19 August, 1942 – “Canada’s Day of Infamy”
Friday, November 02, 2012
By Larry King
“Canadians died at Dieppe so we could take the beaches on D-Day”
William Bradford Huie,
“The Americanization of Emily” (1959)
Jubilee – time of rejoicing
Shingle – rounded pebbles on seashore
(Little Oxford Dictionary)
“Why this place?”
Walking on shingle gets you nowhere; at every step smooth rocks underfoot are propelled backwards; it’s like pacing on a pebbly treadmill. Army boots would help, a bit, but if one must scramble ashore, as soon as possible, why not choose a hard sandy beach? Especially if heading towards a deadly artillery fusillade pouring hot head from sheer cliffs above. Ducks in a shooting gallery, a banal analogy for what occurred here on 19 August, 1942.
We were stumbling over the Dieppe beach recently, attempting to get a feel, however superficial, of what it must have been like on that date. Landing craft had crossed the English Channel conveying nine Canadian regiments towards the French port of Dieppe, arriving at dawn. Flanked 5 km to the east and west of this flotilla were two British Commando units. “Operation Jubilee”, code name for this raid, was to be cruelly mocked forever by the result; by early afternoon, over 3400 of the 6100-strong force were casualties, 962 fatal, the worst Canadian military disaster ever. The principal killing ground stretched across this shingle to the foot of the cliffs. To an armchair general reconnoitering this site, the grisly results seemed predictable.
British Prime Minister Churchill was under increased pressure by this time from his Allies. With Europe under Hitler’s thumb and Russian defences reeling under Hitler’s relentless Blitzkreig initiated in June, 1941, Russian dictator Stalin demanded that Britain assault Hitler’s western flank to provide some relief for his beleaguered Red Army. Churchill also knew that President F.D. Roosevelt was being urged by some advisors, thinking Britain was just marking time, to switch America’s top priority to defeating Japan.
Churchill, though, doubted the wisdom of an amphibious landing along Hitler’s Atlantic Wall just yet; Germany’s air force, the Luftwaffe, and industrial machinery needed much further weakening. However, when the invasion came, it would require a well-coordinated army-navy-air force endeavour. The major difficulty would be putting men and material ashore against fierce resistance. Such rehearsed landings were occurring along the British coast under live fire, but not at the participants. Raids on French ports had occurred, but no attempted landings. Roosevelt urged Britain that June to make a “sacrifice” landing that year, even if just to demonstrate to Stalin that such an endeavour was premature.
“But why here?”
Jubilee’s planners knew well the geography of Dieppe lopsidedly favoured defenders. But a tantalizing question persisted: could a well-prepared force capture a Channel port, leaving its harbour facilities relatively intact? To do so would be a godsend for shipping massive quantities of material needed for an Allied advance across western Europe against a well-entrenched, dogged foe.
“But why Canadians?”
Cynicism persists throughout Canada 70 years later, “colonials” sacrificed again as “cannon fodder”. That was the “accepted truth” recalled from my formative years in my home region, that of the “Essex and Kent Scottish” regiment, one of the doomed seven; only 51 of its 553 members who landed returned that day. However, Canada’s brass also approved the plan, even pushed for our participation. Confined to patrolling the English coast since 1940 to forestall a German invasion, our boys were eager for “real” action. (In April, Roosevelt had proclaimed these Canadian soldiers as “raring to go”.) They were not reluctantly dragged into the fray. But was the Dieppe raid merely a sacrificial gesture to demonstrate to Stalin and the Americans that further weakening of German defences was still needed before the invasion, or did it make a critical difference to the war’s outcome?
Military planners rely on good luck as an input into such ventures; it is often the least reliable. A German convoy disrupted the landing schedule, warning defenders, providing them with ample time to re-emerge after an initial aerial/naval bombardment and train their guns on late-arriving soldiers struggling to off-load equipment onto traction-free shingle. Their procedures, craft and tanks, as then constituted, proved ill suited for such a landing. The Luftwaffe overwhelmed supporting RAF/RCAF pilots, strafing the beach. The Canadians fought bravely and well (as German reports fully confirmed), but futilely, for seven hellish hours.
Back to the drawing board. Lessons were learned for D-Day. No assaulting a heavily defended port, artificial harbours (“Mulberries”) would substitute. Deception was critical; the D-Day defenders were fooled, partly because of Dieppe, into believing the invasion would aim at another port, Calais. Improvements were made to the landing craft; heavy vehicles to be off-loaded were rendered more buoyant. The Luftwaffe and German navy were decimated by then, incapable of opposing the landings. Two more years of day-and-night bombing of German industry would hamper its war production while the overall quality of the defending troops on the Normandy beaches far from Calais was less formidable.
While emotionally forearmed while ambling through Dieppe’s cemetery, where lie 850 Canadians, and wishing to support Huie’s view, feelings swayed from poignancy through anguish. “Jubilee” was not among them.
Major source material for this article is to be found in “Dieppe: Tragedy to Triumph” by Denis & Shelagh Whitaker.