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Operation Jubilee: Dieppe, 1942: The folly and the sacrifice by Patrick Bishop

26 November 2021

Richard Harries reads a new study of what occurred there in 1942

AFTER the humiliating defeat and withdrawal in Afghanistan, official spokesmen put it about that the 20 years’ operation there had been a success: it had prevented al-Qaeda’s using Afghanistan as a launch pad for terrorist attacks. A similar glossing of defeat took place after the disastrous attack on Dieppe. Patrick Bishop is concerned to tell two stories: a gruelling account of the attack itself, and how the official version of events came about.

The original idea for an attack on Dieppe seems to have been for a major commando raid. Such raids were taking place along the coast from time to time to make the Germans deploy their forces there rather than elsewhere. But pressure built up to make it much more than this. The year 1942 was a bad time in the war — with terrible losses in the Atlantic, and the fall of the allegedly impregnable Singapore, among things — so some real success was needed.

The Russians were pushing for a Western front to take some of the burden off the Eastern front, where they were losing an average of 27,256 troops every day. The Americans wanted to see some real action in Europe, and Canadian troops were massed ready to do something.

Churchill wanted to move first in North Africa, where later Montgomery was to be so successful, but needed to show the Russians and Americans that something was happening in Europe. A big operation further up the coast had been cancelled, and the military were anxious to do something significant in its stead. All this led to a badly misjudged, full-frontal attack on Dieppe, which had no military significance in itself.

Bishop tells the story of the attack in detail: vivid prose is illuminated by accounts of some who were there, including Germans, and good maps. The landing craft got through the mined approach in the sea safely, but, on the beach, there were rolls of barbed wire. These could be cut through, but this had to be done under intense mortar attack and as machine guns, with a range of 2000 yards, fired 900 rounds a minute from the surrounding cliffs.

Limbs were floating and bobbing in the water, and photos show a beach strewn with dead bodies. Inevitably, the survivors had to try to return to the landing craft, but again under heavy fire. Heroic acts of courage were shown, but, of the 6000 ground troops who took part, 3625 were killed, wounded, or captured, a high percentage of them the relatively untrained Canadians.

Those responsible for the attack thought that they had the advantage of surprise. The Germans did not, indeed, expect an attack on Dieppe in particular, but they were deployed, well armed, and ready all along the Channel ports for whatever came along. The Germans thought the whole idea of a full-frontal attack was totally mad and unmilitary, not least because no real attempt was made beforehand by aerial bombardment to knock out the guns.

The one success seems to have been the raid led by Lord Lovat, an eccentric figure who went to war casually dressed with his shooting rifle, but a good soldier. As for the rest, the landings on beaches red, blue, orange, and yellow, as they were named, were disastrous.

A mild-mannered Canadian, General Ham Roberts, took the blame for the failure, but, Bishop argues, it was really Mountbatten’s decision in the first place, and he was the one who, as soon as he saw what had happened, made sure to the end of his life that every account should portray the attack as a deliberate preparation for Normandy, and suggest that many lives there were saved by the lessons learnt at Dieppe.

We do not, however, learn what these lessons were. Perhaps they were so obvious that they did not need to be spelt out. In particular, as Bishop ends: “The last service of the dead of Dieppe is to remind us of a simple truth: that peace is sweet and war an abyss of sorrow and waste.”

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London.


Operation Jubilee: Dieppe, 1942: The folly and the sacrifice
Patrick Bishop
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