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The Rouen Chronicles: Dieppe-2-the-botched-dieppe-raid-of-august-17-1942-in-two-parts-part-two/

July 15, 2014

“Il y a deux Histoires: l’officielle, mensongère, qui nous est enseigné, et l’Histoire secrète où se trouves les vraies causes des événements, une Histoire honteuse” – Balzac, Les Illusions perdues. (Rough translation: History comes in two versions: there is the official history, that which we learn in school with its lies and half-truths; then there is the secret history in which the more accurate causes of historical events unfolds, a shameful and shameless tale.”)

The “churt” (another name for flint) filled beach at Dieppe. The scene in the picture, a peaceful morning in late July 1989, Molly Prince in the foreground, Nancy Fey walking behind. They are looking for mussels. This is essentially the same place where the Royal Regiment of Canada landed on August 19, 1942 and were summarily slaughtered by machine fire coming from Nazi defenses on the chalk cliffs above

The “churt” (another name for flint) filled beach at Dieppe. The scene in the picture, a peaceful morning in late July 1989, Molly Prince in the foreground, Nancy Fey walking behind. They are looking for mussels. This is essentially the same place where the Royal Regiment of Canada landed on August 19, 1942 and were summarily slaughtered by machine fire coming from Nazi defenses on the chalk cliffs above

1. Nothing Left To Uncover About World War II?

Putting the Dieppe Raid of August 17,1942 in its more global context, at least up until recently there are a number of historians who argue that, really, there is nothing left to say about World War II, that so much has been researched, written, made into documentaries and feature films about the war that anything new would simply be in part or in large measure redundant.

Nothing could be further from the truth; to the contrary, it would be more to the point to argue that historians have just scratched the surface. True enough the general outlines of the war in Europe are clear enough although, even here, a certain blurred vision fueled in large measure by Cold War blinders endured until the collapse of Communism in 1989 and 1991. Much of the narrative has been reworked in the past quarter century. On the other hand, where, in English (or any other European based language is the complete or comprehensive of the war in Asia? It remains largely unknown both in terms of what actually transpired there and how the war itself shaped the post war evolution throughout the continent from Indonesia to China.

In the European “theater” (a rather awful way to describe so much horror) we have learned that it was the Soviets, not the Nazis, who exterminated the pride of the Polish officer corps in the forests of Katyn in 1940. History has also made clear that the human losses in the Soviet Union estimated and generally played down during the Cold War at 20 million, were in fact even higher, at 27 million. Nor can it be argued, as it was ad nauseam during the period prior to the USSR’s collapse, that the responsibility for the lion’s share of these deaths be blamed on Stalin (although he deserves considerable responsibility for much of the human tragedy of that period.

In a line manner, it is only in the past few decades that the facts have emerged suggesting that it was not only German Nazis and Japanese militarists were engaged “in the business” of committing war crimes. True enough, where the British, U.S. and Soviets were concerned during the war, their goal was not the mass extermination of peoples, be they Jews or Chinese. A sense of proportion needs to be kept in mind. There is no Allied comparison to the crimes of Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Treblinka, Sachenhausen. But then there was the American and British fire bombing of TokyoDresden and Hamburg, the increasing targeting of civilian populations by Allied bombing missions which caused the likes of Howard Zinn to move leftward after the war, for Joseph Heller to write Catch 22 and Kurt Vonnegut to write Slaughterhouse Five. More recently, William I. Hitchcock’s Liberation: The Bitter Road to Freedom, Europe, 1944-1945 (Faber and Faber: 2008) continues in this tradition, detailing some of the more ignoble actions of the Allies in Europe during the war’s closing months.

And then there are two Japanese cities called Hiroshima and Nagasaki where man’s inhumanity to man reached new lows as our species passed from the serial genocide of the Holocaust to the instant “humanicide” (my term) of nuclear weapons. Our understanding of the dawn of the nuclear weapons age, how and why nuclear weapons were used, their short and long-term effects, are hardly explored to this day.

That is just the beginning.

For all that is still unknown about the war in Europe, at least in that region the general skeleton and some of the body has been fleshed out. Not so, our understanding of World War II in Asia, a war that started much earlier and endured a bit longer than its European counterpart. Nazi racist crimes and horrors are generally known but far less has been probed concerning the theory and practices of racism articulated and carried out by Japanese militarists who were, it continually is revealed, every bit as vile as the Nazis. When it comes to Asia, the skeleton of the narrative hardly exists to say nothing of the (gory) details. There is a whole other Asian historical field of knowledge that yet to be seriously intellectually mined: why it was that beyond China, in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indo-China, to one degree or another, the Japanese were viewed by many as “liberators” (as the Nazis were in the Baltic states) from this or that European colonial dominating power, etc.

Furthermore, it is important to keep in mind the degree to which the two world wars of the twentieth century in large measure shaped the world in which we live today. Even though a portion of that global order – or should we say “disorder” – is disintegrating (the collapse of European Communism 1981-1991, the Chinese reforms and now the Middle East entering a “post Sykes-Picot” major re-alignment) it remains a truism that even today, some 69 years after the close of World War Two we are all in a way still the children of Operation Barbarossa, D-Day and Hiroshima.

The above is nothing less than a defense for writing about what is to many an obscure, if tragic incident, hardly worth mentioning (outside of Canada) in the overall histories of World War Two of which the Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1942 is little more than a footnote. Still, the study of this raid and the continued insights revealed concerning its intentions, goals and execution continues to produce a rich harvest of insights. Besides all that has been written about the Dieppe Raid in Canada itself and by military historians, it appeared that, like our knowledge of World War Two more generally, that whatever there was to uncover about the raid had been uncovered, and that decades past. A number of hypotheses for the raid’s failure have been argued with various levels of responsibility laid at the doorstep of Churchill himself, Montbatten, and a few overly zealous Canadian generals anxious to prove Canada’s fighting mettle no matter the costs.

There was an element of truth in all these rationales. When after the war had ended, Churchill is famously quoted as saying “History will be kind to me as I intend to write it”, he was trying to calm the fears in the British Cabinet of the time, well aware of just how sloppy was the British war effort in many of its aspects, from Dunkirk to Dieppe. Add to the picture that the Dieppe Raid has always been an embarrassment to Great Britain and long a sore point in British-Canadian relations. British official explanations for the raid, as argued above, lacked credibility. Either the raid itself was an example of a blunder with little or no strategic value that resulted in a great loss of life, especially Canadian, or…something else was going on that had yet to surface publicly although hints of a hidden agenda appeared now and then in the public record.

The heights above the port and downtown area of Dieppe viewed from La Chapelle Notre Dame. The goal of the Canadians landing at "Blue Beach" (Puys) was to climb to the heights above, knock out the German defenders there and then move west towards this church to destroy a German gun battery overlooking the harbor. The Canadians never got off of the beach at Puys though

The heights above the port and downtown area of Dieppe viewed from La Chapelle Notre Dame. The goal of the Canadians landing at “Blue Beach” (Puys) was to climb to the heights above, knock out the German defenders there and then move west towards this church to destroy a German gun battery overlooking the harbor. The Canadians never got off of the beach at Puys though

2. David O’Keefe’s Historical Goldmine on the Dieppe Raid

David O’Keefe has written an important and well researched book that brings to light many aspects of the August 17, 1942 failed allied raid on the French port city of Dieppe on the English Channel. For those with a taste for more in-depth analysis, his book One Day In August: The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy At Dieppe is worth the cost as well as the time needed to read and absorb it. For those with less time and interest a still very decent dvd “Dieppe Uncovered” is available. That the dvd tells “the true story” remains to be seen (why do dvd and book covers have such stupid banner headlines?), but regardless O’Keefe has, through his meticulous research (and fine mind for military tactics) uncovered a gold mine.

As a review of O’Keefe’s book in the Toronto Star puts it:

“More than 71 years after 907 Canadians were cut down on the stony beaches of Dieppe during Operation Jubilee, Canadian historian David O’Keefe has produced a fast-paced and convincing book, One Day in August, that clears up decades of misinformation about the ignoble raid and should provide comfort for the few remaining survivors of that notorious massacre.”

“Over the years many historians have speculated about the purpose of the Allies’ August 19, 1942, raid on the French coastal town. Was it to relieve pressure on the Eastern front, where the Soviet Union was going it alone against the Nazis? Or was it a trial run for a European invasion? Perhaps it was Winston Churchill’s gift to his wife Clementine, who had once visited Dieppe and was very fond of the seaside resort. Just what was it the Allies were doing that day, when 250 ships carrying more than 6,000 troops — 5,000 of them Canadian, of which 68 per cent were either killed wounded or captured — and numerous tanks crossed the channel?”

My interest in the Dieppe raid comes largely from a family vacation spent in the Dieppe are in the summer of 1989 when some of the dimensions of the raid’s failure and the massacre of Canadian troops it entailed below the chalk cliffs of Le Puys (five kilometers north of Dieppe) was brought home vividly to the four of us. I wrote a piece about it at the time – long-lost – and have read several books on the subject since. Up until reading O’Keefe’s book on the subject my conclusion, based upon available evidence was that the Dieppe Raid was a strategic mistake with no meaningful goal other than to respond to public opinion in Great Britain to strike back at the Nazis using Canadians as cannon fodder – willing cannon fodder I might add – in a military operation strongly resembling the Gallipoli (Turkey) or Kut (Iraq) debacles of World War One.

At Gallipoli it was New Zealanders and Australians who died in swarms having underestimated the military prowess of the Turkish forces defending; At Kut it was a British expeditionary force made up largely of Indian and Pakistani troops who were badly beaten. Seemingly poorly conceived from a strategic viewpoint, and poorly executed according to what in “Brooklynese” would be described simply as a “lousy plan”, didn’t the Dieppe Raid fit nicely into the category of a terribly botched plan that frankly, due to its negligence amounted to what some, particularly Canadians, viewed as a war crime? Don’t think for a minute that the British government was not aware of the consequences.

For his utter recklessness in managing the Gallipoli fiasco, Churchill was very nearly brought up on charges during World War I; he was stripped of his title and never really regained political prominence until the open salvos of World War 2, nearly a quarter of a century later. The specter of the Dieppe failure was more than likely one of the main failures behind Churchill’s famous comment at the end of World War 2: “History will be kind to me, as I intend to write it.” The prime minister was trying to calm the fears coming from cabinet members well aware of just how sloppy was the British war effort, from Dunkirk to Dieppe, resulting in untold numbers of deaths and human suffering. Dieppe was certainly among one of Britain’s greatest military debacles in that war.

For all that long have I wondered if “something” (but what?) was missing from the Dieppe Raid script. Guided by my favorite quote from Balzac in this post Chelsea Manning, Wikileaks, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden world in which we live, I have long wondered if a vital piece of the Dieppe Raid puzzle was still missing. We knew a great deal about what happened at Dieppe that fateful day in August, 1942, but the “whys” of it all remained – or seemed to me to remain – shrouded in history. The “official history” was well-known; the “secret history” remained largely hidden.

Then came David O’Keefe.

Another unrealized strategic goal of the raid was the chateau which sits above Dieppe just west of the town

Another unrealized strategic goal of the raid was the chateau which sits above Dieppe just west of the town

3. “Over The Top” Secret

Much has been written about the Allied attempts to break the Nazi radio communication code system which was controlled by the “electro-mechanical rotor cipher machines” the Allies referred to as the “Enigma machine.” These machines were developed at the end of World War One by a German engineer, Arthur Scherbuis. The early models of the Enigma machine codes were first deciphered by Polish cryptologists, Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rózycki and Henryk Zygalski, working for Polish military intelligence. As their systems were deciphered, the Germans responded by developing new and more complex forms.

As World War Two approached, breaking Enigma’s codes was the charge given to the British Special Intelligence unit, known as “Ultra.” “Ultra” stood for “ultra-secret”; it was a British security classification for intelligence derived from tapping into enemy communications, notably their encrypted radio and later tele-printer traffic. It was a classification above what the British referred to as “most secret”, the American version of “top-secret.” I suppose this would be categorized as “top, top-secret,” or “over-the -top secret.” “Ultra’s existence, and that of its assault component, Unit 30AU, became one of the most closely guarded secrets, surpassing, according to O’Keefe, “even the development of the atomic bomb” in World War Two. Winston Churchill considered the work of “Ultra” intelligence finds his “golden eggs.”

Early on in Ultra’s efforts to break the Nazi codes immediately led to discussions as to how such a goal could be achieved. To this end two highly secret units were formed. One was a technical team, rather large in size, of actual code breakers who worked at Bletchley Park doing the code breaking. The second group was a completely independent special forces unit whose existence was kept secret until long after World War Two ended, Unit 30AU. It was headed up by Ian Fleming, who would later go on to write the James Bond spy novel series. During the war, Fleming served as the chief liaison officer of the British Naval Intelligence Division (NID), the personal assistant to the Director of Naval Intelligence, Admiral John Godfrey. It is Fleming that created Unit 30AU, directed and monitored its operations in total secrecy from most of the rest of the British military apparatus.

Officially, according to its own secret history, Unit 30AU first went into battle in “Operation Torch”, the Allied invasion of North Africa which began in November, 1942, three months prior to the Dieppe Raid. Its charge was to “pinch” or steal German Enigma machines and accompanying code books from the Germans themselves. Unit 30AU units camouflaged their activities by being separate, but secret elements within larger special forces or assault units. Such was the case at Dieppe where virtually none of the assault units nor their officers even knew of their existence, or that the main goal of the raid was an Enigma machine “pinch.”

Ultra headquarters was located at a place“a spawling Victorian estate in Buckinghamshire, an hour’s drive north of London.” This was the main site for the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) which was responsible for “signal intelligence” (SIGINT) and code breaking. The place attracted what O’Keefe described as “the most beautiful” minds in Great Britain at the time, many drawn from British elite universities. More than 10,000 people worked at Bletchley Park.

Much – but not all – German cipher traffic was encrypted on the Enigma machine. As O’Keefe notes from the outset of his book, most of the material concerning Ultra’s activities remained highly classified with the relevant files kept hidden from public scrutiny until long after the war was over. The British government only acknowledged that such a program existed in the 1970s and it wasn’t until 1995, that is fifty years after the end of World War Two that the British and American governments began a controlled but very slow declassification of the Ultra documents that has continued until present. Reading these Ultra documents is one thing, interpreting them, as the saying goes, is a horse of a different color.

While some of the pieces of both the Enigma system and Ultra operations became a part of the public record slowly but surely, that they had any relationship at all to the failed Dieppe Raid seemed remote at best, and in any case, unproven. Yet as O’Keefe ‘s research showed, Ultra operations to capture Enigma code books and the machine itself, it turns out were at the very heart of the Dieppe operation. If O’Keefe is correct, and his argument and evidence presented in One Day In August is well documented and convincing, the Dieppe raid was not a prelude to D-Day, nor an attempt to draw Nazi troops away from the Eastern Front to lessen the pressure on the Soviet Union as had unconvincingly been proposed. It was, pure and simple; at its core it was an Ultra Unit 30AU “pinch” raid whose goal was to steal “or pinch” as the British would say, a new more sophisticated Enigma “4-rotor” machine, at least one version of which was housed in the Nazi communication center in the heart of downtown Dieppe. The storming of the beaches north and south of the town were essentially decoy operations meant to take the Nazi attention away from what was to be the main prize of the operation: “liberating” an Enigma machine itself. More on this below.

the main beach at Dieppe, from the Chateau; photo from 1989. It was on this beach that the main force landed and was cut to pieces.

the main beach at Dieppe, from the Chateau; photo from 1989. It was on this beach that the main force landed and was cut to pieces.

4. Now That We Know..Was The Slaughter Worth It? …I Say, No.

Frankly, while O’Keefe’s revelations are “stunning”, it does not mitigate the fact that those forces landing both north and south of Dieppe during the raid, were still essentially cannon fodder to hide the raid’s “Enigma- pinch” goal and that the raid itself was a desperate and poorly conceived project from beginning to end. It was anticipated even in the best of scenarios that the landing forces would sustain heavy losses. There were no exit strategy for many of them, who would be left to their own devices even in the event of achieving the raid’s goals. While learning that the Dieppe raid did have a secret aim, still, this new knowledge does not, to my mind, justify the British willingness to use Canadian troops as their sacrificial lambs in this botched effort.

True enough it had been a very, very hard year for the Allies in general and for Great Britain in particular.  Bletchley Park’s ability to decode “Enigma 3″ permitted the allies to both target U-boats and to signal merchant marine fleets crossing the Atlantic to disperse to avoid the submarine attacks. Suspecting their communications had been intercepted, German Admiral Karl Dönitz ordered that the Enigma machines be revised; the result was the so-called four rotor Enigma – a more complicated version than “Enigma 3) for which the Allies could not decode the messages. The result of this intelligence change was frightening.

The Allies lost track of Nazi submarine movements; from February 1942 through the end of the year, German U-boats had a field day on Allied shipping, both the trans-Atlantic commerce from North America to Great Britain, and the supplies being shipped from British ports to Murmansk on the Arctic Ocean. During the “four rotor black out” period (February – December 1942) German U-boats sunk an almost unbelievable 1000 allied ships transporting 7.1 million tons of supplies. Had those rates of losses continued, it is highly unlikely that the Allies would have been able to build up the supply base necessary to open the western front against the Nazis brought to fruition by the June 6, 1944 D-Day invasion. It is also possible that it could have adversely affected the Soviet efforts to push back the Nazi war machine on the Eastern Front.

It was the increasingly desperate situation which was the engine behind the Dieppe Raid, a kind of last-ditch near suicide attempt to get hold of the Enigma-4 machine through a Unit 30AU commando raid on German communication headquarters at Dieppe. While that effort failed, strangely enough, the Allies succeeded a few months later to “pinch” an Enigma-4 along with its code books from a U-boat forced to surrender to Allies off the Egyptian coast in the Eastern Mediterranean in October of 1942, a mere two months after Dieppe. By the end of the year, the Bletchley folks had cracked the codes once again. From that moment, December, 1942, until the end of war, the Allies were able to monitor Nazi military movements and take preventive action.

Did the Allies learn anything from Dieppe?

My friend here in Denver, Colorado author Ed Wood, an expert on World War II, thinks so. In an email he commented on Dieppe.

“… there were lessons in terms of personnel. American General Lucian K. Truscott was assigned to Mountbatten’s English Headquarters in the spring of 1942 and was on the Dieppe raid. He later commanded troops in the invasion of North Africa and in Sicily and Italy, Also British Captain John Hughes-Hallet, a Naval Commander in the raid, returned convinced of the need for overwhelming firepower from naval and air forces to so shock the defenders that they could not act … so there were lessons learned but not planned for … the whole bloody thing was a disaster for Canadians and I think, in some way, it helped those in opposition to the idea of an invasion of France by the Allies in1943″



Part One

Rouen Chronicles: Arques La Bataille – Dieppe

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 1

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 2: Ahmed Ben Bella

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 3: Robert Merle in October 1964

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 4: Robert Merle – Fortunes de France Translated into English

Rouen Chronicles: Robert Merle 5: City of Wisdom and Blood

Rouen Chronicles: The Literary Work of Robert Merle (in two sessions) Notes

Rouen Chronicles: Amsterdam 1965

Rouen Chronicles: The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1952 (Part One)

Rouen Chronicles: The Botched Dieppe Raid of August 17, 1942 (Part Two)

Rouen Chronicles: The Strange and Short Saga of Dominique Vergos

Rouen Chronicles: Ferid Boughedir

Rouen Chronicles: Rouen’s Jewish Heritage


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