Dieppe—Invasion Key

"The information and experience the Canadians bought with their lives at Dieppe made possible the invasion of western Europe"—Shapiro

L. S. B. SHAPIRO July 1 1944

Dieppe—Invasion Key

"The information and experience the Canadians bought with their lives at Dieppe made possible the invasion of western Europe"—Shapiro

L. S. B. SHAPIRO July 1 1944

Dieppe—Invasion Key

"The information and experience the Canadians bought with their lives at Dieppe made possible the invasion of western Europe"—Shapiro


(This article was written before the great invasion of western Europe. The writer's intention was that it should be published after the climactic assault; because only when the world has come to know something of the detail of the invasion will the Canadian raid at Dieppe, on Aug. 19, 1942, find its proper place in the chronicle of this war.)

LONDON—It happened during an instructional lecture at an advanced training establishment À somewhere in Britain. A Royal Navy commander was explaining to a group of officers, mostly British and American, some technical details of our equipment and tactics—to be used when the invasion was launched. By slides, diagrams and motion pictures, for more than an hour, the naval commander set forth the problems of landing on a heavily fortified enemy coast and also the methods for overcoming them. He then called for questions.

Someone asked: “If we had developed these tactics and this equipment in time for the Dieppe show, do you think it would have been more successful?”

The commander’s answer came quickly.

“Well, gentlemen,” he said, “the whole science of combined operations as we know it now was born at Dieppe. That was the beginning. Almost everything we have developed in these immense training establishments may be traced back to the Dieppe raid. There we learned the fundamental lessons from which has grown a whole new technique of amphibious warfare.”

Canadians, for whom Dieppe conjures memories of political bickering and desolate glory, should remember the commander’s words. He was not a Canadian, nor was he speaking to a Canadian gathering. He was purely a naval instructor, expert in the technique of amphibious warmaking, and he was making a frank reply to a classroom question.

In the light of what we now know about combined operations, the notion that Dieppe could, or should, have been a victory (in the accepted meaning of the word) seems quite ridiculous. One might just as easily expect the disabling of a Mark VI tank with a Ross rifle or a record crossing of the Atlantic by a sidewheeler.

In August, 1942, we were just beginning to think of amphibious landings on a large and powerful scale against heavily defended coasts. Our experience consisted solely of commando raids. We were groping with plans and experimenting with gadgets. But our High Command could not work entirely in the dark. 1 he proper development of our plans and the expert building of our equipment had to be based on hard experience. We could not train hundreds of thousands of men, and build billions of dollars’ worth of equipment merely on military theories. We had to know.

Proposed landings in Africa and Italy would not suffice. There were problems peculiar to the coast of western Europe—problems of tide and terrain, of sea walls and first-class German defenses. These problems could be studied only in western Europe.

And so Dieppe was planned. The gallant and desperate raid was organized in August, 1942, in order that the great invasion of 1944 should be constructed along the right lines. The Canadian^ undertook the job with the high courage that is common to all pioneers. They set forth to hit the strongest point in the German defense system and they were equipped with experimental material. They had the best material then available—certainly! So did Alcock and Brown when they flew the Atlantic.

It is hardly pertinent to the place of Dieppe in the history of this war to cogitate whether the field leadership was faulty, or whether luck favored the operation. It was a desperate gamble; its cost inevitheavy; its reward—certain secret information which would influence the course of the war two years later.

Well, two years have passed. And now the great assault is Dieppe’s ultimate monument. The information and experience the Canadians bought with their lives made possible the expert construction of the invasion of western Europe.

Commando Raids First

IN ORDER to understand the full significance of Dieppe we must trace briefly the pattern of commando raids which preceded that operation. Some 50 or 100 tough commando volunteers would blacken their faces, embark on a dark night in two or three small boats, and fall upon a few hundred square yards of German-held beach. They would beat up German guards, perhaps destroy a gun emplacement, take a prisoner or two, and scurry back to their base in England.

These were guerilla tactics, employed on a small but expert scale by highly trained troops. Militarily, these raids were of small value; this will be readily admitted now. They were, however, of immense political value. They spurred hopes in F’rance and they provided the British people with some source of pride and excitement. They offered evidence to our potential allies that Dunkirk was not the end of a war phase but the birth of a determination that British armies would again fight in western Flurope.

F’rom the operational point of view there were no great problems attached to these raids. They were informal as a pat on the back. No ambitious objectives were attacked. No system of signals was needed to carry beyond the sound of the human voice. There was no air preparation; no artillery support. No camouflage was required to obscure the collection of a

Continued on page 46

Dieppe—Invasion Key

Continued from page 7

few small craft in a British port. These raids had very little relationship to a combined operation as we know it today.

Then in the spring of 1942, with the United States in the war, the British War Office recognized that the time had come to mark clearly the path of eventual victory. We could foresee the day when manpower, sea power and equipment would be forthcoming in sufficient quantity to enable Allied armies to return to western Europe. We realized, too, that the beach assault phase would be the most formidable operation in modern military history.

To this end new and revolutionary military establishments were organized —the combined operations training centres. And the first troops to attend were the Dieppe raiders, mostly men of two brigades of the Second Canadian Division.

Their training consisted mostly of a toughening up process. At that time there was no formal prospectus of combined operations training. Beyond the facts that the Royal Navy would carry the troops to the French beach, and then a land battle would ensue, we had very little program. The plans were based on theoretical calculations as to what the problems might be.

The men spent four months getting physically fit, and rehearsing landings from small craft. A system of air support was improvised. And in the dark hours of early morning on Aug. 19, 1942, the Dieppe expedition set forth. This was not a commando raid. There were thousands of troops, not 50 or 100; there were scores of craft, not three or four. There was artillery support from ships and air cover.

A great many arguments have raged over what transpired at Dieppe. And yet the matter could not be properly argued because vital secrecy enshrouded the two-year Allied plan of which Dieppe was merely the preliminary phase. Prime Minister Churchill disclosed as much as he possibly could when he told the Commons that Dieppe was “an armed reconnaissance in force.”

Churchill could say no more. He dared not. Because the secret reports arising out of the Dieppe operation were then being analyzed. And on the basis of this information the whole development of the eventual assault against western Europe was being planned. At long last we knew. We knew how to design our masses of equipment; we knew how to train our assault engineers. We knew the faults of artillery support from the sea. We

knew the causes of breakdown and confusion in signals. We discovered the lapses in Army-Air-Navy co-operation.

Out of all this precious information a solid prospectus of training was laid down at combined operations centres. The immense task of preparing our forces for the invasion of western Europe was at last under way.

Methods Still Secret

A great many of the methods evolved are still necessarily secret. After all, the war isn’t over yet. Even after the great invasion of western Europe there may be other points in this hemisphere to be assaulted from the sea. And there is the Pacific. The campaign against the Japanese on a grand scale must yet be undertaken, and this is essentially a combined operations affair.

It would not do to detail such points as the pattern of assault craft moving toward enemy beaches, the method of preparing a beach in advance for infantry manoeuvre, the training of assault engineers, and the equipment for devastating sea walls and beach fortifications.

But the fundamental points which make combined operations so revolutionary a development in military operations, and which were virtually discovered at Dieppe, may be explained. There are three main points: (1) Army-Navy-Air co-operation; (2) signals; and (3) artillery support from the sea.

The first point—Army-Navy-Air cooperation—may puzzle the civilian. It seems obvious—doesn’t it?—that the Army, the Air Force and the Navy would naturally co-operate because they are all fighting the same enemy at the same spot on the map. Unfortunately it doesn’t work out that way. Each service has, through the years, developed its own methods, its own expressions, even its own language. A brigadier of artillery might watch a warship’s guns go into action and not have the faintest notion of the methods involved; the system and language may be altogether strange to him. A divisional commander moving on Navy ships toward a beach issues an order. Has he the right to do so? At that point, while the force is still sea-borne, the naval commander may have the last word. Where does naval authority end and military authority begin on an amphibious operation?

These matters, complicated a thoivsandfold, were the first and probably most important lessons to be learned from Dieppe. At the combined operations centres, Army, Navy and Air Force personnel took courses together, learned common methode and a

common language, were taught that they were all part of the same combined force. They were given a common insignia to wear on their sleeves—a combination of wings, anchor and rifle.

It was not easy to break down traditions, to do away with customs and to scrap language. But it had to be done in order that the co-ordination of all three services should approach perfection. And it has been done. Generals and admirals work together as though they were student classmates. Colonels and Navy captains understand one another when they discuss gunnery. It required nearly two years to attain this miracle.

The second important point—signals

— was a highly technical affair. The problem was most confused when it was first tackled. Each service had its own signals methods and channels. These had to be co-ordinated, so that the smallest unit ashore, at sea or in the air could communicate immediately with its succession in command. This required a breakdown of three independent systems and a merger into one supremely complicated but effective system.

Probably the most difficult and most necessary development of combined operations was the third point— artillery support from the sea. It was obvious from the start of planning that the landing force would have to rely on the Navy for initial artillery support. This involved a merger of Army and Navy methods of spotting targets and of signalling. It also required a clearcut definition of authority. Artillery officers and naval gunners lived together for many months, developed a common language, and finally evolved an effective system.

Lessons Well Learned

Thus were the lessons of Dieppe drilled into the tens of thousands of the men who make the great assault. Methods were modified and improvements added as each of the assaults in the Mediterranean produced more modern ideas. Designs were changed; new weapons were developed to tackle particular beach problems; and men with assault experience were returned to Britain to instruct others.

Slowly, painstakingly, the fabulous organization necessary for a successful assault against western Europe took shape, polish and punch. At four combined operations centres in Britain —three British and one American— every soldier and sailor involved in the assault and much of the Air Force personnel learned the lessons of the new science of warfare.

For nearly two years they trained incessantly for a phase of the invasion

— the assault phase — which may require only a few hours, at most short days. They rehearsed relentlessly because this massive and delicate operation must move with the ordered perfection of fine clockwork, else chaos and disaster are our lot.

At a time when this impressive machine of war has moved into action, it would be well for Canadians to linger a moment on Dieppe and to remember that what their youth did two years ago on an unforgettable August day laid the foundations for the most magnificent military venture in the combined histories of the Empire and the United States.

How pitifully small that expedition seems now! How inadequate. Yet how necessary, And how grand!