Crucial to the success of the Dieppe Raid was the capture of the eastern headland that overlooked the harbour and the two main beaches of the frontal assault. This essential task was assigned to the 24 officers and 528 other ranks, including support personnel, of the Royal Regiment of Canada (RRC used to prevent confusion with Royal Marines), under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Douglas Catto. If the eastern and western headlands overlooking the port and assault beaches were not suppressed, then the Raid would surely fail. Furthermore, the entire plan relied on surprise to overcome the defences and in the event of a lack of surprise, there was no back-up plan.
At high tide Blue Beach was barely 250 yards wide with 50 yards of harsh pebbles up to the six foot sea wall. During the planning, Catto had been told that there were no wire obstacles blocking the route off the beach and up the gulley into Puys. Catto who was a veteran of the First World War, objected that any German position that was defended, would have extensive wire to protect it. Catto’s regiment had suffered a great during training being put ashore at the wrong place at the wrong time. He elected to forgo the element of surprise for a heavy bombardment to destroy the wire. General Roberts told him rather coldly that there was no wire, therefore a preliminary bombardment was unnecessary and that if he were afraid, then someone else could do the job.
In addition to securing Puys and the headland, the RRC was to knock out a German gun battery behind Puys, codenamed the Rommel Battery, destroy a German barracks in a former holiday camp in Puys and knock out anti-aircraft emplacements on the headland. In addition, the RRC was to provide support to engineers who would blow up a gas works in the port.
Just after 03:00 on 19th August 1942, the RRC climbed down into the landing craft that had been lowered from the Queen Emma, Princess Astrid and the Duke of Wellington. Right from the beginning things started to go wrong. The boats were supposed to form up behind a motor gun boat for the 10 mile run into the sure. But the boats from Princess Astrid took up station behind another gunboat and by the time the confusion had been sorted out, the RRC was 15 minutes behind schedule. The naval commander pushed the boats hard to make up for lost time and two large mechanised landing craft (LCM), each carrying 100 men and four smaller boats soon fell behind and lost the guide boat.
There is a great deal to be said for German efficiency. There is also a great deal to be said for sheer good luck. Captain Richard Schnosenberg chose the night of the 18th and 19th August to mount his weekly stand-to alarm. Schnosenberg’s area of responsibility was the coastal defence from the mole at Dieppe to Puys and this practice stand-to was instrumental in the tragedy that was about to descend on the Royal Regiment of Canada. Shortly before he was about to stand down him men, Schnosenberg heard shooting out at sea and increased the alert status. The actual defence of Puys was entrusted to Lieutenant Webber and 60 men. They were armed with standard infantry weapons which crucially included mortars and machine guns. And what’s more, in the absence of a naval bombardment, they sat impregnable in their concrete bunkers and emplacements.
As the landing craft approached Blue Beach, a signal flashed out from Dieppe’s mole and receiving no reply, searchlights went on and the guns along the coast began firing at the landing craft. The first wave of nine boats ground into the pebbles of Puys beach at 0507 hours, 17 minutes behind schedule. As soon as the ramps went down, the full fury of the German fire came down on the Canadians, and most were cut down as soon as they left the landing craft. A bare handful made it to the relative shelter of the high sea wall, and there they were trapped. Any men including the medical orderlies who left the shelter of the sea wall were shredded by machine guns or mortars.
Some men of the second wave, seeing the carnage ahead of them were too demoralised to leave the shelter of the landing craft. An enquiry was held in Portsmouth, three days after the raid, following reports that officers forced the men off the boats at gunpoint. Some of the naval officers reported that the Canadians’ behaviour was good as to be expected under the circumstances, others that they were “hanging back” in some, rare instances. How does anyone know how they would react in similar circumstances?
The second wave, which was landing in broad daylight and behind schedule after getting lost, hit the beach and ran into the murderous machine gun fire. Bodies were piling up on the ramps of the landing craft, men clambering over their dead and screaming comrades, into a hail of machine guns. Tracer criss-crossed the beach, blasting the stones into lethal fragments. The only cover were a few feet under the sea wall, but this became useless as the German mortars found their range. The stragglers coming in late knew they were sailing into hell. Some landing craft lowered their ramps too soon and the men went out into water way over their heads. Burdened by their equipment, many drowned or were run over by the landing craft.
An officer realising the hopelessness of their position, ordered all men that could make it back to the boats. The naval beach master concurred and any men that could tried to make it to the landing craft, of which there were few because their crews had moved off out of danger. As the boats pulled away, the grey pebbles were now carpeted with red and khaki and hundreds of men were still trapped on the beach.
A small group led by Colonel Catto did manage to get off the western end of the beach cutting wire and up onto the clifftop. They had managed this because the machine gun covering this end of the beach had jammed due to overheating. But once out there was no way back or onwards, so the Colonel was cut off from the rest of his regiment. This small group sheltered in a small wood, not far from their objective of the anti-aircraft battery. They listened to the gunfire from Blue Beach dying down as the Germans ran out of targets. Catto and his group surrendered as the few Canadian survivors were marched as prisoners of war past their hiding place in the early afternoon.
Of the 26 officers and 528 other ranks who went into Blue Beach, 2 officers and 63 other ranks made it back to England. A monument to the Royal regiment of Canada now stands at Puys with the following inscription:
On this beach officers and men of the Royal Regiment of Canada died at dawn, 19th August 1942, striving to reach the heights beyond.
You who are alive on this beach
Remember that these men died far from home
That others, here and everywhere, might freely
Enjoy life in God’s mercy.
Alongside the monument is a pillbox that took many lives that morning
The operation to capture the western headland at Dieppe was initially as successful as the operation on Blue Beach had been a disaster. Pourville itself hadn’t been strongly defended, because the German had calculated that the only reason for a landing at Pourville was to attack Dieppe. Therefore, defences were concentrated in a fortified zone on the headland, from where the river valley and bridge over the River Scie could be dominated. The landings were also initially successful because the South Saskatchewan Regiment was delivered at the right place and at the right time.
The headland east of Pourville was heavily defended by pillboxes, a fortified farm, HQ of the 571st Regiment, a flak battery and a radar station. The heights to the west of Pourville were defended by a small infantry detachment, although the Maison Blanche was used as a billet and mess for officers in the surrounding area. There were also about 400 workers of the Organisation Todt who were building the Atlantic Wall, billeted in Pourville.
The 25 officers and 498 other ranks of the South Saskatchewans under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt, were to secure the Pourville and its beach. The second landing of the Cameron Highlanders would move through the secured bridgehead and strike inland to the airfield at St Aubin and what was incorrectly identified as a German HQ at Arques-la-Bataille. They would then link up with the Calgary Tanks, after they had moved off the main assault beaches and through the town.
The objectives of the South Saskatchewans was that B Company would land west of the River Scie’s mouth and clear the village, while C Company captured the heights above the village. A and D Companies had the formidable task of capturing Dieppe’s western headland, armed with nothing heavier than mortars. There was a signals company, which would dismantle parts of the Radar site for removal back to Britain with a specialist from the RAF, Flight-Sergeant Jack Nissenthal, whose bodyguard had orders to shoot him if it seemed likely that he would fall into enemy hands.
The South Saskatchewans achieved total surprise with their landing without a shot being fired at them, although some German gunners on the Dieppe headland did open fire on the landing craft as they reversed off the beach. They were able to find a spot on top of the sea wall that wasn’t wired and then headed towards their objectives. Pourville was swiftly taken, along with a number of prisoners. “They were scruffy stuff when we picked them up,” commented one Canadian, but as far as the fighting went, “The real stuff would come later.”
Merritt set up his headquarters with the regimental aid post in a garage and while initially the Canadians felt upbeat about the swift capture of Pourville, the Germans, masters of the counter attack, were soon pressing on the Canadians. The headquarters was pinpointed with a radio direction finder and mortars, with which the German were so adept at using, were directed from the Dieppe headland down onto Pourville. The headquarters was hit and one of the casualties was RSM Strumm, a veteran of the First World War. Every time the signallers tried to communicate with the ships or the other elements of the regiment, the mortars would come down. Because of the severity of the sniping, the casualties were evacuated to the shelter of the sea wall to await evacuation.
C Company encountered very little resistance at first as they cleared the village and the small heights, but much time was lost getting the frightened, foreign workers out of the hotel. At the Maison Blanche officers mess, some Germans were killed in their beds as the Canadians stormed the building. At the top of the small heights above the village, C Company was pinned by effective fire coming from woods, and they went to ground. The sergeant rallied the men and an encircling manoeuvre was made against slit trenches and machine guns that had stalled the advance. Realising they were surrounded, the Germans surrendered and 12 prisoners were taken.
The specialist engineer team with Flight Sergeant Nissenthal had landed east of the Rever Scie, thus avoiding having to cross the exposed bridge. Those attempting to cross the bridge were delayed by a pillbox and wire funnelled the South Saskatchewans into a killing zone from the pillbox’s machine guns and mortars from the heights above. While the pillbox was neutralised with smoke and grenades, intense fire was been directed down on the area around the bridge. Hearing that the advance on the Dieppe headland over the bridge had been stalled, Colonel Merritt left his headquarters to see for himself what was happening.
The bridge was dominated from the heights by what the Canadians called “a concrete fort,” probably a large bunker complex. Merritt sauntered across the bridge, twiddling his steel helmet, and calling: “Come on boys, they can’t hit a thing. Come on boys, let’s go and get ‘em!” Merritt crossed the bridge many times, urging on groups of men, many of whom were cut down on and up to the heights. For his action in urging his men on under constant fire, Lieutenant-Colonel Merritt would be awarded the Victoria Cross.
Despite the efforts of their colonel, the South Saskatchewans made little progress up the fortified headland. The unwieldy 3” mortars were difficult to lug into position and their crews suffered high casualties. The limitations of the Sten gun, particularly its lack of stopping power and propensity to jam became apparent and there were critical shortages of ammunition, especially mortar rounds. The Canadians noted that the Germans would fight with great tenacity at a distance, but close quarter fighting with the bayonet seemed to paralyse them with fear. This was probably because the troops defending the area were not first-rate combat troops. But they still held their positions and killed a lot of Canadians. The headland had not and never would be taken.
The Cameron Highlanders’ boats came into Green Beach in line abreast formation, the troops coming ashore being led by a piper. Most of the landing craft beached on the east side of the River Scie, instead of the west side and Pourville. They came off the landing craft and into a withering fire from the still enemy held headland. The defences were fully awake now and the Camerons were coming under heavy mortar and sniper fire and their unit was scattered on both sides of the river. There was little else to be done but to join the South Saskatchewans in the fighting in Pourville and on the headland. The grandiose plans of boldly striking inland to St Aubin airfield were lost amid the tenacity of the German counter attack.
The special signals company actually made it to the curtain of wire surrounding the radar station, with its interlocking machine gun positions. They tried to flank the defences only to come under sustained mortar fire. Whatever they tried, the signals company could not get anywhere near their objective and fell back down the hill.
Some elements of the Camerons under the command of Major Tony Law made the deepest penetration of the entire Dieppe Raid of a mile inland. The unit tracked up the Scie Valley and crossed the river further inland, before being stopped by fire from the fortified farmhouse of Quatre Vents near Petit Appeville. German bicycle troops from the 501st Infantry Regiment had been alerted at 05:30 but it took hours before they were in position, due to their poor readiness state. This could have been a pivotal area. The Rutter plans had called for tanks landing at Pourville, but this was cancelled for Jubilee. With the extra firepower, the Camerons could have swung right round Dieppe, but it wasn’t to be. There were too few troops and they lacked support and a potential opportunity was squandered. Law ordered them back to Pourville.
There was little the Canadians at Green Beach could do apart from to dig in and wait for the withdrawal. Permission was given from the Calpe to begin a withdrawal at 10:30. The landing craft appeared at 11:00 and evacuated the Canadians holding the ground overlooking the beach. This meant that all other boat loading was conducted under heavy German fire, causing most casualties on Green Beach that day. It was a pitiful end to the only meagre Canadian success that day.
The German Opposition
German intelligence could not have failed to be aware of the pressure on Churchill to open a second front, or at least mount a large scale raid on German occupied Europe. Construction of the Atlantic Wall was accelerated on Hitler’s direct orders, particularly the sector from Le Havre to the Pas de Calais. This area of the West Wall fell under the command of the 15th Army, which consisted of 36 infantry, armoured and parachute divisions. The sector around Dieppe was the responsibility of the 302nd Infantry Division, some 50 miles of coast. The British intelligence briefings said that the area was hed by the 110th Infantry Division, which at the time of the Dieppe Raid was on the Eastern Front and had been for the past year. In later life, Mountbatten was to concede that the intelligence for Dieppe was “woefully inadequate.”
But in one respect, the intelligence was correct. The German troops garrisoning the area were indeed “second rate.” The demands of the Russian campaign had hollowed out many of the units and replacements were often not ethnic Germans, but Poles who had been conscripted from a “Greater Germany” (occupied Poland). Their choice was join the German army or become slave workers. There were many who had poor physical health and would have been rejected for service in the British Army. One ten man section in Dieppe consisted of a German NCO, two other Germans, five Poles, a Belgian and a Czech. Their armaments were a mixture of captured French and British small arms and there were insufficient vehicles to move units around the area. But the German officers and NCOs were well trained and very efficient in the doctrine of concentration of force and manoeuvre.
The Germans were masters of defence in depth and rapid counter attack. They knew that they had insufficient men to defend every gulley so they made judicial use of well-sited pillboxes and vast quantities of wire. Where possible, all defensive positions had interlocking zones of fire, each able to mutually support the other. Their forces were concentrated in the area of Dieppe, and each headland had been turned into strongpoints, generously supplied with mortars and machine guns. There were caves in the steep slopes of each headland that held light field guns, mortars and artillery and were crucial to Dieppe’s defence. The Allied photographic recce pictures taken from oblique cameras, showed these caves clearly, but the connection as to their significance was shockingly never made. The prominent feature of the casino had not been turned into a strongpoint, but it was surrounded by defensive positions and overlooked by the west headland.
The mile long stretch of Dieppe’s main beach was defended by No 7 Company of the 571st Regiment, a total of some 150 men. The narrow openings off the promenade into the town were blocked with anti-tank obstacles and eight 37mm anti-tank guns. The beach had a curtain of barbed wire above the high tide mark and the top of the sea wall had a formidable curtain of double wire; the sea wall itself was some five feet high. Further inland were the reserves of 6,000 men and armoured units of the 10th Panzer Division, refitting and recuperating at Amiens. The entire defensive strength within the Dieppe perimeter was some 1,500 men. Many were poor quality, but they were well lead, well supplied with a variety of weapons, generously supported by mortars and field guns, and even poor quality troops, well protected in pillboxes and bunkers can squeeze a trigger.
© Blown Periphery 2018