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.”
Five thousand men knew about the raid; information was bound to leak through phone calls and letters home. “I told my father-in-law: ‘Don’t tell my wife, but I’m not coming back. We’re making a raid with no chance of success.’”
Mr. Vaillancourt was captured and remained a prisoner until the war’s end. “The Germans were waiting for us for three days. They knew we were coming. They were all in position. They were taking their positions every morning, when there was no moon.”
Frederick Bernard Engelbrecht
Unit: Royal Hamilton Light Infantry
Frederick Engelbrecht was left behind initially when he tried to board an escaping tank landing craft – 65 men were already onboard the vessel designed to carry 35.
Someone was “banging heads to knock the men off who were hanging on to the ropes,” Mr. Engelbrecht said. The boat made it about 200 yards off shore. “Then all we see is a big column of water emerge from the middle. It was a direct hit from an artillery shot. Big. Heavy. It goes about 30 or 40 feet in the air, this column of water, bodies, and parts, and everything.”
Later, the tide came in, carrying bodies and colouring the water red. Mr. Engelbrecht fought on, trying to find a way out. The Germans were close, right on his back. Then the grenades stopped.
“There was a deadly silence. I thought: ‘Am I dead?’” No, not dead, but soon a prisoner of war.
A day or two later, his German captors gave him a piece of black bread. “That’s when it hit. Up until then, I’m thinking, I’m acting, I’m doing. Then I looked at the bread – and I hate to say it – and I started to cry. Obviously I’m in shock. And I cried. And I cried the entire damn night.”
He woke with plans to escape. He tried, but never got fully away.
David Lloyd Hart
Unit: Royal Canadian Corps of Signals
David Hart was a messenger. He relayed information between headquarters and the men in the battle. As a result, he knew rescue boats were being sent in ahead of schedule, and more importantly, he knew the 6th Brigade did not get the message.
Mr. Hart believed his overlapping frequency could find them, but headquarters did not want to let him get off the air because he was the only one left able to communicate forward and back. He persuaded his superiors he could do the job in less than two minutes. Thirty seconds later, he got the message to the 6th Brigade. This saved hundreds of lives, which he didn’t know until he was debriefed.
“I felt very proud of that,” he said. “Two months later, when my commanding officer had recovered from his wounds, he came running up the stairs and said: ‘Sergeant Hart, you’re to Buckingham Palace. The King is giving you an honour of the Military Medal for bravery for what you did.”
Arthur Edmondson Rossell
Unit: Essex Scottish Regiment
Five years ago, Arthur Rossell turned down an invitation to return to Dieppe. He worried he couldn’t pay a proper tribute.
“I didn’t think it would look good because I was saved. I came out of it without a scratch,” he said. Mr. Rossell, however, is being modest. He spent 18 days in a coma and months more in hospital following the raid, according to Veterans Affairs.
“I was a lucky man because when we hit the water, I was supposed to be a bodyguard for the Brigadier-General. I had been transferred to it a week before,” said Mr. Rossell. “After the Brigadier-General got in about five or six feet of water, he was wounded, and we had to get him back on the landing craft. By that time, they were starting to move out from the beach, but they threw ropes out. There were three of us that caught the ropes and were dragged out to sea. They say we were pulled aboard after we were out in the water.”
Mr. Rossell decided to go to Dieppe for the 70th anniversary because many of his friends are buried there. And one more reason: “To make up for what I didn’t do the first time.”
Roman (Wozzie) Roy Wozniak
Unit: Royal Canadian Air Force – founding member of Royal Canadian Air Force 416 Squadron; served with 403 Squadron in Dieppe
Roman Wozniak was a spitfire pilot, charged with covering the troops below. There were four Canadian spitfire squadrons that day, with each squadron spending an hour over the boats before rotating out.“We protected them and we did a very good job,” he said. But the boats sent up smoke to 3,000 feet – the sweet spot for flying. The smoke made them vulnerable to attack, so they dropped to 2,000 feet. “We broke up into twos. That worked very well because if the Germans popped through the smoke and jumped one group of two, another two would jump them. So as a squadron we had a successful day. We got six German fighters and only lost three.
“One of those that we lost was my roommate. We’d been together for about a year flying in combat. We were almost like brothers.” The friend was Ed Gardiner, son of Jimmy Gardiner, the minister of agriculture in William Lyon Mackenzie King’s government.
Mr. Wozniak visited his friend’s grave 15 years after Dieppe, and will be there again this weekend. “I’m not only happy but I’m honoured I was selected to return to Dieppe. This is a real honour.”
Raymond Andrew Gilbert
Unit:14th Canadian Army Tank Regiment
Raymond Gilbert’s tank that day was dubbed Beefy, and while rehearsals on the Isle of Wight went well, the tank tracks could not handle Dieppe’s stony shores.
“When we reached the beach, all hell broke loose. There was fire and brimstone, the whole bit. It was really quite a shock. But, hey, we got over it. We had jobs to do. You had to keep your mind on that,” said Mr. Gilbert, nicknamed Casanova. Eventually, with the tank tracks busted, surrender was inevitable.
The Germans tied his wrists with rope, then put him in chains for 13 months. Mr. Gilbert was later assigned a work party, which meant another year and a half of labour.
The Germans fed them, albeit poorly. “The only thing that saved our bacon was the Red Cross parcels, which we did get. Some Canadian and some English,” he said.
He was allowed to leave the camp, but for an unwelcome reason. “I had a nervous breakdown while I was on a work party. From there I went to a prison camp … and from there, after about five or six months in a hospital, I was sent to Berne, Switzerland, where a prisoner exchange was made.”
He was free, but remained hospitalized in England and Canada until the end of the war.
Charles Russell (Russ) Burrows
Unit: Royal Canadian Engineers
Charles Burrows was born an American but fought as a Canadian.
His family moved to Ontario from Illinois when he was 1, and he joined the Royal Canadian Engineers in 1940. German forces captured Mr. Burrows during the Dieppe raid, and he remained a POW until May, 1945. He has returned to France three times since the war’s end, and is pleased to make another trip.
“I am very honoured to be chosen, but very sad, too,” he said in a statement released by Veterans Affairs. (Mr. Burrows declined to be interviewed). “When I check back to my company and the POWs taken from my company, near as I can figure, there can’t be more than five of us left,” he said.
“And that’s sad.”