At 96, Reginald Wise still remembers his fallen comrades.
The former Royal Marine with No. 40 Commando also remembers how he had to sit on his hands 79 year ago while his brothers-in-arms landed, and fell in the sand, at Dieppe.
“I applied to go, but I was only 17,” says Wise. “At that time you could only fight when you were 18.”
Wise wished to land with his fellow Royal Marines and more than 6,000 Allied infantry—nearly 5,000 Canadians among them—on Aug. 19, 1942, on the beaches at Dieppe, France.
The amphibious raid, called Operation Jubilee, lasted less than six hours. It turned out to be a complete disaster.
“At the time, the thought was the British had hoped to gain some intelligence and boost morale at home,” explains Wise. “But it was more than that.”
Wise recounts it was hard for him to stay behind when his fellow soldiers crossed the Channel.
“We lost 275 commandos that day.”
He would have to wait another month before he’d tick over to 18 and see action in Europe.
Wise laid a wreath at the Cloverdale Cenotaph Aug. 19, the 79th anniversary of the Dieppe raid, to pay his respects to his comrades that fell that morning and to the nearly 1,000 Canadians from the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division who also died on the French coast that day.
Wise says his commemoration of Dieppe is twofold: he wants to remember the sacrifice “those boys made;” and he wants to raise awareness about Dieppe to lift it’s profile with the public.
“When I talk to people about Dieppe, none of them are aware of it,” explains Wise. “I think that’s wrong. I think it’s important to remember.”
He adds the history of Dieppe isn’t taught in schools anymore. “I gave a lecture at one school about Dieppe and the history teacher came up to me and said, ‘This is all new to me.’”
Wise says military files about the Dieppe raid were sealed for 70 years. When they were declassified, a new picture of the reasons behind the Dieppe raid emerged. Although Wise knew from day one why the Allies invaded the French port town.
Wise notes over the years many had speculated about the reasons for the raid. It was thought to be a mission to gather intelligence, or a probe of the German coastal defences, or an attempt to boost morale at home and confidence with the Soviets—to show Stalin the Allies were committed to opening a western front in Europe.
And while Wise says it was about intelligence, it was about the Germans’ enigma machine and the enigma machine only.
Wise’s unit, No. 40 Commando, had unique insight into this as a special naval intelligence group, 30 Assault Unit, was created just before the raid. These special “intelligence commandos” were attached to Wise’s 40 Commando and would use the raid as a diversion to try to capture a four-rotor German enigma machine.
“I couldn’t say anything for 70 years, but the truth’s out now,” says Wise with a laugh. “I like to tell people the true reason for Dieppe. It was quite involved.”
He explains Soviet leader Joseph Stalin wanted a second front to take the pressure off his troops fighting the Germans in eastern Europe, but British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Stalin they didn’t have the equipment or the men to launch a successful invasion.
“To keep him quiet, Churchill and Roosevelt said they’d plan a raid on a fortified town in France.”
After Dieppe was planned out, Wise says the raid looked grim on paper. Churchill and Roosevelt had no intention of following through with it. So the plan was written up and shelved.
Wise says an advance in German communications forced the Allies to dust off the plans for Dieppe.
“(The British) solved the enigma code in 1941,” says Wise. “They could decode German messages in two to four hours.” That meant the British could read the Germans’ war communications, thus greatly aiding the war effort. In the most practical terms, it meant shipping convoys could avoid German U-boats lurking the North Atlantic and deliver their much-needed goods to the British Isles.
”But that all changed in February 1942,” adds Wise. “The Germans switched to a four-rotor machine. Then, pffft, nothing.”
The Allies information stream dried up. This put pressure on the Allied convoys again, explains Wise, which were once again being picked off by packs of German U-boats.
“England was getting desperate. They knew if they didn’t get the next enigma decoded, they’d be starving by October, 1942.”
It’s interesting to note, that on Aug. 13, 1942 Stalin sent a letter to Churchill and Roosevelt urging them to change their minds about not invading Europe until 1943. (The plan at that time was to launch an invasion of France, called Operation Roundup in the spring of ‘43.) Stalin wanted an immediate second front to take some of the pressure off the Soviet Armies fighting the Nazis in eastern Europe.
On Aug. 14, Churchill sent a cable back to Stalin. “The Germans have enough troops in the West to block us in this narrow peninsula with fortified lines, and would concentrate all their air forces in the West upon it. In the opinion of all the British naval, military and air authorities the operation could only end in disaster.”
Five days later, the Allies launched Operation Jubilee.
“They knew there was a four-rotor machine in Dieppe at the German naval headquarters,” says Wise. He explains the operation was a called a pinch, or theft, raid. “That’s why they went. They had to get that machine and its documents.”
But the Allies couldn’t get a foothold in the seasides streets of Dieppe and the mission failed.
The Allies’ began the raid at 4:50 a.m. but by 9:40 a.m., under heavy fire and suffering mounting losses, they were forced to retreat.
“The Canadians were stopped on the beach,” says Wise. “And the Calgary Tanks [14th Army Tank Regiment] were blown to bits on the beach.”
Wise adds there wasn’t enough naval support nor enough air force support “to give the infantry a fighting chance.” Of the 4,963 Canadians that landed, 907 were killed, 2,460 were wounded, and 1,946 were captured. Only 2,127 returned to England.
“They were willing to sacrifice 6,000 men because their whole nation was at stake.”
He says Britain was in such dire need of food they were on the brink of starvation. He adds they would have had to surrender if they didn’t capture an enigma machine (which finally happened that October off Port Said, Egypt).
“I don’t often get a chance to do something that’s more public than this,” says Wise. “I want to bring more awareness to Dieppe and to the sacrifices the Canadian soldiers made for Britain.”
Wise hopes to raise the profile of Dieppe over the course of the next year, ahead of the 80th anniversary commemorations of the battle in 2022, so that many more people know about Dieppe and the sacrifices Canadians made for the war effort.
“I may go to Dieppe next year,” he says. “(The Royal Marines) only go across every five years to recognize the battle and I’m the only one left now of my commandos. So they’ll probably ask me to go.”
If he doesn’t go to Dieppe, he’ll be at the Cloverdale Cenotaph next year, just before his 97th birthday, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of a raid that is known as Canada’s darkest day in WWII.