The Dieppe Raid: Telling and Retelling

By Mike Bechthold

Originally published in The Dorchester Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Autumn-Winter 2018, pp. 38-41.

 

THE DIEPPE RAID of 19 August 1942 is the subject more discussion, research, writing, and controversy than almost any other event in Canadian military history. This is especially striking considering the short, disastrous nature of the event. Canadian historians, along with those in the UK, Germany, and US, have written dozens of books and articles examining the raid from multiple perspectives. Documentaries and film dramas abound. Planning, training, political dimensions, fighting on the beaches, the war in the air, the German view, the British commandos, the American Rangers, the medical treatment of casualties, and the experience of the those captured have been examined in detail. More has been written about the Canadian campaign in Normandy, but considering its pivotal nature and 5,500 fatal Canadian casualties, our historical understanding of Normandy is greatly under-served when compared to Dieppe. Why is this the case? What is it about the raid that continues to capture Canadians’ attention? As recently as 2013, David O’Keefe’s insightful book was a national best-seller, nominated for multiple awards.

More than 76 years after the failure of Operation Jubilee judgements still flow about the raid while controversy swirls about responsibility for the debacle and the meaning of it all. Ron Beal landed with the Royal Regiment of Canada at Puys, the bloodiest of the beaches. Like many Canadians that day, his war was short. He made it safely to the seawall while most of his mates were knocked down by German machine-gun and mortar fire. Once there, they could do little more than wait to surrender and spend the next 33 months as the guest of the Führer. After the war Beal struggled to make sense of his experience and felt the raid served no purpose; they were “just thrown away.” Before his death in October 2018, Beal re-evaluated his view of the raid based on O’Keefe’s book and was overwhelmed by the new evidence. Choking back tears he mused, “now I can die in peace. Now I know what my friends died for.” It is clear there is still much to be learned about Dieppe. This short article will examine some of the major (and minor) works on Dieppe, and indicate areas deserving new, or better, research.

 

C. P. STACEY, the doyen of Canadian military history, set a high bar for all other studies of Dieppe. As the official historian, he wrote his first account just days after the raid, authored the first public article of the operation, and continued to research and chronicle the failed raid for the rest of the war. Overall, he wrote 17 reports during and shortly after the war and attempted to collect as much information about the raid as possible to understand it. His reports remain an unsurpassed resource for any future study. Stacey would ultimately write one of the best treatments in the official history, one that still holds up today.

The histories which followed fall into two categories: orthodox and revisionist. In the former category, Terence Robertson’s book presents a traditional account, a balance between planning and execution of Operation Jubilee. Though one of the first detailed histories, it is an uneven attempt. Stacey, reviewing it for the Globe and Mail, considered it sensationalist and careless. T. Murray Hunter, a member of Stacey’s Army Historical Section, has written an outstanding account, succinct and even-handed. For a variety of reasons, it is the best place to start your research into the operation.

Denis and Shelagh Whitaker have written another essential book on the raid. A quarterback for the Hamilton Tigers before the war, Whitaker was a highly-decorated officer and a veteran of the Dieppe raid. His citation for the Distinguished Service Order received for his actions during the raid is worth quoting:

Capt. Whitaker commanded the Protective Platoon of battalion headquarters, Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, during the operation at Dieppe 19 Aug 42: The task of this party was to clear the building around St. Remy church and there establish Bn HQ. Capt. Whitaker landed with the first wave, directed the cutting of both rows of wire on the beach and organized the necessary covering fire for “B” Company’s advance on the Casino. He himself then proceeded to the Casino with his party where, after clearing the building and organizing a defence against counter-attack, he led a large party of all elements of the Bn towards the town. Later he directed the withdrawal of a great portion of the battalion from the town and Casino to the beach and supervised their re-embarkation. Capt. Whitaker’s conduct throughout the action was outstanding. He was at all times cool and collected and displayed great courage and initiative in the command of his troops. Capt. Whitaker was an inspiration to all ranks of the Bn.

The Whitakers’ book is a well-written appraisal which seeks to understand and justify its cost, not a surprising direction from someone who was there. In the final chapter they seek to directly link failure at Dieppe to success on D-Day. This is an issue that will be explored in more detail below.

The first of the revisionist books, by John P. Campbell, is one of the strongest yet written. Published in 1993, he takes advantage of the release of archival material which allows a more in-depth examination of issues such as radar and intelligence from previously classified sources. Released just after the Whitakers’ book, Campbell devotes an entire chapter to severing the direct connection between Dieppe and D-Day.

Controversy and Dieppe go hand-in-hand. Over the years, numerous conspiracy theories emerged and were then dismissed. Peruse the CBC Digital Archives and you will quickly get a sense of the public debate over the years: “Peter Mansbridge leads a discussion on the fact and fiction behind a controversial new dramatization of the Dieppe raid,” “Francophones Snubbed by Dieppe Book,” “Conspiracy Theory Blames British For Selling Out Canadians,” “Did the Germans See Dieppe Invasion Coming?” and “Who was Responsible for Dieppe?” are just a few. Campbell discounts many of these viewpoints in his book but some continue to have traction in our understanding of the raid.

 

 

ONE OF THE MOST contentious books about the raid is Brian Loring Villa’s Unauthorized Action. He contends that Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Chief of Combined Operations, ordered the raid to be executed on his own authority. Villa believes that neither Churchill nor the other chiefs of staff were aware of or had consented to Operation Jubilee. This is a difficult case to prove and is based on the absence of a paper record from Churchill ordering the raid to be carried out. Villa’s argument does not convince many historians, but his painstaking analysis of the planning remains unsurpassed. Another contentious book is the demi-official history written by Brereton Greenhous which presents an uncompromisingly critical interpretation. Greenhous argues that the plans for Jubilee, and an earlier plan named Rutter, were fatally flawed; that inexperienced Canadian troops did not fight well, and that no worthwhile lessons were learned. He concludes that only gross German incompetence could have resulted in the success of the Dieppe operation.

Respected aviation historian Norman Franks has written a book about the air war over Dieppe. It is a fitting topic for discussion given that it was the largest one-day fighter battle of the war. The British committed 77 fighter and bomber squadrons and over 1,000 aircraft. Nine RCAF squadrons took part and Canadian pilots and aircrew served throughout the RAF units involved. Franks’ book is largely a narrative of the events that day, but offers a sense of the important place of the air battle.

Other notable books include a well-illustrated history of the Calgary Tanks at Dieppe by Hugh Henry and a range of regimental histories of the units involved. One of the most recent is Donald Graves’ history of the Royal Regiment of Canada. It provides a detailed account of the Royals’ terrible experience at Puys where they suffered an 88% casualty rate, the highest single-day loss of any Canadian regiment in the Second World War. Of particular interest is an appendix which addresses an informal Royal Navy report that some of the men of the Royals were yellow and had to be forced off the landing craft at the point of a revolver.

 

Villa’s case against Mountbatten does not convince many historians, but his painstaking analysis of the planning remains unsurpassed

 

IN ADDITION TO the monographs about Dieppe, there are many excellent articles and unpublished theses. These are far too numerous to list, but a few can be highlighted here. Over the years, Canadian Military History, based at Wilfrid Laurier University, published over a dozen major articles on the raid. Béatrice Richard on the French-Canadian myth of Dieppe, David Hall on the German view, Caroline D’Amours on training, and David Stubbs and Ross Mahoney on air aspects are just a few of the recent studies which shed new light. Two noteworthy unpublished theses include a study on the long-term effects of the raid on 2nd Canadian Infantry Division by Kevin Connolly and a damning investigation of the lack of naval gunfire support for the amphibious assault by Brian Begbie.

In spite of all that has been written to date, there is still much to learn about the Dieppe Raid. One of the biggest missing pieces in our understanding of the raid is context. So much of what has been written focuses intently on the planning and events of 19 August 1942. But what did it all mean? How did the raid fit into the wider story of the Second World War?

The obvious answer, and one frequently supported by historians, is that the failure of Dieppe led directly to the successful invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944. Lieutenant-General Harry Crerar, commander of First Canadian Army, was one of the first to make this link in his message to the troops on the eve of D-Day:

The plans, the preparations, the methods and the technique, which will be employed, are based on knowledge and experience, bought and paid for by 2 Canadian Division at DIEPPE. The contribution of that hazardous operation cannot be over-estimated. It will prove to have been the essential prelude to our forthcoming and final success.

The first public mention of this connection was made in The Times in early August 1944 when Cyril Falls, a British army officer and historian, overtly linked Dieppe and D-Day: “Dieppe proved to be the source from which almost every less affecting future operations, and especially the landing in Lower Normandy, was derived.” Stacey was a staunch proponent of this view and changed his view of the importance of Dieppe just a few months after D-Day:

Considered in itself, Operation JUBILEE was merely a comparatively minor and at the same time unsuccessful and extremely costly operation, which was seized upon by many uninformed critics, in the Canadian Parliament and elsewhere, and which in Canada probably did something to shake public confidence in the command of the Canadian Army. Considered against the background of Operation OVERLORD, however Dieppe appears in quite a different light, and it is from this viewpoint primarily that the historian must regard it.

Dieppe and D-Day will probably forever be linked in the Canadian imagination. Denis Whitaker meticulously tracked every failure at Dieppe and showed how it was corrected during the 1944 invasion of France. The adage “correlation does not imply causation” is particularly apt. There is no doubt that planners corrected many of the faults of Jubilee in time for Overlord, but a straight-line connection does not exist. Rather, experience was gained incrementally through a series of assault landings following Dieppe — Operations Torch (North Africa), Husky (Sicily), Avalanche (Salerno), and Shingle (Anzio), not to mention the many contested landings in the Pacific. The direct links between the two operations are tenuous and much more needs to be done to understand the complex development of Allied amphibious warfare doctrine and tactics in the Second World War.

Another attempt at contextualizing the raid was recently offered by David O’Keefe, first in his television documentary “Dieppe Uncovered” (2012) and later refined in his best-selling book, One Day in August. O’Keefe makes the compelling argument that the Dieppe raid was staged to provide cover for an intelligence mission or “pinch operation” to steal German naval code books related to the new four-rotor Enigma machine. The Allies had cracked the original three-rotor cipher early in the war, but the addition of the extra wheel drastically complicated the task.

O’Keefe makes a compelling case that the Dieppe Raid was staged to provide cover for a ‘pinch operation’ to steal Enigma naval code books

 

"ULTRA" — THE CODENAME for Enigma intelligence — was a closely-held Allied secret not officially acknowledged until the early 1970s. It is not surprising that the role of a secret unit tasked with capturing German intelligence material was also kept out of the history books. O’Keefe is one of the first historians to shed light on the role of a special commando outfit, known as 30 Assault Unit, at Dieppe. The documentary and book also explore the involvement of Commander Ian Fleming, later the inventor of super-spy “James Bond,” who coordinated the actions of this commando force at Dieppe. Fleming was present off the coast of Dieppe during the raid and like the operation in general, 30 Assault Unit did not succeed in its mission, but the revelation of this mission by O’Keefe greatly enriches our understanding of the raid. He has given us our first truly new understanding of the raid in more than 70 years.

Perhaps the greatest value of O’Keefe’s research is the justification for the late commitment of two reserve units — Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal and Royal Marine “A” Commando. C.P. Stacey muses in the official history that, “perhaps the General [Major-General Hamilton Roberts, commander of 2nd Canadian Infantry Division and senior army commander at Dieppe] was unwise in persisting in reinforcing the beaches at this stage; yet deceptively encouraging intelligence was still being received.” Denis Whitaker goes so far as to say Roberts lost control of the battle at this point.

However, Roberts would have known about the importance of the Enigma pinch mission, the only component of the raid which could immediately impact the course of the war. This makes a late gamble to accomplish the mission understandable and shows that Roberts had a better grasp on the battle than has previously been acknowledged. It does not absolve him of his unfortunate quip before the battle — “Don’t worry men, it’ll be a piece of cake!” — which for years resulted in the delivery of baked goods to his house on the anniversary of the raid. But, it does mean that his commitment, and the subsequent destruction, of two battalions at a point where the overall battle had been lost must be viewed in a different light.

In 1946 Stacey reflected on the burden of the official historian:

What a weight of responsibility, then, falls upon those people who, with what must seem almost incredible temerity and presumption, take it upon themselves to write the history of that Army! It is no light thing to venture, the making of a book worthy of the men who fought the lonely battle at Hong Kong and waged the grim encounter on the shingle of Dieppe; … It is for us to ensure that their countrymen do not forget the things they did. It will not be easy to find words to tell the story.

Dieppe has not been forgotten; the story has not been easily told, but there are more words yet to be found.

 

Originally published in The Dorchester Review, Vol. 8, No. 2, Autumn-Winter 2018, pp. 38-41.

 


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