Dieppe doc sheds new light on invasion

Actors reenact the raid on Dieppe in this undated handout photo. A handful of surviving war veterans who share first-person insights in the illuminating new documentary "Dieppe Uncovered." The 90-minute film premieres Sunday night at 9 p.m. ET/PT - 70 years to the day of the Dieppe invasion - on History Television. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Northern Sky Productions

DIEPPE, France - Dieppe has long been a word that has made Canadian war veterans swell with pride and wince with sorrow. Ron Beal didn't like the sound of the word when he first heard it spelled out 70 years ago as his regiment's top secret military target. The first three letters, he points out, spell DIE — "and when we got there, that's exactly what we did."

Beals, a member of the Royal Regiment of Canada, is one of a handful of surviving war veterans who share first-person insights in the illuminating new documentary "Dieppe Uncovered." The 90-minute film premieres Sunday night at 9 p.m. ET/PT — 70 years to the day of the Dieppe invasion — on History Television.

Produced and directed by cinematographer Wayne Abbott ("Deep Wreck Mysteries: Unsinkable Battleship"), the film draws on 15 years of meticulous research conducted by military historian David O'Keefe to make the case that the doomed dawn raid had a purpose and a complexity that went far beyond its legacy as a military failure.

O'Keefe, who served with the Royal Highland Regiment, just never bought some of the popular beliefs about the raid. Some said it was a sop to Russian demands for a second front in Europe and to provide a testing ground for D-Day. The sacrifices paid at Dieppe — over 900 Canadians killed in roughly three hours of savage bloodshed — did not, in O'Keefe's estimation, justify the means.

Another 2,000 troops were captured that terrible August 19th, and many spent the next year-and-a-half shackled to one another.

O'Keefe likens his Dieppe discoveries to pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Among the revelations he made as he scanned through hundreds of declassified, ultra top secret war files in a London archive was the extent of involvement in the planning of the raid by Ian Fleming, the British espionage agent who later gained fame as the author of the James Bond spy novels.

Fleming, O'Keefe surmised, saw Dieppe as a full scale "pinch raid," an opportunity to create a tremendous diversion of troops and tanks while a top secret special force of elite commandos snuck a block or two into town and raided what had been identified as the enemy's makeshift military headquarters.

Fleming's goal was to gather valuable code intelligence at a time when complex Axis espionage machinery was thwarting Allied efforts. When O'Keefe presented his findings to the keepers of the British code break intelligence, they confirmed his discoveries and released more documents.

The suggestion that Dieppe was a diversion for intelligence gathering missions was also made in 1976 in "A man called Intrepid," the best-selling biography of Canadian spymaster William Stephenson.

This article is being written at Dieppe's charming Les Arcades hotel, a harbour inn looking out over a crowded marina and located right next door to the German headquarters Fleming was hoping his forces would raid.

The Les Arcades is festooned with the red and white maple leaf flag, as are many buildings and parkways in and around Dieppe.

"This is a town that has never forgotten what Canadians did that day," says Abbott, who, together with O'Keefe, has made many trips to the city in over a year of production on the documentary.

"You see Canadian flags here every day — not just this 70th anniversary weekend."

This weekend, though, they are everywhere — above stores and in the windows of restaurants, on the backs of bicycles and cars, in flowerbeds and across billboards.

Some can be spotted on the towels and bathing suits of many of the hundreds of tourists sunning themselves on stone and pebble beaches which stretch for miles along the shore of this historic, coastal French town.

The two main beachfronts were code named "Red" and "White" on the day of the invasion. Now they are celebrated with those colours as a tribute to the Canadians. Back from the beachfront, dozens of green army tents, jeeps and other artifacts from the Second World War are on display. Ceremonies are being held at the site of the Canadian and other allied soldier cemeteries in and around Dieppe.

Canada's Minister of Veteran Affairs, Steven Blaney, joined seven Canadian veterans who fought at Dieppe as they returned to the beach Friday.

"These are our heroes," declared the minister, who also praised the documentary — to be shown to veterans and officials here Saturday — for helping to bring closure to a pivotal chapter in Canadian military history. "We finally have a true picture of what happened that day," said Blaney.

For Ray Gilbert, making his fifth pilgrimage to Dieppe, what happened that day has never been a mystery.

The spry 90-year-old Calgarian fought the battle from inside one of the Allied forces new Churchill tanks, which he says was just not designed to handle the round stones of "White" beach.

There likely will not be too many more annual reunions for the dwindling number of valiant Canadians who fought on these shores that day. The people of this French channel port show no signs of every forgetting their effort, however. O'Keefe and Abbott hope "Dieppe Uncovered" will remind Canadians at home about a defining moment of wartime sacrifice celebrated with maple leaf pride half a world away.

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Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist. While in Dieppe, he was a guest of History Television.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had an incorrect first name for Ray Gilbert