British and Canadian prisoners of war
When the survivors of Operation Jubilee struggled to describe the disaster that engulfed them, they made history. The beaches of Dieppe, littered with crooked and smoking wreckage of landing craft and tanks and littered with the dead and crippled, recalled a notorious military disaster of the previous century.
Lieutenant Malcolm Buist, a naval officer escorting troops to the fire-swept shore, recalled immediately afterwards: “It wasn’t long before I realized that the landing had to be parallel to the sea of the the light brigade.
It was an understatement. At Dieppe in August 1942, 6,000 men were sent into the mouth of death rather than the 670 or so who loaded the Russian guns at Balaclava in 1854. Before long, no comparison was necessary and Dieppe alone was a metaphor for bloody futility.
In a few hours on a hot summer morning, the pleasant port of La Manche and holiday resort has turned into a vision of hell. Of the mostly Canadian ground troops that participated, 3,625 were killed, wounded or captured. News of the raid was greeted with bemusement by military experts and civilians. What was the point? Who was responsible for its planning and how did it all go so tragically wrong?
At first glance, Dieppe was an unattractive target. It had no strategic significance and was strongly defended.
But in the spring of 1942, enormous political pressure was exerted on Winston Churchill and his warlords, which transcended mere military considerations.
Mountbatten went to his grave claiming the Dieppe raid was a necessary sacrifice
America was now on our side, but the partnership meant we had to listen to Washington’s demands – and the main one was for the Allies to stage a full-scale invasion of Europe that year.
At the same time, our Russian allies were imploring the opening of a “second front” in the west to bring them some relief and prevent a collapse in the east.
Churchill and the Chiefs of Staff were united in the belief that they were far from ready to launch D-Day and that a premature operation would have almost turned the chain into a total failure. They were determined not to give in to the demands of Washington and Moscow.
But they had to do something to show their will, and Dieppe, which was within reach of the RAF fighters, seemed as good a place as any.
It is in this pragmatic atmosphere that Dieppe was conceived – and it must be seen first and foremost as a political and propaganda exercise.
In this regard, the man chosen to lead it was the ideal candidate for the job. Lord Louis Mountbatten was wealthy, extremely well connected, conceited and ambitious.
He was also hardworking and an excellent communicator who had endeared himself to Churchill for his optimism and dynamic approach.
The Prime Minister had appointed him chief of combined operations whose task was to prepare for the possible invasion and, in the meantime, to launch a succession of amphibious raids on the continent to boost the morale of the country and make known to the world l aggressive spirit of Great Britain.
Mountbatten has made the combined operations HQ in her image, surrounding herself with her friends on the social circuit and the polo field and endowing the office with pretty, well-born young women.
Things had started well with a spectacular commando raid on St Nazaire to destroy the giant dry dock and deprive Hitler Tirpitz’s last battleship of a berth if it ever burst to threaten Allied shipping in the Atlantic.
But since then, Combined Operations has suffered a series of disappointments with one major raid aborted and several canceled. Dieppe gave Mountbatten and his men a chance to get back into the limelight.
German troops inspect stricken tank landing craft
The raid would be the largest amphibious assault of the war. A large force supported for the first time by tanks would disembark, capture the city and return home, all within a day.
The troops chosen for the job were units of the 2nd Canadian Division. Their commanders, Generals Andy McNaughton and Harry Crerar, were eager to impress the British and threw themselves behind the project even though they had not been involved in its design.
The plan was a mess from the start. It was the work of many hands and offered a ridiculously ambitious list of goals and a hopelessly optimistic timeline.
Tasks included destroying enemy positions, capturing headquarters, seizing prisoners and intelligence equipment, including Enigma machines and code books.
Topping the list was a bizarre plan to seize hundreds of barges once intended for the abandoned German invasion of Britain and tow them to Britain. The barges were of no value to the British war effort.
Such scenes of devastation gave the Nazis a propaganda shot
Worse yet, the planners decided that the main axis of the attack should be a direct assault on the beaches in front of the city, even if that was where the enemy defenses were strongest.
The idea was that the guns overlooking the waterfront could be silenced by preliminary flank attacks. However, the designated troops only had half an hour to do the job.
The information was spotty. It was in the hands of an amateur, the Marquis de Casa Maury, a pre-war racing driver and close to Mountbatten.
He relied almost entirely on aerial reconnaissance to get a feel for the defenses. These failed to identify the guns hidden in the cliffs overlooking the city, which would establish a deadly curtain of fire when the assault began.
No serious attempt was made to uncover the makeup of the town beach – vital given that this was where the armor would go ashore.
Churchill heavy tanks conducted pre-operational exercises on the south coast. But the pebbles there had little to do with the Dieppe cricket-sized pebbles, which would literally stop a number of tanks in their tracks that day.
Doubts about the wisdom of the operation mounted as July approached when the raid was due to be launched.
However, political considerations outweighed caution. It was a great relief for many when the excruciating weather caused the cancellation of the first attempt.
It was assumed that the Germans would soon learn what had been planned and that the raid would be canceled forever.
However, Mountbatten persuaded Churchill and the top brass to pull him back up, arguing that the enemy would never think the Allies would be mad enough to attack the same location again.
Thus in the early hours of August 19, an immense armada closed on the chalky ramparts around Dieppe.
The complex plan began to fall apart when a flotilla struck an enemy coastal convoy and a firefight erupted, lighting up the night and destroying the element of surprise that was at the heart of success.
Four of the six places the troops landed quickly became killing zones where the Germans slaughter the attackers at will.
The worst was Blue Beach, just east of Dieppe, where the men of the Royal Canadian Regiment faced a high seawall covered with machine guns.
As the landing craft’s bow doors collapsed, the leading troops entered a blizzard of bullets and mortar shells.
The scene after the surrender was described by one of the few survivors, Jack Poolton: “There were boots with feet in them. There were legs. There were pieces of flesh. There were guts. There were heads. It was my regiment …
“It didn’t stop there. Poolton watched a German officer walk on the beach,
“Shoot the worst of the injured Canadians in the forehead … I thought Almighty God, is there no end to this massacre?” “
The magnitude of the disaster could not conceal.
Two allied captives receiving medical treatment
Government propaganda responded by making Jubilee an experiment designed to test how to go about launching the real invasion of Europe.
The sacrifice, it was claimed, was justified by the lessons learned, which would be applied with great success on D-Day.
This was the line strongly promoted by Mountbatten until its last day. Of all the architects of the debacle, he bears the greatest responsibility, not least for his insistence that the raid be reassembled after the initial cancellation.
Why was he so determined to continue? The answer, I believe, lies in his enormous vanity and enduring thirst for fame, which drove almost everything he did.
He and his organization needed success to keep their star in the ascendant and Jubilee was the only game in town at the time.
The catastrophe threatened to leave a stain on how history would judge Mountbatten, and he never stopped trying to rewrite events to present Dieppe as an unfortunate necessity. It wasn’t such a thing.
Almost all of the lessons he claimed to have resulted could have been worked out with a little military common sense without having to waste a thousand lives.
As dire as Dieppe undoubtedly was, there were some uplifting features.
Most notable was the incredible heroism of so many participants – men like Captain John Foote, chaplain of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry who landed with the troops and repeatedly braved machine guns and mortars to fire the wounded at covered – a feat that won him the Victoria Cross. There were many such selfless acts, shining points in an otherwise dark story.
Operation Jubilee: Dieppe, 1942: The Folly and the Sacrifice by Patrick Bishop (Viking, £ 20) is now available.
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