Pilgrimage To Dieppe

November 1, 1997 by Legion Magazine


by Ray Dick

The weather was clear and hot when the ferry from Newhaven, England, arrived at the French port of Dieppe. It was August and several of the men lining the rails were Canadian veterans who on a similar morning, 55 years ago, landed on the rock-strewn beach. But back then it was a living hell that greeted the Canadians as they rushed ashore into vicious German machine-gun fire.

With that memory intact, the Dieppe veterans would once again revisit some dark moments in their lives, but they would also see a new Dieppe and witness the solemn commemoration of their courage and sacrifice. All of them were participating in a Veterans Affairs Canada pilgrimage to mark the anniversary of the Aug. 19, 1942, raid. These men and the others who were with them during that day long ago were part of an Allied assault plan that called for attacks at five different locations on a front of roughly 16 kilometres. Of the 6,100 troops involved, 4,963 were Canadian, but before the day was out, only 2,210 would return to England. The grim statistics also show that 1,874 were taken prisoner; 807 were killed in action; 28 died later of wounds; 72 died while in prisoner-of-war camps.

“Was it worth it?” asked Veterans Affairs Minister Fred Mifflin during a ceremony at the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery in nearby Hautot-sur-Mer. “We will let the historians continue the arguments of politics and tactics, but if you asked the people of this city you would find their answer on the plaque at the Dieppe-Canada monument which says in part: ‘On the beaches of Dieppe our Canadian cousins marked with their blood the road to our final liberation.’”

Mifflin, a retired rear-admiral from Bonavista, Nfld., also quoted from an editorial published in the New York Times a year after the raid. “‘Men afoot and men in tanks were exposed to a fire that no valor could withstand. Hundreds of them went as far as they could and died, but these deaths achieved nothing except to prove what was already known–the high quality of the Canadian troops…. Some day there will be two spots on the French coast sacred to the British and their allies. One will be Dunkirk, where Britain was saved because a beaten army would not surrender. The other will be Dieppe where brave men died without hope for the sake of proving there is a wrong way to invade. They will have their share of the glory when the right way is tried.’”

The ceremony at the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery was the culmination of a pilgrimage that brought together 35 Dieppe veterans from across Canada. The official delegation included Smokey Smith of Vancouver who earned the Victoria Cross in October 1944 during the Italian campaign, Dominion President Joe Kobolak of The Royal Canadian Legion, Akmal Khan, dominion president of the Army, Navy and Air Force Veterans in Canada and Anna Fraser of the Nursing Sisters Association of Canada. Also participating were members of Parliament Robert Bertrand, Maurice Godin, Art Hanger and Elsie Wayne, senators Lise Bacon and William Doody, pipers Hugh Macpherson and Jim Fryer of Air Command Pipes and Drums, trumpet player Warrant Officer Andrew Barrett of the Ottawa Canadian Forces Band, 10 cadets from across Canada and a 47-member contingent from the Canadian Forces that performed sentry and guard of honor duties.

The delegation arrived in London on Aug. 13 and the following day visited Westminster Abbey and saw the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. On Aug. 15, it travelled to Brookwood Military Cemetery outside London where an official ceremony was held to mark the sacrifices of the 2,731 Canadians buried there from WW I and WW II. More than 50 of the graves belong to Canadians killed during the Dieppe raid. The delegation also held a ceremony at the Brookwood Memorial that includes the names of 200 Canadians. “Of the Canadian names, 185 fought and died at Dieppe,” said Mifflin. “Some died from their wounds on hospital ships or troop transports and were given burial at sea. Others served as special agents and died as prisoners or while working with Allied underground movements.”

The group travelled on to the Runnymede Memorial that bears the names of 20,435 Commonwealth airmen, including 3,050 Canadians who have no known grave. The lives behind the names were lost in WW II operations from bases in the United Kingdom and Northwest Europe. During the Dieppe raid–in the air battle with the Luftwaffe–Fighter Command’s losses were 91 aircraft and 64 pilots, 17 of whom were taken prisoner. Royal Canadian Air Force losses totalled 14 planes and nine pilots. In addition, six bombers and 10 aircrew were lost in action. The Luftwaffe losses were 48 aircraft destroyed, 24 damaged and 13 pilots killed (The Air Over Dieppe, June/July 1996).

The Runnymede Memorial brought back some special memories for at least one of the veterans on the pilgrimage. Lloyd Hunt, who represented the National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada, flew his Spitfire on three missions over Dieppe on the day of the raid. “We took off at first light. We flew another mission at noon and a third in the afternoon…. The weather was good, with a few clouds, and there was smoke over the battle area.” Hunt’s group was flying top cover, at considerable altitude, while other aircraft flew low over the area on strafing and bombing runs. “I saw some German planes that day, but we didn’t tangle,” he said.

Hunt joined the RCAF in Toronto in 1941 as an 18-year-old just out of high school. “I put in for aircrew because my dearest wish was to be a fighter pilot. However, his flight training was in Moncton on twin-engine Ansons and it was for the multi-engine planes that he got his wings. But during the war when he was asked in England whether he had trained on single-engine planes or twins, he replied “singles” and was on his way to Spitfires.

He was–in his own words–”scared stiff,” but it was the beginning of a life in the military that ended when he retired from the Canadian Forces in 1969.

On Aug. 16, the delegation travelled by coach to Newhaven, located on the English Channel across from Dieppe. Newhaven was one of five ports from which Dieppe raid participants embarked in 252 various craft. The delegation held a ceremony at the Royal Cdn. Engineers Memorial that stands as a tribute to the men who cleared paths for the other units that landed in Dieppe. The engineers had formidable obstacles to clear with little cover to protect them. Twenty seven sappers died and 73 were wounded. One hundred and twenty five were taken prisoner and only 165 returned to England soon after the raid.

The delegation departed for Dieppe on the morning of Aug. 17. Along the way, a wreath was placed in the Channel in honor of those Allies lost at sea. The following day, the delegation held ceremonies at Saint-Aubin-le-Cauf and at the Saint-Sever Cemetery in Rouen. The military section of the cemetery contains the graves of 358 Canadians, including the graves of 27 men who died in hospital at Rouen after being wounded at Dieppe. Mifflin said the delegation was especially honored to have Sister Agnès-Marie Valois in attendance. “For the Canadians who were taken prisoner and for those suffering grievous injury, there was a nursing sister who remains dear to the hearts of our Dieppe veterans. Sister Agnès-Marie Valois became their true angel of mercy.”

Mifflin said Sister Valois gave the wounded comfort and peace. “We are forever grateful for her tender care to our boys.”

Following the major ceremony at the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery in Hautot-sur-Mer, the delegation participated in ceremonies in Dieppe before heading to the Royal Regiment of Canada Monument at Puys. “Here, at a beach called Blue, near a village called Puys, the enemy was waiting,” explained Mifflin. “For the men of The Royal Regiment and the Black Watch the result was three hours of unadulterated hell. They never had a chance. Many did not make it off in the first wave because soldiers were cut down by the withering fire of machine-guns. Bodies piled up in the bottom of landing craft. Others, severely wounded and unable to get ashore, drowned in the surf. Those who did make it were quickly pinned down. Although the seawall was only 40 yards away, no more than 15 of the first 150 reached it. Many fell before they could fire a shot. As the fighting progressed, the dead began to pile up at its base…. The Canadians had run out of time and space. By 8:30 a.m., those left on the beach were forced to surrender.”

The scene of carnage painted by Mifflin was all too familiar to Lance-Corporal Joseph Ryan, a signalman that day with the 1st Battalion of The Royal Regt. of Canada. Earlier during the pilgrimage he had pointed at the high cliffs on the east headland as the ferry carrying the veterans neared Dieppe. “It was a day much like this one,” he said. “The seas were calm, the weather warm when we embarked in the landing craft from the mother ship about 10 miles out from the French shore. When we turned in to land and dropped the front ramp, all hell broke loose. Most didn’t get off the beach, but those who did laid smoke and started to scale the cliffs. There were guys dropping down over our heads as we attempted to reach the top, mowed down by snipers and machine-gun fire from trenches and bunkers in the cliffs.

“We went back to the seawall, but there was nowhere to hide,” said the 77-year-old who was 22 in 1942. He said he took a piece of shrapnel in the leg, but didn’t realize it at the time. The shrapnel was found during a medical examination in 1949 and was finally removed at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto in 1960.

“The battle was over in a few hours. We had no more ammunition. Someone waved a white flag and a well-dressed German officer appeared. He said: ‘Now boys, drop your weapons and equipment. For you the war is over.’”

Ryan and several other prisoners were taken to the top of the cliffs to begin their long journeys through PoW camps until liberated at war’s end. “As we sat there in a clearing, we were looking out over the water, and saw nothing there. It was then we realized we were not getting back.”

The South Saskatchewan Regt. and the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada landed at Pourville to the west of Dieppe. Mifflin said members of the SSR found resistance light when they stormed the beaches, climbed the seawall and took their initial objectives. “But there was a bridge to cross, and crossing it was to run a murderous gauntlet of machine-gun, mortar and artillery fire. The bodies of Canadians were beginning to pile up.”

It was on this same bridge where Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt earned the Victoria Cross. Twice wounded, he personally led the survivors of at least four parties across the bridge. When it became apparent the flank attack would not succeed in linking up with the troops fighting approximately two miles away in Dieppe, Merritt fought a rear-guard action that allowed evacuation of some of his men from the beach. Merritt, who lives in British Columbia, spent the rest of the war in captivity.

Corporal Leroy Alton was at the bridge that day. He was only 18. Looking over the scene 55 years later he has some vivid memories. He can also appreciate that he was one of the lucky ones who made it back to England, unwounded but without his watch and helmet. “We crossed the Channel on a converted ferry boat with landing craft where the lifeboats had been stored. We were told on board that we were heading for Dieppe. We were a little anxious when we got the news, but we were a well-trained unit and thought we could lick our weight in wildcats. We landed without getting our feet wet, and it wasn’t until we had almost reached the bridge that the fixed German machine-guns cut loose.”

Alton remembers Merritt and his brave action on the bridge. “He was a hard leader, but a good man…. We ripped a big wooden door from a nearby building and used it to float our equipment across the narrow river (that went under the bridge). My friends swam across. I couldn’t swim, so I held on to the door during the crossing. There was about 10 feet of water.”

Members of the SSR fought their way inland and captured some enemy bunkers before they were forced back. “Some of us hung onto ropes and were pulled out to sea and safety by landing craft,” explained Alton, a life member of Weyburn, Sask., Branch.

German opposition during the raid was very fierce on the beaches of Dieppe itself. During the ceremony at the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery, Mifflin said it is difficult for those who have only known peace to imagine what it must have been like to be a young man on the beaches of a foreign country amid a “hell-on-earth rain of bullets, bombs and bayonets.”

He said there was devastation for the Royal Cdn. Hamilton Light Infantry that landed at the west end of the promenade. “They cleared the nearby casino and pillboxes, and some of the men of the battalion got across the bullet-swept boulevard and into town where they engaged in vicious street fighting.”

The Essex Scottish assaulted the open eastern section on a beach swept with machine-gun fire. All attempts to breach the seawall were driven back. By mid-morning, with ammunition running low, the survivors struggled back to the water’s edge.

“There was also devastation for Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, sent in to back up the Essex,” explained Mifflin. “Some died–their boats blown out of the water.” Others were pinned down on the beach and exposed to intense enemy fire.

The tanks of the Calgary Regt. became bogged down on the beach stones and had their treads torn apart. Nevertheless, they continued to fight; supporting the infantry and contributing to the evacuation. Most of the tank crews who weren’t killed became PoWs.

Trooper Leonard Storvold of High River, Alta., was co-driver and machine-gunner on Bellicose, one of three Churchill tanks in his unit that landed high and dry that morning. “Bellicose was first off the landing craft. Everywhere we saw gunfire. We followed the water line down the beach, firing our six-pounder gun at anything that moved. As long as we kept going straight ahead everything was fine.” He noted that whenever a tank tried to turn in the loose stone it was in danger of throwing a track.

“It was a struggle,” he added. Bellicose made it to the promenade above the beach line. It drove up and down the promenade until it returned to the beach where it lost a track and was immobilized. “It was here that the tank driver was shot and we sat there wondering what to do now. We took the weapons from the tank and crawled to the water’s edge. The Germans kept throwing potato mashers, but couldn’t quite reach us. Why they didn’t just shoot us I’ll never know. Someone finally raised a white flag and we threw our guns into the sea. That was the end of the issue.”

Storvold, a member of High River, Alta., Branch, spent two years and nine months in German PoW camps. He has no nightmares about Dieppe. “It’s history. It’s past. I have no hard feelings.”

It was along the same beach where Reverend John Foote of the RHLI earned the VC for aiding the wounded and foregoing a chance to board a landing craft, in favor of being a PoW and ministering to his unit in captivity.

Mifflin also paid tribute to the sailors who manned the landing barges. He said they operated “under a storm of fire, risking their lives to rescue those stranded on the beaches.” One of those Royal Cdn. Navy sailors was Leading Seaman Frank Herring of Ottawa.

“In Brighton, we picked up our wooden boats that could carry 18 fully equipped soldiers. We were carrying men of Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal and arrived in daylight when the battle was fully under way. Five of the soldiers were wounded and never left the boat. The others walked into devastation. We put the wounded on board a destroyer, then returned to the beach with a load of radio equipment. This time the fire was so intense we were told to get out, our boat riddled with holes and most of the equipment destroyed. We threw smoke bombs and later formed up with a small convoy to return to England.”

Herring, a member of Westboro Branch in Ottawa, left the service at war’s end.

When the ferry left Dieppe for the trip back to Newhaven last August, several veterans in the delegation lined up against the rails for another look back at the beach. The pilgrimage was, indeed, another milestone in their lives. They will remember the devastation of 55 years ago, but they will also remember the ceremonies that commemorated their courage and the blood that was shed by their comrades. Many of them won’t return again, but some will.

Georges Giguère, 76, counts himself among those who will return. Now a resident of Ste-Anne’s Hospital in Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, Que., Giguère served in Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal and spent three years in a PoW camp after he was captured at Dieppe. He went on to become the founder of the Dieppe Prisoners of War Association as well as its president at one time. “They all know me here,” he said while in his wheelchair on the ferry. “I’ll be back.”

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