A visit to Dieppe, France, can be a very emotional experience for Canadians. Others may walk the beaches and enjoy the sunshine and chalk cliffs where Monet and other painters found inspiration, but for Canadians the memorials at Puys, Pourville and Dieppe raise questions that crowd out these simple seaside pleasures. How, we ask ourselves, could the tragedy of Aug. 19, 1942, have happened?This mood is evident when students participating in the Canadian Battle of Normandy Foundation study tour reach Dieppe. All of them have just completed two weeks of study of the Normandy battlefields where they walked the invasion beaches, studied the struggle in the bridgehead and examined the operations that led to the defeat of the German army.

They’re aware that victory depended on absolute air superiority which allowed Allied commanders the freedom to assault the coast, build up resources and manoeuvre within the bridgehead without significant interference from the Luftwaffe. They also know success in combat was only possible when operations were based on extensive and flexible artillery fire.

To turn from the superbly organized Allied campaign of 1944 to the disaster at Dieppe requires all of us to make a profound adjustment. We have to remind ourselves that in 1942 the Royal Air Force had not yet created a tactical air force and that its Spitfires were fighting a costly and uncertain battle for air superiority over the French coast. We also have to recognize that the artillery-based battle doctrine, which emerged in the desert campaign and provided the key to success against the Germans for the rest of the war, had yet to win acceptance. Army planners were still mesmerized by the vision of tanks as the decisive weapon of war, and surprise as a substitute for overwhelming fire-power.

Obtaining perspective on air power is especially difficult because our collective memory of the air war is focused on the triumphs of Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain and the overwhelming power of 2nd Tactical Air Force in Normandy. The in-between years are largely ignored but if we are to understand what happened at Dieppe we must begin with an analysis of Fighter Command and its place in Allied strategy in 1942.

After the Battle of Britain, Fighter Command was the most famous military formation in the English-speaking world. The Hurricane and Spitfire pilots, their groundcrew, ground controllers and commanders had saved England from invasion and given the world a precious opportunity to make up for lost time. But the command itself was placed in a strange position. Once the Luftwaffe switched to night bombing there was no significant role for day fighters to perform and Fighter Command was a force without an immediate mission.

The Canadian official history suggests the intruder raids that began over occupied Europe in 1941 were authorized “to provide a whiff of danger” for aspiring young fighter pilots. It also suggests the raids, which were known as “Rhubarbs”, “Rodeos” and “Circuses”, were continued after heavy losses were incurred “under the guise of maintaining morale.” The authors of The Crucible of War 1939—1945 seem quite unaware of the larger issues involved in the Allied air offensive. Their approach overlooks the challenges confronting Churchill, the chiefs of staff and the RAF in the early years of the war.

As bombs came down from the night skies over Britain both formal intelligence appreciations and common sense indicated that Operation Sealion–the invasion of Britain–might be revived in the spring of 1941. At a minimum this threat required Fighter Command to maintain a high state of readiness through constant training, operational analysis and when possible combat against the enemy.

Attempts to locate and attack German aircraft, or other targets of opportunity, by two or three aircraft were known as Rhubarbs. Rodeos were larger fighter sweeps across Northern France or Belgium intended to provoke a response from the Luftwaffe. Circuses involved bombers accompanied by fighter escorts. These operations gave the enemy the same advantages the RAF had enjoyed in the Battle of Britain, including early warning radar and the certainty that pilots forced to bail out over Europe would end up in German hands.

The RAF might well have limited these operations but in June 1941 the invasion of the Soviet Union transformed every aspect of the war. The navy was required to begin the dangerous convoys to Murmansk and the air force, the only offensive weapon the Commonwealth possessed, had to be employed to divert German resources from the Eastern Front. Bomber Command was ordered to resume its offensive and Fighter Command told to intensify operations that might force the Germans to transfer fighter aircraft from the Russian front.

Thus in the second half of 1941 RAF and Royal Canadian Air Force fighter squadrons, which had lost 51 pilots in the first half of the year, suffered 411 further losses in attempts to help the Russians. Fighter Command thought it was winning a battle of attrition with the German air force because it believed pilot claims that 731 enemy aircraft had been shot down over France in the same period.

This figure was accepted because there were no intelligence sources available to check the reliability of pilot reports. Neither Ultra, the information from decrypting coded messages sent via the German Enigma machines, nor any of the other methods of intelligence gathering provided accurate data on German air losses until the summer of 1943. After the war it was learned total Luftwaffe losses in these actions were 103 aircraft, less than one-seventh of Fighter Command’s estimate.

Some historians use this postwar data to criticize Allied strategists in the manner of sports commentators who tell you what the coach should have done after the final score is known. But if you seek to understand the past and not just show how clever you are it is evident that decisions had to be made on the best evidence available at the time.

By the end of 1941, even though Fighter Command believed it held the upper hand, the rate of pilot losses was too high to continue and the offensive was called off. The success of the Russian counter-attacks in front of Moscow also influenced the decision to allow both fighter and bomber commands time to regroup. This situation changed dramatically in the spring of 1942 when it became clear the Germans had stemmed the Russian attacks and were preparing to resume the offensive in the East. The shifting of fighter aircraft from France to Russia, and an Ultra report that 30 of the latest ME109s had left France for Norway in March, forced Air Marshal Sir Peter Portal to order new bombing raids on Germany and a resumption of Fighter Command’s offensive.

The German response was immediate and overwhelming. Luftwaffe reinforcements began arriving in France in late March and most of the squadrons were equipped with the new Focke Wulf 190 that greatly outclassed the Spitfires then available. The air offensive drew resources away from the Eastern Front but at great cost to Fighter Command. By the time Hitler’s armies launched the campaign that would bring them to Stalingrad, 259 Spitfires had been lost over France. The RAF believed that 197 German aircraft had been destroyed in the same period and on July 6, 1942, Allied intelligence confidently reported that “further intensive operations” would have a serious impact on Hitler’s plans to reach the Soviet oilfields.

The reality was somewhat different. German losses in the West were just 59 aircraft compared to hundreds shot down in the Mediterranean and Russia. Also, Fighter Command pilots frequently found themselves overwhelmed by superior enemy fighters. The RCAF, which contributed five squadrons to the battle, suffered proportionate losses. For example, a Rodeo by RCAF 403 Squadron in early June cost six pilots, five of whom spent the rest of the war in prisoner of war camps. The Spitfire V was simply no match for the FW190. Individual pilots knew this, but the operational reality could not be fully understood at command level as long as German losses continued to be overestimated.

This problem became even more serious when the United States 8th Air Force joined the battle. In one large raid over France American crews claimed 102 kills and probables. RAF air intelligence decided that 60 was a more likely number but German records show only one fighter aircraft was lost in the days action!

By the spring of 1942 the RAF was confident it was winning air superiority over large parts of the French coast. The problem was that the Luftwaffe usually avoided combat in these areas preferring to draw the Spitfires deeply inland and engage them when they were low on fuel. Analysis of this situation led the RAF to take a strong interest in the proposed raid on Dieppe because it would force the Luftwaffe into battle under conditions thought to be favorable to Fighter Command. When the original raid was cancelled the RAF became one of the main lobbyists for reviving it. Once the decision was made to launch Operation Jubilee on Aug. 19 all available squadrons were quickly concentrated in the south of England for what would become the largest single-day air battle of the war.

The RAF provided two Hurricane squadrons equipped for bombing and six squadrons armed with 20-mm cannon to support the landing. Four Mustang squadrons from Army Co-operation Command, including 400 and 414 RCAF squadrons, provided continuous reconnaissance, reporting on the movement of German reinforcements. An additional five squadrons of medium bombers, Bostons and Blenheims, were used to lay smoke and bomb gun batteries. The RAF also employed three squadrons equipped with Typhoons, but they were assigned to diversionary tasks because these new aircraft were still experiencing technical problems. None of the Tiffes were yet equipped with the rocket projectiles that would make them the most effective ground support aircraft of the war. In accordance with RAF doctrine no attempt was made to provide direct communication between pilots and ground troops so these squadrons operated according to an elaborate plan of prearranged support.

To protect these aircraft and destroy German planes that tried to interfere with the landings, Fighter Command deployed 48 Spitfire squadrons, including eight from the RCAF. Four squadrons, two British and two Canadian, were equipped with the new Spitfire IX, the one aircraft that could meet the FW190 on equal terms.

The Luftwaffe was thought to have less than 200 fighter aircraft within range of Dieppe so in theory the RAF would outnumber the enemy by more than 3-1, but the actual operation proved such numbers meant very little. All four Spitfire IX squadrons were initially reserved to escort B17 bombers of the USAAF for a raid on the Luftwaffe base at Abbeville. The Americans had attempted their first mission in the European theatre two days before and it seemed wise to offer them maximum protection. On the way home from Abbeville Ken Hodson’s 401 RCAF squadron approached Dieppe descending to 10,000 feet where a flight of Dornier 217s, escorted by FW190s, was starting a bombing run. 401 Sqdn. quickly broke up this attack damaging several bombers and destroying at least one FW190. Pilot Officer Dan Morrison closed to 25 yards before firing a two-second burst and his own aircraft was damaged by flying debris. He was picked up in the water after bailing out at 250 feet.

Fortunately the Luftwaffe was surprised by the Dieppe raid and its response was slow. The ground-support squadrons carried out their first missions without any significant interference but also without much effect. Neither the large gun emplacements nor the machine-gun positions in the cliffs were neutralized by air power. However, temporary blinding of some positions was achieved by smoke.

The air umbrella was in place at first light and if success is to be measured by the achievement of air superiority over the beaches Fighter Command won a narrow victory. During the raid more than 2,500 sorties were flown and the Luftwaffe prevented from interfering in the landings or evacuation. More than 200 ships and landing craft operated throughout the day with only minor losses from air attack.

In the air battle with the Luftwaffe the results were also seen favorably. Fighter Command’s losses were 91 aircraft and 64 pilots, 17 of whom were taken prisoner. RCAF losses totalled 14 planes and nine pilots. In addition six bombers and 10 aircrew were lost in action. Air intelligence estimated German losses at 96 destroyed with 27 probables and 76 aircraft damaged. This allowed Fighter Command to believe it had struck a major blow to the German air force in the West. Unfortunately the real figures were 48 aircraft destroyed and 24 damaged with just 13 pilots killed or missing and seven wounded. The Luftwaffe in France was back at full strength within several days.

Eventually the RAF would have to rethink the roles it could play in the projected invasion of the continent but in 1942 this was not an urgent matter and Fighter Command remained committed to Circuses, escorting USAAF B17s to targets in France. Losses continued to exceed the kills by a factor of almost 2-1 but the Germans could not afford the steady drain of skilled pilots and gradually abandoned the daylight skies over Western Europe. The battle for air superiority was won on many fronts by continuous effort and Aug. 19, 1942, was part of that achievement.

The students on the study tour want to know what more could have been done? We agree that heavy bombers would not have helped, but maybe some system of air support in which the troops could communicate directly with the Hurricanes would have made some difference. Perhaps it would have, but the RAF was never willing to accept any system that would allow army control of its aircraft. By June 1944 a compromise involving Air Support Signal Units was in place, but this still meant delays of at least an hour before close support missions arrived. The RAF insisted the most effective contribution it could make to the land battle was to achieve air superiority and provide direct support by attacking prearranged targets. The Dieppe raid helped to convince the air force that its doctrine was sound just as it helped to persuade the army that a new strategy and new methods of providing overwhelming fire support were needed before the invasion of France began.

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine, on June 1st 1996