Dieppe (1993)




Director:  John N. Smith.

Starring:  Gary Reineke (Maj. Gen. Hamilton Roberts), Victor Garber (Lord Louis Mountbatten), Robert Joy (Hughes-Hallett), Peter Donat (McNaughton), Aidan Devine (Casey), Gordon Currie (Stefan), Thomas Mitchell (Jawarski), Brian Taylor (Morton), Greg Ellwand (Magnus), John Nelles (Lionel), Larissa Laskin (Leith), Gabrielle Rose (Anne), John Neville (Gen. Sir Alan Brooke), Kenneth Welsh (Maj. Gen. Harry Crerar), Michael Anderson Jr. (David Lean).

worst defeat of Canadian forces in World War II


Good movie.  If we can believe the film, the attack on Dieppe was a farce and a tragedy with 70% casualties (killed, wounded, captured) inflicted on a force of just under 5,000 Canadian soldiers primarily for political reasons: to give the impression that Churchill was actually doing something to carry out the war, so that the political pressure would lessen on him.   It was a situation worse than that the Australians faced at Gallipoli in World War I.  

The Canadian forces have been in England for some three years without seeing any action at all.  Meanwhile, the Canadian troops are suffering from low morale.  They are a bit stir-crazy and this is demonstrated in a food riot in the mess hall.  Canadian General Roberts is given command of the Canadian 2nd Division. 

Churchill has done very little to open a second front to relieve pressure on the Soviet Union.  And what he does suggest is usually rejected by the military.  So Churchill seeks out Captain Mountbatten to be in command of operations.  (This appears foolish to many of the military men for Mountbatten has had three ships sunk beneath him and he left a convoy unprotected.)  But Churchill is so discouraged that he wants a commander that can aggressively and surreptitiously get around the military chiefs, so that he can have a victory somewhere.  He makes Mountbatten Advisor to Combined Operations.

Mountbatten is given a list of six French ports suitable for divisional raids.  He is instructed to choose one and do it.  Mountbatten's right-hand man, Hughes-Hallett, suggests following the old ferry route from around Brighton, England to Dieppe, France.  Dieppe is not one of the six ports listed, but Mountbatten decides to take it anyway.  He is portrayed in the movie as having a very cavalier attitude toward the project  -- and especially cavalier about the high possible casualty rate among Canadian troops if the Canadians decide to attack Dieppe. 

While Mountbatten appears the fool, the Canadian officers are a bit too eager to take any combat assignment.  Just like their men, the Canadian officers are tired of waiting around doing nothing.  The Canadians are also a little too interested in beating the Americans (the Johnny-come-latelys as the Canadians say) into battle.  The one man who seems to have the strength to resist temptation is General Andy McNaughton, who does not trust putting the Canadian forces under anyone but Canadian leadership.  He makes the comment that the only way to protect the welfare of Canadian soldiers is to put them under Canadians. 

But Mountbatten's team decides to end run McNaughton.  Canadian officer Harry Crerar engineers the callback of McNaughton to Ottawa, so that he (Harry) can approve the Dieppe project. 

As the Dieppe project unfolds it appears even more fool-hardy.  The Canadians are to be set on shore for a mere 15 hours and then to be evacuated.  (Worse yet, there is no real important military target for the Canadian troops to destroy.)  Furthermore, the town of Dieppe is surrounded by high cliffs from which German troops can readily cover the beaches.  General Montgomery is skeptical of the project.  He accepts the project only after he is allowed to modify it.   All agree that the project is acceptable only if there is heavy bombardment from the air and a battleship. 

But the project gets harder and harder.  Churchill denies the use of a battleship or even a heavy cruiser for fear that another loss of such a vessel might lead to his government having to step down.  And then even the possibility of air bombardment becomes questionable.  The British navy wants the project canceled and General Roberts also wants it canceled. 

But the attack is set to go on.  The Canadians spend four days on ship waiting for the mission to start.  German planes attack and damage two British ships.  The element of surprise has now been lost.  The naval commander of the mission, Baillie-Grohman, cancels the attack on Dieppe.  Gen. Montgomery is emphatic that the mission should be scrapped forever.  A very angry Mountbatten refers to Montgomery as a "vicious little prick."

But Hughes-Hallett saves the day for Churchill and Mountbatten.  He says that the project can go in a month when the tides are right.  Hughes-Hallett will get Baillie-Gorham transferred and he will take his place. 

General Eisenhower meets with Churchill and his staff.  He becomes very angry with Churchill and says that for the past six months the prime-minister has been playing the Americans as saps, choosing to do nothing to open a second front.  This even puts more pressure on Churchill to get the Dieppe project accomplished.  Churchill responds by putting more pressure on the military board.  The board in turn responds by not approving the project, but at the same time not actually saying no to Mountbatten.  Mountbatten in turn runs with this, saying that "we will proceed until the military board tells us to stop". 

Mountbatten also gets full Canadian support by giving McNaughton complete control over the Canadians in the field, using the phrase that "we will make it an all Canadian plan."  Meanwhile, Roberts learns that 4,000 soldiers of the German 110th Infantry, all battle-hardened vets from the Soviet front, are now in Dieppe.  Roberts tries to convince McNaughton not to go ahead with the project, but McNaughton forces Roberts to accept the plan. 

And so the ridiculous plan is put into action.  I guess you can guess the results.  But it is interesting to see the actual attack on Dieppe. 

I guess one could say that Churchill had no real options and the attack was necessary to take the political pressure off him.  Even a great man like Churchill probably had to do certain things of which he was not happy or proud.  But I tend to agree that Churchill was moving a bit too slowly.  Certainly, the Yanks wanted to get into the war as fast as possible.  But the Canadians like the Australians believed and believe that Britain was just too cavalier with their troops precisely because they were not British and that the British were all too eager to throw their lives away.  Whether it is true or not isn't as important as the fact that the British colonies feel that their soldiers were misused and abused by Britain.  

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

Historical Background:


1942 (spring) the Allied situation was grim. The Germans were in Russia, the British Eighth Army had been forced back into Egypt, and the Germans occupied France.

Since a D-Day type invasion was not possible at the time, the Allies planned a major raid on the French port of Dieppe in order to force Germany to take divisions away from the Soviet front and place them in France. Additional advantages of such an attack were the opportunity to test new techniques and equipment and provide experience for the future great amphibious assault on France.

Plans (Operation Rutter) were drawn up for the raid on Dieppe to take place in July 1942.

May 20 Canadians troops began intensive training on the Isle of Wight.

July unfavorable weather prevented the attack on Dieppe.

A new operation, named Jubilee, formulated. Major General J.H. Roberts, the Commander of the 2nd Canadian Division, was appointed Military Force Commander, and Captain J. Hughes-Hallett, R.N. was the Naval Force Commander. Air Vice Marshal T.L. Leigh-Mallory was the Air Force Commander.

The landing craft of the eastern sector unexpectedly encountered a small German convoy and the noise of the ensuing conflict alerted the German in Dieppe.

August 19 5,000 Canadians, about 1,050 British Commandos and 50 American Rangers landed at Dieppe. At Puys the Canadians were badly mauled with only a few of the men being able to get over the heavily wired seawall. Other Canadian forces were pinned down on the beach.  At Pourville, the Canadians assaulted the beaches and crossed the River Scie, but were stopped well short of Dieppe proper.  The main attack on Dieppe itself had a terrible time of it with a failure of all the attempts to breach the seawall.  The Royal Air Force lost 106 aircraft, while the RCAF lost 13.

Of the 4,963 Canadians involved in the attack, 3,367 were casualties (with 907 killed and 1,946 taken as prisoners of war.)

Some argue that the lives lost at Dieppe saved countless lives on D-Day, June 6, 1944. (But that was about two years later in time and other, larger, successful Allied amphibious assaults had been carried out in North Africa, Sicily and Anzio, Italy.)   The value or non-value of the attack on Dieppe is still debated. 


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