By Alex Comber
Warning: This article contains graphic images that may be disturbing to the reader; viewer discretion is advised.
Seventy-five years ago today, Canadian soldiers landed on hostile shores in France to conduct a “reconnaissance in force.” Despite careful preparations, an armada of naval support and squadrons of aircraft overhead, the landing was a failure.
Operation Jubilee was the code name for the Raid on Dieppe, an enemy-occupied port near Le Havre on the coast of France. The plan was for a large fleet of landing craft and other ships to depart from England at night and to land soldiers in the early morning of August 19. Destroying the port’s fortifications would help to evaluate the strength of defences along Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Other objectives included attacking a nearby German airfield and radar facilities, and seizing prisoners for interrogation. The force would then return to the landing craft in an orderly manner and depart from France.
The main assault force was drawn from units of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, with British Royal Marines and commandos fulfilling specialized tasks, such as disabling coastal artillery that might target naval units and landing craft.
Churchill tanks from the 14th Army Tank Battalion (Calgary Regiment) would land in several of the newly developed tank landing craft, to help overcome defences and support infantry battalions with their assignments. Squadrons of fighters and bombers, and a vast fleet of more than 230 ships, would support the landings. Aerial attacks and naval bombardment were expected to throw the defenders into disarray.
The mission began to unravel as the landing craft neared the beach. The formidable defences had not been destroyed in the preparatory bombardment, and the defenders were forewarned by their military intelligence services to expect an attack. Machine guns in pillboxes swept the beaches with devastating fire, and few Canadian units succeeded in advancing inland, over the seawall, into the town or toward other objectives. Soldiers sheltered where they could and awaited an evacuation. The materiel costs of the Dieppe Raid included all 29 tanks lost, 33 landing craft abandoned or destroyed, a British destroyer sunk, and more than a hundred Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force aircraft downed, with many of their crews killed.
Historians continue to debate the underlying reasons why Allied authorities approved this risky endeavour. The attack failed for a variety of reasons; the consequences of that failure were felt in communities across Canada. Out of almost 5,000 soldiers, just over 900 were killed, while almost 2,000 were captured. Many were wounded. August 19, 1942, was the deadliest single day of Canadian military participation in the war.
News of the Dieppe Raid travelled quickly. The Department of National Defence sent out notifications to next-of-kin for the soldiers who did not return with the naval force. Families waited anxiously as survivors passed on information about the missing, and inquiries to the International Committee of the Red Cross led to lists of the dead whose remains had been located and buried, and lists of prisoners in German camps. One poignant example was the loss of Alice Montgomery’s sons Arthur and Ralph, who were twin brothers from Brighton, Ontario, serving with the 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Canada. Arthur was killed on Blue Beach near the village of Puys, while Ralph died of his wounds two days later, in England.
The majority of the Canadian war dead from August 19, 1942, are buried at Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery at Hautot-sur-Mer. This cemetery is unique: the wartime German layout, with its doubled headstones, was retained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission after the war. The image shows the cemetery in early September 1944, after the area was liberated from enemy control, and depicts units of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, the division that had been decimated in the Dieppe Raid, holding a ceremony to commemorate their fallen comrades.
Library and Archives Canada sources about the Raid on Dieppe
Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds many records relating to the Raid on Dieppe. In addition to photos from the Department of National Defence and other private collections, there are war diaries from army units that participated, including the Essex Scottish, Royal Regiment of Canada, Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, 14th Army Tank Battalion (Calgary Regiment), Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, South Saskatchewan Regiment and Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada. LAC also holds the records of all personnel in the Canadian Armed Forces from the Second World War, including all those who died while serving.
One interesting and little-known visual record of Dieppe is a small collection of photos acquired from an unusual source. The widowed Mrs. Delabarre, a resident of Le Havre, France, kept a handful of photos of Dieppe that her employer had given her. These images show abandoned equipment, and preparations for burying Canadian soldiers. For the 25th anniversary commemorations in 1967, she decided to donate the photos to help tell the story of Dieppe to Canadians. Mrs. Delabarre sent them to a Canadian Army representative, Major-General Roger Rowley, who entrusted them to the care of the Department of National Defence’s Directorate of History. Years later, they were transferred to the National Archives. These images in LAC’s collection, two of which appear below, offer a unique alternative to photos taken by the German Army to document the failure of the operation.
The first photo shows “Buttercup,” a Mk. 3 Churchill tank with B Squadron, 14th Army Tank Regiment (Calgary Regiment), abandoned on the beach.
Some of the Delabarre photos, like those taken by German Army photographers, include graphic images of dead Canadian soldiers on the beach, under the seawall and in the stranded vessels. The images can be difficult to look at, but they are important archival records of the event. For instance, this second photo documents a little-known aspect of the aftermath of the Raid on Dieppe. Instead of showing German military personnel inspecting derelict vehicles and landing craft, and viewing wounded and dead Allied soldiers, the photo shows teams of civilians moving and preparing bodies for burial, and they are performing this grim task in the confines of an assault landing craft.
Alex Comber is a Military Archivist in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.