Dieppe (miniseries)

Dieppe was a two part miniseries originally broadcast on network television by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1993. It is currently available on a two part DVD by BFS Video under license from CBC Home Video. This is a two volume set, with many extra features, which will also be discussed here. Technical aspects of the DVD presentation are not discussed here, instead, what follows is a review of the actual dramatic presentation from a historical point of view. The webmaster does not pretend to have any deeper knowledge of the technical merits re: picture quality, sound, etc.

Background and Storylines

The film itself concentrates on three distinct groups:

The Men

The first story follows the men of the Royal Regiment of Canada, in particular one platoon in this regiment. Like most cinematic treatments of small units, there is little attention paid to actual military practices - the platoon, for example, has a platoon sergeant but apparently no officer to command them. For cinematic purposes, this works well though the interaction between the character of Major Morton, who seems at times more of a platoon commander than someone of such high rank.

Aside from that, the film depicts well what life was like for Canadian soldiers in England in 1942; and many facets of their day to day existence at this time is covered; from coastal defence duties and speed marches, to the more domestic problems of poor food, boredom, and the welcome escape to life at the pubs. Several issues are touched on, including extra-marital affairs by English girls with Canadian boyfriends, weary English citizens who see the Canadians carousing while their own men are off fighting, and the discipline problems caused by an Army doing little but training and waiting.

John Nelles as Lionel, the devoted family man who misses his wife and son back in Canada.

John Nelles as Lionel, the devoted family man who misses his wife and son back in Canada.

The characters may seem like "war movie cliches" but are well matched to the personal reminiscences one finds in any decent wartime autobiography. There is Jean, a (perhaps obligatory) French-Canadian who lied about his age to enlist and has his first sexual experiences far from home with an English girl of questionable virtue; Casey, the hell-raiser with the married English girlfriend who worries that - once news of her husband's death arrives - she will expect "a ring on her finger and one through my nose...I joined up just to get away from a girl like that back home"; and the hard-nosed Sergeant with the also obligatory Polish name Jawarski.

Alain Vandelac as Jean.
Alain Vandelac as Jean.
Experienced actor Aidan Devine as Casey
Aidan Devine as Casey
Thomas Mitchell as Jawarski
Thomas Mitchell as Jawarski

While no junior officers are depicted in the film, two fictional majors of the Royal Regiment receive much screen time and interact with the main characters. Greg Ellwand as Magnus and Brian Taylor as Morton show realistically two very different type of officers and highlight the kind of leaders that the Militia produced for active service overseas in the Second World War - Magnus as the professional staff officer, Morton the blustery officer who was anxious simply to get on with the fighting and not place much interest in the make believe world of training exercises.

Greg Ellwand as Major Magnus
Greg Ellwand as Major Magnus
Brian Taylor as Major Morton
Brian Taylor as Major Morton

The Canadian Commanders

Those discipline problems were the bane of their commanders' existence, and the film very nicely looks at top Canadian commanders as well. The interaction of the senior commanders is well done, though those without a solid background of who was who in the Canadian Army may find the relationships of the characters a bit confusing at first. The personalities of historical figures like Victor Odlum (the un-named general in part I), Harry Crerar and Andy McNaughton are well captured. A nice touch was the portrayal of a lesser known figure, Churchill Mann, an able staff officer who after the war rose to become Vice Chief of the General Staff.

A very nice ensemble of veteran screen actors, largely Canadian, was assembled for this film. Kenneth Welsh very nicely portrays Major General Harry Crerar, commander of the First Canadian Corps. In his book The Generals: Canadian Senior Commanders in the Second World War, Dr. Granatstein paints a picture of ambition in his chapter on Crerar, and Welsh shows this very well. In the scene shown at right, he accepts the Dieppe Raid as soon as it is suggested by a British commander. "Don't you even want to know what it is?" the surprised General Brooke asks. "I'll take anything, as long as it gets us into action ahead of the Americans," Crerar smoothly replies.

Slightly less convincing is Gary Reineke as Major General J. Hamilton Roberts, who commanded the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. The real life Roberts was not as grey, not as thin, and possibly not as pre-occupied with a love affair as the cinematic Roberts. Reineke - another veteran Canadian actor some viewers may remember from Riel - is nonetheless solid in the role, which is written sympathetically and paints Roberts as a victim of circumstance. He is also shown as a man of solid principles, who in a dramatic scene announces that he will accept the Dieppe assignment "because a lot of kids who put their faith and trust in me are gonna die." Reineke neither underplays nor overplays the part and is one of the reasons the presentation holds together so well. Peter Donat, another well-recognized actor, plays Lieutenant General AGL McNaughton. Of the four actors portraying Canadian generals, Donat most resembles his historical counterpart. McNaughton is presented here as a prickly officer concerned about keeping Canadian soldiers together and under national command, which also jives with Granatstein's presentation of him in his book The Generals.

The writers have managed to convey the historical feeling that McNaughton was one of the few commanders to have a personality; certainly Crerar comes off in the film - as he did in real life, according to historians - as ambitious but bland and easily forgettable. McNaughton in the film commands respect and behaves with dignity.

By contrast, the writers were less successful in making Roberts appear connected to his men, using an awkward visit to the platoon's barracks to discuss Sten Gun assembly contests and kid's fishing trips in an unrealistic move to get the viewer's sympathy for the character.

Kenneth Welsh as Harry Crerar
Kenneth Welsh as Harry Crerar

Gary Reineke as "Ham" Roberts
Gary Reineke as "Ham" Roberts

Peter Donat as "Andy" McNaughton
Peter Donat as "Andy" McNaughton

The Supreme Commanders


Also excellent in their roles are the veteran actors portraying the supreme commanders who were ultimately responsible, if not for Dieppe specifically, then the conduct of the war as a whole. These included Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain; General Sir Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff; General Bernard Law Montgomery, at that time Commander of South Eastern Army (under whose command the Canadians in England were placed) and Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the Head of Combined Operations.

The Canadian actors who portray the British commanders Admiral Mountbatten (Victor Garber) and Captain Hughes-Hallett (Robert Joy) do so seemingly effortlessly; it is surprising to learn that these talented actors don't actually have the English and Scottish accents they use in the film.

Victor Garber as Mountbatten
Victor Garber as Mountbatten

The only disappointment is in the depiction of General Montgomery as a lisping hunchback. Few films have bothered to portray Montgomery; perhaps the best cinematic portrayal has been in the 2004 television film IKE: COUNTDOWN TO D-DAY starring Tom Selleck. New Zealand actor Bruce Phillips presents Montgomery as a veteran military professional. Graham Harley does a poor job of presenting Montgomery as anything but an eccentric.

The Dramatic Presentation

The storyline focusses on all three sets of characters, as well as introducing two romantic subplots, and has two main thrusts. The first main thrust is to show what life in England was like for the soldiers and officers of the Canadian Army. The second focusses on the trials faced by the politicians and generals of the Allied high command, specifically Mountbatten, but also chiefly Prime Minister Churchill and General Brooke.

The meat of the political story comes from the book Unauthorized Action: Mountbatten and the Dieppe Raid by Brian Loring-Villa and suggests that the Dieppe Raid was carried out for political reasons, and that Canadian commanders were bullied into carrying out a flawed plan. Mountbatten is painted as something of a self-serving villain, aided by Captain Hughes Hallett of the Royal Navy, and pressured by Churchill and a less than amiable General Eisenhower.

Loring-Villa's book is a very scholarly work and presents some interesting theories, including the suggestion in an updated version of the book that news of the raid was deliberately leaked to the Germans. This latter suggestion isn't touched on in the miniseries, though the suggestion that Mountbatten went ahead with the raid without permission is a central theme of both the miniseries and the book.

There is such controversy surrounding many aspects of the politics behind the raid, and even the question of who authorized its execution, that a detailed analysis of these questions here would be out of place and probably fruitless. A reading of Loring-Villa is recommended for those interested in the history behind these issues. Suffice to say, however, that many conversations are obviously fictionalized, both because of a lack of documentary evidence, but moreover for the purposes of dramatic presentation. The film's creators have publicly acknowledged this, and should not be viewed as troubling, rather, this is a necessity for any viable dramatic presentation of this type.

The writer, John Krizanc, has nonetheless provided the historical characters with realistic dialogue that effectively conveys the general ideas of Loring-Villa's interpretation of events very nicely.

The second thrust of the story, showing the soldiers, is also very well done and not something well portrayed on film before. Earlier attempts such as Execution (a made for TV movie based on the novel of the same name by Colin MacDougall, a Princess Patrcia's Canadian Light Infantry officer and Italian campaign veteran) were less successful at providing a realistic cinematic portryal of Canadian soldiers in the Second World War.

Matters of uniforms, insignia, weapons and equipment are secondary (though in this production, special effort has been made to obtain correct patterns of all of these), and the characterizations of the common soldiers of the Second Division are extremely well done. One such scene shows blustery Major Morton who won't march with his men on the long "hardening" marches; a scene only slightly marred by Major Magnus' Hollywood-esque comment "did he really save your life once?" - one wonders what this refers to since the fictional Major Morton did not serve with Roberts in the First World War, and the Canadians had yet to see combat in the Second (though the real-life Roberts did land in France in 1940 and was commended for saving his battery of guns from being left on the Continent during the confused withdrawal before seeing action).

The private soldier known as Casey finds a love interest in actress Larissa Laskin (who also acted as a love interest in Peacekeepers, another CBC TV movie about the Canadian Army, this time set in Croatia in the 1990s). Laskin's character, Leith, is conflicted because she is married to a British soldier. Casey is shown as the typical Canadian troublemaker - not too wild about orders and discipline, but when the chips are down, as good a soldier as any, and he gets his chance to prove it in the climactic battle scenes.

The second romantic sub-plot, on the other hand, features Gabrielle Rose as Anne, a love interest for General Roberts. The inclusion of their scenes seems like more of a time filler than an important way to move the plot along, and may even be seen as an artificial way to create sympathy for General Roberts, whose more tender side can be best shown off in his scenes with her.

Historically, General Roberts continued in command of the Second Division well after the Dieppe Raid, only being relieved in early 1943. Historian Jack Granatstein tells us that his relief came due to failures in commanding the Second Division in exercises several months after Dieppe - however, popular belief is that Roberts was made a scapegoat for the entire affair. In the interviews done in 1962 for CLOSE-UP (included on the second disc as a special feature, see below) the real Roberts himself espouses this opinion. The dialogue in this miniseries also supports that interpretation.

The Scope

Dieppe is obviously a limited-budget affair. The fighting that took place on six seperate beaches is largely ignored in favour of presenting the view from only one of them, and the one that was the costliest to attack. The main landings on the town's waterfront would have been logistically and financially impossible to recreate, and one can respect the film's creators for doing so much with the limited resources they had. Aside from the brilliant acting throughout the production, period looking sets, costumes and props provide extreme verisimilitude, marred only slightly by the occasional anachronism, such as a Canadian driver giving a modern palm-down salute.

The recreation of the landings at Blue Beach seem remarkably accurate. Although esteemed military writer (and Korean War veteran) Peter Worthington scoffed in his newspaper review at the number of bodies on the beach, photos of the actual location indicate a lot of work went into converting the Ontario location for this shoot into a very close facsimile of the real thing. The battle scenes, though limited in scope to just a handful of men on the beach, are shot in dramatic style and capture well the essence of the chaotic landings. The slow-motion death scenes, however, seem a little out of place and detract from the overall presentation. The later release of Saving Private Ryan tends to make all beach landing scenes before it pale in comparison, so newer audiences may well be jaded to the hyper-realism that is now the standard, as in SPR or Band of Brothers.


The only outstandingly noticeable error occurs in the battle scene where Casey retrieves a grenade from his equipment while scaling the wall. As shown above left, the grenade has a hole in the bottom - these were typical of practice grenades, as the real grenades of this type had a fuse located in the hole. This example is obviously a hollow dummy. For some reason, an American style fragmentation grenade is also used, instead of the No. 36M grenade which would be correct. An earlier scene showed Casey priming this type of grenade so they were certainly available to the film crew. In any event, as the scene shifts to show a very Hollywood bit of derring-do (the removal of the grenade pin with the teeth), the camera then falls back on the grenade lying on top of the wall - only this time the propmaster must have objected to the hollow bottom grenade, as the hole is now covered in what looks like grey putty(!)

There are probably enough errors of fact, incorrect uniforms, weapons, slang, location etc. to keep serious nitpickers busy for a lifetime. On the whole, however, this reviewer gives the project a hearty endorsement. The film is an enduring look at what life must have been like for both the soldiers of the Canadian Army in the early years of World War Two in England, and for their commanders who were facing multiple crises in the fields of military operations, diplomacy, and politics, both inter-service and on the civil front.

Special Features

The second disc offers three special features, all of interest though not without some minor problems.

Dieppe Close-Up

The longest of the three features is a 1962 edition of the program CLOSE- UP, hosted by J. Frank Willis. The program is unique in that many of the key players in the planning and execution of the Dieppe Raid can be seen on screen, 20 years after the battle, giving their own account in their own words. It is a bit of a treat for the historian to see and hear what these key historical figures look and sound like in casual conversation.

James Francis "Frank" Willis, the host of the program, was a very famous personality in the Canadian news industry. In 1936, when a mine at Moose River collapsed, Willis made a five minute radio broadcast every thirty minutes for a period of 69 hours as rescue efforts were made to free three trapped men. His career had started in 1925 when he was still in his teens, producing, writing and announcing radio shows as well as producing and acting in plays. He later gave up commercial art and accepted the job of became a regional director for the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corporation (CRBC) - the forerunner of the CBC - in the Maritimes.

When the Moose River mine - 100 kilometres east of Halifax - collapsed, Willis was the only CRBC staffer located east of Montreal. He was only granted permission to cover the story eight days after the collapse, at a point when rescuers detected renewed signs of life from within the mine.

J. Frank Willis

J. Frank Willis

The print reporters did not want the competition of a radio broadcaster around, but Willis negotiated the use of a single telephone line as well as every party-line user in the vicinity to allow his voice to be broadcast over the air. His 69 hours of half-hourly coverage were interrupted by a single two hour break, forced on him after an angry outburst regarding the inaccuracy of print reports. Over 700 stations broadcast his coverage live in Canada, the US and also the UK and even France. Historians saw his feat as revolutionizing the way people regarded radio as a news source. The Moose River rescue (two men were saved while the third died) was voted the top radio news story of the first half of the 20th Century by the Canadian Press.

Willis was also famous for Sunday evening poetry readings, and this DVD does demonstrate his deep speaking voice. He stayed with the CRBC when they became the CBC, producing radio programs and documentaries, and in the late 1950s switched to television, hosting Close-Up, a current affairs program, until his retirement in 1963. He passed away in 1969.

The 60 minute documentary is filmed entirely in black and white, and contains some interesting original footage (including much footage taken by German war correspondents on the day of the Raid).

Technical Problems

Unfortunately, it would appear this documentary was taken from the archives and simply thrown onto the disc - there are no opening credits, which is a little jarring, no explanation as to who the host his (we don't even hear his name until the last spoken dialogue of the feature, when he bids his audience good night), and, most jarring of all, one sizeable section of the piece is actually repeated in its entirety (cutting off Denis Whitaker as he is about to speak). This may be faithful to the original broadcast in 1962, but surely was unnecessary for this special feature.

The Interviews

The meat of the feature are the interviews, and it is fascinating to hear what many of the key planners of the Raid have to say - and to compare their interviews to the written historical record in the many books published about Dieppe. One of the most widely respected histories of the raid - The Shame and the Glory - was released just before this television show aired, and the author is one of those interviewed.

Among those interviewed are:

Name Position at Time of Dieppe
Vice-Admiral Mountbatten Head of Combined Operations
Captain Hughes-Hallett Combined Operations Headquarters
Major Gorowny-Rees Combined Operations Headquarters
Field Marshal Montgomery (Viscount Montgomery of Alamein) Commander, South East Army
General AGL McNaughton Commander, First Canadian Army
Lieutenant General HDG Crerar Commander, I Canadian Corps
Major General J. Hamilton Roberts General Officer Commanding, 2nd Canadian Infantry Division
Lieutenant Colonel "Cec" Merritt, VC Commanding Officer, South Saskatchewan Regiment
Lieutenant Colonel Bob Labatt Commanding Officer, Royal Regiment of Canada
Lord Lovat Commander, Number Four Commando
Brigadier Denis Whitaker Company Commander in the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry
Ross Munro Canadian war correspondent, who went to Blue Beach

Also interviewed are historian Terence Roberts, and Colonel C.P. Stacey, the official historian of the Canadian Army in the Second World War whose books continue to be a prime source of info for scholars and students of Canada's participation in the Second World War. Below are some of the interview subjects;

Image:Intmcnaughton.jpg Image:intcrerar.jpg Image:introberts.jpg
General McNaughton General Crerar General Roberts
Image:Intmountbatten.jpg Image:inthallet.jpg Image:introbertston.jpg
Image:intskrine.jpg Image:intmerritt.jpg Image:intgerman.jpg

For anyone who has studied these personalities, it is a bit of a thrill to see what they look and sound like when talking, and the conversations are interesting. They discuss the "piece of cake" legend that has grown out of the Dieppe raid, for example. If watched in conjunction with reading some of the literature (such as Brian Loring-Villa's book Unauthorized Action, on which the miniseries was based), it is interesting to see the claims that some of the commanders made on camera and compare and contrast to the historical record.

Return to Dieppe

A CBC special done in 1992 as part of the news program THE JOURNAL is also included, in which three veterans of the battle are interviewed by journalist Patrick Watson, namely:

Denis Whitaker, author of Dieppe: Tragedy to Triumph (which was not yet published at the time of this interview), and who had been the only officer of his brigade to land at Dieppe and then return to England unwounded on the day of the battle. Whitaker was a captain in command of a rifle company, and managed to actually penetrate into the Casino, the partially demolished building on the waterfront that had been converted into a strongpoint. Whitaker finished the war as a Lieutenant Colonel in command of his battalion, and retired from the military as a Brigadier General. He co-authored several excellent books on military history with his wife, before his passing in 2001. Archie Anderson, who was a Loader/Radio Operation in a Churchill tank of the Calgary Regiment. The loading manifest lists him as part of the crew of BELLICOSE, a tank in Number 10 Troop. He was awarded the Military Medal for several acts of courage on the beach that morning. The exploits of BELLICOSE are well covered by Hugh Henry in the book Dieppe: Through the Lens of the German War Photographer, and Anderson is mentioned on page 42. To date, there has been no formally published history of the Calgary Tanks, though Henry's Masters Thesis (which formed the basis of the photo book mentioned above) does serve as a rudimentary history. Ron Beal, an infantryman with the Royal Regiment of Canada, the same unit depicted in the miniseries.

The interviews are not particularly enlightening from a historical perspective, but are incredibly valuable at presenting the raid through the lens of individual participants; all three men had very different experiences during the battle, and different reactions and emotions to discussing it 50 years later.

Dieppe Behind The Scenes

There is a 7 minute bit from the CBC show Midday on the second disc also which claims to be a "behind the scenes" look. There are some comments by the film's director and producer, but much of what is shown are simply clips from the movie and this was really done as advertising for the miniseries rather than an indepth study. Like the other two features, it was certainly not done specifically for the CD. Nonetheless, a nice extra.

Image:Dieppeexec.jpg Image:Dieppeexec2.jpg

Overall, the special features could have been improved - a full length "making of" would have been appreciated, for example. There are so many items of WW II equipment in the film that just assembling it would have been an interesting story, and the special effects - especially recreating Blue Beach so faithfully - would be another. It would have been nice also to see interviews with some of the actors. However, as it is, the special features - while culled directly from the CBC archives with a minimum of fuss - are interesting and worth the time it takes to watch them.

In the final analysis, the Dieppe mini-series and the special features on the 2-disc DVD are a fitting testimony to the men who fought there, and the men that faced the tough choices behind employing them.

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