Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Disaster at Dover and Dieppe


The Normandy adventure continues today as we depart London and head toward the British coast.  Crossing the English Channel beginning at the port of Dover, I was able to take in the view of the iconic chalky cliffs as our ferry boat departed.  One cannot underestimate the symbolic value of such a site in the context of World War II history.  During the Battle of Britain and beyond, the unique geographic formation was often the first visual bearing many Allied pilots saw as their aircraft returned from a mission over mainland Europe.  In this sense, the cliffs embodied senses of homecoming and hope.  This sensation was characterized in the popular song of 1941 entitled "The White Cliffs of Dover."   The Vera Lynn rendition hit number one on the billboard charts here in the States.  Much like Edward R. Murrow broadcasts from London, such tunes evoked emotional and sympathetic feelings among Americans toward their British brethren.

Upon America's entry into the war, scores of Yanks were stationed within the area of the cliffs.  Robert Jacoby of San Diego was one of them.  Attached to a crew operating anti-aircraft weaponry along the shore, Jacoby and his comrades attempted to shoot down incoming German V-1 and V-2 Rockets before they could strike civilian populations or military installations.  Sometimes these missiles struck the flak crews trying to shoot them down.  In this video, Jacoby reflects upon how his unit lost more men in England than in France.

Departing from Dover, we embarked on a two hour journey across the English Channel in choppy seas.  Waves reached as high as ten feet as they crashed into the side of our massive ferry boat.  Our destination was Pas de Calais--the location at which German forces thought the Allies were going to strike in the spring or summer of 1944.  The strategic ruse of Operation Fortitude led the German high command to maintain that train of thought well into June 1944--even after the Normandy invasion had already commenced.  

Amidst these rough waters, I could not help but imagine the similar conditions Allied troops faced in the gargantuan armada traversing the Channel that June.  With as many as 7,000 vessels and some 100,000 troops, the convoy was one of the largest endeavors known to man.  Lieutenant Gerald Heaney of the 2nd Ranger Battalion recalled of his experiences on board, "We were all downstairs in the hold, officers and enlisted men alike.  We were very crowded, the sea was rough, and a lot of people became ill.  I personally was woozy and really couldn't eat.  In fact, I purposefully refrained from doing so, so I wouldn't get sick to my stomach."  Ships wreaked of vomit and passengers slipped in it down narrow stairways at they struggled through the masses to reach the head.  All the while, these queasy GIs pondered their fates in the days to follow.  August Thomas, a coxswain on an LCT wrote, "Stillness fell, and in soft voices you could hear different groups discussing what they thought the dawn would bring and how they would fare in all of this" (McManus, The Americans at D-Day, 145).

Taking use of a seasickness pill myself during the journey, I had an easy ride in comparison.  Our ship was much like a floating shopping mall, including restaurants, shops, an arcade, slot machines, and plush lounges filled with advertisements for Euro Disney.  Even while taking advantage of these luxuries, I took a few moments to inhale the fresh, brisk ocean air.  Yes, it was cold.

Thus, cold and wintry conditions became a staple of our trip.  By the time we docked at Calais, snow was falling and already covering the ground.  We were about to experience an historical event ourselves.  As it would turn out, we arrived in France just in time for the largest snow storm for the better part of a century.  A USA Today article of that week wrote of this freak storm, "Instead of enjoying the onset of spring, travelers shivered in stranded cars, packed onto icy train platforms, or languished in airport waiting halls. Thousands of schoolchildren stayed home. Tens of thousands of homes were without electricity."  Ain't it the truth.  Our vistas were more reminiscent of the Battle of Bulge than they were of June 1944.  Scenes similar to the one above became a frequent one during our travels throughout northern France.  In short, the French have no idea how to navigate through snow, nor does their government have any means to remove it from their roads.  These ingredients were a recipe for disaster.  More on this meteorological anomaly to follow in forthcoming posts.

Even despite the horrid snowfall and frequent whiteout conditions, we attempted to press onto our first tour destination in France: Dieppe.  Nearly two full years before the invasion of Normandy to the south, a joint Canadian-British-American force landed here in an attempt to gain a small foothold in France.  After five hours of battle on August 19, 1942, Allied commanders called for a desperate retreat.  Just as with Dunkirk, the Allies were again driven into the sea following defeat on the shores of the continent.  Among the German hideouts and places to seek cover were some of these buildings facing the beach.

Although much of the beach was covered by snow and the blustery conditions during our visit, one was still able to grasp how and why matters spiraled so quickly out of control in 1942.  The shore is essentially a pebble peach, as you can see here.  The task of driving vehicles inland from this point proved a near impossible task.  Landing craft and tanks could gain little to no traction in such an environment.  This landscape feature may have been one of the single most important factors in determining the battle's result.  A year and a half later, planners of the Normandy invasion examined the mistake at Dieppe and determined the type of sand on the beaches to be a major point of consideration for the proposed invasion site.

Well over half of the 6,000 plus Allied combatants who landed at Dieppe were killed, wounded, or captured.  The operation was an unmitigated disaster.  Among the 6,000 were forty-nine U.S. Army Rangers.  They were among the first American soldiers to set foot on the European continent during the war.  This photo demonstrates how the geology of the beach weighed heavily on the fight's outcome.

This German pillbox lingering over the beach reveals just how effective a single gun emplacement could be.  Looming high above the shore, this bunker could spray horrific fire into the flanks of troops as they came out of the water.  As author Robin Neillands has concluded, "As the events of 19 August were to show, the Dieppe defenders proved more than adequate to stop the landing in its tracks, not least because these men were in pillboxes or bunkers, impervious to the totally inadequate weight of fire brought against them and well equipped with artillery, mortars and machine guns with which to flay the Canadians on the beaches" (Neillands, The Dieppe Raid, 100).  Now covered with graffiti, the concrete and steel fortification stands vigilant as a stark reminder of the Allied defeat.

"The castle at the western end of the town was built in 1435, the year that the inhabitants drove out their English occupiers. It would be used by the German garrison in World War II. The largely Protestant Huguenot population of the port suffered greatly" long before 1942 (Folwer, Allies at Dieppe).  German officers and troops garrisoned within in the 15th century structure.  Around it they constructed a ring of defenses including artillery and mortar positions.  Just as the defenders of 500 years prior, the Nazis realized the significance of this terrain dominating the streets and beaches below.

Standing in the below freezing winds above the channel, I thought myself only slightly crazy for trying to endure the cold bitterness in the name of battlefield exploration.

This brief video will offer you a sense of the surrounding landscape of the Dieppe battlefield.  The clip will also reveal some of the less than savory weather we put up with during this "spring" break venture.  In some ways, this was only the beginning.  Stay tuned for more as we took a long detour through Le Havre and moved slower than the actual Allied advance.  Bonne chance!

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