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Rodney's Ramblings: Insights From Past Battlefields - Part III

Rodney Gascoyne considers the botched Dieppe Raid which was staged 70 years ago during World War Two and has gone down in Canadian history as one of the biggest disasters suffered by its army.

Sunday, 19th August 2012 was the 70th Anniversary of the Dieppe Raid that has gone down in Canadian history as the biggest disaster suffered by the army. When reviewing the background, planning and execution of the action, it is hard not to be reminded of similarities to what happened to Anzac forces at Gallipoli, in 1915.

A raid was first planned for July 1942 but had to be cancelled because of bad weather. Both were planned by Allied Combined Operations (CO), under the overall command of Louis Mountbatten, with three, not one overall military leader – Army, Air Force and Navy. It was a new joint command and has been argued that Mountbatten needed to prove himself in such high office. CO did almost all the detailed planning and field commanders were handed the final script. Canadian troops had been in England some years by early 1942 but had still not been in action. (Was this not the case with Anzac troops earlier when sent to Turkey straight from training in Egypt?) They made up 5000 of the 6000 force with British Commandoes and Troops and 50 US Rangers. More than half that force did not return after the raid, either killed or taken POW, many seriously wounded.

Original plans were for a large naval force, with battleships, together with a major bombing campaign from the RAF, to soften up the defenses of the town before a frontal assault was made, together with flanking movements. The objectives were stated afterwards as threefold; show Russia we were serious for a second front; gain experience and test combined tactics to land forces on mainland Europe; show the Germans and the public at home that although the war was going badly at that stage, the Allies were determined to hound Hitler and take the war to him. These goals, together with initial claims of success for the Raid, were in hindsight the PR put out by Churchill and others, to cover up the real total failure. In a TV program by CBC on the 25th Anniversary, interviews with political and military leaders involved, consisted largely of finger pointing but no mea culpas.

Were “unblooded colonial” troops used again for a highly dangerous mission, as in WW1, while all the decisions and plans were made by CO, without their input? When those plans were changed, first by the delay and then by reductions in promised support by the other services – no battleships and no massed aerial bombing, the planners did not consider the objectives and likely success compromised? (Same in Turkey when initial naval movements failed miserably yet the landings still went ahead to salvage the situation.) It has been suggested Mountbatten was under enormous pressure to go ahead whatever the risks and irregardless of the downgrading of the support ultimately provided. Perhaps some in London considered it expedient no matter what the odds, as seemed the case at Gallipoli.

On the day, the Germans were prepared and aware of the plans, as were the Turks. An encounter by part of the assault force, en route to their objectives, with a German patrol in the Channel, allowed final confirmation of the expected arrival of the Raid that very morning. Together with poor intelligence on the defense forces and their placement and armaments, anything else that could go wrong happened in those few hours. None of the land objectives by the various units that day were achieved. Withdrawal was ordered, but many more deaths followed as gallant efforts were made, but most fighting the rear guard actions were then taken prisoners. It was claimed 45 years later in another CBC program that one technical man had a special mission that was accomplished – that of getting into the German radar station to discover what they used and how, later used to combat its effectiveness. Recent claims state there were other secret intelligence missions to obtain documents and even a newer Enigma machine, but they failed.

The biggest PR during and ever since the end of the war, was that what was learned at Dieppe was then followed for D-Day and hence the success of those combined landings. I guess this was also claimed for the events earlier in Turkey. Now one has to wonder how much those claims were an attempt to stifle questioning of the original failed campaigns, and to mask those really responsible for the calamitous actions, and large losses of life for very little gain or advantage.

Have we really ever learned the main lessons from past actions, campaigns and wars? I doubt it.

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