How Much Should You Pay to Learn?
In 1942, the British military leaders faced a very difficult choice. The war was going badly, their allies U.S. and Russia were pushing to do something bold, and British leadership didn’t see any good options. The Americans wanted to move quickly to invade France even though their troops were not battle tested. The Russians were getting hammered by the Germans and wanted Britain and the U.S. to start a second front in Europe to relieve the pressure.
The British had developed plans for a smaller invasion (Operation Jubilee) but all their military planners felt the most likely outcome of this plan would be the destruction of their invading force. Despite that, Churchill activated the plans just before the US military leadership arrived in London to discuss their desire to move forward with a large scale invasion. Many historians feel Churchill moved forward with Operation Jubilee as a way to show the Americans a willingness to do something without having to concede to a much larger invasion. Churchill, along with his senior military advisors, felt a large scale invasion at that time would be catastrophic in terms loss of life and prolong the war. After a series of tense meetings, the Americans agreed to postpone the France invasion and instead join the British in fighting the Germans in North Africa.
Churchill and his military leaders now had the opportunity to scrap their “almost certain to fail” current invasion plan but they did not. Churchill saw this invasion would create a learning opportunity for a larger invasion, take some pressure off the Eastern front, and importantly, create a deception about the short-term intent to send troops to North Africa. While the Jubilee commanders knew success required surprise and secrecy, the competing need for deception about the North Africa invasion added even greater certainty to their failure. The Allies actively promoted a likely invasion along the French coast allowing the Germans to prepare their defenses. The German forces were at their highest level of alert around the port city of Dieppe. Unfortunately for the invading force, Dieppe had been selected partly because the Germans had falsely sent information that it was undermanned.
The challenges of crossing the channel and a frontal assault on a well-fortified position with no element of surprise proved disastrous. Of the 6000 men involved in the land operation, 60% became causalities. Even more shocking, of the nearly 5000 Canadian soldiers, close to 70% were either killed, wounded, or captured. In contrast, the German forces suffered less than 300 fatalities. Additionally, the Allies lost more than twice as many aircraft as the Germans.
Was it worth it? Churchill argued it was. He wrote that despite the casualties, it was a “mine of experience,” and “above all it was showed that individual skill and gallantry without thorough organization and combined training would not prevail, and that teamwork was the secret of success.”
The American military planners who had been so eager for a quick invasion developed a much more sober attitude after Dieppe. They realized it would be closer to two years before the main invasion could take place. The failure at Dieppe also provided the allied leaders with a better understanding of why they needed to avoid a frontal attack on a well defended port. The Dieppe attack also demonstrated that surprise was paramount and that meant a highly efficient intelligence operation. They needed both clear knowledge of the enemy’s strengths and to engage in deception to hide their intentions.
Interestingly, most of the lessons learned seem obvious to an objective observer, especially in hindsight. Coordination, teamwork, surprise, and avoiding the enemy’s strengths seem foundational elements for success in most military operations. The real challenge facing the Allied military leaders at this stage of the war was how to apply these principles in the uncertainty of battlefield conditions. Equally important was how to reach a unified conclusion that would align everyone’s best efforts and resources.
This required more than planning sessions. The decision makers needed to see real world outcomes and consequences to create convictions leading to commitments. The invasion at Dieppe had been an expensive experiment that created a common perspective. Anthony Brown in Bodyguard of Lies writes, “The disaster at Dieppe proved there was no shortcut to victory… the war would be long and hard and the march to Berlin would have to begin at the outer reaches of the Nazi empire.”
One of the biggest arguments for experimentation is that you can control key aspects of the environment and learn with minimal cost or investment. Usually, we reduce the risk of failure by minimizing or eliminating factors we know are going to create problems. The lessons of Dieppe suggest sometimes we willingly expose ourselves to greater risk, as that may be the only way to learn what we most need to.