A piece of cake

Source: Wikipedia.org

Source: Wikipedia.org


Freya is the name of a radar station. A long-sighted German radar station. Able to single out the bombers when they are still taxiing in the allied airports , for instance. And when they are being sighted on the Freya’s screen, Berlin is informed. By telephone, in order to avoid the interceptions and the decodings. High on a cliff, Freya dominates the sea in front of Dieppe, in the occupied France.

Half an apple.

RAF sergeant Jack Nissenthall is on board of one of the two hundred thirty-seven  Anglo- Canadian  ships steaming towards Dieppe. Thin , athletic, twenty-three year old, engaged with Adeline, called “Dell”, sergeant Nissenthall is here because of his interest for the radio equipment. When he was a child, he had played with them; when he was a kid he had assembled and disassembled them;  when he became a man, he had studied them. And with success. Advising by him, in fact, the British engineers have improved the British radar system.

When he was a kid, Jack had repaired the radio of an old lady, receiving as reward half  an apple. Now he is about to receive another reward. From the government of His Majesty, this time: if his mission succeeds  ( working out the Fryda’s secrets; taking away important Fryda’s components), nobody will know anything; if the mission fails, Nissenthall will die. Jack had often wondered  who had eaten the other half of the apple, without finding an answer( the old lady? Someone else?); on the contrary, he knows very well because there are twelve armed men escorting him: they are there to safeguard him, it is true. But they are there also to kill him if he were in danger to fall alive into the German hands. Nissenthall himself has received, in addition to the individual weapons, a cyanide pill. After the end of the war, Lord Mountbatten will say: if I had been aware of it, I would have immediately cancelled that order.

 A senseless operation?

At a first sight, the landing at Dieppe seems to be a senseless operation. And not only because of his disastrous conclusion. But, if we see better, that operation has a sense. Imagine Europe on the early 1942. The Red Army is under pressure, Rommel seems relentless in Northern Africa, Japan has attacked the United States, in the Atlantic the German U-boats are sinking a ship after the other.  Stalin is asking the opening of  a second front in Europe insistently, the civilian population of the Countries controlled by the Axis, deprived of all, does not want renounce to the hope to go out, before or then, from that nightmare.

Till that time, some raids of commandos had been led in Norway and on the French coast: with the exception of the resounding action at Saint Nazaire[1], they had been only pinpricks. It would need to  occupy a harbour in France now and hold it for a little  time,  for keeping alive the hope of the occupied Countries and for forcing Hitler to move troops from East to West.  Sooner or later the landing, the true landing in France, will be put in action. And for having success, there will be need of a harbour[2]. For this reason it is better  to act in time, for collecting information and materials, testing the German port defences, and, in the meanwhile, destroying infrastructures, taking prisoners and eliminating command centres. Hitler must understand that the western front — garrisoned till that moment by second-class troops — hides dangers and traps.

In a first time, the choice falls upon Cherbourg, in Brittany, but it is immediately abandoned. Cherbourg is too much garrisoned, too much far from the range of the allied aircraft.  And then, why not Dieppe? It is close to Great Britain , there is the aerial cover. Ok, but  a thing must be clear: Dieppe is not, under   a media and military point of view, as important as Cherbourg. If we choose  Dieppe, our action is to be limited to a “reconnaissance in force”. We land, unleash  a big mess,  destroy all that we can destroy, collect information and then we go away. After all, seen the situation, we could not act otherwise. Who can give us the landing craft and the men to lead a large scale operation? And, at last, why should we run many risks if Russia is about to collapse?

Today Dieppe is in the Department of the Seine Maritime. On the eve of the landing, it has an airport, an effective radar station ( even too much effective: Freya, as we know), a centre of command and not much more. At least this is the report of the pilots of the aerial reconnaissance . However, the nests of machine guns, the battery hidden on the cliffs and able to enfilade the shores, the bunkers among the rocks are not sighted. And what about the two  high promontories  able to control, in the zone of Pourville and Puys, the whole area of the harbour? Their code-names are the names of two giants: Bismarck ( east) and Hindenburg (west). The Germans have strongly armed them. Perhaps the Allies are aware of it, but they are convinced to face not very trained troops and to count on the surprise effect.

Combined or muddled?

The COHQ, the Combined Operations Head Quarter , directed by VA Lord Louis Mountbatten, gets to work and plans Rutter. Rutter is a combined operation, a “ reconnaissance in force” based on the integrate and combined action of Infantry, Navy and Air Force. It considers a huge aerial cover and a heavy opening bombardment, the air- dropping  of paratroopers east and west of Dieppe, a landing of land forces.

The issue is: how striking? Do we attack Dieppe frontally with the infantry or do we outflank it? In the South-eastern sector a rude, thin officer is in command: Lt. General Bernard Law Montgomery. Required about this matter, he asks: “ How much time are you going to stay at Dieppe? “ Fifteen hours” is the answer. Monty replies: Forget the outflanking: for that also forty-eight hours are few, fifteen are nothing.

Frontal attack, then. But the commander of the Second Canadian Division ( Major General JH Roberts) which has been chosen for the mission, is not even consulted during the planning phase. The Canadians are in Great Britain since the times of the Battle of Britain, they have not seen the feared German invasion, nor they have had the baptism of fire. They are splendid, trained, motivated troops. But they are also idle. And inexperienced. The Canadian government insists to see them in action. And then, why not using them at Dieppe?

Rutter is approved on May 13 and immediately the rethinks, the exceptions, the revisions begin. The RAF claims: renouncing to the bombardment is better: the ruins of the houses would make slow the advance of the infantries ; the bombs could cause civilian casualties. Provoking the Luftwaffe, forcing the German fighters to fly and engaging them are better solutions for us. The Royal Navy, for its part: deploying the battleships and the cruisers? Forget it! There are too many risks, too many uncertainties. Outcome: the landing force is without  an effective cover during the attack. The sole cannons upon which it can rely are the four inches guns of the escort minesweepers. It is not few, it is nothing.

But there is also something else. In that operation the RAF plans  its own battle ( engaging the German fighters), the Navy denies to give a sufficient number of warships: is Rutter still a combined operation?  In addition, the plan is not the original plan and every Arm develops in his own headquarters the details of his own plan and not the details of the general plan.  Is Rutter still a combined operation?

But, luckily, Rutter is cancelled. The first rehearsal is a sort of disaster ( the second will be better); the risks in that mission are huge; the Germans are on the alert; Montgomery is about to reach Africa to face Rommel. But, above all, Rutter is cancelled because of the poor weather. The raging winds and the big waves of the Channel seem to  hammer the definitive nail on the coffin of that plan in which there are  many, too many flaws. 

But things go in a different way. With the Wehrmacht heading at full speed towards Caucasus and Stalingrad, Stalin is in heavy troubles and continues to ask the opening of a second front in Europe; a senior British officer — Commander John Hughes- Hallet — is convinced that Rutter is a good opportunity and he remarks his firm belief . Giving up with the plan could be a blunder, he claims. We have to make it better, not to give it up. Result: Lord Mountbatten takes away the plan from the box again ( some claims with and some other  without the authorisation of his superiors), the  COHQ revises it here and there and plans a new plan with the code name of Jubilee. When the plan is made operational, General Roberts tells his concerned officers: “ Don’t worry men.. it’ll be a piece of cake.”

In what is Jubilee different in respect of Rutter? Almost in nothing. The strategic objectives are the same( sending a clear message to Stalin, keeping Hitler in alarm), the tactical objectives are the same( taking prisoners, capturing documents, colleting information, putting out of order facilities and plants) and, above all, the gaps are the same. The landing will not  be preceded by a prolonged  aerial or naval bombardment; the paratroopers will be replaced by embarked  commando units; the minesweepers and the other ships will give support before and after the landing, not during it when the troops will have landed; the British fighters will try to provoke the Luftwaffe for engaging it in an aerial battle; the infantrymen will be supported on the terrain by the armoured tanks Churchill of the Calgary Regiment. All is based on the surprise and on the observance of the times of the action. But the three Arms( Army, Navy, Air Force) engaged in the operation seem to operate separately.

Apparently, the authors of Jubilee have not read von Clausewitz, or if they have read him, they have read him  without paying attention. They are unaware, for instance — or  they underestimate — the theory of “attritions ” ( in German, Friktionen). This theory is, more or less, the version of the old popular adage: “There is a huge difference between words and deeds” applied to the war. Von Clausewitz writes: do you have a plan and do you want to make it operational? Surely, there will be something hampering  your plan. A delay, an unexpected obstacle, an unforeseen reaction, anxieties, fears, hesitations can cause the failure of the plan, even of the perfect plan on paper. Only who is determined or has the touch of the genius can  face these attritions.
In Jubilee there is not much ” touch of the Genius”. The whole operation is under pressure of time: if something does not work, even the whole plan does not work.
A piece of cake?

The attritions

On August 19,  1942, two hundred thirty-seven ships and  boats, sixty-seven squadrons of fighters  and fighter-bombers  and more than six thousand men leave England headed to Dieppe. There are around five thousand Canadians of the Second Division, a thousand of English, fifty American rangers and some soldiers of Free French Forces.
They are to land on six beaches( from west to east: Orange, Green, Red, White, Blue, Yellow, see the map below), they are to neutralize the coastal batteries, to form bridgeheads , to destroy the airport, to take prisoners, to capture documents and finally to withdraw. Nissenthall, followed like a shadow, by his guardian angels of the A Company of South Saskatchewan Regiment (SSR) is heading Green Beach and his appointment with Freya, now code-named Study.

The first “attrition” occurs at 3.45 a.m. The commandos of the Third Group headed towards Yellow I and II to neutralize the coastal battery of Berneval, east of Dieppe, run, by chance, into a German naval convoy when they are still steaming. The struggle is fierce, many boats sink, others lose their bearings, others are forced to return to England. Only seven landing craft land around Berneval( Yellow I) and around Belleville-Sur-Mer( Yellow II). The commandos landed at Yellow I are immediately stopped by the enemy fire; those ones landed at Yellow II – about twenty- engage for a couple of hours the Goebbels battery( their target). They are not able to destroy it, but they prevent  it for using its cannons for striking the landing troops. It is a half success, but it is always a success. In this case, the “attrition” has been partially neutralized. By chance and because of the bravery of the men of Major Peter Young more than because of a tactical choice . But the price paid for this action has been very heavy.

The commandos of Lord Lovat are luckier. Landed west , on the beaches Orange I and II, they are able to surprise the German defenders and to neutralize the coastal battery Hess, situated close to the village of Verangeville-sur- Mer. It will be the only full success in the whole day.  

Landed at Green Beach at 4.50 a.m. , Nissenthall is unaware about what is happening at Yellow  and at Orange. Certainly he ignores von Clausewitz and his Friktion theory. If he knew it, he would have more than a reason to be concerned. At Green Beach, in fact, all is wrong. Once landed, the SSR would have been to occupy a headland, to neutralize the battery and to form a bridgehead for giving cover to the main landing and for allow the second wave, the Camerons Highlanders, to penetrate inland towards the airport and the German headquarter  of Arques-la-Bataille.
The Saskatchewan lands on the west side of the Scie river and not on both its banks. In practice, the regiment  lands on the wrong zone. Thus, for reaching the batteries of Hindenburg and their targets, the Canadians of the SSR are forced to open their way fighting in the streets of Pourville and crossing a bridge under the enemy fire. Also the Camerons, landed  half an hour late, land in the wrong zone. Thus, around the Scie river there is a big mess: units of a regiment are mixing with the units of a different regiment;  the enemy fire is incessant.
If Nissenthall wants to reach Freya-Study, he must cross the bridge on the River Scie at Pourville. That seems an almost impossible action. The machine-guns and the light German weapons sweep the bridge, the casualties are heavy. However, urged by their commander, Lt. Colonel Charles Merrit( he will be awarded Victoria Cross), the Saskatchewans are able to cross the river. Now the door towards Freya is open.

East of Dieppe, at Blue Beach, close Puys, the Royal Regiment of Canada (RRC) has the task to secure the eastern flank of the front, to occupy the headland and to neutralize the batteries of Bismark. The  action is entirely based on the surprise. For this reason, the landing of the RRC has been planned at the same hour of the landing of the other units.

But even not at Blue Beach the attritions  lack. The Royal’s landing craft , in fact, land half an hour late, when there is a bright light and the effect of the cover of the smoke-bombs is already ineffective; the Germans, put on their guard  by the fights in the other beaches, are on alert; the whole area is infested by nests of machine-guns and by mortars not sighted by the aerial reconnaissance; there are no shelters, if we except a wall there where the beach meets the first houses of the town. When the young and inexperienced Canadian soldiers go out from the landings-craft and try to run, in practice without any cover, those few yards that separate them from the wall, it is a slaughter. A deadly fire enfilades them: many men refuse to leave the landing craft and only few, very few men are able to reach the wall and to take shelter. When the operation will be come to an end, only sixty-five men, half of them wounded, will return in England. Five hundred fifty-four had landed.

Nissenthall and his group – now smaller, because three men  have been killed or wounded– are now coming up towards Freya. The sun has arose and it is hot. All around only mess, screams, dead, wounded, explosions.  But the worse is beyond to arrive. At White Beach and at Red Beach the main attack has begun. In the worst conditions. The naval and aerial preparation has been too short ( ten minutes) and, thus, for nothing effective; the flanks of the landing force are uncovered both west and east, since the actions to secure them both at Green Beach and at Blue Beach have failed; the cliffs on both sides of the wide landing zone are infested by artillery placements. Given the situation, how can the men of the Essex Scottish ( Canadians, despite the name of the regiment, Red Beach)  and of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry ( RHLI, White Beach), land, advance towards the town, secure the zone and allow the engineers to free it from the obstacles and from the mines and to open a hole in the wall? How can the tanks of Calgary Regiment, landed in delay and in small number, give cover to the landed troops? And what about the smoke wall, immediately blown off by the wind? And what about the approximate communications?
It is an appalling slaughter. The infantries are under a terrible cross fire; the engineers try anyway and heroically to make the beach free from the obstacles, suffering appalling casualties; the Churchills are hit by the 88 mm guns or stopped by the shingly terrain. Some infantry units, however, are able to reach the old Casino situated in front of the shore and to occupy it. Who is unable to reach it falls under the shots of the German machine- guns.

Meanwhile, at Green Beach, Nissenthall and his  guardian angels are crawling towards Freya. Over their heads, the aerial battle wanted by the RAF is being fought, but neither Nissenthall nor the men of his escort have the time to be aware of it. When they arrive at  about hundred meters from their target, they are able to see clearly the towers, the facilities, the devices of Freya. And, all around, the trenches , the obstacles, the artillery emplacements. Getting closer is impossible. Nissenthall, then, comes back towards the shore with a couple of men, looks for a radio to ask the cover fire of the minesweepers, smoke, reinforcements, but there is no working radio . He meets, by chance, colonel Merrit, he obtains from him some men and comes back.

Meanwhile, at White Beach where there are no shelters and the Canadians of the Essex Regiment are paying a heavy blood price, a dozen of men is able to reach the wall, putting in action the umpteenth attrition. Around 6.30a.m., on board of the ship Calpe, general Roberts receives a report: “Essex Scottish across the beaches and in houses”. Believing the whole Essex  and not a handful of its men is beyond the beach and ready to advance among the houses, the general decides to strengthen the attack, making advance the riflemen of the Mont Royal Fusiliers. It is a deadly move: under the German fire, the Mount Royal loses the 50% of its effectives and Jubilee the most part of its reserve force.

Nissenthall has taken out of his haversack the wire cutting  shears . He is beyond Freya. In the sky over him, the fighters of the RAF and of the Luftwaffe are still fighting their personal battle into the battle. The German fighters are more numerous and many Spitfires and Hurricanes  are shot down.
Nissenthall is now looking for the phone wires. If I cut them – this is his reasoning—the station will be forced to communicate by radio. And if it communicates by radio or by telegraph there is more than a probability to intercept its messages. And deciphered. Finally he is able to individuate the wires and, under the enemy fire, to cut them. With him there are only four men.
Some minutes later, the radio messages of Freya are received off of Dieppe on board of the ship Prince Albert by Ken Dearson, a radar expert and by two wireless operators in service in a observing station in southern England.
Freya is not a secret anymore.

Vanquish and Vancouver.

Vanquish means, more or less, full victory, triumph. Chosen originally by the Jubilee’s planners to remark the victorious end of the raid, when Vanquish is communicated for the first time around 10.30 a.m., the word takes the significance of defeat, retreat. The army called with the rendezvous with the re-embark at first at 10.30 a.m., then at 11.00 a.m. is a vanquished army, a defeated army. It is not triumphal the withdrawal towards the shores of the remains of the splendid Canadian Second Division. Tired, scared, bloody men are shocked by what they have seen and suffered. They are heading towards the shores, sometimes according with a plan, sometimes hoping in their luck, sometimes following their instinct.

Nissenthall and his escort men are heading to the sea. Engaged during the way in a fire struggle with the Germans, they are in troubles. Suddenly three elder men with the military cap on their head appear on the fire line between Nissenthall and the Germans smoking Gauloise cigarettes. The Germans stop firing( hitting civilian  people would have had a disciplinary action) and Nissenthall and his comrades are able to escape. Arrived to the Casino, they immediately try to do a sortie. When a naval projectile raises a smoke cloud, Nissenthal and his escort men go out from the Casino and run towards the beach.
On the beach there is an indescribable mess . Only the bravery of the sailors and the low flight of some squadrons of Hurricanes allow many men to embark. Many others are hit on the shoreline. Nissenthal is collected by a LCI. When he screams to the sailors to lift also his  comrade – the sole who is survived– the answer is: “What do you think  this is, the no.  8 bus?”
Nissenthall is at home again.

At 1 a.m. the order to return to England( code name Vancouver) is given. At Dieppe the shops open as  if nothing had happened.

The British have had more than three thousand casualties.


It has been written: Dieppe was not a failure. Thanks to that raid important information was acquired to prepare Overlord. The true question, however, is: to obtain those information, did a so high price  have to be paid? Told in other words:  did intelligence service and the aerial observation, the spies and the interceptions , Ultra and the scouts obtain worse results? Somebody wondered; somebody is still wondering.

Every year, on August 19, punctually and relentlessly, a parcel arrived to home of General JH Roberts, Second Canadian Division’s commander at Dieppe. Into the parcel, year after year, there was the same thing: a piece of cake.
Sometimes memory is relentless. And cruel .

 Suggested Reading:

Ronald Atkin, Dieppe 1942  – The Jubilee Disaster, MacMillan, London 1980
Peter Young, Storm from  the Sea, William Kimber, London 1959.
Derek Mills-Roberts, Clash by  Night, William Kimber, London 1957.
Terence Robertson, Dieppe, the  Shame and the Glory,  Pan 1965
R W Thomson, The Price  of Victory, Constable, London 1960.

 On the web


The Nissenthall’s mission

History Learning site

[1] At the end of March 1942, British commandos ( Operation Chariot)  had  heavily damaged the dry dock of the  harbour of Saint Nazaire on the French coast, from where the German U-boats started for their missions. As a consequence of this action, the German  battleship Tirpitz which used the harbour of Saint Nazaire- the only port able to receive it—was blocked in Norway.

[2] As we know, during the allied landing in Normandy, this problem was resolved using artificial ports ( the so called Mulberries).

 Automatic translation fom Italian. Excuse the mistakes.



The plan( source: prisonerofdieppe.weebly.com)

dieppe_map_opera - Copia




 Beaches, landings and operations ( Source: BBC)

Dieppe le spiagge




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