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A 'pinch' gone wrong

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

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This is a sceen on Dieppe Beach, France during World War ll, where Canadian casualties amounted to more than 3,300, including approximately 1,800 taken as prisoners.

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This is a sceen on Dieppe Beach, France during World War ll, where Canadian casualties amounted to more than 3,300, including approximately 1,800 taken as prisoners.

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of the French holiday resort was part of a clandestine commando mission to capture Nazi intelligence, specifically a newer version of the Enigma cipher machine and its related code books.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 empty-handed. 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.

Free Press reporter Bruce Owen is a life-long student of history. He reported extensively on Dieppe's 70th anniversary.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2013 A1

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