Should Andrew McNaughton have been fired following the Dieppe disaster? | Face to Face

November 1, 2017 by Legion Magazine

On Sept. 29, 1941, Lieutenant-General Andrew McNaughton described the more than 124,000 Canadians in Britain as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Berlin.” It was, however, a dagger increasingly dulled by inaction. Knowing this, McNaughton attained authorization from Ottawa to commit troops to “minor” raids the British were beginning to organize. This authority enabled him to green-light 527 Canadian troops participating in the August 1941 raid on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. This successful raid yielded not a single fatal casualty.

In November 1941, McNaughton fell ill and returned to Canada to convalesce. In his absence, Lieutenant-General Harry Crerar assumed corps command almost simultaneous to Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten taking over Britain’s Combined Operations Headquarters. Mountbatten rapidly expanded the raiding agenda and in January 1942 locked Dieppe in his crosshairs for a June divisional-scale raid.

Citing the “great stimulus” to be gained from “making a name for…raiding activities,” Crerar meanwhile had been sending a barrage of letters up the British command chain seeking Canadian employment. When McNaughton returned to Britain at the end of March 1942, a large detachment of 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was engaged in amphibious assault training. This was followed on the night of April 21-22 by Canadian involvement in a botched raid on Hardelot, south of Boulogne. The Canadian contingent failed to get ashore and there were no casualties.

By this time, McNaughton’s enthusiasm for raiding had waned, even as Crerar’s continued to grow. McNaughton, now heading up the newly formed First Canadian Army, wanted to keep the army intact for the inevitable invasion. Still, he saw value in training alongside naval and air personnel to develop competency in amphibious landings and advances from beachheads.

Crerar’s efforts, meanwhile, had borne fruit. On April 27, Major-General Bernard Montgomery of Britain’s South-Eastern Command—under which First Canadian Army served—asked if Crerar wanted the well-advanced Dieppe raid. He readily nominated 2nd Division. Having secured Crerar’s agreement, Montgomery only visited McNaughton on the morning of April 30 to say he felt Canadian “troops were those best suited.” As an afterthought, Montgomery mentioned Crerar had already selected 2nd Division.

Together Montgomery and Crerar had neatly boxed McNaughton into a corner. Hours before the Montgomery-McNaughton meeting, Crerar had issued Training Instruction No. 9, creating a “security cover for training for Operation ‘Rutter,’” as one army report noted. McNaughton could do little but consent. As the Dieppe raid’s scope exceeded McNaughton’s authority to undertake “minor” raids without Ottawa’s approval, he cabled Chief of General Staff Lieutenant-General Ken Stuart and reported being asked to commit troops “on a scale which cannot be classed as minor.” Expanded authority was quickly granted.

When bad weather derailed Rutter, the raid was reborn as Jubilee and shifted to August. Some would argue that McNaughton could then have withdrawn 2nd Division, but it was now integral to the plan, the British government wanted a raid of consequence, and only Dieppe could be mounted on short notice. So, Jubilee proceeded and ended in disaster with 907 Canadian dead and 1,946 others taken prisoner—the single most costly day suffered by the nation in the Second World War. If anybody should have been fired over this tragedy, it is Crerar. It was his scheming behind McNaughton’s back that ensured Canadian involvement.

The 75th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid has been overshadowed by the Vimy centenary and Canada’s 150th birthday, but the scale of the Dieppe tragedy still provokes debate. A review of the planning for the raid demonstrates that Lord Louis Mountbatten’s Combined Operations Headquarters had to balance the often-conflicting interests of the navy, army and air force while pursuing its own mandate to conduct experiments in amphibious warfare. Unfortunately, while the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force representatives pursued their own agendas, army spokesmen—including the Canadians—seemed unwilling to challenge the other service leaders.

The RAF supported the raid in the belief that it would force the German air force into a large air battle that Fighter Command thought it could win. It would also allow the RAF to prove that it could protect a naval flotilla from air attack. However, when Bomber Command refused to divert resources to bombing the Dieppe defences, the planners accepted the veto. They also failed to question the assertion that “cannon fighters” attacking “the beach defences and high ground on either side of Dieppe” could neutralize the German defenders during the landing.

The navy was willing to co-operate as long as there was no risk to its battleships or cruisers. Two minesweeping flotillas, landing ships and landing craft as well as eight small destroyers with four-inch guns were made available, but Mountbatten’s request for a naval bombardment was met with the comment “battleships in the Channel, you must be mad, Dickie.” After the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales and HMS Repulse by land-based Japanese aircraft north of Singapore, few wanted to risk another battleship. But one or two heavy cruisers with eight-inch guns could have been used. Imagine the difference cruiser fire directed at the cliff faces and gun batteries would have made on Aug. 19.

Lieutenant-General Harry Crerar, the Canadian Corps commander, and Major-General John Hamilton Roberts, commander of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, which was selected for the operation, dutifully accepted the outline plan and began filling in the details.

But it was up to one man, First Canadian Army commander Lieutenant-General Andrew McNaughton, to approve the commitment of Canadian troops. McNaughton was technically responsible to the Canadian government through Minister of Defence James L. Ralston, but McNaughton had sought authority to approve “operations of limited scope” without consulting the government in Ottawa. McNaughton’s reputation was based on his achievements in the First World War, when he developed the Canadian Corps’ counter-battery artillery to destroy the enemy’s guns before they could stop an infantry advance.

To approve a plan that provided no effective means of dealing with the enemy batteries protecting Dieppe was a violation of everything McNaughton knew about war. After the raid, he accepted full responsibility, but insisted he would resign if there was a parliamentary investigation. His role in the Dieppe tragedy strengthened Ralston’s belief that McNaughton was the wrong man to command the Canadian Army. This certainly—and justifiably—contributed to his dismissal in 1943.

 


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