs just beyond the battery’s defensive perimeter. The heavy shells killed more cows than men, but for a moment the starch seemed to go out of the Allied attack. Then a commando two-inch mortar crew in the field near Koons fired on the German battery. The first shot went wide right, landing behind the big guns. The next was a direct hit in the middle of the battery, but the small bomb seemed to explode without doing damage, its burst absorbed easily by the sandbags protecting the emplacements.

The third sailed closer to the perimeter. It just missed Gun 1 and struck sacks of cordite stacked nearby. The charges exploded with a shriek. Flames leapt from the battery as the ground shook. The men nearby were killed when other Germans rushed to help them or put out the flames, they were cut down by Koons and the others firing from the buildings behind them.

Not long after, the air was filled with six huge explosions in quick succession jags of metal flew through the air, showering the woods and nearby fields. Lovat’s men, fighting a desperate battle with bayonets and even their fists had stormed the battery and put the guns out of action for good with demolition charges.

Objective achieved, the unit fell back. Szima and a commando with an antitank gun were assigned to act as a rear guard, and they took shelter behind a thick wall in one of the yards. The men of Lovat’s sections who had charged the battery fell back first then came the members of Mills-Roberts’s group. Szima spotted Koons’s commando buddy, patched up and helping another wounded man back to the beach. But he didn’t see Koons.

The Ranger steeled himself, and continued to keep watch, scanning the commandos as they came through, worried now about his friend. Finally, the stream of commandos ebbed. Then there was no one left, no one except the dead.

“Come on, Yank,” said the commando with him.

Szima knelt, getting ready to ignite a smoke grenade to cover their retreat. Then he heard someone running on the road. They’d waited too long. The Germans had rallied and were on their way.

Szima signaled for the commando to step back, then aimed his M1 at the small gate in the wall. He pulled the trigger back three-fourths of the way, just to the point where it would take a slight tremor to fire. But something Szima would never be able to fully explain kept him from shooting. The door swung open and Koons came through. They stared at each other in shock.

It took Szima several heartbeats before he could growl at the corporal and tell him to get going.

A few minutes later, finally satisfied that there were no more stragglers, Szima and the British commando once more prepared to leave. Just then a German troop truck drove up. A soldier got out, checked the area, and then hopped back inside. The truck started toward them.

The commando fired a .55-caliber antitank round point-blank at the truck’s engine. The truck stopped dead and Germans poured out from the rear. Szima emptied his clip, then turned and tried to help the corporal with the long-barreled weapon as they retreated. They scrambled into each other and fell, German rifle fire passing over their heads as they slid down a small ravine. Back on their feet, they ran until they reached their next checkpoint, just barely remembering the password when challenged.

By 7:30 a.m., No. 4 Commando had accomplished its mission, with considerably less loss of life than Mountbatten had predicted or its commander had feared. From the perspective of the men leaving the beach below Varengeville, the Dieppe raid had been a stunning success.

But their perspective was severely limited. By the end of the day, No. 4 Commando’s exploits would stand in stark contrast to the raid as a whole.

For Altieri, still training back in England, August 19 coincided with the first break his Ranger company had in two months of nonstop exercises. As a reward, they were granted forty-eight hours’ leave. They aimed to make the most of it.

Or at least Altieri did until his sergeant called him and another corporal front and center and told them they had volunteered for MP duty.

Altieri grudgingly complied, and he and the other corporal, along with a friend who took pity on them, patrolled the town, watching sourly as their friends filled the bars. During their rounds, they befriended a good-natured Scotsman who wanted to have his picture taken with them. Finding a local photographer’s shop, they began joking around, trading hats and posing, until one of the Rangers suggested that Altieri would look smashing in a kilt.

The Scotsman agreed, on the condition that he could dress up as an American. Altieri pulled on the kilt, which seemed a bit long at the knees.

Just then, someone shouted for an MP. Still wearing the kilt, Altieri headed into a bar and discovered some of his friends in the middle of a fight with British sailors and Royal Marines. The Rangers were outnumbered but ahead on points: three Rangers and five sailors were on the floor, all knocked out.

Altieri waded into the fight and promptly got decked. When he came to, his company sergeant was standing over him, shaking his head. The kilt’s owner soon entered, took one look at his ruined skirt—it had been ripped and trampled in the melee— and demanded restitution.

Fortunately, Altieri had recently won a tidy sum at poker, and he was able to settle the matter by paying the man for his clothes and buying the locals a drink. He was still clearing his head when another man from the outfit ran in with a newspaper and threw it down on the bar. The men read the headline in silence:



Altieri blew the rest of his money on drinks. They really were in the war now.

Excerpt from Rangers at Dieppe by Jim DeFelice (Berkley Caliber, January 2008).

Originally published in the December 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.

Lieutenant Jean-Jacques Lévesque and “Operation Jubilee”

Over the past three years, whenever I have given a presentation about Jeanne Chevalier and her family, I have usually provided a listing of her descendants who are famous enough to be known in the USA, Quebec and France: Rene Lévesque, Celine Dion, and Jack Kerouac. Only recently have I started to include the name of Lieutenant Jean-Jacques Lévesque.

Every year on August 19, there is a commemoration of the disastrous Allied raid on Dieppe that took place on that date in 1942. The raid, known as “Operation Jubilee,” was intended to surprise the German forces, quickly destroy targeted installations, demonstrate Allied strength in order to divert German forces away from the Soviet Union, and test equipment and plans for the future liberation of Europe.

Of the 5,000 Canadian troops involved in the raid that day, 907 were killed, 1,154 were wounded, and 1,946 were taken prisoner. The casualties also included British, Belgian, Free French, and Polish soldiers, as well as a small number of American rangers. Although the raid was a disaster in terms of human lives lost, in what could be said to be an attempt to paint it in more positive terms, it is said to have provided the Allies with important lessons for the D-Day invasion two years later. “For every Canadian life lost here in Dieppe in 1942,” one monument, situated on the beach at Dieppe, reads, “ten lives were saved in June, 1944.”

Most of the Canadian dead are buried in the Canadian cemetery at Les Vertus, 5 kilometers from Dieppe. It’s a solemn place, away from much of the traffic, with a view to the hills beyond. Every year, the names of those soldiers are read aloud as part of the annual commemoration at the cemetery. In visits to the cemetery, I had discovered that one of the gravestones belongs to Jean-Jacques Lévesque. During the reading of names this past August, I elected to read the page with Jean-Jacques’ name on it, feeling a connection, but not knowing if one really existed.

Gravestone at Les Vertus cemetery

Thanks to research done by Fernand and Marie-Ange Lévesque, researchers at the Lévesque Association, Inc., I now know that indeed he is a descendant of Jeanne and Robert, through their first son Francois-Robert and his wife Marie-Charlotte Aubert, as I am.

That research discovered that Jean-Jacques was the son of Joseph Roméo-Hervé Lévesque and Marie-Marthe Joron, who were married on May 12, 1919 in the parish of Saint-Jacques in Montreal. Jean-Jacques’ baptismal act has not been located, but it is believed that he was born around 1920, most likely the first born of the Lévesque – Joron couple. He was a lieutenant in the Montreal-based Fusiliers Mont-Royal regiment, the only French-Canadian unit in the Dieppe operation.

According to a Canadian news report, broadcast 75 years later, “For the 584 mainly French-Canadian soldiers of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal, Dieppe was something of a homecoming given the French port’s ties to the colonies of New France.” Their involvement, that included being charged with capturing German codebooks and cipher materials, was testimony to “the instrumental [but often overlooked] role that the Quebecois and French-Canadians played in the Canadian army and the Canadian forces as a whole.”

Allied plans for the raid did not work out as intended, for the Fusiliers, or for the other soldiers. “Over the brief four or five hours of battle, 119 Fusiliers were killed and another 344 taken prisoner. Only 125 made it back to England that afternoon, of whom four died from their wounds.” Jean-Jacques, at the age of 22, was one of those 119 Fusiliers who lost their lives that day.

Monument in memory of the Fusiliers Mont-Royal on the beach in Dieppe

In addition to the grave marker in the cemetery at Les Vertus, Jean-Jacques’ name is inscribed on a plaque in Montreal, commemorating the officers of the regiment who died during the Second World War.

Oddly, both Jean-Jacques and I have completed the circle that Jeanne Chevalier initiated in June, 1671. I, however, am not sure I plan to die here, but then neither did he.

Watch the video: Turning Points of History: Die Like Brave Men Dieppe, 1942 (January 2022).