August 19, 1942 – Dawn breaks over the beach at Dieppe, and it has become a killing field.
Just years before, Dieppe had been a peaceful seaside resort town. It wouldn’t have been unusual to look out on the beaches and see happy vacationers sunning themselves and enjoying the good weather.
On this summer morning, disaster.
Heavy German fire rains down from the buildings lining the beachfront. The sound of aircraft, machine-gun and cannon fire is deafening. The pebble beach is covered with soldiers laying wounded, or dead.
By early afternoon, Operation Jubilee would be over. Of the nearly 5,000 Canadian men who took to the beach, 3,367 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The 1,000 British Commandos who fought alongside them lost nearly 250 men.
It is a staggering number, equivalent to one man lost every 35 seconds over the nine hours the operation took place.
The raid had been planned down to the minute, but the essential element of surprise had been lost when part of the Allies’ convoy had run into German ships in the English Channel, causing a fatal delay.
Instead of victory, the Juno Beach Centre would describe the Dieppe Raid as “one of the most devastating and bloody chapters in Canadian military history.”
The raid on Dieppe would go down in history as one of Canada’s greatest military disasters. Both veterans of the battle and the Canadians and English at home asked themselves “why?” Why this great sacrifice for a raid, the goal of which was to land, fight, capture the harbour and leave immediately?
Over the years, there have been many rote explanations for Dieppe. The two most discussed reasons: Winston Churchill wanted to open a Western front, to relieve the Soviets to the east, and Dieppe was a trial run for D-Day, a test of amphibious landing techniques and battle strategies.
Still, the survivors would search for meaning. Why Dieppe?
“In Canada, it came across as a hopeless, useless raid for nothing,” said Reginald Wise, 93.
Wise, who now lives in Cloverdale, fought in the 40 Royal Marine Commando during the Second World War — part of the British force on the beach at Dieppe that fateful August morning. Wise was not there himself, as he was still too young at 17 to see action, but his friends were.
“They ask themselves “why?” said Wise. “Well, England was in dire straits, Russia demanded a second front, and England thought they had to do something — someway, somehow.
“If it had came off, if they hadn’t met that convoy … it would have changed everything.” Wise gestured to a book on the table in front of him.
Five years ago, Canadian military historian and professor David O’Keefe published his groundbreaking work, One Day in August, which changed, in Wise’s mind, the entire history of Dieppe.
The real reason behind the raid of Dieppe, O’Keefe writes, was to provide cover for a top secret commando group, tasked to steal intelligence from a German naval headquarters stationed inside the harbour of the seaside town.
The expert decoders at Bletchley Park had been successful in deciphering German communications, sent by Enigma machines that scrambled messages, before 1942. But in February 1942, the Germans began using a different version of the Enigma machine.
The Allies could no longer predict the movements of German U-Boats, and the Battle of the Atlantic – the battle to get food and resources to the Allied forces in the island nation of Britain – turned for the worse.
The real reason behind Dieppe, O’Keefe writes, was to capture documents held at the German naval base in a “pinch” raid that would give Allies the key to unlocking the new Enigma, effectively altering the course of the war.
While there is no changing the great loss of life on that fateful August morning, the meaning behind the raid had finally come to light – which means everything to veterans such as Wise.
It is that knowledge that Wise hopes to make more widely known, to civilians and to the living relatives of those who fought at Dieppe. O’Keefe’s book was released five years ago, ahead of Dieppe’s 70th anniversary, and Wise said that “still, no one knows the truth.”
“When you report on something like this, it has to have a meaning to it,” he said. “So many people, even now, they’re ignorant of the meaning of this particular raid and how it meant so much to the survival of England itself.”
“What the Canadians did wasn’t in vain,” he said. “So much hinged on the battle … we learned a lot.”
In August 2017, Wise travelled to Dieppe in a government delegation to take part in the commemoration ceremonies observing the 75th anniversary of the battle of Dieppe.
There were, he noted, very few ceremonies in Canada that marked the anniversary of the Dieppe Raid. “We are letting our veterans down,” he said.
“Don’t forget these people.”