The greatest shortcoming of the British armed forces in World War II was that leadership positions in the military were assigned according to social rank, US military wrote in the review. An extreme example is the British attack on the port city of Dieppe in 1942. Here 6000 men were sent on a hopeless mission. And all for the sake of Lord Mountbatton’s inflated ego, writes Patrick Bishop in his book Operation Jubilee. Mountbatten – “Uncle Dickie” – was the uncle of Prince Philip, husband of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

The survivors of the disastrous landing operation compared their mission to another suicide mission in Her Majesty’s service. The “Attack of the Light Brigade” in the Crimean War – only in 1854 only 670 men and not 6000 were sent on a hopeless mission.

Strictly speaking, the attack on the French port had no military purpose, it served to save face. In 1942, the British had repelled the threatened invasion of the island, but otherwise only had to take it. The Germans had driven the British troops out of Norway, France, Greece and Crete. In North Africa, the German Afrika Korps was advancing and on the Atlantic, the German U-boats were encroaching on the vital convoy journeys.

In 1942, before Stalingrad, it was still quite conceivable, if not even probable, that the Germans could defeat Russia. Had the Soviet Union collapsed, Hitler could have turned his entire force against Britain. A proper invasion would have helped beleaguered Russia, but the British were unable to do that. After the success of smaller commando raids on the continent, the idea came up to dare a somewhat larger action. In size somewhere between a commando and a full-fledged invasion, the Dieppe Raid. But even if it were successful, it would have remained a pointless operation. Even if the British could have taken the port, that would have damaged Hitler’s image, but in no way would a brigade have forced him to withdraw troops from the east.

“Even the complete destruction of Dieppe,” said Bishop, “would not have contributed to reducing the German ability to wage war.” It was, as one of the planners admitted, an attack “for the sake of an attack”.

The strategic futility was replaced by a whole list of operational goals. If the storming of the city had succeeded, a few ships, radio equipment, the port installations and much more could have been destroyed there. Just like any other port on the coast. The real motive lay in the leaders who saw a chance to emerge from a shameful inaction. Mountbatten wanted “to show the Germans, the British public, the Americans and the Soviets a willingness to attack and to give new luster to the reputation of the Combined Operations Headquarters,” Bishop said. The Royal Air Force wanted to conquer the Luftwaffe and Canadian commanders were dying to see their men in action.

Because of a storm, the raid on Dieppe was canceled in early July 1942. But a few weeks later it happened anyway. Mainly because Lord Mountbatten wanted to implement the project. “It was the triumph of vanity, stubbornness and ambition that always provided the dark counterpoint to his great ability and great humanity,” writes Bishop.

The attack ended in a disaster that did not go beyond isolated successes. Despite long planning and resistance in France, the attacking forces had no useful information about the German defenses. And unlike previous commando operations, here you no longer met an opponent who had not expected an attack at all.

Above all, it had not been possible to eliminate the German firing positions beforehand. The port was defended with machine guns and artillery covering all approaches. The storming Canadians got into exactly the sections that the Germans had foreseen. They encountered a “near-perfect system of interlocking arcs of fire, which together created a whirlpool of bullets and shells that should derail any frontal attack on the city unless preceded by a devastating bombardment”.

The plan was to land on either side of the port. There, in a surprise attack, the artillery batteries were to be knocked out and the city stormed. Even the first attack was delayed, so that the troops landed with full visibility. There was no question of surprise, the Germans shot at the Canadians who were crowded together in the boats. Gunman Tom Hunter was in the front row when the boat’s door fell into the water.

“I jumped into the water, which was up to my chest.” If he’s lucky, he’ll make it into the shadow of the sea wall. “I didn’t have time to look around and I just wanted to get there as soon as possible.” He then pressed his head into the stones. “There was nothing we could do. I didn’t even get a chance to shoot back.” The group accompanying Ross Munro, a Canadian journalist, came under heavy machine gun fire as they attempted to storm the beach. In 15 minutes, the brave force was reduced to a heap of dazed and injured men desperate for cover.

“We just had to stay close to the wall,” said Sergeant John Legate a few days later. “The crossfire that was coming our way made it impossible to move a meter from the wall or they would have gotten us.” No one could rescue the wounded. In addition to the machine gun fire, there were also the impacts of mortars. The wall no longer offered any protection from the high-angle guns. Photos by the Germans show the piles of bodies where the wall was damaged and the Canadians took shelter.

Hardly anyone from the first wave managed to cross the dense barbed wire barriers. In the first phase of the attack it was already evident that the charging infantry could not break through the fire belt of the fortified position. Nevertheless, the Canadian commander ordered two senseless follow-up attacks. The troops remained pinned to the beach. “There were snipers everywhere,” said Private Jack Poolton. “One hit the rim of my helmet. Guys trying to throw their hand grenades got hit as soon as they pulled the pin.”

Then the Royal Air Force bombs hit their own people. The rising tide pulled the seriously injured on the beach into the sea, where they drowned. “It was incredible,” said Poolton. “There were boots with feet in them, there were legs. And pieces of meat. And heads. That was my regiment. Those were the guys I’d lived with for the last two and a half years.”

Only one operation was successful. The 4th Commandos completely destroyed a heavy gun battery west of Dieppe. At 9 a.m. the operation was called off. At noon the fleet broke away from the coast, and those who stayed behind had to surrender. Out of 6000 men were captured in 2010 and almost 1000 killed. A loss rate of over 50 percent within just ten hours.

The disaster had no consequences for the commanders. They later claimed that the attack on Dieppe was planned as a rehearsal for the Normandy invasion. In fact, the motive “practicing the great invasion” before the day of defeat does not matter. The negative outcome was not expected, the successful attack was itself an operational goal. Only the disaster needed another explanation. Tank commander Major General Percy Hobart explained how absurd it was in a letter to military historian Basil Liddell Hart. If one wanted to train one’s troops in practice, he wrote, one would never choose a heavily defended sector like Dieppe.

In the late 1950s, Mountbatten completed his own heroic legend. In his report he concluded that, despite the terrible losses, Dieppe had been an important formation. Here the Allies would have learned the lessons that helped them on D-Day as they escaped with far fewer casualties than expected. The carnage was unfortunate, but ultimately worth it. That was a lie, Bishop explains. A lie that Mountbatton probably told himself throughout his life.

Patrick Bishop – Operation Jubilee

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