A ‘pinch’ gone wrong

Dieppe de­ba­cle a re­sult of Al­lied at­tempt to steal Ger­man in­tel­li­gence ma­chin­ery

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Bruce Owen

IT’S known as Canada’s dark­est hour of the Sec­ond World War. The day­long at­tack of Aug. 19, 1942, on Dieppe was a poorly planned, poorly ex­e­cuted mas­sacre of untested Cana­dian sol­diers. The early-morn­ing land­ing and as­sault on the Ger­man-held port city on the French coast has been one of the most re­searched bat­tles of the war al­most from the day Cana­di­ans learned 907 of their coun­try­men were killed and 2,460 wounded or taken pris­oner. The sin­gle-asked ques­tion in the past 71 years is “Why?” Montreal-based mil­i­tary his­to­rian David O’Keefe at­tempts to an­swer that in One Day In Au­gust, which has been re­leased to co­in­cide with Re­mem­brance Day. O’Keefe says he pored over new Bri­tish war doc­u­ments, un­clas­si­fied since 1995. He claims the frontal at­tack on the stone beach of the French hol­i­day re­sort was part of a clan­des­tine com­mando mis­sion to cap­ture Nazi in­tel­li­gence, specif­i­cally a newer ver­sion of the Enigma ci­pher ma­chine and its re­lated code books. “These new doc­u­ments have made sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the Dieppe saga, demon­strat­ing that the search for in­tel­li­gence ma­te­rial was not a driver for the raid but in­deed the driver,” O’Keefe writes. O’Keefe says that once in Al­lied hands, the “pinched” ma­chine would be spir­ited back to Eng­land where Bri­tish code-breakers would use it to lis­ten in on se­cret Ger­man com­mu­ni­ca­tions to their U-boat sub­marines that were prowl­ing the At­lantic Ocean and sink­ing badly needed Al­lied sup­ply and mu­ni­tions ships. O’Keefe’s re­search was first re­leased last year on the 70th an­niver­sary of the raid in the TV doc­u­men­tary Dieppe Un­cov­ered, and his book is a more thor­ough ex­am­i­na­tion of the doc­u­ments he un­cov­ered and the per­son­al­i­ties be­hind the raid. One of those peo­ple was naval in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer Ian Flem­ing, who later found fame cre­at­ing and pen­ning the su­per-spy James Bond series. If ev­ery­thing that day in Au­gust had gone ac­cord­ing to plan, had dug-in Ger­man ma­chine-gun fire and heavy guns not cut down the Cana­di­ans, O’Keefe ar­gues, his­tory might see Dieppe as a cun­ning suc­cess. By stag­ing the raid as they did, the Al­lied plan­ners — Flem­ing in­cluded — would cover up their true in­tent and the Ger­mans would be none the wiser their se­cret com­mu­ni­ca­tions code had been stolen. “Even a cyn­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the raid would have to ad­mit that, if the raid was a pinch by op­por­tu­nity at its con­cep­tion, it was a pinch by de­sign at de­liv­ery,” O’Keefe says. Of course, Flem­ing and the Dieppe raiders came up emp­ty­handed. Noth­ing of value was achieved at Dieppe other than un­qual­i­fied Al­lied lead­ers were ei­ther de­moted, trans­ferred or saw their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties se­verely re­stricted. The lat­ter in­cluded John Hamil­ton Roberts, the much-ma­ligned Man­i­toba-born com­man­der of Cana­dian troops at Dieppe. O’Keefe says that Roberts’ ac­tions, based on his de­ci­sion to com­mit more of his troops to the slaugh­ter al­ready un­der­way on the beaches, was a sign of how firmly he and other Bri­tish com­man­ders were “fo­cused on the pinch.” Un­for­tu­nately, O’Keefe of­fers noth­ing to back this up other than his sup­po­si­tion based on the sum­ma­tion of the un­clas­si­fied Bri­tish doc­u­ments he re­viewed and what Roberts did that day. It’s a big leap. He also spends lit­tle time ex­plain­ing other rea­sons for the Dieppe raid. These in­cluded the need to pla­cate Soviet leader Joseph Stalin by open­ing up a sec­ond front. There was also the pub­lic-re­la­tions value of at­tack­ing the Ger­mans af­ter three years of crush­ing Al­lied de­feats. Much has al­ready been writ­ten about what was learned at Dieppe and how it as­sisted the Al­lies, in­clud­ing the Amer­i­cans, in the at­tack of North Africa the fol­low­ing year and Nor­mandy in June 1944. O’Keefe brushes this away and fo­cuses nar­rowly on Flem­ing and the de­sire of Bri­tish code-breakers to snag an in­tact Enigma ma­chine un­der Ger­man noses. That’s a dis­ser­vice to the reader and to the Cana­dian sol­diers killed and cap­tured. To say so many lives were that ex­pend­able — and then im­ply that it was es­sen­tially cov­ered up by Churchill on down un­til now — is sim­plis­tic and per­haps even lazy. Give O’Keefe credit for presenting a new and his­tor­i­cally in­sight­ful view of Dieppe so many years later, but to sug­gest Enigma was the only rea­son why Roberts and Bri­tish com­man­ders so cav­a­lierly threw so many men at cer­tain death leaves the reader feel­ing more than a lit­tle sus­pi­cious.

One Day in Au­gust The Un­told Story

Be­hind Canada’s Tragedy

at Dieppe By David O’Keefe Knopf Canada, 451 pages, $35

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