Disaster at Dieppe
Home Radio Television Curio.ca
CAPH banner left CAPH banner centre CAPH banner right
Military Might
Disaster at Dieppe
History Home
Disaster at Dieppe
A quick raid becomes one of the worst disasters in Canadian military history
On August 19, 1942, Lieutenant-Colonel Dollard Menard found himself on the coast of France bombarded with enemy fire, surrounded by dead or dying Canadian soldiers, and in the midst of one of the worst military disasters in Canada's history.
The attack on Dieppe on August 18, 1942 was supposed to be a quick in-and-out raid but became one the worst military disasters in Canadian history. Pictured here, aftermath on Dieppe beach. (National Archives of Canada)
The attack on Dieppe on August 18, 1942 was supposed to be a quick in-and-out raid but became one the worst military disasters in Canadian history. Pictured here, aftermath on Dieppe beach. (National Archives of Canada)

"I noticed a handful of soldiers spread out on the ground," the Canadian recalled, "with their heads turned toward the parapets, as if waiting for the order to move. So I crawled toward one of them, I shook him and spoke to him, but he didn't answer. He was dead. I did the same with a few others, but in vain. They were all dead."

The attack on Dieppe, codenamed Jubilee, was supposed to be a quick in-and-out raid. It was intended to placate the Soviet allies who were fighting the Germans alone on the Eastern Front. The raid was also planned to test German defences.

Five thousand Canadians soldiers made up the bulk of the assault force. Many had been training in England since the start of the war.

On a clear summer night, 237 ships slipped quietly across the English Channel, hoping to surprise the Germans at Dieppe. But part of the landing force encountered a small German convoy, that alerted the German defenses. As the ships approached the Dieppe beach at 5:20 a.m., it was clear that they had lost the element of surprise.

Captain Denis Whitaker and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry landed on the beach at dawn. His first glance revealed he was in a trap. As the Canadians stepped onto the beaches, they were mowed down.

"The ramp dropped," Whitaker recalled. "I led 30 odd men of my platoon in a charge about twenty-five yards up the stony beach. We fanned out and flopped down just short of a huge wire obstacle. Bullets flew everywhere. Enemy mortar bombs started to crack down. Around me, men were being hit and bodies were piling up, one on top of the other. It was terrifying."

Dieppe had been a French resort town, its stony beach and casino popular among Parisians seeking relief during the sticky summer months. Whitaker's men moved toward the casino, and routed the Germans who were using it for cover. Miraculously, Whitaker and a few of his men reached the town and a small wooden building.

"We flung ourselves on the cement floor and discovered that the whole shack had been used as a latrine. It was impossible to move, as the mortaring continued without interruption; we lay in this crap for twenty or thirty minutes, feeling great revulsion for every German alive!"
Of the 5,000 Canadians who landed at Dieppe, 907 were killed, 586 wounded and almost 2,000 were taken prisoner. Pictured here, wounded soldiers return to England after raid on Dieppe. (National Archives of Canada)
Of the 5,000 Canadians who landed at Dieppe, 907 were killed, 586 wounded and almost 2,000 were taken prisoner. Pictured here, wounded soldiers return to England after raid on Dieppe. (National Archives of Canada)

Casualties were already high but radio communications poor and commanders on the ships were not aware of the extent of the disaster unfolding. Reserve troops were ordered into the slaughter.

Lieutenant-Colonel Dollard Menard, 29, and his 600 men of the Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal waded toward the beach under heavy fire.

"I think that I must have made no more than three steps before I was hit by a bullet for the first time and knocked to the ground," remembered Menard. "A bullet is like a razor cut to the face. At first you don't feel the pain. I was hit a second time. It seemed to explode all around me. I was no longer sure I was still in one piece. The bullet hit me in the cheek and tore my face pretty badly. I managed to get up when I was hit for the third time, this time in my right wrist."

Finally the order to retreat was given.

"I was leaving the beach when I was hit in the right leg just below the knee, but I continued on," said Menard. "The last bullet hit me below the right ankle and nailed me to the ground for good. I began to pray."

Captain Whitaker was trying to lead his surviving men back from the casino, toward the beach, to pull out.

"The worst part was the dash for the boats amid a hail of bullets and mortar or shellfire. Apart from trying to help the wounded, it was every man for himself. I expected every step to be my last."

Whitaker made it back to the boats, the only Canadian officer to survive unscathed. Menard was pulled to safety by his men to boat and survived his five bullet wounds.

The Royal Navy managed to rescue several hundred men. Another 2,000, almost all of them Canadian, watch helplessly as the last British naval vessel disappeared over the horizon. They became prisoners of war.

At home, headlines proclaimed the success of Dieppe. But casualty lists provided a telling rebuke. Of the 5,000 Canadians who landed at Dieppe, 907 were dead, 586 wounded.

Canadians had been victims of bad military planning as much as German bullets in the disaster at Dieppe.

Historians debate the value of Dieppe. Some say it provided an invaluable lesson for subsequent coastal assaults on North Africa, Sicily and Italy in the years to come. Others say it was a military debacle undertaken for political reasons and yielded little that was new in terms of military strategy.

In England, Albert Kirby and other Canadian survivors were left to deal with the aftermath of Dieppe.

"What a mixture of feeling went through my body surveyed the shambles throughout the harbour. So relieved to be home. So happy to be in one piece. So ashamed to have come home alone. So proud of the way the Camerons went to their deaths. So sad that they seemed to have been wasted. So angry that I was even a part of something so confusing, and apparently unrewarding, without even knowing what I was doing or exactly where I had been."


top of page


Last Topic:
"Miserable, rotten, hopeless life"

Current Topic:
Disaster at Dieppe

Next Topic:
D-Day
The Battle of Britain
Canadian pilots do battle in the skies over England during the war's first crucial battle
read more ...

"Miserable, rotten, hopeless life"
With little training and unstable ships, Canadian sailors face the dreaded German U-boats
read more ...

D-Day
Canadian troops land in Normandy as part of the largest invasion in history
read more ...

Letters Home
A young Canadian soldier prepares for battle far from home
read more ...

history home | explore the episodes | biographies | teacher resources | bibliography | games and puzzles | sitemap | contact us
cbc home | tv episode summaries | merchandise | press releases | behind the scenes | audio/video

copyright � 2001 CBC