“Operation Jubilee. Dieppe, 1942: The Folly and the Sacrifice” by Patrick Bishop (published by Penguin Books)

Blundering into a bloodbath

In the wider context of a world war spilling blood on three continents, the quick Allied raid on the French Channel port of Dieppe on August 18, 1942 was a minor episode compared with what was to follow. But it was big at this stage in the conflict and has gone down in history variously described as a fiasco, a debacle, a disaster and any other synonym in between.
3. September 2022 8:32

The cold facts: of roughly 6000 troops who embarked on the flotilla, 3625 were killed, wounded or captured, making Operation Jubilee proportionately among the worst losses suffered in a single operation in the whole six-year Allied war in Western Europe.

The raid, as author Patrick Bishop narrates, was an Ill-conceived assault on a strongly defended sector. The steep pebble beach could pose fatal problems underfoot and for tracked vehicles. It was strung with barbed wire and the promenade was studded with concrete pillboxes bristling with machine guns.  The town was easy to defend, lying in a 1.6-kilometre cleft in a natural rampart of chalk cliffs that reared up like castle walls.

The two headlands held artillery batteries and machine-gun and mortar posts. Caves in the cliff faces hid guns on rails that were difficult to spot and virtually impossible to hit. The narrow streets contained anti-tank guns and barriers. There were 14,000 mines around. What’s more, an Allied bombardment of Rouen, 64 kilometres south, had put the Germans on the alert: they suspected something was brewing. “Tommy” was coming.

The Germans thus had great vantage points, a near-perfect system of interlocking arcs of fire that combined to generate a maelstrom of bullets and shells which, unless preceded by  a shattering Allied bombardment – and this wasn’t – should stop dead any frontal assault.

Why, then, this largest amphibious assault that Britain had attempted since the humiliation of being driven from the continent at Dunkirk in May-June 1940? Bishop’s book is not the first about the assault on Dieppe but it is being credited as probably the fullest. He has first-hand testimony from combatants and civilians – British, Canadian, American, French and German –  and he analyses the roles of the key players who devised the scheme, particularly Lord Louis Mountbatten and General Bernard Montgomery.

Almost no one who took part is still alive, so here are the facts as found in official documents, contemporary accounts and post-facto recollections and memoirs.

As Bishop explains, much more than straightforward military considerations were at stake on that fateful night. Britain was at a crucial new phase of its war, seeking both to impress and restrain its new American allies while managing a tortuous partnership with the Soviet Union. Faith in Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his coalition government was waning, and he needed to keep both Joseph Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt happy.

In the two and a half years since the war began, British troops had failed to win a single battle against the Germans. Having been thrown out of Norway, Belgium, France, Greece, Hong Kong and Singapore, they were now struggling to defend Egypt against the Afrika Korps led by Erwin Rommel. The national spirit was suffering a malaise and needed a pick-me-up.

Stalin was demanding a military intervention in the West, the opening of a “second front” that would force the Germans to divert major resources away from the Eastern Front. And after Pearl Harbour the US would be providing the bulk of the troops, the materiel and the money to make victory possible. American needed to be kept sweet. Britain was saved but the price was autonomy and when America spoke, she had to listen. The Americans believed that the longer a continental invasion was delayed, the greater the likelihood that the Soviet Union would either collapse or be forced to seek terms with Hitler. Churchill favoured taking the fight to North Africa first.

The pressure for action from Washington and Moscow meant that the British chiefs of staff needed some sort of major operation no matter how wasteful or illogical. Various plans were put forward at Combined Operations Headquarters (COHQ), under the command of Mountbatten, a man wealthy and high-born but hungry for success and obsessed with titles and ranks. The uniforms he loved to wear were ludicrously encrusted with decorations and orders, Bishop writes. Still, he was a serious person and phenomenally energetic.

COHQ had successes and failures with various raids on the French coast, then came Dieppe where the defences were said to be  “tough but not too tough” and Operation Jubliee would be a “rehearsal  for re-invasion”. In reality little about the target made sense. A one-day hit-and-run would do nothing to divert German troops from Russia. But it might drag the wary Luftwaffe  into an attritional showdown with the RAF that could conceivably force the Germans to switch air assets from the East.

There would be a lack of heavy-calibre naval firepower, with the Admiralty not willing to risk anything bigger than a destroyer. Bomber Command had other preoccupations and a preliminary aerial bombardment might only result in putting the Germans on the alert. Plus there were political and practical problems in bombing French towns.

So went the considerations but no one pulled the plug on the “party”, as such offensives were lightly known. It had been decided that Canadians trrops would make up much of the assault force, and they were hot to fight after long periods of training and boredom in Britain, away from their families. “You bet we want it” summed up one Canadian attitude to the attack.

Thus on the warm night of August 18, 1942 the armada of 237 vessels of one type and another  with 6088 troops set out. The theory was to take the town, knocking out the strongpoints and pillboxes and sniper nests one by one. Then the specialist teams would demolish infrastructure and stores, raid headquarters, capture prisoners and seize 40-odd invasion barges and “secret documents”. Enigma machines and code books were particularly valued.

It was a multitude of tasks with a vast array of targets, including railways, marshalling yards, tunnels, bridges and locks, a pharmaceutical factory, food stores and petrol dumps. The gasworks, power station and main telephone exchange were also listed, though the destruction of these would cause as much  grief to the inhabitants as it would to the enemy.

Pride demanded a success but the operation’s fate rested to a large degree on good fortune. The favourable tide and moon conditions meant the Germans were on heightened alert. When the flotilla ran into a small German convoy in the darkness the resulting sea skirmish further removed the element of surpise.  Bishop details in full the bloodbath that followed.

Basically it was a raid for the sake of raiding. On the face of it nothing linked Dieppe to the imperatives of the day. Unlike Saint-Nazaire, Brest and the other U-boat bases on the Atlantic, it had no military significance and was merely a  port of call for coastal convoys. Destroying it completely would do nothing to reduce Germany’s war-making capacity.  Nor was a division-strength raid of short duration likely to result in any significant shift of enemy troops away from the death grapple on the Eastern Front.

Afterwards came the scramble by those responsible to distance themselves from the fiasco, the debacle, the disaster. There was a spinning of the narrative to present Dieppe as a carefully planned preparation for the Normandy landings in June 1944. If Dieppe had been a success, says Bishop, the victory would have had many fathers. As a  failure it was an orphan and the key participants fell over each other in the rush to deny paternity.

From the day the operation ended until the end of his life, Mountbatten attempted to hijack the Julilee narrative, hammering away at the construction of a legend to present it as a calculated sacrifice in which the losses, which he routinely downplayed, taught hard lessons which were triumphantly justified on D-Day. He made the case so often that it sometimes seems  that the main person he was trying to convince was himself, Bishop says.

Montgomery also was attuned to accounts of his role, intervening brazenly when he thought his  reputation was threatened, expressing astonishment that there had been no aerial bombardment before the raid, which later was held to have helped doom the enterprise, yet it was he who chaired the meeting at which the fateful decision had been made.

The two leaders believed themselves to be men of destiny and had been building their own myrths virtually since the day they first put on uniform.  Dieppe marred the heroic canvas depicting their wartime achievements.

Accusations and recriminations would pursue the planners down the years. Churchill told the House of Commons three weeks after the raid that it had been “an indispensible preliminary to full-scale operations”.

But whichever way you looked at it, concludes Bishop, little about the unnecessary slaughter that was Dieppe made sense.

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