On 3rd September 1939 Britain declared war against Germany and a state of war existed in Europe. Unlike the First World War, however, Canada did not have to automatically follow suit, but just seven days later, on 10th September 1939, they too declared war against Germany. The Canadians were totally unprepared with a small regular army of just 4,500 men. These were quickly augmented by their 51,000 reservists, but they possessed virtually no modern equipment. Their air force had less than 20 modern aircraft and navy had just six destroyers. However, Canada's armed forces grew rapidly with over 58,000 Canadians enlisting in September 1939 alone. By December 1939 the first Canadian troops were on their way to Britain.
The war against Germany did not begin well and by June 1940 it seemed to many that all was lost. France had been defeated and the British Expeditionary Force had been forced to mount their epic withdrawal from continental Europe at Dunkirk. Britain was left isolated and fighting for its survival in the Battle of Britain.
Following the Dunkirk evacuation, Britain began to develop a substantial raiding force under the command of Combined Operations Headquarters. The aim of this forerunner of today's modern Special Forces was to take the war to the enemy in occupied North West Europe, the Mediterranean and the Far East. Initial these raids were centred on Norway and North Africa, but following the appointment of Lord Louis Mountbatten, a favourite of Winston Churchill's, as Chief of Combined Operations on 27th October 1941 these raids were soon being carried out against the enemy on coast of occupied France. The first of these was Operation BITING, the Bruneval Raid, which took place on 27th/28th February 1942. This was mounted against the German Radar Station at Bruneval in order to obtain German radar components for analysis by experts. This was quickly followed by Operation CHARIOT on 28th March 1942 when HMS Campbeltown was rammed into the lock gates of the only dry dock on the western seaboard of France capable of servicing the German battleship Tirpitz. Such was the damage that the dry dock was rendered unusable for the remainder of the war.
1942 was, however, proving to be a difficult year for the Allies — the Soviets were suffering at the hands of the enemy on the Eastern Front, the Americans had entered the war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour and Britain and its Empire were facing difficult times on the field of battle in North Africa and the Far East as well as being bombed at home. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was being pressurised by the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to open a second front and the Americans, who were eager for the war against the Germans in Europe to be progressed by the end of 1942, supported this course of action. The British too wanted a cross channel invasion, but disagreed about the timing. They wanted to take the more roundabout route via North Africa while the allies built up the men and material that would be needed for a cross channel assault. The Germans meanwhile began to prepare to defend their gains against such an assault and fortifications were being built all along the coast of Northwest Europe from North Sea to the border of Spain.
The pressure on the British Prime Minister and the British Chiefs of Staff to develop and execute an offensive operation on the Western Front was unrelenting and almost unbearable. The aim of such an operation was to draw German divisions away from the Russian front, or at least hold the existing divisions in France in place thereby preventing additional German reinforcements being sent to the east.
It was against this backdrop that a raid against the small Normandy town and port of Dieppe, that was originally intended to be carried out by 500 men, was modified into a more substantial operation geared towards determining whether it was possible to seize a deep sea port on the occupied coast of France by direct assault from the sea. Winston Churchill was convinced that the early capture of a deep sea port was imperative if any cross channel invasion was to succeed and this was to be an operation aimed at seeing whether or not that was possible.
The town of Dieppe is built along chalk cliffs that overlook the English Channel. Towards the western end of the town is the River Scie and to the eastern end is the River Arques that flows through it to form medium-sized harbour. The Germans had demolished some seafront buildings to aid their coastal defence and had set up two coastal artillery batteries; one at Varengeville-sur-Mer and the other at Berneval-le-Grand.
Another important consideration was that Dieppe lay within range of fighter cover from southern England. Since the end of the Battle of Britain the Royal Air Force had been actively engaging the Luftwaffe over France. A major problem for the RAF was the German reticence to fight close to the English Channel and they had to go further into enemy held territory. This meant that when they finally got to grips with the enemy they were already at a disadvantage due to their remaining level of fuel limiting their available time in combat. Ultra had revealed that the Luftwaffe was ordered to mount an all out effort to repel allied forces in the event of an invasion. This meant that the planned operation at Dieppe would draw the Luftwaffe to the coast and thus the RAF also supported this amended plan.
For over two years the Canadians had languished in Britain training and preparing for battle. However, up to now they had not taken part in any fighting and they were getting restless, moral was beginning to decline and they were eager to get into the fight. In February 1942 General Harry Crerar, the Canadian Corps Commander in Britain, complained that training "provides neither pride nor pleasure to the officers and other ranks," and together with the Canadian Defence Minister James Ralston and his delegate in England, General Andrew McNaughton, requested that the British include Canadian troops on raids. The Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King seemed less enthusiastic, having looked on helpless as 2,000 Canadians sent to Hong Kong were either killed or captured in December 1941. Major General John Hamilton "Ham" Roberts, commander of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, shared his Prime Minister's misgivings, but nevertheless accepted command of the mission when his Division was the Canadian division selected. The operation in which they were to take part was codenamed Operation RUTTER.
The plan for Operation RUTTER called for a division-sized assault against Dieppe and the beaches immediately to either flank with two simultaneous parachute drops against the coastal artillery batteries on either flank in order to neutralise the threat from that direction. The Canadians were to cause the greatest amount of destruction on the enemy's facilities and defences before withdrawing. This plan was approved by the Chiefs of Staff in May 1942 and the Canadians were soon practicing seaborne landings. In early July 1942 Major General Roberts oversaw the loading of his men and materiel into several hundred ships at Yarmouth Roads, UK. It looked to all intense and purposes to be another practice landing, but in reality things were very different.
Operation RUTTER was scheduled for 7th July 1942, but it was to become the raid that never was. After days of adverse weather and a German bombing raid on the ships that gave the Luftwaffe photographic evidence that Hitler had been right in predicting that the Western Allies would cross the English Channel to relieve the pressure on the Russians, Operation RUTTER was cancelled.
The plan for Operation JUBILEE was essentially the same as Operation RUTTER with the two parachute drops being replaced by Commando landings to neutralise the coastal artillery batteries at Varengeville-sur-Mer and Berneval-le-Grand. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division would still make the main landings and No 4 Commando commanded by Lieutenant Colonel the Lord Lovat landing to the west against the Hess Battery at Varengeville-sur-Mer and No 3 Commando commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater to the east against the Goebbels Battery at Berneval-le-Grand, whilst the newly formed No 40 (Royal Marine) Commando were to attack the harbour.
The plan for Operation JUBILEE, 19th August 1942. [© Ian R Gumm, 2016]
Taking part in the operation were 4,963 Canadians, 1,005 British Commandos, 50 US Rangers and 15 Free Frenchmen. The Royal Navy provide 230 ships and landing craft and the RAF 74 Squadrons of which 66 were Fighter Squadrons.
Of the 6,086 men who made it ashore, 3,367 (almost 60%) were either killed, wounded or captured. The Royal Air Force failed to lure the Luftwaffe into open battle and lost 106 aircraft compared to 48 lost by the Luftwaffe. The Royal Navy lost 33 landing craft and one destroyer.
The events that took place at Dieppe on 19th August 1942 were to have a major influence on the preparations for future Allied landing in North African (Operation TORCH), Sicily (Operation HUSKY) and Normandy (Operation OVERLORD).