Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Detailed account of disastrous Dieppe raid

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B.C.-based military historian Mark Zuelhke presents an astonishingly detailed account of the Dieppe raid, surely one of the most disastrous days in our country's military history.

This 10th volume in his ambitious series on Canadian battles in the Second World War is the result of thorough research, an array of support materials, and generous sharing of scholarship by colleagues.

His is a truly moving presentation, with quotations and facts that make this piece of history something to read through your tears.

In Zuehlke's capable hands, it's hard to believe that such an attack was attempted, especially one that was so difficult to plan and co-ordinate.

Dieppe before the Second World War was popular as a resort community in the Normandy region of France.

Ferries from the British port of Newhaven in Sussex transported tourists to gamble in the casinos and play on the cobble beaches.

Operation Jubilee on Aug. 19, 1942, changed all that. Along with their British and American allies, some 5,000 young Canadians lost their lives or were taken prisoner. Their first taste of modern war was short and bloody.

They participated in an ultimately futile attempt to land a series of attacks on the Normandy beaches, above which German troops were entrenched in the cliffs and caves.

The object was to challenge the German hold on Western Europe that dated from the spring of 1940, raise morale in the conquered nations, and take pressure off the Soviet Union at war with Germany on the Eastern front.

The outcome of an offensive that lasted less than a day was a slaughter of the Allied forces.

The name Dieppe took on a new and horrible meaning.

Through maps and pages of description, and extensive quoted sources, Zuehlke provides a comprehensive picture of the geographic advantages the Germans held, and tells why Dieppe was the natural target. In fact, German sources, like the many that became available to both sides after the battle, reflect that reality.

The German position on the Normandy shore was almost unassailable. Attempts to locate breaches in their defence produced little promise of an Allied success, as the dress rehearsals code-named Yukon showed. In fact, if Yukon promised anything it was disaster.

Rather than serving as preparation for penetrating Normandy, Allied efforts gave the Germans indications of likely targets -- and bolstered their expectation of success.

An example of the detail with which Zuehlke builds his story is his account of a party the German air force, the Luftwaffe, held on the night before the Dieppe raid.

"In the afternoon of Aug. 18, a gaggle of correspondents, film cameramen, and photographers descended to record the activities," Zuehlke writes.

"After dinner, a large dance ensued, with the women in evening gowns and the pilots wearing white dinner jackets or their white summer mess tunics. The party was still in full flight at dawn."

In other words, the German party extended to about the time of the Allied raid on Dieppe.

Now that's confidence.

Quite the opposite was the sentiment on the Allied side. By the end of 1941, the mood was one of deep pessimism. Writing in his diary, Harold Nicolson, scholar, writer and backbencher in the British Parliament, observed, "Not a year on which I shall look back with any pleasure. It has been a sad and horrible year."

Yet people in the U.K. had good reason to expect the next year would be worse.

Zuehlke, who lives in Victoria, is not content just to set out a narrative with accompanying maps and thoroughly prepared sources. He shows a passion for military history, as he has in previous volumes, and he presents it graphically.

Ron Kirbyson is a Winnipeg writer, educator and historian.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 J10

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