I’ve written before about my visits to other Canadian/Commonwealth battle sites on the anniversaries of those events. Dieppe has always been a little different in my own mind.
When I first learned of the battle, I was in Grade 6 at Columbus School in Westwood. My teacher, Miss Batters, referred to the battle as a “bloodbath”. It was the first time I’d heard the term, and it was so evocative of what happened there that the mental image stuck with me.
In later years, as my fascination with history – Canadian military and otherwise – grew, I learned more about what had happened, and what our young Canadian men faced on that morning 75 years ago.
Then I visited with my dad and brothers in May of 2016, and I got a full picture of what a bloodbath it must have been. Having visited the Canadian War Cemetery at Beny Sur Mer, as well as Omaha and Juno Beaches the day before, our emotions about the sacrifice made by those men were already piqued.
I hadn’t known much about the raid on Dieppe, except that it was supposedly a dry run for D-Day two years later – something to find kinks and wrinkles that needed addressing. There were wrinkles alright, the most deadly being that recon photos hadn’t revealed that the “beach” that would receive the landing had a 45-degree grade and did not consist of sand, but rather fairly large volcanic stones and rocks. The combination of the two bogged down the mechanized vehicles that were to support and protect the troops.
As for the troops, the grade and consistency of the rocks made progress on foot difficult in peacetime – as we discovered – but trying to do it under fire while loaded down with gear would have been almost impossible, contributing to the carnage that decimated the poor guys.
As I stood there – with difficulty – surveying the beach, I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like on that morning, emerging from the surf – wet, cold and terrified – seeing horrific things happening to their buddies around them, and then realizing that their mechanized support was unable to help as they struggled for cover under hellacious fire from all around, including the cliffs above.
We just stood there – my dad, brothers and I – 74 years later, and shook our heads at the futility and waste of it all.
We visited two Dieppe beaches that day; my impressions of the second made me even more angry. But first…photos from the main beach.
The typical-looking landing beach from the cliffs above town (from which German gun emplacements rained down fire).
My dad attempting to walk up the 45 degree angle of “beach”. Note: He doesn’t stoop; it’s the angle…and those rocks are like walking on marbles. At top centre is the top of a street light in the parking lot.
It was this grade and the rocks that bogged down the mechanised support.
And the result was horrific.
While we were there on the main beach, I recalled a famous wartime photo of a house up on a hill near the seawall, and I knew it had survived the war. We made our way into town and then north along the coast to where I thought it should be. Just out of town, I spotted the house in the distance and we made our way down to the shore again.
This place was even more upsetting. The beach was even more rocky, and those rocks were larger, making walking on them even more difficult. I couldn’t believe that this beach was more steeply-sloped than the main beach, but it was.
I stood on the beach next to the seawall against which – in the photo – the men cowered, still exposed to fire from the bunker and machine gun nests on the hill near the house.
There were many of those, but there are just two left now. The dark bush about halfway up the hill right on the edge of the cliff mostly blocks the machine gun nest from this angle, but you can see the horizontal mouth of the bunker partially obscured by the red, white and blue traffic sign.
A closer look at that bunker that would have bristled with machine guns raking the beach.
It was when I looked back at the beach from the bunker that I got the most upset that day, because it was plainly obvious that these poor young men were doomed to die in that killing field – a shooting gallery.
And this is what those German soldiers saw that day. Those are bodies strewn on the beach and piled against the wall. The objective was to get off the beach using the staircase at the far end of the seawall, and it became a bottleneck that kept them from cover
A German soldier surveys the dead. Note the bunker, machine gun nest above it, and the house on the hill.
Forme, of all of the sites that we visited over the course of that four days – Omaha Beach, Juno Beach, Ypres, Passchendaele, The Somme and Vimy Ridge, Dieppe was the most immediate, vivid and poignant.
August 9th, 1942. 75 years ago, young Canadians – many seeing action for the first time – faced these guns and these odds, and did their best. From conception, it was never going to be enough.
Their stories ended here on the beaches of Dieppe on the bloodiest single day for Canadian troops in World War II.
We will remember them.
(All modern day photos: K. Parker/Greyhawk Media)
Read the story of the Dieppe Raid HERE.