There was an old joke making the rounds in England in those dark days of 1942, when it looked like nothing was going to be able to stop the advancing Nazi war machine. It involved a British sentry post. “Halt! Who goes there?” The Gordon Highlanders, sir!” “Pass Gordon Highlanders.” “Halt! Who goes there?” “Grenadier Guards, sir!” “Pass Grenadier Guards!” “Halt! Who goes there?” “Who the bloody hell wants to know?” “Ah, pass Canadians.”
Canadian forces in World War II had a reputation for being ornery. The restrictive niceties of British military traditions seldom impressed them. Yet those same Canadians also possessed another reputation, one they’d earned on the battlefields of Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele: Canadians were fighters. They persevered when things were tough.
Perhaps that is why Canadians were chosen as the main fighting force to be sent into the coastal town of Dieppe, France, on August 19, 1942, in a raid ironically code-named Jubilee. Seventy-seven years later, we know that raid proved a disaster: it cost a lot of Canadian lives.
Solid intelligence and solid planning beforehand were woefully lacking. There was insufficient air cover: bombers and landings by paratroopers were called off. The naval bombardment was ineffective and pulled too soon. Beaches covered in fine pebbles made it impossible for troops who did land to throw up any kind of defences against German machine guns dug in on the heights. Communication between the men trying to fight their way into Dieppe and those in command in ships off shore broke down almost at once: orders were conflicting and sporadic. “Too big for a raid, too small for an invasion…what were you trying to do?” a confused German interrogator later asked one Canadian prisoner.
History has condemned just about every aspect of the 1942 Dieppe raid from its initial planning to its execution. Everyone from Mountbatten, to General Roberts to Churchill himself has been blamed for the failure of Jubilee and tragic Canadian losses; this, despite later, and highly debatable claims that lessons learned at Dieppe saved lives on D-Day.
The only Dieppe participants who are never faulted are the gallant Canadian troops who went ashore that day: even the enemy noted that they fought until they couldn’t fight any longer, dogged, determined, and, yes, ornery. They persevered. Frankly, that’s not a bad lesson to remember, 77 years later, in these often troubled times. Sometimes, like the men did at Dieppe in 1942, well, you just have to persevere.