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Raid on Dieppe 

The Pre-Raid Naval Skirmish 
by Pete Bublitz 

During the daytime hours of August 18, minesweepers from the Royal Navy's 9th and 13th Minesweeping Flotillas were occupied with the task of clearing a wide path through German minefields in the English Channel. Through this opening, the naval force that set sail later on that evening would transport amphibious troops toward their targets in and around Dieppe. The ships that carried specific troops would come from five separate ports in Southern England. From the port of Newhaven came a maximum of twenty-three Group 5 LCPs from the 1st and 24th LCP Flotillas. Four of these LCPs, however, and were forced to discontinue their mission and return to their port after suffering engine malfunctions. Serving as escort craft were the steam gun boat SGB5, the motor launch ML346, and the flak landing craft LCF (L) 1.

Aboard these ships were the men of 3 Commando, on their way towards the two Yellow Beaches of Berneval. At the edge of the group, aboard SGB5, Flotilla Commander D.B. Wyburd and Lieut.-Col. Durnford-Slater were busy trying to make out the coastline horizon six miles ahead of them. In the minutes approaching 0345 hours, however, the SGB5 noticed a convoy of small German craft approaching fast from the north. They at first believed these ships to be nothing more than tugboats undergoing routine excursions during the night; that is, until they noticed the ships were continuing to move closer. In due time, the convoy's eventual discovery of the flotilla would spell a disastrous undoing for the entire operation.

The Alerted Convoy and Unreceived Warnings

The convoy they had seen on the northern horizon, however, was not a band of small tugboats leaving a nearby harbor to undergo mine-laying procedures. It was actually a group on course to Dieppe for a number of hours. Around 2200 hours, as August 18th came to a close, a German convoy of five motor ships and three wooden submarine chasers left the port of Boulogne heading south towards Dieppe. Under the command of Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Wurmbach, the convoy's main intention was to transfer between the ports for safe haven. However, because von Rundstedt declared August 19th to be a specific date for high enemy alerts, it is likely that the convoy also left its homeport that night with the purpose of patrolling the French coastlines for Allied ship movement.

The appearance of the convoy may have caught the Yellow beach flotillas by surprise, but its approach had actually been detected hours before the two groups intersected. At 0130 hours (1:30 a.m.), British radar stations first spotted these ships proceeding south along the French coast. An immediate report of this surveillance was transmitted to the Jubilee naval force, although none of the ships were able to receive this message. Between 0230 and 0300 hours (2:30-3:00 a.m.), the radar stations sent a second report on their findings to the armada. This time, it managed to be picked up by the HMS Fernie and several other ships. All of these ships, however, failed to forward the received message to the HMS Calpe (the fleet's HQ ship). Thus, with little to no knowledge of the convoy approaching, the far edge of the naval force maintained a steady pace up to the moment each group's identity was introduced by means of a naval flare (Leasor 122-124; Mellor 30; Ford 30).

The Star Shell that Foiled Jubilee's Secrecy

Around 0300 hours, as they inched through the waters off Berneval's outer coastline, Lieut. Wurmbach stood aboard the convoy's lead ship when he first spotted a large group of ships several miles ahead. Their identity unknown to him, Wurmbach lit a signal beacon in order to receive a response. When none immediately came, he dismissed it as a minor setback plaguing the other fleet and decided to leave the beacon lit for a limited period or until a response had been returned. When a this period neared its limit, Wurmbach stood by his proposed dismissals and chose to wait an extended period for a return signal. By 0345 hours, when a response still did not come from the "unknown" ships, he finally deemed these dismissals unlikely and considered it possible that the ships were not from a friendly force. Taking steps of precaution, Wurmbach ordered all convoy boats to put their guns on armed alert. Once all were on complete alert, a star shell was shot into the night sky and illuminated the Allied ships in front of them.

At 0347 hours, when both groups were able to view each other under the flare's lighting, a hail of gunfire exploded from each side. Due to its position, the SGB5 was one of the first ships to be severely damaged during the ongoing naval skirmish. Its radio system had been destroyed by one of the first shots fired at it, making the ship incapable of warning the Calpe about the loss of surprise attack. It also made them unable to call for aid from the HMS Brocklesby and ORP Slazak, the two destroyers closest to Group 5. Means of communication aboard the two leading German ships had also been disabled early by immediate shelling. With only one sub chaser left and all radio systems unavailable to alert German operators, Lieut. Wurmbach made the decision to withdraw the convoy under heavy fire to the Dieppe port. There he would rush to confirm the incident (and warn of what was coming) to German officials who could see it from the headlands and beaches along the Dieppe coast (Leasor 122-124; Mellor 30-32).

The Issued State of Alert

By 0400 hours LCF 1 and ML346 had managed to enter the fray, sinking one chaser escort while setting another ablaze. Still, the two Allied escort ships would suffer as much damage and crew casualties as the SGB5 had. In addition, up to four LCPs were forced to turn back due also to severe damage and high casualty rates aboard each craft. At 0430 hours, the leaders of Group 5 (Wyburd, Durnford-Slater, and Capt. Roy Murray) decided to transfer onto one of these LCPs with the intention of reaching the HMS Calpe. There, hoping to avert the mission, they would tell General Roberts of what occurred and that the fleet's presence had been discovered. The LCPs that remained were split up into groups that clustered around the individual escort craft. Following the crippled SGB5 were five LCPs, while another three LCPs remained with LCF 1 as they followed the retreating German ships. After the four damaged LCPs turned back, however, a total of fifteen LCPs were accounted for prior to the German convoy's withdrawal. An additional seven LCPs, along with ML346, had suddenly gone missing.

Meanwhile, a Freya radar station located in Pourville happened to pick up large groups of ships unidentifiable to them. When the star shells lit up over the waters it faced and the exchange of gunfire began, the station observed that the large groups belonged to an Allied fleet. Within an hour, the station's C.O. sent out a call to the 302nd Divisional HQ at Envermeu (its actual location) stating that specific beaches along the coastline were being bombarded. Sensing that an invasion was underway, Lieut.-Gen. Konrad Haase gave the order for all stationed Army troops and Luftwaffe squadrons nearby to be put on immediate alert. He would also put on standby alert the reserve forces stationed at all inland towns, in order to make all reinforcements available in case of an overwhelming attack. To make support from artillery available, this order of alert would also be issued to the heavy gun batteries scattered throughout the area. At the Yellow Beaches of Berneval however, just as its scarce defense troops took up their posts, a total of eight Allied craft had appeared on the horizon line and were approaching the shores quickly (Leasor 126-130; Mellor 30-32; Ford 40-43).

- - -

Copyright © 2005 Pete Bublitz.

Written by Pete Bublitz.  If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Pete Bublitz at:

About the author: Pete Bublitz, whose first and middle names are Jonathan Peter, is an undergraduate student enrolled at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. His main school-based interest, in terms of courses, is to take up a history major among others. His personal interests include, but are not limited to, getting lost, music, comedy, and last but not least history.

Published online: 07/23/2005.

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