At dusk on the 18th August 1942, a small convoy of five commandeered Dutch vessels, escorted by a German armed minesweeper and two submarine chasers, slipped out of Boulogne. The ships were bound for Dieppe, with an estimated time of arrival of 05:00 the following morning. At 01:00 the moon went down and in a light mist, the Germans were happier now that they were unlikely to be attacked by British MTBs.
At 03:00 the crews heard the sounds of engines and mounted their battle stations. At 03:37 the German ships picked up multiple contacts on their direction finding equipment and Lieutenant Werner in UJ 1404 fired a star shell. Out of the gloom came the shapes and low profiles of motor boats and landing craft. The German convoy had blundered into the Dieppe Raid.
The summer of 1942 was a pretty wretched time for the British and Commonwealth forces. Malaya and Singapore had fallen to the Japanese. Tobruk in North Africa had fallen to the Germans and in a single week in July, the British had lost over 400,000 tons of shipping, mainly to U-boats.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill was under pressure to open a second front to relive the Russians, who were heavily engaged on the Eastern Front.. Churchill himself was champing at the bit for the British forces to conduct offensive action, after the successes of the small scale raids on the Norwegian coastline. Field-Marshal Alan Brooke who was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had the unenviable task of tempering some of Churchill’s more bizarre plans. As he put it: Churchill… “had an incurable wish to stick his fingers in every pie before it was cooked.” The Prime Minister had wanted a full-scale invasion of Norway, or to land the Brigade of Guards on the Cherbourg Peninsular. Churchill may have been a brilliant wartime leader, but he was no military genius like his great ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough. His failure at the Gallipoli Campaign in the First World War had left a deep scar in Churchill’s psyche and he was always the proponent of offensive action, as if to make amends or vindicate him for the Gallipoli debacle.
The success of the brilliant but costly raid of Saint-Nazaire had proved that this aggressive spirit could succeed and proved to be a valuable morale booster on the home front. In early 1942 the Chiefs of Staff Committee was joined by a fourth member, Lord Louis Mountbatten, as head of Combined Operations. Brooke, a shrewd but conventional soldier was unhappy that this newcomer shared Churchill’s appetite for some of the more unconventional schemes to strike back at the Germans. During a Chiefs of Staff Committee in March, Churchill’s plan of an assault and lodgement in France, codenamed “Operation Sledgehammer” was discussed.
The target was to be a port, not one of the major ones along the French coast as they were heavily defended. The target was to be within range of fighter aircraft cover and a short crossing to prevent seasickness. Dieppe was duly selected as the crossing could be undertaken during the hours of darkness. Mountbatten gave the go-ahead for plans to be drawn up on 4th April 1942.
The Combined Operations planning staff drew up two plans for a raid on Dieppe. The first was for a direct assault on the port, supported by an armoured regiment of the new Churchill tanks. They each weighed 40 tons and were untried in combat. Another battalion of infantry was to land at Quiberville, some eight miles to the west, two battalions in Pourville, two miles to the west and two more at Puys, which was immediately east of the port, with a further two battalions as a floating reserve.
The second plan called for a massive frontal assault against the port and town, supported by flank assaults at Pourville and Puys, while paratroopers and glider infantry would capture two heavy gun batteries at Bereneval (six miles east) and Varengeville-sur-Mer (three miles west). Mountbatten put the second plan to the Chiefs of Staff Committee and immediately the infighting started. Brooke although approving the plan with the Committee, insisted that the Army’s role in the raid should come under the direction of Home Forces, rather than Combined Operations. As the Chiefs of Staff Committee held the necessary resources. Mountbatten agreed.
The man delegated to see it through was Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery, Chief of Southern England Command. It is interesting to note in hindsight, how Mountbatten and Montgomery attempted to distance themselves from the planning in the aftermath of the raid. Montgomery went with the plan for a frontal assault on the port, as intelligence indicated that the area was garrisoned with less than 1,400 low-calibre troops. Unlike Montgomery, Mountbatten was not in favour of the option of a frontal assault, but was forced to go with it to secure the release of men and equipment. The operation was given the code name “Rutter.”
Mountbatten had wanted to use Royal Marines and Army Commandos who were “trained for the job,” but the decision as to which troops to use fell to General Sir Bernard Paget, Commander Home Forces. Montgomery strongly denies that he was responsible for selecting the Canadians and therefore blamed Paget. Paget’s view was that the Canadians had trained long and hard and were becoming bored in England. Lieutenant-General Harry Crerar commanding 1st Canadian Army Corps claimed that he was summoned to Montgomery’s headquarters and asked “Do you want it?” to which he replied “You bet.” The Canadian government was delighted, “The Canadian Army in England is chafing at the bit and is burning to come to grips with the enemy.”
If the Canadian government was so desperately keen for their troops to go to France, many of the long suffering people and Constabulary of Sussex would be only too pleased to see the back of them. The Canadians found the cold and damp climate of England not to their liking, even though their barracks were warmed with a higher allowance of coal than the British Army. When the Canadian Army Corps was moved to Sussex, they were suffering from poor health, homesickness, what they considered to be bad food and boredom. They found the local population to be stand-offish and indifferent to them, or as we would probably note, just being English.
Canadian discipline was at times poor. Disciplinary logs note incidents of failing to get out of bed for reveille, striking officers, insolence, smoking on route marches and heckling Montgomery when he inspected troops in the rain, forcing them to leave the shelter of a drill shed. The local pubs were very popular with the Canadian Army, as was fighting and resisting arrest. From December 1940 until August 1942, seventy-one officers were tried by court martial, with at least five times that for enlisted men. Articles appeared in Sussex newspapers of Canadian misbehaviour alongside reports of local men being killed in action in North Africa. The major complaint was that the Canadians had too much money and didn’t know how to spend it wisely. The French Canadians would pillage fields and orchards in the area, fill up trucks with the produce and drive into London to sell it on the black market.
Of course the Germans used the stories (factual or otherwise) of Canadian indiscipline in their propaganda broadcasts. “Lord Haw Haw” said in one broadcast: “If you really want to take Berlin, give each Canadian soldier a motorcycle and a bottle of whisky; then declare Berlin out of bounds and the Canadians will be there within 48 hours.” There may have been resentment from the locals, but these were volunteers that had left their homeland, to go to a wet, crowded, little cluster of islands to fight the Germans, not march around the Sussex countryside. Be careful what you wish for.
The Canadian Division’s new commander Major-General John Hamilton Roberts made a concerted effort to stamp out the indiscipline and improve the reputation of the Canadian soldiers. The Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King had been told rather tactlessly by Montgomery, that most Canadian Field Officers were: “…rather too old for this war” and Mackenzie King passed this on to Roberts, who had a purge of the officers under his command. Roberts also instigated a series of exhausting manoeuvres and field training to burn off the Canadians’ surplus energy.
The planning for Rutter moved on apace and Major-General Roberts delegated his input to the planning to his Chief Operations Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Churchill Mann, a talented staff officer who unfortunately had no experience of raiding operations. Churchill Mann immediately spotted the potential flaws in the plan to conduct a frontal attack on an enemy port, but agreed the plan had a good chance of success, “Providing the engineer tasks were suitably dealt with.” On 9th May the Joint Force component commanders were appointed. Roberts would be the military commander, Air Vice-Marshal Trafford Leigh Mallory the air commander and Rear-Admiral H. T. Baillie-Grohman as Naval commander. Final say as to whether the force should set sail fell to Admiral Sir William James at Portsmouth.
The plan submitted on the same day made an astonishing and flawed assumption in that, “Intelligence reports indicate that Dieppe is not heavily defended and that its beaches in the vicinity, are eminently suitable for landing infantry and armoured fighting vehicles.” Anyone who has attempted to walk up Dieppe’s steeply sloping pebble and stone beaches could have questioned that assumption and as a popular pre-war holiday destination, there must have been many. Having assumed that a coastal port would be lightly defended, the plan outlined its objectives, which were: To destroy enemy port facilities and petrol dumps in the vicinity of Dieppe. To destroy enemy defences and radar installations, power stations, rail facilities and to remove from use, forty “invasion barges” lying in Dieppe harbour.
The allocation of forces was also slightly changed. Two infantry brigades, each of three battalions would be involved in the landings. Two battalions would go ashore at Pourville, west of Dieppe and one at Berneval to the east of the port. These flank attacks were to supress anti-aircraft and coastal defences, before linking up with the main assault at Dieppe. These flank attacks would also involve paratroopers, dropping during the early hours.
Two battalions would land on the main beaches in front of the town of Dieppe, supported by thirty Churchill tanks and engineering support. Thirty more tanks and a further battalion would be held offshore as a floating reserve. After Dieppe had capitulated, the raiding force would be extracted from the main beach and a magically undamaged port.
The naval support was woefully inadequate for such a large-scale raid, comprising six Hunt class destroyers with 4” guns, which were supposed to keep the Germans’ heads down. Even the small-scale Vaagso raid in Norway had been supported by a cruiser. The First Sea Lord, Sir Dudley Pound probably had the loss of the Prince of Wales and Repulse to aircraft off Malaya to draw on as a lesson. Mountbatten understood the reluctance of the Navy to risk capital ships in the channel, but tried to reason with the First Sea Lord, who replied: “Battleships by daylight off the French coast? You must be mad, Dickie.”
The mistakes and planning flaws were mounting. A frontal attack against a major coastal port, insufficient firepower to support the landings, but there was still the air component, wasn’t there? Because of Churchill’s reluctance to cause French civilian casualties, targets could only be bombed if the conditions were perfect. This restriction had meant that due to low cloud, the RAF’s contribution to the St Nazaire had been to fly fruitlessly above the town to wake up the German garrison. Eventually Churchill reluctantly agreed to a night bombing of the port prior to the raid.
The Canadian troops were moved to the Isle of Wight for final training. Its chalk cliffs were similar to Dieppe’s, it had abundant beaches to practice landings and it was a secure location where the Canadians could be contained. The 5,000 strong Canadian contingent was codenamed “Simmerforce,” and it undertook a series of exercises to increase the sometimes lacking stamina of the Canadian troops, who were not, to be fair to them, Commandos. The training improved the Canadians’ stamina and morale and by June 1942, they were pretty sure they could have a good crack at wherever they were going.
On 5th June a final planning meeting was held where Leigh-Mallory raised objection to the night bombing of the port, claiming it was likely to be inaccurate and would serve only to alert the German garrison. But it was not only the night attack but all aspects of bombing the town. Roberts should have objected to the withdrawal of this crucial support, but he agreed and stated that the bombing would likely impede the progress of his tanks through the streets. The Naval firepower was insufficient and Leigh Mallory with Roberts’s agreement had pulled the plug on the only effective way of suppressing the German defences. Montgomery wrote in his memoirs: “I would not myself agree to these changes. The demoralisation of enemy troops by preliminary bombing (as in Normandy – my insert) was essential.” Montgomery was being disingenuous as he in fact chaired the meeting. Instead of bombing, there would be strafing attacks on the headlands with cannon armed fighters, on the morning of the raid.
Mountbatten was in Washington at the time of the planning meeting of June 5th and on his return to London he was shocked that the bombing had been cancelled. So Operation Rutter was going to frontally attack an important port, which was supposed to be lightly defended, with no significant naval gunfire support and no meaningful air support. The Canadian commanders should have protested vociferously, but they were so desperate to get their troops into action, they had become infected with “groupthink.”
A final exercise was held near Bridport in Dorset on the 12th June, Operation Yukon, observed by Generals Paget, McNaughton and Crerar and it was a total shambles. The flanking battalions landed on the wrong beaches, the Royal Regiment was landed two miles away from its intended beach and the tank landing craft became lost and arrived over an hour too late. A second operation, Yukon II was mounted which went marginally better. The Canadian generals were convinced that if only the Navy could put them ashore at the right place at the right time, that the battle was won. They seemed incapable of extrapolating the likely consequences if such shambles as in training occurred on the enemy coast. Like an amateur dramatic production, they were convinced “it would be all right on the night.”
Operation Rutter was set for the 4th July, the Canadians boarded the converted Channel ferry troopships and over 200 assorted vessels lay off the Isle of Wight. On board the troop ships, the commanders told their cheering soldiers that their target was the port of Dieppe. But the weather intervened, and all coastal raiding operations are completely dependent on favourable tide and weather conditions. While the ships weathered out a storm, they were attacked on 7th July by Focke-Wulf 190 fighter bombers and the Princess Astrid was hit. The bomb went right through the ship and exploded in the water. The Charlotte had a bomb go through the engine room to explode under the ship, severely damaging it. Fortunately only four soldiers were slightly injured, but Operation Rutter was effectively off. A hypocritical Montgomery was delighted at the raid’s cancellation writing: “I had never been happy about this difficult operation being done by such inexperienced commanders and troops.”
With the cancellation of Rutter, the newspapers in Britain and Canada were given permission to print stories about the training schedule of the troops and astonishingly, their intended target. But Rutter was the third major raid on the enemy coast to have been cancelled and Churchill was not happy. Churchill wanted the raid to go ahead, but there was insufficient time to recce another target. The plan to re-run Rutter was put to the Combined Chiefs of Staff and although there was surprise and shock, Mountbatten argued that if the Germans knew of Rutter’s target, it is unlikely that the British would be stupid enough to attack the same target with the same plan. The Canadians were asked to go with the second raid without further training, so as not to alert people to the fact the Bastard Son of Rutter was back on. Roberts agreed and reiterated that they were anxious “To get cracking as soon as possible.” The Canadians may have had a reason for this naïve enthusiasm. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and Mountbatten did not.
The Dieppe Raid was given a new title, Operation Jubilee. Montgomery was replaced by the Canadian Crerar, for which he must have been profoundly grateful. There were tweaks made to the plan and the airborne element was replaced by Numbers 3 and 4 Commandos, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Durnford-Slater and Lieutenant-Colonel the Lord Lovat respectively. There was also a detachment of fifty US Rangers with the Commandos, to gain raiding experience.
At the final planning meeting there was one dissenting voice, Leigh Mallory, who now seemed convinced that the main assault would be pinned down on the beaches. He said: “The Canadians are going to have a bad time.” His was the only noted objection in the meeting.
There were several breaches of security. An officer from 3 Commando was court marshalled for telling two navy officers, that a large scale operation was going to take place. A Royal Navy officer went ashore with a copy of the naval operation order and left them lying in a hotel bar. Fortunately they were spotted by two Royal Regiment officers and returned. The naval officer was later invalided out of the Service due to stress.
The preliminary movement orders were issues on 17th August and on the 18th August 1942 the notice to move was given to commanders. The RAF finally offered preliminary bombing of the port and town, but Roberts rejected it, maintaining that the rubble would impede his troops’ progress through the town. The turd of Rutter had been polished into Jubilee and “The show was on.”
© Blown Periphery 2018