Vindicating Dieppe

The catastrophic WWII battle may have had a much larger purpose than just taking a French beach

New evidence shows the doomed Dieppe raid had a vital mission — and a certain spy author — at its core. In an exclusive feature story in this week’s issue of Maclean’s, on stands now, we go behind the scenes of a dark chapter in Canada’s history.

Dawn had broken by the time Ron Beal scrambled out of his landing craft to storm the beach with the Royal Regiment and attack gun positions looking west over Dieppe harbour. In the early-morning sunlight, the Canadian soldiers were easy targets for the French town’s German defenders; scores lay dead and dying on the rocky beach as bullets rained mercilessly from the cliffs above. Beal kept running toward them, as commanded, even while his comrades were cut down around him. “We were running over our own dead,” says Beal, now 91, a resident of Toronto. “We felt like we were just lambs to the slaughter.”

Beal was taken prisoner, along with 200 fellow Canadians in his landing section. His regiment wasn’t alone in defeat: the Dieppe raid of Aug. 19, 1942, was a disaster, an amphibious assault on Nazi-occupied France that went horribly wrong. In total, 907 Canadians were left dead that day.

Questions about the raid have lingered for decades, and its meaning and purpose have been hotly debated. Why were they sent to Dieppe, a French port town of 25,000 facing north across the English Channel? With a shingle beach shoreline flanked by imposing cliffs topped with German defences, it was no easy target for an amphibious raid. Why did it happen?

Some argue the Canadians were sacrificed in a British-planned effort to placate Soviet and American demands for a second front in Western Europe. Others frame it as a botched dress rehearsal for D-Day. But for many historians, it’s as if there’s been a glaring hole in the Dieppe narrative—a large piece of the puzzle for understanding what happened that day has been missing.

Until now, that is.

On Aug. 19, the 70th anniversary of the Dieppe raid, a groundbreaking documentary called Dieppe Uncovered will air on the specialty TV channel History. (It re-airs the following day.) The film finally uncovers a clear explanation for why so many young Canadians were sent to their deaths.
O’Keefe has discovered that the main goal of the operation was to provide help and cover for a top secret commando unit—whose very existence was kept hidden for years—to steal highly valued intelligence material from a German naval headquarters in the seaside town. This mission was of such consequence that, had it been successful, the entire course of the war could have been altered. It’s an extraordinary revelation, involving closely guarded military secrets, the soon-to-be-famous creator of James Bond, and the bravery of hundreds of men pursuing an objective of paramount importance to the Second World War in 1942.

In an exclusive feature story in this week’s issue of Maclean’s, on stands now, we go behind the scenes with David O’Keefe to find out how he made this astonishing discovery, and explore what his findings mean to our understanding of that dark chapter in Canada’s history.

Peter Henshaw, a history professor at Western University, says he is amazed by O’Keefe’s findings. “It’s especially rare in this area of Second World War history, because so many people have already plowed through a lot of this stuff,” he says. “It’s a big deal.”

And it promises to forever change the way Canadians, especially the living veterans who endured so much that day, look back at Canada’s worst military defeat.

Read more in this week’s issue of Maclean’s.