Dieppe: Return To Red Beach

November 1, 2006 by Kelly-Anne Campbell

PHOTOS: KELLY-ANNE CAMPBELL

Clockwise from top left: At Dieppe, Sister Agnes Marie Valois of France and Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment commanding officer Lt.-Col. Phil Berthiaume participate in the ceremony commemerating the sacrifices of the Essex Scottish; Dieppe veterans (from left) James McArthur and Harold Scharfe; Essex and Kent Scottish corporals Mike Timmermans (left) and Greg Rowden at the monument; a view along the esplanade at Dieppe.

As the sounds of bagpipes washed over the pebbled beaches, the reservists of the Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment, in full highland regalia, began their march from the water’s edge–retracing the steps of their regimental forebears who launched the ill-fated attack on Dieppe 64 years ago. First the pipe major, then the band, and finally the kilted troops crested the steep rise of the beach, slowly becoming visible to the crowd gathered on the esplanade.

The soldiers continued across this once-murderous section of ground, codenamed Red Beach, and came to stand at attention only metres from a new monument about to be dedicated to the men of their regiment. Moments later, a Spitfire appeared to emerge from the English Channel, seemingly just metres behind the troops; it soared skyward above the crowd before moving inland over the French port city. In that moment, it seemed that Red Beach had been reclaimed, and the sense of tragedy and loss so often associated with the beaches of Dieppe was overshadowed by admiration and pride for the courage and dedication to duty that the men of the Essex Scottish showed on Aug. 19, 1942.

On Aug. 19, 2006, this symbolic reclamation of a stretch of beach in Dieppe opened an emotional and at times cathartic ceremony to unveil and dedicate a monument commemorating the sacrifices made by members of the Essex Scottish during World War II. The regiment, which emanated from the Windsor area of Southern Ontario, was one of the first Canadian units to see action in the war owing to its participation in the ill-fated raid. On that day in 1942 the regiment was decimated. Of the unit’s 553 officers and other ranks that took part in the raid, only three officers and 49 soldiers returned to England.

Of the 4,963 Canadians involved in the raid, 913 lost their lives and 1,946 became prisoners of war. In addition to the Essex Scottish, the Canadian Army participation included the Calgary Regt., Cameron Highlanders of Canada, Fusiliers Mont-Royal, Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, Royal Regt. of Canada, South Saskatchewan Regt., Royal Highland Regt. of Canada and Toronto Scottish Regt.

Although the Essex Scottish Regt. was quickly reconstituted and participated in the fierce fight for Northwest Europe in 1944-45, the raid remains one of the most significant events in the life of the regiment, and it continues to affect the people in the communities surrounding Windsor today.

It is, therefore, fitting that the new monument to the Essex Scottish was placed on Red Beach, and that the majority of the funds for the project came from the people of Essex and Kent counties. The Dieppe Memorial Project, as it became known, was a labour of love for these communities, and it quickly developed into an ambitious plan that moved far beyond the construction, installation and dedication of a new monument.

With the help of Veterans Affairs Canada, the Department of National Defence and the Ville de Dieppe, the citizens and local businesses of Windsor and the surrounding communities raised sufficient funds to allow several veterans to travel to France for the unveiling and for a 12-day tour that retraced key moments in the regiment’s history.

As support for the project grew, so too did the number of Windsorites who felt compelled to join what might more appropriately be termed a pilgrimage. When the group numbering more than 100 left Windsor on Aug. 9, it consisted of veterans, widows, siblings, children, grandchildren and friends of veterans, and a contingent of serving members of the Essex and Kent Scottish. Led by Julian Whippy and Clive Harris of Battle Honours Limited, the tour culminated in a two-day stay at Dieppe that included a battlefield tour, an evening ceremony at the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery–where the majority of Canadians killed during the raid are buried–and the ceremony to unveil the monument.

In essence, the Dieppe Memorial Project was an attempt by a community to come to terms with the losses it suffered at Dieppe and during the war. Each member of the group had an emotional tie to the regiment and to Dieppe. Although heart-wrenching, their stories explain why the pilgrimage and the monument are so important to the people of Essex and Kent counties. Moreover, these stories are representative of the sacrifices made by all Canadian communities during WW II.

While walking along the shore on a beautiful sunny day, it is difficult to imagine Dieppe as it was 64 years ago. Yet on the battlefield tour, we try to see Red Beach as the members of the Essex Scottish might have when they landed. Standing at the water’s edge and looking up at the town from the perspective of an attacking soldier, the beautiful white cliffs and beaches suddenly seem ominous. Even the most unmilitary of individuals quickly realize that, topographically, this is not a location that favours the attacker. By 1942 the Germans were exceedingly well prepared to bring down large concentrations of fire on any invading force. With this in mind, we try to imagine what it must have been like and how anyone summoned the courage to jump off a landing craft and race across slippery stones while machine-gun, mortar and artillery fire exploded all around. For those who were not there it is almost impossible to comprehend; for the men who were there it is clearly impossible to forget.

James McArthur was 19 when he participated in the raid. He recalls that they had been “well trained and they were sure they would be victorious,” so there was little initial fear. Similarly, Maurice Snook–then a sergeant major–remembers that he was not particularly scared on the approaches to Dieppe because “we had a job to do.” He recalls that the tracer fire in the air was quite a beautiful sight, but adds with a smile, “we quickly learned to keep our heads down.” Snook says it was only after he landed that he began to feel afraid. “There was nothing we could do with what we had. We had to run and make it to the wall.”

After hours sheltering by the seawall, the surrender order was finally given at 1300 hours. Snook recalls that out of 120 men from his company, he lost 28 killed and 38 wounded. One particularly traumatic memory for Snook was the sight of eight of his men being hit almost directly with a shell while they tried to find shelter in a crater on the beach.

For those who experienced the raid, there are many reasons to return. Harold Scharfe returned to remember “those who never left…the people I went to school with.” In particular, he returned to remember childhood friend Leo Trombley, who landed on the beach with him that day but never made it home. Scharfe says he thinks about the raid daily, and because of it, he believes “every day is a bonus.” Ian MacDonald, who was 19 at the time of the raid, is returning to Dieppe for the eighth time. “I’m glad I came back,” he says, noting it’s important to visit and remember his old friends. Ben Brinkworth, an American who joined the Essex Scottish two days after Canada declared war, is returning for the fourth and last time in what he says is an effort to obtain closure on the defining moment of his life.

For McArthur, the pilgrimage marked his first visit to Dieppe since the raid. He says that returning to this place is very traumatic, and although he had difficulty leaving his wife of 60 years for an extended period of time, he has always wondered what happened to his friends. “It’s very important to me to know that they are at peace.”

The raid was also traumatic for the friends and family the soldiers left behind. Joan Tanner of Surrey, England, returned to honour her first husband, Lorne Alden Lauzon of Windsor. A stretcher-bearer with the Essex Scottish, Lauzon was killed on the beach during the raid. Owing to the circumstances surrounding his death, Lauzon’s remains were not recovered and so he was not buried at the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery with the other men of his regiment. Instead, his name is engraved in a memorial at Brookwood Military Cemetery in England. Tanner was especially pleased to discover that Lauzon’s memory is commemorated in a display at the museum in Dieppe that lists the names of those killed. It is important to her that he is remembered here, and she says that on this trip, as on her previous visit to Dieppe, she felt that “this is for you Lorne.”

Liliane Parker’s brother James William Scott also served with the Essex Scottish. He was wounded at Dieppe and remained a PoW until January 1945. Postwar, Scott remained extremely proud of his regiment, and worked on the organizing committee for the memorial project until his death shortly before the trip. Scott’s uniform was donated to the Juno Beach Centre in Normandy, and Parker, who came in his stead, says viewing it was especially emotional. “When I saw the uniform on display I saw my younger brother just as he was as a young man.” She is pleased the monument and the uniform will serve as a lasting tribute to her brother and the regiment he loved.

The beaches of Dieppe are also compelling for the descendants of veterans. Shirley Taylor came to Dieppe because she wanted to “feel” what her father, James Taylor, experienced. On that day, she says, her father was a radio operator. As he came off the landing craft, the other man–also a radio operator–was carrying the radio. He was shot and killed, and the radio was disabled. Her father made it to the relative safety of the seawall, but the most helpless he ever felt was watching the next wave of landing craft approach and not being able to tell them not to come.

Philippe Gratton, an 18-year-old private with the Essex and Kent Scottish who will enter the Canadian Force’s Regular Officer Training Program in the fall, was honoured to accompany his grandfather, James McArthur. Gratton says he didn’t really understand what his grandfather went through until he was able to stand on Red Beach. McArthur, in turn, says it wouldn’t have been possible for him to come without the grandson of whom he is so proud.

In 1992 the regiment placed a memorial to the Essex Scottish on the seawall. By 2002, however, time and sea spray had taken their toll. Lieutenant-Colonel Phil Berthiaume and Honorary Colonel W. R. Martin decided a new, more long-lasting monument was required. Overwhelmingly, the organizers felt that the old plaque should be relocated to the nearby war cemetery where many Essex Scottish are buried. Owing to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s restrictions, the plaque could not be located inside the cemetery, but with the help of the Ville de Dieppe, the plaque was placed just outside the cemetery gates. On Aug. 18, 2006, members of the Dieppe pilgrimage gathered for regimental Padre Kim Gilliland’s blessing of the plaque that was, essentially, the catalyst for the memorial project.

The visit to the cemetery also allowed participants to visit many of their friends and loved ones who never returned home. While former battlefields provide insight into the horrors of war, the cemeteries bring home, with terrible clarity, the price Canada paid for victory. The sheer number of headstones is overwhelming, and the epitaphs are a reminder of the people who died. The inscriptions evoke images of mothers and fathers lamenting lost sons; sisters and brothers missing cherished siblings; wives mourning their husbands; and children growing up without their fathers.

For the families left behind, one small comfort is that their loved ones are buried among comrades. Although Liliane Parker’s first husband did not participate in the raid, the visit to the cemetery allowed her to pay tribute to him. Flying Officer Joseph Ovila Peltier of Windsor was killed July 31, 1944. Initially, his remains were buried in an American cemetery. However, in 1946, Parker received word that they had been moved to the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery. Parker said she was very pleased because it meant that Peltier was laid to rest with the “home boys,” all of the friends he knew and went to school with.

For 17-year-old-cadet Mike Leblanc, who was specially chosen to participate in the tour, the cemeteries were overwhelming. Upon viewing the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Ypres, “I couldn’t speak,” he says. Nevertheless, Leblanc feels he owes it to the men to visit and to tell people about what he has seen. As the men who witnessed it first-hand leave us, he feels that it is his job to carry on that legacy.

Most, however, were too overcome to speak about their experiences in the cemeteries, and this was particularly true of the veterans. Nevertheless, their emotions were made clear through their actions: the tears, a brisk walk to the grave of a particular friend or a hand placed lovingly on a gravestone. In one particularly poignant scene, a veteran spent several minutes crouched before the grave of a friend. And although age made such a position difficult for him, he took the time to rearrange and reposition a regimental flag until he was satisfied it was just right.

At the cemetery, one was overwhelmed by a sense of sadness and loss. In contrast, as the crowd gathered on Red Beach for the ceremony to unveil the monument, the mood was sombre. However, there was also an underlying sentiment of pride and accomplishment. The members of the tour had persevered through an enormously emotional pilgrimage. There seemed to be a better understanding and perhaps new-found pride in the men of the Essex Scottish and what they accomplished in WW II. There also seemed to be great pride in the fact that the memorial project had succeeded in creating a lasting tribute to the regiment. Indeed, that sense of accomplishment seemed to grow as the Essex and Kent Scottish made their symbolic march up the beach. It was a sight many will never forget.

In all, more than 200 people participated in the ceremony, but the most honoured guest was undoubtedly Sister Agnes Marie Valois who nursed wounded Canadian soldiers after the raid. Her arrival was a joyous occasion that brought at least one veteran to tears. Many of the Dieppe veterans had spoken glowingly of her during the tour, and her appearance allowed for a joyful reunion.

The monument itself was designed by Rory O’Connor, a young art student from Windsor. The members of the tour simply adored this young woman and they could not have been more proud of her design. The key features of the monument, which was crafted in Windsor, include the regimental crest, the date August 19, 1942, and the codename Red Beach. Perhaps the most enduring feature is that each Aug. 19, at 1300 hours, sunlight will stream through a maple leaf-shaped opening in the monument and illuminate another maple leaf inlaid on the ground. This will mark the exact moment the surrender order was given and the raid ended.

For one family, the ceremony itself brought closure. Donald and Harold Knight were brothers who landed at Dieppe. According to Bryon and Bruce Knight, their father Donald was injured during the raid. Harold made it to a landing craft and could have returned to England, but instead he returned to his brother. Both became PoWs and survived the war. Although their father and uncle have since died, Bryon and Bruce Knight and their sister Debbie Tetzlaff came to Dieppe for them. Bryon, a pipe sergeant, and Bruce, a drummer in the Sun Parlour Pipe Band, had the privilege of leading the troops on their march up the beach. After the ceremony, the brothers, wearing their father’s and uncle’s cap badges, took a moment alone on the beach to play a song in their honour. According to Bryon Knight the trip brought him “closure.” He explained that his father always said that he fought here in Dieppe, so that his sons would never have to.

Farley Mowat once explained that a regiment lives and breathes with the blood and breath of the men who belong to it. The Dieppe Memorial Project, however, illustrates that a regiment also lives and breathes through the blood and breath of the communities that give their men, and now women, to that regiment. Individually, the trip was an opportunity to remember, commemorate and, perhaps, to obtain closure on very personal tragedies. Collectively, however, the project represented the efforts of a community to come to terms with the losses it suffered on one tragic day in WW II.

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