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Return to Dieppe

It has been called the most controversial battle Canadians have ever fought. On Aug. 19, 1942, after nearly three years of waiting in England for a chance to fight, Canadian troops were sent to raid the French coast at Dieppe. But the Germans were ready for them, and the attack became a massacre. Of nearly 5,000 Canadians sent to Dieppe, only 2,000 returned. More than 60 years later, the operation remains divisive: was Dieppe an essential trial run for D-Day, or a shocking waste of lives?

The weather is glorious and the beach is inviting, but the cliffs towering above Dieppe cast long shadows. Even a tourist can see the folly of attacking such a place by sea. But Archie Anderson, Denny Whittaker and Ron Beal are no ordinary tourists. They are Canadian veterans who have made the pilgrimage back to Dieppe to see if they can resolve the uncertain feelings that still haunt them half a century later.

In this special 50th anniversary documentary, the three aging men pick a tranquil spot atop the cliffs to reminisce with CBC's Brian Stewart. Seeing the beach for the first time from this vantage, the veterans can almost see their younger selves in German crosshairs. "These guys don't have a whisker of a chance," one ponders aloud. "Which shall I shoot at first?" 
• Dieppe veterans and historians continue to wrestle with one main question: Was it worth it? As a military operation, few would call it a success. But many believe that the lessons learned at Dieppe were instrumental in preparing the Allies for the successful invasion of Normandy in 1944.

• In Dieppe: Tragedy to Triumph, co-author Brigadier General Denis Whitaker says that Winston Churchill believed an exploratory invasion was a necessary step. He also cites the Chief of Imperial General Staff, Gen. Sir Alan Brooke. "No responsible General will be associated with any planning for invasion until we have an operation at least the size of the Dieppe raid behind us to study and base our plans upon," Brooke told the prime minister in June 1942.

In post-war interviews, Lord Mountbatten repeatedly argued that the lessons of Dieppe were essential to success on D-Day:
• 1961: "I am quite sure that the battle of Normandy was won on the beaches of Dieppe."
• 1972: "Dieppe taught us lessons that had to be learned. Nothing like what we were planning to do had ever happened before. This was the only experience we had to go on."
• 1975: "For every one man who was killed in Dieppe, at least 10 or more had their lives spared on the beaches of Normandy."

• In contrast, Canadian historians including Terence Robertson, Jack Granatstein and Brian Loring Villa claim that the raid taught the Allies little that they didn't already know.

• Robertson points out that the British had been carrying out "combined operations" for centuries. Once called "conjunct expeditions", the method was used by Sir Francis Drake against Spain in the 16th century, against France during the Napoleonic wars and in Quebec in 1759, and in Gallipoli in 1915 (with disastrous results).

• Villa says that the specifics lessons of Dieppe, such as the absolute need for heavy bombardments to "soften up" defences before attempting a landing, were known long before the Dieppe raid. And of course, the Germans were likely to learn at least as much from a failed landing attempt as the Allies would.

• The Dieppe landing did afford the Allies an opportunity to test and refine several innovations that really were new. It was the first time they had transported and landed tanks by sea, something that was used extensively on D-Day. There were also improvements in communications, supply lines, intelligence, landing craft, armoured vehicles, and techniques to eliminate anti-tank obstacles.

Medium: Television
Program: The Journal
Broadcast Date: June 18, 1992
Guest(s): Archie Anderson, Ron Beal, Denny Whittaker
Reporter: Brian Stewart
Duration: 19:40

Last updated: June 5, 2012

Page consulted on July 29, 2013

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