The attack on Dieppe was a fiasco. But it was where the U.S. Special Forces were born.
The Allied landing at Dieppe on the coast of France in August 1942 is scarcely mentioned in most accounts of World War II. When it is, it is called a precursor to D-Day; a probing raid conducted to show the Allies how to use landing tanks or discover what the Germans were likely to do during an invasion; or even a noble if bloody experiment that proved the difficulties of attacking fortified harbors.
In truth, Dieppe was an unnecessary and foreseeable fiasco, an avoidable bloodbath. It was launched not because of military necessity, but for reasons that included hubris, service politics, and “morale”—the 1940s term for public relations or propaganda, depending on your perspective.
The justifications of the men in charge have cast a shadow on the actions of the roughly ten thousand men who took part in the invasion and in the air war above the beaches. The soldiers’ bravery and sacrifice have been largely forgotten. Canadians made up the bulk of the force and suffered several thousand killed, wounded, or captured; the battle shattered the Canadian 2nd Division and remains the greatest loss in Canadian military history; yet even in Canada, veterans of Dieppe have had to struggle for recognition.
If the Canadians were forgotten, the U.S. Army Rangers who were there that day have been almost completely ignored. Yet the lessons of Dieppe—not those of tactics or strategies, but of what physically happens to a man when he is thrown into the hellfire of combat—are part of every Ranger’s heritage.
What was the American experience at Dieppe? In some ways, it was as varied as the historical references. Fifty soldiers were drawn from the 1st Ranger Battalion for the raid. Most went with two units of British commandos who attacked the gun batteries on Dieppe’s flanks; a handful of them were assigned to Canadian units that attacked Dieppe and the closer shore guns essentially head-on. Where the bigger units succeeded, the Rangers succeeded. Where they failed, the Rangers mostly died or were taken prisoner.
In sheer numbers, the Canadian losses are so large as to be almost incomprehensible: of a force of 5,000, more than 800 were killed, more than 1,300 taken prisoner, and nearly 600 wounded. The Rangers’ contribution was much smaller, but on a proportional level their losses were just as brutal. Because of problems with their landing craft only 15 Americans actually went ashore; of those, 3 were killed, 3 taken prisoner, and 5 wounded—a 73 percent casualty rate.
Remarkably, the 1st Ranger Battalion had been formed less than two months earlier and had not completed its training when it was tapped for inclusion in the battle. Rangers went on to play important roles in Operation Torch, the assault on Africa; in the Italian campaigns in 1943; and perhaps most famously during D-Day at Pointe du Hoc and the surrounding area. Disbanded then reorganized, Rangers served during the cold war conflicts, in the first Gulf War, and in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, Rangers form an important part of the United States Special Operations Command. While there are still debates on how best to use them, there is no question that the soldiers are one of the most potent fighting forces in the world.
It all started in 1942, at Dieppe.
If Alex Szima hadn’t had bad luck, he might not have had any luck at all.
Then again, Szima was the kind of man who made a habit of turning bad luck into an opportunity. He’d managed to get a waiver to join the army, necessary because a six-inch scar ran down his cheek from his left eye. But as he went through basic training, it became clear from the comments of his instructors that the scar was going to disqualify him. Not that it gave him any trouble—he’d had it since an accident when he was younger—but the doctors and officers and just about everyone who looked at it thought it was going to get infected and maybe make his eye fall out. Plus it was hell to look at. Szima had busted his buns doing everything he could to win a place, but as soon as his ninety-day training period was over, he was getting bounced.
And then, three days before the end, he was shot. Some boob of a new trainee mishandled a Thompson submachine gun, and Szima landed in the base hospital with a slug in his thigh.
Of all the dumb luck.
But that slug proved a blessing. Szima couldn’t be discharged from the army, not while an investigation was being conducted into the shooting. And then, somehow, the idea of bouncing him got lost, either in the paper shuffle or due to the growing need to increase the army’s size. Szima came out of the hospital with a cane and a promotion to private first class, not because of anything he did but because everyone else who’d gotten through basic by that time had been promoted to private first class too. He was assigned to the 1st Armored Division as a company clerk, and went to Ireland when the division, along with the 34th Infantry, became the one of the first U.S. divisions sent to Europe following Pearl Harbor. Along the way, he threw away his cane—and managed to lose the papers relating to the need to discharge him.
But Szima was bored pounding a typewriter. One day in spring 1942, he noticed a sign tacked on the bulletin board announcing that a new outfit was forming. There wasn’t much information about it, but the unit was going to be modeled after the British commandos. Szima knew it was finally his chance to leave the desks behind and get into action.
The unit was so new it didn’t even have a name. The order asking for volunteers stressed common sense and initiative, not strength, as qualifications. Volunteers who made it past the initial screening were subjected to exhaustive questioning to assess their character and makeup.
James Altieri, a technician fifth grade (essentially a corporal) with the 1st Armored Division, saw the notice too. He volunteered and found himself subjected to a withering cross-examination.
As an Italian-American, would he object to killing Italians in battle?
He admitted he’d prefer to fight Germans or the Japanese, but said he’d have no qualms about doing his duty.
Could he swim, a requirement for all soldiers in the new unit?
“Two miles was the longest I ever tried,” replied the corporal. It was a lie, but he’d heard the unit wanted strong swimmers.
“Have you ever been in any brawls,” asked the captain, “barroom fights, gang fights where people have been hurt bad?”
“Yes, sir. I grew up in a tough neighborhood,” said Altieri, who came from Philadelphia. “You either fought or you didn’t live.”
“Did you ever kill a man?”
“No, sir,” said Altieri, surprised by the question.“I never went quite that far.”
“Do you think you would have guts enough to stick a knife in a man’s back and twist it?”
“I guess a fellow can do anything in the heat of battle,” said Altieri. “Sure, if it had to be done, I think I could do it.”
The truth was, Altieri didn’t even like to see chickens killed. Like most of the other volunteers in the unit, he had no experience when it came to killing, let alone the business of war. But like the others, he was willing to learn, if that’s what it took.
Altieri, Szima, and roughly eight hundred other men were chosen for the new unit. Within days, they were en route to Carrickfergus, a small town twenty miles north of Belfast, Ireland. They had barely found the barracks when they began training with the most basic of army exercises: marching. After about two weeks they were covering twelve miles in two hours. Men dropped from exhaustion; quietly they were removed from the unit.
Each morning, Altieri thought he’d be gone by the end of the day. But the idea of returning to his unit as a failure pushed him on. He didn’t want to be branded as a gutless, all-talk wonder. Finally, after roughly three weeks, the troop was organized into a battalion with companies and a headquarters section. Altieri was still there.
As the training continued, the soldiers would look back longingly on those early marches. Their days were filled with live fire exercises, practice assaults—and even longer forced marches.
On August 2, 1942, Szima and three fellow Rangers—Staff Sgt. Kenneth D. Stempson, Cpl. William Brady, and Cpl. Franklin “Zip” Koons—were ordered to report to a lieutenant-colonel Lord Lovat at Portsmouth harbor.
Lovat was not only a lord; he was also chief of Clan Fraser of Lovat. The tall, athletic, semi-eccentric Scottish aristocrat had Hollywood looks and a friendly nature, except when it came to battle. The Americans had been given firm instructions to use the term “Lord” when presenting themselves to him. Szima, anxious to make a good impression, spent at least an hour in the WC on the train down rehearsing his speech.
Szima barely got the word “Lord” out of his mouth before the lieutenant-colonel jumped from his desk and pumped his hand.
“Glad to have you aboard,” said the commando leader. He waved away the men’s attempts to produce their orders and sent them to find quarters.
From that moment on, they were part of the team. The first two nights after they arrived, Szima and the others practiced clambering into landing craft in the dark. Once they had that mastered, the Rangers and commandos rehearsed landings, finding their way to the rocky English shores in daylight and at night. In a typical drill, the Rangers and commandos would cross about forty yards of beach covered with barbed wire, mines, and tank obstacles, advancing as the lead team took out a simulated pillbox. They would then climb the cliff, often with the help of portable ladders carried in five-foot sections. Moving through the woods at the top, they would march to a mock battery where they would make their attack.
The Rangers and commandos spent eight nights practicing the assaults. The training here had a different pace than before; the exercises were more specific, repeating the same problems over and over again. They began to seem like rehearsals.
Once the night assault practices were finished, the commandos and Rangers billeted with local families. In some cases the men became fairly close to the people who were boarding them, many of whom had husbands or sons in the service; they might be treated as surrogate sons—and once in a while as replacement lovers. But in most cases the relationships were fleeting and superficial; the commandos were just passing through, and experience had taught the women opening their homes that it wasn’t wise to get too close to people they might miss when they left.
The Americans were given allowances to cover their necessities, which were often stretched for the benefit of their allies. When the unit broke from training at lunchtime, Szima regularly treated his commando pal Jim Haggerty, an Irishman who’d joined the British army, to beers at a local pub.
High ground protected Dieppe to the west, to the right of the city when viewed from the sea. Lovat’s No. 4 Commando was given the mission of destroying a battery of six large guns about four miles west of Dieppe near Varengeville. The battery sat about three-quarters of a mile from the edge of chalky cliffs that overlooked the rocky beach. Topped with camouflage netting, the heavy guns and their crews sat behind a concrete and sandbag berm but were otherwise open to the air. An antiaircraft gun and an observation tower were immediately behind the battery; the barbed wire defensive perimeter included machine gun emplacements.
The battery area was to the southeast of a lighthouse, which sat above the cliffs at Cap D’Ailly. This was a rural, wooded area of apple orchards and private yards. Varengeville was a small village, with even smaller hamlets scattered nearby. To the west, or right when looking from the water, sat the village of Ste. Marguerite near the mouth of the Saane River.
August 18, 1942, dawned dim and gray on the English Channel. The high winds of the day before had calmed somewhat, but they remained strong enough to foam the wave tips white. At Dieppe, the sky turned the water a darkish blue-green. Alex Szima and Zip Koons exchanged glances as they hustled to their spots on the Weymouth waterfront. The men had been told the night before to settle their bills because they were going on a two-day exercise. But most knew better: they were heading for a raid.
Later that afternoon the Rangers and commandos were mustered to attention to hear a visitor speak. It was Lord Mountbatten, the overall commander of the operation, who’d come aboard ship to give them a pep talk.
Mountbatten tried breaking the ice with a few off-color jokes, then got to his point. No matter what happened, he told them, they needed to hit their objective—the big guns. The job was critical: without it, the mission would fail. The guns had to be taken out. The guns. He couldn’t emphasize that more.
The commander was candid about the fact that the raid wasn’t intended as the start of a second front, but what he called “a reconnaissance in depth.” He was also candid about their prospects. “Tomorrow we deal the Hun a bloody blow,” Mountbatten said. “We expect over 60 percent casualties. To those of you that will die tomorrow, may God have mercy on your souls.”
Whatever his purpose might have been, Mountbatten’s dire prediction hit many of the men like a kidney punch. Speechless, Szima, Koons, Stempson, and Brady made their way to the cabin they’d been assigned, stunned by the enormity of what they were about to undertake. Szima came upon a sailor willing to sell a bottle of rum for a pound. The Ranger sped back to his companions to share. But the mood remained somber, despite the drinks. Koons was convinced he’d been selected for the mission because his company commander had it in for him.
“Captain Miller never did like me and just wants to get rid of me,” he blurted.
“Nah,” insisted Szima. “We’re going to be the 40 percent that survives.”
Before they knew it, the order came to board the landing craft. It was 2:30 a.m. They’d all been up for twenty-two hours.
The assault on the battery near Varengeville was to be made by two groups. One would land directly in front of the coastal battery near the lighthouse on a beach dubbed Orange One. Szima and Koons were in this detachment, commanded by Maj. Derek Mills-Roberts. The second would land to the west near Ste. Marguerite at Orange Two, swinging in a semicircle to attack the battery from the rear. Stempson and Brady were in this group, under Lord Lovat’s direct command.
As the boats neared the shore the lighthouse’s beacon stopped flashing. Star shells flew into the air from the tower nearby. The light caught the small boats, illuminating everyone, holding them for a long moment as the flares burned down.
Koons had calmed down considerably since his outburst aboard the ship. Or maybe he was just tired. He hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before, and between his fatigue and the rhythmical rocking of the boat, he dozed off as the boats headed toward shore. Suddenly, seawater splashed on his face, and he woke to the buzz of two Spitfires racing overhead. The airplanes, only a few hundred feet over the ocean, fired at the lighthouse. Antiaircraft batteries began to respond.
I’m really in the war, Koons told himself.
The boats stopped with a rough grumble against the stones. The ramps fell and the men in the LCAs leapt forward. Szima and Haggerty splashed through two feet of water and ran quickly to the shadow of the cliffs, hunkering down as the team responsible for clearing the ravines scouted the two openings nearby, deciding which to use. The Germans had strung their spools of barbed wire across both ravines. The obstructions appeared less formidable in the wider gully to the west; a pair of Bangalore torpedoes were put into place, and the concertina wire blown up.
The soldiers feared that the main path up the cut, a set of concrete and stone steps, had been mined. Clambering along the sides, they slipped on the wet rocks and mud, crawling at times just to keep moving. Spitfires continued strafing the lighthouse area, where a group of Germans was manning gun posts. So far, the commando group had not been engaged.
Szima and Haggerty ran past a stand of pine and fern to the narrow road that ended near the path to the beach. Small houses and buildings dotted both sides of the road; there were small gardens and open fields. Near one of the houses, Szima saw his first dead man: a German soldier whose grenade had exploded when he’d been shot. The man was in pieces; steam rose from his broken body.
Szima’s section began moving through the yards and checking the houses. Going through the first house, Szima found a locked bedroom door. He gathered himself, then took a step, raised his leg, and stamped his foot against the wood. The door flew inside; a dead German lay on the bed.
Something moved in the corner; Szima jerked and fired, so tense that his finger clicked off two rounds.
His target crumpled to the ground. When he regained his breath, he realized it was a blanket that had been tossed in the corner.
As his men cleared the hamlet near the beach and moved into position northwest of the German battery, Mills-Roberts took stock of the situation. The plan called for his team to engage the gun battery from positions directly in front of it at 6:30 a.m.; this would draw their attention away from the rear and side of the gun battery as Lovat’s team approached to make the main assault. It was now 5:40 a.m. They were well ahead of schedule.
Suddenly, the ground shook with the report of a heavy gun going into action. The battery had been manned and began to fire at the main assault fleet in front of Dieppe. Mills-Roberts decided to attack immediately.
The German battery sat in front of a row of buildings nestled on the north side of the main road. It was bordered on the west by fields and yards. The commandos approached from the west and southwest, moving from the hamlet they had just secured to the one just behind the battery, and to the fields that were on the west of the big guns. Low hedges and wire fences marked the boundaries of the generously spaced yards; dirt lanes ran at the sides. Some of the fields were filled with apple trees, and a number of commandos grabbed apples as they advanced, stuffing them into their pockets.
Germans sniped from the houses and fields. Running through the orchard, Szima heard a buzz and threw himself to the ground. A bullet grazed his watch cap—one of at least two that would knock it off during the engagement. Pulling up his rifle, the Ranger spotted the man across the road; as the German took aim at a commando, Szima squeezed off six rounds of black-tipped, armor-piercing bullets into the man, blowing him to pieces.
Farther up the road, a sniper sat on a rooftop, dousing the road with gunfire. Once more, Szima worked himself around to a firing position; his second shot sent the man crashing to the ground.
Even if he’d forgotten the maps and model he’d been shown, Szima would have known he was close to the battery by the report of the guns as he ran. The big cannons made a heavy therump as they fired, tossing their shells in the direction of the invasion fleet. Crossing the road in their direction, Szima spotted a stable in one of the yards and ran for it. As he reached the archway, someone yelled, “Watch out, Yank!” He ducked inside just as a German potato masher flew into the courtyard.
After it exploded, Szima caught a glimpse of Haggerty sighting his Thompson on the German nearby. He didn’t stop firing until he’d run through his fifty-bullet drum magazine.
Szima burst into the farm building. Seeing it was clear he climbed to the second story and found what he was looking for: an unobstructed view of the rear of the battery. The white work clothes and shiny helmets of the gunners ferrying shells to their guns made obvious targets.
The Germans were like puppets, Szima thought, watching them fall as he pumped the trigger. He sighted, pressed the trigger, sighted again. The bang of the gun as it fired was followed by a loud ping as the armor-piercing bullet hit the helmet and went through the soldier’s skull. He hit another man whose helmet flew upwards, spinning twenty-five feet or more in the air.
Koons’s squad found a similar vantage point in a barn nearby. Koons zeroed in on the battery and began shooting. A German went down; then another. Then another and another. It was almost surreal. He had a perfect vantage, and he became almost a machine, firing at the enemy. The words of the men who’d trained him, the instructor who’d taught him to shoot, the experience of the range and years of hunting—all of that was working somewhere on an unconscious level. He was just doing his job, sighting and firing so quickly he lost track of how many men he hit.
As the harrying fire began to have an effect, German snipers began shooting at the buildings. Szima moved to another spot and began firing again. The snipers chased him from the second spot. This time the Ranger jumped down and landed in a manure pit. He had a hell of a time clearing his gun, but managed to do so and resumed firing.
By now a German 81mm mortar crew had rallied to their weapons, and began lobbing their large bombs just beyond the battery’s defensive perimeter. The heavy shells killed more cows than men, but for a moment the starch seemed to go out of the Allied attack. Then a commando two-inch mortar crew in the field near Koons fired on the German battery. The first shot went wide right, landing behind the big guns. The next was a direct hit in the middle of the battery, but the small bomb seemed to explode without doing damage, its burst absorbed easily by the sandbags protecting the emplacements.
The third sailed closer to the perimeter. It just missed Gun 1 and struck sacks of cordite stacked nearby. The charges exploded with a shriek. Flames leapt from the battery as the ground shook. The men nearby were killed; when other Germans rushed to help them or put out the flames, they were cut down by Koons and the others firing from the buildings behind them.
Not long after, the air was filled with six huge explosions in quick succession; jags of metal flew through the air, showering the woods and nearby fields. Lovat’s men, fighting a desperate battle with bayonets and even their fists had stormed the battery and put the guns out of action for good with demolition charges.
Objective achieved, the unit fell back. Szima and a commando with an antitank gun were assigned to act as a rear guard, and they took shelter behind a thick wall in one of the yards. The men of Lovat’s sections who had charged the battery fell back first; then came the members of Mills-Roberts’s group. Szima spotted Koons’s commando buddy, patched up and helping another wounded man back to the beach. But he didn’t see Koons.
The Ranger steeled himself, and continued to keep watch, scanning the commandos as they came through, worried now about his friend. Finally, the stream of commandos ebbed. Then there was no one left, no one except the dead.
“Come on, Yank,” said the commando with him.
Szima knelt, getting ready to ignite a smoke grenade to cover their retreat. Then he heard someone running on the road. They’d waited too long. The Germans had rallied and were on their way.
Szima signaled for the commando to step back, then aimed his M1 at the small gate in the wall. He pulled the trigger back three-fourths of the way, just to the point where it would take a slight tremor to fire. But something Szima would never be able to fully explain kept him from shooting. The door swung open and Koons came through. They stared at each other in shock.
It took Szima several heartbeats before he could growl at the corporal and tell him to get going.
A few minutes later, finally satisfied that there were no more stragglers, Szima and the British commando once more prepared to leave. Just then a German troop truck drove up. A soldier got out, checked the area, and then hopped back inside. The truck started toward them.
The commando fired a .55-caliber antitank round point-blank at the truck’s engine. The truck stopped dead and Germans poured out from the rear. Szima emptied his clip, then turned and tried to help the corporal with the long-barreled weapon as they retreated. They scrambled into each other and fell, German rifle fire passing over their heads as they slid down a small ravine. Back on their feet, they ran until they reached their next checkpoint, just barely remembering the password when challenged.
By 7:30 a.m., No. 4 Commando had accomplished its mission, with considerably less loss of life than Mountbatten had predicted or its commander had feared. From the perspective of the men leaving the beach below Varengeville, the Dieppe raid had been a stunning success.
But their perspective was severely limited. By the end of the day, No. 4 Commando’s exploits would stand in stark contrast to the raid as a whole.
For Altieri, still training back in England, August 19 coincided with the first break his Ranger company had in two months of nonstop exercises. As a reward, they were granted forty-eight hours’ leave. They aimed to make the most of it.
Or at least Altieri did until his sergeant called him and another corporal front and center and told them they had volunteered for MP duty.
Altieri grudgingly complied, and he and the other corporal, along with a friend who took pity on them, patrolled the town, watching sourly as their friends filled the bars. During their rounds, they befriended a good-natured Scotsman who wanted to have his picture taken with them. Finding a local photographer’s shop, they began joking around, trading hats and posing, until one of the Rangers suggested that Altieri would look smashing in a kilt.
The Scotsman agreed, on the condition that he could dress up as an American. Altieri pulled on the kilt, which seemed a bit long at the knees.
Just then, someone shouted for an MP. Still wearing the kilt, Altieri headed into a bar and discovered some of his friends in the middle of a fight with British sailors and Royal Marines. The Rangers were outnumbered but ahead on points: three Rangers and five sailors were on the floor, all knocked out.
Altieri waded into the fight and promptly got decked. When he came to, his company sergeant was standing over him, shaking his head. The kilt’s owner soon entered, took one look at his ruined skirt—it had been ripped and trampled in the melee— and demanded restitution.
Fortunately, Altieri had recently won a tidy sum at poker, and he was able to settle the matter by paying the man for his clothes and buying the locals a drink. He was still clearing his head when another man from the outfit ran in with a newspaper and threw it down on the bar. The men read the headline in silence:
ALLIED FORCE INVADES FRANCE
CANADIANS, COMMANDOS AND AMERICAN RANGERS MAKE DARING ASSAULT ON DIEPPE
Altieri blew the rest of his money on drinks. They really were in the war now.
Excerpt from Rangers at Dieppe by Jim DeFelice (Berkley Caliber, January 2008).
Originally published in the December 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.