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Disaster at Dieppe

More than 6,000 men crossed the Channel for what should have been a surprise raid, yet fewer than 2,500 escaped unscathed. Gavin Mortimer remembers the 1942 debacle some call a necessary precursor to D-Day
Dieppe is considered one of the worst disasters in Canadian military history; this sea of abandoned helmets attests as to why

Captain Pat Porteous was 24 years old and, like nearly all of his fellow commandos, had yet to see action with his elite unit. For 18 months they had done nothing but train; now, finally, they were about to be blooded.

On 18 August 1942, they travelled from their base in Weymouth to a transit camp in Southampton. Later that evening, the 252 soldiers of No 4 Commando filed onto a converted Belgian ferry called the Prins Albert, departing amid a flotilla of troopships, destroyers and minesweepers.

Porteous dozed off for a couple of hours, as the minesweepers cleared a gap through the explosive-laden middle reaches of the English Channel. On waking, he and the other commandos were given a bowl of hot stew before being instructed to make their way to the lower decks ready to embark into the eight landing vessels secured to the ship’s exterior. “Everyone was ready, grenades primed, magazines filled; everything was ready,” Porteous later recalled. “As soon as we got to the lowering position, we were lowered away.”

Waiting to escort the commandos was a steam gunboat and an armed motor launch. Porteous, thankful that the sea was calm, was struck by the peacefulness of the scene as they chugged the remaining ten miles to the still-invisible French coast.

His reverie was shattered by a powerful explosion away to their east. A boom, and another, then the thump-thump-thump of a heavy machine gun. The night sky was illuminated like a firework display. Porteous turned his face towards the shore and prayed his luck would hold as they headed towards Dieppe.

The Normandy coastal resort of Dieppe had been a popular haunt for British holidaymakers since the mid 19th century. It had dramatic cli s, an expansive shingle beach and a well-maintained port, all of which the Germans had put to good use following their conquest of France in 1940. To guard their own ships at anchor, they had sited gun batteries on the cli tops and built elaborate defensive positions on the pebble shore.

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About BBC History Revealed

Long before the seven wonders of the ancient world were even dreamt of, work had begun on Salisbury Plain to construct a monument out of stones. Why was Stonehenge built, who built it, and for what purpose? We explore the very latest theories behind England's oldest mystery. Plus: The brief reign of Tudor king Edward VI, the sacrifices of domestic servants, the D-Day trial that was a complete disaster, a full gallery of newly colourised pictures of the past, and more.