The Raid at Dieppe, France holds a unique place in the war in Europe. Commando style raids were very popular in the early years of the war. The European continent lent itself well to this style of warfare. England, the unsinkable base, was just a short naval journey to occupied coasts from the northern tip of Norway to the French-Spanish border. Air support was readily available and a massive British Fleet served as a deterrent of sorts that could protect withdrawing forces.
At a tactical level, these types of missions could accomplish specific objectives, such as capturing radar technology or destroying the drydocks and St. Nazaire. At a strategic level, commando operations were great publicity and kept the United Kingdom in the war even though they were no longer on the continent. These raids also forced Germany to commit more resources and troops to defending larger areas, giving the attacking forces the advantage of surprise and flexibility. Launched on August 19, 1942, Operation Jubilee was a continuation of these tactics. Of the many things that made this raid different, it was the first time Americans would participate in ground combat.
Originally conceived as Operation Rudder, the raid at Dieppe was supposed to accomplish a range of missions. Under tremendous pressure from German forces in the east, Soviet Union Premier Joseph Stalin demanded a second front be opened in the west to divert German war material and troops away from Russia. Following the dictum “Germany first,” the Americans were eager for the British to commit to landing on the continent as soon as possible to establish a beachhead that conquering armies could break out of. Within England, more action against Germany was desired to demonstrate that they were still in the fight.
As a result of these various pressures, Operation Rudder grew quickly. Previous raids consisted of a few hundred commandos and Royal Navy personnel; Dieppe would involve 5,000 British, Canadian, and American landing troops. Accompanying this dramatic increase in manpower was a grand plan involving parachute drops, infantry battalions, tanks, naval gunfire support, and waves of RAF bombers.
The geography of the port of Dieppe was a challenge from the beginning. This section of the French coast is dominated by large, white chalk cliffs. For the majority of this coastline, it is not possible to exit the beach directly onto land. Surrounded by these cliffs, Dieppe sits on the mouth of the Arques River, providing a port and access to the Channel. Making matters worse for an invading army, the beach is not made of sand; instead it is covered in stones, making it ill-suited for running on, let alone landing heavy equipment.
In addition to the geography, the Germans had planned an assault from the sea. Artillery batteries on the high ground around the port supported bunkers, machine gun positions, and anti-tank guns that covered the beaches. Operation Rudder planned to use a combination of paratroopers and amphibious assault to attack the flanks of Dieppe. This way, the high ground and supporting artillery batteries could be taken before land forces moved into the town. While these attacks took place, naval bombardment and runs by heavy bombers would suppress defenses allowing the force to take and occupy Dieppe for 48 hours before being pulled out. As often happens, plans changed.
A few months before Rudder was supposed to kick off, the decision was made to change the operation to a frontal assault on the town with infantry and tanks. Slowly, resources were stripped away from the plan—the Royal Navy would not commit capital ships for gun fire support, the paratroopers were taken out and replaced by commandos, and the RAF canceled the bomber support replacing it with dozens of squadrons of single engine fighters. Rudder continued to take shape as a very bad idea when fortune attempted to intervene and stop it. Set to go at the end of July, 1942, a German air raid happened to pass directly over the loaded flotilla. The British canceled Rudder when they realized the Germans would see the loaded ships and know an operation was about to happen. However, two weeks later, as if by magic, Rudder was given new life and renamed Operation Jubilee. The frontal assault was back on.
Of the many late changes to Operation Jubilee, one of the last was the addition of 50 US Army rangers to the attacking force. The First Ranger Battalion was established in early June 1942 under the command of Major William O. Darby. The rangers were modeled after the British Commandos, even undergoing their training in Achnacarry, Scotland. Eager to get Americans “combat” experience, 50 men were selected to be attached to various units in Operation Jubilee. Most arrived weeks before the raid and were spread out in small groups among the commandos, some arrived days before the operation and were simply dropped off with Canadian units and told to participate. These 50 rangers were specially selected to gain combat experience, joining the ill-fated raid as the first US Army soldiers to set foot on occupied Europe.
Forty of the Rangers were attached to Number 3 Commando, with the mission to assault German batteries a few miles to the east of Dieppe at a small town of Berneval. Given the closeness of Dieppe from England, Number 3 Commando was transported in small landing craft escorted by motor gun boats. A few of the craft had to turn back due to mechanical difficulties, worse still the small flotilla ran into a German coastal convoy. After a short firefight broke up the assault force, the landing at Berneval had to be called off.
Unfortunately, five landing craft, carrying about 100 men, never received the word. Included in this force were seven rangers under the command of Lt. Edward V. Loustalot from Franklin, Louisiana. The Americans found themselves fighting to exit the beach with their commando brethren. Once atop the cliffs, they were quickly overwhelmed by sheer numbers of German troops and had to withdraw. Raising up to cover men attempting to return to the beach, Lt. Loustalot was cut down by German machine gun fire, becoming the first American killed in action by German forces on the ground in Europe.
In the confusion of the landings, two other Americans were killed during the raid. Lt. Joseph Randall and T/4 Howard Henry were killed somewhere on the main assault beaches alongside the Canadian units they were attached to. Not much is known about the specifics of their death. They were strangers in units they had been attached to just days prior. In addition, most of the men they would have interacted with were killed, wounded, or captured during the bloodbath created by German defenses on the main landing beaches. The four rangers assigned to Number 4 Commando were more fortunate. Tasked with attacking batteries to the east of Dieppe near a town called Varengeville, they were able to neutralize the gun batteries and pull most of the force off the beaches.
In the end, the raid on Dieppe was a complete disaster. Over half of the force was killed, wounded, or captured. Of the 50 American rangers involved, three were killed, three captured, and five wounded. These were heavy losses considering that only 15 of the rangers actually landed on the beaches. The raid was not intended as a practice run for the landings in Normandy, nor did it provide any new techniques or problems to overcome that guaranteed the success of Overlord.
The problems faced at Dieppe were well known before the raid was launched, and would have been worked out over the course of planning for Normandy. Unfortunately, Dieppe was launched more out of a desire for action rather than as a dress rehearsal for further development of tactics. For American forces, Dieppe marked the beginning of US involvement in ground combat in Europe and the first painful losses of a war that was just starting to warm up.