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The Dieppe Raid at 80: An airman’s account

Friday 19th of August marks 80 years since the ill-fated Dieppe Raid took place. We spoke to Eugenie Brooks about her father’s actions during this controversial operation.

The Dieppe Raid 80th anniversary

What is the Dieppe Raid and why did it take place?

Codenamed Operation Jubilee, the Raid was an amphibious assault on the German-occupied port of Dieppe on the Normandy coast.

Dieppe marked the first significant military operation undertaken by the Allies on mainland Europe since the retreat from Dunkirk in 1940.

The port of DieppeImage: The port of Dieppe, target of Operation Jubilee

Operation Jubilee was not planned as a full-scale D-Day-style assault. The Allies did not possess the military strength to launch such an endeavour at this time. Instead, Dieppe was undertaken for different strategic reasons:

Who fought at Dieppe?

The Allies, including British and especially Canadian troops, alongside a detachment of US Rangers, sent 6,000 men to Dieppe.

The infantry on the day was supported by 50 tanks as well as specialist Commando units.

These were backed up by 1,000 planes of the RAF and Royal Canadian Air Force in the sky and 250 Royal Navy assets at sea. The RAF included Free French pilots who joined up following the Fall of France in 1940.

Was Operation Jubilee a success?

In a military sense, no.

Wounded Canadian soldiers on the beach of Dieppe in front of a knocked out tank.Image: Wounded Canadians on the beach at Dieppe.

German forces knew the attack was coming and had adequate time to prepare.

Very few Allied raiders made it off the beach. Of the 6,000 troops who took part, 3,600 had been killed wounded or captured in little under eight hours of fighting. Aerial losses amounted to 100 aircraft lost while the Navy sustained around 550 casualties.

Dieppe took an especially heavy toll on the Canadians as their infantry made up most of the raiders and thus most of the casualties.

The raid was a costly failure. Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was in overall command as Chief of Combined Operations, would take considerable criticism following the raid’s failure.

However, it did provide some important lessons regarding tactics, equipment, and intelligence the Allies would later apply to the massively successful landings in Sicily in 1943 and D-Day in 1944.

Eugenie Brooks and her father’s Dieppe experience

Eugenie Brooks is one of our regular collaborators and supporters at the Commission. Eugenie worked in our enquiries department between 1984-1986 before spending 33 years with the Metropolitan Police.

She is now a volunteer guide at Brookwood Military Cemetery and the Runnymede Air Forces Memorial as well as an Eyes On, Hands On volunteer.

Flight Sgt John William Brooks DFMImage: Flight Sgt John William Brooks, DFM, courtesy of Eugenie Brooks.

Eugenie’s father, Flight Sgt John William Brooks DFM, took part in the aerial bombing component of the Dieppe Raid as part of 174 Squadron.

Born on 16th December 1921, in London, John joined the RAF in July 1940, aged just 18 years old. First training with 79 Squadron, John first saw combat as a member of 607 Squadron.

A year earlier, John had asked his parents if he could learn to ride a motorbike for use as a postman (John was working in the Post Office’s Park Royal sorting office at the time). His mother, Kitty, said no as it would be far too dangerous for her son.

“Just one year later, he was flying Hurricanes in anger,” Eugenie said.

607 Squadron’s Hurricane-Bombers aircraft were part of the Channel Stop operations to prevent German shipping from using the English Channel early in the war. John would continue to see action over France until being reassigned to 174 Squadron before the Dieppe Raid.

Preparing for Dieppe

Speaking of her father’s experiences of Operation Jubilee and the Dieppe Raid, Eugenie said: “174 Squadron was formed taking over 17 Hurricanes and 8 pilots from 607 Squadron on March 3rd, 1942. Dad was one of those pilots and the squadron was based at Manston Airfield, Kent.

“Dad and his colleagues weren’t told about the Raid until orders were given on the 14th of August to move to RAF Ford. His entry in his logbook states ‘To Ford, for what?’. The pilots were all carefully briefed on the 18th and were told, amongst other things, that the German reaction was liable to be quick and massive.”

John’s section, consisting of himself and four other pilots, much to his and his colleague’s dismay, found out they had the dubious honour of going in first. Their initial objective was to dive bomb naval guns on high ground over the port. Instead of their usual 250 lbs payloads, each Hurricane would carry two 500 lbs bombs.

In the skies over the Raid

174 Squadron took the skies before sunrise early in the morning of the 19th.

John Brooks in the cockpit of his Hawker Hurricane.Image: John in the cockpit of his Hawker Hurricane Fighter-Bomber

John’s memoirs of the attack bring his view of the Raid to vivid life: “My section formed up behind me in close formation so that they wouldn’t lose me in the dark and I kept a close eye on our new Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Fayolle, a free Frenchman. He had been with us only a few weeks.

“It took us 40 minutes to cross to the other side, but long before we got there, I could see a fire. This turned out to be a German ship which accidentally ran into the invasion fleet and had to be destroyed.

“S/LdrFayolle naturally saw there was no need for us to continue on the deck since the German obviously knew something was up, so we all climbed up to a couple of thousand feet to pinpoint ourselves and to get sufficient height to dive with our bombs.

“It was quite easy to make out the coast and the town of Dieppe. The ship on fire lit up the whole scene clearly – and the flak and fireworks were on par to 5th November.

“I dropped down to 1500 feet and told the section to drop back in line astern ready for diving. All this had been planned beforehand so that there was a minimum of radio natter and less chance of confusion. The light flak was coming up thick and fast, and we were flying at a very vulnerable height. I could see the 40mm stuff curving up towards us, for all the world like a lot of bright glowing beads on a string. It would flash past us and explode just above our heads, or so it appeared. Flak always looks worse at night.

“Then I saw it. Three or four big splodges of German concrete surrounded by trees. I called up my section and told them ‘Target ahead’, although I found out later that they had seen it at the same time as myself, so they were ready for my tally ho.

“I went down as low as I dared to release my bombs – I couldn’t really miss. I could make out the heavy guns in their white concrete bases along with some smaller gun sites and huts. It was these smaller sites which had the guns which were firing at me, so I fired back as I dived down. This is a general tactic to make the people on the ground keep their heads down. Eight machine guns all going at once are quite noisy.

“I pulled out at a couple of hundred feet and saw the trees loom out of the darkness in front of me.

“My bombs had a 6-second delay whilst the boys behind me had 2-second fuses. This was to prevent those behind me from being blown up by my bombs. Nevertheless, it still needed a quick and coordinated run over the target even with these precautions.

“After what seemed a very long time, I saw the whole site go up in a series of quick flashes and then felt the crump which bounced my Hurricane about. On my left, I saw one of my section having a hard time with the flak. He was weaving like a mad man just above the treetops.”

A second sortie through Dieppe skies

John and his section reconvened with the rest of 174 Squadron, continuing to harry ground opposition with machine gun fire. Troops had begun to land in earnest now, with landing barges and craft coming ashore.

John Books portrait in his flying gear.Image: A portrait of John in his flying gear, courtesy of Eugenie Brooks

The squadron would fly back to RAF Ford around lunchtime. There, their aircraft was patched up, refuelled (as were the pilots with lunch) and briefed on the next stage of their operation.

This sortie’s target was a large build-up of German tanks and artillery to the north of Dieppe.

John and his cohorts were met with a very different view of Dieppe when they reached the battle site.

“There was an extraordinary amount of rubbish floating around in the water, quite some way off the shore,” John wrote in his memoirs. “There were bright yellow dinghies which stood out against a surface of oil and sundry junk. I then realised the items floating in the water were bodies.”

John’s section then lined up for their attack run: “We went into attack the tanks in two lines abreast as prearranged and I could see the targets right ahead. They were slinging everything at us or so it appeared.

“I saw one of our Hurricanes get hit and catch fire. He dived straight at a bunch of armoured vehicles and blew up. It was a friend of mine called Doofy, Du Fretay, a free Frenchman who loathed the Germans.

“Then another friend, an Australian who had been to my home in London, blew up. I think one of his bombs got hit as he went in. I flew straight at some transport and troops with guns going and skipped my bombs at them. I passed over the top at a couple of feet since I brought back with me a souvenir, it was the whip aerial off a German tank wedged in my radiator.”

With casualties mounting, and fuel and ammunition beginning to run low, John and his comrades headed for home, narrowly escaping a huge formation of German fighters flying up the coast. Luckily, and despite the damage sustained during the second sortie, John was able to reach home in one piece.

Casualties had been high.

“We had begun the operation with 17 pilots, and we now had 8 left and some very patched Hurricanes,” John wrote.

John was one of the lucky ones to survive Operation Jubilee. As we touched on earlier, casualties were high with the air forces losing around a 10th of their number. Ground forces would take a pounding with over half being killed, captured, or wounded.

John’s Distinguished Flying Medal

For his part in the Dieppe aerial battle, John was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal. These were awarded to non-commissioned Commonwealth airmen and women for “exceptional valour, courage or devotion to duty whilst flying in active operations against the enemy".

King George 6th awarded John his DFM on November 10th, 1942. John’s father, also John Williams Brooks, was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for gallantry in the very same room by King George 5th several years earlier. Bravery clearly runs in the Brooks bloodline!

After Dieppe, John would continue to serve in combat roles in North Africa, Malta, Sicily, and Italy, notably taking part in Operation Husky in July 1943. He would transfer to non-combat roles in 1944, before continuing a distinguished post-war civilian flying career.

John retired from flying in 1976, spending his free time on family research, local history, stamp collecting, and gardening. He passed away in his sleep in 1991 aged 71.

John’s story, alongside that of the whole Dieppe Raid, will be told at a special exhibition at the Battle of Britain Bunker, Uxbridge, UK from the 19th of August onwards.

Eugenie Brooks’ thoughts on the Dieppe Raid

When asked about the raid that took many of her father’s colleagues’ lives, Eugenie Brooks said: “It’s always easy to look back and be wise after the event: we should have used different landing crafts; we should have had more firepower from ships before the landings; we should never have attacked a fortified port; but it was a required action and many lessons were learned from the attack – at great expense with the loss of so many lives.

“Lord Mountbatten said of Dieppe ‘I have no doubt that the battle of Normandy was won on the beaches of Dieppe. For every man who died in Dieppe, at least 10 more must have been spared in Normandy in 1944.’ I’ll go with that.”

Commemorating the war dead of Dieppe

We look after several cemeteries and memorials where we commemorate casualties from the Dieppe Raid.

The most prominent of these is Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery. Some 950 Commonwealth servicemen are buried here, around 190 of which are unidentified. Notably, this was the first Commission cemetery to be built following World War Two.

Further Operation Jubilee Canadian casualties can be found at various cemeteries up and down the French coast, including Calais Canadian War Cemetery, St. Sever Cemetery Extension, Boulogne Eastern Cemetery, Dunkirk Town Cemetery, and Abbeville Communal Cemetery Extension.

40 Dieppe Raid casualties are buried at Brookwood Military Cemetery. Brookwood is our largest site in the UK. Roughly 200 more casualties are commemorated on the Brookwood 1939-1945 Memorial.

Tags Dieppe Operation Jubilee