Remembering World War II’s doomed Dieppe Raid, 75 years on
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On August 19, 1942, more than 6,000 men landed in Normandy as Allied forces launched a raid on the French port of Dieppe. But the poorly prepared operation would fail, with deadly consequences. FRANCE 24 looks back at the Dieppe Raid, 75 years on.
Dieppe Beach. Under a clear blue sky, tourists unfurl their towels. Some will go for a carefree dip, while others suntan blithely, basking in the insouciance of a French summer holiday. But not many know what happened here 75 years ago on this stretch of polished stones.
In August 1942, the mood was entirely different. Screams rang out on the beach. The stench of blood and gunpowder wafted up from the shore. A blanket of bodies in their hundreds lay splayed across the rocks. The Dieppe Raid – also known as Operation Jubilee – raged, starting that morning. With World War II tearing Europe apart, especially on the eastern front, the Allies sought to launch an attack that would test German defences on the western flank.
More than 6,000 men, including 5,000 Canadians, landed at Dieppe and on four adjacent beaches with the objective of destroying German coastal defences as well as some strategic infrastructure.
“In France, it’s a little-known story. The focus has always been on the June 6 (1944) Normandy landings, but this event was important during the conflict,” says Marcel Diologent, vice president of Association Jubilee, which seeks to document the history of the operation.
For more than 30 years, this group of enthusiasts has strived to keep the memory of the Dieppe Raid alive. In 2002, in an old theatre near the seafront, they created a memorial to the event that brings together documents, uniforms and other commemorative items. Portraits of men who took part in the attack line the walls.
“Many were only 17 years old. It was only natural that we pay a lasting homage to them since they enlisted voluntarily for our freedom,” explains Martine Pietrois, the association’s president.
Robert Boulanger, a teenager from the province of Quebec, was one of those young soldiers. He had just turned 18. On the morning of August 10, he penned a few words to his parents. His letter is on display at the memorial: “We’re being told that we’re very near the French coast. I believe it because we can hear the cannonade and the explosions, even the shells whistling over our heads. Finally I realise that we’re no longer in drill. An assault boat directly next to ours has just been hit and has gone under with all those who were onboard. We didn’t have time to see much because in the space of one or two minutes, there was nothing left. Oh my God, protect yourselves from such a fate!”
Those were Boulanger’s last words. A bullet went right through his forehead. He hadn’t even set foot on the beach. In the space of just a few hours, 1,000 men lost their lives while 3,000 were captured and held prisoner until the end of the war. The operation was a total failure.
“It really was a tragedy,” says Diologent. “Everything prevented it from succeeding. There really was an obvious lack of preparation.”
‘The goals were too daring’
Historian Olivier Richard, who has written several books about Operation Jubilee, shares this opinion. “This raid had objectives that were far too daring,” he says. “The operation was also modified many times. At the beginning, it carried the name ‘Rutter’. It should have taken place in July but the German planes spotted the fleet. What’s astonishing is that it was resuscitated one month later.”
The element of surprise was therefore lost. Naval support turned out to be insufficient, while air support was struggling against German aviation. In the sky, one of the biggest battles of World War II was being played out. On the ground, guns and tanks struggled to advance on the beach. The crawlers of the tanks were damaged by pebbles and they found themselves trapped by concrete barriers. On some beaches, the shoreline was particularly steep. Lastly, communication between the troops and military staff was disastrous. The last fighters who couldn’t be evacuated ended up surrendering. Just before 2pm, the weapons went quiet.
The day after the raid, those responsible for the operation claimed that – thanks to Jubilee – great lessons could be learned for the rest of the conflict. For some, it was because of that day in August 1942 that V Day was made possible on June 6, 1944. This version of events led to the high command being exonerated and the mistakes that had been committed being masked.
“Indeed, lessons were drawn from that day, like the idea of not making people run on pebbled beaches or have [crawler tanks] coming out of the water,” said Richard. “But is that a direct consequence of the raid on Dieppe? Ultimately, it stems from accumulated experience, because between 1942 and 1944 there were also landings in northern Africa and Sicily.”
‘We owe them everything’
Today the raid continues to be a subject of controversy. But members of Association Jubilee wish, above all, to pay tribute to the memory of those who perished that day. For months they have been preparing ceremonies for the 75th anniversary on August 19, to be held on Dieppe beach in the presence of the last veterans of the raid.
Association Jubilee’s president Pietrois, who is retired, has lost track of time as the commemorations approach. She spends a lot of time welcoming visitors to the memorial. She never tires of telling the story of the pamphlet, which was dropped on August 19, 1942, by Allied planes onto the town.
“This is a helping hand, not an invasion. […] When the time comes, we’ll let you know. That’s how we’ll act, side by side, for our common victory and for your freedom,” she reads from the document, which is displayed on the memorial. “They promised to come back – and on September 1, 1944, the Canadians came back to liberate Dieppe,” said Pietrois. “Imagine the story of love that we have with them and the respect that we owe them. We owe them everything.”