Although Lord Louis Mountbatten oversaw India’s postwar independence from Britain and was later murdered in a headline-grabbing IRA bombing, history best remembers him for the World War II debacle at Dieppe. Despite Mountbatten’s mediocre combat record, his royal connections (he was a great-grandson of Queen Victoria), charm and film star looks led Prime Minister Winston Churchill to name him chief of Combined Operations in late 1941. Mountbatten was to “singe Hitler’s moustache” by launching cross-channel raids on France.
At this point in the war, Britain faced political pressure to do something big in Europe. The pressure came largely from the Soviet Union, which sought the opening of a second front, and from Canadian forces in Britain anxious to prove their mettle. A planned raid in strength by land, sea and air forces on the small Normandy port of Dieppe was seen both as a sop to Joseph Stalin and as a blooding of the green Canadians—as well as a useful pre-invasion test of German coastal defenses.
But everything about Dieppe was a fiasco. Mountbatten launched the assault in daylight against woefully underestimated entrenched German defenses. No attempt was made to silence the German guns in advance with heavy bombers or big ships. Tanks and tracked armored vehicles, unable to get purchase on the loose pebbles of Dieppe’s seafront or to breach inland anti-tank obstacles, proved largely irrelevant. Most important, the Germans had ample advance warning of the raid.
Bernard Montgomery had advised Mountbatten to call the whole thing off following two catastrophic dress rehearsals in June. Instead, Mountbatten proposed a double bluff—feigning cancellation of the operation and then wrongfooting the Germans by going ahead with the raid as planned. Not only did Mountbatten ignore his peer’s professional military advice, he relied on an amateur staff with little military experience and less ability.
At 6:30 a.m. on August 19, in the wake of British commando landings east and west of Dieppe, men of the Canadian 2nd Division and a contingent of U.S. Army Rangers approached Dieppe. They met withering machinegun and mortar fire.
Only 27 of 53 supporting tanks made it to the beach, and they were late, leaving the unprotected soldiers to be cut down in droves. After four hours of savage fighting, the attackers remained pinned on the beach, and Mountbatten called off the raid— although few of those who had landed managed to withdraw. Most were captured. Of the 4,963 Canadian troops at Dieppe, 3,369—nearly 70 percent —were killed, wounded or captured. The Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force lost 106 planes to 48 enemy aircraft downed. The only major Allied incursion in northern Europe between Dunkirk and D-Day had ended in total failure.
■ Promote on merit, Part 1. Mountbatten owed his rise to high command largely to his charm and royal blood ties rather than his combat credentials.
■ Promote on merit, Part 2. A commander should consider professional ability, not personal ties, when assembling a staff.
■ Put politics aside. Plans for major operations should be based on achievable military goals, not on fickle political pressures.
■ Know your enemy. Accurate intelligence about a target’s defenses is vital.
■ No major operations for minor goals. Even a great Allied triumph at Dieppe would have achieved only limited tactical success—and virtually nothing at the strategic level.
■ Exploit the element of surprise. When attacking a heavily defended target, surprise is crucial. If evidence indicates the enemy is aware of your intentions, then abandon or modify your plans.
■ Commit to victory. An attack on a well-defended position calls for overwhelming firepower on land, sea and air.
■ Know when to quit. When objectives are clearly out of reach, it is more honorable to call off an operation than waste more lives.
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.