Dieppe veterans recall fateful WWII battle

When Sgt. David Hart of the Royal Canadian Corps Second Divisional Signals was told he was going on another exercise on Aug. 18, 1942, he was not impressed.

He had been in Britain for two years waiting to go into action, but all he and a lot of other Canadians had done to date was training and exercises.

Hart left his camp at Slindon in Surrey on a bus that took a circuitous route to Newhaven on the south coast of England. When the commanding officer told him and his fellow soldiers they were headed on an important mission to France, they cheered: At last, a chance to fight.

They crossed the channel on Royal Navy ships under cover of darkness and arrived off the German occupied port of Dieppe around 4 a.m. on Aug. 19. Hart was put on a landing craft with a radio set, ready to handle communications. Sitting a few metres from shore he witnessed the carnage as tanks and Canadian soldiers tried to carry out the raid on the heavily fortified port.

The statistics are horrifying.

Of the nearly 5,000 Canadians who participated in the raid, 913 were killed, while about 3,300 others were wounded or taken prisoner. The Royal Armoured Corps and Royal Canadian Air Force lost 119 aircraft with 62 casualities.

Hart remembered seeing soldiers huddled under a sea wall being cut down by German gunfire from the surrounding cliffs. He said the stones on the beach turned red with blood.

He saw bodies floating past his craft and tanks, unable to move up the stony beach, erupt in flames.

Raymond Gilbert, a gunner in one of the tanks, remembers stones jamming the tank’s tracks and being “a sitting duck.” He was forced to surrender and ended up in a POW camp.

Roy Wozniak witnessed the carnage from above. The pilot with RCAF 16 Squadron who flew two sorties over Dieppe remains haunted by the fact he was not told to attack the German gun positions that were causing such mayhem to Canadians on the beach.

Wozniak said his orders came from England, not from the men on the ground, and they were to protect the Royal Navy ships that would carry the troops back to England.

The attack was supposed to be a top secret invasion, but the Germans had noticed increased British radio signals around the time of the raid and French double agents had warned them of a likely invasion.

Air surveillance by the Allies failed to notice German gun positions dug into the cliffs around the port. The stony beach was deemed suitable to land tanks. That intelligence was gleaned from photographs taken by British holiday makers before the war.

Naval destroyers tried to support the troops with their guns but it was not adequate.

Major-General J.H. Roberts, commander of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, led the invasion, but his view was obscured by a smoke screen laid down to protect the landings. Signals were misinterpreted and two reserve units were sent in by mistake.

Hart remembers shouting into his radio that the reserves should not be sent in, but he said he was told it was too late.

The debate about whom to blame for the disaster at Dieppe and the goal of the invasion continues to this day.

After the war, Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, said “the results justified the heavy cost” and that “it was a Canadian contribution of greatest significance to final victory.”

Lessons learned put to use in Normandy

Lord Louis Mountbatten, Churchill’s chief of combined operations who was in overall charge of the raid, said the lessons learned were put to good use later in war, particularly in the planning for the D-Day landings. He later said: “I have no doubt that the Battle of Normandy was won on the beaches of Dieppe. For every man who died in Dieppe at least 10 more must have been spared in Normandy in 1944.”

Hart, now 95, knows things went terribly wrong at Dieppe, but refuses to blame anyone. He says he was proud to be part of the first major Canadian operation in the Second World War and felt obliged to return to Dieppe this year for the 70th anniversary of the raid.

Memorials to mark the anniversary were planned both in France and at the National War Memorial in Ottawa.

In Dieppe, Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney, Gov. Gen. David Johnston and seven Canadian vets joined French officials for the ceremonies.

At the Canadian War Cemetery just outside Dieppe, hundreds of local people came to pay tribute to the nearly 3,400 Canadians who died, were wounded or taken prisoner during the raid.

A single rose had been placed on each of the 707 graves, and people were crying as a bugler played the Last Post. The Canadian veterans who fought at Dieppe also laid wreaths in memory of their comrades there.