Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Dieppe: 60 Years On

This last week-end marked the 65th Anniversary of the Dieppe Raid during World War Two. The event was marked with reminiscences by old warriors and a ceremony on the beach which included the standard contingent of government-sponsored attendees and family members. A notable day to commemorate a fiasco which seemed more bloody than heroic at the time. Notable, too that this anniversary - the 65th, is celebrated when the 25th, 50th and 60th all passed with little to remark them.

This was the Canadians first real debut in the Second War, if the equally, if not more profound, disaster at Hong Kong a year and half earlier is overlooked. The Canadian First and Second Divisions had been training in England since shortly after the war started and had been held as a force in readiness while English forces were reformed after the Dunkirk evacuation and the fall of France. By 1942 they were reaching the point of being over-trained and were spoiling for a fight. The German invasion of Russia was into its second year and the Stalingrad looked like another German win, when the British decided that something must be done to distract the Germans and a large scale raid on the French coast was considered. The Second Division was tasked for the raid.

The King's cousin, Lord Louis Mountbatten, had recently acquired responsibility for a revitalized department of Combined Operations, and to him fell the responsibility of putting the raid together. The Canadian C in C Andrew McNaughten was all for the operation, but as planning proceeded and some necessary preconditions (in his estimation) were dispensed with or diminished his feet became cooler, or so the legend has it. The actual raid was commanded by "Ham" Roberts who would be decorated, and then 'dumped' for a lacklustre performance. The raid's outcome would force MacNaughten to resign as a field commander (but become the War Minister).

According to Canadian legend, Air and Naval support resources for the raid were notably reduced from the first plan. The raid itself was almost scrapped but for the personal promotion of it by Lord Mountbatten. It became a reason in itself. Even at that, criticism notes, it was never vetted by the general staff and so planning was later questioned.

The raid went askew early with delays in departures and the meeting with a German convoy en route. One initial commando landing was a success, another on a total failure. The element of surprise, if there was to be one, amounted to the surprise of the Germans at the wide range of targets that appeared in full daylight before their armed gunsights. The Canadians stood the storm all morning, with only one small party succeeding in getting off the beach. The remnant was withdrawn in the early afternoon and those left behind surrendered. The dead numbered some 1000.

Another 1800 prisoners entered German POW camps. The survivors took their recriminations back to England, and ultimately Canada. Only time has put a 'gloss' on what was then considered to be an unnecessary and fruitless sacrifice.

It took a year to reconstitute the Second Division which went on to take a role in the Battles for France, Belgium and the Netherlands later in the war.

What seems certain is that the lessons of a landing on a hostile coast were taken to heart. Gone the notion of 'grabbing a port'. The raid led to innovations in support armour and attention to the needs of landing tanks early in the invasion. Landing craft were also improved as a result of Dieppe. The notion of creating a second front without proper planning and support wouldn't be repeated, Russia would have to 'hold on'.

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