Orwell Diaries 1938-1942


D[avid] A[stor] very damping about the Dieppe raid, which he saw at more or less close quarters and which he says was an almost complete failure except for the very heavy destruction of German fighter planes, which was not part of the plan. He says that the affair was definitely misrepresented in the press [1] and is now being misrepresented in the reports to the P.M., and that the main facts were: – Something over 5000 men were engaged, of whom at least 2000 were killed or prisoners. It was not intended to stay longer on shore than was actually done (ie. till about 4pm), but the idea was to destroy all the defences of Dieppe, and the attempt to do this was an utter failure. In fact only comparatively trivial damage was done, a few batteries of guns knocked out etc., and only one of the three main parties really made its objective. The others did not get far and many were massacred on the beach by artillery fire. The defences were formidable and would have been difficult to deal with even if there had been artillery support, as the guns were sunk in the face of the cliffs or under enormous concrete coverings. More tank-landing craft were sunk then got ashore. About 20 or 30 tanks were landed but none got off again. The newspaper photos which showed tanks apparently being brought back to England were intentionally misleading. The general impression was that the Germans knew of the raid beforehand. [2] Almost as soon as it was begun they had a man broadcasting a spurious “eye-witness” account from somewhere further up the coast, and another man broadcasting false orders in English. On the other hand the Germans were evidently surprised by the strength of the air support. Whereas normally they have kept their fighters on the ground so as to conserve their strength, they sent them into the air as soon as they heard that tanks were landing, and lost a number of planes variously estimated, but considered by some RAF officers to be as high as 270. Owing to the British strength in the air the destroyers were able to lie outside Dieppe all day. One was sunk, by this was by a shore battery. When a request came to attack some objective on shore, the destroyers formed in line and raced inshore firing their guns while the fighter planes supported them overhead.

David Astor considers that this definitely proves that an invasion of Europe is impossible. [Of course we can’t feel sure that he hasn’t been planted to say this, considering who his parents are.] I can’t help feeling that to get ashore at all at such a strongly defended spot, without either bomber support, artillery support except for the guns of the destroyers (4.9 guns I suppose) or airborne troops, was a considerable achievement.

[1] The Dieppe raid proved, at last in the short term, a sad waste except in so far as it brought home to senior servicemen the lessons to be learned for future landings. More than 6,000 men, mainly Canadian, were involved and well over half were killed, wounded, or captured. Churchill states that of 5,000 Canadians, 18% were killed and nearly 2,000 were captured (The Second World War, IV, p. 459). All 27 tanks landed were almost immediately destroyed; the RAF lost 70 planes, and 34 ships were sunk. The Germans admitted losing 297 killed and 294 wounded or captured, and 48 planes. The newspapers claimed in headlines at the time ‘Big Hun Losses’ (Daily Mirror, 20 August 1942), but as The War Papers, 22 (1977) put it, ‘they might have added, “Even Bigger Allied Losses”.’ David Astor served in the Royal Marines, 1940-45, and was decorated with the Croix de Guerre.

[2] It was alleged that the Germans had cracked British codes and so had advance notice of the raid, but it seems that the first warning was given by German trawlers just as the Allied flotilla approached the coast. The failure of the raid was publicly put down to ‘careless talk’ or even to an advertisement for soap flakes which showed a woman pruning a tree dressed in what was headlined as ‘BEACH COAT from DIEPPE.’ A newspaper cutting of this advertisement, which appeared in the Daily Telegraph, 15.8.42, was annotated by Orwell, ‘advert, popularly believed to have given the Germans advance warning of the Dieppe raid.’ (the cutting is in Box 39 of Orwell’s pamphlet collection in the British Library.) the film Next of Kin (1942), made to drive home the lesson that careless talk could endanger such enterprises, began its life as a shorter services training film. Churchill maintains, ‘Our postwar examination of their records shows that the Germans did not receive, through leakages of information, any special warning of our attention to attack’ (The Second World War, IV, p. 458).