During the Second World War, on 19 August 1942, the Allies launched a major raid on the small French coast port of Dieppe. Operation Jubilee was the first Canadian Army engagement in the European war, designed to test the Allies' ability to launch amphibious assaults against Adolf Hitler's "Fortress Europe." The raid was a disaster: More than 900 Canadian soldiers were killed, and thousands more were wounded and taken prisoner. Despite the bloodshed, the raid provided valuable lessons for subsequent Allied amphibious assaults on Africa, Italy and Normandy.

Testing Fortress Europe

The raid was mainly intended to evaluate the Allies’ ability to conduct amphibious assaults against occupied Europe, and establish a foothold there. American and British leaders wanted to eventually liberate the continent and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had asked them to open a “second front” in Western Europe to relieve the enemy pressure on the Russian front in the east. The Dieppe Raid was designed for an Allied force to take a defended port, establish and hold a perimeter around the town, destroy the harbour facilities, and then withdraw by sea.

Lieutenant-General Harry Crerar pushed for Canadian troops to form the bulk of the assault force because of domestic public opinion—which was pressing for Canadian Army involvement in the war—and the morale of Canadian personnel overseas, who had been stationed in the United Kingdom for two years without combat action to date.

Launched across the English Channel from England, Operation Jubilee involved 4,963 Canadian soldiers, plus Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) aircraft, as well as other Allied forces.

Tragedy on the Beaches

In the early morning hours, Major-General J.H. Roberts’ 2nd Canadian Infantry Division assaulted the Dieppe beach at four designated sections. At Blue Beach, at the village of Puys (1.6 km east of Dieppe), troops of The Royal Regiment of Canada and The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada arrived late in their bid to take out enemy artillery and machine guns guarding the Dieppe beaches. From the start the enemy pinned down and shot them up until the raid was over.

At Green Beach, by the village of Pourville (4 km west of Dieppe), the South Saskatchewan Regiment arrived on time and in the dark. Unfortunately, the part of the unit tasked with reaching a radar station and anti-aircraft guns to the east of Pourville landed on the west side of the River Scie, which ran through town. These troops had to cross the river on the village’s only bridge, which the Germans ferociously defended. Ultimately, both the South Saskatchewans and Cameron Highlanders of Canada were pushed back.

At Red and White Beaches directly in front of the port, the Essex Scottish and Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI) regiments landed without their armoured support, the 14th Canadian Army Tank Regiment (the Calgary Tanks), which was late. The enemy, from higher ground and in the town's Casino, hit these units hard. Some infantry entered Dieppe, but the Canadians also failed to achieve their objectives here.

On a ship offshore, Roberts, believing that more troops were in Dieppe than in reality, sent the reserve Fusiliers Mont-Royal to take advantage. This regiment was also destroyed. Finally, the Calgary Tanks that did land onshore were limited in movement by the shingle beach (consisting of large pebbles, known as chert), and concrete barriers. The surviving tanks provided covering fire for the force’s evacuation.

High Costs and Critical Lessons

The raid was over by mid-day. In nine hours, 907 Canadian soldiers were killed, 2,460 were wounded, and 1,946 Canadians were taken prisoner— including more prisoners than the army lost later in 11 months during the Northwest Europe campaign of 1944-1945. In the air battle overhead, the RCAF lost 13 planes and 10 pilots, out of 106 Allied aircraft and 81 airmen lost overall.

Only British commandos, assigned to subdue coast artillery batteries, enjoyed some success. For the Canadians, the day was not without heroism. Honorary Captain J.W. Foote of the RHLI, and Lieutenant-Colonel C.C.I. Merritt of the South Saskatchewans both received the Victoria Cross; the chaplain Foote because he helped care for wounded troops and Merritt because he bravely led his men over the Pourville bridge and later commanded a rearguard that allowed some troops to escape. Both were taken prisoner.

German casualties were light, outside of 48 aircraft lost. For the Allies, the raid failed largely due to poor planning and higher leadership and bad luck. The Germans did not know of the pending raid, but they were alerted after Allied naval craft enroute to Dieppe clashed with a German convoy.

The hard lessons included avoiding further assaults on defended ports, as well as the need for better intelligence on beach conditions and German defences, better communication between personnel on and offshore, heavier naval gunfire and more bomber aircraft in support, specialized landing craft, and tanks able to overcome beach obstacles. These elements were implemented later in amphibious assaults in North Africa, Italy, and Normandy on 6 June 1944.