Thinking about One Day in August

You’d think that a span of nine days including two weekends, Thanksgiving Monday, and Western University’s inaugural fall reading week would be relaxing. That’s ample time to rest and recharge for the sprint to the Christmas break, right?

Alas, the work of a graduate student is never done. I’m buried under readings (fancy that — it’s reading week) and 56 midterms that need to be marked by next Tuesday.

Nevertheless, I felt that I needed to post something in here, even if it’s just a brief reflection on something that stood out to me in the last few weeks. So here goes.

One theme that’s emerged recently with Charlotte Gray‘s visit to Western for the Goodman Lecture Series is the tension between history written inside and outside the academy. I prefer the terms popular and academic history — some use public history for the former, but I feel that public history is a separate field within academic history that encompasses the popular in many applications.

Anyways, this year’s Public History MA cohort got to sit down for lunch with Mrs. Gray, who argued in her lectures that academic and popular history have — or at least ought to have — a symbiotic relationship. You know, what then-Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi told the Gungan leadership in Star Wars: Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace:

You and the Naboo form a symbiotic circle, what happens to one of you will affect the other, you must understand this…

The tension between public and academic history — or even just established history and recent discoveries — is real. Here’s an example, one I ran by Charlotte Gray at lunch.

In 2012, Historian David O’Keefe and his team produced Dieppe Uncovered, an hour-long documentary on Operation Jubilee, the infamous raid on the north coast of France that became Canada’s single worst day of casualties in the Second World War. The docudrama’s “cutting-edge research has uncovered new information that may change history books and the perception of the Dieppe Raid.” Check out the trailer below.

Just to get my bias out of the way, O’Keefe is a colleague of mine who I admire quite a bit. But I was very skeptical as I watched the film air on History Television for the 70th anniversary of the raid in 2012.

one-day-in-augustO’Keefe followed this up with a 2013 book called One Day in August: The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy at Dieppe. It was a national bestseller and was nominated for many Canadian literary awards that year. It was well-received by the book-buying Canadian public. The book was also a pleasure to read. It is organized more like a mystery novel using real historical evidence than a typical monograph with the thesis and supporting arguments stated up front.

Yet responses in the established historical community in Canada were largely negative. Popular Canadian military historian Mark Zuehlke, writer of the Canadian Battle Series of books (including Tragedy at Dieppe) had a lively debate with David O’Keefe on a CBC Radio One program back in 2013. They debated whether or not the intelligence-gathering mission was the driving purpose behind the operation. Canada’s leading military historian, Tim Cook, took issue with O’Keefe’s conclusions in The Necessary War, volume one of his recently published Second World War series:

But while the operation was expected to provide valuable information to assist in breaking the U-boat codes and gaining an upper hand in the Battle of the Atlantic, the failure of the Royal Navy to devote any of its large ships to the Dieppe operation would suggest that this stealth raid did not matter as much to the navy as some historians have sensationally claimed — going so far as to argue that the entire Dieppe raid was but a cover for the commando pinch. It was not.

That’s a fairly blunt appraisal.

Here’s my question. Should Professor O’Keefe (he teaches at Marianopolis College in Westmount, Quebec) have written an academic article, say in Canadian Military History, before taking his findings to the public? Arguably his chosen course — a docudrama and then a mystery-style non-fiction book — doesn’t make the evidence he presents as accessible to scholars for their review. However, in doing so, O’Keefe may have been scooped, and his work may not have reached the broad audience that it did. For me, this is a Catch-22 — you’re damned if you go about it either way.

This leads me to a second question. Shouldn’t we be able to trust the Canadian public — or at least those interested enough to watch the film or read the book — to make up their minds about the raid? Perhaps not, if we consider that the vast majority of Canadians don’t have much in the way of historical training. Or perhaps so, if we consider that the Canadian public is as highly educated as it’s ever been in history.

What do you think? Leave me a comment below. As for Charlotte Gray, I can’t remember her response… as I said, it’s been an exhausting week.

milton-greggIn other news. This year is the Western History Department’s centenary, and they’re hosting some great events on October 27th to celebrate the occasion. One of these is the Greatest (Dead) Canadian competition. My nominee is Brigadier Milton Fowler Gregg, VC PC OC CBE MC ED CD.

Gregg died on 13 March 1978, aged 85. He was a war hero, veterans’ advocate, politician, diplomat, and educator who is fondly remembered by small segments of Canadian society and largely forgotten by the rest. He was an incredible leader and manager who applied his administrative skills to make Canada a better place.

2 thoughts on “Thinking about One Day in August

  1. Good analysis, Alex. Here’s my response to O’Keefe’s article on Dieppe in Canada’s History Magazine. The magazine published only a bit of the response, so here’s the Full Monty. I read with interest the article (Dieppe, Aug–Sept 2017) by David O’Keefe purporting to reveal the “secret purpose” behind the Dieppe raid and your editorial comments that we now know the “primary reason” for it. Perhaps it is a reflection of our times that if one asserts something and repeats it over and over the tendency of media is to accept same without critical thought. O’Keefe’s method in advancing his thesis regarding the Dieppe raid’s purpose is to present it as incontrovertible fact. Yet, as Tim Cook pointed out in his Globe and Mail 2013 review of the book the article is based on—it is one thing to have unearthed many documents proving that Combined Operations personnel were engaged in planning and executing “pinch” raids and another thing entirely to correctly interpret such material. For every document that supports his thesis, many from the period leading up to the raid and through its execution contradict it. Such documents cannot be blithely disregarded as having been generated as “cover” for the “pinch” operation. There are simply too many authors intimately involved in the raid for this to hold true. As Cook wrote: to believe that 5,000 Canadians were but a cover for Ian Fleming’s commandos is not believable—a case of the “tail…wagging the dog.”
    In O’Keefe’s view virtually all Combined Operations raiding has a single overriding purpose—to seize materials aimed at breaking Enigma. Hard evidence that this was so is not, however, convincingly presented. As for the Dieppe raid, when one reads—as I did while researching my book Tragedy at Dieppe—the hundreds of pages constituting operational directives as to what the Canadians were to do, where they were to go, and the timings they were to follow it is very hard to read much “pinch” into any of this.
    Take, for example, the actual instructions for the South Saskatchewan Regiment and Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. While the SSR were to seize the west headland lying between Pourville and Dieppe, this was to eliminate a battery there in order to prevent its firing on ships during the raid evacuation, capture a radio station, and open a route for withdrawal from the Dieppe beaches. The Camerons, meanwhile, were not creating a defensive perimeter. They were to breakthrough to a nearby airfield and raid the defending division’s headquarters, which was wrongly believed to be nearby. This effort was to be supported by Calgary Regiment tanks punching out of Dieppe with only secondary tank elements assigned to helping the Essex Scottish secure the town’s port facilities. All this is clearly set out in the directives and orders issued to the officers of these battalions.
    If one looks carefully at the operational orders given to each Canadian unit involved, it is impossible to fit them all together in a way that supports with any great effect the effort of the commandos entering directly into the harbour.
    O’Keefe is strangely silent about the German reaction to the raid. The German naval port commander at Dieppe was highly competent. He had personally initiated test landings by tanks on Dieppe’s beaches and devised from that how to foil any chance of a successful break into the town’s interior. When the raid began he immediately relocated to a battle headquarters established in a cave overlooking Dieppe from the western promontory. It is hard to imagine that if he possessed an enigma machine, it and its codes did not accompany him. From here he was able to maintain communications with both units under command and higher command by simply picking up a telephone. If the raid’s purpose was indeed to capture enigma-related materials, it should surely have been realized that the port commandant would not blithely leave them lying about unprotected. Yes, Ian Fleming’s team was present and surely hoping to get lucky. But it is improbable in the extreme that so many Canadians and other soldiers were being asked to die for this alone. Again, we should resist the temptation to let the tail wag the dog. Much more evidence is required before O’Keefe’s thesis can be taken for fact.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark,

      Thank you for your detailed reply! I feel like CBC should do a program for the 75th anniversary where we bring in O’Keefe, yourself, Tim Cook, and other experts (some of the folks in the UK who supported O’Keefe’s research, if not his findings) and have a debate on the subject.

      Congratulations on another book release. All the best!

      Like

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