Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Dieppe still an enigma

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The ghosts of Dieppe have not been put to rest, despite dramatic new research that shows there may have been a truly vital purpose to the raid on the French resort town on Aug. 19, 1942. The discovery of a purpose, however, does not change the fact it was a bungled operation from beginning to end, and the greatest military disaster in Canadian history.

It was doomed to fail and it should never have happened, the alleged importance of the objective notwithstanding.

Military historian David O'Keefe has uncovered startling information that the purpose of the raid was a top-secret mission to "pinch" a German naval Enigma machine and its code books, which were believed to be inside a naval headquarters building located in a Dieppe hotel.

The Canadians were there merely to support the clandestine mission, open the harbour and crush the German defences so a special British assault unit could enter the hotel and steal the prize, O'Keefe says. His findings are to be aired Sunday night on the History Channel.

It's a fascinating story and it shows there are still many secrets about the Second World War waiting to be discovered. One of O'Keefe's most interesting findings was that Ian Fleming, the creator of the James Bond series, was present during the raid, waiting just offshore. As the personal assistant to the head of British naval intelligence, his job was to return the captured material to Bletchley Park, where Britain's top-secret code breakers were based.

The allies had previously pinched an early version of Enigma, which was used for the encryption and decryption of secret messages.

In early 1942, however, the Germans had improved their encoding technology, which was being used by the U-boats and about to be passed to the surface fleet.

The British believed acquiring the new Enigma would shorten the war and save thousands of lives.

The British had conducted many successful commando raids during the war, but Dieppe was a much larger affair, involving some 6,000 troops, including nearly 5,000 Canadians. The rest were British commandos and 50 Americans.

O'Keefe's analysis unfortunately does not explain why Britain's Lt.-Gen. Bernard Montgomery, who was part of the chain of command considering the raid, opposed it strongly. He also initially opposed the use of Canadian troops, whom he felt were not fully trained.

When bad weather put a stop to the raid in July, Montgomery argued it should not be remounted. There were many voices that regarded it as suicidal. Monty's view that a pincher attack, supported by airborne troops, should be attempted, instead of a frontal assault, was ignored.

The operation fell under the command of Combined Operations, which was run by Lord Louis Mountbatten, whose abilities Montgomery did not respect. He is reported to have said he wouldn't trust Mountbatten to plan a fishing expedition.

The raid went ahead even though the element of surprise was lost and the Germans were behind their weapons, ready to pulverize the invaders from the high cliffs.

Gen. John (Ham) Roberts, the Canadian commander of ground forces, sent in reinforcements, which merely compounded the debacle. O'Keefe says that's because of a military principle known as "maintenance of objective," where you keep trying despite casualties.

There's also another principle that says you don't reinforce failure, which is what really happened at Dieppe.

It's unclear if Roberts knew about the secret mission, or if he was ordered to send in reinforcements. If so, he wrongly took the fall for the operation -- he was relieved of command six months later.

Finally, there is no excuse for the delay in releasing the information, official secrets be damned. The veterans of Dieppe deserved to know the full story, small comfort that it is. Dieppe remains a tragedy that should never have happened. It reminds us, once again, of the arrogance of generals and their masters.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 A14

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