Some Qualitative Observations of Air Power at Dieppe…

[Cross posted from Thoughts on Military History]

By Dr Ross Mahoney

A Douglas Boston Mk.III of No. 2 Group runs in to bomb a gun battery near Dieppe, passing over a smoke screen laid off the coast to provide cover for Operation JUBILEE. © IWM (C 3080)

A Douglas Boston Mk.III of No. 2 Group runs in to bomb a gun battery near Dieppe, passing over a smoke screen laid off the coast to provide cover for Operation JUBILEE. © IWM (C 3080)

One of things I looked at in the course of my research for my MPhil was the contemporary qualitative view of the effectiveness of air power over Dieppe. This was easily classified into four areas; political, command, operational and German views of the raid. Here I just want to highlight a couple of the operational sources, which here means operations and not the level of war.

At an operational level, a useful source was the Canadian Military Headquarters Historical Reports compiled by C.P. Stacey during the course of the war. Many of these were based upon oral accounts given by either surviving or released soldiers in the period 1942-1945. Therefore, they tend not suffer from many of the issues related to oral testimony such as fading memory, though of course their quality varies widely. Indeed, as Tavis Harris pointed out in 2012 in his excellent piece on Stacey and oral testimony, the latter was not uncritical of oral evidence, though he conceded ‘that such evidence is valuable and often necessary in cases where there is a lack of other sources’, such as Dieppe.[1] Furthermore, and interesting as I cited this source, is the fact that, according to Harris, Stacey viewed Captain G.A. Browne as ‘first rate witness’. Though Stacey’s motives must be born in mind, as he was quite happy to confront Lord Mountbatten over what he perceived as the problems of the raid. One of the more interesting things to come out of the accounts below was the issue of identification. Indeed by the D-Day it was common to see aircraft with the so-called ‘D-Day stripes’, however, these were certainly used during Operation STARKEY in 1943 and I have seen some reference to their use at Dieppe. Indeed, I have seen a picture of a Free French Spitfire with bands applied over the cowling; however, I cannot find a standing order for this.

Anyway, here is what I wrote from Stacey’s sources as they offer some interesting insights into the challenge of assessing military effectiveness using qualitative sources and the differing views that can be generated through their use.[2] Nevertheless, these sources brought out some of the key issues that the RAF faced at Dieppe and which it tried to adapt to between 1942 and 1944.[3]

While at a political and command level it can be argued that RAF’s operations over Dieppe were viewed as a success, it is useful to see how those on the beach and on the supporting ships viewed it. Given that the primary mission of the RAF was air cover, their opinion helps to frame whether or not that support was successful from their perspective. The CMHQ reports compiled by C.P. Stacey form a useful basis for such an analysis.[4] In terms of air power, the views are mixed, varying from negative opinions on the issue of supporting bombardment to positive views on the overall impact of air power. For example, Captain G.A. Browne of the Royal Canadian Artillery, who served as a Forward Observation Officer (FOO) with the RRC, commented on the cancelling of the aerial bombardment to preserve the element of surprise that:

Further, is surprise easier to obtain, than the preparatory heavy air bombardment which in our case would quite probably have succeeded where surprise, or rather the hope of surprise, failed?[5]

This rather negative view can be contrasted with that of Lieutenant J E R Wood of the Royal Canadian Engineers, who was captured on RED/WHITE beach, commented after the war that

Some of our people later claimed they never saw the Air Force. Of course they didn’t. They were too busy up top keeping the Luftwaffe off us. I can truthfully say we were not machine gunned on that beach except by our own people after we’d folded up. That means the R.A.F. did its stuff.[6]

Two accounts highlight one of the key problems found during JUBILEE; the identification of friendly aircraft and friendly fire due to issues of command and control. Both Captain James Runcie of the QOCHC and Private Maier of the Essex Scottish both discuss the issue of friendly fire on Canadian positions on RED/WHITE beach.[7] However, neither account is critical of the RAF; for example, Maier noted that a late-arriving Landing Craft Tank caused the incident he witnessed, in his opinion.[8] All the force commanders in their reports highlighted the issue of recognition with Roberts noting that ‘A much higher standard of air recognition is required.’[9] This was reiterated by Captain James Hughes-Hallett in the ‘Lessons Learnt’ report.[10] The problem of control was also noted in an army report in December, which praised the directing of close support aircraft, but noted that the delay imposed by the system then in place needed work.[11]

There is clearly still more to be written on Dieppe and its, challenges, effectiveness and lessons learnt. Oral testimony is one key source to explore these issues.

Dr Ross Mahoney is the Aviation Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum and convener of this research group. He also blogs at Thoughts on Military History.

[1] Tavis Harris, ‘C.P. Stacey and the Use of Oral Testimony in the Dieppe Narratives’, Canadian Military History, 21(4) (2012), p. 69. For a useful overview of Stacey and his work in the Second World War, see: Tim Cook, ‘Clio’s Soldiers: Charles Stacey and the Army Historical Section in the Second World War’, Canadian Historical Review, 83(1) (2002), pp. 29-57.

[2] See: Ross Mahoney, ‘The Royal Air Force, Combined Operations Doctrine and the Raid on Dieppe, 19 August 1942’, (MPhil Thesis, University of Birmingham, 2009), pp. 106-7.

[3] On the RAF’s adaptation in the field of combined operations, see: Ross Mahoney, “Lessons Learnt: The Royal Air Force, Operation JUBILEE, and the Adaptation of Air Power in Support of Combined Operations’ in Michael LoCicero, Ross Mahoney and Stuart Mitchell (eds.), A Military Transformed?: Adaptation and Innovation in the British Military, 1792-1945 (Solihull: Helion and Company, 2014), pp. 207-29.

[4] DHH, CMHQ Report No. 89 – The Operation at DIEPPE, 19 Aug 42: Personal Stories of Participants, 31 December 1942; CMHQ Report No. 90 – The Operation at DIEPPE, 19 Aug 42: Further Personal Stories of Participants, 18 February 1943; CMHQ Report No. 142 – Operation “JUBILEE”: The Raid on Dieppe, 19 Aug 42, Further New Information, 18 July 1945.

[5] DHH, CMHQ Report No. 89, p. A-9.

[6] DHH, CMHQ Report No. 142, para. 15.

[7] DHH, CMHQ Report No. 89, p. H-6; CMHQ Report No. 90, p. D-3.

[8] DHH, CMHQ Report No. 90, p. D-3.

[9] TNA, DEFE 2/551, The Dieppe Report (Combined Report, October 1942), p. 143.

[10] TNA, ADM 239/350, Lessons Learnt, p. 1.

[11] TNA, WO 106/4195A, File 24 – Lessons to be Learned from the Dieppe Raid.

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2 responses to “Some Qualitative Observations of Air Power at Dieppe…

  1. Yes, it has long been an interest of mine too. Like many of these operations, there are lots of myths and legends surrounding the truth. One of these is the RAF’s performance on the day. Thank you for the link.

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