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RCAF Air Operations during the Dieppe Raid, 19 Aug 1942

RCAF Air Operations during the Dieppe Raid, 19 Aug 1942

Data current to 28 Jan 2021.

On 19 August 1942, the RCAF found themselves committed to the Dieppe Raid.  On that day, 60 RCAF fighter aircraft could be spotted above the shore of Dieppe, supporting Operation Jubilee.  The RCAF suffered five casualties as a result of the Dieppe Raid.  This operation showed major deficiencies in RCAF ground support techniques, which led to the creation of a fully integrated Air Force to support major ground offensives.

 (Christopher Clarke Collection Photo)

North American Mustang Mk. Ia (Serial No. AG375), coded RU-F, No. 414 Squadron, RCAF, operating from RAF Croydon, UK, flown by Lt Fred Clarke during the Dieppe Raid, 19 Aug 1942.

Operation Jubilee or the Dieppe Raid (19 August 1942) was an Allied amphibious attack on the German-occupied port of Dieppe, northern France in the Second World War.  Over 6,050 infantry, predominantly Canadian, supported by a regiment of tanks, were put ashore from a naval force operating under protection of RAF fighters.

The port was to be captured and held for a short period, to test the feasibility of a landing and to gather intelligence.  German coastal defences, port structures and important buildings were to be demolished.  The raid was intended to boost Allied morale, demonstrate the commitment of the UK to re-open the Western Front and support the Soviet Union.

Aerial and naval support was insufficient to enable the ground forces to achieve their objectives; the tanks were trapped on the beach and the infantry was largely prevented from entering the town by obstacles and German fire.  After less than six hours, mounting casualties forced a retreat.  The operation was unsuccessful and only one landing force achieved its objective and gathered some intelligence, including electronic material.

Within ten hours, of the 6,086 men who landed, 3,623 had been killed, wounded, or were made prisoners of war.  The Luftwaffe carried out a maximum effort against the landing, as the RAF had expected, resulting in the RAF losing 106 aircraft (at least 32 to anti-aircraft fire or accidents), against 48 German losses. The Royal Navy lost 33 landing craft and a destroyer.  The lessons of the Dieppe Raid influenced preparations for Allied seaborne operations in the Mediterranean and the Normandy landings (Operation Overlord).

In total, the RAF assigned 74 squadrons to the operation, of which 66 were fighters.  With the USAAF also providing 6 squadrons of fighters and bombers, the air operation was the largest of the war so far, eclipsing the Battle of Britain by an order of magnitude.

Allied Air Cover Over Dieppe

The RAF fielded 48 Supermarine Spitfire squadrons of which 3 were American, 5 Polish, 2 Czech, 2 Norwegian, 1 Free French (340), 1 Belgian and 5 Canadian; 8 Hawker Hurricane squadrons of which all were British; 4 North American Mustang squadrons of which 2 were Canadian; 3 Hawker Typhoon squadrons, both British; 2 Bristol Blenheim light bomber squadrons; 1 Bristol Beaufighter squadron; 1 Douglas Boston light bomber squadron, Canadian.  RAF Bomber Command No. 2 Group provided 5 Boston squadrons.  The USAAF Eighth Air Force, 97th Bombardment Group (Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses) provided 4 bomber squadrons; 307th Fighter Squadron 2 fighter squadrons.

 (Library and Archives Canada Photo, PL7919)

Supermarine Spitfire, No. 411 Squadron, RCAF, pilot took part in the Dieppe Raid, 19 Aug 1942. 

The air battle

During the battle, Fighter Command RAF lost 106 aircraft, 88 fighters (including 44 Spitfires), 10 reconnaissance aircraft and eight bombers; 14 other RAF aircraft were struck off charge from other causes such as accidents.  Other sources suggest that up to 28 bombers were lost and that the figure for destroyed and damaged Spitfires was 70.  91 RAF aircraft were shot down and 64 pilots; 47 killed and 17 taken prisoner, the RCAF lost 14 aircraft and nine pilots and 2 Group lost six bombers.  (Franks, Norman L. R. (1998). Royal Air Force Losses of the Second World War: Operational Losses: Aircraft and Crews 1942–1943. II. London: Midland)

Air Chief Marshall Leigh-Mallory considered the losses "remarkably light in view of the number of Squadrons taking part and the intensity of the fighting" noting that the tactical reconnaissance suffered heaviest with about two casualties per squadron.

The Luftwaffe lost 48 aircraft, 28 bombers, half of them Dornier Do 217s from KG 2; JG 2 lost 14 Fw 190s and eight pilots killed, JG 26 lost six Fw 190s with their pilots.

The Luftwaffe in France was back to full strength within days of the raid.  Canadian historian Terry Copp wrote that Dieppe failed to inflict the knockout blow against the Luftwaffe that the RAF sought. Though the Allies continued to lose on average two aircraft for every one German aircraft destroyed for the rest of 1942, the output of fighters by the United States, Britain and Canada combined with better Allied pilot training led to the Luftwaffe gradually losing the war of attrition in the skies above France.  Copp concluded that: "The battle for air superiority was won [on] many fronts by continuous effort and 19 Aug 1942 was part of that achievement". 

Air operations

At 04:16 six RAF Douglas Bostons attacked German coastal artillery in the twilight which led to the results not being observed.  Soon afterwards 14 Bostons from No. 226 Squadron flew to Dieppe to drop smoke bombs, laying a smoke screen around the German guns on the eastern heights. 

Four squadrons of Hurricane Mk. IIcs and Mk. IIbs came in low over the beach, delivering cannon fire and bombing the German Bismarck gun batteries between 05:09 and 05:44 with a hundred and fifty 100 lb (45 kg) smoke bombs at 50–70 ft (15–21 m), flying through a storm of anti-aircraft fire.  A smoke screen 800–1,000 yd (730–910 m) drifted 4–5 mi (6.4–8.0 km) seawards, thickened by the smoke of a burning field of wheat.  

By 05.15 the air attack was in full swing with No. 88 Squadron Boston’s attacking gun batteries in addition to the Hurricanes’ work on the beach.  Unfortunately, the ground attack had succeeded only in keeping the German’s heads down.  When the landing commenced at 0523 the essentially undamaged German defenses chopped the main attacking ground forces to pieces.  On the beaches all control of the situation was lost, and the assault was pinned down.  The beaches, however, were covered in smoke screens and communications broke down between the beach and tactical commanders offshore, a situation that remained unchanged for three hours.

Six Bristol Blenheim bombers from No. 13 Squadron and one from No. 614 Squadron dropped 100 lb (45 kg) phosphorus bombs south of German FlaK sites.  Nine of the twelve Bostons were damaged, two crashed on landing and one Blenheim smoke layer from No. 614 Squadron was damaged and the pilot wounded, the aircraft crashing on landing and bursting into flames.  Just before 08:00 two squadrons of cannon-armed Hawker Hurricanes were ordered to attack German E-boats coming from Boulogne; they were accompanied by two fighter cover squadrons.

The airfield at Abbeville-Drucat was attacked by 24 USAAF Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, escorted by four squadrons of USAAF Supermarine Spitfire Mk. IXs at 10:30, putting it out of action for "two vital hours".  After the attack, a wing of Hawker Typhoons made a feint towards Ostend.  RAF North American Mustangs reconnoitred outside the main area looking for reinforcements on the roads to Dieppe and from Amiens, Rouen, Yvetot and Le Havre.  Flying from RAF Gatwick, they contacted the HQ ship then, having flown a sortie, passed information to the HQ ship before returning to Gatwick and phoning report to the air commander.  Reconnaissance sorties were stopped after 12:00.  Although taken by surprise, the German fighters soon began to attack the air umbrella.  The RAF was moderately successful in protecting the ground and sea forces from aerial bombing but were hampered by operating far from their home bases.  The Spitfires were at the limit of their range, with some only being able to spend five minutes over the combat area.

The first Luftwaffe aircraft airborne were from JG 2 flying reconnaissance north west of Dieppe.  Biggin Hill and Hornchurch Wings, including Dupérier and No. 640 Squadron, were up before 0600 and soon after the Luftwaffe’s JG 26, was up too.  Before the Hornchurch Wing could even get to Dieppe though, Focke-Wulf Fw 190s had already shot down three No. 174 Squadron Hurricanes (including the CO) which were covering the Boston’s engaged in laying smoke.

As more German aircraft appeared, the number of British aircraft over Dieppe was increased from three to six squadrons and at times up to nine squadrons were present.

Additional Squadrons continued to get up according to a fixed timetable; the Norwegians from North Weald took off at 0620.  In one particularly epic engagement Capt. Bjorn Raeder fought a single-handed action against eight Fw 190s after he was separated form his squadron.  He held them off until he disengaged over the Channel and managed to crash-land in England.

Over the assault area Boston’s were bombing the inland batteries and six Hurricanes went in to attack a German Divisional HQ.  Four of these Hurricanes were lost in that action, their pilots killed along with eight civilians when they crashed into the town.

By 0700 the next wave of beach landing was left bereft of air cover because only one Hurricane was still on station.  The smoke laying Bostons had returned to base to refuel and rearm.  In what would be a recurring element of the unfolding disaster onshore the landing wasn’t on schedule and the air plan proved inflexible to cover it.

While the main beach landings at 0700 were faring no better than earlier ones, cover for the shipping was being provided by Hurricanes searching for F-boats with MTB’s in the Channel.  JG 26’s Fw 190A-4/U8s attacked some of the more isolated British ships though without much success.

Thorough the rest of the early morning action, up until the situation became clear to the commanders offshore, tactical reconnaissance Mustangs were looking for German reinforcements; sections of Hurricanes arrived for ground support patrols over Dieppe every twenty minutes; Boston’s were doing the same albeit at longer intervals in providing smoke cover; the fifty fighter squadrons allocated to the air umbrella were rotating sorties providing a constant air cover above the ground and sea-borne forces. The largest air battle of the war was in full swing with hundreds of aircraft aloft of which about fifty were German, including the first bombers.

Six squadrons (four British, two Canadian) flew the Spitfire Mk IX, the only British fighter equal to the Fw 190, on its operational debut at Dieppe.  During the battle, Fighter Command flew 2,500 sorties over Dieppe and achieved a narrow victory over the Luftwaffe.  The plan to centralize information gleaned from German radar, W/T and R/T and other transmissions failed because the Luftwaffe operation against the landing overwhelmed the reporting system and the war room at 11 Group HQ was overwhelmed with reports as the Luftwaffe reaction increased.  RAF Kingsdown was not informed about developments and failed to identify German fighter reinforcements arriving from all over France and the Low Countries.  The new 6IS Fish party, to decrypt high-speed non-Morse transmissions via the German Geheimschreiber, had no time to prepare and missed important information.  Despite the failures of control and intelligence, the air umbrella prevented the Luftwaffe from making many attacks on the landing or the evacuation of the Allied force.

Consider that at least six RAF aircraft were shot down by the Royal Navy and Army AA gunners, one Typhoon was shot down by a Spitfire and two others were lost due to structural failure, and two Spitfires collided during the withdrawal across the Channel. Accepting the total of 106 losses to be accurate, almost 10% (11 aircraft) of the total loss was no fault of the Luftwaffe.

Almost one hundred pilots and aircrew lost their lives in a pitched aerial battle involving hundreds of aircraft.  Furthermore, most of the Spitfires fought against superior German fighter aircraft, the ground attack and support aircraft flew in the teeth of dense and accurate flak – sometimes struck by friendly fire!

At around 0900 the Force Commanders became aware of the true situation on the beaches though even then it was not until 1030 the order for withdrawal, code named with supreme irony as “Vanquish,” was given. The inflexibility of the planning struck again though; the RAF’s timetable only allowed for a maximum effort to cover Vanquish at 1100; smoke screens would be required from 1040 onward to cover the withdrawal from the beaches.

By 1000 the Luftwaffe had committed over a hundred aircraft to battle over Dieppe at any one time.  The RAF was paying a high price in maintaining an effective air cover over the main assault force. Its Spitfire Mk. Vbs were outclassed by the Fw l9OA’s, and more than evenly matched by the Bf l09Fs, but they were stopping the German bombers from getting at the ships and the beaches. Even while shooting down more RAF aircraft than they were losing, the Luftwaffe was losing the air battle of Dieppe.

Back at Dieppe, Vanquish was going badly. In the face of dense AA fire No.226 Squadron Boston’s laid dense smoke screens on the headlands and along the waterfront at 1100 to cover the withdrawal.  Luftwaffe bomber reinforcements penetrated the fighter cover and arrived in strength.

At 1115 No.43 Squadron’s Hurricanes attacked the East Headland but the beach was where the support was now needed. Requests for close air support were made at 1135 and 1138 to help get the men off the beaches. By now though, the ground attack Hurricanes were a long way off though and unable to get to Dieppe until noon.

Over at the West Headland the evacuation came under increasing attack from both shore and air. Fw 190s and Ju 88s relentlessly attacked the ground forces while the now stretched-to-the-limit RAF was fully engaged across the whole operational area and could not give cover at all.

Finally, at 1200 close air support Hurricane’s arrived back over Dieppe and resumed their ground attacks.  Spitfires continued to take on Luftwaffe bombers attempting to bomb the beaches and shipping.  However, despite a final heroic smoke screen pass by Boston’s (in the face of heavy friendly AA fire from the Royal Navy as well as German), the survivors on the beaches were forced to surrender at about 1300.

By now, around 250 vessels were making their way back to England in convoy, with the inevitable stragglers behind. The Luftwaffe renewed pressed home their attacks in an effort to inflict more casualties. For the RAF fighter pilots flying their third, fourth or even fifth sorties of the day, this was the last challenge, not least in fighting their own fatigue.  Among them was S/L Bernard Dupérier and No 340 Squadron on their fifth sortie of the day; they were still fully engaged, still covering the ships, still keeping the Luftwaffe at bay.  At the tail end of the convoy a free-for-all was developing over the last ships getting into station and it was during this phase of the battle that Bernard Dupérier shot down a Do217.  There were Naval casualties though, the RAF couldn’t stop everything that was being thrown at them; at a little after 1305 a section of three Do 217s broke through the defending Spitfires and sunk the destroyer HMS Berkeley.

But, by 1545 the Luftwaffe had largely disengaged.  Many of the German crews had flown multiple sorties too, and accumulated fatigue, losses and distance left the final effort to some individual aircraft attacking stragglers.  The main convoy though was left largely unmolested in its return to England.

As Vanquish got under way at 1030 multiple actions unfolded away from the main theater; the USAAF’s 97th Bomb Group bombed the airfield at Abbeville-Drucat in an effort to further disrupt Luftwaffe operations. Even further afield nine Spitfire squadrons were sent to support Typhoons (two of which crashed when their tails broke off in dives) in diversionary attacks over Ostend.  On their return they bounced some Fw l90s, damaging three.  Some of the Spitfire squadrons where then tasked with stopping bombers reaching Dieppe with the North Weald Wing, on their second sortie of the day shot down eight of nine unescorted Do 217Es.

At 09:40, under heavy fire, the withdrawal from the main landing beaches began and was completed by 14:00.

Sources

Leigh-Mallory, Trafford (2003), Air Operations at Dieppe: An After-Action ReportCanadian Military History, XII(4), Article 6, Report by the Air Force Commander on the Combined Operation Against Dieppe - August 19th, 1942, 5 September 1942.

Schoeman, Michael.  Air Umbrella – Dieppe, Military History Journal, Vol 1 No 5 – Dec 1969.

After the Dieppe Raid, Canadian airmen continued to serve in North Africa, Italy, the Battle of Britain, and the Normandy invasion.  On 1 January 1944, the RCAF reached its peak strength of the Second World War, being equipped with 215,200 members, 15,153 of which were women.  By the end of the war there were 78 squadrons in service, 35 of which had served overseas.

 (IWM CH6541

Douglas Boston Mk. III, No. 88 Squadron, RAF, 19 Aug 1942.