On August 19, 1942, nearly 6,000 soldiers, a large proportion of them Canadian, raided the French port city of Dieppe. This operation, the largest raid of the Second World War, or the smallest battle (depending on how you look at it), was the most disastrous (statistically) of any battle during the 20th Century. About 60% of the soldiers were killed or taken prisoner and the Canadians suffered a 68% casualty rate, a figure only comparable this century to the carnage suffered by the British Army in the first days of the Battle of the Somme (a future topic of mine). (1)
Because it was a great failure in terms of decision-making, planning, and execution, significant attention has been paid toward it.(2) Particular attention has been paid to it by many Canadians, where it’s their equivalent of the World War I Gallipoli expedition for many Australians.
But the operation was not just to send Canadian soldiers off to die for nefarious “colonialist” reasons; it was more than that. Dieppe was entirely a British operation (what I mean by that is that it was British, British Empire and Commonwealth only; no American or Soviet troops were used). It was a politically motivated operation: Britain and the Allies were, in mid-1942, losing the war, and Britain wasn’t, by Soviet and American standards, “pulling its fair share.” Stalin wanted a second front in France immediately (in order to take off pressure the Eastern Front, where the Germans launched a second offensive in the Summer of 1942 which reached Stalingrad); the Americans weren’t averse to the idea. But, Churchill deeply opposed it, mainly because British and Commonwealth troops would be shouldering almost the entire burden of the operation (the Americans were still far behind in war production in mid-1942 and were still suffering from Pearl Harbor shock. It was estimated that they would not be able to effectively mount a successful invasion until June 1944). (3) Thus, any talk of a cross-channel invasion was out of the question.
Yet Churchill felt that he had to do something, if only to increase morale. He was at his best in the Battle of Britain in 1940, when he encouraged the British people through his actions to never despair or give in to the Germans. In mid-1942, British morale was at a wartime low.(4) Singapore had just been surrendered in the spring to a Japanese army half the size. And on June 21, 1942, Tobruk had fallen, leaving the Suez Canal wide open to a Rommel assault. As a result of this, Churchill faced a Parliamentary Vote of Censure calling for his removal as Minister of Defence. It failed, but Churchill (and his opponents) realized that a cat had only so many lives. (5)
As a result of the increased effectiveness of German submarines during 1942, British convoys to Russia had to be suspended during the Spring.(6) This obviously infuriated Stalin, and as the situation in Russia worsened in summer 1942, and as Stalin began to make more and more demands for the British for help and assistance, Churchill felt the need, with all the desperation of a cornered animal, to do something.(7) That something became Dieppe.
Thus, his gesture to the Soviets, to domestic public opinion, to the Americans, to any who said that Britain wasn’t pulling “its fair share,” was Dieppe. And it worked. Not the immediate battle/raid; that was an abysmal failure. But the battle/raid managed to stop Stalin and the Americans from carping, and quieted public opinion for the remainder of the war: at least Churchill was doing SOMETHING. And, perhaps more importantly, it distracted Hitler. He removed several divisions from the Russian front, where they could have been used to conquer Stalingrad, and instead used them to defend France against the invading armies that weren’t coming. It also created an image of inferiority of the Allies in Hitler’s mind. On D-Day, he was convinced that the Allied invasion was just another Dieppe-style raid, which easily could have been squashed like in 1942. But this time it wasn’t, and the Allies won the crucial element of surprise. Perhaps Dieppe was a lost battle, but one that proved instrumental in winning the war.
- (1) John Keegan, Six Armies in Normandy, (NY: Penguin Books, 1994), p. 123.
- (2) Brian Loring Villa, Unauthorized Action: Mountbatten and the Dieppe Raid, (NY: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 248.
- (3) Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life, (NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1991), p. 719.
- (4) Villa, pp. 51, 55.
- (5) Ibid., p. 59.
- (6) Gerald Jordan, et. al., Naval Warfare in the Twentieth Century, (NY: Crane Russak, 1977), p. 201.
- (7) Ibid.