From One World War to Another (1919-43)

The Army to 1942

Disaster at Dieppe 1942

And Canada's descent into Hell was not over. In August 1942 came the disaster of Dieppe. In this enormous ill-conceived raid that should never have taken place, the Canadians, in less than five hours of combat, suffered 68 percent casualties, including 907 dead.

At the time a number of Canadian volunteers, politicians and journalists were complaining about the fact that Canada's overseas formations remained in England while the British, Australians, New Zealanders, Americans and a host of other Allies were fighting all over the world. Although the Japanese navy had experienced significant setbacks, the situation was not particularly rosy for the countries fighting the Axis. Meanwhile the Americans and Soviets were pushing to open a second front on the European continent, where the Soviets were then fighting alone. A number of factors, including a shortage of men and equipment, militated against this plan. However, raids, some substantial, were in fashion. One was planned on Dieppe for June 1942 with the equivalent of two brigades of the 2nd Canadian Division. For various reasons this plan was abandoned and the units involved returned to their barracks in disappointment.

Approximately two months later this plan was abruptly reactivated. The raid would take place on 19 August 1942. The plan was highly complex and relied on precise timing in all its phases. Unfortunately, however, intelligence was poor, the inevitable potential problems had not been taken into account, and naval and air support to the ground troops was highly deficient. There was no element of surprise virtually anywhere on the various landing beaches. By chance, a German coastal defence unit was on an exercise that particular night and able to sound the alarm very early on.

Although the planning was British, the Canadian subordinates, partly carried away by enthusiasm for combat at last, did not subject it to serious criticism. Nothing but gross incompetence from the Germans could have changed the course of events. Some 4,963 Canadians were involved in the raid, which began badly when very few of the planned landings took place at the appointed time and place. Of the 2,210 Canadians who would return to England, only 336 came out of it unscathed. All units - six infantry regiments and one armoured regiment plus hundreds of engineers, medics, gunners and a medium machine-gun regiment - sustained casualties. Blocked virtually everywhere by impregnable cliffs and lacking massive artillery and well-deployed air support, the men were killed (907, over 18 percent of strength), injured (2,460, or about 50 percent) or taken prisoner (1,874, or 37 percent, including 568 wounded). In all, the Allies (Canadian, British and a few Americans) suffered 4,350 casualties: 3,610 army, 550 navy, 190 air force. The Germans got away with 591 casualties: 316 army, 113 navy, 162 air force.

Nor was the suffering over for the Canadians taken prisoner in the raid. From papers seized from the enemy, the Germans discovered that the Canadians had been planning to shackle their prisoners to make them easier to control, which was in contravention of the laws of war. They therefore immediately clapped shackles on their Canadian prisoners, and for some this humiliation would continue for 18 months. Canada would do the same for a few months with its German prisoners of war. In December 1942, however, they abandoned this practice, which was taking them much too close to the monster they were trying to defeat.