Before D-Day, there was Dieppe

Monday, August 19th, 2019

Before D-Day, David Foster reminds us, there was Dieppe:

The attack on the French port of Dieppe took place on August 19, 1942. The objectives were twofold. First, the attack was intended as kind of a “feasibility test” for the large-scale invasion which was to take place later. As stated by General Sir Alan Brooke, “If it was ever intended to invade France it was essential to launch a preliminary offensive on a divisional scale.” Second, the attack was intended to convince Hitler that an invasion was more imminent than it in fact was, thereby leading to the diversion of German forces from other areas.

The troops assigned to Dieppe were mostly Canadians — 5000 of them. There were also British commandos and a small number of American Rangers. Eight destroyers were assigned to the operation, along with 74 Allied air squadrons.

The attack was a disastrous failure. In the words of military historian John Keegan: “When the badly shocked survivors of that terrible morning were got home and heads counted, only 2,110 of the 4,963 Canadians who had set sail the day before could be found. It became known later that 1,874 were prisoners, but of these 568 were wounded and 72 were to die of their wounds, while 378 of those returning were also wounded. Sixty-five percent of the Canadians engaged had therefore become casualties, almost all of them from the six assaulting infantry battalions, a toll which compared with that of July 1st, 1916, first day of the Battle of the Somme and blackest in the British army’s history. The 2nd Canadian Division had, for practical purposes, been destroyed…Strategic as well as human criteria applied in measuring the scale of the disaster. All the tanks which had been landed had been lost…lost also were 5 of the 10 precious Landing Craft Tank. And, auguring worst of all for the future, the damage had been done not by hastily summoned reinforcements, but by the forces already present; the 3 Canadian battalions which had stormed the central beach had been opposed by a single German company — at odds, that is, of 12 to 1…” If one defending unit could stop an attacking force with 12 times the numbers, a successful invasion would be impossible. Keegan: “(the disparity between the power of the attack and the defense) clearly could not be overcome merely by increasing the numbers of those embarked for the assault. that would be to repeat the mistakes of the First World War, when the solution of greater numbers resulted arithmetically in greater casualties for no territorial gains.”

Captain (later Vice-Admiral) John Hughes-Hallett summarized the lessons of the failure in a report written shortly after the fact. To quote Keegan once again: “‘The lesson of Greatest Importance,’ his report capitalized and italicized, “Is the need for overwhelming fire support, including close support, during the initial stages of the attack,’ It should be provided by ‘heavy and medium Naval bombardment, by air action, by special vessels or craft’ (which would have to be developed) ‘working close inshore, and by using the firepower of the assaulting troops while still seaborne.’”


In addition to the need for very heavy naval firepower, the D-day planners learned another lesson from Dieppe: rather than immediately seizing a port, or landing in close proximity to one, they avoided ports altogether, landing supplies initially over an open beach and leaving the capture of a port for a later phase in the operation.


  1. Graham says:

    Never forgotten in Canada.

    That is to say, like most historical matters in Canada prior to the 70s, possibly unknown and unregarded by many, but never forgotten by the schools, the commemorative establishment, the services, or anyone the least historically inclined.

    Smaller scale, IIRC, but to some degree our Gallipoli in that it generated some lingering bitterness toward British senior command.

  2. buckethead says:

    Off topic, but wondering why posts and comments that I used to get in a timely fashion via rss are delayed by days, even weeks over the last few months.

  3. Lu An Li says:

    The beach at Dieppe defended by second-rate [detailed and understood good for defensive purposes only] German troops using second-rate [often captured] equipment.

    Canadian troops at that exact moment perhaps the best units under British command.

    Churchill often complained that the American senior military command during the war lacked a good strategic or operational understanding of “things”. British hardly on many occasions a whole lot better.

  4. Albion says:

    Dieppe was not a good result, but it was invaluable for Normandy later on: the brutal lessons learned stood the allies in good stead. The tragedy would have been if nothing was learned from the Dieppe raid.

    I am sure Dieppe is not forgotten in Canada and rightly so, but it is worth bearing in mind the Canadians had no combat experience at that point (the Brits had the BEF, Dunkirk and Norway, among other things) and it was necessary to get them familiar with the sort of warfare that an invasion would produce. Yes, tragic indeed that so many lost their lives but the lessons from Dieppe were not wasted, as Overlord proved.

  5. Bruce says:

    Reminiscences of a Bungle, By One of the Bunglers is an excellent military memoir. By a Canadian who was on the expedition that suppressed the 1885 Northwest Rebellion (rebellion by half-French half-Indian Metis caught between the Sioux who moved north after Custer and whites railroading in).

    Well, in this book every Canadian in the army hated the British general commanding them. And by extension, the British Empire commanding Canada. After WWI the writer, fellow veterans of 1885, and veterans of 1914-18 got Canada mostly independent. After WWII Canadians used the memory of Dieppe to finish the job.

  6. Graham says:


    Fair points. Those lessons had to be learned by someone, and they were learned, and necessary.

    Also true that Canadian ground troops had not been in major combat up until that time. In England since late 39 or early 40, some briefly deployed to France in 1940 but not in time and then evacuated again. Unlike the Australians, New Zealanders, and South Africans among the Dominions, not to mention the Indians, who’d been in action in North Africa (and briefly Greece and Crete) for two years at that point.

  7. Graham says:

    The anti-British sentiment can be overdone — loyalism was a powerful force right up to WW1, and nontrivial even between the wars, and our armies achieved a lot together and had mutual respect — but there is something about distance that starts the process everywhere.

    That plus not naturally wanting to plug into British class stereotypes from which one had escaped, and the odd mix of paternalism and neglect the British applied to the major Dominions.

    For a time, Canada was probably in front of Australia in this field. Proximity to the US was a possible driver — our elites resented it and sometimes really pushed imperialism hard as a countermeasure, but they were drawn to the US in some ways and conscious Britain could not defend them and would sacrifice Canadian interests to their own in dealings with the US. The Alaska Boundary Dispute was still taught when I was in school.

    Lots more to it than that, of course. But I’m perennially interested. Something about intervening oceans seems to accelerate the process of differentiating identities.

  8. Alistair says:

    500 dead and 2,000 captured is unfortunate, but it yielded very valuable experience for much bigger operations. There’s a world war on, and you’re losing 180 dead every day, on average. Context. Context. Context.

    Compared to a real disaster like Singapore, where you scrub 80,000 troops from the order of battle and have NOTHING to show for it, Dieppe seems an entirely reasonable trade.

    I appreciate that commonwealth allies may feel a bit ropey about this thing. But this is availability bias. They ignore the many, many operations when lots of Brits get killed and they’re not involved at all. I’ll see your Gallipoli and raise you Passendale and the Somme.

  9. Graham says:

    I should have noted for the record that Canadian ground troops actually had been in combat before Dieppe, it was just in the Pacific theatre, at the defence of Hong Kong. The Royal Rifles of Canada, the Winnipeg Grenadiers, plus assorted brigade-level attached troops. Naturally that experience was of little relevance to an invasion of Europe and unavailable to be drawn on, anyway. I mention it now because I should not have forgotten it. I walk by their memorial almost daily.

    Your reference to Singapore also reminded me.

    When Dieppe gets remembered here, its importance as a teaching experience for Overlord is well remembered and widely noted in the coverage. That reality is not ignored. It’s almost a trope. CBC media coverage of such commemorations really geared up in the 90s with the renewed attention to D-Day and VE-Day, and Canada sort of started remembering things again in the 2000s too. It struck me as odd as the events became more distant from modern Canada’s vision of itself, but there you go. Anyway, I always find it a little funny when CBC or CTV reporters dutifully remind us of things like the role Dieppe played in thinking through Overlord. They read their scripts with care. It’s still true, they’re just unconvincing presenters.

    When Hong Kong got, less frequently, official notice [though it does have a separate war memorial on Sussex Drive in Ottawa since a few years ago] one used to hear a little more lingering bitterness. Although less so now that so many decades have passed. Sending green Dominion troops to bolster the defenders of a hopeless position in a poorly prepared territory on the fringes of empire was less popular than invading Fortress Europe. Someone had to go, all the same.

  10. Graham says:

    I should add that I am quite sympathetic to the British [UK-specific, I mean; we were all British back then, legally and overwhelmingly by sentiment] perspective on all that than my earlier comments might have suggested. My people were in Britain at the time of both wars anyway, so there’s that. It gives me a somewhat dual perspective. For example, I’ll note that Canadians took part at Passchendaele without forgetting the relative scale of the Canadian and UK contributions both there and on the Western Front in general. That’s my usual approach.

    Availability bias, as you put it, is a big factor to be sure. The Aussies probably do remember all the UK troops and others who were at Gallipoli, but you’d never get that from their pop culture takes. So it goes. In Newfoundland the Great War is all about the annihilation of the Royal Newfoundlands on the first day at the Somme. The Newfoundlanders lost a whole battalion, more or less, pretty much the whole army of their tiny colony. The same day the Ulstermen saw most of their entire Division wiped out, a grander scale loss by a huge margin, and England alone lost I don’t know how many, but the lion’s share of the 20,000 killed and 60,000 wounded.

    Geographic distance, already emerging separate identities in the Dominions to some degree, the relatively small populations they had would have played roles. They had variously outsized losses, with no previous historical referents for such things, at times when they were starting to look for national ideas for themselves.

    My original comment’s final sentence was not intended as more than an observation that the Dieppe experience generated ‘some’ such lingering bitterness. It has hardly been a major feature of Canadian life in my lifetime [1970 on] and probably not before. And the vets and military professionals probably never failed to grasp its educational importance. In that sense it was not like Gallipoli sometimes was in Aus memory. Even Honk Kong was not. We also had no tradition of making our own war movies, more’s the pity, so didn’t develop a tradition of overdone anti-British war movies, either.

    Just looking up some stats-

    The UK seems to have had about 43 million people in 1914 and 47.5 million in 1939. Canada’s figures were 8 million and 11 million, respectively. Less distance than one might think, with Canada already at about 1/5 of Britain’s size in 1914 and closing in on 1/4 in 1939. Aus smaller in both cases.

    According to this site:

    The UK had about 5.7 million men in the army alone at some point in the first war, from the home islands, and of the additional 3 million men from the empire who served outside their home territories, the white Dominions in all supplied roughly half. Most of the rest appears to have been the Indian Army’s 1.5 million who served overseas.

    Canada had 629k in arms and bout 418k served overseas. Aus had 417k and 330k overseas. So each under a tenth, more or less, of what the UK put in the field by itself. So a bit under what our contributions would be if based purely on population size.

    Plus I didn’t bother to look up how many additional men from the UK served in the Royal Navy, which was almost all the empire’s maritime power.

    Doubtless some similar figures could be put up for the second war, as well.

    I generally take the view that Canada’s contribution was significant, albeit in the second war initially reluctant at the government level, but we can overdo claims for both wars. Many may not realize our army in the second war was not much in action until 1944, with the two noted exceptions. On the other hand we were making larger, earlier contributions in the air and at sea from 1940 or 41. Some early teething problems, of course.

    I have a complicated relationship with the idea of British [UK] recognition of Canada’s war efforts. A memorial to Canada’s fallen was dedicated in London’s Green Park in [IIRC] 1995. I saw it many times when I lived in the city 1995-6. I ran into many older Brits who had stories about serving with Canadians, or relatives who went to Canada, and so on. But I was interested that, probably for many reasons, Australians and New Zealanders were not only far more numerous in the London of that time, but their role in the wars was better recalled by any Brits who knew anything about history. And many more Brits had stories about visiting Australia or relatives who had gone there. That might still be true.

    I was more bothered by lack of access to Canadian wine in London in that time, but the historical neglect seemed to trouble at least one Canadian fellow-student in my programme. I can’t imagine his people were in Canada at the time of the wars either, so not sure why he was so gung ho about it.

    Anecdote- in that era, the Maple Leaf pub in Covent Garden was staffed entirely by Australians. I found that significant, then.

    I recently read this BBC piece on myths of WW1 “you still believe”. I assumed it would be another one of those articles debunking things no one who even heard of the given subject believes, or one of those articles arguing you believe “myths” just because you are not focused on the trifling cause celebre of the day [the African theatres were world-historically significant for WW1... for something other than the Germans' virtuoso but ultimately meaningless performance in East Africa]. Actually it is a bit better than that and calls out a couple of myths that had too much power in British post-1945 memory, and clarifies the record on Gallipoli a bit. Not bad.

    I shall end now. Cheers.

  11. Alistair says:

    Wait a minute….

    …Canada does WINE?

  12. Graham says:

    Come, come now. England even does wine, though I don’t think any is traded internationally given quantity. I can’t vouch for it, as I’ve never had it. If I visit again any time soon I’ll make a point of it. I don’t think that sector existed in the 90s.

    We benefit from having a few places that are far enough south or are in weird valley climates. I don’t entirely see how it works- Prince Edward County and Niagara in Ontario get lovely hot summers but nasty winters, so I’ve never quite understood that. Okanagan valley in BC is probably sheltered the same way some of the Washington state wine regions are, by the mountains. I didn’t know Washington was a huge wine producer, either, until a few years ago.

    I have tried all three of our major regions. Pretty good, albeit I’m no wine expert.

    There’s a more widely Canada-associated tradition in “ice wine”. Sweet dessert wine made from frosted grapes, or something like that.

    Apart from the obvious European dominance and Californian presence, I remember Oddbins being mostly stocked with Australian. I can’t remember if South African wines had already started showing up. It was 1995-6, so I assume sanctions were off by then. Those places make a lot more climatic sense. Can’t recall if Chilean or Argentinean wines were then available. I assume these days one can get anything in London.

  13. Graham says:

    I remember a few of us were quite chuffed we could get Canadian Club rye whisky. At least that was something.

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