Thursday, August 23, 2012

Another view of the Dieppe Raid

It’s no secret that the Harper government is making a sustained effort to situate Canada’s military history at the centre of a new interpretation of Canadian history. To save us time reciting all the evidence, people should listen to this talk given by historian Ian McKay which is a highly informative teaser for Warrior Nation:Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety. The book, co-authored by McKay and Jamie Swift, traces the transformation of official myths about our military from Pearsonian peacekeeping to the new post-9/11 militarism.

Other researchers have also been alerted us to this shift. Warrior Nation ought to be read alongside the works Yves Engler on Canadian foreign policy. His easy-to-read books, some of them co-authored, expose Canada’s ugly role abroad and knock down longstanding myths surrounding peacekeeping. Also essential is Todd Gordon’s excellent Imperialist Canada, which provides a well-developed political economy approach to Canada’s military, diplomatic and corporate interventions within our borders and beyond.

One current high profile example of military myth-making is the resurrection of the War of 1812 as a point of national pride. The official version goes little beyond celebrating the victory against American invasion, even though the invasion was directed at only two of the seven British North American colonies - Upper and Lower Canada. Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Cape Breton (which was a separate colony until 1820) did not experience American invasion.

Given that Canada did not exist at the time and the United States, amidst its own expansionist desires, had legitimate grievances against the British for raiding their ships and impressing British-born Americans into the Royal Navy, it would be more useful to understand the War of 1812 as a catastrophe for Indigenous peoples who allied with the British against the Americans on the promise of a vast homeland. The British didn’t keep their promise.

It goes without saying that such celebrations of Canadian military history have no interest in going beyond a shallow, and often largely inaccurate interpretation of events.

One only has to walk around historic downtown Kingston to find such problems with the War of 1812 celebrations. Big banners adorn the streetlights of Princess Street, Kingston’s main drag, declaring Kingston “Invasion Free Since 1812”.

If you take a short walk south to City Park, you’ll find a historic plaque celebrating the volunteers who saved Kingston from an invasion during the rebellion of 1837-38. When I first saw this, I was puzzled. Weren’t the rebellions domestic? Initially, yes. But a number of rebels fled to the United States after their first failed uprising. The plaque does not mention that this invasion was launched from upstate New York by Canadian rebels, backed by American republicans, and led by a Polish revolutionary who had been exiled following a failed uprising against the Russian Empire.

Whereas the War of 1812 celebrations have at least sparked some critical questioning of its propagandistic intentions in the mainstream press, and led to some fascinating interviews with researchers on CBC Radio One, such an open space is still not allowed for more recent wars, notably the two world wars. 

The two world wars are understandably central to the new militarist national history. That’s why it’s still so dangerous to offer up interpretations that might cast aspersions on the decisions of Canada’s war-time politicians and generals and especially units involving thousands of rank-and-file soldiers and airmen who "just followed orders." Consider such ridiculous cases as the new Canadian War Museum in Ottawa ceding to the demands of Air Force veterans to change the wording of a plague describing the bombing of Dresden and other German civilian targets as war crimes. Such a response was foreshadowed in the early 1990s with a veteran-led assault on the gripping CBC documentary series The Valour and the Horror, and specifically the episode Death by Moonlight.

Death by Moonlight: Bomber Command by Brian McKenna, National Film Board of Canada

Efforts to revisit Canadian military history are dismissed as “revisionism” as if no reinterpretation, let alone a new interpretation based on new evidence, is valid. History, it is often claimed, is “just the facts.” That such attitudes are so widespread is the real failure of Canadian high school history classes, not the absence of a national narrative or the overemphasis on social history instead of military history, as claimed by Jack Granatstein in his 1998 best-seller Who Killed Canadian History?

Dieppe: the myth-building interpretation
With all this in mind, the recent 70th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid should give us a moment to reconsider the mainstream nationalist and militarist interpretation of Dieppe as a tragedy with a silver-lining. Despite the ill-fated raid on the fortified French coastal city of Dieppe on August 19 1942 by 6,000 Allied troops, mainly Canadians, the raid provided the Allies an invaluable understanding of how to pull-off a large-scale invasion of France. So the story goes.

This interpretation is summed up very well in a Montreal Gazette article authored by Bernard Amyot. Amyot is not a historian, but president of the Canadian Bar Association. What Amyot is doing writing about Dieppe is beyond me, but his analysis of the raid is not at all different from something you would find in mainstream military history books. Amyot also provides us with the claim that this raid had a unifying effect for Canadians – a claim that is also rolled out fairly commonly even if there are criticisms about the raid.

Let’s unpack the two key passages that build the myth around Dieppe:
"The lessons learned from the mistakes of this failed landing would later help ensure the successful liberation of Europe, and the world, from Hitler’s unparalleled Nazi tyranny. Indeed, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had conceived of the Dieppe raid mainly as a “rehearsal” for the greatest and most successful landing operations in history which were launched around Arromanches in Normandy on June 6, 1944 (Operation Neptune), the success of which was paid for at a terrible price by Canadian forces 70 years ago."
"The Dieppe raid, though it resulted in tremendous loss for Canada, contributed to uniting Canadians of all origins in fighting a common evil. It confirmed Canada’s role as an independent force to be reckoned with, not only within the British Commonwealth, but throughout the world, starting in France. It has made us a better country, a united country that proudly vies for justice and freedom — something we can all celebrate."
Churchill's agenda
Let’s deal with the first paragraph by knocking down the myth of Churchill, the alleged military and political genius - a Tory who was ousted in a landslide only two months after the collapse of the Nazi regime, ushering in the most transformative, progressive British Labour government ever.

There’s always a curious and glaring oversight when someone draws a direct line from Dieppe to Normandy. Dieppe was not followed by the invasion of France. Italy was invaded nine months before France on Churchill's idiotic insistence that it was the "soft underbelly of Europe". Sicily fell very quickly and the Allies invaded Italy at the boot and heel. But Italy’s mountainous terrain and dense towns with narrow streets provided excellent natural defenses for the fascists and a huge hindrance to mobility. Italy became a long, arduous and costly campaign – with worse casualties for infantry than even the Western Front following D-Day. Success was measured in short distances and very high losses. The Allies didn’t even reach the more open terrain of northern Italy until a few weeks before the general German surrender in April/May 1945.

Why is the Italian campaign important to raise? Churchill clearly hadn't learned his lesson from the previous war when he spearheaded the disastrous invasion of Gallipoli in which Australian, New Zealand, French, Indian and British troops trapped on a narrow strip of rocky land for nine months before being evacuated. Churchill’s “military” credentials do not hold up to scrutiny. So why was he so insistent on invading Italy – with its fascist state crumbling amidst the defeats in North Africa – before France?

Churchill's emphasis on invading Italy first (and subsequent special operations interventions Greece) was about maintaining British control of the Mediterranean as well as keeping Communist influence out. When Mussolini’s government collapsed through mid-1943, the Nazis occupied Italy and put Mussolini in charge of a northern-based puppet state. The puppet state and the Nazi occupiers were subjected to a relentless resistance campaign led by the Italian Communist Party, which, as the war approached an end, became the most powerful political force in the country. Local Communist-led armed resistance in the Nazi-occupied Balkans and Greece also helped drive out the Nazis who were increasingly at risk of being cut off from an escape route to Germany by advancing Soviet armies. The story after Nazi collapse in Italy and withdrawal in Greece was the Allied disarmament of the partisans to prevent the eradication of Nazi-sympathizing domestic elites. These domestic elites were instrumental in British and American efforts to ensure that Italy and Greece would not become Communist after the war.

Stalin, who headed up the Soviet bureaucracy and had finally drowned the Russian Revolution in blood during the 1930s, sold out the Communists in Greece in October 1944 in a secret agreement between Stalin and Churchill. The agreement carved up British and Soviet influence over various European countries. There is much talk of the Soviets imposing the Iron Curtain on Europe. But this was a mutual decision by the Western allies, namely Churchill and Roosevelt, and the Soviet Union. It was a similar process to what happened after World War One – the carving up of Europe by the victors. It was this carving up that did not jive with many local, Communist, nationalist and democratic movements who had formed the backbone of the resistance across Europe. Greece was caught in this imperial tug-of-war and from 1946 to 1949, its domestic political conflicts which did have a violent edge escalated into a full-scale civil war in which the UK and US sponsored and armed the anti-Communist side. In Italy, CIA operations warped the country’s fragile new representative democratic system to prevent the Communists from winning elections in the immediate post-war years..

Through 1943, once North Africa had been secured by the Allies, the actual liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation and the invasion of Germany itself to physically destroy the Nazi state (which in itself is more complicated than we're taught), took a backburner to British imperial and Western anti-Communist interests in the Mediterranean. Although the Western allies did liberate Western Europe (with much help from the French Communist-led resistance) and invade western Germany, the Soviet Union had carried all the heavy lifting on continental Europe. On the ground, it fought the Nazis almost single-handedly from June 1941 to June 1944, and suffered the most horrendous casualties in the war – 27 million – casualties exacerbated by Stalin’s complete disregard for human life.

Dieppe as a function of Western-Soviet relations
So what, exactly, was the Dieppe Raid's purpose? Let's dispense with the "rehearsal" argument.

If "rehearsal" was the primary concern, the Dieppe Raid was not necessary. As Dieppe happened, the Americans also invaded Guadalcanal in the Pacific. This started a three-year "island-hopping" campaign which recaptured the vast Pacific island network that the Japanese had established by seizing strategic islands (such as those with airports) while skipping over other islands to cut the supply lines to their Japanese garrisons. The necessary experience in amphibious landings that translated to the invasion of France came not from Dieppe or the unopposed landings in Algeria or Sicily, but the American island-hopping campaign in the Pacific which was nearly two years old as of D-Day.

The first of two major reasons why Dieppe happened was to allay the Soviet Union which was demanding the Allies open up a second front in Western Europe to take some of the pressure off fighting almost the entire Nazi war machine. To put matters in perspective, the Western Allies were only fighting at most 140,000 German troops in North Africa between 1940-43. From the invasion of Russia in June 1941 onward, Germany never had fewer than two million soldiers on the Eastern Front. This is one reason why the German general, Erwin Rommel, who commanded the German Afrika Korps, was constantly asking Hitler for more troops. Hitler treated North Africa as a sideshow whereas Rommel and other German commanders saw the seizing of the Suez Canal as strategically important. Despite the early victories in Russia, a deep undercurrent of opposition to Hitler emerged because of the invasion. German military commanders were not ignorant of Napolean’s campaign in Russia and its role in shattering the continent-wide empire and satellite states he had established. Rommel, the most celebrated German general of the war and an obvious military genius (unlike Churchill or Montgomery) would then join the efforts by a group of officers to assassinate Hitler. He was implicated and committed suicide in October 1944 rather than go to court.

The scale of the Eastern Front cannot be understated. It was indisputably the front upon which the entire European conflagration orbited. Even the Italians had more troops and far higher losses on the Eastern Front between 1941 and 1943 than during the North Africa campaign against the Commonwealth armies. When Dieppe happened, the Nazis were at the edge of Moscow and the Battle of Stalingrad had not even started, let alone reached its turning point. It wasn’t until November 1942 that the German armies in Stalingrad were surrounded and another three months before they surrendered. This is the military-political context for the Soviets demanding the Western allies open up a second front. Dieppe, in this sense, was a bloody PR stunt for Stalin.

Dieppe and the Canadian home front
For Canadians, the Dieppe Raid was also about placating an increasingly agitated domestic population. The fall of France happened in June 1940. Canadian troops had been stationed in England since late 1939 and had not seen any action. The public was growing impatient as war raged across North Africa as the only front being fought by the Commonwealth armies in the Western hemisphere. Political decisions had been made to keep Canadian troops together, so they were never committed piecemeal to North Africa like the Australians and New Zealanders had done. By mid-1942, almost four entire Canadian divisions were in England – upwards of 80,000 combat troops. There were thousands more Canadians in England, many of them engaged in the air war, including those in the Sixth (Canadian) Bomber Group in Britain’s Bomber Command who carried out the strategy of Air Marshal Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris. This strategy was to bomb German civilians targets – and it killed 600,000 German civilians over five years, including 60,000 in Dresden during its infamous firebombing. The extent of the Canadian contribution to the air war is reflected in Canadian casualties. Of the 47,000 Canadian war deaths, 18,000 were of those were members of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

By 1942, two years had passed with no prospect of a second front opening up and the Soviet Union doing all the major fighting. Sympathy in the West, including Canada, for the Soviet Union ran very high. It was not only promoted by the mainstream press and government as a key ally, but the it was still seen by many as a progressive alternative system. Not only did the Communists play a major role in the rising labour movement, and had an MLA elected in Manitoba in 1941, two MPPs elected in downtown Toronto in 1943, and an MP, Fred Rose, elected in a Montreal by-election in 1945.

Labour tensions were also beginning to boil over amidst a regime of strict rationing and a government-enforced culture of suspicion that ranged from the innocuous “loose lips sink ships” rhetoric to the geographic dispersal and internment of Japanese-Canadians and theft of their property. While the home front's popular commitment to the war effort cannot be denied, it was interwoven with a series of deep-seated social grievances, many of which had arose before the war in the depression. At times, these grievances expressed themselves forcefully, explosively.

It’s worth looking at Canada's labour situation in the months leading up to Dieppe. In the middle of wartime austerity and the war itself not going well, labour tensions had exploded over the Kirkland Lake goldminers strike of late 1941 and early 1942. After a few years of relative labour peace - partially enforced by the no-strike pledge of the Communist Party on the grounds that strikes would sabotage the war effort with our Soviet allies - the workers movement across the country was mobilized against federal and provincial government-backed repression of union rights at Kirkland Lake. While the strike went down to defeat, it galvanized a new workers movement that would escalate its struggle through the 1940s and force the government to codify a system of tripartite industrial relations involving unions, employers and the state.

Other political tensions also rose rapidly. In April 1942, the federal government held a plebiscite on conscription in which Prime Minister King sought popular support to flip-flop on his anti-conscription promises made at the outset of the war. Only 25 years earlier, a conscription crisis had gripped Canada and in Quebec, the memory of anti-conscription being shot dead in Quebec City’s streets by Anglophone soldiers was not forgotten. Conscription, even with the plebiscite passing, fuelled significant anger in Quebec. While 83 percent of Anglophones voted in favour of conscription, over 70 percent of Francophones opposed it.

This political opposition to hardship on the home front and lack of progress on the war front was confirmed in a 1942 Gallup poll showing the CCF ahead of both the Liberals and Conservatives with a plurality of overseas soldiers supporting the CCF. This marked a serious and sustained effort by the ruling Liberals of Mackenzie King to begin taking very seriously the need for implementing social reforms to diffuse popular anger and prevent social upheavals like what happened between 1917 and 1919.

Saskatchewan Liberal Party
anti-CCF poster, c.1938. Source
It was this discontent that played a massive role in informing the Canadian government's decision to commit troops to the Dieppe Raid as well as to the invasion of Sicily in September 1943, thus dividing up the Canadian Corps. These domestic divisions and tensions continued through the war, reflected most forcefully in the radicalization and ballooning of a new workers movement alongside a strong Communist Party and most acutely, a huge swing of support behind the still young socialist party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. The CCF became the opposition in BC in 1942, narrowly lost the Ontario election in 1943 and took power in Saskatchewan in 1944. Political polarization was such that Canada witnessed its government and business-initiated Red Scare reach full-steam after the war even before the Americans, amidst one of the most extensive strike waves in Canadian history.

To conclude, let's not make Dieppe something it is not. It did not unite Canadians except in grief. It was a waste of life designed to recover lost political support at home and throw a bone to the Soviet Union. It is not something to celebrate.