Here in Canada, few historical events from World War II inspire as much anger, sadness, and remembrance than the anniversary of the Dieppe Raid. It was 70 years ago today that Canadian Forces, in what was to be the first offensive of the war, attacked the European coastline near the small French town of Dieppe. The raid, as it was classified, was a total failure, resulting in 913 dead, almost 3000 captured, and countless more wounded. Out of the nearly 5000 men who went in, less than half made it home.
Countless French people welcomed them by hanging Canadian flags from their balconies and volunteering to show them about town. For the locals, honoring the veterans who fell while trying to liberate their town has become a way of life, similar to the Belgian people of Ypres and the Dutch who honor how Canadian forces liberated their country in 1944.
Naturally, when these veterans tell their stories again to reporters or the many who wabted to hear them, they conveyed some rather mixed emotions. There were moments of anger and pride intermixed with a general tone of lament, and in that respect, they are joined by all Canadians who remember. Even now, 70 years later, there is still ample speculation about the Dieppe raid.
Taking place in 1942, during the height of the war when the Allies were still on the losing end, the planned raid on Dieppe represented the culmination of many hopes, fears, and political considerations. For over a year, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had been asking – in fact, pleading – with the Allies for a Second Front in Europe that would take pressure off the Russian forces. Ever since the Germans moved into his country roughly a year before, Russians were dying by the millions and the Red Army was struggling to hold them back.
At the same time, the Allies had been contemplating plans for the liberation of France ever since it had been overrun two years earlier. For the British and French, the memories of the summer of 1940, beginning with the invasion of Belgium, the outflanking maneuver through the Ardennes Forest, the fall of Paris and the evacuation of Dunkirk, were still phantoms they wanted to dispel. With Germany pushed out of France, the Allies would have a major ally back in the fight and put an end to Germany’s expansion, which had continued unabated since the war began.
And last, the Canadian Armed Forces were desperate to get into battle, hoping to demonstrate some of the same zeal that had popularized their forces in World War I. And with the US finally entering the war on the Allied side, there was an added push to score a victory before the Yanks got in and claimed all the glory 😉 A commando-style raid against a section of the Atlantic Wall seemed like just the thing to bolster morale and show the world that the Canadian Expeditionary Force was still a force to be feared!
Ultimately, the raid was a failure for numerous reasons, all of which proved intrinsic to helping the Allies draft Operation Overlord – the invasion of Normandy – roughly two years later. First off, the raid had little support to speak of. Aside from the 5000 men and tanks heading onto the coastline, their were very ships ships and aircraft standing by to blast German positions and take on the coastal defenses.
Second, the planners did not take into account the challenging terrain along the beaches. Rather than being sandy shores, they were composed of tiny little rocks which played havoc with tank treads, making them virtually useless. As a result, the Canadian soldiers found themselves running into German machine guns and mortar positions with no cover or support.
Third, the plan was changed over and over again so that less and less forces would be committed to the fold. This led many to question whether the raid would even have enough men or firepower to achieve their mission. However, Allied planners dismissed these objections by emphasizing that the attackers would have the element of surprise. That was not the case though, since Allied Command had been publicizing the attack for some time before it happened.
In short, the mission was the perfect recipe for failure, leading some to speculate that that had been the goal all along. With Stalin pleading for a Second Front and the Allies unable to convince him that they were not ready, some claimed that Dieppe was meant to fail as a way of illustrating their point.
In addition, new evidence is being brought to light that suggests that the raid was a diversion for a covert operation that involved commandos attacking the secret German naval headquarters in the town in order to capture a working model Germany’s new four-rotor Enigma machine and their most recent code books. At the head of this operation, so the argument runs, was Mr. Ian Fleming himself, the man who would later create James Bond.
A very interesting interpretation, and which explains quite clearly why the raid was so publicized. In keeping with Allied counterintelligence plays, it was customary to let the Germans know exactly what they were doing in the hopes that they would chomp at the bit and not realize it was a feint to cover their true aims.
What’s more, if this latter interpretation should prove to be true, it would mean that politics and incompetence was not the reason for the Dieppe Raid. Instead, it would have been a vital intelligence mission which went wrong for a number of reasons. However, this still would not change the fact that the operational planning suffered from the fact that the raid failed to take into accounts some key problems. Nor would it change the outcome.
In any case, some good did come out of the operation. Four months after the raid, the Allies managed to crack the 4-wheel Enigma code and went back to winning the intelligence war. In addition, Soviet Forces began to defeat the Germans on all fronts and initiated the slow process of pushing them back into their old stomping grounds. And in the Mediterrenean and North Africa, the German Navy and Afrika Corps began to get their asses kicked.
But most importantly of all was the operation that would succeed where Dieppe had failed. Taking on June 6th of 1944 in the Normandy region of France, Operation Overlord was the largest invasion in history, and several key factors had been adapted from the Dieppe Raid. In addition to committing all kinds of men, materiel, ships, and planes to a cohesive, multi-phased invasion plan, the Allies also conducted a vast counter-intelligence operation well in advance to trick the Germans into thinking that their real invasion force would be coming in the Pas de Calais region.
So today, like all good Canadians, I wish to honor the veterans who are currently overseas, receiving their well-deserved honors and recounting the historic Dieppe Raid that they took part in so many years later. I’d also like to salute those soldiers who are no longer with us, many of whom were wounded, captured and forced to spend the rest of the war in army hospitals and German POW camps. And I would especially like to pay tribute to those who didn’t make it back, who died on those rocky shores as the result of either politics and ineptitude, or desperation and intrigue.
Even after 70 years, surely we must be learning something from all this…