The objectives of the air component over Dieppe were relatively straightforward; to throw a protective air umbrella over the amphibious force and to force the Luftwaffe into battle on the RAF’s terms. The RAF fielded forty-eight squadrons of Spitfires, Mks V and IX, eight squadrons of heavily armed Hurricane fighter bombers, four squadrons of the new reconnaissance Mustang Mk Is and seven squadrons of No 2 Group light bombers. Opposing them would be 120 fighters from Jagdgeschwader 2 and 26 (JG 2 and JG 26), the Dornier Do 217s of Kampfgeschwader 2 and various anti-shipping bomber elements of III./KG 53, II./Kampfgeschwader 40 (KG 40) and I./KG 77. However, the RAF would suffer much the same limitations as the Luftwaffe BF 109s had suffered over England in 1940. The Spitfires were at the edge of their ranges and most had only five minutes combat time over the target area. Dogfighting depletes fuel very quickly.
While the Luftwaffe had introduced aluminium drop tanks in late 1940, the RAF were still developing the papier-mâché tanks and first used them for the transit of Spitfires to Malta in May 1942. I have been unable to find any records of their use during the air battle over Dieppe, in which case the RAF would have been operating at a severe disadvantage.
The Luftwaffe were largely operating Focke-Wulf 190s and less BF 109 Fs. The Focke-Wulf had been introduced to French airfields in the spring of 1942, to counter the RAF’s “Rhubarb” armed reconnaissance raids over France. These Rhubarb missions were costly and the RAF had lost 411 aircraft over France in the second half of 1941. And the RAF pilots discovered in the first half of 1942 that the Focke-Wulf was superior to the Spitfire Mk V, and the Luftwaffe didn’t obligingly fly out to meet the Rhubarb missions, but lurked inland, forcing the British fighters to use precious fuel to hunt them. Dieppe was the baptism of fire for the new Spitfire Mk IX, which could at least meet the Focke-Wulfs on equal terms. It was flown by four RAF squadrons and two Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) squadrons.
The air battle over Dieppe was as intense as any of those in the summer and autumn of 1940. The RAF lost 91 aircraft with 62 aircrew killed and the rest taken prisoner, while the RCAF lost 14 aircraft with nine pilots killed a high rate of losses for two squadrons. These losses include aircraft written off after landing. The RAF also lost six bombers. The Luftwaffe lost 48 aircraft with 24 seriously damaged. The RAF flew 2,500 sorties over Dieppe and was largely successful at maintaining the air umbrella over the amphibious force. The light bombers were less successful, mainly because they didn’t know what to bomb as the forward air controllers remained pinned on the beaches.
Unfortunately British aircraft production was still wedded to the Spitfire, an outstanding aircraft but possessing such limited range that it was always going to be fighting at a disadvantage some 60 miles from the English coast. At least 15 British aircraft were shot down by RN gunners, who wasted ammunition by firing at every aircraft that flew across the ships, whether in range or not. The RAF rescue launches attended 47 Mayday calls and collected over 100 British and German aircrew from the sea. Two launches were lost.
Also making its debut in the air battle over Dieppe was the Mustang P51 in RAF service. The Mk 1 was designated as a reconnaissance fighter and despite teething troubles, was already showing the potential of the superb aircraft it would become. The Mk 1 was powered by an Allison V-1710-39, while later versions would have the Merlin engine. The aircraft was 30mph faster than the Spitfire Mk V and had almost twice the range. Unfortunately with its clipped wingtips, it resembled the BF 109 and FW 190 and the Mustangs received most of the friendly fire incidents.
The Dieppe air battle was the heaviest loss the RAF had suffered in a single day to that date. Only the Nuremberg bombing raid of 1944 caused a higher loss in aircrew. Although it failed to deliver a knock-out blow to the Luftwaffe, the increasing Allied aircraft production out-built that of the Germans. Pilots were of course more difficult to replace. The air battle over Dieppe was one aspect of the overall battle for air superiority over Europe and by June 1944, the Allies had achieved it.
The Disaster Unfolds
The Fusiliers Mont-Royal had been waiting for orders, bobbing around in the boat pool off the French coast. They could clearly see the pall of smoke hanging over Dieppe and the flashes of fire coming from the flanking headlands. Finally orders were received that they were to land on Red Beach and their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Dollard Menard swept among the boats in a launch, addressing his men through a loud hailer:
“We’ll show ‘em what we’re made of. Good luck, boys!”
He then transferred into a landing craft and led the 26 boats into the smoke that blanketed their final destination. These were wooden boats and not the steel sided landing craft of the previous waves. It was thought that as they were the support wave, their landing would be unopposed. As soon as the Fusiliers Mont-Royal emerged from the protective smoke screen, the sea around the boats was transformed into a white maelstrom of shells, mortars and machine gun rounds.
There was carnage in the boats. Two were immediately destroyed and those men that struggled ashore took the wisest option and played dead. The naval commander of one of the boats that survived, counted 50 bullet holes in the ensign alone. And to add to their woes, the boats had drifted off course with the strong tide and were heading for White Beach, or even further to the strip of shingle under the cliffs of the west headland. In the panic, some left the boats in over 15 feet of water and encumbered by ammunition, packs and kit, most were drowned. A mortar section was dropped off and the boat backed away with the mortars still on board. Some were paralysed with fear and were cut down where they stood. The waters edge was piled high with the dead and dying. Within minutes of landing the Fusiliers Mont-Royal had been transformed from a fighting unit, to disparate groups fighting to find cover and survival.
General Roberts on the Calpe was continually receiving contradictory and piecemeal information. However, he was convinced that White Beach had been taken and there was an opportunity to infiltrate the town and encircle the headlands. This was actually entered in the log of HMS Calpe. At this stage he ordered in another part of his reserve, the 17 officers and 352 ORs of No 40 RM Commando into action. They were commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel “Tiger” Phillips. Led by HMS Locust, the Chasseurs boats made for Dieppe Harbour. The commandos were driven back and the Locust was unable to enter the port. They went back to General Roberts to report their failure.
By now Roberts was aware of the failure of the Pourville landing, so he ordered 40 RM Commando to land on White Beach, skirt the town to the west and attack the headland from behind. The commandos transferred to landing craft and headed for White Beach. They were supposed to have been supported by 18 Churchill tanks of the reserve, but the order was never received. As the boats headed for White Beach unsupported, a naval officer concluded that this was a sea version of the Charge of the Light Brigade. Predictably, the boats were soon enveloped in hostile fire. Phillips in a prominent position on top of a motor launch realised the futility of sending his men into the slaughter on White Beach, stood up and signalled that the launches should turn round. He was shot and killed, preventing the unnecessary massacre of his men. Unfortunately, two landing craft on either flank didn’t see the order and 66 men were added to the trapped and ineffectual casualties on the beach.
By 09:00 it was becoming obvious that the Dieppe Raid was effectively over. Those that survived on the beach stayed motionless in whatever cover they had been able to find. Any movement attracted the instant attention of the snipers. The tank crews remained safe in their immobile Churchills. There were a number of Germans sheltering with the Canadians, Luftwaffe aircrew who had been shot down over the sea and struggled to the shore, extremely disgruntled to be fired at by their own side. A makeshift red cross, fashioned from a white ensign flew above one of the LCTs that was packed full of the wounded. As long as they made no move to leave the shelter of the boat, the Germans honoured this symbol and no fire was directed at the LCT.
In the command room of HMS Fernie, an American observer from the Rangers asked Brigadier Churchill Mann, the deputy force commander, how he thought it was going.
“I am afraid that this operation will go down as one of the greatest failures of history.”
General Roberts on the Calphe gave the order in a softly spoken voice, “Bring them Home.”
The actual evacuation didn’t start until 11:00 to allow the RAF to double the covering force over the ships and to lay smoke. All available ships including the destroyers, moved in closer to shore to provide covering fire for the evacuation boats. However the evacuation was as disorganised as other aspects of the Dieppe raid. Some boats were so overcrowded that they sank and others rendezvoused with the troop ships nearly empty. Many boats received no orders and remained ineffectually off shore. At Green Beach, most of the casualties were caused when the Canadians tried to get on the boats, men wading out under a hail of fire. Those still trapped on Blue Beach were largely left to their fate.
The original plans called for all troops and tanks to be re-embarked from the beaches in front of Dieppe, although some change could be expected. One tank commander later remarked sarcastically, “The orders forgot to mention who would be serving tea and cakes on the beach.” Fortunately Boston aircraft laid an almost perfect smoke screen across the beaches and headlands, but a horrendous toll was been taken on the overloaded boats. Six of the eight boats that landed on Red Beach were sunk, the survivors making it to the shore a second time. The Germans made a concerted effort to continue to engage and wipe out the withdrawing Canadian troops. Three Dornier 217s slipped through the Allied combat air patrol. Two were shot down, but one pressed home its attacks, bombed and severely damaged the Berkeley. The destroyer remained afloat but down by the bow and was finished off by torpedoes from another destroyer.
The Calphe went in close to the shore for a final reconnaissance to see if any more men could be saved from Red and White Beaches. There was no sign of men waiting to be evacuated from the water’s edge and no serviceable landing craft in sight. A bitterly disappointed Roberts signalled England: “Very heavy casualties in men and ships. Did everything possible to get men off in order to get any home, had to come to sad decision to abandon remainder.”
On The Dieppe seafront, the tank commanders had been ordered to destroy their vehicles, to prevent them falling into enemy hands. They had been issued with nitro-glycerine charges, of which sensible commanders ditched over the sides of the LCTs. The immobile Churchills were being used as cover by the infantry and the tank crews were unsurprisingly unwilling to leave their cover inside. As a result, very few of the tanks were destroyed by their crews and fell into German hands virtually intact. The panzer experts who evaluated these captured vehicles, were singularly unimpressed by them. The surrender at the main beach began at 13:08, just as the panzers from the 10th Panzer Division reached the outskirts of Dieppe. It was all over.
While the Germans treated the majority of captured troops fairly well, members of the commandos were treated very harshly, and some were put up against walls as though about to be shot. Wounded were left untreated, they were denied water and German film crews filmed captured commandos for propaganda value. As an ex-commando observed after the war: ”They never liked us, the Commandos, you know. Used to call us ‘Churchill’s rats who kill in the night.’”
The captured survivors from Green and Blue Beaches suffered the indignation of being strafed by their own aircraft as they were assembled on the clifftops. The survivors took stock of their position as they were processed for onward moves to POW camps. There was general amazement that so many had survived the carnage on the beaches. Some took one last look at the beaches and one noted: “It presented a picture of horror. Hundreds of corpses and moaning wounded covered the hard gravel. Drowned men and dying men, borne up by life jackets, are washed up by the waves and swing, packed closely together in a horrible rhythm.” The Allied losses were:
33 landing craft
550 dead and wounded
Royal Air Force
64 Supermarine Spitfire fighters
20 Hawker Hurricane fighter bombers
6 Douglas Boston bombers
10 North American Mustang Mk 1 fighters. 5 ac damaged BER.
62 killed, 30 wounded, 17 captured
Mountbatten was able to tell the War Cabinet with a degree of truth, that two-thirds of the raiding force had returned safely. But the fact that many never landed distorts this figure and doesn’t reflect the carnage inflicted on the troops who went ashore. And the political manoeuvring and deflection began. When Churchill heard news of the failure of the Dieppe Raid, he dictated the lines to take: “Consider it would be wise to describe Jubilee as quote, reconnaissance in force, unquote.” The downplaying of the raid’s failure had begun.
US newspapers overplayed the roles of the handfuls of Rangers who had been attached to the Commandos: “Yanks in 9-hour raid on Nazis.” When Canadian newspapers began to fill pages with lists of the killed, wounded and missing, the Canadian government decided to draw a curtain on the events. However, some Canadian units reported a 40% rise in recruiting following the raid. Dieppe was a coup for the German propaganda machine and they revelled in it, with picture journals and newsreels showing Canadian and Commando prisoners and the slaughter on the beaches.
Both sides looked at the planning processes and assumptions, the Germans uncomprehending as to why the British thought they could overrun a well defended port with less than a Division and no meaningful naval gunnery and air support. The Germans were also aghast that no tanks were put ashore to support the landings at Pourville, the one area they could have made all the difference. They also reasoned that a parachute and glider assault on the headlands would have been far more successful and reduced the losses on Red and White Beaches. General Von Rundstedt forecasted that: “He will not do it like this a second time!”
The Canadians are to this day, incredibly bitter about Dieppe. On one course I attended in 2002, a Canadian DS told me in all seriousness that the Dieppe Raid was to prove to the Americans and Russians that a Second Front was unfeasible in 1942 and that the Germans had been tipped off. I presume he meant by the Brits, although the Canadians themselves weren’t exactly circumspect about Rutter and where they had been going before its cancellation.
After the Dieppe raid Allied planners were forced to review their previously held supposition that the capture of a significant port was an essential precursor to an invasion of mainland Europe. This view had been justified by the perceived scale of logistical follow up and support following an invasion – it could, it was reasoned, only be provided through established port facilities. So, with this option firmly placed on the back burner, Dieppe became the inspiration behind the development of Mulberry Harbours, PLUTO (pipe-line under the Ocean), and other special initiatives that later contributed to the success of the Normandy invasion.
It was also realized that much better intelligence would be required – not only about the defending forces but also on the topographical conditions in and around the landing area. Better communications were seen to be needed between the troop commanders afloat and the assaulting troops and command decisions required better organization. The need to develop armoured landing craft, at least proof against small arms fire, was now considered an imperative as was the case for heavier bombardment of entrenched defensive positions prior to the landing of men and supplies.
Major-General Roberts unfairly became the official scapegoat and was never to command troops in the field again. Year after year, on August 19th, a small box arrived in the post for him. Its contents a small piece of stale cake – a cruel reminder of his attempt to boost morale at the pre-raid briefing “Don’t worry boys. It will be a piece of cake!”
© Blown Periphery 2018