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Back To Dieppe

Story and photographs by Tom MacGregor

Clockwise from top left: Dominion President Allan Parks views the deadly beaches; people of all ages turn out to cheer as the Canadian veterans march along the streets of Dieppe on the anniversary of the raid; crowds fill up the narrow gap at Puys.

Frederick Nicholls was looking for names from the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry as his son Joseph pushed his wheelchair along the headstones in the Saint-Sever Cemetery in Rouen, France. Suddenly, Joseph stopped and said, “There’s one–McParland.”

“What’s his first name?” asked the veteran.

“It just says O”, replied Joseph.

“Orval,” replied the veteran with a sigh suggesting inevitability.

A vivid haunting memory came back there in the well-tended military section of the cemetery where more than 11,000 Commonwealth war dead are buried. It was a moment like many shared by the 23 veterans who had returned to France as part of the government delegation marking the 60th anniversary of the disastrous raid by Canadian troops on the coastal city of Dieppe.

Nicholls was a private with RHLI at the time. He was wounded in both legs and witnessed the slaughter as he lay on the beach waiting to be killed or captured. “I saw his brother (Cecil) crawl across the beach under all that fire to get to him. He was wounded in the stomach, his brother picked up his guts and pushed them back into his stomach. So he could die with dignity,” he said.

The fact that McParland is buried in Rouen–approximately 100 kilometres south of Dieppe–means he must have lived long enough to be transported to hospital. Nonetheless the date of death is the same as that of most of the Dieppe war dead: Aug. 19, 1942.

Joining Nicholls for the Aug. pilgrimage, led by Veterans Affairs Minister Rey Pagtakhan, were 22 other Dieppe veterans, heads of veterans organizations, parliamentarians, cadets, historians and media. Dominion President Allan Parks was there to represent The Royal Canadian Legion. Ron Beal of Scarborough, Ont., the president of the Dieppe Veterans and Prisoners of War Association, represented all Dieppe veterans. Also along was Smokey Smith, 88, the last surviving Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross.

The reception the veterans received from tens of thousands of people of all ages was quite overwhelming. The streets of the attractive port town and tourist-resort area on the English Channel were lined with people shouting, waving and applauding. On the anniversary date itself some 75,000 people showed up to cheer on the Canadian veterans. In all, the pilgrimage would be marked by an odd mix of sadness, bitterness and pride.

On the day the delegation departed Ottawa, Hugh Henry, an historian with the Department of National Defence’s Directorate of History and Heritage, got a cool reception when he spoke about the extensive planning that went into the raid. The veterans in the group found it hard to believe that a lot of planning went into the assault.

Henry said the plans called for holding the town, testing new equipment and techniques and gathering as much intelligence and as many prisoners as possible in a few hours. He said there were five landing areas, including the largest one at the town of Dieppe and the ones at Puys and Pourville to the east and west of the city. Prior to those assaults, British commandos set out to destroy coastal batteries near Vasterival–west of Pourville–and Petit Berneval–east of Puys.

But little success came of it. The men came ashore late in broad daylight in the face of a well fortified army that was on alert given the ideal maritime conditions for carrying out a raid. Tanks had trouble moving on the beach of round stones. Some left the landing craft too early and plunged into the sea.

During his briefing, Henry said 27 tanks made it ashore that day. However, this number was challenged by veteran Harold Scharfe of the Essex Scottish who was taken prisoner at Dieppe. “How come I only saw three (tanks)?” he asked.

Henry responded by saying he confirmed the number of tanks by interviewing at least one member of every tank crew involved in the raid.

Air force historian Ben Bond gave an overview of the fight in the skies. It was the biggest air battle the Canadians fought in the war. The attack had succeeded in luring the Luftwaffe into a battle that the Allies could win. Sixty Royal Canadian Air Force fighter aircraft were involved in the fight in which there were five Canadian casualties.

Of the 4,963 Canadians involved in the raid, 913 lost their lives and 1,946 became prisoners of war.

The navy would continue to deliver men through the barrage and where possible and go back for those once the withdrawal retreat was ordered. Nelson Langevin, 79, remembers the helpless feeling he had having operated a landing craft. His job was to man a gun as the troops disembarked. “We had to keep moving back as the water went out. Eventually it was just useless. There was nothing that could be done.”

When asked if he wanted to come back he replied, “I was with External Affairs and stationed in London. I came to France many times but I never felt like coming here. When I got the call to come on this, I just asked how much was it going to cost. If they said $10, I would have said forget it…but I guess I’m glad I came.”

In keeping with Veterans Affairs Canada’s new focus on doing more events in Canada, the formalities began with a ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Pagtakhan told the crowd that for him the pilgrimage had begun in his Winnipeg riding when he attended a ceremony at the Legion’s Henderson Highway Branch. The branch loaned him its branch flag from its set of colours to travel with him.

The ceremonies in France began with a stroll down the Esplanade at Dieppe, a stone walkway and seawall. In the distance of about a kilometre, we came to five memorials to the units who suffered on that beach. The first was to the Essex Scottish. Further on were plaques to the Fusiliers Mont-Royal, Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, Calgary Tanks and Toronto Scottish. At each a wreath-placing ceremony was held.

At Canada Square another ceremony was held. A final ceremony organized by local authorities was held at the French monument to war dead.

Scharfe of the Essex Scottish spent the full nine hours on the beach and the rest of the war in PoW camps. “We were in Stalag 8B. There were a lot of British PoWs there from the Dunkirk disaster. They were helpful in telling us how to live in the hands of the enemy. A friend and I decided that one of us had to learn German. So I did. It came fairly easily to me. We had to trade for everything with the guards. We’d get more food with cigarettes. We would have one loaf of bread to be split among eight of us.”

Scharfe also remembers the lighter side. “I was able to keep a war diary, even though they were forbidden. I have the dates of when we were in what place and the names of other prisoners who were with us. There are some amusing things as well in there. One fellow got a letter from his girlfriend announcing she was now going with another soldier but added, ‘He’s a nice guy and promises to send you cigarettes every week.'”

The evening before the anniversary, the delegation went to the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery where 707 Canadians are buried. A vigil was organized by the French. With parking only available in a farmer’s field for the dignitaries, people from the town came streaming up the dirt road to gather for the event.

Cadets from both the area and the delegations entered the cemetery with torches and took their places by the Stone of Remembrance. A solemn ceremony of prayer was held at the Cross of Sacrifice.

After the late night the veterans were up early in the morning for the major ceremony in the cemetery. Again more than 1,000 people walked up the dirt road in order to pay tribute to those who died on their beaches. “The raid on Dieppe was code-named Operation Jubilee, a name which suggested an optimistic outcome to an assault that was, in reality, doomed to failure. Of course the men who made their way across the English Channel in the early morning hours of the 19th surely had no such anticipation. But they learned all too quickly that they were doomed, perhaps to death and certainly to disaster,” explained Pagtakhan.

Participating in the ceremony were Defence Minister John McCallum, Canada’s ambassador to France Raymond Chrétien, a 50-person military guard from the Canadian Forces and the RHLI band. A long, dignified series of wreaths and flowers were placed at the Cross of Sacrifice by local officials and representatives of the veterans organizations, including Dominion President Allan Parks.

Alone or in pairs the veterans representing the units came forward, placing wreaths for the Royal Canadian Navy, the Calgary Tanks, Royal Canadian Artillery, Royal Canadian Engineers, the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, the Black Watch, the Royal Regt. of Canada, Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, Fusiliers Mont-Royal, the Essex Scottish, South Saskatchewan Regt., Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada, Calgary Highlanders, Toronto Scottish Regt., Royal Canadian Air Force and the First Destroyer Flotilla. Still others came forward with bouquets and wreaths.

Allan Sinclair was at the beach carrying mortar shells with the Toronto Scottish that fateful day. This was his third trip to Dieppe since then. “It’s been 60 years. The odd things give you a bit of a flashback but the memories get a little dim–and that’s a good thing in a way.”

With the ceremony over the delegation gathered on the coaches and headed for Canada Square for another ceremony. As the coaches got into the centre of town, people were gathering along the narrow streets waving to the veterans as they came, many carrying small Canadian flags.

But even that enthusiasm didn’t prepare the delegation for its arrival. Emerging from the narrow streets into the square and the Esplanade the veterans were astonished to see tens of thousands of people, three military bands, the Canadian Forces contingent, a French military contingent and British commandos all waiting for them.

Following a solemn ceremony at the square with no speeches, the veterans were formed up into the parade. Those who would find the walk difficult were pushed in wheelchairs. The RHLI band started to play and the parade moved out. The streets were packed with people reaching out to touch the Canadians. Many veterans had lapel pins with the Maple Leaf flag which were eagerly accepted by the younger children along the route. The march ended over a kilometre away at city hall where the city treated all to an outdoor reception.

As the afternoon grew increasingly hot the delegation drove to Puys for another major ceremony where the Royal Regt. landed. Members of the unit became easy targets for the enemy on the cliffs. “Only a few men were able to get over the heavily wired seawall at the head of the beach. Those who did were unable to get back. The rest of the troops, together with three platoons of reinforcements from the Black Watch were pinned on the beach by mortar and machine-gun fire,” said Pagtakhan. “The Canadians ran out of time and space. By 8:30 that morning, those left on the beach were forced to surrender.”

James Martin, 81, was there with the Black Watch. He was using a Bren gun to protect himself and his comrades on the beach when the order came to surrender.

He was witness to one of the first fatalities of the raid. “We were loading fuses for the grenades. The fuses came in different lengths depending on the time desired before it exploded. They could be for three, six or nine seconds. The one went off and killed one of our people–before we even left for the raid.”

At the end of the day the Canadian embassy held a reception in the Dieppe casino to announce the declaration of Dieppe as place of national historical significance for Canada. The plaque itself which will be in Canada Square was not ready since an earlier version had contained mistakes and omissions.

The next day the delegation joined French officials and British commandos at a ceremony at Sainte-Marguerite near Pourville. Rain poured down on the crowd in a small space offering little shelter.

That was followed by a ceremony at the Pourville Memorial in honour of the South Saskatchewan Regt. and Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada from Winnipeg. Though the rain had petered to constant drizzle, conducting officers told the veterans that it was not necessary to get off the coaches and there had even been talk of returning to the hotel but that would mean missing the ceremony. Someone yelled, “I thought we were soldiers.”

Most donned their damp overcoats and moved toward the crowd.

The SSRs had landed in the early hours and achieved some surprise but that was lost by the time the troops came to the River Scie which had to be crossed or forded to get into Dieppe. It was here that Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt the commander of the regiment led party after party across the bridge under constant fire, rallying his troops by example. About a half hour later the Camerons landed charging to shore with the sound of their piper. “The piper steadfastly played during the last 20-minute run to shore. When he was later forced to surrender, he would lay down his Sten gun, his rifle–and his beloved bagpipes. Never again would a Canadian Scottish battalion be piped into battle,” said MP David Pratt who was to lead the delegation for the rest of the trip.

The QOCHs suffered 76 fatalities. Merritt and his men put up a rear defence for those who could get away but the SSRs left 84 dead with 89 others, including Merritt, taken prisoner. Merritt would be awarded the Victoria Cross for his valour.

Following the ceremony, as the clouds cleared away and the sun returned, the delegation walked about a block from the memorial to the River Scie. There the group marched across the bridge barely a few car-lengths long. Victoria Cross recipient Smokey Smith placed a wreath on the bridge which has been proclaimed as Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt’s Bridge. Unfortunately, the plaque still spells Merritt’s name with only one ‘r’.

The afternoon included a number of stops, including a service in the tiny churchyard cemetery at Saint-Aubin-le-Cauf, 10 kilometres southeast of Dieppe, where two members of the Royal Canadian Air Force are buried. The men, Pilot Officer John Gardiner and PO Norman Monchier of 403 (Wolf) Squadron, had trained together and flew together during the raid. Witnesses on the ground said they saw one plane change course quickly in pursuit of an enemy aircraft as if it had gone out of control. The other aircraft flew to cover or continue the pursuit but the two planes collided, killing both pilots.

While placing a wreath on behalf of the air force, Duke Warren, a former wing commander who was flying missions that day, said: “It would not be right to place this wreath without saying why these two graves are here. The townspeople buried these men in 1942. At the end of the war, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission came to the town and said that they would exhume the bodies so they could be buried with other Canadians at Dieppe. The townspeople said no. They said these men were their war dead and they would look after the graves forever.”

The final major ceremony was in Rouen where Tom McQuaid, 82, of the Royal Regt. of Canada was sent having been shot in both legs. He spent a month with his legs in a plaster cast. But while he was under care he became the supervisor of the patients in a ward, a job that even though he was a prisoner would earn him a promotion to corporal from private. He was sent to another hospital where he again was given administrative duties. “The head doctor was a German. We were told when he was coming and everything had to be spotless,” he remembers. In one inspection a trickle of liquid had spilled from a wastebasket. “For that I got solitary confinement for two weeks with only bread and water.”

At one of the last ceremonies of the trip the delegation placed wreaths at Petit Appeville which was the furthest point penetrated by Canadian troops on the day.

It was here that we had a briefing from Steve Harris of the Directorate of History and Heritage at National Defence Headquarters. He outlined the struggle of the Cameron Highlanders that reached the point. He said that not all the raid was a failure. “The important thing is what you saw as you paraded in the streets the other day. The success of Dieppe was that after three years of occupation you gave France hope.”

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