Disaster in Dieppe: Mountbatten said the 1942 raid on the German occupied French port was a vital rehearsal for D-Day. But historian PATRICK BISHOP says it was the result of the vanity that made him such a flawed hero
The war had been over for 13 years when a group of former comrades, now scattered around the country, opened the morning post to find a letter from their old chief.
Louis Mountbatten, Admiral of the Fleet – and uncle to Prince Philip – had a favour to ask.
The Admiralty, he explained, was preparing a report on the disastrous Dieppe Raid of 1942, which had seen more than 3,300 Canadian, British and American troops killed or captured within ten hours.
Would the veterans of Operation Jubilee, as the raid was known, help Mountbatten construct an accurate account for the historical record?
Where, he asked them, should responsibility for the fiasco be ‘fairly and squarely placed’? He made his own thoughts on the matter quite clear before signing off, affectionately: ‘Yours ever, Dickie.’
The survivors from Dieppe did as they were asked and, under the supervision of their former commander, helped produce an account of the raid that was very much to Mountbatten’s liking – a version of events then largely repeated by the Admiralty.
It concluded that, despite the horrific losses, Dieppe had been invaluable training. It had taught the Allies hard lessons, which were triumphantly justified on D-Day, when they escaped with many fewer casualties than expected. The carnage was regrettable, but ultimately worth it.
The war had been over for 13 years when a group of former comrades, now scattered around the country, opened the morning post to find a letter from their old chief. Louis Mountbatten, Admiral of the Fleet – and uncle to Prince Philip – had a favour to ask, writes Patrick Bishop
This was just one example of Mountbatten’s attempts to hijack the narrative of Dieppe. From the day the operation ended until the close of his life, he hammered away at the construction of a legend that presented the disaster as a calculated sacrifice.
So frequently did Mountbatten make his case that it sometimes seemed that the main person he was trying to convince was himself.
In the summer of 1942, Britain was under mounting pressure from the Russians, fighting a desperate rearguard defence against Hitler on the Eastern Front. Stalin wanted the Allies to divert German resources by taking action in the west.
At the same time Britain was under great pressure from its new American allies to launch an early invasion of Europe. Churchill rightly resisted, but something had to be done to persuade his partners that Britain meant business. Dieppe was thus in some ways a piece of military theatre.
And there was no better man to mount it than the flamboyant and ruthlessly ambitious Lord Louis Mountbatten. His Combined Operations organisation had been set up to launch amphibious raids into enemy territory, and had done with some success.
In March, commandos destroyed the gigantic dry dock at St Nazaire, thereby denying Hitler’s last remaining battleship, Tirpitz, an Atlantic haven. Mountbatten and Combined Ops were on a roll.
Jubilee would be the biggest raid yet, involving more than 6,000 mostly Canadian infantry, 237 ships and 74 RAF squadrons, set on engaging the Luftwaffe in the biggest air clash since the Battle of Britain.
The survivors from Dieppe did as they were asked and, under the supervision of their former commander, helped produce an account of the raid that was very much to Mountbatten’s liking – a version of events then largely repeated by the Admiralty
Unlike the previous raids, the Dieppe operation had no obvious military purpose. Moreover, the port was strongly defended with machine guns and artillery covering all approaches.
That it went ahead was largely due to the insistence of Mountbatten, who was anxious to maintain his organisation’s prestige.
When the first operation was cancelled at the last minute due to bad weather, he pressed for it to be remounted, despite the risk that intelligence of the attack had reached the Germans.
On the evening of August 18, 1942, relying heavily on surprise, the raid was launched. The first landings were due to go in at 04.50, at four points either side of Dieppe.
The main attack, a head-on assault of the beaches in front of the town, was to be launched half an hour later, when the flank attacks should have suppressed the guns on the overlooking headlands.
But things started to go wrong more than two hours earlier when the first landing craft were lowered into the water for the final approach.
Major Forbes West from the Royal Regiment of Canada was in one of the boats when he detected ‘a great deal of what appeared to be confusion’.
Each assault group was assigned a motor gunboat (MGB) to lead it in. One MGB had strayed from its station and the rest of the craft mistakenly lined up behind it.
By the time the muddle was sorted, they were 15 minutes behind schedule. It was essential to start the raid in darkness, yet as Maj West’s craft finally approached the beach, ‘it was coming on daylight and there was a great burst of firing and then it petered out to almost nothing’.
The first wave was going in. Later, West remembered saying to his commanding officer in the Royals, Colonel Douglas Catto: ‘Well, they must have got through.’ Catto replied: ‘No they didn’t. They’re all dead.’
Both landings east of Dieppe ran into immediate trouble. On the strategically key ‘Blue Beach’, the Canadians were cut down as soon as the bow doors of the landing craft were opened.
The German gunners had a perfectly framed target and fire poured into the ranks of Allied soldiers tightly packed inside the boats.
Men clambered over the bodies of the dead and wounded in the rush to get out and on to the beach. Some hauled themselves over the sides and tumbled into the sea.
Those at the front had no choice but to charge ahead. Private Tom Hunter ‘was in the very front rank when the door went down. I jumped into the water which came right up to my chest’.
Holding his rifle above his head he floundered to the shore then slithered over the treacherous pebbles running for the sea wall, which was the only cover in sight. He had ‘no time to look around and I only wanted to get there as fast as possible’.
The Admiralty, he explained, was preparing a report on the disastrous Dieppe Raid of 1942, which had seen more than 3,300 Canadian, British and American troops killed or captured within ten hours. Pictured: Canadian troops are ordered to raise their hands by a German soldier after being captured
Ten feet from the wall’s meagre shelter, shell splinters smacked into his forehead. He dived flat and pressed his head into the unyielding pebbles. ‘There was nothing we could do. I didn’t even have the chance to shoot back.’
Catto arrived with the second wave about 20 minutes later.
Ross Munro, a Canadian correspondent, described how ‘vicious bursts of yellow tracers made a veritable curtain’ around the craft as bullets whanged off the armour.
‘As soon as the ramp at the bow of our boat fell, 15 Royals rushed the beach and sprinted up the slope, taking cover along the cliff side.
Machine-gun fire held back the rest…’ In the space of about 20 minutes the Canadians had been reduced from a disciplined, coherent force to a remnant of dazed and powerless men, curling up to make as small a target as possible behind whatever scrap of cover they could find.
There was a recess where two stone staircases led up from the sea wall that gave the illusion of a sanctuary, but nowhere was really safe.
‘We just had to stay close to the wall,’ Sergeant John Legate told an officer conducting the first post-operational report from his hospital bed a few days afterwards. ‘The crossfire coming at us made it impossible to move two feet from the wall or you got it.
‘There was nobody around to look after the wounded.’
There was no protection against the mortar bombs which ‘were dropping all around us… it was impossible to give orders to try and do anything and it turned out to be every man for himself’.
The unhurt officers in the first wave organised several efforts to cross the sea wall. That meant clearing a way through dense rolls of concertina wire choking the landward side. Very few succeeded.
‘Snipers were everywhere,’ remembered Private Jack Poolton, speaking many years later. ‘One hit the rim of my helmet… fellows were trying to throw hand grenades… they’d get hit just as soon as they pulled the pin.’
When the main attack was launched at about 05.30, the German defences were still intact. Slaughter ensued. The troops were pinned down on the shingle and unable to move. None of the tanks that landed made it into the town.
Despite the paralysis, reinforcements were sent in at 07.00 – and met the same fate. At about 08.00, with the battle now decisively in their favour, the Germans began to show themselves.
Major Forbes West was lying immobilised by a wounded leg when ‘the Germans came along the beach and allowed our people who were sound to start gathering up the wounded’.
He had just been hoisted on to the sea wall on a stretcher when an RAF attack came in.
‘There wasn’t anything we could do to stop it… we couldn’t say, “Boys, it’s all over and you’re killing us not the Germans.” So the bombs came down and then the Germans made all the people who had been helping pick up the wounded get off the beach.
‘And then the tide came in and unquestionably some people who might have been picked up went out with the tide because they were too badly wounded to help themselves.’
At the water’s edge, the stretcher-bearers saw a nightmarish sight.
‘It was unbelievable,’ remembered Poolton. ‘There were boots with feet in them, there were legs. There were bits of flesh. There were guts. There were heads. This was my regiment. These were the guys I had lived with for the last two-and-a-half years.’
After three trips, the Germans ordered them to stop. An officer walked the beach, ‘shooting the worst of the wounded Canadians in the forehead’.
Poolton felt physically sick but had ‘nothing in there to puke… I thought, God Almighty, is there no end to this slaughter?’
At 09.00, Allied commanders finally gave the order to withdraw. At about noon the fleet departed, leaving those stranded with no alternative but to surrender.
Only one of the six attacks that day went according to plan.
The men of 4 Commando, led by the Scottish aristocrat Lord Lovat, had succeeded in overwhelming and completely destroying a heavy gun battery to the west of Dieppe. It was a rare gleam of light in an otherwise black picture.
Of the 6,000 soldiers who set off, just over half were returning. Of those left behind, 980 were dead or would die of their wounds.
In the course of the afternoon, the 2,010 left behind – including Maj West and Col Catto – became prisoners. As one officer admitted: ‘I am afraid that this operation will go down as one of the great failures in history.’
Afterwards, news of the attack produced first surprise, then dismay and finally bewilderment.
‘What I don’t understand is, why Dieppe?’ asked the formidable British tank commander Major General Percy Hobart, who would later play a leading role in the 1944 invasion of Normandy.
Writing to the military historian Basil Liddell Hart, he said that a raid ‘is either to obtain information and destroy some worthwhile objective or it is to train one’s own troops. In the latter case one would not select a strongly defended sector. In the former, what was the objective? Evidently we did not reach it. It all sounds pretty Passchendaele to me.’
The reference was to the notorious 1917 battle on the Western Front when thousands of Allied troops, many of them Canadians, floundered to their deaths in an ocean of mud.
Some of the Jubilee survivors reached for a different episode from military history to describe what they had endured. It was, they said, ‘just like the Charge of the Light Brigade’.
After all, 6,000 men had been sent into the jaws of death. Soon no comparisons were necessary and Dieppe stood in its own right as a metaphor for bloody futility.
Maj Gen Hobart’s questions have never been properly answered. There is little evidence to support Mountbatten’s claim that the raid was a ‘rehearsal for D- Day’.
The notion only began to gain traction when Operation Jubilee was subsequently ‘sold’ to the press, public and politicians.
There was a cursory examination in an official military report of ‘lessons learned’, which amounted to little more than statements of the obvious.
Yet the final tally was more or less clear. It would end up showing combined military casualties of 3,625 on the Allied side.
That included 169 commandos of whom 37 were killed, and 76 Royal Marine commandos of whom 29 died. Of the 50 US Rangers who took part, seven were killed and six wounded.
Twenty-nine Churchill tanks and ten armoured cars and carriers were lost. The Navy total was 523 casualties, of whom 148 died. One destroyer and 33 landing craft were sunk.
The RAF losses were 66 aircrew, 53 of whom died, and 106 aircraft. Total German losses for all three services were 357 dead and 280 wounded.
Thirty-seven prisoners, none of whom had much of value to impart, were taken back to England.
The meagre gains made it all the more important for Mountbatten to magnify Jubilee’s significance. In this, he was supported by the Canadian high command, who threw their weight behind his efforts.
The legend received its greatest boost on the eve of D-Day when the men of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division were told: ‘The plan, the preparations, the method and technique which will be employed are based on knowledge and experience bought and paid for by 2nd Canadian Division at Dieppe.
‘The contribution… cannot be overestimated. It will prove to have been the essential prelude to our forthcoming and final success.’
It was Mountbatten himself who put a number on the value of Dieppe in the currency that mattered most.
Addressing the Dieppe Veterans and Prisoners of War Association in Toronto on September 28, 1973, he pointed to the casualties sustained on D-Day, which had been much lighter than expected.
‘Of the 156,000 men who took part in the assault, there were only 2,500 casualties [ie dead] or one man in 60,’ he said. ‘At Dieppe… the comparable loss was about one in five.
‘So 12 times as many men, including of course many thousands of Canadians, survived the D-Day assaults and I am convinced that this was directly the result of the lessons we learned at Dieppe.’
Mountbatten never stopped trying to get people to see the catastrophe of Dieppe his way, but the responsibility for Jubilee must rest largely on his shoulders.
Why had he been so intent on going ahead with it? The only answer that fits is this: it was the triumph of a vanity, wilfulness and ambition that were always the dark counterpoint to Mountbatten’s great ability and considerable humanity.
© Patrick Bishop, 2021. Operation Jubilee by Patrick Bishop is published by Viking on Thursday, priced £20.
To pre-order a copy for £18 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2973 before October 24. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.
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