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Mark  Zuehlke

Mark Zuehlke

September 2012

The Dieppe raid was the first major action the Canadian Army fought in Europe during World War II. Yet Tragedy at Dieppe is the tenth volume in your Canadian Battle Series. Why so long getting to this story?

I first started writing about the role Canada’s army played in World War II due to a fascination with the then almost unknown battle to capture the town of Ortona, Italy in December 1943. That resulted in publication of Ortona in 1999, which became a bestseller and led eventually to the creation of the Canadian Battle Series and the intent to chronicle the entire fighting experience of the Canadian Army in World War II. As the series has never had a chronological approach to the war, I decided to leave the Dieppe raid until it could be marked by its 70th anniversary.

The other nine volumes in the series chronicle major battles or campaigns in which the Canadians were victorious. Dieppe was a defeat and a decisive one at that. Did that make the story more difficult to write?

Not really. Remember, although the Canadians emerge as victors in the other Canadian Battle Series volumes, they—or a number of the army’s regiments—often lose battles within them and suffer heavy loss of life. These defeats are as significant and dramatic a part of our history as the victories.

The Dieppe raid took place over a very short time span—little more than nine hours of August 19, 1942. Your writing style entails weaving many experiences of individual soldiers in with the larger historical record to create a thorough history of combat that is highly readable. Was it harder to bring these two elements together in a book about such a short battle?

One thing that surprised me when I started researching the Dieppe raid was the vast amount of reports, interviews with soldiers, and individual accounts written by soldiers that the Canadian Army amassed in the aftermath of the raid and immediately after the repatriation of prisoners in 1945. I came away from the archives in Ottawa and the United Kingdom with thousands of pages of historical documents. Included in those documents were hundreds of accounts by individual soldiers on what happened to them and the men around them. So I had a feast of riches rather than a famine. And during those few short hours the combat was fast and furious, so once I started writing about the raid it unfolded at an extremely intense pace.

About the last third of Tragedy at Dieppe details the actual raid. Like you say, the pace in that part is intense. It’s also, I think, very emotional for most Canadians to read because so many soldiers are killed, wounded, or forced to surrender when the evacuation attempts fail. Yet the book goes beyond just describing the raid and looks back to examine why the raid happened and how the Canadians became involved in the first place. Were you surprised by some of the material you found that dealt with the reasons behind the raid’s launching?

Very much so. Over the years a number of writers and historians have claimed to have found a single motivating force behind the raid. What I discovered from the historical records was that most of these forces were at work, but that no single one dominated the decision-making process that led to the raid’s launch.

What were some of these forces?

There was the Soviet pressure for the western Allies to somehow tie the Germans down on a second front that would draw troops away from the Russian front. Also the Americans, having just joined the war, were eager to go at the Germans with a major amphibious operation across the English Channel involving many divisions. Operational control and planning of raids against German-held territory rested with British Combined Operations, which was headed up by Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. He and his planners, particularly Captain John Hughes-Hallett, were eager to carry out a much larger raid than the hit-and-run commando operations of 1940 and 1941. The Royal Air Force command, meanwhile, was anxious to draw the Luftwaffe into a showdown air battle in which they hoped to destroy so many German fighters that planes would have to be drawn away from the Russian front to replace them. And then there were the intelligence operatives who planned to go ashore with the troops and loot ciphers, specialized equipment (such as gunsights, radar technology, and possibly even an enigma machine), and other records that might prove useful or informative. These are just a sample of various reasons that emerged as I worked through the documents. So you have a perfect storm building where all these motivations for a raid coalesce to create an unstoppable movement towards the launching of a major raid.

But why Dieppe?

Dieppe was the only real target of sufficient importance to meet the requirements of all these motivations. It was a small enough port that the planners believed it would not be too heavily defended, which would not be the case with nearby cities like Calais. It lay within the critical range of RAF fighter cover at that time and left enough loitering time over target for the desired air battle to take place. Most of what the intelligence people sought was believed to be in Dieppe or nearby. In late January, 1942 the Combined Operations planners brought Dieppe into their crosshairs for a raid set to take place in June. It was to involve an entire division.

And that division was to be Canadian?

Not originally. Mountbatten actually wanted the Royal Marine Division, which had amphibious landing experience while the Canadians had none. But there was increasing pressure from senior Canadian officers and politicians desiring their troops in the United Kingdom to see combat. The chief agent here was Lieutenant General Harry Crerar, who commanded I Canadian Corps. Crerar was a highly capable political general and he was able to build a convincing case that led to 2nd Canadian Infantry Division’s selection to provide the majority of the troops for the raid and to be trained for amphibious operations.

So the Canadians were not selected to be fodder for a raid the British planners knew was doomed to fail?

No, Hughes-Hallett and the other planners knew the raid was risky. But they thought there was a good likelihood it could succeed and in war there are no guarantees. Of course, as it turned out, much of their intelligence on the German defences was in error. The Germans proved far stronger, better prepared, and better equipped than expected.

Again, reading Tragedy at Dieppe, it’s striking how the planning process leading to the raid was fraught with large degrees of debate, disagreement, and even rancour between those putting the operation together. And so many of the major personalities of the war are involved.

That’s right. We have Winston Churchill playing a pivotal role. Bernard Montgomery wades in and completely changes the game plan from a raid against beaches on either flank of Dieppe to one where the main thrust lands on the beach directly fronting the town. Mountbatten is all over the plan, of course. Dwight Eisenhower is involved. Ian Fleming, the master spy who went on to write the James Bond novels, was even on the sidelines.

You say sidelines. Yet the recent television documentary Dieppe Uncovered maintains that his No. 30 Assault Unit—a commando team created to steal Ultra-related intelligence from the Germans—was the reason behind the entire raid being launched. Do you disagree with that?

Completely. It is true that the small No. 30 Assault Unit was along on the raid with a mission to break into the small Dieppe naval headquarters and loot Ultra-related intelligence. But they, as is true of all the numerous intelligence operatives accompanying the raiders, were along because the opportunity presented itself. They were not the driving force here. That force was Combined Operations. Mountbatten and Hughes-Hallett had their plan for a raid on Dieppe well in place before Fleming’s people started considering Dieppe in April, 1942. Fleming’s staff were responding to events and not driving them. They were really in the caboose and not the engine at the front of the train. But giving Fleming a starring role does make for good television!

So the documentary’s argument that those Canadians and other troops, naval personnel, and flyers killed on August 19 did not die in vain because there was this intelligence gathering mission is not valid?

That argument struck me as bizarre the moment I heard it. Even if the raid had been driven by this urgent intelligence gathering purpose, not a single objective was won by the raiders on August 19. The raid can only be described as an abject failure and hence those who died that day did so in vain. That is a hard, inarguable truth. There is no silver lining here, despite the documentary seeking to provide one. But, and this is important, the fact the raid was a failure does not take away from the fact that the Canadians and everyone else involved in the raid showed great courage, resilience, and determination in the face of overwhelming odds against them. That the raid failed is no reflection on the Canadians. The raid failed because, despite all the extensive planning, it was doomed by flawed intelligence analysis of German strength and preparation.

Dieppe was a tragic defeat for Canada?

It was the single most costly day of the war for our army. In those nine hours 807 Canadians were killed and 1,946 taken prisoner. Of the 4,963 Canadians involved, 3,367 became casualties—including 568 of the prisoners who were wounded. For the Canadian units involved in the raid, the losses were so high that they were still just completing the recovery process when the invasion of Normandy occurred on June 6, 1944.

As mentioned, about a third of the book covers the actual, riveting bloodbath of the raid. Yet the rest of the book, which describes the planning, decision making, cancellation of the raid and its re-launch on August 19 is also a gripping read—almost like a spy or military thriller with heroism and villainy galore. How do you do that?

The Dieppe raid was a hastily organized one. Combined Operations thought it up in late January. They had no intelligence to build upon. They had no troops. No landing craft. The air force had no plan. Everything had to be quickly cobbled together because they were originally looking at June. And all along there was also the ongoing debate at the Combined Chiefs of Staff, who had to give the raid their blessing, over whether to green light it at all. I was able to draw on the unpublished memoirs of Captain John Hughes-Hallett, who was in the very vortex of the entire process. And there were other key players who left behind diaries, letters, and reports citing discussions that took place. I found minutes of meetings where fateful decisions were taken, such as Montgomery’s insistence on the entire Canadian tank regiment and the majority of the infantry being landed in front of Dieppe. So the story of the raid’s planning is an incredibly dramatic one that I was able to relate in the same “you are there” style that I bring to the actual detailing of the battles. Tragedy at Dieppe is unique to the Canadian Battle Series in there being much story focused on the lead up to the raid, but it still fits snugly into the Canadian Battle Series style. A style that I like to think of as being accurate history that reads like the best novel.

This is number ten. Is that it for the series?

No, not at all. In fall 2014 the plan is to publish Decision on the Rhine, which will detail the critical battle that First Canadian Army fought in February and March of 1945 to clear the southern bank of the Rhine River and open the way for the invasion into the heart of Germany and the liberation campaign in the Netherlands that I told in On to Victory. Another untold chapter of Canada’s Army in World War II is the march up the coast of France and Belgium to capture and open the channel ports—including Dieppe—after the breakout from Normandy. That’s a story that needs to be related in greater detail than it ever has been. I’m proud that the Canadian Battle Series is now the most detailed retelling of the experience of an Allied army in World War II by one writer ever published anywhere in the world. I think the Canadian veterans of the war deserve a tribute like that and I am glad to have—with Tragedy at Dieppe—been able to pay particular tribute to those who fought with such courage at Dieppe.

D&M Marketing, Sep 10, 2012
Read more about Mark Zuehlke >>
Mark  Zuehlke

Mark Zuehlke

September 2012

The Dieppe raid was the first major action the Canadian Army fought in Europe during World War II. Yet Tragedy at Dieppe is the tenth volume in your Canadian Battle Series. Why so long getting to this story?

I first started writing about the role Canada’s army played in World War II due to a fascination with the then almost unknown battle to capture the town of Ortona, Italy in December 1943. That resulted in publication of Ortona in 1999, which became a bestseller and led eventually to the creation of the Canadian Battle Series and the intent to chronicle the entire fighting experience of the Canadian Army in World War II. As the series has never had a chronological approach to the war, I decided to leave the Dieppe raid until it could be marked by its 70th anniversary.

The other nine volumes in the series chronicle major battles or campaigns in which the Canadians were victorious. Dieppe was a defeat and a decisive one at that. Did that make the story more difficult to write?

Not really. Remember, although the Canadians emerge as victors in the other Canadian Battle Series volumes, they—or a number of the army’s regiments—often lose battles within them and suffer heavy loss of life. These defeats are as significant and dramatic a part of our history as the victories.

The Dieppe raid took place over a very short time span—little more than nine hours of August 19, 1942. Your writing style entails weaving many experiences of individual soldiers in with the larger historical record to create a thorough history of combat that is highly readable. Was it harder to bring these two elements together in a book about such a short battle?

One thing that surprised me when I started researching the Dieppe raid was the vast amount of reports, interviews with soldiers, and individual accounts written by soldiers that the Canadian Army amassed in the aftermath of the raid and immediately after the repatriation of prisoners in 1945. I came away from the archives in Ottawa and the United Kingdom with thousands of pages of historical documents. Included in those documents were hundreds of accounts by individual soldiers on what happened to them and the men around them. So I had a feast of riches rather than a famine. And during those few short hours the combat was fast and furious, so once I started writing about the raid it unfolded at an extremely intense pace.

About the last third of Tragedy at Dieppe details the actual raid. Like you say, the pace in that part is intense. It’s also, I think, very emotional for most Canadians to read because so many soldiers are killed, wounded, or forced to surrender when the evacuation attempts fail. Yet the book goes beyond just describing the raid and looks back to examine why the raid happened and how the Canadians became involved in the first place. Were you surprised by some of the material you found that dealt with the reasons behind the raid’s launching?

Very much so. Over the years a number of writers and historians have claimed to have found a single motivating force behind the raid. What I discovered from the historical records was that most of these forces were at work, but that no single one dominated the decision-making process that led to the raid’s launch.

What were some of these forces?

There was the Soviet pressure for the western Allies to somehow tie the Germans down on a second front that would draw troops away from the Russian front. Also the Americans, having just joined the war, were eager to go at the Germans with a major amphibious operation across the English Channel involving many divisions. Operational control and planning of raids against German-held territory rested with British Combined Operations, which was headed up by Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. He and his planners, particularly Captain John Hughes-Hallett, were eager to carry out a much larger raid than the hit-and-run commando operations of 1940 and 1941. The Royal Air Force command, meanwhile, was anxious to draw the Luftwaffe into a showdown air battle in which they hoped to destroy so many German fighters that planes would have to be drawn away from the Russian front to replace them. And then there were the intelligence operatives who planned to go ashore with the troops and loot ciphers, specialized equipment (such as gunsights, radar technology, and possibly even an enigma machine), and other records that might prove useful or informative. These are just a sample of various reasons that emerged as I worked through the documents. So you have a perfect storm building where all these motivations for a raid coalesce to create an unstoppable movement towards the launching of a major raid.

But why Dieppe?

Dieppe was the only real target of sufficient importance to meet the requirements of all these motivations. It was a small enough port that the planners believed it would not be too heavily defended, which would not be the case with nearby cities like Calais. It lay within the critical range of RAF fighter cover at that time and left enough loitering time over target for the desired air battle to take place. Most of what the intelligence people sought was believed to be in Dieppe or nearby. In late January, 1942 the Combined Operations planners brought Dieppe into their crosshairs for a raid set to take place in June. It was to involve an entire division.

And that division was to be Canadian?

Not originally. Mountbatten actually wanted the Royal Marine Division, which had amphibious landing experience while the Canadians had none. But there was increasing pressure from senior Canadian officers and politicians desiring their troops in the United Kingdom to see combat. The chief agent here was Lieutenant General Harry Crerar, who commanded I Canadian Corps. Crerar was a highly capable political general and he was able to build a convincing case that led to 2nd Canadian Infantry Division’s selection to provide the majority of the troops for the raid and to be trained for amphibious operations.

So the Canadians were not selected to be fodder for a raid the British planners knew was doomed to fail?

No, Hughes-Hallett and the other planners knew the raid was risky. But they thought there was a good likelihood it could succeed and in war there are no guarantees. Of course, as it turned out, much of their intelligence on the German defences was in error. The Germans proved far stronger, better prepared, and better equipped than expected.

Again, reading Tragedy at Dieppe, it’s striking how the planning process leading to the raid was fraught with large degrees of debate, disagreement, and even rancour between those putting the operation together. And so many of the major personalities of the war are involved.

That’s right. We have Winston Churchill playing a pivotal role. Bernard Montgomery wades in and completely changes the game plan from a raid against beaches on either flank of Dieppe to one where the main thrust lands on the beach directly fronting the town. Mountbatten is all over the plan, of course. Dwight Eisenhower is involved. Ian Fleming, the master spy who went on to write the James Bond novels, was even on the sidelines.

You say sidelines. Yet the recent television documentary Dieppe Uncovered maintains that his No. 30 Assault Unit—a commando team created to steal Ultra-related intelligence from the Germans—was the reason behind the entire raid being launched. Do you disagree with that?

Completely. It is true that the small No. 30 Assault Unit was along on the raid with a mission to break into the small Dieppe naval headquarters and loot Ultra-related intelligence. But they, as is true of all the numerous intelligence operatives accompanying the raiders, were along because the opportunity presented itself. They were not the driving force here. That force was Combined Operations. Mountbatten and Hughes-Hallett had their plan for a raid on Dieppe well in place before Fleming’s people started considering Dieppe in April, 1942. Fleming’s staff were responding to events and not driving them. They were really in the caboose and not the engine at the front of the train. But giving Fleming a starring role does make for good television!

So the documentary’s argument that those Canadians and other troops, naval personnel, and flyers killed on August 19 did not die in vain because there was this intelligence gathering mission is not valid?

That argument struck me as bizarre the moment I heard it. Even if the raid had been driven by this urgent intelligence gathering purpose, not a single objective was won by the raiders on August 19. The raid can only be described as an abject failure and hence those who died that day did so in vain. That is a hard, inarguable truth. There is no silver lining here, despite the documentary seeking to provide one. But, and this is important, the fact the raid was a failure does not take away from the fact that the Canadians and everyone else involved in the raid showed great courage, resilience, and determination in the face of overwhelming odds against them. That the raid failed is no reflection on the Canadians. The raid failed because, despite all the extensive planning, it was doomed by flawed intelligence analysis of German strength and preparation.

Dieppe was a tragic defeat for Canada?

It was the single most costly day of the war for our army. In those nine hours 807 Canadians were killed and 1,946 taken prisoner. Of the 4,963 Canadians involved, 3,367 became casualties—including 568 of the prisoners who were wounded. For the Canadian units involved in the raid, the losses were so high that they were still just completing the recovery process when the invasion of Normandy occurred on June 6, 1944.

As mentioned, about a third of the book covers the actual, riveting bloodbath of the raid. Yet the rest of the book, which describes the planning, decision making, cancellation of the raid and its re-launch on August 19 is also a gripping read—almost like a spy or military thriller with heroism and villainy galore. How do you do that?

The Dieppe raid was a hastily organized one. Combined Operations thought it up in late January. They had no intelligence to build upon. They had no troops. No landing craft. The air force had no plan. Everything had to be quickly cobbled together because they were originally looking at June. And all along there was also the ongoing debate at the Combined Chiefs of Staff, who had to give the raid their blessing, over whether to green light it at all. I was able to draw on the unpublished memoirs of Captain John Hughes-Hallett, who was in the very vortex of the entire process. And there were other key players who left behind diaries, letters, and reports citing discussions that took place. I found minutes of meetings where fateful decisions were taken, such as Montgomery’s insistence on the entire Canadian tank regiment and the majority of the infantry being landed in front of Dieppe. So the story of the raid’s planning is an incredibly dramatic one that I was able to relate in the same “you are there” style that I bring to the actual detailing of the battles. Tragedy at Dieppe is unique to the Canadian Battle Series in there being much story focused on the lead up to the raid, but it still fits snugly into the Canadian Battle Series style. A style that I like to think of as being accurate history that reads like the best novel.

This is number ten. Is that it for the series?

No, not at all. In fall 2014 the plan is to publish Decision on the Rhine, which will detail the critical battle that First Canadian Army fought in February and March of 1945 to clear the southern bank of the Rhine River and open the way for the invasion into the heart of Germany and the liberation campaign in the Netherlands that I told in On to Victory. Another untold chapter of Canada’s Army in World War II is the march up the coast of France and Belgium to capture and open the channel ports—including Dieppe—after the breakout from Normandy. That’s a story that needs to be related in greater detail than it ever has been. I’m proud that the Canadian Battle Series is now the most detailed retelling of the experience of an Allied army in World War II by one writer ever published anywhere in the world. I think the Canadian veterans of the war deserve a tribute like that and I am glad to have—with Tragedy at Dieppe—been able to pay particular tribute to those who fought with such courage at Dieppe.

D&M Marketing, Sep 10, 2012
Read more about Mark Zuehlke >>