Dieppe reminds us the West values the lives of its troops and illustrates other fundamentals about Westerners, yet the August 1942 raid remains controversial and filled with ambiguity. This article does not seek to clarify each puzzle but to draw attention to some enduring facts of war. Many of the quandaries and predicaments the Allies experienced before, during, and after the raid are not unique to Operation Jubilee; thus it remains relevant for today’s military planning, combined joint operations, and postdisaster accountability. Ten factors for the operation’s failure are considered. Moreover, it was a combined joint operation, so everyone could blame everyone else. Discounting such labyrinths, Operation Jubilee is still a rewarding source of reflection for military planners and practitioners.
The raid on Dieppe in August 1942 is still controversial to the extent that “The waters have since been muddied so successfully that today hardly anything about the raid is undisputed.”1 The aim of this article is not to purify the muddy water but to draw attention to some enduring facts of war. Many of the quandaries and predicaments the Allies experienced before, during, and after the raid are not unique to this operation. The faith of Operation Jubilee is thus still relevant for today’s military planning, combined joint operations, and postdisaster blame gaming.
The article first recapitulates what happened; second looks at why it happened, which is where the muddy water begins; and finally discusses why it went wrong.
The raid, originally planned under the codename Rutter, was to take place in early July 1942. Operation Rutter was disbanded primarily due to bad weather but was reinstated with some small but significant changes as Operation Jubilee .
In short the operation was to be a “reconnaissance in force,” and according to the combined plan its aim was as follows:
Operation ‘Jubilee’ is a raid on JUBILEE [Dieppe] with limited air and military objectives, embracing the destruction of local defences and power stations, etc., in JUBILEE, the capture of prisoners, the destruction of aerodrome installations near the town, and the capture and removal of German invasion barges and any other craft in JUBILEE Harbour.2
The key consideration during the planning stage was the element of surprise. The raid had to come as a bolt from the blue and disappear again almost as swiftly. Hence the attack had to be frontal. Fortunately, intelligence showed that “Dieppe was lightly held by a single low-category battalion.”3 A frontal assault thus seemed both necessary and feasible. The alternative would have been to land the main forces on the flanks and take Dieppe in a pincer movement from the rear. However, that would have given the Germans ample time for moving up reinforcements.
Another important issue during planning was the extent to which Bomber Command should “soften up” the target by a preliminary attack. The whole idea was rejected, however, because reducing the streets of Dieppe to rubble could actually have made it easier for the Germans to defend it and even harder for Allied tanks to maneuver. Besides, the landing would have come as no surprise if it were “announced” by a heavy air raid. Furthermore, as the Royal Navy (RN) would not risk a capital ship, it supported the operation only with destroyers and smaller ships.
All in all the attack consisted of around 5,000 Canadian and 1,000 British troops, while the Royal Navy supplied 237 ships and landing craft and the Royal Air Force (RAF) 74 squadrons, 66 of which were fighter squadrons. The raid also included 50 American Soldiers belonging to U.S. 1st Ranger Battalion. This was a rough kind of on-the-job training for the Rangers. Indeed, the first Americans killed on European soil during World War II belonged to this group.
The operation was a disaster, particularly for the land forces. Of the 6,000 troops who participated, only about 2,000 returned to England.4 Even Lord Louis Mountbatten, who saw great benefit from the raid in the long run, admitted that the operation, on its own merit, had been a failure: “The frontal assault on the town itself failed, as everybody knows.”5
After the fall of France it was hard to see what options Great Britain had left: “Churchill’s poor excuse for a victory strategy, apart from the hope of rescue by the Americans and the Russians, was to peck at the periphery of Festung Europa, foment insurrection in the occupied countries, and pray for a coup in Berlin.”6 A series of raids and pinpricks was thus undertaken, and when Mountbatten was appointed advisor on combined operations, the Prime Minister’s message was hard to miss: “You are to give no thought to the defensive. Your whole attention is to be concentrated on the offensive.”7
Second, both Washington and Moscow pressed hard for more British action. When Roosevelt had accepted “Europe first” after the Japanese attack in December 1941 and the ensuing German declaration of war, he also implicitly wanted “Europe soon.”8 Moscow’s pressure on London for opening a second front in the west, in order to give the Red Army crucial breathing space or at least show British resolve through a “sacrificial gesture,” was also getting intolerable.9 In this light a dismal failure could at least silence those who clamored for a second front in 1942.
Third, in addition to substantial external forces that pulled Britain into the action, there was also considerable pressure domestically. Many have emphasised that it was the Canadians who bore the brunt of the operation. They had been in the United Kingdom for more than 2 years, producing little but trouble, even to the extent that their “main enemy was boredom.”10 Hence the mix was apparently perfect. A job had to be done, and there were people on hand eager to do it.
Far less has been made of the fact that not only Canadians, but most military men, desperately wanted their share of the action. In his comments to an assessment dated June 29, 1942, concerning the grave consequences that could arise from the capture of some of the central planners, Captain John Hughes-Hallet, RN, responded with the following outburst:
I can find no words to express my complete disagreement with the Minutes on this paper sufficiently strongly. They all spring from the idea—new to this country—that war can be waged without risk, to be more particular my views are as follows: (i) Officers of the type who are suitable for serious operation planning, soon become useless for this purpose unless they see actual war close at hand. (ii) Such Officers also find it intolerable to sit at Whitehall month after month, while their contemporaries have the fortune to be waging war and earning all the distinctions etc.11
In other words, warriors make war if only for the simple reason that there is a war going on.
So far the most basic facts about the operation have been established. Churchill was under considerable pressure to do something, and sometimes it is better to do something hasty than nothing at all. But what should this something be? Now things become a bit more complicated.
A German officer who interrogated prisoners captured at Dieppe remarked, “Jubilee appeared to be too large for a raid and too small for a lodgement.”12 That hit the nail on its head. The operation can be explained along both lines of reasoning, and that has caused much confusion ever since.
Usually the Dieppe operation is portrayed as a raid that had slightly outgrown its feasibility—a “beach too far,” so to speak.13 When we reach the summer of 1942, combined operations (amphibious operations against the German-controlled periphery) had achieved some significant successes. Therefore one of the driving mechanisms behind Operation Jubilee was a kind of incrementalism where raids steadily grew larger and more ambitious. Hughes-Hallet, one of the operation’s fiercest advocates, explained the operation along this line:
We therefore decided upon the age old policy of raiding. Experts have always differed about the efficacy of amphibious raids—and they certainly differed [in] 1942. (As we now know their effect on the Germans was greater than had been expected.) Be this as it may—Dieppe as originally conceived was merely one of this series of raids.14
However, this time a bigger concern piggybacked on this line of action: “But there was a difference inasmuch as when first planned it was designed to test the tactical plan for invasion currently popular with the top Staffs.”15 Indeed, in retrospection, this turned out to be the main aim: “I have not come here to apologise for what was done. I have never doubted that the operation was a necessary step in the preparations to invade France—and that for this reason alone it was justified.”16
Many later claimed that the idea of Operation Jubilee as a preparation for an invasion was an ex post facto justification. However, regarding the operation as vital training is not a concept that surfaced after the fact. Indeed, already in May, Mountbatten had justified the operation along this line:
This operation will be of great value as training for Operation “Sledgehammer” or any other major operation as far as the actual assault is concerned. It will not, however, throw light on the maintenance problem over beaches.17
It is also a challenge in that the operational objectives stated in the combined plan are rather incoherent. Robert Neillands thus wrote, “The problem that confronts historians is what this motley collection of objectivesadds up to in the way of an aim.”18 Apparently, there is nothing there about training, testing, or rehearsal for later operations. On the other hand, the objectives could hardly have been to gain experience. In order to produce concrete plans you need concrete objectives. An athlete does not have to prepare for the Olympics on his daily schedule. The aim of that particular day’s training is, perhaps, to win the gold medal, but the objective has to be something concrete, attainable, and measurable. The same goes for Operation Jubilee . Even if the aim was to prepare for the big invasion, the objectives had to be something more tangible.
Moreover, when Andrew Roberts states, “Dieppe contributed nothing to the ‘mosaic of victory’ and taught military planners hardly anything that common sense and normal research and development would not anyhow have dictated” and that a “lance corporal could have told Mountbatten not to attack a well-defended town without proper air and naval cover,”19 I believe he misses an important point. A lance corporal could also have told Hitler that Operation Weserübung was impossible due to the Royal Navy’s command of the sea, and that MacArthur’s Operation Chromite against Inchon in 1950 was impossible due to the condition of the beaches. Likewise, would it be possible to capture a French harbor without destroying it completely in the endeavor? Could one figure that out on paper alone? In the words of the chief of the imperial general staff, “The object of the operation was precisely to find out whether or not success would result.”20
Even on the tactical level little compares to learning by doing, and for most military men the baptism of fire cannot be substituted by anything. As a Canadian soldier put it, “I learned more at Dieppe than the Army could learn [sic] me in ten years.”21 Churchill underlined this message: “Tactically it was a mine of experience. It shed revealing light on many shortcomings in our outlook.”22 To conclude this particular point: “[Dieppe] taught perhaps the most crucial lesson of World War II. . . . If the Western Allies were to beat the Germans, they would have to revise radically their approach to modern combat.”23
So far we have seen why something had to be done, and why this ended up as something between a raid and an invasion. The last question in this section is Why Dieppe?
First of all, the port had to be close enough to British shores to allow for the naval approach to take place under the cover of darkness.24 Second, the port also had to be within the protective range of Fighter Command. An important spin-off effect of the raid was that Germany’s Luftwaffe would be forced to encounter the Allies. Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory’s appeal to 11 Group on the eve of battle was enthusiastic:
We are about to take part in the first assault delivered by the combined forces of the three Services against the Continent of Europe in this war. It is an honour to take part in so momentous an operation. . . . The responsibility is great, but I am confident that every pilot will do his damndest to destroy any enemy aircraft that may attempt to attack either our ships or our fighting men. GOOD LUCK TO YOU ALL.25
Leigh-Mallory’s first impression after the operation was also grandiose: “It has been said—and, I think, rightly so—that the Dieppe operation produced the greatest air fight the world has ever known.”26 How great a success the air battle was is still contested. What is important here is that Operation Jubilee was much more than the disaster at the beaches.
The last reason Dieppe was chosen was allegedly because the terrain was so difficult that the real invasion, when it eventually came, could under no circumstances have taken place at Dieppe. Hence, the “final reason for choosing Dieppe was the fact that the planners had already ruled it out as a desirable place to capture in the early stages of a real invasion, and we should therefore be giving nothing away by raiding it now.”27
To sum up, Robin Neillands claimed that the raid has “been a potent cause of controversy ever since, not least because no one has ever come up with a satisfactory, controversy-killing explanation of what it was actually for.”28 I do not pretend to have solved this riddle. What I have tried to do, however, is to show that there is no riddle to solve. The operation was over-determinated, so to speak, in the sense that it had multiple causes, many of them sufficient in themselves.
Since the lessons drawn are not restricted to this particular case, the explanations are grouped into 10 categories, which are of contemporary and enduring relevance.
Bad Strategy? Perhaps the blame for the disaster should go to the very top. The Prime Minister did not get the balance right among the ends, means, and ways of war. Perhaps the ultimate aim was wrong and he instead should do as Liddell Hart suggested a few weeks after Dieppe: “Any wise statesman should be disposed to consider the possibility of ending the war by agreement.”29 Or maybe the means were wrong. Britain should have put even more effort into the bomber offensive, and not, for political reasons within the Alliance, be pushed into a half-baked land operation: “Perhaps no other Allied battle of World War II could be said to have been undertaken for such political rather than military aims.”30
Conceivably it was the chosen way that was wrong. The half-unconscious mix of raid and invasion addressed previously was particularly unfortunate: “These two remits—raids and invasion studies—of Combined Operations should never have been run together.”31
Thus the first explanation is Operation Jubilee failed because of a lack of strategic skills on the highest level.
Bad Timing? Churchill was certainly not happy with the cancellation of Operation Rutter:
The Prime Minister expressed his disappointment very forcefully to me [Mountbatten], and enquired how soon I could organise another raid on this scale, as he was extremely anxious to have an operation of this nature as soon as it could be mounted [and] the only way to do this would be to re-mount RUTTER under a different name.32
This was a bold move. Thousands of soldiers had been briefed about the original plan, and common military sense would have been to shelve it for good. However, according to Montgomery:
Combined Operations Headquarters thought otherwise; they decided to revive it and got the scheme approved by the British Chiefs of Staff towards the end of July. When I heard of this I was very upset; I considered that it would no longer be possible to maintain secrecy.33
Consequently, and paradoxically since so many people knew about the original Operation Rutter, it was important to keep the new thrust especially secret: “Such absolute secrecy that not only would the Germans not learn of the raid’s resurrection, but neither would the British.”34 Indeed, the Germans were not the operation’s greatest threat, but reluctant British strategists. They had to be kept in the dark. Mountbatten’s later hyperbole surprised no one:
There is no doubt that this was one of the very best guarded secrets of all time, because nothing was put in writing and because nobody except the minimum number of senior officers who were indispensably concerned in the operation were told anything about it.35
The ensuing lack of printed documentation, and Churchill’s struggle to get to grips with the operation during his writing of The Second World War, has given critics ample room to roam.36
Thus the second explanation is that Operation Jubilee capsized because Mountbatten timed the operation extremely badly. Apparently everybody knew about Dieppe, including the Germans. However, there is little if any evidence that the Germans actually knew about the raid’s resurrection.
Bad Planning? The operational plan for Jubilee was so detailed that it left no room for improvisation once things began to go wrong. Even the Germans made a point out of the Allies’ predilection for detailed plans:
The undertaking was prepared most conscientiously. The Operation Order is very detailed (121 typewritten pages) and, therefore difficult to visualize as a whole. The many code words used make it difficult to grasp in its entirety, and even more so to use as a basis for issuing orders in battle. The planning down to the last detail limits the independence of action of the subordinate officer and leaves him no opportunity to make independent decisions in an altered situation.37
Another problem was that the planners did not know which assets they actually had access to. Based on the experience with Operation Rutter, the following conclusion was drawn:
If the planning and preparation are to run smoothly it is essential that: (A) The planning Staff must know in good time what the Command’s capabilities are. (B) The Commander-in-Chief’s Staff must know in good time what is required of the Command. Unless these two conditions are fulfilled—and fulfilled continuously—we will get misunderstandings, delays, and sooner or later mistakes which may be disastrous. Neither [was] fulfilled in preparation for Rutter.38
The most important asset the planners lost for Operation Jubilee was presumably the heavy bombers: “In retrospect, this failure was the most egregious deficiency in the plan for Dieppe.”39
Thus the third explanation for the Dieppe disaster is that the planning was not good enough. The execution of the operation and the operational art could not have been better than what the rigid plans allowed for.
Bad Rehearsal? If Operation Jubilee was the rehearsal for D-Day, we should perhaps expect that the rehearsal for the operation itself was taken good care of. That was not the case. The dress rehearsal, called Yukon, was a “complete fiasco.”40 The RN ability to land troops during pitch-dark night was poor. Instead of developing that ability, it was decided to postpone the planned landing to the so-called “civil twilight.” The reverse side of that coin was that more light made the assault forces more visible to the Germans in their pillboxes.
Thus the fourth explanation for the Dieppe disaster is that a serious rehearsal, one that would point out what you should practice and prepare for, not just what you should avoid, never occurred.
Bad Command and Control? One of the main challenges in a combined operation is to get the command and control relationship right. Who is actually in charge? The decision to skip the bombers can also be seen in this light: “Compromise on this, compromise on the bombing, compromise on everything. It’s no good!”41 Even during the operation itself, the lack of a supreme commander was, according to Montgomery, crucial:
My own feeling about the Dieppe raid is that there were far too many authorities with a hand in it; there was no one single operational commander who was solely responsible for the operation from start to finish, a Task Force Commander in fact.42
For instance, who had the authority to abort the mission after the land forces hit the beaches? Was it the military force commander, Major General John Hamilton Roberts, or the naval force commander, John Hughes-Hallett? Perhaps the chief of combined operations himself, Louis Mountbatten? Even a newspaper article written just a month after the operation stated the point unambiguously:
The initial plan of campaign was deficient because it was more in the nature of a combined compromise rather than a combined plan, and that our own Air Force tactic and organisation has not yet the flexibility to enable it to co-operate with the land force in a major modern battle against strongly defended positions.43
Even Churchill struggled to fathom how such a clumsy and hazardous plan actually came about:
Although for many reasons everyone was concerned to make this business look as good as possible, the time has now come when I must be informed more precisely about the military plans. Who made them? Who approved them?44
Thus the fifth explanation is that Operation Jubilee foundered through “a fatal confusion of command.”45
Bad Intel? In the 21st century, people have great expectations about “actionable intelligence”: The U.S. Intelligence Community officially defines the concept of actionable intelligence as “An awareness of information that predicts the location, timing, and intentions of an individual or group.” To those of us outside the Intelligence Community, this definition is more appropriately matched with the term clairvoyance, and common sense tells us there is no such thing.46
What the Allies lacked in August 1942 was not clairvoyance but a somber appreciation of German positions and abilities. As mentioned before, British intelligence expected to find Dieppe lightly held by a single low-category battalion. That was not the case, and “Dieppe [thus] represented a failure of British intelligence.”47
So the sixth explanation for the disaster at Dieppe is that the operation was driven by best-case thinking and hampered by a failure of intelligence.
Bad People? So far we have looked into structural factors, but what about the people involved? Obviously, a number of individuals have been blamed for the calamity.
Combined Operations’ head of intelligence, Marquis de Casa Maury, was allegedly “utterly useless.”48 Canadian General J.H. Roberts, who commanded the land forces, had no previous experience and was apparently not up to speed. The naval commander, Hughes-Hallett, was also inexperienced and presumably too eager for action.
The main suspect was Lord Mountbatten himself. Nigel Hamilton describes him as “A master of intrigue, jealously and ineptitude, like a spoilt child he toyed with men’s lives with an indifference to casualties that can only be explained by his insatiable, even psychopathic ambition.”49 Andrew Roberts seconds the verdict: “He was also a mendacious, intellectually limited hustler, whose negligence and incompetence resulted in many unnecessary deaths.”50 Indeed, he even pleaded guilty: “Mountbatten finally came clean, boasting that ‘It was I, and I alone who took the—and I must say rather bold—decision to attack Dieppe’.”51 However, even here Mountbatten apparently asked for more than he was entitled to: “Mountbatten has taken a strong line, claiming all the responsibility, which surely is more than he need bear.”52
This is not the place to whitewash Mountbatten or any other, only to point out that history has seen many vainglorious military leaders such as Montgomery, Patton, and MacArthur. In military matters it can be hard to tell where audacity ends and foolhardiness starts, especially in advance.
Thus the seventh explanation is that the operation miscarried due to sheer madness or other human shortcomings.
Bad Press? Even in 1942 military strategists knew the importance of what we today call “strategic communication”:
The Effect of a military operation upon public opinion is inseparable from the operation itself: this axiom has proved itself repeatedly in this war. The enemy particularly has employed his own interpretation of military operations so ably, by intelligent anticipatory planning and careful timing, that successful British operations have frequently been made to appear as failures, with detrimental effect upon the morale of our people and that of Occupied Countries. The public relations aspect of Operation “Jubilee,” therefore, was approached upon the assumption that a public relations plan is an essential part of any military plan and must be as carefully prepared in advance.53
So the eighth reason for the Dieppe disaster was that its biggest problem apparently was not the failure itself, but the failure to give the failure a positive spin: “The necessity for planning for all eventualities, so that the enemy cannot take a propaganda course which catches us unawares or unprepared, cannot be overemphasized.”54
Bad Luck? The oldest explanation for military fiascos is bad luck. Operation Jubilee had its share:
The almost complete achievement of surprise during the channel crossing was marred by one mishap. At 3.30 a.m. the landing craft carrying No. 3 Commando encountered five or six enemy vessels which were acting as escort to a tanker. The presence of this tanker is itself important evidence that the enemy was not expecting an operation on our part.55
Wicked tongues would presumably say there is no such thing as bad luck, only bad (and often too detailed) plans. Others would say that the operation should have been aborted when Hughes-Hallett became aware of the convoy. Nonetheless, the ninth reason the Dieppe Raid failed was bad luck.
Bad History? So far, this article has examined nine generic explanations for military failures and the subsequent placing of blame. The last explanation does not explain the catastrophe itself, but rather the way posterity has dealt with it.
The Dieppe Raid’s position in the annals of war is peculiar. Approximately 1,000 men were killed during the operation in a 6-year war that claimed an average of 27,000 livesa day.56 Moreover, Winston Churchill spends less than 3 pages on the operation in his massive six volumes The Second World War, which counts almost 5,000 pages. Even the chairman of the chiefs of staff committee, Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, gave the Dieppe Raid just fleeting remarks in his diary.
Despite the fact that the number of lives lost was comparatively small and that the main actors gave it comparatively little attention, Operation Jubilee is apparently the operation during World War II that has produced the most printed papers-per-killed serviceman. Indeed, “one of the last things the history of the Second World War needs is yet another book about the raid on Dieppe.”57 So where does this overblown attention come from?
First of all, in land warfare the occupation of soil is the only currency. Thus the royal parvenu Mountbatten had nothing to show for himself after the raid. His claim that “the battle of D-Day was won on the beaches of Dieppe” was too subtle and oblique for his many critics to accept.
Moreover, while success has many fathers, failure is—as we all know—an orphan. In this particular case, there were many others to blame. It was a combined joint operation, so the British could blame the Canadians and vice versa, or the military men could blame the airmen and vice versa, and so forth.58 There are enough pawns on the table to keep this blame game going on forever. On the other side, for those planning for future combined joint operations, Operation Jubilee is still “a mine of experience.”
Most senior officers in Britain in 1942 had experienced the Great War and they had certainly learned their lesson. This time there should “be no wholesale slaughters.”59 The pertinent question becomes “How is victory possible except by wholesale slaughters?”60 According to Max Hastings, the Western world was lucky almost beyond comprehension:
To defeat Nazi Germany, it was the Western Allies’ extreme good fortune that the Russians, and not themselves, paid almost the entire “butcher’s bill” for doing this, accepting 95 per cent of the military casualties of the three major powers of the Grand Alliance.61
That our politicians have no taste for attrition warfare is a good thing indeed for all Westerners in uniform. If any servicemember has to risk his life, it should be for a particularand, one hopes, tangible reason. The main motivation for still remembering Dieppe is that it tells us something important about the West. We value life, even the lives of our military men and women. JFQ
The author thanks Colonel Eldar Berli and Lieutenant Colonel Palle Ydstebø for inspiration and support during the writing of this article.