Pursuit to Dieppe
This time we cane in the back door. O.C. 8TH CANADIAN RECONNAISSANCE
REGIMENT, DIEPPE, 1 SEPTEMBER 1944
THE FIRST two and a half months of the Anglo-Canadian campaign in France had seen fierce but largely static fighting. Advance, in the face of very strong enemy forces holding formidable positions, had been slow and costly. After the victory at Falaise in the third week of August, however, all this changed abruptly; and the next phase of the campaign witnessed an extraordinarily rapid rush across Upper Normandy, Picardy and Artois and on into Belgium and the region of the German frontier.
In this great Allied advance, the role of the First Canadian Army was neither the easiest nor the most spectacular. The Army remained on the extreme left of the Allied line. The result of this, for the moment, was that its divisions found themselves rolling up the strong defences of the Atlantic Wall from the west, capturing by storm a succession of fortified ports which the enemy was determined to deny us as long as possible, and bridging the rivers of northern France on their lower reaches where they were widest.
The Pursuit Begins
General Crerar's troops had begun to move forward even before the final liquidation of the Falaise pocket. General Montgomery on 20 August had defined the First
Pursuit to Dieppe
Canadian Army's next tasks as to keep the Normandy "bottle" securely corked in the Trun-Chambois area, while simultaneously developing a strong eastward thrust towards Lisieux and Rouen. The Germans in the "bottle" once disposed of, the whole Army would move forward across the Seine.
During the period of operations now beginning, the First Canadian Army consisted normally of six divisions, of which three were Canadian, two British and one Polish. During the opening phase, however, two additional British divisions were under command. On the left, the 1st British Corps, commanded by Lt.-Gen. Sir John Crocker, pushed along the coast with the 49th (West Riding) and 51st (Highland) Infantry Divisions and the 6th Airborne Division (now operating as infantry). For a time this Corps also had the 7th Armoured Division (the "Desert Rats"). Further inland General Simonds' 2nd Canadian Corps consisted of the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Infantry Divisions and the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, with the 1st Polish Armoured Division still under command.
The advance of the 1st British Corps from the positions which it held so long began as soon as the enemy front showed signs of weakening following the great events about Falaise. As early as 16 August, the 49th Division had established a bridgehead across the Dives at Mézidon; and from this time onwards the British divisions pushed steadily eastward. During this phase the achievement of the 6th Airborne Division in contriving to keep pace with the advance in spite of the fact that in the nature of things it possessed very little transport was especially noteworthy. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion continued to do good service throughout this period. By the
"The Wine of Liberation Had Warmed Every Heart"
Citizens of Abbeville welcome the Canadian columns.
A self-propelled anti-tank gun ridden by men of Le Régiment de la Chaudière is seen moving through the town.
By this time the Canadians were also moving. The 2nd Canadian Division, which had captured and cleared Falaise, began to shift eastward on 21 August, and by noon of the next day it was in Orbec. The day, moreover, resistance ceased in the "bottle" and General Montgomery now authorized the Canadian formations which had been mopping up the enemy here to join the eastward movement. The Polish Armoured Division, which had done such sterling work in the Battle of the Gap, was withdrawn for the moment to reorganize and refit.
The advance went on rapidly; yet the enemy, for all the severe handling that he had received, continued to
fight stubbornly and skillfully at many points. The fashion in which he conducted this retreat following a very great military disaster earned the reluctant respect of his adversaries, and gained considerable time for his retreating formations. The situation at Lisieux exemplified this fact. Here the Germans fought bitterly and the 51st Division did not succeed in evicting them until the evening of 23 August; even then there was still some sniping in the town. The 6th Airborne Division had similar difficulties at Pont l'Evêque, where two companies got into the town on 23 August but were forced out. The Airborne men then returned to the attack and pushed the enemy out for good. The division now had under its command the Belgian Contingent, which was driving up the coast on the extreme left flank.
By last light on 25 August, the leading formations of the 2nd Canadian Corps were within reach of the crossings of the Seine and the divisions were preparing their individual attacks. On the morning of the 26th, the 12th Manitoba Dragoons, reconnoitring ahead of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, reached the river at several points. Some troops were immediately passed across at Point de l'Arche, and at seven in the morning of the 27th, the infantry brigade of the Division began to follow. Simultaneously, the 3rd Canadian Division began crossing at Elbeuf, lower down the river, where our sappers did a notable job of bridging. The 1st British Corps, in the meantime, had run into stiff resistance along the line of the river Risle. This had been mastered, and the 49th and 51st Divisions were now likewise closing up to the Seine at various points on its lowest reaches.
On one part of the Canadian front an ugly situation had developed. In the neck of the great bend of the Seine
at the top of which stands the city of Rouen is a thick eight-mile range of woodland known as the Forét de la Londe. On 27 August, the 2nd Canadian Division began the task of clearing this obstacle. First reports indicated that it was not strongly held, but shortly very serious difficulties began to appear. The enemy was, in fact, firmly in position in the eastern end of the forest, across the isthmus closing the river loop. The woods, honeycombed with enemy machine-gun positions, presented innumerable opportunities for ambush, and our infantry, fighting their way through the thick bush, repeatedly found themselves being fired upon from these prepared positions by an enemy who had every avenue of approach registered but who was himself quite invisible. He was well supported b y artillery with excellent observation, and he had many mortars. Of the fighting on 28 August the Commanding Officer of the Calgary Highlanders aid: "There was not a ten-yard area in the battalion position that was not hit in the course of the day"; and his was not one of the forward battalions.
Both the 4th and 6th Canadian Infantry Brigades suffered very heavily in these operations. The South Saskatchewan Regiment led the 6th Brigade into the forest. This unit, and the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada in rear of it, bore the brunt of this difficult business. The South Saskatchewan came under particularly heavy fire from machine-guns and mortars. After being hammered in this manner for more than twenty-four hours without being able to make any progress, the Battalion's rifle companies were reduced to a total strength of about 65 all ranks. The enemy positions in the forest were not cleared until the night of the 29th-30th. Only on the morning of the 30th was the process of mopping-up
"The Formidable Concrete Positions Which Had Belched Fire and Steel in 1942 Now Discharged Only Oily and Sullen Smoke": German Demolitions In the Harbour Area at Dieppe, With the East Cliff In the Background.
(From a watercolour by Capt. G.D. Pepper)
[Blank page--back of painting]
south of the Seine completed. On this same day, patrols of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade entered Rouen and reported the city clear.
Although the enemy had in many respects conducted his retreat with great skill, and his rearguards had covered it with great determination (the resistance in the Forêt de la Londe was attributed S.S. troops described as "definitely a suicide force"), he had nevertheless suffered very every permanent bridge across the Seine and kept them destroyed. This had greatly hindered the enemy in bringing reinforcements from the north during the battles in Lower Normandy; now it greatly hampered his retreat. He was compelled to leave behind him on the southern bank of the Seine bends vast quantities of motor and horse-drawn transport and weapons and equipment of every sort. Literally thousands of vehicles lined the banks of the river at Rouen and at many other points,. Added to the tremendous losses in the Falaise battles, these further losses were certain to embarrass the Germans materially in the next phase.1
With the leading elements of the First Canadian Army well across the Seine (the whole of the 4th Canadian Armoured Division was over by 29 August) new prospects were now opening out. General Montgomery's directive of 20 August had prescribed for the Army the task of clearing the whole Havre peninsula to the north of the Seine, and the capture of the great port of Le Havre itself,
the early possession of which was of great importance for the maintenance of the armies. The directive proceeded:
All Scotland will be grateful if Commander Canadian Army can arrange that the Highland Division should capture St. Valery.
I have no doubt that the 2nd Canadian Division will deal very suitably with Dieppe.
These orders and suggestions General Crerar now proceeded to implement. On 30 August he issued an instruction prescribing as the immediate task of the 2nd Canadian Corps the capture of the port of Dieppe. The 1st British Corps was to move against Le Havre, an enterprise which incidentally enabled the 51st Division to pay its debt at St. Valery.
The Great Advance
The period immediately following the passage of the Seine witnessed the most rapid advance yet made by the British Armies. In this phase no such stiff opposition was encountered as had delayed the advance to the river, (although the armoured cars, reconnoitring boldly far in advance, had heavy losses); and the British, Canadian and Polish armour went free-wheeling forward across country with little let or hindrance, followed by the infantry. People have been known to refer to this advance as "the swanning tour"--"swanning" being the word of obscure origin signifying sight-seeing.
No one who was in France during those days is likely to forget them. As our units streamed forward they received from the French population a welcome so warm and so obviously sincere as to be intensely moving. Mile after mile, day after day, the roads were lined with people
o all ages and conditions who stood waving indefatigably at the passing vehicles and smiling and shouting and offering flowers to the troops as the victorious divisions rolled through. The troops, infected with the bright mood of the moment, and delighted to have said good-bye to the grey villages and grim memories of the bridgehead, replied in the same spirit. Every hamlet was gay with flags, the native tricolour flying side by side with the banners (frequently, obviously, home-made) of Britain, the United States and, occasionally, Russia. Some ingenious Frenchwomen, indeed, even contrived to create versions of the Canadian Red Ensign which, while they would probably have given pain at the College of Heralds, certainly gladdened many a Canadian eye. The wine of liberation had warmed every heart; it was an extraordinarily exhilarating experience to drive through a countryside whose inhabitants had unanimously given themselves up to delirious joy; and the reception accorded to the forward troops, or to anybody in khaki who happened to be first to enter a village which those troops had by-passed, was something to be remembered for a lifetime.
Racing northwards towards Dieppe, our columns came for the first time into the flying-bomb country--the area from which, since June, the Germans had been sending their murderous machines against Southern England, but from which they would now send no more. The Canadians soon learned to recognize the neighbourhood of a launching-site. They were usually well camouflaged, and were frequently found in one of the large orchards or small woods with which this pleasant region of Upper Normandy abounds; but their presence was almost invariably indicated by the innumerable bomb craters scarring the landscape, providing indubitable evidence
Memorial Service at DIeppe, 3 September 1944
The Canadian Ensign flies above the graves of the fallen,
the Canadian Army Commander stands near the foot of the flagstaff.
that the R.A.F. or the American Air Force had found them out and dealt with them. Many a small village and prosperous farmstead had shared the destruction meted out to these lairs of the secret weapon; and nothing was more striking than the manner in which the people who had thus suffered by our defensive action received our
troops. They bore no grudge; on the contrary, they would retail with high glee the story of how the Allied aircraft ("La R.A.F. et les Forteresses") had put their particular site out of action, in many cases destroying it before it was able to fire a shot, and hitting it again whenever the Germans contrived to repair the damage.
The army which was now swinging forward across France under General Crerar's command was in the most definite sense an international force. The Canadian divisions and the Canadian Army Troops were its hard permanent core; but it counted also among its formations English, Scottish and Polish divisions, while, as we have seen, a Belgian contingent was for a time under command. Furthermore, the Royal Netherlands Brigade had similarly come under the command of the 1st British Corps and was likewise operating in the coastal area. The Czechoslovak Armoured Brigade Group had also entered the theatre of operations and was in due course to play its part. All these formations were serving with complete loyalty and with no friction whatever under General Crerar's command. The First Canadian Army was already acquiring a reputation similar to that of the Eighth Army in which the 1st Canadian Corps was serving in Italy--that of an international army which for all its incredibly mixed composition was an extremely effective fighting organization whose members had just one dominant thought: to do the greatest possible damage to the common enemy.
An English newspaperman who had watched this Army since the Caen battles penned a description of its as he saw it advancing in these last days of August:
It is a grand international brigade which is going forward here as an avenging host in pursuit of the Germans. There are British troops, and Poles, and Belgians, and Dutch with the Canadian Army: and in one place you can even find a Swedish unit fighting with the American Army. (Where are you now, you cynics, so-called realists, who used to mock the new=fangled League of Nations, sneer at the idea of different countries uniting against an aggressor, jeer and joke at talk of a polyglot many-tongued international army acting as a World Police Force?)
But nobody denies, I think, that the main credit for the Canadian Army';s recent triumphs should go to the Canadians themselves. They are getting tired now, desperately tired--remember some of them have been fighting since D-Day--but you would not think so as they go forward grinningly. In one sector I passed men from a Scottish Canadian Regiment whom I had last seen in the arid fighting south of Caen. No rest for them: they are plodding forward now, as they were plodding forward then, carrying their rifles and Bren guns and shovels with them.
Don't think that, in these days of swift moving mobile mechanised war, the infantrymen have nothing to do but ride in lorries. Mechanised war merely means more things for them to carry on their backs.
Most infantry don't ride, they walk. It has always been the same: they have always walked. And I daresay, if there are still wars a hundred years hence, super-scientific wars, the infantry will still be walking, still
winning the wars, and there will still be few in the hours of triumph to pause and them the honour.2
The maintenance of the advancing armies was now becoming a most difficult and serious problem as the lines of communication steadily lengthened. The British armies were still being supplied from the original bridgehead--by goods brought in over the MULBERRY or through the little neighbouring Norman ports. By the time the Seine was crossed, their lines of communication were already some eighty miles long, and the strain of this haul upon transport resources was very severe. In these circumstances, as Brigadier (now Major-General) A.E. Walford, the chief of General Crerar's administrative staff, remarked, at the time, a ten-ton truck was a more potent weapon of war than a Sherman tank.
In the bridgehead campaign, the enemy had fought on a singularly unsound and unrealistic basis. He had failed, as we have seen, to concentrate all his available forces against the bridgehead while it was weak; he had nevertheless been unwilling to give up ground when by doing so he might have saved his field army for great battles further east. He chose to fight between the Seine and the Loire, and thereby he suffered a shattering defeat and the loss of a great part of his best forces. In this new phase of the campaign, on the other hand, the enemy, with far smaller resources now at his disposal, directed his operations skillfully and realistically. He realized that our astonishing advance depended for continuance upon supply; it could not go on indefinitely if we were forced to continue maintaining our armies from the Caen area; we must shorten our lines of communication by capturing
In the Rue Claude Groulard, Dieppe,
the 2nd Canadian Division Marches Past General Crerar, 3 September 1944
ports further east, closer to our new front, or the advance would inevitably slow down and ultimately stop. The enemy accordingly now adopted the very intelligent policy of denying us the possession of ports as long as possible. Already this policy had become manifest in Western France, where Brest was still holding out against the
Americans, and other ports were to remain in German hands for many months to come. It was now to make its appearance along the Channel coast.
Return to Dieppe
As our reconnaissance units spread out across the Havre peninsula, our intelligence staffs studied intently the evidence of the German dispositions. In this area there were now few Germans in the open field; but for a time it was uncertain whether the ports were garrisoned and would be defended. The status of Dieppe had for the Canadians an importance beyond logistics. The 2nd Canadian Division was eager to avenge the men whom it had lost there on 19 August 1942; and undoubtedly the units were hoping that the Germans would try to hold the place. Every arrangement had been made to deliver a shattering assault upon the town; if there was still a German Garrison there, it was going to receive what was now universally called "the full treatment". A powerful naval force, including two battleships and a monitor, would bombard from the sea; the R.A.F. Bomber Command would deliver one of its heaviest blows from the air; and after this preparation, the 2nd Canadian Division would go in to wipe out the memory of the check suffered in 1942. It would attack just as it had on the earlier occasion, with the 6th Canadian Infantry Brigade on the right and the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade on the left; but this time the attack would be delivered from the land side.
The enemy had strengthened Dieppe considerably since 1942. On the land front the town was now covered by a perimeter of minefields and wire obstacles backed by a certain number of concrete works. Among the weapons
in position were static rocket projectors. It was clearly the Germans' interest to defend the place, and although there was some evidence that they had cleared out, as late as the morning of 1 September, staff officers watching the situation from Army Headquarters (which had now moved up from Amblie to near Brionne) considered that it was still very much an open question whether the great attack by Bomber Command arranged for that afternoon would be required or not. The question could be finally answered only when the forward troops actually reached the defences.
The 2nd Division's reconnaissance unit, the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment (14th Canadian Hussars) had arrived at Totes, just half way from Rouen to Dieppe and less than twenty miles from the latter place, in the course of 31 August. They took the village after a sharp little fight; and next morning they pushed on towards their goal.
About ten o'clock in the morning of 1 September, the extreme forward elements of the "Recce" cautiously approached Dieppe. They reached the wire and the minefields; but no enemy guns spoke out to cover these obstacles; and shortly after ten two men on motorcycles, pushing forward to the edge of the town itself, appeared at the head of the Rue Gambetta, the long straight street which slopes steeply down to the west end of the Dieppe waterfront. The people of Dieppe had watched the German rear parties leave the previous day, and since that moment had been waiting to greet the liberators. Now they threw themselves at the two motorcyclists, and in the words of a local newspaper, "Ce fut un moment de délire". When the vanguard of the unit began to arrive a little later, they found the streets jammed with cheering people who covered their vehicles with flowers. The
report that the town had fallen without opposition was passed back, and Army hastily signalled Bomber Command to cancel its attack.
Just why the Germans had chosen not to defend Dieppe is not quite clear. It was a mistake on their part, for this considerable port proved to be of great value to us in the next phase. The enemy's decision may have been prompted by the consideration that the town was not particularly strong by nature on the land side; and he probably considered that the artificial defences here were not sufficiently developed to enable the place to hold out for long. As it was, he limited his activity to carrying out widespread, but by no means universal, demolitions in the port area and leaving behind him a large number of delayed-action charges--on one, at least, the delay was forty days--which the watchfulness of the French civilians and the ingenuity of our sappers nevertheless enabled us to neutralize after the town was in our hands. The formidable concrete positions in the east and west cliffs, which had belched fire and steel in 1942, now discharged only oily and sullen smoke, indicated that he had fired his stores and installations there. A few days' hard work sufficed to clear the harbour sufficiently to receive shipping; the railway as far as Neufchâtel was quickly put into working order; and within little more than a week of its capture, Dieppe was giving sadly-needed relief to the strained supply-lines of the 21st Army Group.
On the heels of the reconnaissance regiment, the 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade had rolled into the town. All the units of this Brigade--the Royal Regiment of Canada, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and the Essex Scottish--had suffered very heavily in the raid of 1942. Behind them came the other battalions that had fought on that
The Mole and Signal Station at Dieppe
(From a watercolour by Capt. G.D. Pepper)
"Groups of Survivors of the Great Raid Could Be Seen Clambering About the Enemy Works"
Officers examining destroyed German defences above the narrow beach at Puits,
assaulted by the Royal Regiment of Canada in the Dieppe raid.
famous day. The Corps Commander directed that the Division, which had been constantly in action and had suffered extremely heavy losses since it first came into the line in the Caen area, should "stand down" at Dieppe for a few days to rest and reorganize.
This afforded the opportunity for some ceremonial observance of an historic Canadian occasion. One of the first cares of the men of the Division had been to seek the burial-place of their fallen comrades of 1942. They found it south of the town, just outside the German minefields and adjoining the little wood called the Bois des Vertus; a quiet, secluded field of green turf, thickly sown with neat wooden crosses. The good people of the neighbouring tiny commune of Hautotsur-Mer had tended it with loving care. Here, more than five hundred Canadian soldiers had made their last bivouac; and here, on 3 September, in solemn services of remembrance, the Division did them honour. The Army Commander was present at the services; thereafter, he took the salute of General Foulkes' veteran battalions in a march-past in the town.
The men of the Division made the most of the opportunity of inspecting Dieppe and its defences, and groups of survivors of the great raid could be seen clambering about the enemy works and exchanging reminiscences. At Puts, men of the Royal Regiment looked down through the slits of German pill-boxes upon the narrow beach where so many of their comrades fell in the most tragic single episode of the whole operation; at Purville, the South Saskatchewans saw again the bridge where Lt. Col. Merritt won the Victoria Cross; and on the front of Dieppe itself, the R.H.L.I. surveyed the dingy heap of ruins that had once been the famous Casino about which the regiment fought so long and hard that morning. This
A Gun Emplacement Overlooking Pourville, Near Dieppe
This massive concrete structure, designed to enfilade the Pourville beach,
was characteristic of the works in the Atlantic Wall.
(From a watercolour by Capt. G.D. Pepper)
and many other buildings had been blown up by the Germans as a precaution in case of further landings.
While the 2nd Canadian Division was remembering its dead of 1942 at Dieppe, the Highland Division, off to the west, was closing in on the little port of St. Valéry-en-Caus, where two brigades of this Division had been pinned against the coast and captured by the enemy in the campaign of 1940. On 2 September, the men of the 51st marched into the town without meeting opposition. Another wheel had come full-circle.
Only at one place in the area now being overrun did the enemy show fight. This was the great port of Le Havre. As the 1st British Corps closed in around it, it became apparent that the place was fully garrisoned and
that the enemy was determined to deny it to us as long as he possibly could. General Crocker's two British infantry divisions accordingly invested the port and prepared to assault it in form.
The Battle of Normandy
The Normandy campaign was now at an end. While General Foulkes' men were advancing on Dieppe, General Spry's 3rd Division, the bitter opposition around Rouen finally broken, was sweeping forward with similar seven-league strides to the eastward; and on 1 September it occupied Le Tréport, the most northerly town in the province. The only Germans now remaining in the whole great area, apart from the defenders of Le Havre, were dead or prisoners. Already the advanced troops of general Simonds' Corps were on the River Somme near Abbeville, preparing to clear the flying-bomb sites and coastal batteries of the Pas de Calais and to carry the campaign into the Low Countries and the marches of the Reich itself. On this same day--1 September--General Montgomery cased to direct the whole of the ground forces in the theatre; henceforth his command was limited to the Second British and First Canadian Armies. he pre-eminent share in the victory in the Battle of Normandy was recognized by his promotion to the rank of Field Marshal.
At this moment, it appeared that the enemy's position was all but hopeless and that his total collapse could not be many weeks delayed. These hopes were not justified by the event; for, aided by our supply difficulties, he recovered himself, for the moment, with uncommon skill. Further bitter fighting lay ahead for the First Canadian Army: the clearing of the Channel Ports, the freeing of the Scheldt estuary, and in due course the liberation of
Holland and the invasion of Germany. But the present brief chronicle must make halt here.
It had been an extraordinary campaign. Within ninety days, the Allies had invaded the continent, built up vast armies on its soil, inflicted a most serious and far-reaching reverse upon the German Army, and liberated from its control the capital of France and the greater part of the country. The enemy had suffered tremendous losses. The total casualties of the Allied forces in the campaign in North-West France had risen by the end of August to about 200,000 of all categories; but the German losses in prisoners alone already surpassed this figure, amounting to better than 210,000. Prisoners captured on the Canadian Army front from 23 July (when the Army became operational) through 1 September totalled 26,400. The Americans, moving more freely, had had still greater opportunities; and from D Day to the end of August their First Army's "bag" was more than 115,000. The enemy's total casualties must have been close to half a million.
From the beaches of Calvados by way of Falaise and Rouen to the historic cliffs of Dieppe is some 150 miles. For the Canadians, the first 35 miles had been by far the hardest. The whole journey had taken almost three months, and many a soldier had fallen by the wayside. By 31 August, the total of Canadian military casualties in North-West Europe stood at 1,324 officers and 18,623 other ranks; of these, 340 officers and 4,285 other ranks had been killed or had died. For the month of August alone--the most costly month for Canada, it proved, of the entire European war--the casualty total was 632 officers and 8,736 other ranks.
These very heavy Canadian losses were part of the price of a victory that well deserves to be called magnificent:
magnificent as a feat of arms, more magnificent as a blow for human freedom against the bloodiest tyranny our age has known. The course of the history of the world had been changed, and changed vastly for the better.
The fact that the wear with Germany continued for eight and a half months after the Battle of the Gap has perhaps tended to conceal, but cannot destroy, the significance of the events of which that tremendous German disaster was the climax. The successful establishment by the Allies of a fighting front in France was in itself almost bound to prove in the end a fatal blow to the enemy; but the Norman victory meant more than this. In this campaign Hitler lost the army that was his best hope of staving off disaster. The formations destroyed there could not be replaced. By cracking his whip he brought into existence Volksgrenadier divisions and the Home Guard known as the Volkssturm; but these were no substitutes for the men who were now in the Allies' prison cages or in the myriad graves about Falaise. Given continued pressure exerted by the Russians in the east and the Allies in the west, his position after August 1944 was hopeless. In Normandy he lost the war; and Canadians of future generations will recall with pride how much the blows struck by their Army did to bring him low.
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