“We Blundered Most Egregiously” – Britain’s Ill-Fated ‘Naval Descents’

Britain's 1758 cross channel raid on the French coast ended in catastrophe at the Battle of Saint Cast.

Britain’s 1758 cross channel raid on the French coast ended in utter catastrophe at the Battle of Saint Cast.

AT DAWN ON AUG. 19, 1942, more than 6,000 British and Canadian troops stormed the beaches of Dieppe, France. The objectives of the raid were threefold: seize and temporarily hold the town’s port facilities, demolish Nazi coastal fortifications and then withdraw to safety via landing craft. Yet, Operation Jubilee as it was known, was more than just a simple hit-and-run attack on Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. Allied planners hoped the exercise would offer valuable insights into how to mount a full-scale invasion of Europe. Success at Dieppe would also bolster morale on the home front by proving to war-weary Britons that the Allies were finally going on the offensive against Hitler. Lastly, London was confident that the mission would placate Joseph Stalin, who had been howling for some sort of action in the west — anything to take pressure off his beleaguered Red Army.

The beaches of Dieppe, France following the disastrous Allied assault of Aug. 19, 1942.

The beaches of Dieppe, France following the disastrous Allied assault of Aug. 19, 1942.

Unfortunately for the Allies, the Dieppe raid would prove to be an unmitigated disaster. In fact, almost everything that could have gone wrong with the mission did. The plan itself was deeply flawed — organizers neglected to account for all of the enemy defences and even overlooked how the pebble beaches of the landing zone would render Allied amour virtually immobile. Worst of all, details of the operation had somehow been leaked to the Germans. From the moment British and Canadian troops hit the beaches,  they  faced a withering hail of enemy fire. Within hours, more than half of the assault force was dead, wounded or captured. The battered and bloodied survivors were hastily evacuated. Despite Churchill’s best efforts, no amount of spin could hide the fact that the Dieppe raid was a catastrophe.

Ironically, had the planners paid closer attention to history, they might have learned some valuable lessons from another series of equally foolhardy cross-channel forays… ones that took place nearly 200 years earlier.

The “Naval Descents” — A Series of Unfortunate Events

It was during the Seven Years War that Britain launched a string of similar amphibious assaults on the French coast. Known as the “Naval Descents”, they too ultimately proved disastrous. Like Dieppe, the landings were largely a byproduct of the growing restlessness within the British government to somehow go on the offensive in the global conflict against France and her allies.

William Pitt.

William Pitt.

As an opposition leader in Parliament, William Pitt prodded the government to find new ways to take the fight to the enemy. Yet although Britain had an enviable navy, the nation lacked a large standing army. Small scale seaborne smash–and-grab raids seemed to fit the bill. And while bold action would certainly appease public opinion, Pitt argued, the attacks would also take pressure off Britain’s Prussian allies who were locked in a death struggle with France elsewhere on the continent. When Pitt joined Prime Minister Newcastle’s cabinet as State Secretary in 1757, he green-lighted the descents.

Raid on Rochefort

The first blow was planned for the French port of Rochefort; the project was doomed from the start. Initially planned for August, delays at the embarkation point on the Isle of Wight prevented the 8,000-man force from even setting off. The flotilla finally left for France in early September, but once off Rochefort, poor weather hampered the landing efforts for several days. Even with the element of surprise lost, a detachment of redcoats under the leadership of an up-and-coming officer named James Wolfe managed to storm one of the forts guarding the harbour. Tragically, the British failed to press the attack. Squabbling between senior army and naval officers ground the operation to a halt for days. Later, rough seas and unfavourable tides hampered a second attempt at a landing in late September. By October, the British commander Sir John Mordaunt cancelled the operation altogether and sailed for home.

Wolfe denounced the decision. “We blundered most egregiously on sea and land,” he fumed. “[But] one may always pick up something useful from amongst the most fatal errors.”

Some Success

The following year, a humiliated Pitt ordered a make-good operation, this time against the smaller port of St Malo. The British allocated 13,000 troops to this second attempt, along with eight frigates and 22 ships of the line. The raid took place in the summer of 1758. Although the town itself was never captured, the attackers managed to put more than 100 ships to the torch. The British public was elated and Pitt, his reputation restored after the Rochefort debacle, ordered a follow-up raid later that summer.

Pitt Presses His Luck

More than 10,000 regulars, supported by 60 cannon and dragoons took part in the next descent, which kicked off in September. The force easily captured the port of Cherbourg, but instead of declaring victory and sailing for home, the British commander Thomas Bligh chose to march his raiding party southwest along the Cotentin Peninsula to be picked up by Admiral George Anson’s fleet at Saint-Cast a week later. As the force moved down the coast, 12 battalions of French regulars along with artillery, cavalry and militia swarmed into the region and converged at the British embarkation point. On Sept. 11, the two armies met at Saint-Cast. French artillery poured fire down onto the beaches where the British troops, their backs to the sea, waited to be taken off by boat. The French pressed the attack with a series of bayonet charges, the last of which completely shattered the British line driving the last of the redcoats into the surf. By the end of the day, more than 3,000 English had been killed, wounded or captured. French casualties were a tenth of that.

The defeat shattered Britain’s confidence in cross channel raiding. Pitt shifted his focus to the colonial war instead. What troops England could spare were dispatched to fight along side the Prussians while the Royal Navy pursued actions against France’s territories in the New World.

5 comments for ““We Blundered Most Egregiously” – Britain’s Ill-Fated ‘Naval Descents’

  1. Sidney Allinson
    11 October, 2013 at 4:49 pm

    It is ludicrous to assert that the 1942 Dieppe Raid “was the brainchild of Prime Minister Churchill.” As prime Minister, he had no control over military operations, which were selected by joint military commanders. Churchill’s only connection with the Dieppe landing was that he had advocated British forces carry out “butcher and bolt” Commando raids on German occupied Europe.

    • 11 October, 2013 at 5:59 pm

      Granted, the PM wasn’t the author of either Jubilee or the earlier version, Operation Rutter, but he was the leading architect of the strategy that led to a cross channel operation in 1942. On the other hand, to assert as you do that the PM’s “only connection” with the raid was advocating that something like it take place is far from accurate. In his own memoirs, Churchill wrote that he “personally went through” the plans of both Rutter and Jubilee and “discussed” the details with Mountbatten.

  2. 12 October, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    Churchill was well known for sticking his nose in to oeprations etc. and often thought he knew better than his generals – he had himself been been an army officer of course. There is the story he wanted to land with the British troops on D-Day and was only dissuaded when the King said if Churchill went ashore with the invasion troops, he as monarch would have to as well – Eisenhower had begged Churchill not to do it, and this was the only way they could think of! So i don’t think it’s too hard to think of Churchill being that deeply involved / controlling!

  3. Alex E
    11 October, 2014 at 11:53 am

    You’d have thought Churchill would have learned his lesson after Gallipoli, would you?

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