Patrick Bishop on Operation Jubilee

The veteran historian discusses the catastrophic Dieppe raid with fellow historian Robert Lyman.
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Patrick Bishop and Robert Lyman discuss Operation Jubilee, the subject of Patrick’s new book, costing over 6,000 men, mostly Canadian. Louis Mountbatten played a key role in planning the operation, and it was claimed that lessons were learned for D-Day nearly two years later.

 You’ve written a range of detailed accounts of military adventures before, most of which from what I recall weren’t complete disasters. What prompted you to have a look at the Dieppe raid?

It was actually Daniel Crewe at Penguin Random House who suggested the subject. I was intrigued as it provided an opportunity to anatomise a notorious disaster. I’ve always been interested in wartime decision making and this was an ideal subject for study. No-one wants a blunder yet they recur with appalling regularity in time of war. The inexorability with which a bad decision is made and then compounded by successive bad decisions, even when it is increasingly clear that catastrophe is looming is one of the big themes of the book. Incidentally Max Hastings remarked to me the other day that he had tended to avoid subjects where there were no redeeming features to the story. I think there were some uplifting aspects to Jubilee, notably the incredible heroism of the troops.

Did you find anything new, or requiring a new historical assessment, during your research?

I did in the sense that I came across numerous other raid proposals floating around at the time that Dieppe was gestating that carried even greater risks. One was Op Imperator which proposed landing an armoured column in he Pas de Calais which would then proceed to Paris, shoot up various military headquarters then return to the Channel to be shipped home. Completely mad and thank God it was eventually vetoed.

One of the standout features of your depiction of the raid, both in its planning and execution, was the array of egos involved. How much did competing and conflicting ambitions contribute to the outcome?

Yes, there is a full set of massively self-regarding players in the story, led by Mountbatten. I think it was less a case of competition among them than Mountbatten’s burning desire to boost his reputation and that of Combined Operations, both of which were waning at the time, in order to ensure his future prospects and his place in history.

Was there a single overriding reason why Operation Jubilee was such an unmitigated disaster, or was it a cluster of failures that unhappily coalesced?

I think the latter – a perfect storm of circumstances, bad decisions, a terrible plan and the driving force of external political considerations – notably the necessity to appease the Americans and the Soviets who were pressing for the opening of a Second Front.

Do you think that, despite what appears to have been a shockingly ill-prepared and planned operation, was anything learned from it that influenced Operation Torch a few months later? Was Operation Overlord won on the beaches of Dieppe?

Mountbatten inspecting sailors in February 1942

Not really. The claim that Jubilee was somehow a ‘rehearsal for D-Day’ was loudly trumpeted by Mountbatten and his team as well as others after the raid failed. He claimed until his dying day that it had always been intended as an experiment to test the feasibility of capturing a French port intact as the central element in the eventual invasion of North Western Europe. This, he maintained, justified the whole affair and the lessons learned meant that many lives were say when D-Day finally dawned. I don’t believe this. For one thing there is nothing at all in the voluminous orders which lays out a methodology for observing and reporting what is going on and measuring the success or otherwise of various parts of the operation. This would surely be the case if Jubilee was intended as some kind of military experiment. The claim that the experience of Dieppe contributed greatly to the successful planning for Overlord also fails to stand up to close examination.

Most of the ‘lessons learned’ published in the post operational report were statements of the obvious and would have emerged from an afternoon-long junior staff college exercise of the problems of mounting a major amphibious operation. They did not need a bloody debacle to reveal themselves.

You pick up on the discovery by the Canadian historian David O’Keefe that the early commando raids included in their objectives the capture of German coding machines and codes. What do you think of his argument that it was the exclusive reason (though secret) for the Dieppe raid?

I’m afraid I don’t buy that. ‘Pinch’ operations to grab Enigma machines and code books were routinely bolted on to the plans of all big raids at this period. The acquisition of naval and military intelligence material is clearly stated repeatedly in the orders so there was no great mystery about that aspect of Jubilee – though of course Enigma is not mentioned by name. Ian Fleming’s  special intelligence gathering 30 Assault Unit were present but they did not get ashore. However, it seems to me incredible that such a huge operation for this stage of the British war would be mounted simply as camouflage for this aim. What strikes me as a clinching argument against O’Keefe’s thesis is that if it was true, Mountbatten would surely have employed it in his tireless campaign to justify the raid. The Ultra Secret was known to the general public from 1974 with the publication of F.W.Winterbotham’s book of the same name. If seizing Enigma material had been the sole or even a major driver of the raid, surely Mountbatten – who was very much alive for a further five years afterwards – would have seized on it in his defence.

Why was it that Mountbatten, Montgomery and others were allowed to side step responsibility for a poorly conceived plan after the event?

This is what happens in wartime. There is little to be gained from too close investigation of a disaster though Churchill made attempts to get to the bottom of who was responsible, without much success due to Mountbatten’s energetic track-covering.  There is often much to be lost by sacking people unless they have proved to be completely useless, which Monty and Mountbatten certainly were not. The war still has to be fought so the great imperative is to press on and leave history to apportion blame.

Canadian dead on Blue beach.

The Canadians suffered terribly in the operation – how much did this affect relations between Canada and Britain?

Good question. Much less than you might imagine. The Canadian government and its top commanders in Britain knew all about the operation and had approved it. McNaughton and Crerar had both pressed for Canadian troops to be used, even though they had no hand in the original plan. Later they did contribute but failed to modify it to increase fire support or insist on other measures to lessen the odds against their men. So they shared a degree of responsibility for the disaster and were consequently reluctant to play the blame game afterwards. Instead, they recast the story as one of incredible Canadian heroism, which indeed it was, as well as backing the narrative that it was a painful but necessary preparation for D-Day.

What you are planning to write next?

I’m working on a book on the liberation of Paris, seen through the eyes of a dozen or so participants on all sides of the story.

Patrick Bishop is the author of Fighter Boys: The Pilots Behind the Battle of Britain and 3 PARA: Afghanistan 2006. Operation Jubilee, Dieppe 1942: The Folly & The Sacrifice is his latest book.

Robert Lyman is a historian and writer, and author of A War of Empires: Japan, India, Burma & Britain 1941-45.