1st September, 1944
Canada’s Day of Bittersweet Redemption
Friday, November 02, 2012
By Larry King
How could it be this easy, this return to that port, its name “Dieppe” now seared infamously into Canada’s national memory for the past two years and thirteen days? There, on 19 August 1942, 6000 soldiers, 5000 of them Canadian, attempted the first Allied landing against Hitler’s “Fortress Europe”. His most renown general, Erwin Rommel, had been fortifying German defences along the English Channel of occupied France. From England across this narrow passage an inevitable amphibious invasion would certainly be launched. Was Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall” impregnable, as Nazi propaganda vaunted, certain this would reach the ears of Allied forces mustering in England? The horrendous casualties of the seven Canadian and two British commando regiments of the Dieppe Raid reinforced that boast, reviving the term “cannon fodder”, referring to the seemingly callous way British commanders deployed Canadian troops.
Of the soldiers of the 2nd Division, Canadian Army nearing Dieppe in late August 1944, very few were returning. All nine regiments had been decimated in the raid; for example, 502 of the 553 members of the “Essex and Kent Scottish”, in which three of my uncles had enlisted, were casualties left on the beach. Each had a mere 25 or so survivors for this return engagement so each had to painstakingly rebuild; our fighting men were all volunteers and Dieppe hardly spurred enlistment. None of the nine had regained sufficient strength to land on Juno Beach by D-Day, 6 June, 1944, barely three months prior to this return.
D-Day succeeded with casualties far fewer than its planners anticipated. According to Allied commanders this was in large part due to bloody lessons learned at Dieppe. That offered cold comfort to Canadian soldiers but regardless of their skepticism, they were as determined to return to Dieppe as they had been eager to undertake the raid. To that end, after the Battle of Normandy the task assigned to the Canadian Army was to seize key ports along the Channel to allow for easier massive transfers of manpower and material essential for the Allied advance to Berlin.
An aerial bombardment with offshore shelling from battleships was planned for early September 1st to soften German defences prior to the 2nd Division’s entry into Dieppe, this time by land, two years and thirteen days after the raid. These preliminaries were eerily similar to the plans that provided utterly inadequate support for the landings two years and thirteen days ago. This time, a cruel twist of irony, they were unnecessary.
After overcoming heavy resistance during its inexorable slog along the Channel, the 2nd Division’s last 70 km to Dieppe seemed a romp. It met only sporadic sniping as the German army, the Fuhrer’s invincible Wehrmacht, accepting the inevitable, hastily withdrew to defend Germany’s Rhine frontier. Thus the taking of Dieppe was almost a formality, yet nonetheless highly symbolic and a welcome tonic to a war-weary nation as well as to the nine regiments seeking some atonement for the carnage wrecked upon them two years and thirteen days ago.
A halt was ordered outside city limits the eve of August 31. When the 2nd Division, Canadian Army entered next morning at 10:30, it was as spiffy for a “spit-and-polish” parade as field conditions permitted – cold-water shaves, shined boots, freshly-pressed uniforms from the quartermaster. The tumultuous greeting this time was purely vocal, that of overjoyed citizens several ranks deep lining the parade route where two years and thirteen days ago they crouched in cellars, puzzled as to what had unleashed that hellish artillery fire pouring from their cliffs, unaware that Canadians were attempting a futile landing on their beach. First to enter Dieppe, buildings still pockmarked by bullets fired two years and thirteen days ago, were the seven regiments from 19 August 1942. To reporter Ross Monroe, accompanying the 2nd Division, this was “the most impressive and meaningful Canadian parade of the war.”
The initial orderliness eventually disintegrated, not from withering enemy fire but from effusive, long-repressed citizenry pressing forward offering flowers, wine and embraces. Parade marshals, likely aware of casualties in battles to come, allowed their “lads” to be swept away by the crowd. None paid café bills this day; many were treated to home-cooked meals in spite of the privations of rationing imposed by the occupiers. (One man I met at the Square du Canada, Dieppe, in 2004 as a boy had a jaundiced, albeit humorous, opinion of his Canadian liberators, in sharp contrast to that of his fellow Dieppois).
In spite of entreaties to celebrate, for the 25 or so from each regiment who landed here two years and thirteen days ago there was a greater necessity. However painful, they steeled themselves to revisit that beach where on its shingle man and vehicle floundered with such fatal consequences. The esplanade was now fully barbed wired, the beach now thoroughly mined. Formidable concrete defences of two years and thirteen days ago had been strengthened further, now expanses of dreary grey. Then, led by locals, also non-festive, they reached a plot smothered with so many fresh flowers that the plain nameless wooden crosses were hard to discern. Local people situated this cemetery to overlook the beach; without being ordered by the Germans they removed over 900 dead raiders, burying them here where they dutifully maintained this ground, but ordered not to put flowers on graves or erect any memento to the slain. Plans of the plot were kept clandestinely, with each deceased ID recorded to match each cross location, so that his name could be properly inscribed on his cross after the Occupation. The strengthening onshore wind now chilled the exposed hilltop cemetery.
They could hear comrades and other Dieppois beckoning them to join festivities in the town centre. Memories of two years and thirteen days ago would never be erased, but they would attempt to set them aside for a short bout of merrymaking. They had earned it.
Much material for this article is to be found in “The Canadians at War: 1939-1945”, Reader’s Digest Association and “Gauntlet to Overlord” by Ross Monroe.
Mathew Halton’s broadcast of the Canadians’ entry into Dieppe can be heard online at: archives.cbc.ca/war_conflict/second_world_war/.../13810/. handkerchiefs recommended.
The nine Canadian regiments were: Royal Regiment of Canada, Essex Scottish Regiment, Les Fusiliers de Mont-Royal, Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), 14th Army Tank Regiment (The Calgary Tank Regiment), South Saskatchewan Regiment, Toronto Scottish Regiment, Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada.
The British units were No. 3 Commando and No. 4 Commando, Royal Marines.
There were 50 U.S. Rangers, in a largely observatory capacity.