I. A VICTIM OF HISTORY
“Don’t worry men, it’ll be a piece of cake!”
That line—attributed to Canadian commander Gen. John Hamilton “Ham” Roberts—has echoed as the chillingly morose epitaph of the doomed raid on the French channel port of Dieppe on Aug. 19, 1942. The dreadful human toll of the operation, which cost more than 1,000 young Canadian and Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen their lives in little more than six hours, reflects the enduring bitterness and recrimination that has scarred the collective psyche and historical soul of Canada for the last 75 years.
Roberts is by no means alone in being blamed for the failure of the operation. In that, he joins Lord Louis Mountbatten, whose upstart British Combined Operations Headquarters planned and carried out the raid; Capt. John Hughes-Hallett, the naval commander and lead planner; and even Winston Churchill. Within this rogues' gallery, though, Roberts has been particularly singled out for blame for the excessive human cost of the operation. The reason: a series of seemingly inconceivable decisions taken to commit the remainder of his men, known as the “floating reserve,” into the maelstrom ashore when it appeared clear that the raid had failed, a decision that stirred up the ghost of the disaster at Passchendaele 25 years before. Even in Parliament, the rookie division commander's competence was openly questioned, while Mountbatten and Hughes-Hallett spared him little mercy in their post-raid accounts. Air Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, the air component commander for the raid, dryly congratulated him for pulling off both "a Gallipoli and a Dunkirk all in the same day."
Despite being awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his efforts and never “officially” being blamed for the Dieppe debacle, the unyielding scorn left Roberts a pariah within the tight-knit Canadian military community in which he served for more than 20 years. Within six months of the raid, the 51-year-old Second Canadian Infantry Division commander was quietly put out to pasture, “kicked upstairs” to a training unit and never trusted to command men in battle again. When the war ended, there was no great hero’s homecoming for Roberts; while former subordinates returned as the liberators of France, Belgium, and Holland from Hitler’s iron grasp, Ham Roberts faded away at war’s end. Retiring to the Channel Island of Jersey rather than home to Canada and the toxic atmosphere of Dieppe recrimination and finger-pointing, he lived in self-imposed exile until he passed away at age 68, a few months after the 20th anniversary of the raid in 1962.
Distance and time could never shake the shame and demons of Dieppe, though, and he remained reclusive, speaking sparingly and cautiously when he did grant the rare interview. As Dieppe legend has it, this stemmed in part from the torment he endured each anniversary when an anonymous package, presumably sent by an embittered Dieppe veteran or family member, arrived on his doorstep containing a piece of stale cake to remind him of the indictment of a nation. Never vociferous in his own defence, Roberts remained stoic in the face of vitriol, and despite continual dagger thrusts to his reputation, he never once blamed others for his predicament.
It is said that victory has many fathers; defeat, on the other hand, is an orphan. And the ability to equitably assess where Ham Roberts fits in the panorama of Canadian history remained impossible as the core mission he was tasked with remained classified.
But that has changed. The ongoing release of formerly ultra-classified material that started in earnest in the mid-1990s has shed new light on the motives and planning of the Dieppe raid. And given what was at stake on Aug. 19, 1942, Roberts’s place in history was likely fixed before the raid went in: he would either emerge a hero of some limited measure if the mission succeeded—or an epic villain if it failed. After all, we did not know then what we learned only a few years ago, seven decades after Dieppe: the raid was yet another instalment in a series of ultra-secret amphibious “pinch” raids laid by British Combined Operations Command over an 18-month period spanning March 1941 to August 1942, a secrecy that would ensure that he wouldn’t be able to redeem his reputation in his lifetime.
Roberts's only bid for recourse, it is rumoured, was a vow that someday history would vindicate him. Perhaps, 75 years after that devastating raid, it has.
II. THE PINCH RAID
Named after the British slang term for stealing, the pinch raids targeted German-occupied ports as both the delivery vehicle and cover for a “pinch” of cipher material vital to the ongoing efforts of cryptographers like Alan Turing, Hugh Alexander and Peter Twinn at England's codebreaking centre, Bletchley Park. There, they were working to decode top-secret communications enciphered on the infamous German Enigma machine, as brought to life brilliantly in the blockbuster movie, The Imitation Game. Breaking into messages enciphered on the Germans' three-rotor version of the naval Enigma was a gargantuan task, with the odds standing at an ungodly 150-million-million-million-to-one shot. But captured material during wartime could give the codebreakers the “cheats” necessary to get a leg up when the luxury of time was not afforded.
The Allies needed the codebreakers to succeed. In 1940 and the first part of 1941, when Great Britain remained very much alone, the German submarine “wolf packs” and surface raiders—like the mighty German super-battleship Bismarck—imperiled the sea lanes that were so necessary for survival. At the time, radar, direction-finding and other nascent naval intelligence technologies were in their infancy and considered unreliable, leaving codebreaking as the preeminent form of signals intelligence. Possessing the ability to read Germany’s top-secret communications would give British Naval Intelligence insight into enemy locations, intentions, strengths and capabilities. The sum effect permitted slow-moving and vulnerable convoys to be re-routed out of harm’s way and U-Boats to be hunted down. Without this intelligence weapons system, the British war effort was running blind on the seas, at the mercy of Hitler’s U-boats.
At first, the pinches that came at the behest of Bletchley Park and that were planned by British Naval Intelligence Division were highly unsuccessful. But then Combined Operations Headquarters entered the picture, providing the delivery vehicle necessary for pinching cipher material ashore under the cover of dramatic commando raids. Quickly, they developed a playbook for carrying out these operations that called for three types of “pinch” operations: “chance,” “opportunity,” or “design.” The first was straightforward—if you stumble upon desired material by chance during a battle, seize it. The second called for a pinch to be wedded to an operation already in the planning stages, where raiding forces may in the course of action capture an enticing target. The third was the most desperate: An operation or raid specifically laid to capture the precious cipher material, but dressed up as a conventional operation, to mislead the Germans about the actual core information-driven mission.
As the German Enigma machines were employed in all headquarters and outfitted on the smallest to the largest of naval vessels, seemingly innocuous German trawlers used as patrol craft, convoy escorts, rescue ships, tenders or weather reporting ships became prime targets for these operations. Better still, of course, were naval headquarters or communication supply facilities ashore. But most important was that the required cipher machine and its complement of rotors, ancillary code books and setting tables—essentially any scrap of material that would help the codebreakers penetrate the Enigma—were brought back.
These operations needed skill and daring to pull off. The raiding force had to spring upon its unsuspecting prey in a sudden, hurricane-like thunderclap designed to daze, kill or incapacitate the defender before they could destroy the sought-after cipher material, but the firepower supporting the operations needed to be measured and suppressive in dose rather than destructive, so as not to obliterate what you came to capture. Once on the target, a special “pinch” team tasked with seizing the cipher material would pounce on the target to search and snag the “intelligence booty” before it was quickly extracted to the nearest British port for immediate dispatch to the cryptographers at Bletchley Park.
The first of these amphibious pinch raids on the Lofoten Islands in Norway in March 1941 was a wildly successful “pinch by design.” Commandos hit pinch targets ashore while ad hoc naval teams boarded trawlers hemmed into the port area making off with the material desperately needed to break what was called “the intelligence blackout.” To overcome suspicion of compromise on the part of the Germans, the British used the conventional to blind the Germans to the unconventional; sold to the press as a daring and dashing commando raid laid for morale, propaganda, and industrial warfare purposes, the core mission of the Lofoten raids remained hidden until the early 1990s.
The information gathered there allowed Bletchley Park to read messages between German U-boats, surface fleets and their commands onshore on a consistent and, eventually, real-time basis—a spectacular exploit that led directly to a dramatic shift in the war at sea. With this priceless advantage in hand—Churchill called the Bletchley-broken information his "golden eggs"—the Allies could identify the locations, capabilities and intentions of the German U-boat and surface fleets. It allowed them to operate confidently and judiciously around the chess board, employing this intelligence to divert vulnerable convoys from the waiting jaws of wolf packs—and even, as they did in May of 1941, to help hunt down and sink the Bismarck.
The fruits of the cryptographers' labours were so crucial that the Allies codenamed the information obtained from it under the classification of “ultra secret”—one step above “top secret”—and tightly controlled access to this intelligence. Nevertheless, the dramatic success enjoyed in 1941—the codebreakers even dared to call the year their annus mirablis, or year of miracles—was proof that the pinch raids, fuelling these Golden Eggs, were turning the tide of the war.
III. FEARS REALIZED
But an anxiety loomed large in the minds of the pinch planners: that the Germans would catch on that these operations were really raids to gather sensitive information. If they did, they could implement new and even more daunting cipher security measures beyond the three-rotor encryption, scuttling Bletchley Park's hard-won gains.
So the raids were a delicate game to play, an approach that Admiral John Godfrey, the head of British Naval Intelligence, described as using a “sledgehammer to crack a nut.” Most commonly, the Allies would deploy a disproportionately large force to give the Germans the impression that the raid had a legitimate military or political purpose to mask the true intent. Then, after the material was seized, the target would be destroyed by demolition teams to make it appear that anything of value was lost in the firefight before it could be captured. Finally, war correspondents were fed pre-ordained storylines that were then tweaked with false reporting of the “sinking” or “complete destruction” of captured vessels or naval facilities, to assuage German concerns of potential capture and compromise.
But despite their initial success, amphibious pinch raids remained a difficult logistical undertaking at this stage of the war, and they changed tactics, targeting lone German vessels far out to sea. British Naval Intelligence Division, pressured by Bletchley Park to continue to feed the beast in the wake of the sinking of the Bismarck, became reckless in their pursuit of cipher material. And when they scooped up more than a dozen German auxiliary vessels in quick succession, it triggered what the Allies had most feared: The Germans, sensing a pattern, grew suspicious that their three-rotor Naval Enigma was partially compromised.
Just as Bletchley Park was toasting its “year of miracles,” the British Navy discovered a lid to an improved four-rotor version of the Naval Enigma machine that was retrieved from a sinking U-boat. The new, more advanced machine catapulted the already staggering odds of cracking messages enciphered without pinched material to an otherworldly 92-septillion-to-one shot. The temporary saving grace was that the machine seemed to be confined at this point to U-boats operating against convoys in the vital Atlantic theatre. Still, this was cold comfort: its very existence portended the wholesale change of the German Navy’s encryption system and British Naval Intelligence Division needed to remain a step ahead.
But while further pinch raids in Norway late in 1941 were once again spectacularly successful, capturing scores of prime material on the three-rotor, it came up dry on anything to do with the four-rotor. Then, on Jan. 14, 1942, the level of anxiety in Allied circles became incandescent when it was discovered that some German surface vessels operating from French ports in the English Channel were testing the four-rotor machine for eventual introduction. It was now crystal-clear that the cancerous spread of the impregnable encryption was gathering steam—leading to the dawning of a nightmare scenario for British intelligence, with wide-reaching implications for the strategic direction of the Allied War effort.
But a potential solution lay just 70 miles of England’s shores across the English Channel: Dieppe.
IV. PLANNING DIEPPE
With the Allies on the defensive or in retreat around the globe at this point in the war, raiding was the only possible option for the Allies to physically bring the cipher targets within reach. To get ahead of the curve, British Naval Intelligence and Mountbatten’s headquarters set about a raiding program led by Hughes-Hallett that proposed a number of raids, including on the German-occupied port of Dieppe. At that point, it was still a contingency at that point in the war, a third priority behind a twin set of amphibious pinch raids that would hit the German-occupied ports of St. Nazaire and Bayonne at the end of March.
But then, on Feb. 1, the hammer dropped, confirming the Allies' worst fears: The U-boat fleet in the Atlantic switched over to the four-rotor device. In quick order, German submarines slipped from sight of Allied naval intelligence; the ensuing gross-tonnage losses of merchant shipping surpassed even the dark, earlier part of the war. Most alarming was the disproportionate loss of vital oil tankers that threatened to choke off the Allied war effort.
America had by this point entered the war, and its vast industrial, raw material and manpower resources seemed, at least on paper, to ensure eventual victory. But if they remained bottled up on American shores or lay strewn on the bottom of the ocean, it would spell disaster. The Allied ability to effectively wage war on land, sea, and air depended on what U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt called the “war for distribution.” And the German U-boats now had an increasing chokehold on it.
Then, more bad news. Reports came out that the four-rotor machine was spreading to the crucial Mediterranean and Arctic theatres, imperiling the pending invasion of North Africa and the vital supply convoys to Russia. And when Allied plans to quickly turn the tide with the raids at St. Nazaire and Bayonne were dashed, with both failing to capture the desired material, the planning for Dieppe suddenly became “hot” and “urgent,” going into overdrive in Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Headquarters and British Naval Intelligence Division.
What Dieppe offered was a prime location and a target-rich environment. Close enough to England to employ land, sea and air elements of Combined Operations, it was the main port of call for convoys moving through the channel and a terminus for the Cherbourg-Dieppe run of several classes of German vessels all outfitted with the Enigma. It was also small enough to be raided by the forces at hand; the larger ports of Cherbourg, Boulogne and Le Havre would require a force five times the size to capture. Naval Intelligence Division and Bletchley Park knew full well that Dieppe hosted these ships or ones that used lesser codes employed by the cryptographers as backdoor cheats into Enigma, meaning that cipher material for the current month was always available. But the real prize lay elsewhere in the port. Dieppe served as part of the German Navy’s main communication system in France and contained a vital naval supply centre as well. It also housed a portside naval headquarters suspected to reside in an occupied hotel called Le Moderne, and the yield from any one of these facilities was likely to contain tables, setting sheets, code books and more stockpiled for distribution months down the road, along with new equipment like the four-rotor naval Enigma.
Within hours of the cancellation of the Bayonne operation, British Naval Intelligence issued an 85-page report that laid the groundwork and parameters for Dieppe. From this, an outline plan was struck by Mountbatten’s headquarters that was to be used by the future force commanders for detailed planning. Neither Roberts nor the Canadian Army was part of the mix at this time; the only unit included was a 300-man Royal Marine Commando strike force known as the “Cutting Out Force,” led by Commander Robert “Red” Ryder, a newly minted Victoria Cross recipient from St. Nazaire who was tasked specifically with the pinch.
In general, the outline plan handed to the force commanders conformed conceptually to earlier pinch raids, where surprise, shock and shell were preeminent and trawlers and portside naval headquarters were prime targets. This time, however, the raid would be larger and far more complex than ever attempted before, reflecting a mounting hubris inside Mountbatten’s headquarters coupled with the desperate reality of the war at sea.
In broad strokes, the scheme called for a 250-ship force carrying 6,000 men supported by 800 aircraft to slip undetected from the English coastline and sail across the English Channel in the dead of night to pounce on the unsuspecting German garrison at Dieppe. In crab-like fashion, the channel port would be enveloped with landings to either side to neutralize German naval guns and to capture two dominating headlands overlooking Dieppe’s main beach that controlled the entrance to the harbour housing the targeted trawlers and German naval headquarters. Following this, a steamroller-style frontal assault by infantry, tanks, and engineers would follow on the heels of the flank attacks and land on Dieppe’s rocky main beach, which was the quickest and most direct course to the pinch targets in the harbour.
Supported by naval gunfire and attack aircraft as they landed, they planned to apply a dose of shock and awe to sow confusion in the German ranks as the tanks and infantry burst into the harbour with guns blazing to overcome the defenders and prevent the destruction of cipher material. Regardless of the outcome of this action, the Royal Marine Commando strike force had orders to breach the harbour mole and barrel straight down the gauntlet—the thin channel leading into Dieppe’s harbour—where they would scoop up the cipher material and extract it to the nearest British port. Then, to cover the pinch, engineer demolition teams would systematically level the harbour area as the raiding force re-embarked for England leaving the Germans none the wiser about the core mission of the raid.
It was a daring plan that felt ripped from the pages of a Horatio Hornblower novel. But despite its altruistic core mission, and the outline’s approval by the British Chiefs of Staff, it was a flawed instrument long before Ham Roberts and the Canadians ever became attached.
But critics within the planning team soon warned that the outline plan fell between two stools—too vague on one hand to provide proper detailed guidance, and too constrictive to allow the force commanders to alter the plan in any fundamental fashion. But these concerns were dismissed. Command would be one by consensus, as no single raid commander would be selected. Instead, the force commanders would have to act in concert and, as such, the core mission would act as final arbiter in any potential squabbles aboard the command ship offshore.
The central problem, however, was the plan’s symphonic nature; for the plan to work, every aspect of the raid had to come together at the precise moment with little or no margin for error. If something went wrong, it would be up to the commanders to maintain the objective and get the job done—no matter the cost.
It was a plan they thought would require more of an Achilles rather than an Odysseus to win the day; it needed a commander who was enthusiastic and possessed the iron will to drive the ball over the goal line, in a raid where the stakes were of the highest order and where heavy casualties were officially sanctioned in pursuit of precious cipher material.
And that is exactly what the planners expected out of Ham Roberts, the 51-year-old native of Pipestone, Man., when he and his Second Canadian Infantry Division were selected for the raid in early May.
V. ENTER HAM ROBERTS
As the legendary general Bernard Law Montgomery recorded in rather backhanded fashion, Roberts was the “best Canadian commander” in England—“but not in any way brilliant." “He was,” said Admiral William James, the naval Commander charged with launching the raid, “a powerfully built man” who “looks like a real thruster.”
When Roberts was finally brought into the planning fold at the beginning of May, he found himself basking in the all the trappings of middle management where he was expected to do or die, rather than reason why. Chained tightly to the core pinch mission, he was expected to work out the details and execute the land portion. But Roberts never questioned his position; rather, he embraced it, reasoning that if he wouldn’t do it, his over-eager Canadian superiors—Lt. General Harry Crerar and General Andrew McNaughton—were champing at the bit to get the Canadian army into action, and would replace him at the first sign of hesitation with someone who would.
With surprise, shock and awe as the defining hand in planning, the only changes that crossed Roberts's table were ones designed to expedite the pinch, even at the expense of tactical common sense. For instance, he readily agreed to switch the heavy bombing of the German positions in the hotels lining Dieppe’s main beach shoreline in lieu of a series of timed strafing attacks by fighter bombers as the tanks, infantry and engineers landed. Fear of collateral damage that would block the streets, preventing the tanks and infantry from getting to their pinch targets in the port—or perhaps leading to the destruction of the precious cipher material they were after—won the day. For Roberts, consumed with the drift gathering steam in Mountbatten’s headquarters, the ultra-secret core mission—pinching the vital cipher material—was everything.
Then, working with Hughes-Hallett and Ryder, Roberts held a special meeting to tighten the screws on the detailed cooperation between the Royal Marines and the Canadian units tasked with the pinch. Working in support of each other, the detailed plan called for Calgary tanks, the Essex Scottish, and the Canadian Engineers to land on Dieppe’s main beach 30 minutes after the flank landings. From here, they would dart over the barbed-wire-strewn beach and promenade, while engineer teams would blow roadblocks in the tiny streets leading to the port to permit the tanks and infantry entry to the port to pacify resistance around naval headquarters and on the trawlers corralled dockside.
Following quickly—regardless of the success of the tanks, infantry and engineers—the Royal Marine Commando strike force, broken into two battlegroups, would rush Dieppe harbour by sea, breaching the mole at the foot of the eastern headland into the port before barreling down the gauntlet into the port. If all went according to plan, the eastern headland and the part of the town overlooking the channel would be in Canadian hands, allowing for safe passage through a secured laneway. If not, Ryder, commanding the operation from HMS Locust, had orders to run the gauntlet nonetheless in desperate roll of the dice. And if any vessels were sunk once past the mole, the surviving Royal Marine Commandos had orders to swim to shore and continue the fight to their targets at all costs. Once the cipher material was in hand, a special signal would be sent summoning a speedboat that would dart into the harbour and whisk it out to a liaison officer waiting offshore who would, like the anchor of a relay race, deliver it directly to the nearest English port and into the waiting arms of British Naval intelligence and Bletchley Park.
It was dash, daring, and desperation of the highest order—the stuff of Hollywood legend—and there is no indication that Roberts balked at what he was asked to do. Quite the contrary, in fact: Swept up in the mounting hubris in Mountbatten’s headquarters, Roberts confided the dramatic imperative in no uncertain terms to his Brigade Commanders on the eve of battle telling them that “certain things which we are after may mean an important factor to the outcome of the war.”
But this atmosphere of Victory Disease was growing as the plan took shape before its mid-August launch. After all, nothing had gone disastrously wrong in the earlier pinch raids, they gathered—so why would it now?
“No plan,” as they say in the military, “survives first contact.” And a series of navigational errors, bad luck and overoptimistic planning conspired near dawn on Aug. 19, 1942 to throw the delicate timing of Operation Jubilee—the raid on Dieppe—off track before the first boot touched down on the French shoreline.
Although the raiding force crossed the channel without being detected—a remarkable feat in its own right—it crossed paths with a small German convoy heading for Dieppe as it neared the coast. A short, sharp firefight ensued, but the element of surprise did not seem lost as the Germans chalked up the fracas to a not-uncommon scrap between patrol boats, rather than a raiding armada set for Dieppe.
When the raid began, British Army Commandos silenced the German gun batteries in short order. But the Canadian infantry battalions landing on the inner flanks, codenamed Blue and Green beaches, were met with disaster and unmitigated slaughter. Bad luck and navigational errors ensured their demise, and they could not capture the headlands overlooking Dieppe’s main beach—particularly the vital eastern headland controlling the entrance and exit to the port—leaving the troops landing on the main beach or attempting to storm the port from the channel at the mercy of German guns.
Indeed, naval gunfire and air support arrived on time, but it could not quell German resistance that was now fully alive to the raid. Instead of steamrolling ashore, the RHLI, Calgary tanks, Royal Canadian Engineers and the Essex Scottish plunged directly into a horseshoe-shaped maelstrom of fire on Dieppe’s main beach. The tightly synchronized plan immediately began to break down as tanks were unable to get off the promenade nor penetrate the tiny streets of the town, let alone reach the port or the trawlers and naval headquarters; the engineers, laden with explosives for blowing the roadblocks, proved easy targets for German gunners. The same cruel fate awaited the men of both infantry regiments who instantly suffered crippling casualties from machine-gun, mortar, and shell fire. Although a few intrepid bands of brothers from both units managed to make it into the town, they were too few to make any headway toward the core objective.
On HMS Locust, Commander Ryder didn't receive news from the Essex Scottish, who were fighting for their lives on the beach, And so he ordered the “Cutting Out Force” with the Royal Marine Commandos to run the gauntlet of Dieppe's harbour. Despite three attempts to close on the mole, they were met each time by heavy and accurate fire from German guns on un-pacified eastern headland. Fearing they would be sunk out in the channel before they could reach the inner part, Ryder called a temporary halt to the Royal Marine attack and steamed towards the command ship for a meeting with Roberts and Hughes-Hallett.
VII. A CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE
Aboard the command ship HMS Calpe stationed offshore, the proverbial "fog of war" prevailed, and Roberts and Hughes-Hallett never had a clear idea of what was unfolding on the "sharp end" of the force on the beaches. Forced to work from a patchwork collection of information pouring in from a collection of wireless sets, it became clear that the plan was faltering and casualties were mounting. Roberts—within an hour after the raid started—found himself thrust into a classic decision-maker's dilemma: whether to cut and run, or fight to the objective.
The thinking among Allied high command was straightforward – if you lose 60 per cent of your men and call off the operation before you have reached your objective, then you have done nothing but lose 60 per cent of your men. But if you take another 20-per-cent hit in casualities but succeed in getting your objective, the 80 per cent lost would not be in vain. It is grimly akin to a gambler going “all in” on a poker hand.
But just as hope for success was fading, a pivotal message from the Essex Scottish arrived that made it appear the unit had crossed the beach fighting to enter port, the first positive bit of information received on a dismal morning. Trouble was, it was gravely misleading; it suggested that the full weight of the 500-man battalion had indeed reached the goal line just meters from the trawlers and German Naval headquarters, when in reality, a small band of 15 men had reached the town while the remainder lay trapped, dead or dying on the beach. Soon, other messages from the tanks and engineers followed that made it appear yet again that, despite the overwhelming casualties, the plan was miraculously coming together.
Having no word of a landing on Blue Beach by the nearly 600 men of the Royal Regiment of Canada tasked with capturing the vital eastern headland, Roberts considered landing them on the main beach instead to bolster the Essex Scottish struggling to make headway. Soon, however, news broke the Royals had indeed landed on Blue Beach, but there was no indication that they too were being massacred—giving false hope that the heights would be in Canadian hands in short order. Continued and unceasing retorts from the cliffside guns quashed that enthusiasm quickly enough, and after consultation with Hughes-Hallett, Roberts decided to commit his "floating reserve," consisting of the 600-plus men of the Fusilier Mont-Royal (FMR), to land on the main beach with specific instructions to reinforce the Essex Scottish. The idea, it appears, was to bolster their attempt to reach the trawlers and the German naval headquarters that seemed only a stone’s throw away. This decision soon ended in horror: the men from the FMR were gunned down trying to cross the beach and reach the harbour.
While this tragedy unfolded, Hughes-Hallett and Red Ryder met aboard HMS Calpe and decided that storming Dieppe’s harbour by sea was no longer an option. After consulting with Roberts—who, as one observer recalled, “had the look of someone in an office who had been given ‘full authority’ only to find that every time he turns around he finds the boss looking over his shoulder”—he decided to give it one more go with all he had left to offer: another straightforward bash over the main beach with the Royal Marine Commando from Ryder’s Cutting Out Force. He was going “all in.”
In what proved to be the last act of the Dieppe pinch raid, the Royal Marines were transhipped into landing craft and then dispatched to the beach. Although word reached Roberts in the interim that some of the RHLI had penetrated the western part of the town leading from main beach near Dieppe’s iconic casino, he ordered the Royal Marines to link up with the Essex Scottish, once again displaying his unyielding desire to capture the core objective at all costs if necessary, as prescribed. With orders for the remaining Calgary tanks to land and give support in one final push, the idea was to link up with the struggling Essex Scottish near the blazing tobacco factory on the beachfront which marked the shortest route to German naval headquarters and drive over the goal line to the portside targets. Quickly, the Royal Marines were consumed by a torrent of German fire near the shore; one survivor said Roberts's final “Hail Mary” was the “amphibious version of the ‘Charge of the Light Brigade.’ ”
As this tragedy played out on the water, agonizing messages from the decimated Essex Scottish poured in, begging for relief and withdrawal from the horrific massacre ashore. But with the die cast, the only reply was: “Go as far towards the trawlers as possible." Seemingly within inches of winning the game, it was the last desperate cry from a defeated force.
But there was nothing left to give. By mid-morning, after exhausting all the reserves and cancelling the landing of the remaining elements of the Calgary Tanks on the main beach, Ham Roberts and Jock Hughes-Hallett called off the operation just after 1,000 hours. Via carrier pigeon, the Canadian land force commander sent his final message back to England: “Very heavy casualties in men and ships. Did everything possible to get men off but in order to get any home had to come to sad decision to abandon remainder. This was a joint decision by Force Commanders. Obviously lacked surprise.”
Nearly 4,000 men became casualties from the 6,000-man-strong raiding force, and roughly 2,000 soldiers died attempting to conduct that pinch as Roberts carried out the detailed version of the outline line plan handed to him months before. Of the nearly 1,000 Allied soldiers, sailors and airmen killed on Aug. 19, 1942, the sobering and unshakeable fact remains that more than 500 of these men died in Roberts’s last, dogged, but thoroughly sanctioned pursuit of the core objective—the cipher material in the port.
VIII. THROWN TO THE LIONS
According to the pre-ordained public relations plan that made contingencies for success or failure and to cover the pinch at the core of the operation, headlines announced the raid in all its glory. Soon, as the massive casualty notices graced the back pages of Canadian newspapers, the narrative switched to feature the sacrificial heroism of the men in their “test of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.” Soon, other excuses followed designed to obfuscate, some with varying degrees of truth attached—“lessons learned” and “aid to the beleaguered Soviets”—but all spinning a fundamentally false narrative of Dieppe that, despite its unsettling lack of rationale, remained almost impenetrable to the present day.
At Bletchley, there was barely a mention of Dieppe. Never officially brought into the fold about the specifics of raid, news of heavy casualties and the lack of captured material brought about a sobering and reflective silence centered on the human toll in the cryptographic war. Failure at Dieppe meant the intelligence blackout continued and shipping losses reached crisis proportions until, purely by chance, it lifted two months later when a German U-boat, floundering in the waters off Port Said in Egypt, was boarded and gave up her Enigma secrets. The exploit, which turned the tide of the U-boat war once and for all, would eventually be declassified and the heroism of the boarding party would be celebrated. But the failure to pinch at Dieppe remained tucked quietly away for what the major players were told would likely be eternity.
As such, Roberts’s fateful series of orders defied explanation due to the ultra-secret nature of the mission he was assigned and the postwar rules that prohibited its mention until long after his death. Exacerbating the problem was Hughes-Hallett’s and Mountbatten’s intentional obfuscation in their post-battle accounts—primarily for security reasons, but also to protect their own reputations and distance themselves from the high cost—which laid the groundwork for a resilient false narrative. They knew full well that Roberts could not offer a proper defence of his actions on the day of the Dieppe raid without violating the provisions of the Official Secrets Act and the unwritten code of honour among military men, and so they painted him into a corner—then threw him to the lions.
With the release of formerly ultra-classified material in recent years, the vital nature of what was at stake has now been established and the puzzle pieces that refused to fit finally fuse tightly, forming a new portrait of Roberts’s role in one of the deadliest and most controversial episodes in Canada’s 150-year history. Instead of being the “grand maestro” with room to call the variations Roberts served as a conduit—a facilitator—for the achievement of the core objective, which Hughes-Hallett nursed from conception to execution, with Mountbatten and Churchill hovering over as father and godfather respectively.
Instead, the valued target of that mission—the quest for the cipher material—instantly sealed Roberts's fate in history, albeit for reasons we only now understand.
Seemingly within inches of reaching his target, his decisions no longer defy rational explanation, and no doubt will be debated by military professionals, historians and armchair generals moving forward. Couched within the mix of the high stakes at play, the ambition of Mountbatten and Hughes-Hallett—the architect of the pinch raid and its driving force from conception to birth as a co-commander—the cocky atmosphere at Mountbatten’s headquarters fanned the flames that led to the Dieppe disaster. Yet given the vital nature of what was at stake, the elaborate lengths to which the British had gone in the past, coupled with the significance and location in the prime targets in the harbour, Roberts's decisions can now be understood, and at very least re-qualified—perhaps, dare one say, even justified in the context of the time.
Thrown under the bus, but unable to respond without sanction or dishonour, Roberts retreated into relative silence, maintaining the party line on Dieppe: a good soldier likely realizing the ultimate sacrifice of more than 1,000 men on Aug. 19, 1942, far outweighed the small price of his own reputation in comparison.
David O’Keefe is a historian and the author of One Day In August.