Dieppe Explained? Comments on Erol Araf’s National Post Article, 19 August 2013

In his National Post article entitled “The Spies Who Betrayed Canada,” which appeared on the 71st anniversary of the Dieppe raid, Erol Araf claims that historians have hitherto failed to understand why the raid failed in 1942. If anything, Araf’s article demonstrates that the writing of history should remain within the purview of historians, not armchair strategists who have consumed decade-old popular histories.

Rather than focusing on the difficulties of topography, coastal defense systems, or operational planning for Operation Jubilee or its predecessor Operation Rutter, Araf argues that the role of three German spies and “some sloppy sharing of intelligence” can reasonably explain the failure of the raid.

Aside from the fact that the evidence supporting espionage during the Second World War is difficult to verify—after all, who would identify themselves in post-war Europe as a spy or Nazi sympathizer?—one of the most severe problems with this type of historical interpretation is the monocausality of it. In other words, explaining the “success” or “failure,” both of which are extremely difficult to define, by one factor alone.

A second issue lies in the reliability of information forwarded to governments during the Second World War. To provide one example, in the Netherlands information regarding the timing of a German invasion in 1940 was received from Major G.S. Sas, the Dutch military attaché to Berlin, who in turn received intelligence from an Abwehr officer, Colonel Hans Oster, posted at the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) in Berlin. Oster forwarded up-to-date information about potential attacks, which were invariably cancelled or pushed back according to Hitler’s capricious personality. As a result, Dutch politicians consistently played down the possibility of invasion, and politicians and military commanders alike remained skeptical about any information deriving from Oster in Berlin. When Nazi Germany finally invaded in May 1940, the Dutch government and military were caught flatfooted. In the end, Germany postponed the invasion of the Netherlands about 28 times. While at times valuable, intelligence and the role of spies can be extremely problematic when trying to interpret the past.

The article also suffers from a teleological approach to history. Araf suggests that “When the Allied armada cast off its moorings from ports along the coast of Britain, its fate had already been sealed. The raid, badly conceived from the start, was doomed by the poor intelligence sharing among the Allies, leaks of vital information and spies who kept Hitler well-informed as to what the Allies were intending.” Yet, nobody knew for certain that the operation the Canadians were about to execute was going to fail. Operational planners knew that casualties were an inevitable consequence of the raid, but an outright failure? History fails when we forget to suspend our knowledge of what comes after an event and when we don’t attempt to reconstruct the past on the basis of what was known or understood at the time. Otherwise, why not save the lives of thousands of Canadians and just wait for D-Day only two years later?

Historians and the public at large have tried to understand the Dieppe Raid since the 1940s. Intelligence and the dissemination of information have not gone overlooked, as Araf and many others have pointed out. In a highly-anticipated book, which should be published in the very near future, historian David O’Keefe will argue that the Canadian role in Dieppe acted as cover for the real operation: a “pinch operation” whose objective was to steal German naval code books which would ultimately help Bletchley Park decode the German four-rotor Enigma machine.

In the end, that so many historians have explored Dieppe highlights its complexities, its deep impact upon Canadian memory, as well as the idea that no history is final—to paraphrase philosopher R.G. Collingwood. In Araf’s defense, the National Post should have commissioned a trained historian who could offer a more historically-sensitive account of the raid and its controversy on the anniversary. Yet, Araf’s other sensational stories have been featured in the Post before, not least of which was “Hitler’s Plot to Kidnap the Pope.” In this sense, his contribution doesn’t come as a total surprise.

Incidentally, the minor errors that appeared in the published article suggest that either the newspaper didn’t perform enough fact-checking, or that the author was simply being disingenuous. In addition to some minor spelling mistakes, the “thousands more captured” was actually 1,946 and, though pedantic, this number did affect the ways in which Canadians understood their own internment operations at home and the application of the Geneva Convention to the thousands of Germans in Canadian captivity.  As historians, we should encourage public but accurate discussion of historical issues to ensure that the public receives a fair assessment of events that have helped shape Canadian history and communities across the country.