Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Dieppe Raid

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A tiny raid with giant consequences...

A proof of concept, championed by Lord Mountbatten, the plan called for the capture of a port occupied by the enemy, to test delivery of the troops and combat techniques and equipment.

Begun at 5:00 AM on August 19, 1942, the Dieppe Raid lasted just under six hours. During that time, over 60% of the mostly Canadian troops would be killed or captured. It was a tremendous failure. And it was an invaluable lesson.

Common thought is that the British – and by extension, the Americans – learned several things from this operation that would facilitate a successful campaign on D-Day. While this is certainly feasible, one must question if things had to go so badly for these lessons to be learned.

To start with, there were some rather arrogant decisions made leading up to the operation:

  • The raid was considered ill-conceived by Bernard Montgomery and Mountbatten's superiors but they made no effort to stop the operation or alter the plans.
  • With a gung-ho attitude, the Canadian government, expressed a desire to provide most of the troops in order to give them combat experience.
  • BBC radio broadcasts helpfully informed the French that a raid was coming, though not with the exact location. Yes, really.
  • Enemy defenses were not bombed before the raid to soften them up even though Dieppe was in range of British air fields.
  • Tanks were assigned to the beach landing without extensive reconnaissance of the terrain to check for suitability.
  • Initially, paratroopers were to seize artillery positions during the assault. This one smart idea was quashed and British commandos were tasked to take those same positions by coming in just before the the invasion proper.
  • The raid was a foolish frontal assault through the surf, onto the beach and surrounding cliffs, and into the town with little preparation of the avenues of approach.
  • Planned so close to sunrise, any delay meant losing the advantage of attacking in darkness. And, of course, there were delays.

    Once the operation began, here is what went wrong:
    • British radar spotted a German naval patrol earlier in the day. They failed to inform the fleet and a commando detachment was attacked while at sea, incurring many casualties and alerting beach defenses that an attack was in progress.
    • Of the 556 members of the Canadian Royal Regiment who landed on Blue Beach, facing Germans who were alerted to the attack by the naval skirmish above, there would be 464 casualties.
    • On Green Beach, the South Saskatchewan Regiment incurred heavy losses without achieving any of its goals. This was partly due to most the battalion landing in the wrong place.
    • On Red Beach and White Beach, the main landings were accompanied by naval and air bombardment which proved to be largely ineffective. 
    • Worse, of the 58 tanks planned to assist the troops on the beach, only 15 survived the surf, the sand, and the seawall. And, these 15 were late in arriving.
    • Due to general confusion, and a smoke screen laid down by the Royal Navy, an officer on board one of the vessels (not on the beach) ordered reserve units to move in. These units came under concentrated German machine gun and artillery fire.
    • Observing the trouble these new units were encountering, more reserve troops were ordered in.
    • Any armor that survived to reach the seawall was stopped there by tank obstacles and, ironically, were best used by providing covering fire during the general retreat. Not a single tank crew member returned to England.
        And here is what little went right:
        • The commando force that had been heavily depleted by the 'surprise' naval encounter succeeded in one part of their mission in that they tied up, or made ineffective, the artillery positions they were attacking east of the main landings.
        • Another commando force, succeeded in its mission to neutralize artillery west of the landings.
        • Sergeant Jack Nissenthall of the Royal Air Force leading a special team to a radar station in Pourville in order to study German technology, failed in his primary mission. However when he succeeded in cutting telephone lines to the station, the Germans inside made the mistake of using a radio to reach out to other radar installations. Using triangulation, British listening posts were able to determine the exact locations of many of these stations.
          The lessons that were learned:
          1. Landing sites needed more thorough preparation by aerial and naval bombardment.
          2. In order for these bombings to be more effective, reconnaissance needed to be better.
          3. Armor had to be more reliable to protect troops and engineers on the beach.
          4. Plans needed to be less complicated.
          5. D-Day would include large scale paratrooper landings to seize key roads and bridges, create confusion behind enemy lines, and to disrupt troops movement and communications.This is best seen in episode two of Band of Brothers.
          Although the numbers of dead, wounded, and captured were small compared to most beach landings against entrenched enemy forces during the war, the percentage of casualties was exceptionally high. Compare the casualties on any beach during D-Day, and what you had in Dieppe was a foolish plan, poorly executed. It is surprising that a little over two years after the debacle at Dunkirk, there were some in command amongst the allies who still thought they could succeed over German might merely by showing up to the battle in style.

          To quote Lord Mountbatten himself:
          “I have no doubt that the Battle of Normandy was won on the beaches of Dieppe. For every man who died in Dieppe, at least ten more must have been spared in Normandy in 1944.”