“If they ask you why we died, tell them because our fathers lied.” Rudyard Kipling.
By Don North, Washington D.C. August 19, 2018
The template for unashamed deceit of the news media in wartime is the disastrous raid on Dieppe August 19, 1942. The controversy over the lessons learned at Dieppe continue to this day, perhaps proof that unless truthful, the “first rough draft of history” reported in the media lives on without aggressive scholarship or journalism.
At the Canadian Military Museum in Ottawa, Ontario there is a citation on the wall of an official display; “Some insist that the lessons learned at Dieppe contributed to the success of later allied landings including Normandy. Others insist that the raid was poorly planned and an avoidable blunder.” It seems the Canadian preference is to “choose your own version of history on Dieppe.” Don’t let the truth bother you.
Of the many authoritative books on the raid, one of the best is The Dieppe Raid by the late British historian Robin Neillands. He cuts through the censorship and propaganda that have fogged understanding of Dieppe by calling it “a false concept aided by soldiers, politicians and journalists who came to believe their own censored reports. Neillands wrote, “Many of the lessons of Dieppe were quite fundamental. There was no need to learn them again at such a terrible cost. The Dieppe commanders failed to remember that loyalty should flow down as well as up; their loyalty was due to the nameless soldiers in the landing craft as much as to their superiors and dictates of the Service. There were people dying on those stony beaches. They deserved better of their commanders. Those who seek glory in war will not find it on the beaches of Dieppe. Those who seek tales of valour need look no further.”
Dieppe was the first large-scale daylight assault on a strongly held objective in Europe since the withdrawal from France in 1940. The principle architect of Dieppe was Lord Louis Mountbatten, a favourite of Winston Churchill, who had appointed him Chief of Combined Services. Mountbatten with Churchill’s blessing pushed through the raid although many officers of the allied military establishment, including Field Marshall Montgomery, felt it was ill-advised.
Dieppe was the first big propaganda exercise of modern warfare. At that time military public relations was a new-fangled notion, foreign to most senior British and Canadian officers. However Lord Mountbatten’s eager PR team took an opportunistic view. Included on his staff were two American publicists from Hollywood, Major Jock Lawrence and Lt. Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., son of the film star.
Twenty one war correspondents and photographers were allowed to accompany the raid. What they, in fact, witnessed was a tragic and costly fiasco. What they wrote, after vetting by Mountbatten’s censors was largely fiction.
I learned the truth of Dieppe from two veterans of the Canadian Royal Regiment who landed at “Blue Beach” that fateful August 19th. Private Roy Jacques who later became a respected journalist and news director of CKWX, Vancouver first told me the Dieppe story. “There were 5,000 of us from the 2nd Canadian Division, 1,000 British commandos and 50 U.S. Army Rangers. In less than ten hours battle, after hitting the beach, 1,380 of us had been killed. I was captured along with 2,000 others, mostly wounded by the Germans, and spent the rest of the war at Stalag Stargard.” Roy died a few years ago at age 95.
Another friend and veteran of Dieppe was Private Joe Ryan, Toronto, also of the Royal Regiment. Ryan and I returned to Dieppe for the 65th anniversary of the landing in 2007 and walked the landing beach and the Canadian cemetery. “That’s my beach, Don. The tide was about the same as it is now when we ran across those damn rocks tripping and falling. See that old German pillbox is still there overgrown with weeds.” In Dieppe cemetery “there’s the grave of my signalman Rolly Ward. Rolly and I hit the beach together, but Rolly didn’t get up again. I took his watch and brought it back to his mother who never did believe he had been killed at Dieppe.”
Joe and I argued about the role of the press at Dieppe. Ross Munro of the Canadian Press had been in the same landing craft as Joe but did not venture onto the beach where piles of the dead were mounting. Joe insisted, “Those newsmen were drunken bastards and we wouldn’t have anything to do with them. Munro was coward who never left the landing craft.”
I tried to convince Joe that Munro had a good view of the embattled beach from the landing craft and was able to survive and return to England with his eyewitness story, which he could not have done if killed or captured by the Germans. Joe Ryan died in 2008. However, Ross Munro and the other reporters were subject to draconian censorship by Mountbatten’s command and their published reports bore little resemblance to the facts.
The Toronto Star headlined first news of the raid August 22 with Munro’s story. LIKE FIREWORKS SAYS ROYAL’S SERGEANT OF BATTLE AT DIEPPE “In the grimmest and fiercest operation of the war since British troops swarmed out of Dunkirk, the Canadians’ assaulting Dieppe gave the German elite coastal defensemen a sample of the courage the Dominion’s fighting men display when they are assigned to battle.”
Three years later after the war ended, Ross Munro wrote a book Gauntlet to Overlord, in which he described the Dieppe landing without censorship.
“They plunged into about two feet of water and machine-gun bullets laced into them. Bodies piled up on the ramp. Some staggered to the beach and fell. Looking out the open bow over the bodies on the ramp, I saw the slope leading up to a stone wall littered with Royal casualties. They had been cut down before they had a chance to fire a shot. It was brutal and terrible and shocked you almost to insensibility to see the piles of dead and feel the hopelessness of the attack at this point. The beach was khaki-coloured with the bodies of the boys from Central Ontario.”
Munro concluded in his book that the raid was a complete tactical failure, that everything that could have gone wrong did so, that “looking back, it seems to me to have been an incredibly risky task with only a gambler’s chance of success.” But Munro, years after, still bought Lord Mountbatten’s pitch that “losses must be seen in the light of valuable experience gained. The battle of D-Day was won on the beaches of Dieppe.”
Classified papers in the British archives released thirty years later show that Mountbatten may have even duped Churchill and his War cabinet into believing Dieppe was a success. “The raid had gone off very satisfactorily. The planning had been excellent, air support faultless, and naval losses extremely light. Of the 6,000 men involved, two thirds returned to Britain and all I have seen are in great form.”
Proof that Mountbatten’s command planned to use Dieppe as a propaganda tool whatever happened can be found in the Combined Operations files in the archives at Kew near London. In a memorandum titled “Jubilee (Code for the Dieppe raid) Communique Meeting“, it is made clear that Mountbatten planned to appeal to “lessons learned” before any were actually learned.
“In case the raid is unsuccessful the same basic principles must hold.
1. We cannot call such a large-scale operation a “reconnaissance raid.”
2. We cannot avoid stating the general composition of the force, since the enemy will know it and make capital of our losses and of any failure of the first effort of Canadian and U.S. troops.
3. Therefore, in the event of failure, the communique must then stress the success of the operation as an essential test in the employment of substantial forces and equipment.
4. We then lay extremely heavy stress on stories of personal heroism—through interviews, broadcasts, etc. —in order to focus public attention on bravery rather than objectives not attained. “
The press releases issued following the raid virtually quoted the memorandum: “vital experience has been gained in the employment of substantial numbers of troops in an assault, and in the transport of heavy equipment.”
Lord Louis Mountbatten throughout his life worked to enhance his place in history for his leadership of the Dieppe raid. Brian Loring Villa, when he was a professor of history at the University of Ottawa, wrote Unauthorized Action: Mountbatten and the Dieppe raid. Villa claims Mountbatten convinced Churchill to replace his original critical account of the raid in his war history, The Hinge of Fate, with a more positive one written by Mountbatten himself. In 1974, in a speech to British war veterans he accused the Canadians of changing his original plan to a frontal attack.
In 2013 war historian David O’Keefe of Montreal following fifteen years of diligent research in British archives published “”One Day in August” claiming that a secret purpose of the Dieppe raid was to capture German naval codes and the enigma code machine believed to be hidden in a German Naval headquarter in the Port of Dieppe. The German made enigma code machines were key to thwarting the German submarine menace in the Atlantic that was devastating allied shipping. The mission to capture enigma failed. O’Keefe writes, ”Dieppe is still a disaster but now it can be viewed as something more than a failed testing of German defences.
After years of books glorifying Dieppe, the evidence published in Robin Neillands’ book, The Dieppe Raid, published in 2005 cut like a cleaver in Canada when he wrote, “one lesson that cannot be questioned as having an influence on all Allied staffs for the rest of the war is that ineffectual staffs like the Canadians get many people killed very fast.”
Neillands concluded: “Mistakes were made that could have been avoided had the people involved in this operation known more about amphibious warfare. At every level they did not know what they were doing. When the Canadians and the Royal Marine Commandos went ashore, they were going to their deaths—and most of them probably realized that fact as their landing craft took them into the assault.”
War correspondent Ross Munro went home to Canada to become the Editor of the Vancouver Sun, with few regrets about his intrepid war reporting so distorted by Mountbatten and Churchill’s censors. “You get very deft and skilled at telling the story honestly and validly despite the censorship. I never really felt, except maybe on the Dieppe raid, that I was really cheating the public at home.”
Frank Gillard of the BBC was one correspondent at Dieppe who regretted his coverage. “I am almost ashamed to read my report, but it was that or nothing. It was a day of wrangling, fist with one censor and then with another, until our mutilated and emasculated texts, rendered almost bland under relentless pressure, was released 24 hours after our return. It was all so stupidly frustrating. There was sheer folly at Dieppe, but that was at the planning level. Those who had to execute these misguided orders against impossible odds showed gallantry and heroism of the highest order. Given half a chance, we could have presented Dieppe in terms that would have evoked pride along with the sorrow. But PR handling of Dieppe was as great a disaster as the operation itself.”
One journalist who covered the Dieppe landing was pleased with his story and felt he got it right. A reporter for the Deutsche Alleghenies Zeitung visiting a nearby Luftwaffe airbase wrote: “As executed, the venture mocked all rules of military logic and strategy.”
Even Hitler’s Reich Minister of Propaganda, Dr. Josef Goebbels, in a radio interview monitored by the BBC sounded rational compared to British claims of victory at Dieppe. “We have no doubt it is possible with this kind of news reporting to deceive and lead astray one’s own nation for a time, but we do doubt that one can alter any of the facts by such methods.”
American author John Steinbeck covered the Dieppe raid for Colliers Magazine and later wrote, “The correspondents of the Second World War were a curious, crazy, yet responsible crew. For the sake of the war effort, and because the war against Hitler was considered a just one, they did what was required of them.” Dieppe, where 1,380 were killed and 2,000 taken prisoner, showed how well the system worked.
The main lesson of Dieppe may be that if the “first rough draft of history” as reported in the news media is distorted, it can live on indefinitely unless there is an aggressive scholarship and journalism to counter it.
History is to the human race what reason is to the individual. Both extend our ability to think past the narrow present, and if they are distorted—-for whatever reason—-future misjudgments are inevitable.
Truth can be painful, as the soldiers and their survivors know who wish to cling to the positive spin of terrible events. My friends Roy Jaques and Joe Ryan went to their graves recently comforted by the false claims of Lord Mountbatten that those who fought and died at Dieppe paved the way for victory in Normandy two years later. They can be forgiven, as can be relatives and friends of those who died at Dieppe who desperately search for meaning in their sacrifice and loss of their loved ones. It takes exceptional courage to make truthful judgments in wartime.
They will be honoured and remembered, as the Dieppe veterans are every year in the Canadian cemetery at Dieppe. Moving among the graves marked with a maple leaf and the date August 19, as he does every year, will be Alain Menue of the Dieppe memorial association, to lay wreaths and flowers. He told me, “We in Dieppe remember their sacrifice. Even though there are few lines now in the history books about the battle, it is important to remember the defeats as well as the victories. Sadly now we find many young people in France are not interested to remember the war.”
Dieppe, after 76 years is still a cautionary tale against false patriotism. Glorified history can make war more palatable to the public, which can encourage its use again, often too readily and without regard to the real human consequences.
In the eulogies to fallen soldiers there is a tendency to mark unnecessary deaths as justification for still more unnecessary deaths.
“We must take from the altars of the past the fire…not the ashes.” –Jean Jars, French philosopher.