Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/8/2012 (1440 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
"The battle on the French coast never let up. The navy bombarded targets selected by the army in-shore. The tanks kept firing big shells. Aircraft, friendly and hostile, crowded the skies. Skirmishes and battles involving several companies at one time shook the town with fire from mortars, Sten guns, Bren guns and tommy guns. Grenades were the favourite killing missile."
-- Ross Munro, Canadian Press war correspondent,
reporting in the Winnipeg Free Press Aug. 21, 1942
Three brothers from Holland, a small farming town west of Winnipeg, were in the thick of it.
Pte. Clifford Stewart, Pte. George Stewart and their foster brother Pte. Charlie Erickson were at a place called Pourville four kilometres west of Dieppe, a French coastal holiday town before the war.
Seventy years ago Sunday, it was the scene of one of the fiercest battles of the Second World War.
What the three young soldiers from Winnipeg's Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders saw and did that day is mostly unknown, although Erickson was wounded and later singled out for bravery by his superiors.
The Cameron's job that day, in support of the South Saskatchewan Regiment, was to land on the beaches and advance inland. They were supposed to capture a German airfield and then connect with other Allied troops to attack a German headquarters before pulling back to shore, getting back on waiting landing craft and heading to England 110 kilometres away.
It didn't go as planned. Nothing really did.
Much like everything else that happened Aug. 19, 1942, the Canadian-led attack at Dieppe and its neighbouring beaches faltered before it began. The Germans got warning the Canadians were coming when one of their boats bumped into the Allied convoy.
The Stewart brothers and the wounded Erickson barely escaped with their lives.
They were among the nearly 5,000 Canadians who stormed the pebble beaches at Dieppe and neighbouring landing zones, tumbling out of landing craft into the murderous machine-gun sights and heavy guns of the waiting and battle-hardened German army. More than 65 per cent of the men who made it ashore were killed, wounded or captured. No major objectives were achieved.
Dieppe is Canada's Balaklava, where the light brigade charged into the valley of death, into the mouth of hell.
Also on the beaches that day was 28-year-old reporter Ross Munro, a war correspondent with the Canadian Press.
In today's parlance, Munro was embedded with Canadian commando troops when they hit the stony beach directly in front of the port town of Dieppe. The landing craft he was in was machine-gunned by the Germans as it attempted to approach the shore.
"I spent the grimmest 20 minutes of my life with one unit when a rain of German machine-gun fire wound(ed) half the men in our boat and only a miracle saved us from annihilation," he wrote in his first-hand account of the raid, a story that ran Aug. 20, 1942, in newspapers across Canada, including the Free Press.
"An officer next to me was firing his Sten gun. He got off a magazine and a half, killed at least one Nazi, and then was hit in the head. He fell forward, bleeding profusely."
Munro's lengthy account -- it had passed through military censors -- of the eight-hour attack gripped Canadians, who until then had been largely untouched by the war in Europe. Relatively speaking, only a few families in Canada had experienced the war's grim toll by the summer of 1942, most notably the families of the Winnipeg Grenadiers and Quebec's Royal Rifles, who had been killed or taken prisoner during the ill-fated defence of Hong Kong the previous Christmas.
Until Dieppe, the war was largely being fought somewhere else by someone else.
Munro's reports and other news about the war quickly changed that in two ways.
First, it brought the message home to Canadians that to drive the Nazis from Europe and the Japanese invaders from the Pacific, some hard choices had to be made by each man, woman and even child.
"Today's exploit brings to Canadians at home a realization that we also shoulder a heavy responsibility," then Canadian defence minister James Ralston said in a bulletin to the nation in the hours after the Dieppe raid.
"It is our duty to be worthy of our young men, of the youths who fought today at Dieppe and who, with the same ardour and stoutness of heart, face with confidence the battles of the future. So it must be said of us that we never gave them cause to falter."
Second, as the long casualty reports came in, it compelled Ralston to explain within a month to the nation why so many of those "young men" had been killed and what went so wrong with the mission -- Canada's first major battle on European soil since the First World War and our victory at Vimy Ridge in April 1917.
"You can't really hide a disaster like that," says University of Calgary military history professor David Bercuson. "I think that's part of the explanation why they turned it around so quickly."
Bercuson also says war correspondents like Munro were asking questions and not initially mentioning what they already knew in their earlier reports. Munro and other correspondents were censoring themselves so as to not hurt the war effort. That quickly changed as family after family across the country learned their sons were dead or captured.
"It's Dieppe that really hits home," Bercuson says. "All of a sudden, it really comes home and hits you what's going on. Before that, it's largely a matter of demonstrating patriotism and signing up for the boys. Then along comes Dieppe and all of a sudden this pall of doom hits. People see this is going to be long and it's going to be hard and everybody better buckle down.
"We've got to do whatever we've got to do to get this over and done with and we'll fix up everything else later."
Dieppe has also become the central point to Canadians in our narrative of the Second World War.
While an unqualified military disaster, it’s also viewed by some as the first time the different arms of the military services worked together in a co-ordinated attack. The navy, army and air force each played a role. The ships delivered the troops and tanks to the shore while aircraft above protected the fleet from German warplanes. Both ships and planes also provided supporting fire to the soldiers on the beaches. That had never happened before on such a large scale.
What was learned from Dieppe was honed afterward for the Allied invasion of North Africa the following November and the massive D-Day landings at Normandy in June 1944.
Historian Jack Granatstein, a senior research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute, says some the stuff about "lessons learned at Dieppe" is just pure PR spin.
"There was a prepared plan for a failure by the military that said, 'Oh yes, it was terribly bad, but we learned all sorts of valuable lessons,' " Granatstein says. "That line is followed to the present.
"All the great lessons were things that everybody knew already. That's the extraordinary point. All the lessons that we learned that made D-Day successful, that you needed to land somewhere where the enemy wasn't and that you needed surprise, that you needed a lot of gunfire support, that you needed heavy air support, that you needed big guns firing from the sea -- all those things had been learned for years.
"There were no lessons learned, other than you needed better training. Everything else was common knowledge."
So why did things go so badly for the Canadians?
Canada had declared war against Adolf Hitler's Germany on Sept. 10, 1939, a week after Britain and France.
In the three following years, thousands of young Canadian men signed up and shipped overseas to bases in England to wait for their crack at the Huns -- the Stewart brothers and Charlie Erickson among them.
Meantime, the Germans had conquered Europe and rolled unchallenged through North Africa. In 1941, Hitler attacked Russia and, on the other side of the world, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour.
The Canadians waited in England.
By the summer of 1942, the Americans were also gearing up for war against Germany. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was putting pressure on Britain's Winston Churchill and other Allies to open a second front in Europe. The Germans were advancing on Stalingrad and Stalin's army needed help.
At the same time British Chief of Combined Operations, Rear Admiral Louis Mountbatten, was pressuring Churchill for a large-scale hit-and-run raid against the Germans along the French coast. There had already been small commando raids. Now it was time to see if the infantry could do it.
The Canadians wanted in. They'd sat long enough and wanted to see some action before the Americans stole the show. Canadian General Harry Crerar pleaded with his British masters that his soldiers should be the vanguard of the Dieppe attack force.
The Brits agreed.
General John Roberts, born in Pipestone, Manitoba, was assigned the task of preparing the Canadian 2nd Division to attack. The target date for the seaborne raid was early July, but it was postponed because of bad weather.
A second date was set for Aug. 19. In the hours before the landings, ships and troop carriers amassed in English ports to ferry the mostly Canadian force across the English Channel. Troops and tanks would land at Dieppe and nearby flanking beaches just before sunrise while British and American commandos would support them by taking out known German gun positions along the nearby cliffs.
But Operation Jubilee, as it was called, had been scaled back from the original plan. There would be no parachutists landing behind enemy positions, no pre-aerial bombardment or heavy naval guns blasting the French coastline. The fear was too many French civilians would be killed.
As the Allies chugged towards the French coast, they also lost any element of surprise when they accidentally encountered a small German naval convoy.
The result on the beaches was predictable. The main assault at Dieppe saw the Allies, the Essex Scottish Regiment and Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, supported by 27 Churchill tanks of the 14th Canadian Army Tank Regiment from Calgary, caught out in the open by German gunners. On the stony beach, the tanks barely operated because of the gradient. Their tracks spun uselessly in the stones.
"The thing that's amazing is that they land at that beach in front of Dieppe, which is a tourist destination for people from England for about 500 years, it's as if they didn't know what was there," Granatstein says. "It's as if they didn't think the Germans would be up on the cliffs commanding the beach. The whole thing was screwed up."
At neighboring Puys, the Royal Regiment of Canada from Toronto was pulverized by the German defenders. Only 60 men out of 543 got off the beach when the retreat sounded about six hours later. At Pourville, the South Saskatchewan Regiment and the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders landed off course or late. The Cameron's commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Alfred Gostling, was killed by a sniper as he stepped off a landing craft.
The Highlanders did penetrate further inland than any other troops, but were quickly forced back to the landing craft by German reinforcements. Their progress turned into their punishment: Every step they took inland, they'd have to retrace to get back to the beach on time to get picked up.
"I will forever remember the scene in that craft," correspondent Munro reported on the attack.
"Wounded lying about being attended by medical orderlies oblivious to the fire; the heroism of the Royals as they fought back and strove as desperately as any man could do to get on the beach and relieve their comrades still fighting ashore; the contempt of these men for danger and their fortitude when they were hit. I never heard one cry out."
In the bloody aftermath, Canadians left behind and too injured for immediate medical care from the Germans -- they treated their own wounded soldiers first -- were executed where they lay, put out of their misery, according to some accounts.
Days after the raid, as the casualty lists took over much of Canada's front page news, defence minister Ralston promised to tell Canadians why things went so badly.
He did that in a 4,000-word statement printed Sept. 18, 1942, in newspapers across Canada. Officially, the chance encounter with the German trawler in the English Channel was partly responsible. Other factors were the inability of commandos to destroy German gun batteries near Dieppe and the Royal Regiment of Canada's 20-minutes delay in landing at its beach east of Dieppe, resulting in the manoeuvre taking place in broad daylight instead of semi-darkness. The Royals also failed to take out German gun positions in support of the main landing.
Despite this, Canadian military historian Terry Copp of Wilfrid Laurier University says Dieppe should not be considered a total military failure.
Copp says it was the first time the British navy landed an amphibious force under fire, after clearing a minefield, and then were on time to bring the survivors off the beaches and back to England. The air force also succeeded in bringing the Luftwaffe into the sky to fight them for air superiority to protect troops on the ground.
"Dieppe is the largest air battle of the war between single-seat fighter interceptors," Copp says.
"Our casualties to both aircrew and aircraft were higher than the Germans, but the real thing we pay the air force to do is protect the people on the ground, to provide air cover. The air force was completely successful at that. There was no significant interference from the Luftwaffe on the troops landing on the beaches and even during the withdrawal phase."
Copp says what went wrong is none of the key German gun positions surrounding Dieppe -- artillery, mortar and machine gun -- was neutralized.
"It doesn't matter that there were relatively few German troops defending Dieppe. What matters is that their guns are all zeroed on the beach. None of those positions was taken out and there was no real way for people to get off that beach."
Copp also said the timetable of the Dieppe raid -- they could only spend six hours ashore -- was unrealistic for accomplishing any major objective other than scooping a few German prisoners.
The Canadian generals should have known that. Most certainly, the average soldier knew their task was impossible.
"As in life, the world of business and, God knows, in the world of universities, when a project gets far underway, it is really, really hard for anybody to say: 'This is not going to work. Let's not do it.' And that in some ways is one of the most important issues raised by Dieppe," Copp says.
"Canadians always assume that we are brilliant soldiers, that we don't need extraordinary training to do it," Granatstein adds. "Whatever we do, we do extremely well. When things go bad, we're sort of shocked and outraged -- it must be someone else's fault.
"If we had our heads screwed on right, we would have said it was a crazy idea."
Erickson and the Stewart boys probably knew the mission was doomed, too, as they cleaned their guns in the darkness of the boat heading towards France.
Each got safely back to England. Their mom, Mrs. E. Stewart of Holland reported as much to the Free Press in its Sept. 10, 1942 edition.
The newspaper and military archives are silent on what happened to Clifford and George Stewart after Dieppe. Erickson went back into the fight and was wounded a second time in the summer of 1944 during the Allied breakout from the Normandy beaches.
It's not known if he healed in time to go back to Dieppe when the Canadians returned Sept. 1 of that year, liberating the French town from the Germans without much of a fight: They had abandoned the town as having no military value. It's certain he rejoined the fighting in the fall: On Oct. 27, 1944, Erickson, then 25, was killed in the Battle of the Scheldt, the fight to open the port of Antwerp to Allied supply ships. He's buried near where he fell, in the Bergen Op Zoom Canadian war cemetery in southern Holland.
Copp and Bercuson say if Canadians really want to know about their soldiers in the Second World War, they'd do well to put the disasters of Dieppe and Hong Kong aside and read about victories such as the Battle of the Scheldt and the liberation of Holland in 1944.
"The Battle of the Scheldt estuary took close to three months," Bercuson says. "It was a major Canadian victory of the war. The Germans were fighting hard and we were undermanned and were fighting for every flooded field in Holland. It wasn't easy, but it's looked upon as one of our most significant contributions to the Allied victory."
"People today are much less likely to want to pick scabs over defeats," Copp adds.
"They're much more likely to want to talk about things that Canadians did well. Dieppe has somewhat slipped its central role in the Canadian psyche."