Column

Behind the myths of bravery and pluck, there was no pride or glory at Dieppe

Allan Fotheringham August 13 1979
Column

Behind the myths of bravery and pluck, there was no pride or glory at Dieppe

Allan Fotheringham August 13 1979

Behind the myths of bravery and pluck, there was no pride or glory at Dieppe

Column

Allan Fotheringham

Engrained in the memory bank of every Canadian adult are those epic battles: Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Midway, Corregidor, Guam. They are, of course, famous American war names, drilled into our compliant minds 30 years ago by a barrage of Saturday afternoon movies featuring those celebrated soldiers in the foxholes, Errol Flynn and John Wayne. Because we did not have a propaganda movie industry, Canadians even now know little about one famous place-name associated with Canadian troops: Dieppe. In the mythology it is considered a sterling example of Canadian bravery and pluck. In truth, it was a disaster, a slaughter, conceived for political reasons, not military, and botched up from beginning to end. It was not glory.

On Aug. 24 to 26, The Dieppe Veterans and Prisoners of War Association will hold a reunion at Port Hope, Ontario. There z aren’t too many left to at« tend. Out of 5,086 soldiers £ who landed on the Dieppe £ beaches that August day § of 1942, only 1,443 made it back across the Channel to England. By contrast, the Germans had only 597 killed or wounded. Yet there has never been any serious examination in this country as to the blame, the spectacular (and cynical) horrors in the planning. We have no Errol Flynn, no John Wayne, to conduct a military autopsy.

On examination, Dieppe proves to be the modern-day version of the charge of the Light Brigade. Richard Lamb, a British war historian, flatly labels it “the worst-planned battle in military history.” The essential problem is that it was concocted for nonmilitary excuses, a ploy devised for high political reasons. As a result, Canadian casualties were an incredible 68 per cent. This wasn’t war. It was execution.

In 1942, the Russian armies were in great danger. Leningrad was surrounded by the Germans. Stalin was insistent on an Allied attack somewhere in Western Europe to divert the Nazis, but the Allies had already decided to delay a Channel invasion and land in-

stead in North Africa. Churchill and Anthony Eden, fearing Stalin might strike a deal with Hitler, pressed for this Canadian raid on “lightly defended Dieppe” to impress the Soviets.

Ordered by their political bosses to attempt a dubious task, the military chiefs indicated their lack of enthusiasm in a strange way. Army planners said three essentials were necessary for the one-day raid: airborne troops, heavy air bombing, bombardment from a battleship. All three were denied. As incredible as it seems even to a layman,

the main beach assault was planned for broad daylight—30 minutes after the defenders were alerted by assaults on the flanks.

Even the dress rehearsals in Britain were fouled up, the units landing miles from their objective. After another false start, General Montgomery recommended that the Dieppe raid be cancelled forthwith. But Churchill was due to fly to Moscow Aug. 12 and wanted to placate Stalin with plans for a major assault on Fortress Europe. Lord Mountbatten, commander of Combined Operations, ordered the doomed plan to press ahead.

With no air support, no heavy naval bombardment, the disaster pressed on. Monty refused to have anything to do with it. The first landing craft crossing the Channel ran into a German convoy. The fight at sea alerted Dieppe’s German defenders. The commandos landing in the dark on the flanks of the town had success—though the German divisional headquarters they were to

capture had been vacated four months before. Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt, later a Tory MP and still practising law in Vancouver, won a Victoria Cross for his courage in leading the South Saskatchewan Regiment.

Elsewhere, it was carnage that could have been (and was, in military circles) predicted. Just at daylight, so the German machine-gunners could see them clearly, the main assault troops landed on the open beach in front of the town promenade. The tanks due to land simultaneously with them were 15 minutes late. For those first crucial 15 minutes, the Essex Scottish Regiment and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry had no support of any kind and were mowed down “in shoals,” as they tried to run across the beach. (Insane with rage at the slaughter, Canadian troops in the town shot many of their German prisoners.)

In one landing craft, some 30 soldiers refused to land when they saw the carpet of dead laid out on the beaches. An inquiry later in England was told of some troops being forced by Canadian officers to land at revolver point. Lamb has written: “The wonder was not that a tiny few cracked, but that so many went courageously to certain death.”

Incredibly, the Canadian command ordered Les Fusiliers Mont-Royals and the Royal Marine Commandos to make a second frontal assault on the beach. A wall of machine-gun bullets laced through the wooden landing craft of Les Fusiliers (there were no steel ones left). When Lieutenant-Colonel J.P. Phillips landed his Royal Marines in bright sunlight and saw what was happening, he raised his hands and waved his boats back, shouting, “For God’s sake, go back.” Then he fell dead.

There has never been, to repeat, any serious examination in this country of an event that was supposed to be the proudest moment of Canada in the Second World War. There was nothing proud about it at all. Cannon fodder for political ends.