POPULAR WISDOM and many standard historical sources have convinced most of us that the raid on Dieppe on August 19, 1942, was a bloody mistake, caused by the gross incompetence of Allied military commanders. And while it is true that almost 3,000 Canadians were killed or taken prisoner in a matter of hours and the Germans were more prepared than anyone imagined, Dieppe: Tragedy to Triumph challenges our notions of utter defeat. According to Denis and Shelagh Whitaker, Dieppe was not a complete disaster because the long-term effects of the battle made this terrible sacrifice extremely valuable.
In clear, passionate prose the Whitakers explain how Dieppe was planned and executed. For their evidence they have relied on secret documents only recently made available, interviews, and personal recollection, much of which is Denis Whitaker's own eyewitness story. Whitaker, who retired a brigadier general in the Canadian armed forces in the 1950s, was a captain at Dieppe and the only officer who was not killed or taken prisoner. His memories are informative, and in some cases so immediate and terrible that they are almost unbearable to read.
The Whitakers do question the planners' conception of the Dieppe assault's objectives. III-informed intelligence sources indicated that Dieppe was not heavily defended: in fact SS and Panzer units were only miles away. And nobody, it seemed, gave any thought to the condition of the beaches where the raiders Would land. Some of the planners and participants had holidayed at Dieppe before the war, but, incredibly, none of them remembered what the beach was like: its deep piles of loose shale stones could not sustain the traction needed for large vehicles such as tanks and trucks. And no one remembered the caves above the beach that could -- and did -- hide numerous artillery positions.
The original plans, largely the idea of the Americans, involved a massive assault to establish a second European front and thereby take pressure off the embattled Russians. But because of arguments among politicians and military commanders, as well as a lack of manpower, the attack was whittled down to a lesser and relatively disorganized effort. Air and naval support were cut back so much that failure seemed inevitable to many of the officers who would actually be taking part in the assault.
Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill, and military commanders such a, Lord Mountbatten had contributed ideas about the type of operation they wanted. However, no one was willing to take responsibility for those ideas after the raid, although many fingers were pointed at Mountbatten and the senior Canadian officer, General Hamilton Roberts, who anticipated that the assault would be "a piece of cake."
In a series of interview-style interjections, Denis Whitaker provides his own honest and moving recollections of the battle. Many men died before they even reached the beach, with casualties of 90 per cent among the engineers whose job it was to clear the beach for the soldiers following them. Whitaker offers an intense and sickening hour-by-hour description of the battle and the unbelievable bravery of the men he fought alongside.
Ultimately, the authors argue, while the cost was very high, Dieppe was a tragedy but not a failure; they call it "a useful pawn." It failed tactically but led to successful coastal assaults later in the war, particularly at Normandy on D-Day.
A very different but equally vital front is described in Behind the Glory: The Plan that Won the Allied Air War, Ted Barris's story of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP). Established at 107 stations throughout Canada between 1940 and 1945, the BCATP trained more than 150,000 air crew and pilots from throughout the Commonwealth, as well as "free" forces from France, Holland, Belgium, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Norway. And before the United States entered the war, there were even some Americans who contravened the Neutrality Act and crossed the border to enlist.
Barris conveys the sense of excitement that led young men to fly and describes the conditions under which they were trained, but it is the instructors -- First World War veterans, commercial Pilots, bush pilots, crop-dusters, amateur aviators -who are the true subject of his book. Barris stresses their dedication, their pride in their students, and their knowledge that their charges had to fly better than anyone else. He also describes how they were virtually ignored by their government for all the work they had done (at the end of the war only those who had served overseas were eligible for benefits such as civil- service positions, and commercial airlines would only hire pilots who had flown combat missions, despite the thousands of flying hours instructors had accumulated). While the 1,000 fatalities among BCATP students are on record, there is no documentation of how many instructors died during the same period. Many brilliant pilots who passed through the BCATP were later decorated for their bravery in action; and John Gillespie McGee, the pilot-poet who wrote "Oh I have slipped the surly bonds of earth," graduated from the BCATP station in St. Catharines, Ontario, before being killed on a training mission in England.
Many instructors desperately wanted to fly in combat, since they felt guilty about sending so many young trainees to almost certain death; "What did you do in the war, Daddy?" was sometimes an awkward question for these men. But Barris establishes that they should he proud of their contribution; by the end of the war, the RCAF was the third-largest air force in the world, thanks largely to the instructors of the BCATP