Saturday, August 18, 2012

907 dead Canadians don't make Dieppe a good idea.

"Despite our losses, the raid has been termed a great success." 

Seventy years after the Dieppe Raid, the received wisdom is that it provided essential lessons for the D-Day landings.  What lessons? Germans have guns? It's good to have a plan?  If you have a plan and tell the 5000 soldiers involved, then postpone the whole thing for six weeks, word might leak out to (what are now known as) The Bad Guys?

Winston Churchill on Dieppe.
"On the 17th I received news of the attack on Dieppe, plans for which had been started in April after the brilliant and audacious raid on St. Nazaire." - page 509
"However, I thought it most important that a large-scale operation should take place this summer, and military opinion seemed unanimous that until an operation on that scale was undertaken, no responsible general would take the responsibility of planning for the main invasion." - page 509
Meanwhile back in Moscow, a week previously, Churchill told Stalin:
"We could land six divisions, but the landing of them would be more harmful than helpful, for it would greatly injure the big operation planned for the next year. War was war but not folly, and it would be folly to invite a disaster which would help nobody." - page 479
"Dieppe was a pathetic failure. Sixty years later, it seems obvious that Jubilee was a bizarre operation with no chance of success whatsoever and likely to result in a huge number of casualties." - Juno Beach Centre
“Whether the affair [the Dieppe Raid] was in fact the out-and-out failure which many believed it to be, and if it was, how much responsibility should properly be attributed to Mountbatten are questions which can be answered only if one has decided what it was supposed to achieve. Yet this fundamental question proves extraordinarily difficult to answer. Brian McCool, the Principal Military Landing Officer, was interrogated by the Germans for two days after his capture. At the end he was asked: “Look, McCool, it was too big for a raid and too small for an invasion. What was it?’ ’If you can tell me the answer,’ he replied, ‘I would be very grateful.’”  Philip Ziegler, Mountbatten, New York : Harper & Row, 1986, ©1985, pg 186
The curious thing Churchill did about Dieppe was nothing.

First of all we have the minutes of Churchill’s meeting with Stalin at the Kremlin August 12, 1942, when he gave his frank view on the futility of a Normandy landing, dear to Stalin’s heart, as above. Then we have Churchill’s description, it’s a sales pitch really, for a second front in Italy rather than France. He’s probably right. History supports that he was right. But what about Dieppe?

Is it possible – are we expected to believe – that Churchill knew nothing about the Dieppe Raid? Having spelled out to Stalin the disastrous consequences of an immediate attack on France, and given Churchill’s voluminous correspondence with his military advisors – are we really to believe he knew nothing about the Dieppe Raid that occurred one week later?  He said he went over the plans himself.

The alternative hypothesis, loathsome though it is, is that Churchill knew very well about Dieppe, and spelled out his premonitions for Stalin, and then let it happen as a demonstration to Stalin of the folly of such an adventure, the better to get Stalin to sign on with the second front in Italy idea, an idea Churchill believed, maybe, probably correctly, was the best strategy, and to stiffen Stalin's resolve in the Caucasus.

In that case, Churchill would have used Canadians literally as cannon fodder for a higher purpose. It’s happened before. This is the first thing that seems to make sense of Dieppe, other than some random psychotic event of war that harks back to the delusional Douglas Haig, and brings in the whole problem of Mountbatten vs. Montgomery, Mountbatten getting much of the blame for Dieppe and Montgomery having burned his papers after the event. There is no good interpretation.

The soldier who said everything twice
Joseph Heller - Catch 22
They rolled Yossarian away on a stretcher into the room with the other soldier who saw everything twice and quarantined everyone else in the ward for another fourteen days. 'I see everything twice!' the soldier who saw everything twice shouted when they rolled Yossarian in. 'I see everything twice!' Yossarian shouted back at him just as loudly, with a secret wink. 'The walls! The walls!' the other soldier cried. 'Move back the walls!' 'The walls! The walls!' Yossarian cried. 'Move back the walls!' One of the doctors pretended to shove the walls back. 'Is that far enough?' The soldier who saw everything twice nodded weakly and sank back on his bed. Yossarian nodded weakly too, eyeing his talented roomate with great humility and admiration. He knew he was in the presence of a master. His talented roomate was obviously a person to be studied and emulated. During the night, his talented roomate died, and Yossarian decided that he had followed him far enough. 'I see everything once!' he cried quickly.
When Rees once remarked on the confusion and excitement at Combined Operations Headquarters, Montgomery said reflectively:  “Yes, Admiral – [Mountbatten],  Admiral – [Mountbatten].  A very gallant sailor.  A very gallant sailor.  Had three ships sunk under him.  Three ships sunk under him.” - Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1887-1976  Colin Baxter, pg 33
Anyway, we’re back to what Churchill didn't do. Having just spelled out the impending disaster to Stalin, why wouldn't he have been outraged by Dieppe if he hadn’t known about it, called Mountbatten and a host of military planning bozos on the carpet and fired them? After all, he'd just fired Auchinleck. Instead, we get “Oh, dear.”
If Mountbatten had indeed laid on the operation without the prime minister’s authority, Churchill’s fury would have been terrible and must have left some mark – on Mountbatten at least! - Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1887-1976: A Selected Bibliography By Colin F. Baxter, pg. 34
So now, having watched my country getting shot up in Afghanistan courtesy of Rick Hillier and his gutless political accomplices    an equally crazy adventure of no defined objective (Dieppe made D-Day possible; Afghanistan stopped guys from Saudi Arabia blowing up the CN Tower)  I’m starting to have dark suspicions about Dieppe. What was said “off the record” to Stalin at the meeting on August 12, 1942? What was discussed about a demonstration “in good faith” of the futility of a Normandy invasion? What cables are we missing between Churchill and Stalin after Dieppe? Are we to believe that Stalin didn’t notice Dieppe? Are we to believe that Churchill didn’t draw his attention to it?  Why are there no records?
In discussion with Admiral Mountbatten it became clear that time did not permit a new large-scale operations to be mounted during the summer (after Rutter had been cancelled), but that Dieppe could be remounted (the new code-name "Jubilee") within a month, provided extraordinary steps were taken to ensure secrecy. For this reason no records were kept but, after the Canadian authorities and the Chiefs of Staff had given their approval, I personally went through the plans with the C.I.G.S., Admiral Mountbatten, and the Naval Force Commander, Captain J. Hughes-Hallett."  - page 510.  And Montgomery burned his.
As it turns out, the cannon fodder view was suspected by former Brigadier General Forbes West, who was there.

Arthur Kelly on Dieppe: A battle doomed to fail for all the wrong reasons

Arthur Kelly, Special to National Post | Aug 17, 2012 6:20 AM ET | Last Updated:Aug 16, 2012 6:02 PM ET
More from Special to National Post

What remains to be answered is if there was another element at play shaping events. The late Brigadier General Forbes West of Toronto thought so, identifying a political reason for the raid’s launch. “I feel that from the day planning began, it was intended to be a failure,” he revealed to me in his home 23 years ago. “Perhaps not as costly a failure, but a failure nevertheless. The British were being pressed by the Russians and Americans to open a second front, so we were put in with the firm intention of being destroyed. Men at the Chiefs of Staff level would consider 4,000 casualties a small price to pay for convincing the Russians and Americans an invasion would be a disaster.”
Myself, I prefer the general incompetence hypothesis to devious conspiracy.  Either way, the idea that Dieppe paved the way for D-Day seems very painful.
Mistakes happen in planning and strategy. War always leads to deaths in action and many inevitably occur as a result of blunders. But let us no longer wallow in conspiracy theses and in seeking to blame the British or this commander and that senior officer. The Canadians wanted to get into action, as Victoria Cross winner Lieutenant-Colonel C.C.I. Merritt said after the war. "We were very glad to go, we were delighted. Taken prisoner during the raid, Merritt recalled, "We were up against a very difficult situation and we didn't win; but to hell with this business of saying the generals did us dirt." Colonel Merritt died in Vancouver two years ago, but his judgment was and remains the most sensible assessment of the tragedy of Dieppe.  Dieppe, 60 years on: What is the truth? J.L. Granatstein National Post, 2002
Colonel Merritt gets special mention in the CBC radio report at the time, above.  But how is this sensible? How could Dieppe have been "won" any more than Afghanistan can be"won" or Vietnam been "won?"

Update:  The Enigma Variation

There is a new theory put forward by Canadian historian David O'Keefe, and the essence is that the entire Dieppe Raid was engineered to capture a new version of the Enigma Machine coder, this one with four rather than three rotors.  It's a very comforting hypothesis, even if the raid failed.  In this version of events, there would have been a comprehensible explanation of the purpose of the raid, even if it had been botched.