Operation Menace by Arthur J Marder

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  • This is a very welcome Seaforth 2016 paperback reprint of Professor Marder's 1976 original on the disastrous 1940 Dakar expedition.

    Following the Fall of France, the consequences of Germany acquiring Dakar as a U-boat base would have been dire. Prompted by de Gaulle's delusional ideas as to the enthusiasm with which its inhabitants would flock to his banner, Churchill insisted, in spite of Staff misgivings, on mounting a massive operation to forestall this. The planners were bullied into situating the appreciation; the strategic imperative overrode political, organisational and tactical practicalities, including the unwisdom of expecting ships to out-shoot shore batteries. The result, here made plain in great detail, was a textbook example (as if the Dardanelles had taught no lessons) of how not to do amphibious warfare.

    Almost everything that could go wrong, did, much of it foreseeable. Marder chronicles all of this, including, felicitously narrated, many of the undertones of farce that coloured the proceedings. As an American, his analysis is neutral and objective; his research, as ever, is exhaustive and its results instructive. In particular he is scrupulous in unravelling the transmission and cryptographic problems of communication so as to elucidate precisely what information (if one could call it that, sometimes) was available at each decision point in London and off West Africa. The only thing missing that I could spot was the point where, the Argylls being written out of the script in Liverpool and disembarked, they took with them much of 1RM's stores – however as 1RM never had to land, that chicken did not come home to roost. Marder's encomium on the Army commander, General Irwin, omits his later sacking by Slim.

    The fog of war descended, and more to the point actual fog, which made our eventual bombardment even more ineffective than, with untrained people and with the wholly unanticipated Vichy air force interdiction of our aerial spotting, it would have been. Eventually, after taking damage we could ill afford, we gave up and came home. We had bolstered Vichy and discredited ourselves, exactly as the consequences of failure had been foreseen before this adventure, just when we needed to convince the world that we were a serious combatant. But lessons were learnt that were useful to future operations.

    The last seventy pages deal at length with the controversial dismissal of Admiral North, relating to Vichy (with whom we were not formally at war) sending warships from Toulon past Gibraltar to Dakar. This matter, by no means straightforward, is rehearsed in minute detail and with great subtlety.

    There is a foreword by Barry Gough.

    Marder has the space (300 pages) to give Dakar a very full treatment, compared to the ten pages available to Roskill in his Official History, and, writing later, has access to much more material. Extensively chronicled elsewhere, particularly by John Williams in 'The Guns of Dakar' (1976) this operation or rather fiasco was memorably sent up by Evelyn Waugh (a participant) in 'Men at Arms' (1952), the first volume of his 'Sword of Honour' trilogy.

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