21 August 2012
3.5 Timeouts Tuesday
Recently we marked the 70th anniversary of the raid on Dieppe, Canada's single biggest disaster and bloodiest single day of the Second World War. (For those so inclined, the number two disaster was Hong Kong, and number three, almost forgotten, was Verriere Ridge.) It was mainly a force of Canadians who landed on the beach, but it should not be forgotten that there were American and British elements as well. Also usually overlooked, the RAF took a drubbing that day, and lost over one hundred planes.
Until recently, the usual explanation went like this: The raid was to test German Atlantic defenses and to test whether or not is was feasible to attempt the capture of a port on the day of the eventual invasion. Furthermore, it was to distract the Germans and convince them of an imminent threat of invasion in the West, and therefore draw off some of the divisions pushing through Russia.
Plans were put together, the day of the raid was set, then cancelled, then set again for a few weeks later. The small armada would cross the Channel at nearly its most narrow point in one night, and attack the port of Dieppe in the morning, taking the Germans by surprise.
From the beginning, things went wrong. The armada ran into a small German convoy on the way into Dieppe (Dieppe was an active port, after all.) The convoy was quickly neutralized, but surprise had been lost. Controversially, the decision was made to continue with the raid.
The troops landed on their beaches, with the Germans fully alerted, and their guns placed, as one soldier put it, wheel to wheel on the cliffs overlooking the landing area. The troops had landed in a kill zone, and what happened next was slaughter.
The planning could not have been worse. The antiquated tanks that were sent with the troops could not drive on the stones of the beach. Even if they could drive, Dieppe had a sea wall the tanks could not cross. The planners had made no provision for crossing a sea wall. The bombardment was useless. The troops landed in a trap, and the Germans closed the door.
Even though the landing was a disaster, the general in charge sent in reinforcements, not once, but twice. The second time he sent in a unit of British Commandos, who were forced to turn back before they even reached the beach. In the end, of the five thousand Canadians who landed there, over three thousand were killed, wounded or captured, over nine hundred of whom were dead.
The decisions made no sense. Why not turn back when surprise had been lost? Why send reinforcements to a disaster just to test a theory? What was there that was so important? Lastly, what was Ian Fleming doing at Dieppe?
A recent documentary shed some light onto these questions. In 1942, Britain was in desperate danger of losing the war in the Atlantic. If the Germans succeeded in cutting the supply lines, Britain would lose the war. The British believed the key to defeating the Germans lay in cracking the top secret Naval Enigma Codes. To do that, they believed they needed a working Enigma machine. One of the top men working on the project was Ian Fleming.
Fleming came up with ideas worthy of James Bond himself to get his hands on a machine. One of the more outlandish plans was to take a captured German Bomber, fill it with British commandos dressed as Germans, crash it into the sea near a German weather ship, and capture the ship when they came to the rescue. Fleming even went so far as to have his tailor make him a German uniform, but the plan was scuttled as being too dangerous and unlikely. Fleming's next idea was more direct: raid a port, and send in Commandos to storm the German Naval headquarters there.
This, then, was the answer to many of the questions of Dieppe. The armada did not turn around because there was a secret objective in Dieppe. Reinforcements were sent in to try and achieve that objective. The British Commandos had tried repeatedly to land because they were given the most important task of them all. Dieppe was not a pointless failure, it was a failure with a point.
Very few people at the time knew of the true objective of Dieppe. The last living member of the British Commando unit was unaware of his objective at Dieppe until told by the filmmakers of the documentary.
The code was eventually broken, by, among other things, the invention of the world first programmable computer. With the British and Americans now reading German ciphers regularly, along with new technology for fighting subs, the Battle of the Atlantic turned decisively in favour of the Allies. Ian Fleming went on to write books about a spy armed with incredible gadgetry and a licence to kill and fornicate who went on the most outlandish of missions. The Canadians who fought at Dieppe were left to wonder why they and their comrades and friends had been so pointlessly sacrificed. The few who are still alive may now have an answer. I wonder if it helps.