Book Review: Allies At Dieppe, 4 Commando and the US Rangers: Operation Cauldron By: Will Fowler

Allies At Dieppe, 4 Commando and the US Rangers: Operation Cauldron Written By Will Fowler. Osprey Publishing, UK, 2012. Digital Release available on Amazon, iTunes, & NOOK Books

Review by: Ben Sparks, 

The Commando Raid on Dieppe, France, August 19, 1942, codenamed Operation Jubilee, was one of the first major attempts undertaken by British and Allied forces before the June 6th landings of D-Day 1944, to attack the Nazi’s. The US Rangers among the other more numerous British and Commonwealth forces of 4 Commando cut their teeth in Operation Cauldron, one of the only successful actions of the bloody Raid on Dieppe.

While this wasn’t the first operation of the Commandos, the bloodbath at Dieppe became a blemish on the celebrated but heavily critiqued reputation of the special forces units of Britain and the Commonwealth from 1940-1945. Fowler’s Allies at Dieppe, looks to debunk the assumption that the Dieppe Raid was a complete failure, narrating the operations of 4 Commando and contrasting that narrative with the training & development, and operational history of the Commandos from 1940-1943.

For many who study the military history of this era, this was a time of high stakes missions, an exciting and dangerous period filled with clandestine and major assault operations with the potential for high casualty rates, the Commandos in particular risking death and capture, potentially even torture or execution at the hands of the German Gestapo or the Waffen SS. Despite some initial failures and the previous lack of a decisive victory for the Commandos in operations launched in Norway and Northern France, which had brought their combat effectiveness into question, the actions of the multi-national 4 Commando, explained in great detail in Allies At Dieppe, exhibits the capabilities of the Commandos and other comparable combined ops forces. 

The battle fought that day between the well entrenched Wehrmacht defenders at Dieppe and the Allies, British & Canadian Commandos, 50 US Rangers, and the Free French of 4 Commando proved ultimately that the Commandos battle experience, versatility and tenacious yet tactical prowess in combat could and would make them an elite fighting force. After Dieppe the British Commandos established essentially the earliest school of thought which was preceded only by the US-Canadian 1st Special Service Force, who saw their first combat experience in Alaska against the Japanese Army 1942-1943 and the SAS, Long Range Desert Group in North Africa fighting against Mussolini’s Italian army and then Rommel, as well as tge Free French commandos and Foreign Legionnaires fighting against the Nazi's. It was 4 Commando and the British or Commonwealth Commandos however who first instilled fear and created chaos for the Wehrmacht earning the Nazi propaganda sobriquet “Churchill’s rats who kill by night.”

The Raid on Dieppe is notable also because it was the first US attempt to invade Europe before Sicily and Normandy in 43’ and 44’ respectively. Of note was the inclusion of a large Canadian contingent at Dieppe, the backbone of the raiding force who subsequently took the highest casualties during the overall operation, including a Canadian tank regiment from Calgary, Alberta that lost all of its vehicles. Besides the diverse group of soldiers in Four Commando, the participation of trained Commando squadrons from various other nations including France and Poland makes the Dieppe Raid one of the first coalition efforts of World War II. Fowler does a commendable job in highlighting the composition, order of battle, and deployment of the multinational force that fought at Dieppe.

US Rangers's, in the background with their Thompson SMG's, train with a British Commando, center, wearing the beret

Operation Cauldron is important to the study of military history because it shows the fighting capabilities of this new (in 1942) type of combined operations force which would become the standard for any modern army by the end of the War and into the Cold War. Allies at Dieppe is such a worthwhile read because it offers a detailed and comprehensive look at the Allied operations and assault on Dieppe, how and why it happened and most importantly what was learned and later exploited or ignored by the Allied nations from 1943-1945.

Fowler does a great job of setting the background to the Dieppe Raid by briefly recounting the major Allied defeats and Axis triumphs of 1942. Overall he explains the Commandos tactics and their place in the War of 1942 and beyond very well. He does an even better job connecting the inter-service, infantry, cavalry (tanks), navy, & Royal Air Force (RAF) collaborative aspects of the Commandos during the raid on Dieppe, as well as the defense efforts of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe forces.

The progenitor of combined operations Sir Roger Keyes is also mentioned, known for commanding the Zeebrugge Raid in Belgium against the occupying German Empire and the Imperial Navy during World War I. Keyes and Lord Louis Mountbatten can be regarded as the creators of British special forces and Keyes was the commander of the Combined Ops HQ until Mountbatten replaced him and then became the leader of the Operation Jubilee. One minor quibble is that this book should have contained a brief comparison of the Zeebrugge Raid in 1918 and the Dieppe Raid in 1942 and how they were similar or different and which was more effective in their respective conflict.

For the British government re-opening the Western Front of 1939-1940 was seen as a top priority from 1940-1943. Later with the help of America and the other Allied militaries this became a possibility however the Western move to create combined ops forces to undertaken such an operation was originally a uniquely British idea during the early years of the war. The greater British desire to “set [Nazi] Europe ablaze”, to harass and attempt to overthrow Nazi rule in occupied Europe before an armada could be staged was a very important factor in the launching of Commando raids before and after Dieppe, though it was a major operations unlike the other efforts.

The strengths of Allies at Dieppe are many; it is a book that has something for everybody from the World War II aficionado, to the casual military history reader, to the warfare academic, and the armchair operational and tactics general, who may enjoy command strategy and order of battles histories. This book is thorough enough even for those who have already read other works on the British Commandos or the history of the Dieppe Raid or Operation Cauldron. Its superb organization and wonderfully deep appendixes, ten of them in all, ranging from the equipment and weapons of the opposing armies to regimental and unit rosters, adds a very substantial amount of bonus material which is most helpful in understanding the battle and its combatants.

One blemish on Fowler’s book is the absence of any pictures or maps of the battle which would only have added to the already substantial depth of this book. Overall Allies at Dieppe and the story of 4 Commando is a complete volume that is also an enjoyable and easy to read eBook, most definitely worth the download onto the Amazon Kindle, iPad, Barnes & Noble Nook or any other compatible devices through Osprey Publishing.

Aftermath of the attempted Raid on Dieppe

Other related and recommended titles from Osprey:

Army Commandos 1940-1945 Elite Series #64 by Mike Chappell

The Block of Zeebrugge-Operation Z-0 1918 Raid 7 by Stephen Prince

British Commandos 1940-1946 Battle Orders #18 by Moreman

Dieppe 1942, Prelude to D-Day Campaign Orders #127 by Ford, Gerrard

Long Range Desert Group Patrolman, The Western Desert 1940–43 Warrior #148 by Moreman, Illustrations: Ruggeri

Front cover photo: US Ranger Sergeant Alex Szima accepts a light from his British comrade following the successful attack on Dieppe. (Imperial War Museum, H 22580)

Lord Mountbatten in 1942