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"The handcuffs story" by John Dibblee

The Dieppe Raid was a Second World War Allied attack on the German-occupied port of Dieppe. The raid took place on the northern coast of France on 19 August 1942. The assault began at 5:00 a.m. and by 10:50 a.m. the Allied commanders were forced to call a retreat. Over 6,000 infantrymen, predominantly Canadian, were supported by limited Royal Navy and large Royal Air Force contingents. No major objectives of the raid were accomplished. A total of 3,623 of the 6,086 men (almost 60%) who made it ashore were either killed, wounded, or captured. John Dibblee was one of those captured. His account of his capture and the aftermath is given below. His ability to find humour in such a situation is typical of him. So is his criticism of stupidity in authority. His account is divided into two.

1942. "The Handcuffing story". (1) "The Experience" by J. F. Dibblee, then Capt. R.A.

I was on the Dieppe Raid 19th. August 1942 as an F.O.O (Forward Observation Officer), later called F.O.B (Forward Officer, Bombardment). I landed with the H.Q. of The Essex Scottish, a Canadian Infantry Battalion. An F.O.O's job was to observe and correct the fire from a naval ship, communicating via a small naval party of two telegraphists and a signalman, who were with him, to a corresponding B.L.O. (Bombardment Liaison Officer) aboard the vessel. On this occasion the ship was a very old ex-Chinese gunboat with two decrepit 4" guns. This was supposed to be "artillery support" for half a mile of the main front. In the event my ship was hit and retired; I was never in communication with her and the ship never fired. I remained on the central part of Dieppe beach in some discomfort until taken prisoner with the rest of Battalion H.Q.

The prisoners were efficiently dealt with by the Germans. After spending one night in a church, we were transferred to a hutted camp some miles inland, where officers and O.R.s were separated and we were interviewed by German Intelligence. After a day or so the officers were taken by train to Bavaria and put in new wooden huts adjacent to an oldish army barracks. This was the newly to be opened Oflag VIIB at Eichstätt. We were a mixture of nationalities, mostly Canadian, both English and French, with some British and one or two Americans, and of services, mainly Army but some Navy and Royal Marines and a few R.A.F.. After several days a large number of unusual looking people arrived at the barracks, who turned out to be British P.O.Ws., most of whom had been behind the wire since 1940. They had come from Oflag (?)VIB at Warburg. We were released to join them and learn how to be "Kriegies" (from German "Kriegsgefangener").

British Kriegies organised themselves into "messes" of a small number of people who lived together in whatever accommodation was available and shared food, chores etc. We were welcomed individually into existing messes but after about two days the Dieppe prisoners were picked out by the Germans from a parade and marched off some distance, very heavily guarded, to a courtyard in the local medieval Schloss. Here we were separated into small groups, with sub machine guns constantly pointed at us. and people were taken away (either individually or in twos, I don't remember). As they didn't come back we drew obvious conclusions but were slightly encouraged by not hearing gunfire.

In a small room, also heavily guarded, an officer read a statement giving the reason for what was about to happen, then our hands were tightly bound with cord in front of our bodies, after which we were marched to a long room with straw mattresses on the floor, where we lay down in company with the others who had been through the process before us. As far as I remember, food and drink were minimal for the next 24 hours and visiting the latrine, including lining up for removal and re-application of the ropes, very slow and tedious. But it must also have been getting difficult for the German guard company, who with limited resources were overstretched in mounting maximum security around us, with constant untying and replacing of cords round prisoners' wrists.

It was a relief to all when we were marched back to the camp and were accommodated in one of the four main barrack blocks, with bunk beds and normal German bedding. Also we resumed contact (over a barrier) with the rest of the camp, obtained camp food and the guard reduced to one sentry per room. I think we were not allowed out of the room (except for the untying etc, routine) and I can't remember how long this stage lasted. I do remember that I took advantage of the arrival of a quantity of books from the camp library to read right through "War and Peace" for the first time, so it must have been at least 24 hours. Eventually the cords were replaced by various types of German handcuffs, a great advantage as these were easy and quick to get out of and reapply and it was difficult to spot whether anyone's shackles were properly done up or not. From this time on the British were definitely in the ascendency. Our guards were gradually tamed, we were allowed out in a limited exercise space and started what shortly became a normal camp existence. A common remark became "Has anyone seen my bloody handcuffs?" and a search often had to take place when the guard arrived to collect them in the evening (very soon we were allowed free hands at night). Our relationship with our supposed bondage became very like that which many of us would later develop with our car keys. In the meantime handcuffs were replaced by specially made (and easily openable) cuffs joined by a length of chain and our numbers were augmented by a larger number of non-Dieppe prisoners from the body of the camp. Identities were regularly exchanged with people in the main camp so that we could have a spell outside our restricted area, and we often found ourselves trying to remember, not only where we had put our hand cuffs but if we were supposed, at the moment, to have any at all, as well as who we were supposed to be. Monty Python was long in the future but Oflag VIIB at that time was a valid precursor.

We were still "in chains" when I was in a party sent to Oflaf IX A/Z in the following spring or early summer and was "released" for the purpose. I don't know how long the farce went on after that - nobody I asked subsequently seemed to remember!

Letter from John Dibblee when POW

This letter from John Dibblee to his mother, Violet Dibblee, says that he is still in handcuffs. It is dated 30 Oct 1942.

Letter from John Dibblee when POW

1942. "The Handcuffing story". (2) The "Story" by J.F. Dibblee. then Capt. R.A.

The Dieppe raid, 19th August 1942, was planned by the staff of Combined Operations, composed of representatives of the three services. This was their first large operation and each branch of the staff felt it should perfect its contribution. In addition the staff of 2nd. Canadian Division, the infantry to be used, had a hand in it, as well as General Montgomery who was (I think) their Corps Commander. And there were various opinions and orders from people like Churchill, Stalin etc. and the new Head of Combined Operations (Admiral Mountbatten). This led to the Operation Order, when produced, being a huge and thick book of innumerable sections, that anyone might despair of reading more than a small part of, let alone really understanding the full implications.. Actually I had more chance than most of digesting it, as I attended all briefings of infantry commanders and commanders of supporting forces due to my position of being able to support a whole infantry battalion on half a mile of front in their proposed attack across about 400 yards of flat exposed ground enfiladed by two headlands containing permanently dug-in guns and automatic weapons as well as a mobile regiment of 88mm. guns who were exercising in the area, against a row of hotels whose sea-facing rooms were obviously fortified and occupied by infantry. My resources were two very old 4" guns (equivalent at the best to two 25pdrs.) which, I realised on having a look at them, could not be relied upon to be accurate within 400 yards. That is, if the ship they were screwed down on, very old and designed for a river in China, ever got there (which it didn't). My opinion, which I kept to myself, was that the operation was only likely to succeed if the Germans had neglected to man any of their defences, which seemed unlikely. I was unfortunately in the best position to find myself proved right, which wasn't much consolation.

One of the (apparently) minor stupidities of the Operation Order was in the Naval section and referred to the treatment of prisoners. It stated that the hands of prisoners should be tied with rope to prevent attempts at escape (I don't remember the actual wording). I believe (though this may be hindsight) that I did read this section and realised its significance (it was against the Geneva Convention and should have been unnecessary anyway - a busybody filling his page up with what he thought a brilliant idea) and raised my eyes to heaven; but they were in that direction so often when reading this Order that I forgot about it.

The other significant stupidity was an order that no copy of the Operation Order (the distribution was huge) was to be taken ashore, or embarked in a boat. I repeat boat. The distinction made by the Royal Navy between a boat and a ship is distinct and sensible. As I understand it, a ship is self-supporting, with its own captain and crew, and goes wherever it goes "under its own steam". A boat is crewed temporarily by part of the crew of a ship among their other duties. It is normal, of course, when a beach landing is contemplated, for ships to stay in dampish water and rely on boats to carry people ashore. But landing craft are more complicated.

At that time the craft used were L.C.A.s (landing craft assault) carrying about a platoon of infantry, L.C.M.s (landing craft motor) carrying one or two light vehicles and L.S.T.s - note the change of middle letter. These were craft designed for carrying tanks and were ships, not boats, with a permanent crew. But they had to land their vehicles on the beach, or as near to it as they could get. So the captains of the L.S.Ts at Dieppe, which carried the Calgary Regt. with Churchill tanks, were, quite according to orders, able to carry their copies of the Operation Order up to the beach if not actually ashore. I don't knew how many did this, but most of these vessels and their cargoes, were the prime targets of the German 88mm. guns and never got back off the beach again leaving one or more copies of the Operation Order in ward rooms. Add to this that somebody else obeyed the other order so that the Germans found bodies of their soldiers who had drowned with their hands tied. So the British staff had handed the Germans on a plate one of the best propaganda coups of the war. The so-correct British had ordered in writing the breaking of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of Prisoners of War and the order had actually been carried out on defenceless German prisoners! So of course the Germans were quite justified in carrying out a demeaning but mild retaliation on British prisoners who had taken part in that operation. But after that, both sides started to act without enough thought as to possible consequences. After the Germans had roped up all prisoners captured at Dieppe (they must have had much more difficulty with the far larger number of Other Ranks in this and subsequent operations than they had with us), the British said "Well, if you are going to do that, we shall rope up an equal number of German prisoners" and did so. The Germans replied that they would rope up three times the number that the British had roped, and did so, knowing that the British just did not have at that time enough German prisoners to retaliate. This was the point when the original Dieppe chain gang were joined by the larger number of other prisoners. "Right" said the British, "we shall make up the numbers with Italians, of whom we have plenty." "If you do that" replied the Germans "we shall treat British prisoners in the same way we treat our other enemy prisoners, the Russians". We were in a better position than most people both in Germany and Britain to follow this silly argument, as we had news from both countries while ordinary inhabitants of each heard only their own country's account. We also had little else to think about, and we knew from experience that games of one-up-manship could be played with the Germans only up to a point, after which they could get serious and savage. Many of the longer-term prisoners had seen the way Russian prisoners were treated in Germany and we began seriously to hope that Britain would stop there. Luckily she did.

After all this, nobody could think of how to unbind the prisoners still chained, so the process dragged on. We didn't mind, we were quite happy by then and our guards thanked goodness that their extra duties were deduced to a token. What happened to the Germans held in Britain and Canada I don't know...