Read an Excerpt
'It will not advance the Russian or Allied cause if we embark on some operation which ends in disaster.'
– Winston Churchill
In the summer of 1942 the war was almost at the end of its third year and the position of the Allies was desperate. On the Russian front the Germans' offensive was driving towards the Volga and the oilfields of the Caucasus, threatening to link up with the Japanese in India and overwhelm the Middle East from the rear. In May and June U-boats sank more than a million and a half tons of shipping, and in a single week at the beginning of July Britain and the United States lost vessels totalling 400,000 tons. The rate of Atlantic sinkings exceeded the building capacity by two-and-a-half to one and the appalling toll in oil tankers alone threatened to bring the Allied war effort to a summary halt.
Singapore had fallen to the Japanese, the Royal Navy had suffered a series of embarrassing setbacks in the Far East and on 21 June Winston Churchill experienced his worst moment of the war so far. In Washington for talks with Franklin D. Roosevelt, the British Prime Minister sat in shocked silence as the American President read from a slip of pink paper brought into his White House office the news that Tobruk had fallen and the British Army in North Africa was in headlong retreat towards the Suez Canal. Churchill, who hurried back to London to defend himself vigorously and successfully in Parliament against a censure motion on his conduct of the war, subsequently wrote of that moment: 'Defeat is one thing; disgrace is another.'
The gloom was unrelieved and the Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, announced gleefully 'England is on the toboggan'.
Yet the embattled Churchill was being urged by his new American allies to open a Second Front across the Channel to bring relief to the hard-pressed Soviet armies. The Americans were demanding an invasion of France in September 1942, an operation to which Churchill gave the stirring codename 'Sledgehammer' but about which he was understandably, and quite sensibly, cool.
Not that Churchill ever needed any urging to be positive in his conduct of the war. Only a few days after the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940 he was bombarding Maj-Gen. Sir Hastings Ismay, his right-hand man in the War Cabinet secretariat, with memos demanding 'a vigorous, enterprising and ceaseless' offensive against the coastline newly occupied by the Germans. 'We should immediately set to work to organise raiding forces along these coasts where the populations are friendly' Churchill wrote. 'What we have just seen at Dunkirk shows how quickly troops can be moved off (and I suppose on to) selected points if need be. How wonderful it would be if the Germans could be made to wonder where they were going to be struck next, instead of forcing us to try to wall in the Island. ... Enterprises must be prepared with specially trained troops of the hunter class who can develop a reign of terror down these coasts.'
The immediate result was the formation of the Commandos, who sustained British morale in those grim days with a series of raids on the occupied coastline of Europe. Though most were no more than pin-pricks, and some proved embarrassing duds, they were testimony to Churchill's eagerness to attack, even at the most depressing of times, and helped to sustain the British people's determination.
Germany's invasion of Russia in June 1941 provoked instant demands for the establishment of a Second Front. Walls were plastered with the slogan second front now and even the Empire-minded Sunday Express urged Churchill to hurry to the aid of Britain's unlikely new ally: 'Where's that Second Front?' it asked on 6 July 1941.
Field-Marshal Alan Brooke, who had taken over as Chief of the Imperial General Staff in October 1941 ('when the horizon was black from end to end with only one shaft of light in the possible entry of America into the war') was the professional soldier whose bleak task it was to restrain Churchill's passion for premature offensives and 'an incurable wish to stick his fingers into every pie before it was cooked.'
Having deflected the Premier from launching a feint attack on the Cherbourg peninsula to relieve pressure on the Russians, Brooke then spent long nights debating with Churchill a plan to invade Norway and, in Churchill's words, 'unroll the Nazi map of Europe from the top'. Brooke complained in his diary 'It had no strategic prospects of any kind and yet he insisted on returning to it. Heaven knows what we should have done in Norway had we landed there.'
The CIGS, who acknowledged Churchill as 'quite the most wonderful man I have ever met', had no illusions about some of his master's strategy, however: 'Winston never had the slightest doubt that he had inherited all the military genius of his great ancestor, Marlborough. His plans and ideas varied from the most brilliant conceptions to the wildest and most dangerous ideas. To wean him away from the wilder plans required superhuman efforts.'
Brooke knew, however, that Churchill would never overrule the unanimous opinion of the Chiefs of Staff Committee – the supreme battle headquarters of the British and Commonwealth armed forces – on any purely military matter. The bitterness over Gallipoli, which had come so close to wrecking Churchill's political career in the First World War, had left a deep scar and he would permit no one, not even the Cabinet, to criticise his Chiefs of Staff.
The Committee had three members, the heads of each armed service, with Brooke as chairman. They met every morning in the Cabinet War Room in Great George Street, near St James's Park, and debated, until they were in unanimous agreement, the stream of problems that beset a nation at war.
The Committee acquired a fourth member, Lord Louis Mountbatten, in March 1942. Mountbatten, forty-one years old and the King's second cousin, had had a lively war with the Royal Navy until then. As captain of the destroyer HMS Kelly he had been sunk off Crete and machine-gunned in the water. Appointed commander of the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious he went, in October 1941, to Norfolk, Virginia, where the vessel was being repaired after the Mediterranean campaign. Abruptly, he was ordered to hand over his ship and return to Britain at once.
Angry and disappointed, he reported to the Prime Minister's official residence, Chequers, where he was told by Churchill he had been chosen to replace the sixty-nine-year old Sir Roger Keyes as head of the recently-formed Combined Operations Organisation. 'I would rather go back to the Illustrious', was Mountbatten's reaction. 'Then you're a fool' replied Churchill. 'The best thing you can look for there is to repeat your last achievement and get yourself sunk.'
Despite Mountbatten's initial reluctance, the appointment was an inspired one. Combined Operations had been formed to provide muscle for Churchill's ambitions to assault the occupied coast of Europe, and Keyes, a hero of the Zeebrugge Raid in the First World War, was simply too old for the wearying complexities of commanding an organisation that had necessarily in 1940 to be developed virtually from scratch. Mountbatten's staff experience was limited but he possessed other qualifications in abundance. His courage and ability were unquestioned, he was handsome, popular, witty and imaginative, and he had the knack of being able to talk as plainly and persuasively to the ranks as to his fellow-officers. The fact that he bore a marked resemblance to his cousin, King George VI, was not exactly a disadvantage, either.
Mountbatten's enthusiasm for having a crack at Occupied Europe, a venture so dear to Churchill's heart, brought him a place on the Chiefs of Staff Committee in his new role as chief of Combined Operations, though the chairman, Brooke, while acknowledging the newcomer's energy and drive, sourly regarded his presence as 'rather a waste of time'.
Brooke, without question Britain's outstanding soldier at that time, was accustomed to waging war by more accepted, conventional and cautious methods, and it alarmed him to find a newcomer to his committee apparently eager to promote Churchill's plans. Was he not having enough trouble persuading Winston to operate within the confines of Britain's limited resources? At Mountbatten's first Chiefs of Staff meeting on 10 March, when Operation 'Sledgehammer' was discussed, either as a raid or a proposed lodgement in France to help out the Russians, Brooke recalled 'Dickie [Mountbatten] was hankering after a landing near Cherbourg, where proper air support is not possible'.
Instead, it was agreed to compile a list of seven ports, around the Calais and Boulogne area and therefore well within the Allied air umbrella, which could be the target of a raid and help provide valuable information for long-term invasion plans.
The costly, though spectacularly successful attack on St Nazaire at the end of March, when the obsolete former American destroyer HMS Campbeltown rammed and blew up the dry-dock gates, boosted Churchill's desire for further adventure to feed the suffering British public. Brooke arrived at one Chiefs of Staff meeting just in time to turn down a Churchill proposal to land the Brigade of Guards on the Channel Island of Alderney.
After spending three hours discussing invasion possibilities with Churchill and Mountbatten, Brooke wrote 'This meeting with Winston was typical of many others when all difficulties were brushed aside and many unpleasant realities, such as resources available, were scrupulously avoided. He was carried away with optimism, and established lodgements all round the coast from Calais to Bordeaux with little regard to strength and landing facilities.'
So where could the armed forces strike next to appease the Prime Minister? The list of suggested Channel ports had been forwarded to Combined Operations, where the Naval Adviser, Capt. John Hughes-Hallett, who had masterminded the planning of the St Nazaire operation, argued with much reason that none of the ports should be selected since there was no knowing how many unauthorised people had glimpsed the list. So Hughes-Hallett and the other members of the target committee at Combined Operations Headquarters set about finding an alternative. When COHQ's Air Adviser requested somewhere within fighter range and the Military Adviser suggested a target not so far away that the soldiers would get seasick, Hughes-Hallett stabbed a finger at Dieppe on the map and said 'Right, let's take the old peace-time route – Newhaven to Dieppe and back. It's less than seventy miles away.'
Dieppe's proximity would permit the attacking force's Channel passage to be undertaken almost entirely under cover of darkness, and the fact that it was an excellent port with good rail and road communications and an airfield nearby made it ideal as a prospective target for full-scale invasion.
On 4 April Mountbatten gave his approval for plans to be drawn up for a Combined Operations attack on Dieppe. 'It's on,' was the wording of his terse note to Hughes-Hallett.
Dieppe, described in the Blue Guide to Normandy as 'a seaport, fishing harbour and fashionable watering-place' is situated, like Dover on the other side of the Channel, in a break between high chalk cliffs. The town lies at the mouth of the river Arques in a valley which is less than a mile wide and is dominated by headlands rising to more than 300 feet on the western side and a slightly less imposing height on the east.
The gap in which Dieppe is situated is easily the biggest in the formidable chain of chalk stretching along that part of the coast. There are other, smaller gaps. At Puys, about 2,000 yards east of the Dieppe harbour entrance, a gully leads down to a tiny beach, and at the village of Pourville, some two and a half miles to the west, there is a larger break where the river Scie flows into the sea.
Dieppe faces almost due north towards the English coast. The entrance to the harbour, between a pair of jetties, is on the extreme eastern end of the seafront (or the left-hand side if approached from the sea) and immediately beneath the cliffs of the Eastern headland. The town's impressive promenade, the Boulevard Maréchal Foch, stretches westwards from the harbour entrance for some 1,200 yards and most of Dieppe's leading hotels stood in 1942, and still stand, on the Boulevard de Verdun which forms the southern side of the 150-yard wide, well-grassed front. Interrupting the row of hotels along the Boulevard de Verdun was the town's tobacco factory, easily identifiable with its pair of tall chimneys. At the western end of the promenade, close under the cliff and beneath the Old Castle, was the Casino, a large white building which lay between the beach and the front of the town, breaking the clear sweep of the promenade between the headlands.
The beach in the Dieppe area is of large pebbles, hard on the feet and tossed into steeply shelving mounds by the action of tides and storms. The pebbles, found only along a hundred kilometres of Normandy coastline, were exported for use in the manufacture of porcelain. Though the people of the area feared that the constant removal of the pebbles would spell the end of their beaches, the seas continued to throw up new ones and in 1942 the Dieppe seafront remained an unattractive mass of stones, slippery, shifting and difficult to negotiate.
The town itself, its bars, cafés, shops and houses, huddles around the two harbours, outer and inner, and when the British painter Benjamin Robert Haydon went there in 1814 he noted 'Dieppe turns its back upon the sea as if in disgust at the sight of an element on which its country has always been beaten'. Its architecture was a hotchpotch, testimony to sufferings at the hands of the English. At the time of Joan of Arc, Lord John Talbot bombarded it for nine months. In 1694 Lord Berkeley, returning with his fleet from an unsatisfactory encounter with the French off Brest, vented his anger on Dieppe, setting it on fire after a three-day bombardment from the sea.
England's friendlier, and enduring, connection with Dieppe began after Napoleon's abdication in 1814 and grew with the development of a regular Channel ferry service to the port. There was an English quarter and two Anglican churches, British business houses flourished and British goods were prominently displayed in the shops. It was a favourite resort and painting scene of Turner, Oscar Wilde stayed there after his release from prison, Lord Salisbury built a house at Puys and Winston Churchill married Clementine Hozier, one of four children of Lady Blanche Hozier, who went to live in Dieppe with her daughters in 1899.
Churchill's comments on the selection of Dieppe as a target have not been recorded but he knew the place well enough at the turn of the century, occasionally visiting the town with his wife to see his mother-in-law. Churchill was not popular with the English residents of Dieppe, being described as 'bumptious and opinionated' and 'a tiresome young journalist'. He displeased the women even more as he sat outside the Hozier cabin on the promenade reading the daily papers, 'his bathing costume rolled down to expose an unusual amount of bare flesh, roasted to an unlovely scarlet'.
Two alternatives were swiftly drawn up for the Dieppe Raid by Combined Operations' planning staff. The first, designed on Mountbatten's instructions to avoid a frontal assault on the port, proposed to land a battalion of the new 40ton Churchill tanks, as yet untried in combat, and a battalion of infantry on the beach at Quiberville, eight miles to the west, another two battalions in Pourville, two miles west, and two more at Puys, immediately east of the port. A further two battalions of infantry would remain at sea as a floating reserve. The intention was to take Dieppe by overrunning the headlands on either side. The second plan involved a smashing frontal blow at Dieppe over the town's main beaches, supported by flank landings at Pourville and Puys and attacks by parachutists and gliderborne troops against two heavy coastal batteries, situated at Berneval, six miles east of Dieppe, and Varengeville-sur-Mer, three and a half miles west, which commanded the sea approaches to Dieppe and, unless subdued, were in a position to destroy the invasion fleet.
Mountbatten set the project before his fellow members of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, who approved it and secured Churchill's enthusiastic backing. But Brooke, still displeased at the arrival on his tiny, select committee of war planners of the breezy young Mountbatten, insisted that the army's role in the operation should come under the direction of Home Forces rather than Combined Operations because the number of soldiers to be involved would be considerably greater than Combined Operations' commandos. Since the Chiefs of Staff Committee refused to grant the necessary unanimous approval to an outline plan until this point was conceded, Mountbatten went along with Brooke's wishes.