Seventy years ago on Sunday, thousands of Canadians fought in the deadly battle of Dieppe. Their blood turned the ocean red, their bodies washed up on beaches of the occupied French port city. Many survivors became prisoners. German forces marched the captured in columns and shipped them to camps in boxcars alongside horses.
Today, seven Canadian Second World War veterans have returned to commemorate their disastrous mission and the catastrophic losses that were a huge blow to Canada’s war effort.
Before they left for what is likely to be their final visit to Dieppe, the veterans – the youngest of whom is 90 – told stories coloured with streaks of resentment, moments of pride and stretches of heartache for their fallen friends.
This trip will be about more than paying tribute. It may give them something they have never had before: answers. The veterans will watch a special screening of a documentary by historian David O’Keefe that presents a provocative new theory for the reasoning behind the near-suicidal mission.
The film, Dieppe Uncovered, offers a different perspective on why the soldiers were sent into a port so heavily defended, and why they were ordered to continue to attack even when the battle proved disastrous. Of the 4,963 Canadians involved, only 2,210 returned to England; 1,946 were taken prisoner and 913 were killed, according to Veterans Affairs Canada.
Mr. O’Keefe, after 15 years of combing 100,000 pages of documents, says the mission was designed to provide cover for 15 to 20 ultra-secret commandos. The unit, formed specifically for the Dieppe operation, wanted to reach Hotel Moderne in hopes of nabbing information – books, machines, anything – about the Germans’ revamped coding system.
“The Allies’ mindset going in is one that is incredibly desperate. They are at the height of an intelligence blackout,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “This changes what we know about the intent behind the Dieppe raid.”
If the secret commandos aboard the HMS Locust had reached their target – they tried four times – it would have changed the war. Thousands of lives might have been spared.
“Now we know there was a legitimate, tangible and crucial objective,” he said. “Had they been able to get material, it would have had an incredible impact on the course of the war.”
The French still remember what the Canadians sacrificed that day.
“They were welcomed by the clicks – the flashes – of photographs, while 70 years ago it was the bullets of German guns that welcomed them,” Steven Blaney, Minister of Veterans Affairs, said after accompanying the seven survivors to Dieppe’s beach on Friday. “Everywhere in the town there are Canadian flags. There are people who have put flags on their balconies by the beach. We can see that the people of Dieppe have not forgotten. The Canadians did not die in vain.”
Three young folks from Normandy, France, did more than shake hands with the veterans. “They slept in a tent overnight by the beach to pay a tribute,” Mr. Blaney said. “They have a profound understanding of what happened.”
Captain Joel Rubletz, a member of 1 Combat Engineer Regiment in Edmonton, who was among those deployed to Afghanistan, said even with the passage of decades, visits to battlefields are important.
“With commemorative ceremonies, it helps keep it fresh in our minds, remember those who served, and why they served,” he said.
Unit: Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal
Donatien Vaillancourt is certain of two things: The Germans knew the Allies were coming, and the Allied leaders knew the Germans would win. “What history never talks about is the first Dieppe. We were supposed to do it the 4th of July – then they said the sea is no good. For six or seven days they kept us on the boats anchored, and we didn’t make Dieppe,” he said.
The troops were told not to talk about the plan, in case it was revived. “That’s the most stupid thing you’ve ever heard in the army – don’t talk about it.”