Nations that have been victorious in war like to talk about their triumphs, but less often their failures. It is for this reason that the Allied raid on the French port city of Dieppe remains an obscure incident of the Second World War. But it should not be. For it can be argued that in war, like much else in human endeavor, failures are far more instructive than successes.
By the summer of 1942, Joseph Stalin was beginning to lose patience with the British. The German Wehrmacht had been cutting deeply into Soviet territory since 1941, with no end in sight. He was desperate to have some sort of military action take place in the western theater, something that might relieve some of the pressure on himself. When nothing came, his worst suspicions (which probably needed little encouragement in any case) became realized. Why were the British not doing anything? Was there a secret plan to make a deal behind his back? These were the paranoid thoughts that oppressed the mind of the Soviet dictator.
The truth, unfortunately, was far less dramatic. For all of Churchill’s rhetoric, neither Britain (nor America, for that matter) were in any position to take on the German armies in the west. They did not have the materiel, the men, the planning, and–perhaps most vitally–the confidence to face the Wehrmacht, which must in all fairness be acknowledged as one of the greatest fighting forces in history.
And yet something had to be done. Stalin would not be put off forever. Churchill hit on the idea of conducting a limited “raid” on an occupied port city on the continent. As he imagined it, such a limited action would demonstrate resolve and commitment; it might also provide valuable lessons for future amphibious operations.
This was the theory, in any case. Churchill’s military competence has been much debated by historians, but in the opinion of this writer, he often permitted himself to be seduced by romantic military schemes that provided little in the way of tangible results. He was without question a brilliant moral leader, and a towering symbol of resistance, but these talents did not extend to the arena of war planning and execution. He seemed particularly addicted to diversionary “raids,” flanking maneuvers, and surgical strikes that might promise much gain for little commitment.
The abortive amphibious landings at Gallipoli in 1915 were–despite his later denials–his project. And in the Second World War, he would waste much effort sending British forces on Greek island raids in the eastern Mediterranean. He would often speak of Europe’s “soft underbelly,” when in fact the Balkans and the Italian peninsula were anything but that. Such schemes may have been interesting to Churchill, but in the end, they were of dubious value and contributed little or nothing to the overall war effort.
But perhaps we are being too hard on Churchill. Amphibious operations are some of the most difficult military maneuvers to carry out. The only two nations that had made progress in this direction were Japan and the United States, and even their capabilities were in their infancy. New equipment and vehicles needed to be invented. New tactics needed to be developed. New people needed to be trained. And all of these things took time.
The simple fact was that the British did not have the experience, manpower, or strength to confront Germany in the West in 1942. It would take several more years of grinding combat before that time would come, and much of the grinding, unfortunately, would have to come from the Russians.
The objectives of the raid on Dieppe were: assault an occupied port city and hold it for a short duration; inflict as much damage as possible on the Germans there; gather intelligence; and demonstrate that the Allies could take on Germany and win. For reasons that we will see, none of these objectives were met.
Because, according to Churchill, secrecy was paramount, little or no records were made of the planning of the operation. On August 19, 1942, the assault on Dieppe began at about 0500 in the morning. The total troop strength of the attacking force was about 6000: of these, 5000 were Canadians, about 1000 British, and only about 50 Americans. By the time the operation was called off about six hours later, the majority of the force (close to 60%) were either killed, captured, or wounded. The beaches around Dieppe were strewn with the corpses of Allied soldiers, mowed down by hidden machine gun emplacements and relentless German resistance.
What had gone wrong? Nearly everything that mattered.
Insufficient firepower. For one thing, there had been little or no pre-landing softening of the beach with airstrikes or naval gunfire. This would have been unthinkable in an American Marine landing in the Pacific. The reason for this was apparently that British planners were afraid of alienating the local population by causing too much destruction to the city. That was all well and good, but trying to conduct a landing on a hostile beach is nearly impossible without some air cover.
Poor intelligence. The location, strength, and capability of the German forces in the vicinity were not well known. When this was combined with the lack of pre-landing fire to destroy entrenched positions, the result was a disaster.
Lack of armor. There were not enough tanks, and they were not used properly.
Poor tactics and inexperienced men. The vast majority of the men used at Dieppe were raw Canadian recruits. They simply did not have the training or the ability at this stage in the war to confront the world’s best army. Canadian and British officers did not understand the necessity of keeping forces moving quickly, and getting them off the beach as fast as possible. Just as in Gallipoli, they became bogged down on the beach, and were easy pickings for artillery and machine gun fire.
There are exceptions to these rules, of course. One outstanding one is the American landings at Inchon during the Korean War, many years later. At Inchon, a landing force assaulted an occupied city little preparatory fire. But the Americans had many other advantages, among them the fact that the US Marine Corps had had years of experience in amphibious operations.
In any case, the raid was an utter failure. It was so bad, in fact, that some Allied officers suspected that their plans had been betrayed to the enemy. This is unlikely, but cannot be ruled out. The Germans, for their part, were shocked at the incompetent way the operation was carried out, and turned the battle into a major propaganda coup.
When storming a hostile beach, the following are absolute requirements: (1) adequate preparatory fire to neutralize entrenched enemy positions; (2) keeping the invasion force moving off the beach as quickly as possible; (3) moving tanks into the battle to open up gaps; and (4) landing with a force massive enough to smash through the chaos generated.
It would take much time, and bitter experience, to internalize these lessons.
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