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1942: Carnage on the beaches of Dieppe

It has been called the most controversial battle Canadians have ever fought. On Aug. 19, 1942, after nearly three years of waiting in England for a chance to fight, Canadian troops were sent to raid the French coast at Dieppe. But the Germans were ready for them, and the attack became a massacre. Of nearly 5,000 Canadians sent to Dieppe, only 2,000 returned. More than 60 years later, the operation remains divisive: was Dieppe an essential trial run for D-Day, or a shocking waste of lives?

"We have suffered heavy losses, and I saw our men die," says CBC Radio's Robert Bowman, just returned from the bloody beaches of Dieppe. The grim reality of what happened in France yesterday is just setting in: hundreds of Canadians killed, untold numbers taken prisoner. Reading from grimy notes taken during his eight hours ashore, Bowman does not use words like "failure" or "disaster." Instead, he lauds the bravery of the troops, and the lessons learned from the assault.
• The attack on Dieppe was the Allies' first major combined operation of the war, meaning that it involved army, navy and air forces. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division would conduct the central attack at Dieppe, Puys and Pourville, while commando units would attack the flanks at Varengeville, Quiberville and Berneval. New landing craft would bring 30 Churchill tanks ashore. In the skies, Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons would protect the troops and take on the Luftwaffe.

The forces involved in the raid were:
• 4,963 men and officers from the 2nd Canadian Division.
• 1,005 British commandos.
• 50 men of the US Rangers (scattered among the commandos, to gain experience).
• 20 men of assorted nationalities, including Free French.
• 237 ships and landing craft, including six destroyers.
• 70 squadrons of RAF fighters and bombers.
(Source: Juno Beach Centre)

The men of the 2nd Canadian Division came from:
• The 4th Infantry Brigade (Royal Regiment of Canada, Essex Scottish Regiment and Royal Hamilton Light Infantry).
• The 6th Infantry Brigade (Fusiliers Mont-Royal, Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada and South Saskatchewan Regiment).
• The 5th Infantry Brigade (the Black Watch -- Royal Highland Regiment -- of Canada and the Calgary Highlanders)
• The Toronto Scottish Regiment.

• Problems began before the men even reached the shore. Ships carrying British commandos ran into a German convoy an hour before landing, and the element of surprise was lost. When the main forces hit the beach, they ran into a hellish wall of machine-gun and mortar fire from entrenched German defences. Entire platoons were mowed down as they stepped out of their landing craft.

• The 29 tanks of the Calgary Regiment fared even worse. Two sank in deep water before they hit land, and many got stuck on the pebble beach. Only 15 tanks made it across the seawall, but the engineers that were to remove anti-tank blocks barring the way into town had been pinned down by heavy fire. The tanks returned to the beach to cover the retreat. All crew were eventually killed or taken prisoner.

• Even more men died when Maj.-Gen. J.H. Roberts, not knowing how badly things were going on the beaches, ordered in the raid's reserve troops from the Fusiliers Mont-Royal. The German defences were still in place, and the Fusiliers were decimated as they hit the shores.
• The RAF was also hit hard, losing at least 95 aircraft -- the most in any single day since the war had started.

• At 11:00 a.m., the evacuation order was given. Landing craft attempted to make it back to shore under heavy fire, picking up what men they could. An estimated 3,367 men, mostly Canadian, were left behind. There were 907 Canadians killed, and another 1,946 who became prisoners of war.

• No major objectives were accomplished, although some infantry did succeed in reaching Dieppe's casino, and used it as a gateway to fight skirmishes in the town of Dieppe.
• The main purpose of the Dieppe raid was to probe German defences, and test Allied invasion equipment and strategy. The lessons learned at Dieppe would be put to use in the eventual invasion of France, which took place on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

Also on August 19:
1826: Scottish land agent John Galt gets a charter for the Canada Company, to colonize lands in the western part of Upper Canada (Ontario). Two years earlier, Galt's Company acquires almost one million hectares of Crown land east of Lake Huron. The towns of Guelph and Galt, Ont., are principle settlements. His son, Alexander Galt, would become one of the "Fathers of Confederation."
1880: French acrobat Jean-François Gravelet, a.k.a. Chevalier Blondin, carries his manager, Harry Colcord, across Niagara Gorge and back on a tightrope.
1974: Rev. Wilbur K. Howard, from Ottawa, is elected as the first black moderator of the United Church of Canada.
Medium: Radio
Program: Robert Bowman Reports
Broadcast Date: Aug. 20, 1942
Reporter: Robert Bowman
Duration: 14:35
This clip has poor audio.
Photo: Library and Archives Canada / C-014160

Last updated: August 21, 2012

Page consulted on January 10, 2014

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