The Real Purpose Of The Dieppe Raid

For veterans of Dieppe, there is finally comfort in knowing that their friends didn’t die for nothing.

Normally I would have waited until August to write this, however recent events had me reconsider this. Today is the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy, so naturally, Canada’s national embarrassment Justin Trudeau gave a speech about Dieppe (yes he actually did that).

I wrote a history paper on Dieppe for a university course I took last year. I chose this topic because 1) it doesn’t get talked about much, and 2) it’s an interesting story.

The key reference material for this paper was a book by noted Canadian war historian David O’Keefe called One Day In August: The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy At Dieppe. O’Keefe. His research was intensive, looking up thousands upon thousands of documents, many of them top secret and had only been declassified by Great Britain in the mid 1990’s.

What O’Keefe found was astonishing, and it answered a question many veterans of Dieppe had asked over the years, “Why did my friends die at Dieppe?” For so long, many have felt that the raid was nothing more than an ill-conceived operation that served no purpose.

It can be said thar the lessons learned at Dieppe likely saved thousands of Allied lives on D-Day, which they in fact did. But hidden under decades of Top Secret classification was the real purpose of the raid. The objective of the mission was to locate and capture, without the Germans becoming aware of the fact, of an Enigma machine and the accompanying cyphers.

What adds to this story is the major role that a British Navy Commander played in this operation. This man would later go on to create one of fictions best known characters, James Bond, and would rely heavily on his own experiences when writing his series of books. That man, of course, was Royal Navy Commander Ian Fleming.

I also wanted to focus on the regiments from Calgary that were there, the 14th Calgary Tanks, now the King’s Own Calgary Regiment (RCAC), and the Calgary Highlanders, who are still an active reserve unit. I wanted to recognize the sacrifice made by these men who fought not just for Canada, but for the city that I was born and still live in. What follows is the paper that I wrote.

The Real Story Of The Raid On Dieppe

Shortly after 1715 hours on 18 August 1942, some 250 ships sailed out of Portsmouth, Newhaven, and the Isle of Wight, forming a flotilla bound for the French port of Dieppe to conduct a raid under the codename Operation Jubilee. Troops would begin hitting the beach at about 0545 the following morning, only to be met with ferocious resistance. At 1000 hrs, in the face of terrible losses and the unlikelihood of success of any kind, the operation was called off. Of the nearly five-thousand Canadians who were to take part in the raid, 916 would be killed in action, nearly two-thousand taken as POW’s for the remainder of the war, and more than a thousand of them were wounded. It would prove to be the most disastrous amphibious landing in military history, before or since the raid.

Given the outcome, questions would arise as to the purpose of the raid, and about whether or not the price paid by those who were killed, wounded, or captured, was worth it, or if their efforts were made in vain. In this paper, I will examine the reasons behind why the raid was launched, and, the roles played in it by two Calgary regiments; The 14th Armoured Battalion (The Calgary Tanks), now known as the King’s Own Calgary Regiment, that would earn battle honours at Dieppe, and The Calgary Highlanders, that did not.

In 1942 the war would enter its third year, and things were not going well for the Allies. The British had put an end to a planned German invasion, codenamed Operation Sealion, by inflicting significant losses on the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, however, Britain was still in mortal danger. The surface ships and U-Boats of the Kriegsmarine were sending millions of tons of supplies vital to Britain’s war effort, as well as its very survival, to the bottom of the Atlantic.

To the east, the Nazi’s had launched a massive invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarosa in June of 1941, and military and civilian deaths were nearly mounting at an incredible rate. Although their advance had been halted during the course of the brutal Russian winter, the Nazi’s remained to be tenacious and wouldn’t be pushed back easily, resulting in continued death and destruction. As a result, Soviet leader Josef Stalin would make an appeal to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, to open up a second front in Western Europe, in order to relieve the pressure on the Soviets.

For over fifty years, this was believed to be the driving force behind the raid, which would also give the allies the opportunity to assess their capabilities in launching large scale raids on mainland Europe. The top military commanders and their planners could then use the information gathered and lessons learned, to aid in the development of the plan for the invasion of Europe.

Then, beginning in 1995, thousands of pages of wartime documents were declassified by the British government, that would reveal another purpose for the raid; to seize a four-rotor Enigma machine, along with the codebooks and other documents.  Through the efforts of the cryptography section at Bletchley Park, and the acquisition of German codebooks and tables, the British had been able to decipher messages generated by Enigma. A machine resembling a typewriter, it utilized a system of three lettered rotors, along with a plugboard with ten pairs of letters, the settings for which changed daily. Each machine had a set of eight different rotors to choose from, of which three were used. Which rotors were used, and their positions in the machine, would change daily.

The genius minds assembled at Bletchley Park had created a machine the called the Bombe, the sole purpose of which was to perform vast numbers of calculations simultaneously, in order to decipher the code. It was the world’s first computer, working electromechanically, and took up the space of an entire room. Although it was able to decipher encoded messages, the process could take days or weeks, rendering the information useless by the time it was decoded.

In April of 1940, the Royal Navy disabled a German armed trawler, and was able to board it before the crew was able to destroy any cryptographic documents. These documents were of crucial value to the codebreakers, as they would provide the daily settings for the Enigma machine. This gave the British the ability to read German naval messages as they were sent, enabling the Royal Navy to divert shipping convoys away from U-Boats, which often hunted for them in wolf-packs, and under cover of darkness.

The Germans would change their bigram tables less than a month later, rendering the documents useless. However, the British had developed a plan, in the form of a series of “pinch” raids, in which specially trained “commando” units would conduct raids on specific targets, with the goal of acquiring German cryptographic documentation. This would be be done by the Naval Intelligence Division (NID), under the command of Rear Admiral John Godfrey.

The man Godfrey would tap for the job was his assistant, a young Commander in the Royal Navy Reserve named, Ian Fleming, who would later go on to create the fictional spy James Bond. Fleming was in charge of intelligence planning within the NID, something for which the “ideas man” was known to have a “marked flair”. He had developed a variety of schemes, the purpose of which was to spread disinformation and to develop ways to deceive the enemy, and ranged from relatively simple tasks to operations of great complexity.

Fleming’s job was to select a number of targets along the French coast, concentrating on those likely to contain an Enigma machine and/or any associated books, tables, or other cryptographic information. The targets would generally be small, inconspicuous, buildings or boats, that were used by the Kriegsmarine, and were likely to contain the desired items to be pinched. It was crucial that operations were conducted in such a way that the Germans were unaware that any of these items had been taken. Otherwise the Germans could change the tables, and the information gathered would prove useless.

The first of these raids would occur on 4 March, 1941, when five hundred British commandos, supported by Norwegian Marines and Royal Engineers, landed on the Lofoten Islands, off the the northern coast of Norway in an operation codenamed “Claymore”. It would prove to be a success, with numerous buildings destroyed, prisoners taken, but most crucially, a great deal of valuable information which would temporarily give the British the ability to decipher the German U-Boat code, as well as other information which would lead to the eventual solving of the important code.This would lead to hundreds of lives saved, and fewer merchant ships sunk.

Then, on 1 February, 1942, Admiral Karl Donitz gave the order for his U-Boat fleet to implement the use of a new four-rotor version of Enigma. It did not come as a surprise, as there were indications that the Germans had developed the new four-rotor machine as early as 1940. It would prove a shock however, as it would leave the British unable to read German U-Boat communications to its fleet in the Atlantic. Without a four-rotor Enigma machine and its accompanying code books and tables, it would take a great deal of time and expense to break this even more complicated cipher.

Less than a week before this, on 23 January, 1942, British naval Captain Jack “Jock” Hughes-Hallett of Combined Operations had begun the planning of Operation Rutter, a large scale amphibious raid on the French coastal town and port of Dieppe.The primary objective of the operation was to land a specially trained commando unit, under the direction of Cmdr. Ian Fleming, in order to acquire German cryptographic documents and, if possible, an intact Enigma machine. Rutter would later become Operation Jubilee, which would vary little from the original plan.

It was Hughes-Hallett’s decision for the raid to be conducted as a full-on frontal assault, based on the belief that it would be the fastest way to land troops and subsequently evacuate them following the raid. He was also of the mind that what we would now call “shock and awe”, would send the unsuspecting German defenders fleeing. Little did he know they would be up against a well prepared and trained force that was highly motivated. It was perhaps the greatest miscalculation of the raid, and would cost the lives of hundreds of Canadians.

The 14th Canadian Armored Regiment, also known as the Calgary Tanks, was to play a key role in the raid. Sixty Churchill tanks were assigned to the raiding force, their purpose being to provide fire support, and to add an element of surprise and shock that would have a negative effect on German morale. They would train on beaches similar to the one they would be landing on at Dieppe, a beach not made up of sand, but of chert, fist-sized rocks that would clog the treads of the tanks, rendering some immobile, but that did not impede the ability of most of them to make it off the beach.

On the day of the raid, only twenty nine of the sixty tanks had made it to the beach. Only half of this number would be able to lumber off the beach and over the seawall, the remainder having been rendered immobile on the beach because their treads had become clogged or were thrown due to the chert. Despite being trapped on the beach, the tanks would continue to provide fire support for as long as they could, until they were either destroyed where they sat or simply ran out of ammunition.

The Calgary Tanks suffered heavy losses that day, as thirteen of their number were killed, including two officers.Thirty three others would be wounded, and one hundred and thirty eight would be captured and held prisoner for the remainder of the war. These numbers paled in comparison to other units, like the Royal Regiment of Canada that would see over two hundred of their number killed that day, or the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, who lost one hundred and ninety seven men killed. The Calgary Tanks, later renamed the King’s Own Calgary Regiment, would receive battle honors for their role in the raid.

Another Calgary regiment, the Calgary Highlanders, was also tasked with a role in the invasion. The Highlanders’ mortar platoon had been away from the unit for some time, training and competing against mortar platoons from other regiments. As a result of their marksmanship, the Highlander’s had been tasked, unbeknownst to them, with participating in Operation Jubilee and were loaded onto landing craft that were destined for Dieppe.

They would not be able to disembark once they reached the beach, however. Murderous fire would prevent them from getting off LCT 6, and its commander would order it to withdraw back to the anchorage, where the fleet was under aerial attack. LCT 6 would drop off the wounded that were aboard, and then return to the beach in an effort to rescue as many troops as they could. The Highlanders would distinguish themselves during this rescue mission, and some would would be Mentioned in Dispatches for their efforts that day. Because they were unable to land and participate in the the battle, the Calgary Highlanders did not receive battle honors for Dieppe.

For decades, the truth about the true purpose of Operation Jubilee had been hidden. For decades, Canadians, especially those directly affected by it, had wondered why so many had to die in a raid that had no real objective. It was seen as nothing more than a purposeless and colossal waste of life, and would see many, largely Lord Mountbatten, vilified as a result.

The truth, however, would provide some solace to those who had been there, whose friends had been killed and maimed in horrific ways before their very eyes. For these men, there was at least some comfort in knowing that their efforts, and the sacrifices that were made that day, weren’t for nothing as they had once thought. Sadly, many wouldn’t live long enough to learn the truth, and would be haunted by the events of Dieppe until their dying day.


David R. O’Keefe, One Day In August: The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy At Dieppe (Alfred A. Knopf Canada) 248-9, 348, 393

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