On Liberation’s Trail

by Bill Fairbairn

The Canada Museum in the Flemish village of Adegem, Belgium, portrays much more than the village’s liberation by Canadian troops in September 1944. It also embodies a local man’s promise to his dying father, paying tribute as it fixes a part of WW II history in the minds of its visitors.

So it was when the 1997 Dominion Command Youth Leaders Pilgrimage of Remembrance to Europe reached the museum 16 kilometres outside of Brugge on July 14.

An enthusiastic Gilbert Van Landschoot greeted the Legion party of 31 at the entrance to the museum he opened two years ago, keeping a promise made to his father that he would honor Canadian soldiers and the local resistance for their roles in WW II. Before his death, the father disclosed that he had served in the Belgian resistance. Van Landschoot said his father also stressed he owed his life to Canadians who fought to liberate Antwerp and subsequently open its port to the Allies, actions that ultimately led to Adegem’s liberation.

Standing in front of stained glass Canadian and Belgian coats of arms, Van Landschoot set his visitors smiling by saying he intends to form a Legion branch at Adegem. “We surely will do all we can to help,” responded a delighted Dominion Command First Vice Chuck Murphy.

The Legion group enjoyed lunch inside, under a splendid oak ceiling reputed to be the largest in Europe. The room’s predominant religious theme shows a massive wooden post and free-stone pillars that symbolize the 12 apostles; three more pillars represent the Holy Trinity. The main ceiling beam alone weighs 20 tons. There are 366 smaller ceiling beams, one for each day of 1944–a leap year–when Canadian troops fought in Belgium. “It took four more days to build this museum than it took Canadians to come from France to the Leopold Canal in the war,” Van Landschoot remarked.

The museum is a meaningful homage to Canadian war dead at Adegem Canadian War Cemetery. At an Adegem-Maldegem town council reception that followed, Murphy assured councillors it was a privilege to have the Belgian flag flying beside that of Canada.

The July 3—17 Legion pilgrimage set off in light rain from Heathrow Airport in London. The tour is sponsored by the Dominion Command Youth Committee. Ten youth delegates, one from each Legion provincial command, made up the group’s core. They were Ronald Hovanes of Oliver, B.C., Blaine Riding of Spirit River, Alta., Jeffrey Stephaniuk of Norquay, Sask., Greg Gardiner of Oxdrift, Ont., representing Manitoba-Northwestern Ontario Command, David Harnden of Grafton, Ont., Jean-Pierre Turcotte of Chicoutimi, Que., Martin Flanagan of Miramichi, N.B., John Rogers of New Glasgow, N.S., Stephen Gallant of Tignish, P.E.I., Leonard Kelly of Corner Brook, Nfld. Others included spouses, friends and veterans such as Neal and Hilda Wells of Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld. Stalwart British bus driver Dave Walker drove us to our first stop at historic Runnymede Memorial, which lists the names of 20,435 Commonwealth airmen, including 3,050 Canadians, lost in WW II operations from bases in the United Kingdom and Northwest Europe and without known graves. Gardiner was fascinated by the pavilion where, in 1215, King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, the symbol of personal and political freedom. “This really is history,” said the 38-year-old teacher.

“Canada’s heavy aircrew casualties are testimony to the nation’s massive contribution to the air war,” reflected tour guide John Goheen of Port Coquitlam, B.C., as tour participants got to know each other. “At times in 1943 and 1944, statistics foretold that fewer than 25 out of each 200 crew would survive their first tour of 30 operations…and by VE-Day 48 Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons were serving overseas.” He added that at war’s end the RCAF was the fourth-largest air force in the world.

Lunch at Brighton British Legion gave pilgrims a chance to enjoy English hospitality and present Vice-President Nobby Clarke with a Canadian flag. Next morning the navy march Heart Of Oak livened the bus ride along the Suffolk coast from Brighton to the Newhaven-Dieppe ferry docks. In 1942, troops in the Dieppe raid had embarked from Newhaven, and many wounded returned there. While crossing the English Channel, the group honored Canadian sailors lost in WW II as Dominion Secretary Duane Daly tossed a wreath into the sea. During WW II the Royal Canadian Navy grew from 13 ships to 450 and, along with the merchant navy, was fundamental to Britain’s survival.

Flags of many nations were flying in Dieppe for what is the 55th anniversary year of that disastrous raid. Parisians on holiday walked through Square du Canada, but few except Canadians ventured onto the stony beach where the main attack went in at dawn on Aug. 19, 1942. Men of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, Essex-Scottish and Fusiliers Mont-Royal struggled in vain then to close with enemy defenders. We saw towering cliffs to east and west that had allowed a deadly cross-fire on Canadian soldiers.

Next day, the group held a ceremony at Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery, where 707 Canadian men lie. Among the dead are brothers Private K.J. Ingram and Sergeant R.D. Ingram of the Royal Regiment of Canada. A poem read at the service by the sister of another soldier killed in the raid, Major Howard McTavish, includes these lines: “This was my brother at Dieppe, quietly a hero who gave his life like a gift, withholding nothing.”

One quick trip was to Puys, where German defenders were so much on the alert that the Royal Regiment of Canada and the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada, known as the Black Watch, faced impossible tasks. At nearby Pourville, we paused at the plaque to Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt, VC. Merritt had boldly crossed at the narrow bridge which the South Saskatchewan Regiment had to clear so the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada could come in. Waving his helmet, Merritt had called out to his men, “Come on over! There’s nothing to worry about here!” Walking through a Pourville antique market, delegates Rogers and Riding found a German helmet for sale. The Dieppe raid museum held more historic relics and details. Turcotte said he was beginning to understand the difficulties the soldiers faced long ago in Operation Jubilee.

During three days in Caen, the capital of Normandy, tour participants visited a number of sites, including Pegasus Bridge. The original bridge, which was captured by the British as D-Day began, was dismantled in 1993 and lies in a nearby field, on the assumption that it will someday be shipped to England for display. Café Gondrée at one end of the bridge beckoned: “A shrine and home to the lads from the war,” Arlette Gondrée, daughter of George and Thérèse, likes to call it. The café was the first house in France to be liberated on June 5, 1944, when the spearhead of the Allied armies glided down. Some hours after the gliders landed, Lord Lovat’s commandos–including many of the men who were at Varengeville in the Dieppe raid–marched in. Their piper was playing Blue Bonnets Over The Border.

Gondrée is fighting expropriation of her café which she says the local council launched for commercial reasons. “I won my first battle with the French government, but now the mayor of Benouville is trying a compulsory purchase,” she said. “Maybe the Canadian flag you gave me will help.”

The Normandy landing sites where some 14,000 Canadians stormed ashore in 1944 were seen next. St-Aubin was where the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment and the Fort Garry Horse came in. Heavy guns kept German heads down. At Bernières-sur-Mer, however, the Queens Own Rifles of Canada had a rough time from 50-mm guns. The Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery contains graves of 2,048 men. Former Regina Rifles member Frank Whitford, 73, of Port Coquitlam found the grave of wartime buddy Doug Wales. Whitford’s travelling companion, veteran Jim Paterson of Burnaby, B.C., said: “We see a need for this pilgrimage. Veterans are not welcome at some schools. (It’s considered) warmongering, I suppose. But Frank is a terrific speaker who can look 900 students in the eye. He was hit by shrapnel at Monte Cassino, but that doesn’t hold him back.”

By coach we were covering ground that was taken quickly by the 8th and 9th brigades on D-Day. But it took a month’s fighting before Canadian troops reached Caen. For good reason the crossroads at Villons-les-Buissons became known as Hell’s Corner. Attempts to liberate Buron, Authie, Franqueville and Carpiquet airport met stiff German resistance.

On a June day 53 years ago, German general Kurt Meyer observed as members of the North Nova Scotia Regiment advance beyond protection of its artillery. The commander of the 25th Panzer Grenadier Regt. of the 12th SS Panzer Division–the Hitler Youth unit–was strategically headquartered at the Abbaye d’Ardenne, and from its towers he could see their position. He attacked and took them prisoner, and later those and other Canadian prisoners were murdered. We were met at the abbey by former French resistance member Jacques Vico, who had lived there in WW II. He led us up steps taken by the condemned men, then down to a secluded shrine. During a memorial service beneath a chestnut tree, Rogers placed a wreath. After the war Meyer was imprisoned in Canada but died a free man in 1961. “It was up to democracy to protect humanity, and the French will not forget Canada’s role in the liberation of Europe,” said Vico. But he resented having seen the freed Meyer return to visit the abbey.

“You can visualize these soldiers shaking hands on the steps and saying goodbye for the last time,” said Rogers, who represented the home province of many of the men murdered there.

When the group travelled to Buron, its color party marched through well-wishers to Place des Canadiens under a watchful sergeant-at-arms Whitford. The former Italian campaigner took prominent roles at all ceremonies. A reception by the Friends of Canada Association, led by President Michel Raoul, was grand yet informal. “They were very smart,” he said of the color party. “I will wear the Canadian tie I received.” Elderly Françoise Guibert of Buron reflected with Whitford on her time under German occupation in both world wars. Historian Dominic Barbe explained that the town was destroyed in WW II by Canadian troops because it was a German stronghold. On this day, gratitude brought forth bread, cake, rice pudding and cider in the town square, and Mayor Dominic Bannier proudly accepted a Canadian flag.

Back in Caen, pilgrims toured abbeys and the castle built by William the Conqueror, and met local publicans Guy and Micheline Thorel. Guy could recall the day German officers clad in black leather drove into their city, and its later liberation by Canadian troops and British armor in 1944. The Thorels were concerned over current events. “There is an economic war on today and the United States comes down with a heavy hand,” said Micheline.

Breaking out of Caen the next day, the group headed for Falaise by way of Verrières Ridge. “Well may the wheat and sugar-beet grow green and lush upon (the) gentle slopes,” said Goheen, quoting Canadian military historian, the late C.P. Stacey, “for…the best blood of Canada was freely poured out upon them.” Nearby is Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery.

When Canadian and Polish troops entered Falaise in August 1944, their task was to link with Americans and close the Falaise gap–but many Germans escaped eastward. One among many Canadians who did their best to close the gap was Major David Currie. His South Alberta Regiment, with the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, denied the Germans a path through St-Lambert-sur-Dives. Currie’s Victoria Cross citation for the award tells a story of courage. One of his soldiers said, “We knew…it was going to be a fight to the finish but he was so cool about it, it was impossible for us to get excited.” By Aug. 22, 1944, the village was surrounded by dead Germans.

Harnden, the Ontario Command tour participant, was given the honor of placing the wreath at Bretteville-sur-Laize where 2,872 Canadian soldiers are buried.

Some tour participants also wanted to know where the Germans buried their dead. Many were buried en masse on sparse land given them by France, such as at La Cambe where 22,000 lie, said Goheen. Our route was literally a graveyard for the German 7th Army. Overall, the Germans saw about 400,000 men killed or taken prisoner in the Normandy campaign. Allied losses amounted to about 200,000. The carnage was tough to take in. “When I learned that one dead soldier enlisted at 15, I thought of my son and a lump came to my throat,” said Hovanes, who is president of Oliver, B.C., Branch.

Walker made a special trip to Schoonselhof Cemetery, Antwerp, where veteran René Régimbald, 76, of Ottawa, paid homage at the grave of a buddy who had filled in for him and was killed. At Beny-sur-Mer, Gardiner remembered in another way when he scattered the ashes of a veteran he knew at the grave of the man’s brother, Art Rogers. Pilgrim John Rogers, who coincidentally has the same name as Gardiner’s friend but isn’t related, recited a poem. “If we can portray a little of this pilgrimage when we go back to Canada we can make people understand a little more,” said Gardiner.

Thoughts on the coach then turned to an even more deadly conflict. Amiens was the last German big offensive to try to win WW I, and the grave of an almost-forgotten Canadian hero was on the itinerary. At Bois de Moreuil in 1918, men of the Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) led by Lieutenant Gordon Flowerdew came upon German infantry deployed in two lines. It became one of history’s last horse cavalry attacks. Seventy per cent of the Strathconas were hit; Flowerdew was wounded in both thighs and died. He received the Victoria Cross posthumously. We visited his grave in Namps-au-Val British Cemetery. Next came the imposing Australian Imperial Foreign Forces monument, where among the Australian graves Legion tour participants pinned a flag at the grave of French-Canadian WW I Victoria Cross holder Jean Brillant of Rimouski, Que.

After the German offensive in March 1916 the Canadians had enjoyed a period of rest, and so, too, the Legion tour bus rolled to a halt. The Quesnel Memorial noted a formidable Canadian Corps strength of 100,000; grins broke out when Jan Lupiano of Nepean, Ont., was chased by a French cow.

Good weather does not suit the Somme. There in WW I, some 100,000 British Army troops went over the top on a broad front. You expect a dark and brooding battleground, but sunshine bathed the fields of Beaumont Hamel where the Newfoundland Regiment, part of the British 29th Division, had attacked. The 801-strong battalion was routed on July 1, 1916; the next day only 68 answered roll call. The divisional commander stated: “It was a magnificent display of trained and disciplined valor, and its assault failed of success because dead men can advance no further.”

At a service below the caribou monument Newfoundland and Labrador Command representative Leonard Kelly placed the wreath, and Stephen Austin, who manages the park for the federal government, joined the group in paying respect.

Moving through Albert and Dury to Arras, the tour led to Vimy Ridge for a ceremony of remembrance–and that splendid view across the Douai Plain. It seems Canadians are very good at memorials: Walter Allward’s Vimy monument is like an epic poem. Below it, pilgrims traversed wartime tunnels extended by the Canadian Corps in 1916, in preparation for the April 1917 battle. Adolf Hitler, serving on the other side, was a company runner in the area in WW I. “He must have been a good runner because in three years he did not get killed. Company runners usually lasted only three weeks,” said interpretive guide Justin Vaive of Victoria. Flanagan, 26, who administers the war museum at Chatham Branch in Miramichi, N.B., placed the wreath at Vimy. Afterwards, each delegate and observer pinned a poppy to the wreath. The young Canadian guides who work there in the summer were well informed, and the site of this battle made an enjoyable visit.

Yet the battlefields will never be just places to visit; a thousand cemeteries see to that. The front lines are places of remembrance, and Legion pilgrimages keep them that way. As Stephaniuk said: “The more I prepared for this pilgrimage, the closer I came to my dad as a young man.”

The road to Ypres passes through memorials at St-Julien and Hill 62, Passchendaele and the immense Tyne Cot Cemetery, with its WW II British and Canadian graves. The next day, Paterson again saw the Leopold Canal–this time green and pleasant.

Wreaths or poppies were repeatedly placed at cemeteries in the mind-numbing heat. The Scheldt WW II battle sites were examined close up and a movie, Against All Odds, featured Cliff Chadderton, chief executive officer of The War Amputations of Canada, analysing the campaign he fought in.

The Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres is where the names of more than 54,000 Commonwealth war dead in Belgium are inscribed in a great archway. This is the site of a ritual that has been held every evening of freedom since Nov. 11, 1929. It was also the scene of the tour’s most public ceremony. Nine British territorials of the 8th Ardwick Manchester Regiment marched in WW I uniforms, carrying rifles. Belgian buglers sounded the Last Post. The Legion wreath was placed by Whitford, and pilgrims stood fast before a large crowd. “I’ve never felt prouder of you all,” said Dominion Command representative Murphy.

A visiting monk from Australia’s Northern Territories sermonized: “We are here because of peace and we ask you to take peace to your various countries.”

At Bergen-op-Zoom, Holten and Groesbeek war cemeteries in Holland, pilgrims saw graves of Canadians who had died before and after the last stages of WW II and paid tribute. Hank Welting, a Dutch researcher, related the story of a daring wartime raid. A German truck was hijacked in hopes of obtaining meat from a German-held slaughterhouse, and 115 Dutch people lost their lives in retaliation. An imposing monument remembers their sacrifice.

En route to the ferry at Calais, the final homage was paid at Wimereux to WW I soldier-poet John McCrae, who died of pneumonia near there on Jan. 28, 1918. The pilgrims’ thoughts went back to a morning in May 1915, when a heavy German shell burst in Canadian artillery positions near Essex Farm, Belgium, killing McCrae’s close friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. Moved by the deaths around him and thinking of his friend, McCrae wrote the immortal poem In Flanders Fields.

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An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.