By early 1942, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was still unable to boast a single victory in the field against Germany. Under enormous pressure both at home and abroad, he hoped a large-scale cross-channel raid, code-named Operation Jubilee, would send a clear message to the world that England was still very much in the fight.
The combined operation, deemed a reconnaissance in force by Churchill, would determine what resistance was likely to be encountered in an attempt to seize an all-weather port by frontal assault. It was a view that fell into line with that of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who had wanted to launch a sizable amphibious landing under fire as a prelude to a much larger operation (Operation Overlord) planned in the years ahead. With the ports of the Pas de Calais considered too heavily defended, the gaze of the interservice planning committee came to rest upon the small French resort town of Dieppe.
The thousand-year-old seaport derived its name from Norman adventurers who found its Diep, or natural inlet, to be an ideal anchorage. The harbor is located in a mile-wide gap at the mouth of the Arques River approximately two miles west of center of an 11-mile strip of coast. Backed by two wide boulevards, villas, and a casino, the open beaches were flanked by two commanding headlands at Berneval to the east and Varengeville in the west, each of which boasted formidable German gun batteries.
It would be a difficult nut to crack because the port, being so close to the English coast, was a vital link in the enemy chain of coastal defenses. The beachfront and cliffs had been fortified with reams of barbed wire and strategically placed strongholds supported in depth by countless machine-gun nests and mortar emplacements bolstered by medium and heavy artillery batteries sighted to cover the beaches and sea approaches.
Combined Operations, under newly appointed chief Lord Louis Mountbatten, finalized the details for Jubilee, which, in reality, had been on the drawing board for some months in one form or another. With available landing craft able to transport approximately 6,000 troops and tanks across the Channel, the bold objective of the raid was to occupy the port of Dieppe, establish a defensive perimeter around the town, inflict as much damage as possible to docks and enemy facilities during the course of a single tide, and then withdraw to England.
The planning, however, was based on the mistaken belief that fewer than 2,000 Germans manned the shore defenses. In fact, close to 6,500 experienced troops of the 302nd Infantry Division were on station with strong mobile reinforcements close by. Instead of outnumbering the defenders three to one, the invaders would be facing the enemy on even terms.
For air cover, the Royal Air Force committed over 70 squadrons to Operation Jubilee, 48 of which were fighters, to form a protective umbrella over the beaches. Opting to forego a softening-up bombardment for fear of alerting the Germans, the RAF would instead provide fighter-bomber support to naval shore parties and ground troops fighting their way off the beaches.
Outnumbering the Germans in the air three to one, the RAF viewed the raid as an opportunity to force the Luftwaffe to do battle on its terms. With all in readiness, it was now a matter of selecting the troops to carry out the operation.
The 2nd Canadian Division had been training in England for nearly three years, but had yet to see combat. The divisional officers were chafing at the bit for operational experience while the restless troops, bored with home uty and frustrated by countless exercises, wanted action. With the men having undertaken extensive training in amphibious assaults, the Canadian High Command insisted that its troops take the lead role in the raid. With the die cast, the eager young men from the Rockies, prairies, and Maritime Provinces of Canada appeared destined to finally get their baptism of fire.
The moonless night of August 18 was the last date in 1942 that offered the conditions of time and tide suitable for the operation. With the new Churchill tanks already embarked onto their landing craft, the assault force of 6,086 officers and men began boarding their ships. Loaded down with full kit and believing they were embarking on another tedious exercise, the grumbling troops filed through the companionways below deck to their assigned areas.
The banter of the men, however, quickly fell silent as unit leaders began distributing maps and aerial photographs in preparation for detailed briefings. As the troops listened intently to their officers, naval crews in numerous harbors along the British coast busied themselves in preparation for putting to sea. Shuffling, shadowy figures moved to and fro along the quays as Aldis lamps flashed signals directing smaller craft to their flotilla positions. In an atmosphere of excitement and high expectation the 252 vessels, under the command of Maj. Gen. J.H. Roberts, slipped away from their English coastal ports to negotiate the 70 miles of seaway to Dieppe.
The various units had been organized into specific groups, each with a clearly defined task that had been studied and rehearsed. Prior to the main assaults, two flanking attacks would see the British No. 4 Commando put the battery near Varengeville out of action, while No. 3 Commando would deal with the batteries at Berneval, thus clearing the way for the five landings.
Scottish Saskatchewan Regiment was Tasked with the Difficult Assignment of Completing Many Objectives, Including Overwhelming the Stronghold at Les Quatres Vents Farm
The Royal Regiment of Canada, along with elements of the Canadian Black Watch, would land on Blue Beach at the small resort village of Puys to secure the east headland at Berneval and capture a gun battery east of Puys. It was imperative that these eastern defenses be silenced ahead of the main landings.
In a simultaneous landing farther west at Pourville, the Scottish Saskatchewan Regiment would disembark on Green Beach. Theirs was a difficult assignment with a number of key objectives. First, they were to offer direct flank support to the landings on the main beaches by clearing the ridge to the east and capturing the radar station sited nearby, then they were to push on ahead and overwhelm the stronghold at Les Quatres Vents Farm, and finally take the battery on the west headland in the rear.
Thirty minutes later, with the beachhead at Pourville secured, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders would land in a second wave to pass through the Saskatchewans and link up with the main attacking force and its tanks to capture St. Aubin airfield and the headquarters of the German division at Arques la Battaille.
While the Camerons were coming ashore at Pourville, the main effort would see the Essex-Scottish Regiment land in eastern Dieppe at Red Beach and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry land in western Dieppe on White Beach.
To support the main landings, Churchill tanks of the 14th Canadian Army Tank Battalion would simultaneously undertake the first amphibious tank assault in history. Having been rushed into service despite limited trials and an unreliable reputation, the new Churchills were deemed ideally suited to infantry support and had been waterproofed and fitted with a unique exhaust attachment that would allow them to come ashore from a depth of up to seven feet.
A colorful unit called Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, made up of French Canadians, would be held in floating reserve. When Dieppe was secured, they would be landed to occupy and maintain an inner perimeter before forming the rear guard covering the final withdrawal through the town to the beaches. To add salt to the German wound, a Royal Marine cutting-out party, acting in the finest traditions of the navy, would dash into the harbor to remove 40 German invasion barges and take them back to England.
Steaming through the inky blackness of the English Channel, the convoy cleared the German minefields and arrived undetected eight miles off the French coast shortly before 0300 hours on the morning of August 19. Holding outside the range of German radar, the escorting destroyers immediately took up their stations east and west of the headquarters ship, HMS Calpe, to act as the eyes and ears of the expedition. Naval personnel aboard the landing ships began to lower the landing craft into the water. It was a noisy, tedious process leaving many convinced the sound must surely have carried to the German shore defenses—but it had not.
The commandos had already departed toward the two headlands as the troops destined for Puys and Pourville were loaded onto their landing craft. As officers moved reassuringly among the soldiers, the men began to blacken their faces and arms; some rechecked equipment, many steadied their nerves with the repetition of orders, while others remained silent, lost in their own thoughts, wondering if they would survive the dawn.
As the LCPs took up station behind the gunboats leading them in, the most hazardous seaborne operation conceived or attempted up that point of the war was underway. There was no turning back.