This journal is dedicated to
Edgar Joseph Lackenbauer
8 October 1919 – 25 December 1992
Veteran of the Second World War
1998 Battle of Normandy Foundation Study Tour
28 May – 17 June 1998
Perhaps it is a bit uncanny to begin a travel diary/journal with acknowledgments, but in this case I think it is most fitting. My profound experiences in Europe would not have been possible without the help of several generous individuals and organizations.
The Canadian Battlefields Foundation, through its generous funding, made any contemplation of a tour to the battlefields possible. In 1992 the foundation was created to educate Canadians and the world about the role of Canadians in the liberation of Europe during World War Two, with a focus on the Normandy Campaign and the liberation of Caen, and also to explore the lessons of war so that we may strive for peace in the present. I was elated by the foundation’s acceptance of my application. I wish them continued success in fulfilling their mission, and will do my part to contribute effort where possible.
A special thanks to Professors Geoffrey Hayes of the University of Waterloo and Gerald Stortz of St. Jerome’s University, both of whom provided letters of recommendation for the study tour. Both possess brilliant teaching styles that capture the spirit of Canadian history with passion and intrigue, providing me with support in my academic endeavours and dealing masterfully with my potentially overwhelming enthusiasm. They are first rate mentors whom I admire in the fullest.
Further thanks to Robert Furlong, a recent graduate of the University of Waterloo and past participant of the study tour. Robb is a marvelous ambassador of the program, suggesting it to me and encouraging my participation. In citing his wonderful and enlightening experience, he helped me to prepare for the tour by lending me materials, clarifying confusing concepts, and sharing his copies of No Price Too High.
Family is the nucleus of life, and my participation in this tour was a direct result of the generous financial and emotional support of my kin. My father and mother are wonderful parents and amongst the closest of my friends. This study tour was the most incredible graduation gift I could ever imagine. They made this all possible. My extended families through me a great going away/graduation party that sent me away on a proud footing. And last but certainly not least to Jennifer, whose apparently limitless patience and support for my aspirations (and proofreading prowess!) keeps me going. I love them with all of my heart and soul.
A Long-Winded Forward
I first learned about the trip from various brightly coloured posters which adorned the hallways of the University of Waterloo. When I learned that one of my collegues had already gone on the trip and loved it, I decided to talk to a couple of professors, all of whom encouraged me to apply. Obviously I was very impressed by what they had to say.
Professors Geoff Hayes and Gerald Stortz at the University of Waterloo agreed to provide letters of recommendation. My reasons for application were incorporated into my proposal for the Canadian Battlefields Foundation. It read:
P. Whitney Lackenbauer – Reasons for Application
For people of my generation, the Second World War seems almost unbelievable. The images provided by black-and-white photographs and old film footage are almost surreal. Yet, hearing veterans share their experiences, the campaigns so thoroughly described by military historians are brought to life in a way that only reminiscent eyes, illuminated by memory, can portray. My interest in participating in the 1998 Canadian Battlefields Foundation Study Tour is based on my desire to better understand the experiences of Canadian soldiers during the war for personal, academic and employment-related reasons.
First and foremost, the tour would provide me with an incredible opportunity to travel the landscape my grandfather and other relatives fought so tenaciously for during the Second World War. Edgar J. Lackenbauer enlisted at Hamilton, Ontario, in 1942. As a member of the Signal Corps, he disembarked for France on 9 July 1944 and was involved in the Liberation of Northwest Europe through to Germany. Returning to Canada he was an active member of the community and a proud member of the Royal Canadian Legion until his passing on 25 December 1993. On a personal level, this study program would allow me to grow in my understanding of the hardships and successes he and so many other Canadians faced during the world wars.
My academic, employment and volunteer experience in recent years has further instilled a desire to understand Canada’s military history. From May to August 1996 and January to August 1997 I worked at National Defence Headquarters in Ottawa. I was entrusted with a great deal of responsibility and made many enduring friendships with both civilian and military personnel. My responsibilities as a policy analyst and assistant land claims negotiator reinforced my belief that a solid awareness of the past is crucial to understanding the present. Unfortunately, I also became sadly aware that much of the historical context necessary to understand past military decisions is still not present at NDHQ. In terms of my own knowledge, the Normandy Foundation Study Tour would serve as an important step in expanding my knowledge of the rigors of war and the sacrifices made by Canadians after D-Day.
In addition to taking university courses in Canadian military history, I am an avid reader and have enjoyed talking to veterans firsthand about their wartime experiences. My most specific research has focused on the circumstances surrounding the establishment of Camp Ipperwash in 1942. I have also given a paper on the experiences of Aboriginal veterans of the Second World War to a veterans’ group in Ottawa, who responded by making me their first honourary member. In the course of my research and in outside reading I have familiarized myself with many of the standard texts on Canada’s involvement in both world wars, and I feel that I have obtained a general sense of the strategic objectives and domestic effects of the respective war efforts. The study tour would illuminate the Normandy campaign on the tactical and operational levels in a way that a two-dimensional map could never convey.
Both my academic record and curriculum vitae attest to the dedication and enthusiasm that I devote to all that I undertake. In addition to the background I already have on the Second World War, I would studious prepare for the program in May. In speaking with a past participant of the study tour and in viewing their photographs, I was impressed by the depth of knowledge and insight they acquired.
The study tour would facilitate learning that I could use in future endeavours. I plan to attend graduate school next Fall, with an emphasis on Canadian political and military history. I would like to eventually complete a doctorate in this field and teach at the university level. The study tour would provide me with an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the Canadian Army’s role in the liberation of Northwest Europe with one of Canada’s most esteemed military historians; an experience that I would undoubtedly share with others in years to come.
In early March I learned that I had been chosen as a participant and immediately began to make suitable plans. I was very fortunate that Professor John R. English offered me a research/teaching assistance job for the summer and facilitated my involvement in the study tour. He was also instrumental in making sure the university bureaucracy paid me before I departed; otherwise spending money would have been more of a concern!
Preparation for the Trip
In intellectual preparation for the study tour I relied on several key sources. Professor Hayes and former tour member Robb Furlong provide me with suggested readings, including Terry Copp and Robert Vogel’s Maple Leaf Route series (Caen, Falaise, Antwerp, The Scheldt, Victory), Professor Copp’s The Brigade: The Fifth Canadian Infantry Brigade, 1939-1945, John A. English’s much different interpretation of events in The Canadian Army and the Normandy Campaign, C.P. Stacey’s masterful official histories of Canadians in World War II, and a range of articles from Canadian Military History. Robb also shared his recently-purchased copy of the No Price Too High film series with me, as well as supplemental perspectives from his own experience in Normandy and North-West Europe.
It would be obsurd to go into details on what I took with me, but several notes are worth reiterating, if only to remind myself of requirements should I embark on a similar adventure in the future and perhaps to help individuals who participate in subsequent study tours. I took three pairs of shorts, one pair of jeans, one pair of khakis, one pair of ‘tear-away’ Adidasã pants, four t-shirts, one short-sleeve dress shirt and one long-sleeve, a sweatshirt, and a sweater. On my feet I wore athletic sandals and hiking shoes, and I brought one raincoat (which was indispensable I might add!) and a windbreaker.
Of note, there are several items I wish I would have packed that I did not. Perhaps foremost, I have welcomed a warmer jacket. The weather in NorthWest Europe tended to be somewhat erratic and cool, if not downright miserable. As well, I did not pack a tie, dressy pants, blazer, or casual leather shoes, all of which would have been nice to have during memorial ceremonies and at the final banquet.
My partner Jenn and my memère (grandmother), the expert packers that they are, used their inherent ingenuity and experience to place what I felt would be far too much stuff in one moderate size hiking backpack and one small day pack. Rolling clothing and using elastics, they managed to get me ready to go. I’d probably still be packing were it not for their help – I don’t think the plane would have waited.
With no further ado, I think I should get on with describing what I experienced. This journal has been prepared almost entirely using notes and reflections recorded during the study tour. I have supplemented the text with postcards, photographs, and material fragments collected during my journey.
DAY ZERO (Thursday, 28 May 1998)
The day was hectic, and as I record my thoughts I am filled with an unusual mix of fatigue, nervous excitement, and exuberance. It is fitting that today I am embarking on a journey into what is for me an unknown (I have never been to Europe, nor have I formally studied military history on a tactical level), for this was a day that I formally closed one profound chapter in my life and I am ambitious and anxious to begin another.
At ten o’clock this morning, I met with my grandmothers and parents at St. Jerome’s University, University of Waterloo, for graduation mass. Several times during the service I found myself near tears, my thoughts drifting to the wonderful opportunities I have already been given in my short life, visions of the road ahead, and the all encompassing aura of love amongst my family present. There were also reminiscences of my late grandfathers, both of whom have had such a formative influence on who I have become: Edgar Lackenbauer, a soldier, postman, father, and grandfather; and Lionel Lalonde, a miner, factory worker, father, and pepère. When my father looked into my eyes during a moment of silence and expressed how proud they would have been of me, I felt their presence with me. They have passed on but never faded from my memory, my heart, and my soul.
After the usual last minute haste, Jenn, my mother, my father and I headed off to Pearson International. I met Steve Osterberg and Patricia Ng in Terminal 3, said my goodbyes, and commenced getting acquainted with my new comrades. We boarded KLM flight 672 just about on time, meeting Mike Steinberg, Sharon Roe, and Andrew Iarocci onboard. The plane ride was comfortable and enjoyable, and we all got to know each other. Given the circumstances it is not surprising that we got little to no sleep during the flight.
We landed in Amsterdam about 0700 and headed to the departure area for our next flight. The airport was very impressive. The flight to Paris was scheduled for 0940, we were in need of refreshment, and since we had not gone to sleep we figured that the pre-1100 alcohol-free rule did not really apply. While were sipping our Grolsch’s, those who had flown in from Montreal arrived and we did the routine introductions. I have the sense that the entire group is congenial, intelligent, and humourous.
The plane departed for Paris. I was fortunate to get a window seat, for the flight was simply magical. Although I have flown before never have I witnessed such a magnificent view. The billowy clouds beneath us were a dazzling white, illuminated by strong sunlight and set against the bluest of skies, their formations like cities in the heavens. Everything appears so tranquil from on high; I found myself thinking much of Grandpa and Pepère and how proud and excited they would be. Before our descent I caught my first glimpses of the French countryside; I felt a tremendous rush of excitement. It was really happening.
We were met at Charles de Gaulle airport by Terry and Linda Copp, whom I had met briefly prior to the trip. We gathered our bags and disembarked. Alas, when we left the terminal we were greeted by the “two nine passenger [white Renault] mini-vans” destined to become our trusted transports for the following weeks. Since I entered the van with the roof rack, I learned quickly that the roof vent did not open, an important consideration given that neither was equipped with air conditioning! The ride was pleasant, we stopped for a quick lunch of baguette sandwiches and fruit, and we continued towards our first destination.
Our first visit was to the Ulster Tower, a memorial to the Ulster Division maintained by the Northern Ireland Tourism and Industry Department near Thiepval in the Somme valley. It was here that Professor Copp articulated the way in which the British and the colonies diverged in their memory of the First World War. For Britain, the hub of the Empire, remembrance of the war was that of the horrific experiences at the Somme. The legacy was one of disdain for war in general, a depiction of the Great War as a great waste of life. This collective memory of the horrors of conflict facilitated public support for appeasement when German aggression again raised its ominous head in the thirties. In contrast, the colonies (or ‘dominions’ in the postwar period) that participated in the war remembered it as a ‘coming of age’ experience. Exploits on the battlefields were demonstrations of national competencies that extend beyond a simple generic ‘imperial’ identity. Countries like Canada, Ulster and Australia were inclined to celebrate their individual successes, not dwell on the uselessness and futility of warfare. In fact, the war was a utility to achieving independence. As such, commemorative memorials reflected these different points of view.
After watching a short A/V overview of the Somme battles in the base of the tower, we took a few minutes to ponder on the grounds and make our way back to the vans. In solemnity I gazed across the fields before me, imagining all of the dead who laid beneath my feet and around me. Breathing in the fresh air I could see in the distance a stretch of woods hiding what I knew to be a Canadian memorial site: the Beaumont Hamel Newfounland Regiment Memorial Park.
The caribou stands atop a large rock pile, its head high, overlooking the scarred landscape. Today Beaumont Hamel is beautiful, rich green grass covering the muddy quagmire that was the Somme in 1916. There is, however, a lingering feeling of sorrow. The ‘danger tree,’ the twisted remnant of life on which the attackers had converged, is a fitting memorial to the isolated and desolate atmosphere of the place. The land does not feel like prime real estate, with sheep grazing nearby, its pitted surface a menace for tractors. I strive to place the battle in context. It was a critical battle at a time when nineteenth century tactics were used in the face of twentieth century weaponry; at a time when people believed that a massive 1 July 1916 offensive on the Somme could win the First World War. We, Canadians of my generation, are out of touch with this reality. We have lived in the peaceable kingdom at a time when the blizzardly winds of Cold War were a surreal, hypothetical threat to our existence. We have been exposed to post-modernist interpretations of war that can only emerge from the minds of a generation not directly exposed to its wrath. We must struggle to understand why the Newfoundlanders were ‘ready, aye ready’ to sacrifice their sons, husbands, brothers, and themselves for the Empire and a global vision now out of vogue and shrouded in the distant past. May the souls of those in the Beaumont Hamel cemetery, whose headstones eerily repeat the same date of death, rest forever in peace. Most the names are those of soldiers in their twenties, not unlike myself and those around me. I now realize that a generation of Newfoundlanders truly did perish that tragic day in the summer of 1916. May we never forget those who made our nation-building process possible in the muddy horror that was the Somme.
DAY TWO (Saturday, 30 May 1998)
After we left Beaumont Hamel, we checked into the Hotel Normandie in Amiens, a breathtaking French city. Although Mike and I were a little late for dinner, we did manage to walk around and grab a bite to eat before heading back to the hotel at a reasonable hour. We knew today would be busy and profound. It was.
After a breakfast at the hotel of cereal, croissant, and a baguette, we bought some lunch at a nearby boulangerie and hopped into the vans. Our first destination was the Australian cemetery at Amiens; in effect, it is ‘their Vimy.’ Terry explained that, although forty percent of the troops who fought during the Amiens battle were British, it is the Canadians and the Australians who have the collective memory of victory during this ‘Black Day of the German army.’ About one-third of the graves in the ‘Australian’ cemetery were Canadian. Some of the names memorialized were very familiar: Somme, Arras, Ypres, Passchendaele, Amiens. Without a doubt the dominion troops emerged from the war as a valiant bunch; Canadian sacrifices were not isolated, and I must remember to maintain a sense of the broader imperial context when I study the campaigns.
From Amiens we went to Perrone and Le Musée de la Première Guerre Mondiale. Based in an old castle (a most captivating building), the museum exhibits were first rate, exploring the First World War as a cultural history of Europe and incorporating the British, French and German histories together. This was at first peculiar but facilitated a relatively holistic and objective interpretation of the conflict. Several exhibits caught my particular attention.
- First, the etchings of Otto Dix (1891-1969) brilliantly captured the horrors of the Great War; the black and white ink almost permitted me to taste and smell the carnage on the Western Front. Dix shows that artistic impression can sometimes convey messages more real to life than photos. Reality is multifaceted and complex.
- Second, exhibits demonstrated how profoundly uniforms changed from 1914 to 1915. There is no doubt that, using uniforms as a gauge of a broader conceptual change, the belligerents had no idea of what twentieth century was about when the set off for the Western Front in the first year of the war.
- Third, it was captivating to see an actual copy of the London Times, 28 June 1919, proclaiming the full text of the Versailles Treaty including Canada’s (somewhat) separate signature.
The next location we were heading to visit was, of course, inextricably linked to this development in Canadian foreign policy – if Borden’s diplomatic and political pressures earned Canada a spot in the Imperial War Cabinet, Vimy Ridge earned her a reputation hitherto unseen and gave birth to a form of newfound Canadian nationalism and pride.
The power of the memorial at Vimy Ridge cannot be overstated. The stark pillars of Adriatic limestone thrust boldly into the sky, on this day almost magically against a bright blue sky enriched by gently moving clouds. The statues around the twin columns symbolize both lament and strength, from Mother Canada mourning her dead to the figures known as ‘the Breaking of the Sword.’
In brief, it felt incredible to be on Canadian soil. The taking of the ridge on 9 April 1917 must have been an unequivocal experience for the soldiers present. The horrors of the muddy hell that the Canadians had occupied for two years would finally have all made sense or at least come into focus. The sacrifices were not in vain. A glance over the ridge at the valley sprawling beyond, still bustling with life in 1917, meant that the continuous clamoring for acres of muddy wasteland was a key to unlocking a return to civilization. The huge expanse of green that now fronts and backs the monument at Vimy would have shocked the soldiers who returned for the inauguration ceremony in 1936. I wonder if they would have physically remember the place, although I am sure their emotional attachment would have more than compensated.
It is worthy recording some of Professor Copp’s insights on the ‘Vimy Project,’ a project that was full of ‘unresolved ambiguities.’ In the 1920s and 1930s, parliamentarians and the Canadian Battle Memorial Commission (created in 1919) saw the purpose of the Vimy memorial as a victory celebration of Canada in war. Figures had Canada mourning her dead, others stressed virtue, valour and the breaking of the sword of violence. The latter originally incorporated the crushing of a German helmet; eventually, this symbolism was discarded as ‘too militaristic.’ Furthermore, the memorial was not originally about the ‘unknown soldier,’ but by placing the names of those Canadians with no known grave on the base of the memorial transformed the site into a ‘sacred’ tribute to such individuals. The dedication ceremony in 1936 occurred at an interesting juncture in international and domestic history, with the isolationist and unity-obsessed King in power and Hitler reclaiming the Rhineland. This context left a gaping question: What did Canada want the memorial to say? Before this massive tribute to Canada’s military triumph, 1936 inaugural speeches proclaimed the need for peace and appeasement and the requirement that war be avoided at all costs. The world could not avoid another war despite such lofty rhetoric and optimistic appeals, and King’s greatest fear was realized.
Pierre Berton, in his Vimy, articulated that the ‘realities’ of the Vimy battle should not obfuscate the mythical proportions that the ridge occupied in Canadian collective consciousness in the ensuing decades. Anglophone Canada, her face and heart turned to Britain and Empire, harboured an intense patriotism and identity that was embodied in the valour of her countrymen at Vimy and the majesty and triumph of the tribute at that site. In French Canada, such a ‘national’ identity was not forthcoming. As the Allies slid down the slippery slope to war in the late thirties, English Canada was committed to standing ‘ready, aye ready’ to again serve the Empire in time of dire need; French Canada did not share such a belief. For English Canada, the Vimy Ridge memorial became the physical manifestation of her memory of World War One as a mournful yet triumphant experience. The pillars atop Hill 145, however, could not overcome the tremendous wounds that the World War I conscription crisis inflicted in French Canada; Francophones tended to remembered the war in a different light that continued to colour their view as future hostilities escalated.
DAY THREE (Sunday, 31 May 1998)
This was one of the most profound days of my young life. The Canadian War Cemetery at Dieppe has left me stunned, devastated, yet remarkably enlightened. There are, quite simply, no words to describe a cemetery filled with Canadians. The date ‘19 August 1942’ will forever more be imprinted in my mind as it appeared on the countless gray gravestones. There they rest – Jews and Christians, French and English, the young men of Les Fusiliers de Mont Royal and of the Hamilton Light Infantry, majors and privates, sappers and intelligence officers – side-by-side, row on row, united in eternal slumber, the maple leaf proudly emblazing their individual monuments. My eyes have been opened, as if for the first time. The casualty figures in history books are becoming real; they represent real people with lives and loves. Here lie people truly worthy of the maple leaf, dying as they did with common purpose and selflessness. There is no gawdy monument to proclaim their sacrifice; rows of similar markers convey the power of their ultimate gift to Canada and freedom.
The upkeep of the cemetery is wonderful; flowers abound and in general the grounds are very well groomed. I feel immensely proud to be Canadian. For all those who did not have a father, grandfather, brother, husband, or friend because of Dieppe I mourn – may they find solace in the knowledge that supreme sacrifice made with a clarity of purpose and devotion merits the highest honour here and undoubtedly in heaven.
THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE
From the Dieppe war cemetery we moved to the site of the raid at Puys (Blue Beach). Entering the narrow beach from the south through town, one cannot help but be awestruck by the impossibility of it all. The roadway is tiny, and certainly would have been blocked. Once on the beach, the cliffs on both sides dominate the entire landscape, their omnipotence rendering all else irrelevant save the majesty of the sea. The layout was ideal for fortifications and would have left little place to hide once the beach was reached. On the right (west), looking back toward town, there is a steep, grass-covered incline to the top of the cliff overlooked by houses. On the left (east) are the remains of a pill box. Who could have planned such an ill-fated mission?
Professor Copp filled us in. The original version of the raid on Dieppe, a site chosen by Mountbatten and agreed upon by the Chiefs of Staff, was known as “Rutter.” “Operation Jubilee,” as the Dieppe raid was known in its final form, replaced an earlier plan for a flank attack using commados (‘thank God’ was Professor Copp’s statement, given that such an undertaking would have been impossible given the circumstances) with the use of commandos. At Blue Beach, the Royal Regiment of Canada and the Black Watch (mortar platoon and ancillaries) were given the objective of getting up on the cliffs and attacking the gun positions overlooking the headlands (containing major anti-aircraft weapons and field artillery). The whole area was a series of gun platforms, and the planners felt that these guns needed to be knocked out in order for the attack on the main beach to be a success. Things did not go as planned and these guns were not taken out. Professor Copp questioned why the planners felt they should land and entire battalion here, given the size of the beach, the defences, and the single exit. 440 men, plus support, plus the Black Watch were all scheduled to land on a narrow strech of shoreline governed by fortified cliffs. Professor Copp (and we all concurred) could not understand why the total number of attackers at Puys was not left at about forty.
There was no preparatory bombing of Dieppe. Professor Copp explained that this was largely a political decision so as to not alienate the French citizens. On the day of the raid, however, the largest air battle of the war took place above the beaches of Dieppe. Although the Allies felt they won the air battle, we lost more aircraft than did the enemy. Hence, the verdict is dependent upon the question that is posed. Was the real issue the sheer number of losses, or who could most afford the losses that they respectively sustained. I sense that this is a key point to watch for on the trip: that many of our verdicts as historians directly stem from the questions that we pose.
On 19 August 1944, the tide was almost in and the small beach was covered in barbed wire. The attacking force achieved operational surprise but not tactical surprise; the Germans were standing because of the tides, and firing because a German convoy had ran into part of the Allied force in the Channel. The landing craft were sent in thirty-five minutes late, in broad daylight, and were immediately engaged by German fire. Radio communication failed, and the command ship did not receive word that the Royals had arrived. The attackers did not have near enough strength to push in and were quickly forced to defensive posture. Miraculously, Lieutenant Colonel Catto (the CO) and a small group made their way up to the cliffs and subsequently hid in the woods as German troops converged from each direction. By 0830 the Royals surrendered, with 67 have escaped across the sea, 199 killed, and the balance of the 554-strong force taken prisoner. They would not have an easy go of the war, as John Mellor explained in his book.
Armed with an understanding of this infamous venue, Kelly, Steve, Andrew and myself embarked on our own silly adventure. I should begin by stating that I am terrified of heights, but that I am prone to confronting my fears head on, especially when I have not thought things through. I have already introduced Catto and his climb up the cliffs. I believe it was Steve who felt that a similar climb would be in order. I unwittingly followed, unaware of the pitch and danger of the hill. This, of course, was grass and weeds so it did appear so steep from the beach. Well, it was more than I believed I could handle. I followed the others, struggling from toehold to toehold, grasping roots and thorns to pull my way up, making the stupid mistake to look down on occasion and feel a sudden lack of breath. Once at the top we hit a high fence that could not be overcome, and realized that we had to climb along it to the left, right above the sheer cliff face itself, to reach the roadway behind. This was ever bit as perilous as the original climb, and at one point I had to lay down on a bed of thorns and ‘burning nettles’ to regain my composure. It was not comforting. I do not know how I made it, but I did. Rumour had it that Terry and Linda, watching our ascent through the camera lens, were equally worried about my composure. After we made our way back down the beach (by the roadway, of course!), we gallant four strode into the water to cool the burning inflicted on our poor limbs as a result of our nemesis: those *&#@ burning nettles. It is impossible to imagine having completed such a climb weighed down by kit and clutching a weapon. I have an altogether thorough respect for Colonel Catto and his companions! Needless to say, I was exhilarated but exhausted!
Following our exciting time at Puys, we drove into the town of Dieppe and settled into Hotel Ibis. For the remainder of the afternoon and evening we explored the city.
DAY FOUR (Monday, 1 June 1998)
We began today with a visit to the main beaches at Dieppe (Red and White). Here, on the morning of 19 August 1942, the Highland Light Infantry and the Essex Scottish immediately found themselves in dire trouble. Miscommunication brought the reserve unit, les Fusiliers Mont Royal, into the bloody fray. Few men made it off the beaches and into the town. Patrice provided an insightful, bilingual account of what the beaches looked like on the day of the occasion, how the chert on the beach became deadly shrapnel, and how the Shermans were ill-fitted to deal with the invasion. Patrice’s presentation was clear and anecdotal, and he displayed an inherent gift for public speaking and an impressive ability to interpret and convey information in a coherent and meaningful way.
An enlightening discussion ensued on how Dieppe could have been a success. In effect, it was established that such a determination hinges on one’s definition of the word ‘success.’ Little research has been undertaken into the so-called ‘lessons learned’ from Dieppe and their integration into future planning, preparation and technological changes for the D-Day invasion. If D-Day was heavily influenced by the experience at Dieppe, one might perhaps argue that the horrific losses of Dieppe in 1942 provided the key to eventually unlocking Fortress Europe.
The main beaches at Dieppe are expansive, flat, and brutally wide open. There really would not have been anywhere to hide in 1942. The waves beat against the coast and a cool breeze chills my spine. Were all of the Canadians lives lost on this beach sacrificed in vain? What horrific memories the survivors must have grappled with in the years ahead.
We next ventured to Pourville, or Green Beach. Despite confusion on the initial landing of the South Saskatchewan Regiment and the Queen’s Own Camerons, who each were tasked with different missions on 19 August, this part of the Dieppe raid was a qualified success. The QOC had the greatest success of the day; the SSR was unable to capture their objective, a radar station, but they likely could have, according to Terry, had they been willing to accept the costs.
A key consideration in understanding Dieppe is that it was a RAID, not a plan to push into mainland Europe. Officers on the beaches were preoccupied with the fact that troops had to be withdrawn; this comprehensible distraction is an important facet to remember. There is, of course, much more to say about my experience here but it has been a long day.
The day ended with a visit to Arrromanches, Gold Beach in the British sector. Here we viewed the actual vestiges of the Mulberries (portable artificial harbours) used by the Allies in the period following the invasion. One must marvel at the ingenuity of an invasion force that brings their own harbour and docking facilities with them! It was an interesting site and we will return their in the morning to view the museum.
We have settled in the Abbaye d’Ardennes, a breathtaking twelfth century complex where we will stay for the upcoming week. The accommodations are most comfortable and the surrounding landscape evokes a sense of serenity yet strange solemnity.
DAY FIVE (Tuesday, 2 June 1998)
The day began with a visit to the Musée du Débarquement at Arromanches. The museum was relatively small in scale, focussing on the British technological feat of setting up the Mulberries. There was a heavy reliance on a guided tour of half of the museum which we did not commit time to given our hectic schedule, and the remainder of the space was available for self-guided perusal, featuring scale models of vehicles and other militaria. The brief film shown at the Musée du Débarquement was particular fluff;
not first-rate historical stuff, relying at times on footage from Hollywood features from the postwar period. One display case was committed to Canadians; it was quite informative and attractive, consisting of a map showing the Atlantic and Northwest European theatres and Canadian involvement. In retrospect, the museum was okay but perhaps not worth the price of admission. I wish we would have devoted our time elsewhere.
Next we travelled to the Juno beaches. I generally concurred with Terry’s opinion that the D-Day experience was so different from beach to beach that one canNOT generalize widely about the ‘Canadian experience.’
Courseulles-sur-Mer, where the Royal Winnipeg Rifles (B & D Coys) encountered difficulties while the Canadian Scottish Regiment (C Coy, reserves on the right flank) faced little opposition (their objective had been hit by naval gun fire and abandoned), proved an interesting location for analysis and speculation. Despite two years of intense Allied planning on how to break the Atlantic wall, no fire support was provided to troops who alone had to deal with the beach guns. “Strongpoint Courseulles” was home to an 88-mm gun, six concrete machine gun posts, a 50-mm anti-tank gun and a 75-mm gun on the east side of the river; on the west side was another 75-mm, two 50-mm guns, six concrete machine gun posts, and a plethora of mortar tears which the Germans had prepared for an attack. None of the elaborate Allied plans were relevant to the infantrymen who found themselves alone on the sand.
After a broad overview of Terry took us to the left flank and explained the experiences of the Regina Rifles (A & B Coys); in his opinion, they were arguably among the very best of Canadian troops in the Second World War. The Courseulles attack had been rehearsed right down to the section level, but the reserve company came in as the tide changed and took most of its casualties on the beach obstacles (like mines). The bridge at Revie, over the River Seulle, was taken and the reserve company went around the fight in Courseulles as they were ordered not to get involved. The only reason the Regina Rifles stopped moving inland at the end of D-Day was because they were told to. Courseulles-sur-Mer, the most heavily defended beach attacked by the British and Canadians on D-day, was a hard-earned but unquestionable success for 7th Brigade.
At Courseulles-sur-Mer the Canadian success is memorialized in “Bold,” a Duplex-Drive (DD) tank of the First Hussars crested by various bronze regimental plaques. Nearby are specific memorials to the Regina Rifles, the Can Scots, and the RWR a little ways down.
Next we moved east to Bernières-sur-Mer, where the Queen’s Own Rifles and Le Régiment de la Chaudière landed on 6 June 44. There they faced nine concrete-encased German gun positions containing two 50-mm guns and seven machine guns, as well as two deadly 81-mm mortar positions set up 150 yards from the beach. These weapons could not harm the Allied naval fleet like the “strongpoints” at Courseulles so they could attack from the flanks; however, rough weather pushed the B Coy landing craft off course and into the direct line of fire. The support artillery from the sea did not hit any of the beach emplacements, leaving the troops who survived the landing to contend with the resistance nests by running across the sand with grenades and sten guns. Those of us who replicated this sprint realized it was not an easy task, even without landing equipment. Once again, it took an incredible strength of will and dedication to push on amidst the carnage and chaos and win the day. Terry also explained how the beach became congested following the landing and how traffic jams in the village itself stifled the landing of Le Régiment de la Chaudière.
St Aubin-sur-Mer, once known as “Nan Red Beach,” is just up from Bernières-sur-Mer. On D-Day the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment (A & B Coys) were tasked with the capture of the beach position and mop up the village so that the British Commandos could take Langrune, a stronghold on the British beach, from the right flank (the Canadians’ left). It was in this sector, Professor Copp explained, that command and control were ‘really good’ and things went as close to perfect as possible for the Canadians on D-Day. Infantry and armoured landed almost simultaneously, the charge across the open beach hindered by fire from the beachfront houses, cleared of civilians and replaced by German snipers. The NSR cleared the beach from right to left to try and avoid the German resistance nest, the shell of which remains to this day. The last of the German resistance did not cease until 1330.
The German bunker still stands overlooking the beach near Place du Canada in St Aubin-sur-Mer. It is strange to look east from the gun position and find that, even today, the townscape resembles that captured in a 1944 photograph. The USAF P-47 Thunderbolt is no longer there, nor is the Fort Garry Horse’s DD tank, but using my mind’s eye it is not difficult to imagine their ghostly wreckage. In fifty years little has changed, and I cannot decide if this is disturbing or comforting.
After dinner I gave a talk to the group on the murder of Canadian POWs by the Nazis during the Normandy Campaign. The Abbaye d’Ardennes was a fitting locale for such a talk, given its infamous past. Drawing on the recent work of Canadian lawyer Howard Margolian in Conduct Unbecoming and Ian J. Campbell’s Murder at the Abbaye, I prepared some points on the topic which provided the basis for a vigorous and engaging discussion on military conduct in wartime. Below is a brief overview of the main points that I covered and elaborated upon:
Murder of Canadian POWs in Normandy
- there were certainly more than 150 Canadian POWs murdered in Normandy
- research has focused on the actions of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) encountered by the Canadians in Normandy
- the Hitlerjugend were exposed to a regime of training that sought to:
1. Overcome their immaturity
2. Exploit their idealism and youthful enthusiasm
3. Politically indoctrinate them in Nazi ideology
- they were led and taught by veterans of the Leibenstandarte of the Eastern Front, all die-hard Nazis embittered by the vicious fighting in the east
- The Hitler Youth Division (12th SS Panzer Division) encountered by the Canadians on D-Day and the following days included senior officers:
- SS Colonel Kurt Meyer (a fanatical Nazi and devout supporter of Hitler)
- SS LCol Wilhelm Mohuke
- SS Maj Siegfried Mueller
- SS LCol Karl-Heinz Milius
à all were implicated in the murder of Canadian POWs
- We were introduced today to the developments during D-Day
- During the battle for Authie, LCol Milius threw all that he had at the Canadians – the North Novas and Camerons threw some back and some surrendered
- 7 June 44 – Pte. Lorne Browne was bayonetted to death (repeated thrusts to the torso)
- 8 Canadian prisoners in Authie were taken into the street, told to remove their helmets, and shot – their bodies were left on the street and repeatedly run over by tanks, requiring a shovel to remove
- other Canadians were captured and taken here to the Abbaye d’Ardennes
- in the chateau garden 11 Canadians were killed on D-Day + 1
- each Canadian prisoner shook hands with his comrades before he was executed
- 8 June 44 – 7 Canadians shot at the Abbaye at noon
à to this point 53 Canadian POWs had been killed by the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler Youth
- on 8 June 44, Canadian POWs on the Caen-Fountenay Road were executed, and the following evening more were shot at German 2nd Battalion headquarters
that same afternoon, on the now tranquil grounds of the Chateau d’Audrieu, Canadian POWs were interrogated and duly executed, first in threes and later in more ‘efficient’ larger numbers
- these large-scale incidents represent 120 of 156 murders committed by the Hitlerjugend during the first 10 days of the Normandy Campaign
- the other murders took place on a ‘smaller scale’ at locations like Bretteville d’Orgueuise, Norrey and le Mesnil-Patry
- from existing research a couple of lines can be drawn:
- some of the murders committed after the early clash of arms in Normandy may have been due to the unchecked emotion of young and inexperienced troops;
- HOWEVER, killings like those at the Abbaye d’Ardennes and Chateau d’Audrieu were cold, calculated and systematic at German headquarters and in transit
- unconfirmed killings near Caen and Cambes in June and July of 1944 push the total of Canadian POWs murdered by the 12th SS to 178
- up to and including the murder at le Mesnil-Patry on 11 June, D-Day + 5, 147 Canadians are known to have been killed by the SS
- of the total 1017 fatal casualties suffered by the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, one in seven died not in combat but in the hands of their captors
Even while delivering the talk I found myself very emotional. The history of the physical milieu was certainly a factor, as were the looks of disbelief on many of the faces around the table. As I stated earlier, a lively and interesting discussion ensued on the topic which helped to flush out some of the key perspectives related to wartime etiquette vis-à-vis POWs. In the end, I think we all agreed that a broad generalization akin to that suggested in the Valour and the Horror, that Canadians and Nazis were guilty of comparable atrocities to POWs in Normandy, was fallacious if not downright offensive.
After dinner there was an ‘optional’ excursion to Audrieu, where Canadian soldiers were murdered by the SS. Led by LCol Patterson, we ventured by van to the town. Along the main street in Audrieu was a monument to those killed, bearing the following inscription:
To the memory of those members of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and supporting arms who were murdered while prisoners of war at le Chateau d’Audrieu near le Mesnil-Patry and le Haut du Bosq on 8-9 and 11 June 1944
The names of victims from the RWR, 3rd Anti-tank Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, 6th Field Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers, and Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa (M.G.) followed.
From here we moved on to the Chateau d’Audrieu, the former headquarters of the 26th Panzer Grenadier Regiment commanded by Mohnke and now a luxurious Relais et Chateau resort. The sun setting as we walked past the building and into the dark forest beyond, the trees seemed to envelope us as we trudged along. The dampness of the evening and the darkness were almost archetypal as the forest swallowed us up, leaving me as physically discomfortable as my surroundings left me emotionally. There are no longer any markers on the Canadian graves, having since been lost to time. I had a clear sense, however, that a spirit continues to inhabit those woods, ensuring that the events of the past do not altogether disappear in the cool air of Normandy summer evenings.
DAY SIX (Wednesday, 3 June 1998)
This morning we visited the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, located near the village of Réviers about a mile from Bény itself. Professor Copp provided a brief background on the site, describing the exploits of the Régiment de la Chaudière (the reserve battalion of 8th Brigade). Those members of the “Chauds” who survived the beaches, where partially-covered mines took their devastating toll, came into Bény-sur-Mer soon thereafter; like most French Canadian regiments, the Chaudières found a lack of reinforcements to be a continuous hindrance in the days, weeks, and months ahead. Here at the Bény cemetery, only a few miles from the very Courseulles beaches where the Third Division landed on D-Day, I encountered a much larger burial ground than that at Dieppe. The wind was brisk and chilled my spine. Here my soul was laid bare once again.
Over two thousand Canadian soldiers lie buried at Bény-sur-Mer, the rows and rows of white stones a testament to the realities of the Normandy Campaign. Over three hundred of the grave markers whisper the grim tales of those lost on 6 June 1944. These men would not physically share in the sweet tastes of Normandy victories ahead. They did and do, undoubtedly, live on in the thoughts and toasts of their comrades who survived.
The breeze sings a painful song of love and loss and it wisps through the rows of headstones. Many of the epitaphs carved on the tablets speak of tremendous love: for fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers. I feel a flood of emotion as I begin to comprehend the human face to war, bridging what I see before me with what I have witnessed and learned on the beaches. It is most strenuous to read the agonizing tributes of parents for their young sons, and to bear witness to the mournful laments of wives, young sons, and young daughters for the fallen. It actually hurts walking the rows. I begin to comprehend the collective sorrow of a nation that lost so much. Perhaps too I can now conceptualize why many Canadians became so leery of militarism in the immediate postwar period.
Our next stop brought forth very different emotions. The German cemetery at La Cambe, containing those lost in Normandy, evokes a cold and forbearing sentiment. In front of me were twenty-one thousand dead – an inconceivable number. The cemetery was American until 1947, when the bodies contained therein were exhumed and taken back to the US. In 1948 it became a German cemetery, adopting since that time what one of the others described as a “melancholy rigour.” The site is dominated by grass and iron or black stone – there are no flowers amongst the graves. The dark markers are much different, lying prostrate against the ground and each containing several, if not a dozen or more, names. It feels much more faceless than the Allied cemeteries, and I feel void of any personal attachment to the names. Standing upright are an interesting arrangement of five dark crosses every so often. At the center of the German cemetery is an imposing black slab statue atop a hill. Almost Teutonic in its composition, I found this marker to be somewhat excessive and discomforting. It only added to the dark ambiance. What message are the Germans passing on about war? The black symbolism (in both hue and aura) does not offer a feeling of peace. Some of the others felt that the symbolism in the cemetery evoked an unerring arrogance, though I cannot say I could relate to this perspective. Gloominess abounded in my eyes, a bitter solemnity that left me somewhat disturbed.
As we were leaving, many of us engaged in a thought-provoking discussion on our feelings about the La Cambe cemetery and an interpretation centre set up by a German peace association [Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberfursorge e.V.] just outside of its gates. For some this discussion became an acrimonious debate on morality. One individual expressed their believe that the interpretation centre was tantamount to an abrogation of German responsibility for the Second World War, and that the message advocating peace and characterizing current contexts in a continuum represented a pervasive German refusal to accept the realities of the heinous crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. Unfortunately, I lamented to note that this member of the group is not predisposed to frank discussions that seek to examine the nuances of history and explore the various interpretations that can exist. Although the discussion was prematurely, but certainly unanimously, abandoned as some attacks approached the personal, the basic questions were clear: what rights do present-day Germans have when they remember the Second World War? How do we ensure that they do not forget what happened? Should they be allowed to commemorate the losses of loved ones who fought for a sinful cause? I also took a somewhat controversial position by raising questions about the morality of ‘transgenerational guilt’ and to what extent people need to castigate the German role in the world wars by publically associating it with the modern-day, democratic state that is the heart of an increasingly united Europe. Maybe I have a naïve belief that most German citizens loathe the memory of the Nazi regime, given what has come to light in the last half-century, and feel that it is important to focus on the historical context of German aggression in World War Two so that we do not wrongly condemn the people of today for the crimes of the past. Perhaps it is my German surname that makes we wary of collectively associating an ethnic group with the atrocities of the past, for this would be problematic given that my grandfather, who bore the name ‘Lackenbauer,’ fought AGAINST Nazi aggression and risked his life in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany with the Allies during the timeperiod we are exploring on this tour.
Our next objective was Pointe du Hoc, the legendary position within the Omaha sector that the Americans treated as a separate objective on its own. Walking towards the American monument, atop a German gun position, the ground stops abruptly where the steep cliffs plunge towards the rocky shore below. The Allies believed this major gun position could fire at battleships (which was, of course, untrue), and the Americans decided to have the Rangers take this imposing objective by scaling the massive cliffs. Here an isolated battalion of the American Rangers fought one of the most bloody of all D-Day battles. Eighty-one died in twenty minutes. In all honesty, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could have survived.
Leaving Pointe du Hoc for the main Omaha beaches we encountered the bocage – fields surrounded by substantial hedgerows. This landscape differentiated the American experiences from those of the Canadian and British forces.
Our final stop of the day was at the American Cemetery at Colleville (Omaha), the final resting place of ten thousand American soldiers, 1557 unknown. Here is American grandeur in its pure form; the scale is huge, the monuments bold and stark, the trees meticulously groomed with no flowers to break the green bed underneath the crosses. There are no epitaphs on the grave markers, only a uniform blanket of names.
On the one end of the cemetery is a grandiose semi-circle archway held aloft by stark doric columns, containing the words:
This embattled shore portal of freedom is forever hallowed by the ideals, the valour and the sacrifice of our fellow countrymen.
On each side were walls decorated with maps depicting the war effort. Here the visitor was greeted by a spectacle that stressed victory, the systematic pummeling-back of the enemy. Obviously a product of the Cold War period, the Russian effort was marked by four tiny arrows in stark contrast to the British, Canadian and especially American efforts. In no disrespect to those American soldiers who rest at Colleville, the site is a brilliant example of the American ‘edifice complex’ and the reality that, during the Cold War, the memory of the Second World War could be reconstructed to conform to ideological lines fitting for the new crusade against Communism.
Leaving, I noted what I felt a peculiar message on the blue Normandy memorial marker erected at the gates to the cemetery:
Look how many of them there were
Look how young they were
They died for your freedom
Hold back your tears and keep silent
In my humble opinion, respecting the memory of war and the concomitant human sacrifice in a manner that upholds the ideals of valour and honour held by the soldiers should not prohibit the shedding of tears. Even in victory can there be tremendous sadness.
DAY SEVEN (Thursday, 4 June 1998)
The day began with our first “TEWT,” or Tactical Exercise Without Troops. Under the tutelage of LCol David Patterson, Steve, Mike, Sharon, Deborah, Andrew and I formed a group to – how the RWR should defend Putot-en-Bessin on D-Day+1. Terry began by laying out the scenario and providing us with a list of available resources. The raw information contained the following:
Order of Battle, 7 CIB, 6-10 June 1998
RWR; Regina Rifles; Cdn Scottish; First Hussars (6 Cdn Arm Regt); 3rd Anti-Tank Regt RCA; 62nd Anti-Tank Regimetn RA; 12 & 13 Field Regts RCA
Harry Foster (Terry Copp in this case) had, in earlier briefings, set the 7th Brigade objective at the railway line on the Caen-Bayeux Road, with expected counterattacks by Panzer Divisions. The Canadian objective was to know stay on this land: a defensive posture.
It was 0100, 7 June 1944. The sitrep, re: order of battle, was as follows:
RWR, 128 casualties on D-Day, hardest hit D Coy (reduced to 26 men), other three rifles coys only slightly under strength (about 100 men each);
Reginas, almost all casualties had been in D Coy (49 men), other coys around 90 men
Can Scots, 89 casualties on D-Day scattered amongst the coys; all coys at full strength
Hussars – ashore with 2 squadrons of DD tanks plus one reserve – A Sqdrn 8 tanks; B Sqdrn 4 tanks – creation of a composite squadron – reserves: 4 X 4 tanks, including fireflies
12 & 13 Field Regts RCA moved and in range for full advance to contact
We were to receive radio communication interruptions
ASSU – not working yet – direct air support could not be called in
No naval fire was planned – there were no naval observation officers (they were given to 9 Bgde)
Contact on right flank with the Green Howards of British 69th Bgde
Night attacks had been repulsed easily. Movement of enemy armoured tanks coming from SE – 716 Div in front of us
ORDERS: By 0600 begin to advance contacts and determine how to defend our objectives.
We were given the RWR, and told to concentrate on Putot-en-Bessin. One troop of tanks provided with the regiment, as was a battery of self-propelled anti-tank guns (M-10s). We were on the right flank of the division.
We then set to work in earnest by working out a detailed map reconnaissance with the guidance of David and Mike, who called upon their professional experience to come up with solutions and extrapolate key concerns.
Once we had our minds around a rough, ‘two-dimensional’ plan, we headed to Putot-en-Bessin to recce the landscape itself. We decided that we would have set up a mixed combat group to deal with small enemy irritations along the way into town, and would have carefully watched our flanks to try and see the Green Howards on our right and the others on our left. Mike led us through a planned demolition of a railway overpass at our first stop on the eastern end of town, which he convinced us to accept in our final report – those combat engineers and their love of blowing things up! We then recce’d the town itself.
Our plan incorporated the incorrect deployment of M-10s (which Terry later brought to our attention!); the dispatch of a liaison officer to the Green Howrds; the laying of a minefield (1 km frontage, 200 m depth, density of 1) on the western flank of the village where there was a natural entrance point for the enemy (which was planned to lure the enemy into a killing ground for our M-10s which, as we learned, would never have been deployed in a town in such a way); PIATs and 6 pounders in the village, where they were accessible and concealed; and a circular defence around Putot, incorporating a reaction force in the rear. As per the designs of the TEWT, LCol Patterson opened an envelope during the recce to represent an update from headquarters. It stated that, at 1800, the Green Howards were still north of Ste Croix Grand Tonne, and never reached Bronay as planned. We felt that, since we had sent an LO to the Green Howards, we might have had this information earlier than in this hypothetical scenario.
After a quick venture into Bretteville l’Orgueilleuse, where the other group had been tasked with a mission, we paused in Authie to visit a small monument to the North Novas killed in the area. The street in front of the memorial square was called ‘Rue des 37 Canadiens’ in remembrance of Canadian POWs killed by the SS in the town and whose bodies were subsequently desecrated.
We returned to the Abbaye to finalize our plan and wolf down some lunch. With our stomachs full, we took our turn briefing the whole group on our plan for Putot-en-Bessin. Professor Copp critiqued our ideas, which I feel rendered our ideas unworkable but nevertheless respectable. We then listened as Kelly briefed us on his group’s solution to Bretteville, which I felt was quite similar to the successful approach adopted by the Regina Rifles on 7 June 1944. It was an altogether valuable experience that illustrated the difficulties of planning in the midst of war, and the requirement that creative and rapid use of resources demands a clarity of vision. It is an intellectually rigourous activity.
Our rapacious appetites satiated by another boxed lunch (as we had become accustomed to by now), we trotted to the vans and bounded off for Bayeux, site of the famous cathedral and tapestry. I was pleasantly surprised by our first visit. The Musée du Débarquement de Normandie in Bayeux truly gave Canadians their due. Crammed with military artifacts, vehicles, uniforms, weapons, dioramas, and old newspaper articles, the museum was hardly award-winning in its layout but was rich in content. As a Canadian visitor, I was impressed by the detailed sections allotted to Caen, Falaise, Tractable, and Totalize, as well as the wide representation of Canadian regimental uniforms and service regalia. We also watched a short movie comprised of stock film footage from the era which met expectations but did not exceed them. All told, the museum has to go down as one of my favourites thus far, and I wish I could have perused the exhibits more thoroughly.
With our timeline constrained by a somewhat demanding schedule, we headed down the streets of Bayeux to hunt down the legendary tapestry. Housed in an old convent or church complex, we had to work our way through an elaborate history on the Norse and Norman presence in France, marred by atrocious English, before reaching the tapestry itself. It did not disappoint, given my familiarity with the story, but I regret that I did not slow down long enough to listen to the audio interpretation available. I found a post office to purchase some stamps, then headed into the centre of town with the others where we devoured some fresh pastry and wandered about, our casual banter and laughter making us standout amongst the locals.
After another delightful dinner, Professor Copp, Linda, Brigadier Whittaker, Shelagh, General Belzile, LCol Patterson, Serge, Janine, Sharon and myself headed out to Carpiquet to discuss the battles for the town and the Airport. In town, monuments to the Fort Garry Horse and North Shores commemorate the vicious fighting that occurred on 4 July 1944. On that fateful day, Eight Brigade (now including the Royal Winnipeg Rifles) attacked Carpiquet with heavy artillery support. We stood together and looked over the airport, a vast, flat terrain which offered no cover for attacking troops. Six hundred guns fired a creeping barrage for the north end of the airport, to which the Germans responded with their own counter-barrage on the approaching troops, aimed at making the Canadians believe their barrage was falling short. It was called off and the Canadians were forced to walk towards the village itself. The RWR was severely mauled and eventually retreated back into a woods, only to be ordered to attack again, a fateful move that was again a failure. In the end it took over two hundred casualties. The regiment never reached its objective: the south hangars of the airport, where the Germans had waited with heavy machine guns to add to the mortar and artillery fire. Brigadier Black Adder was wrongly informed that the RWR had been successful, and committed the Queen’s Own Rifles to the second phase of their attack. They abandoned their attack after the realized the RWR did not have control of the south hangars. The North Novas took tremendous casualties as well, and refer to Carpiquet as the ‘graveyard of the regiment.’ Eight Brigade consolidated in town while the south hangar was still open, and even with the arrival of the 1 SS Panzer Division the Canadians could not be dislodged. They hung on in the face of continuous fire and tanks until Caen forced the Germans to withdraw.
General Belzile expressed his belief that the attack never should have been done, given the extent of flat land to cross. One could hardly dispute this observation. The losses were devastating, especially on the RWR who had already been hammered on the D-Day beaches. I cannot imagine how infantrymen could have picked themselves up, day in, day out, to face the incomprehensible horrors that they knew awaited them. How did they cope with the horrendous casualties to their comrades and the shrinking of the regiment before their very eyes? Must they have counted the minutes until it was their turn to join in the casualty lists? Or were they driven by discipline and honour the likes of which I cannot comprehend in this day and age, their pride and dignity closing them off to their surroundings? My mind cannot wrap itself around such questions. I was not there, so maybe it is right to accept the fact that I cannot understand. There is likely no rationale explanation for the incredible internal drive of soldiers in combat, and perhaps, for a non-military type like myself, no civilian equivalent to serve as a point of comparison.
DAY EIGHT (Friday, 5 June 1998)
The morning was crisp, the sky a dull, overcast gray. A small number of us had decided early on that we wished to journey into the ‘off-limits’ cathedral on the Abbaye grounds where Kurt Meyer had watched the Canadians approach his headquarters. As we learned semi-official ‘approval’ had been obtained, but of course this was all off of the record. We approached the Église and tentatively stepped through the dark entrance. The air was of the somewhat musty sort, not unexpected for a building of such vintage. All human activity, the good and the bad, needs a stage from which to be performed. I can imagine the rich past of this landscape, the scene of centuries of activities, and for some reason do not find it to be sordid by the memory of its brief occupation by the 25th Panzer Division. Perhaps the fact that much of it was damaged during the war and subsequently rebuilt has purged its unholy role in June 1944.
The adventure was not disappointing. The cathedral is now but a hollow shell, but its very senescence made it an evocative structure. We climbed the narrow, twisting stone steps up to the towers to look over the world beyond the abbey walls. From these ‘observation posts’ we could see for miles around, just as Meyer could on the morning of 8 July 1944 as the Regina Rifles, North Novas and Can Scots began to move on the area. The lack of surprise must have been a problem. After our descent and some more minor exploration, we returned to the residence for breakfast. The morning air was cool and rich in moisture, and the marvelous view heightened by receptivity to the rest of the day.
After breakfast we headed to the Canadian memorial garden at Caen, a recent construct. The Canadian tribute begins with a memorial pool on the lower plain of le Mémorial complex: a black granite bottom inscribed with the Latin words
NULLA DIES UMQUAM MEMORI VOS EXIMET AEVO
covered in gently flowing water, flanked on three sides by a still immature pine and flower garden and adorned by a low-lying headboard listing those towns liberated by the Canadians during the Second World War. I found the symbolism to be quite wonderful, for in the pool one could see everyone else’s reflection except one’s own. I look forward to someday returning to the site and marveling at how it has changed, reflecting back on my own life’s journey as I today reflected on the course of Canadian history and how we remember the soldiers’ experiences. The visitor then ascends a stairway up to a garden on the higher ground. Halfway up we were greeted with the large inscription “La Libération vient par la mer/Liberation comes from the sea.” I thought of all those Canadian soldiers sitting in anxious anticipation fifty-four years ago, waiting for their chance to cross the Channel and liberate the continent. When I found myself at the top of the stairs I was greeted by a beautiful Canadian garden and four vertical glass slabs decreeing the Canadian units in Normandy in 1944. I was very content with the ambiance of the memorial garden and feel that it will grow more beautiful with age.
After having explored the grounds of the Caen memorial, we went into Le Mémorial museum itself. The building was very spacious and clean in its physical appearance, featuring multimedia, artifacts, and story cards to tell its story. I found that the designers presented their interpretation of the war very clearly, opting for a popular versus ‘academic historical’ approach to educating visitors. Relatively speaking, Le Mémorial dedicated a respectable amount of space and resources to the Canadian effort.
Today was a day of ceremonies – remembrance for those Canadians who participated in the liberation of Caen and those who lost their lives at the Abbaye. The first was a brief tribute in downtown Caen to the liberation of the city in 1944. The second, at Le Mémorial, featured a formal, diplomatic speech by the Canadian ambassador stressing Canadian and French relations, Canada’s role in the achievement and maintenance of peace, the current anti-personnel landmine initiative, and the 60,000 Canadian soldiers who lay in French soil. The last ceremony, in the memorial garden at the Abbaye d’Ardenne, was the most touching. The ambiance was very personal, with a tremendous community presence that did not cry of official pomp and circumstance. Monsieur Jacques Vicot, a prominent member of the local community, read a powerful speech on the twenty-one assassinations at the Abbaye followed by touching backgrounds on five of the deceased. General Belzile then read the names of the victims and their ages:
|Trooper James Elgin Bolt, 24||Private Ivan Lee Crowe, 22|
|Private Michael Walter Doherty, 22||Private Charles Doucette, 31|
|Trooper George Vincent Gill, 23||Trooper Thomas Haliburton Henry, 22|
|Private Reginald Keeping, 21||Trooper Roger Lockhead, 25|
|Private Hugh Allen MacDonald, 24||Corporal Joseph Francis MacIntyre, 28|
|Private Hollis Leslie McKeil, 23||Private George Richard McNaughton, 20|
|Private George Edward Millar, 19||Private Thomas Edward Mont, 23|
|Private Raymond Moore, 27||Private James Alvin Moss, 22|
|Trooper Harold George Philp, 32||Lieutenant Thomas Alfred Lee Windsor, 29|
|Lance Corporal George Gerald Pollard, 19||Lieutenant Fred Williams, 22|
The occasion was one of mourning; there were few dry eyes in my sight. Members of our study group then approached the memorial in pairs, laying a maple leaf for each of the Canadians killed at the abbey. Lieutenant Deschênes, in his military dress, gave a fitting salute to conclude our contribution to the ceremony. The notes of the last post pounded at my soul as I reflected on the supreme sacrifice made by these brave, disciplined young Canadians. The ceremony was unequivocal in its force; for the remainder of the evening I rested at the Abbaye, feeling depleted both physically and emotionally.
DAY NINE (Saturday, 6 June 1998)
Today marked the fifty-fourth anniversary of D-Day, and it was fitting that we spend the morning at celebrations commemorating the landing on the beaches. The first ceremony was held on the sand at St Aubin-sur-Mer, where the efforts of the British 48th Commando and the Fort Garry Horse (Winnipeg) were commemorated. The ceremony was well attended by British veterans (accompanied by a few Canadian vets) who stood at attention and saluted with the utmost of reverence. It was amazing to see these aging fellows, who would have lost dear friends on the Normandy beaches over fifty years ago, still marching and saluting with such poise and vigour. A minister led a prayer and a wreath was laid in the Channel for the fallen. The tears welled up in my eyes as the names and ages of the deceased were read aloud, followed by the British and Canadian national anthems and a powerful performance of the last post. I am honoured to be here paying tribute to the memory of those who served.
From here we marched beside the procession down to the town centre where another ceremony was held to the Commandos and Fort Garry Horse. Following the formalities, I introduced myself to as many of the veterans as I could find, thanking them for their contributions and telling them about our tour. They were a most congenial lot, full of pep and humour as they complained about the French band and ribbed one another. In one of these conversations with a member of the 48th Commandos, the veteran conveyed some very heartfelt messages. He made me aware how special our presence was to veterans and shared his concern that, as the number of D-Day veterans declined, the memorial services would shrink accordingly and eventually disappear. He expressed his hope that members of our generation would continue the ceremonies once they too passed on, and said that the presence of individuals like ourselves gave the veterans renewed confidence. I assured him that I would do my part.
We moved down Juno Beach to Bernières-sur-Mer for another service. This ceremony was a more formal affair to the Fort Garry Horse, Régiment de la Chaudière and Queen’s Own Regiment, with a large contingent of school children and local citizens present. In addition to the usual ‘political’ speeches, a member of the French resistance was made an honourary member of the Fort Garries for his dangerous efforts collecting Canadian corpses on the beaches and storing them until they could be honourably interred. As the notes of the last post carried their harrowing message in the crisp morning air, resonating in my spine and causing a chill, I felt a sombre respect for those who had given so much to liberate Europe and restore freedom.
After lunch, and inspired by the ceremonies we had attended yesterday and this morning, we continued our exploration of the battlefields. Today we focused on Operation “Charnwood,” the attack on Caen. At 1345 we stopped at the southern end of the town Les Buissons and the infamous “Hell’s Corners/Le Coin de l’Enfer.” The memorial marker, placed on 8 June 1984, was dedicated “in grateful memory of the soldiers of the 9th Canadian Brigade” who had valiantly fought there from 7 June to 7 July 1944. It was here that Steve Osterberg, who is studying Charnwood for his M.A. thesis, described the nature of the operation.
The following day (9 July), the Canadians continued their difficult operation to obtain control of Caen, clearing the battered city of snipers, mines, and booby traps. In effect, the preparatory bombing and consequent damage made this job more difficult. The defensive ring broken, Rommel ordered the withdrawal of German heavy weapons and most of the soldiers across the Orne; immediately the 12th SS Panzer Division was sent into reserve. Caen was finally in Allied hands, but the cost to the Canadians had been tremendous: 1194 casualties (330 dead) in just over a day – more than on D-Day itself.
Alas, 3rd Canadian Division had wrested it from the Germans and into Allied hands. On 9 July 1944 the Canadians finally cleared Caen of German snipers, mines and booby traps; the
From Les Buissons we moved on to Buron, where the Highland Light Infantry and Sherbrooke Fusiliers (a tank regiment!) attacked the entrenched German defensive position. A nice vertical monument for each of the regiments was erected in a discrete square at the centre of town, the brickwork at our feet containing maple leafs in tribute to the Canadian efforts. The memorials were fitting to the Canadian role in the liberation of Caen, an important objective on the road to victory.
The remainder of the afternoon was committed to the assault on the Abbaye d’Ardennes itself. Professor Copp and LCol Patterson walked us through the capture of this challenging objective from the soldiers’ point of view. The abbey was one of a series of fortified locations known as la fortresse. “Fortress” was an apt description – the abbey and grounds consisted of inner and outer wall, and the roofs were made of stone (not even thatched). On 8 July 1944 the wheat fields were all that covered the Canadian approach on the headquarters of the 12th SS. The Reginas must have been exhausted by this point; they were a D-Day regiment at weak strength who knew that they were walking into a maelstrom of bullets – the ground had all been pre-registered by the Germans (mortar and artillery). Light machine gun fire from the abbey tower met the Regina Rifles’ advance.
The first company to attack the Abbaye was decimated. In response, the Canadian artillery was called down and was effective in suppressing fire from the abbey. The German casualties were a result of the artillery, not as a result of house-to-house or building-to-building fighting. As events unfolded, the Germans withdrew as D company of the Reginas reached the south wall.
The Canadians knew there would be an immediate counterattack. German artillery immediately began to bombard the Canadian-held abbey, but the new occupants held on.
The Abbaye d’Ardennes was a major and significant German defensive position in addition to its notoriety for the atrocities committed there. The capture cost the Canadians over 200 casualties. Strewn across the fields approaching the abbey was the destruction of war, material and human. In my mind’s eye I have a more advanced appreciation for this landscape in which we are privileged to stay.
Following the ‘official’ activities and our return to the Abbaye, a number of us headed out to a nearby park with Kelli and Mare, tour guides from Beaumont Hamel who had arrived the previous afternoon to visit us. We had a raucous picnic of cheese, baguette, wine, football (soccer) and light conversation – a great deal of fun! After a few hours we slowly made our way back to the Abbaye and said our goodbyes to the visitors. One individual, who shall remain nameless, was really shaken up by their departure and seemed to fall into a state of general malaise for the next few days. I, for one, was happy that we had met Kelli and Mare and had been able to expand our friendship as a group. I have no doubt that I will keep in contact with them upon my return to Canada, and as such feel no need for grief.
After dinner, LCol Patterson and Serge arranged a meeting with Monsieur Michel Huard, a gentleman who continues to reside on the abbey grounds and was there during the Second World War. Meeting him in front of the former headquarters building (the stable), M. Huard explained how the abbey was a strategic position for the Germans, enabling the occupants to see all the way to Caen. He took us back to June of 1944, when his parents and siblings were moved from their home in the Abbaye to make room for the SS headquarters. He recalled how, as a child, he had seen for himself the Canadians being marched with their hands above their heads. His eyes reflected the clarity with which he reminisced about the Canadians and German tanks entering and exiting the compound, how the SS had mined the approaches to the north wall of the abbey, and a myriad of other anecdotes. Much of what we now saw, he explained, was resurfaced and reconstructed. Allied and German shelling had damaged what had stoically stood for many centuries.
Inside of the former headquarters building M. Huard led us to an old, dark, softwood dining table of a rustic, farm design, evidently over a century old. On 7 June 1944 it assumed a new vocation; it was used as Kurt Meyer’s map table. A direct telephone wire extended from this table to the observation tower in the Church building. At this piece of furniture, now badly damaged by shell splinters throughout, the 12th SS commanding officer decided and planned attacks against the Canadian troops. Today, the Huard family has reclaimed this furnishing, placing a plank of plywood on its tabletop and using it to eat dinners. I am comforted that it has been redeemed from its sinister past.
Following the tour of the grounds, we were invited for a coffee with the Huards in their home on the grounds. There they shared more stories on the history of the Abbaye and freely let us peruse the resources they had collected on the Canadian and German activities in the area. I stayed with LCol Patterson, Serge, and Janine long after the other students left for bed, and was exposed to more warm hospitality and photo-sharing. Homemade Calvados was poured for those of us around the table; the first sip left me gasping for air – it was much more potent than the store-bought version. As my head hit the pillow later in the evening, I drifted to sleep with a tremendous appreciation for the unique experiences and perspectives that I have been privileged to encounter so far.
Today we focused on Verrières Ridge, beginning the morning with our second TEWT. The purpose was explicitly laid out by Professor Copp: “In the absence of hindsight, you have an order of battle and timeframe, and you should develop an appreciation of Verrières and why decisions were made, as well as develop solutions to problems where possible.” In this case, I will not go into details regarding the Sitrep, only that Monty was unhappy at the end of Goodwood and Atlantic, and he promised Eisenhower left-right blows on both sides of the Orne, the first from 2nd Canadian Corps on 25 July. Remember that 3rd Cdn Inf Div had been fighting since 6 June, and the who division could not be used to attack Tilly-la-Campagne.
‘General’ Copp presented us with two problems:
1. We had use of: the RHLI, RRC, Calgary Highlanders, and Black Watch; 1 armoured brigade (2 CAB to support 2 & 3 Divs); almost unlimited artillery support. How could resources have been used differently?2. How do you attack Verrières Ridge from St André-sur-Orne?
We found this challenge much more difficult that the last, which means that it was near impossible to work on strategy from a general’s perspective given our backgrounds. We did, however, have Brigadier Whittaker and his wife Shelagh at our disposal, both of whom have a vast knowledge of military matters. Dealing with the planning for two whole corps, however, involving a bewildering array of units and potential courses of action, left most of us offering piecemeal ideas that failed to materialize in a coherent plan. In short, we could not agree on much, other than begrudgingly accepting: a creeping barrage for a flank attack on Verrières, ordering two battalions into St André-sur-Orne with the Maisonneuves in reserve, and sending 9th Bgde into Tilly-la-Campagne. To secure our objective (Verrières ridge and the town) we planned a left sweep through Tilly-la-Campagne and Rocquancourt, then a push on to Verrières. It was actually quite frustrating to see the discussion break down quickly. This was not cooperative teamwork at its best, and we clearly found ourselves over our heads.
Nevertheless, I will not discard this TEWT as a failure. We could not put together anything beyond a very general, last minute plan, but we did learn an awful lot. On the tour we have done a lot of exploring from the ground up, and this provided an occasion to recognize the difficulties in planning at the top. I have new respect for high-level commanders, given the mind-boggling array of considerations that must be taken into account in a time-sensitive and unbelievably stressful environment. In the case of the attack on Verrières, everyone was afraid of a reverse (the Canadians were up against the cream of the German army), and this could not have allayed worries. In retrospect, Professor Copp hypothesized that, had the Black Watch been sent into May-sur-Orne and not Fontenay le Marmion, historians would consider ‘Operation Spring’ an Allied victory.
Professor Copp then took us through the period following the battles of Charnwood and the Abbaye d’Ardennes to that of Verrières Ridge. Overviews of Operations “Atlantic” and “Spring” were provided and the villages of Bourguébus, Tilly-la-Campagne, May-sur-Orne, and Verrières (all names I had heard before) were fit into the developments during the Normandy Campaign.
In the vans we drove through much of the landscapes where the Canadians struggled through Atlantic and Spring, stopping several times along the way to gain an appreciation for Verrières Ridge and the daunting task before the Canadians. The complex attack on the Ridge was described by Professor Copp and Brigadier Whittaker. On 25 July 1944, six infantry divisions and three tank squadrons attacked separately across an eight-kilometre front. The entrenched Germans, on the high ground, had command of the battlefield. The Rileys, led by CO “Rocky” Rockingham, reached and held their objective, which Brigadier Whittaker described in detail. The North Novas, Cameron Highlanders, Calgary Highlanders, and Maisonneuves did not fair nearly so well. For the Black Watch, the day was nothing short of disastrous. They suffered over three hundred casualties. From our vantage point on the Calgaries startline (also the base from which the Black Watch attacked) we could see the “Factory” (a mine) south of St Martin-de-Fontenay. By the time the Black Watch reached the spot where we were standing they had already suffered heavy casualties. In the end, 25 July 1944 was the worst day of the Canadian army in terms of casualties during the war except for the Dieppe raid.
This tour has taught me a great deal about terrain from a tactical perspective, and the expert guidance of my peers has taught me to visualize my surrounding from a new perspective. The Rileys did not have to fight uphill to the extent that the Black Watch did. Based on what I have seen, Verrières Ridge is not a prominent slope akin to what I expected. The rise is very clearly there, and understandably posed formidable problems for the Canadians.
We discussed any number of themes during our trek: the inherent dangers in night attacks vis-à-vis maintaining direction; how, for the first time, the Germans used tanks (about the size of a Bren Gun carrier) that were not manned but radio-controlled and rigged to explode; even the élite social structure of the Montreal-based Black Watch. I have found that these ‘peripheral’ talks have given new breath to my knowledge of military matters.
We moved on to the village of Saint-André-sur-Orne in the Orne valley. A memorial stone, adorned with two plaques, commemorates Canadian efforts in the region during the Second World War:
THE BLACK WATCH
(Royal Highland Regiment)
In commemoration of the six hundred and ninety-three officers, warrant officers, and non-commissioned officers, and men of the regiment, who were killed, wounded, or missing in battle in this area during July and August, Nineteen Hundred and Forty Four.
[Followed by the translation in French]
As Dying and Behold We Live…
As having nothing yet possessing all things.
aux officiers, sous-officiers et soldats du
régiment de maisonneuve de montréal,
qui ont combattu et sont forts dans le secteur de saint-andré-sur-orne, au cours de la deuxieme guerre mondiale, 1939-1945.
The three flags of France, Canadian and Britain flew overhead. Our histories are so interrelated.
From St-André-sur-Orne we ventured to Point 67 to look at the whole battlefield. The wheat was high all around us, and we ventured out into the farmer’s field. I breathed in the fresh air and gained an appreciation for my surroundings. We climbed a massive water reservoir covered in grass to get a better view. The battlefield is so vast and the fields so dense that any attack was justifiably difficult.
Tomorrow we will pack our bags and leave the abbey. I find myself lamenting this prospect, for this breathtaking milieu has become inextricably linked to my experiences in Normandy. As I reflect back on our stay here, I am honoured to have been given the opportunity to experience the Abbaye firsthand. More than a half century since the German and Canadian soldiers departed this place, a peculiar feeling remains. In the evenings there is a sense of darkness beyond the blackness of the night sky. On the night of the fifth, a lightening storm illuminated the interior of our residence. My roommate and I stayed up late sharing our reflections, the spectre of the storm haunting our thoughts and leaving us ill at ease in our skins.
The memorial garden holds an unspeakable force. How scared the Canadian soldiers must have felt when they were ushered into this dark domain. The vegetation seems to shelter this sacred place from the rest of the world. When I am in the garden, regardless of how many people are around me, I feel very alone. In its darkness this place does not speak to me of evil, but of sorrow. I offer my private thoughts and prayers to those who have departed, respecting their valour and keeping their memory in my heart.
DAY ELEVEN (Monday, 8 June 1998)
After bidding our farewells to our hosts at the Abbaye we pushed on into the French countryside. Having explored Verrières Ridge yesterday, we drove to the Canadian cemetery in Cintheux/Bretteville-sur-Laize – the largest Canadian cemetery in Normandy, home to 2872 of our soldiers. We were greeted by the mayor, who offered a sincere and most gracious speech in memory of the Canadians who fought and died for the liberation of the town and surrouding region. The blue Normandy route marker reflected:
From Juno Beach to Chambois, how many of our Canadian brothers gave their lives for freedom? They drowned off the murderous beaches; they fell before Caen fighting a fanatical enemy; they were mown down during the offensives towards Falaise in August; they recaptured our towns and helped to bring about the terrible encirclement of August 22nd which brought the Battle of Normandy to an end.
They came from Saskatchewan or from the “Belle Province” of Quebec. Their names were Arthurs or Duclos, Laflamme or Evans. Over two thousand of their comrades are buried at Bény-Reviers; here, near the end of this road where they suffered and won their victory, they number almost three thousand. Let us spare a thought for them and their families.
Verrières was capture by the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry on 25 July 1944, and this venue served as the starting line for Operation Totalize on 7 August. Kelly Deschênes, a lecturer at RMC, furnished a marvelous overview of the first phase of the operation. The plan was designed by Simonds as a means of smashing the German positions south and east of Caen and facilitating a Canadian drive towards Falaise. The Germans had advantages: they were on high ground, could see well, and had strong anti-tank capabilities. Furthermore, there was an enormous accumulation of Canadian troops in our own lines, making manoeuver difficult and artillery fire more dangerous. The Canadians could not penetrate the German anti-tank defences without infantry, so Simonds created Kangaroos (armoured personnel carriers) to serve this end. Since the ground was a series of ridges and strongpoints that back up one another, the going would not be easy for the attackers; there was a big problem of surprise.
It was suggested that surprise could be achieved with the use of smoke during a night attack. In agreement, Simonds dispensed with artillery bombardment and opted for heavy air bomber support. Inherent in a night attack are problems of navigation. Kelly explained that Simonds designed a three-fold response: tracers were fired to provide a general guideline; artificial moonlight (searchlights played on the clouds) was used; and navigation tanks were given a series of radio signals if they deviated from their prescribed line of advance. Despite the confusion in the Canadian armoured columns as they pushed south, Kelly explained, most of the first phase objectives were reached.
Tracing the route of ‘Totalize,’ we stopped at the Polish Military Cemetery at Urville-Langannerie (near Potigny). Here Professor Copp outlined the intimate relationship between the Polish and Canadian militaries during the Second World War. The Polish Armoured Division fought in the ill-fated 1939 defence of their homeland, escaping through Romania (without their tanks) to France and eventually Great Britain once defeat was inevitable. Quite simply, the British did not know what to do with them. Nevertheless, the Poles were desperate to get involved in the war due to events in Poland. There were not enough Poles to fill the ranks of a full armoured division, so they had to recruit in the United States and sometimes convinced captured Polish Nazi soldiers to fight for the Polish Armoured. In Poland, a crisis of epic proportions peaked in August of 1944 with the severe Nazi response to the Warsaw uprising. The Polish Armoured Division, pushing north with the Canadians, learned of the plight of their countrymen being crushed while the Russians appeared to stand back and watch. Thus, when the war ended and Poland was acceded to the Soviet ‘sphere of influence,’ most of the individuals from the Polish Armoured Division did not wish to return to Poland. The vast majority came to Canada, explaining why there are so many Polish legions in this country! Polish soldiers fought alongside Canadians on the plains around Caen, at Mont-Ormel, and contributed to the crushing of the German Seventh Army in the Falaise-Chambois pocket. Pierre Sevigny, who later achieved notoriety during the Munsinger affair, was given the Polish equivalent of the Victoria Cross for his activities with the Polish Armoured during wartime.
The Polish cemetery had a different feel than the Canadian ones. Through the middle of the cemetery was a pathway between eggplant-shaped evergreens, taking the visitor to a major monument with an interesting, massive black stone in the centre. There were no headstones, only rows of concrete crosses (and I believe two Jewish monuments) decorated on the ground with red roses. In retrospect, the ambiance was quite well suited to a military memorial. A few of us noted regimental crests on the front fence, a pleasing addition, and wondered the rationale behind the absence of such symbols at Canadian cemeteries. I recognized that there were no regimental names on the graves, only names, rank, ‘Mort pour la patrie,’ and the date of death. I must say that I really like the personal epitaphs on Canadian headstones and feel this provides a certain personal touch missing in the other cemeteries we have seen.
After losing our way for a brief time (fitting, given the context of what we were studying!), we arrived at Point 140 near Mazières. On 9 August 1944, as a part of phase two of Totalize, the British Columbia and Algonquin Regiments (the latter piggybacked on the tanks of the former) had been ordered to take the high ground near Quesnay Wood (Point 195). After losing course in the darkness of night, they ran into German reserves at this site. Looking around one gets a sense of the openness of the landscape, and the reality that there was nowhere to dig in. The Canadian units were slaughtered, taking 240 casualties and losing almost fifty tanks. A monument to the two regiments has been erected at the site, nicely framed by mature evergreen trees and hedges that draws the visitor down a path to the dedication:
The monument had evidently been vandalized; for one, the regimental cap badges had been removed. Despite our anticipated fears, however, the grounds were not in a dismal state of repair. A Canadian flag was flying at the site, and the grounds appeared trim and well groomed. Professor Copp explained that the British Columbia Regiment had come over at one point with a stainless steel cross, but found that the local community had already erected the one that now stands. The BCR plans to refurbish the tribute in the near future, and the plans include interpretation plaques to tell their story.
On the grounds of the BCR/Algonquin memorial, we were introduced to the second phase of ‘Totalize.’ If the first phase of the operation can be considered a success, the second started off on a bad footing and the Canadians never recovered. German resistance had augmented considerably, the Canadians were mistakenly bombed by USAF heavy bombers (the air force and army were not coordinating their efforts very well), and confusion was rampant. Fourth Armoured Division emerged from this battle badly scarred. Phase two was called off on 11 August, and followed up by Tractable within a few short days. The latter operation has also been considered a ‘failure’ by historians because the Canadians did not achieve their objectives.
Professor Copp argued that the Falaise battles have tended to receive superficial treatment by historians, including himself (although Denis and Shelagh Whittaker are in the midst of writing a book on the subject!). With this in mind, he explained that the reason we had driven around this morning was to get a sense of the terrain the Canadians experienced during Totalize and Tractable. Although he did not say anything, even in muted terms, I felt that the underlying point was a criticism of Jack English’s characterizations of the operations in his The Canadian Army in Normandy. He stressed that the ‘human factor’ was the key to understanding why things happened the way they did, as symbolized by Allied troops putting tank tracking on their Shermans when nothing indicated this would improve their chances. The Canadian troops were committed to survival, not the conquering of France nor for the glory of their leader (the less than charismatic Mackenzie King). As such, they were more reserved than fanatical Nazi troops like the 12th SS. Speaking with expertise, Professor Copp explained that one in five non-fatal casualties in Normandy was due to battle exhaustion. Totalize and Tractable were very, very difficult operations, and we should be wary about what we consider ‘failures.’ He ended his talk with an effective analogy. In football, on the blackboard before the game, a coach needs to plan for success (a touchdown); but if the team gets a first down instead of their grander objective, they do not necessarily ‘fail.’
After a brief discussion, we headed onward to the Hotel de la Poste in Falaise. Although the city was desolate upon our arrival (it was a statutory holiday in France), a group of us toured around the centre ville and went for a pint of beer at one of the local pubs. We moved inside following a quick burst of rain, and Mike and I got mercied at foozball by two locals. This did not hurt my pride a bit – I never was any good at the game, and our French opponents were probably all hyped up by World Cup fever. A fish dinner in the hotel dining room was absolutely succulent. Mike, Steve and I are sharing a room, which boasts one of the most gigantic bathrooms I have ever seen. I did take the time to relax for a bath – a much needed luxury, I must admit. We also discovered that a bidet is a perfect place to chill our beer! Oui, dégueulasse, je sais bien!
DAY TWELVE (Tuesday, 9 June 1998)
Our focus today was the closing of the Falaise Gap or pocket. The route we travelled from Falaise to the village of Trun, in the gap, was the exit for the Germans until 2nd Canadian Infantry Division sealed their escape in August of 1944.
In mid-August, Allied command realized that there were more Germans in the Falaise pocket than they had originally expected. Hitler was an irrational leader and the Nazi forces had followed his decision that they remain, despite the obvious encirclement; on 16 August 200,000 German men in 21 divisions remained. When the German order of retreat was given, the Germans were able to move out with practical freedom (save the Tactical Air Force destruction of German convoys). Simonds hoped to do something about this: 4th Canadian Armoured Division was ordered to take Trun and cut off the Argentan-Trun highway, and the 1st Polish Armoured Division were ordered to cross over behind us and capture Chambois.
Professor Copp posed a problem to us: how should Kitching and Maczek have responded to the orders to close two main highways and seal the Gap? The context of the question is that historians’ treatments of the complex struggle to close the Falaise pocket have not been favourable. In short, the failure to close the Gap in a short time frame (it took six days and, purportedly, nearly half of the Germans originally therein escaped) and the failure to take Verrières Ridge represent the two greatest criticisms of Canadian military efforts during the Second World War.
The landscape we traversed was varied, marked by streams, rolling hills and vegetation in abundance. It would have been very difficult for the Allies to see any great distance, and thus there was no way that the Canadians could have blocked every escape route available to the Germans given their limited resources. As such, it is irrational to blame the Canadian troops for the Germans who escaped through the pocket; the Germans were, after all, slipping out at night, usually on foot and in small groups, which prevented any systematic attempt at hindering the advance.
In Trun we took a short break to discuss the developments in the Allied plan. Falaise was taken by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division on 17 August, while the Canadian and Polish armoured divisions tried to block the German eastward retreat. Moving from the north, the Canadians occupied the Trun the next day. There is no commemorative plaque in the town, despite the hard earned victory the Canadians earned at the crossroads. On the 19th, elements of the Polish Armoured met up with the American forces who had been pushing up from the south into Chambois. The Germans hopes at a full retreat were dashed.
Of particular note was the small size of the Rivière Dives flowing through the town. For some reason I was expecting a substantial stretch of water, but the actual Dives was little more than a creek. Once we began to discuss the river from a tactical perspective, however, I was convinced that it was not an insignificant obstacle for vehicles. Its steep banks made an easy traverse impossible, as did its soft floor.
Brigadier Whittaker also took the time to dispel some myths about World War II artillery fire for the lot of us. There was no pinpoint accuracy, he explained, contrary to Hollywood depictions and our familiarity with the current range of ‘smart’ weapons. Natural influences, such as wind, had a tremendous influence on results. It is simply incredible that Denis and Shelagh are with us to clarify issues. Brigadier Whittaker is a fountain of first-hand information which he conveys in an interesting and thoughtful manner, drawing on a lifetime of details to illustrate his points. They make a wonderful team, and it is no coincidence that the success of their books show them to be first rate historians.
Between the marker and Professor Copp, it became clear why St Lambert-sur-Dives represented a significant achievement that Canadians should remember with pride. On 18 August, the South Alberta Regiment (in armoured cars) and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (an infantry battalion) were ordered to take the village and the last road out of the Falaise pocket. Reaching town, the Canadians were soon badly outnumbered and completely isolated, facing several days of fierce resistance. All of the officers except for the major were dead, but Currie’s personal actions kept the thinning line of Canadians entact, morally and physically. When the small group was finally relieved, seven German tanks had been destroyed (Currie had even taken out a Tiger by himself), a dozen 88s were out of commission, and two thousand Germans were killed, wounded or captured.
Professor Copp was not impressed with our reenactment of the famous photograph showing the German troops surrendering to Currie – perhaps he felt it was in bad taste, especially with Mike holding a “baguette” rifle. Nevertheless, the group did the same thing last year at the urging of their leader, Professor Milner (without the baguette, I am sure).
Continuing down the road, we stopped for a break at Chambois. It was here that the Americans and Poles met, officially sealing the gap in mid-August 1944. Here, at the ‘crossroads of history,’ we purchased some food for our upcoming lunch, kicking around a soccer ball for a few minutes, and marveled at a twelfth century castle commanding the surrounding area before heading out once again.
With our bagged lunches we settled in at the Chambois-Mont Ormel memorial to the Polish Armoured Division. In vague terms, I would have to describe the site as very ‘Eastern European’ and Communist in its artistic flavour, boasting a bold, black metal sculpture of a very “industrial” design.
The location of the memorial was fantastic, overlooking the Dives valley below.
It was a grand monument to the Polish forces that had sacrificed so much in the closing of the Falaise Gap. After the pocket had been ‘closed’ by the Allies, the bulk of the 1st Polish Armoured Division occupied a wooded hill east of the Canadian line (which they called “Maczuga” or “mace”) to plug a hole through which Germans were flooding out. They held the ground on 20 August in an unbearably caustic battle with the enemy, despite being pounded from both sides (by the retreating forces on one side and SS units on the other) and a shortage of food, ammo and fuel. Over two thousand Polish soldiers were lost to the closing of the Gap, and there story deserves to be commemorated.
Underneath the memorial itself is an interpretation centre dedicated to the Normandy Campaign. A large room encircled a terrain model of the Normandy landscape. A story of the Allied thrust in Normandy was conveyed in an audio-visual presentation consisting of lights on the diorama and a narrated script on events as they developed. Sadly, there was scant mention of Canadian contributions, despite our primary role in many of the battles discussed. There was also an eight-minute film containing little to no mention of Canadian participation. Once again, our experience here reinforced the notion that Canadians must assume the burden of ensuring that our historical contributions are remembered. Few others will write or commemorate our history for us.
After a fabulous duck dinner at the hotel in Falaise, several of us headed to the downtown for refreshments. Steve and I ended up conversing at length with six British bikers on a rally through France (the others departed earlier on account of the brisk weather), sharing stories and enjoying some barley, before settling back in at the hotel.
DAY THIRTEEN (Wednesday, 10 June 1998)
I awoke around the usual time and headed downstairs at the Hotel de la Poste in Falaise for breakfast. I would not mention such details if they did not turn out to be a forum for celebration. Serge Durflinger, who had been late in participating in the tour for interviews at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, received notice that he had indeed gotten the job. Mike, Steve and I were quick to buy Serge a bottle of champagne to celebrate; what a wonderful way to start a day. Furthermore, I received a fax from home that the hotel had received during the night. It was wonderful to hear from …. Perhaps this has allowed me a glimpse at the joys the Canadian soldiers must have felt receiving letters from loved ones as they risked their lives in this foreign land. The key difference, of course, was that I knew I would see their faces in a few short weeks. For the soldiers there was no itinerary and only hopes of seeing a family member or friend in the near future.
From Falaise we jumped in the vans and headed in the direction of Boulogne. Our first stop was a visit to the Tiger Tank at Vimoutiers. As I learned during our last TEWT, a single German anti-tank gun blast (any A-T Gun) killed a Sherman (2/3 of which then burnt), while the average German tank could survive two hits from anti-tank guns and did not burn. Here, before me, was the most infamous of all the German heavy armour. In sheer size the Tiger would dwarf a Sherman, and its construction seemed to command more respect. Granted, the Germans had the luxury of not having to carry their armour across the sea, but nevertheless their tank prowess seemed evident. The Tiger boasted an 88 mm Kwk 36 gun and could puncture 88 mm of armour plate at 2000 yards – more than the maximum armour on either a Sherman or Firefly – and could travel up to 23 mph. Even with its poor mechanical reliability, the Tiger was a force to be reckoned with, and gave the Allies more than their share of hardship during the Normandy and NorthWest European campaigns.
As we continued down the road to Rouen, I continued to ponder the Allied advance and the nature of the fighting. The Canadians must have been exhausted by this point in the war. Psychologically, the strain must have been almost unbearable at times. I have the opportunity to sleep at nights in a comfortable bed, with little stress, and certainly have need to always keep an eye open lest danger approaches; yet even I am somewhat fatigued after a few weeks. I think I caught a few winks on the road (not an uncommon occurrence) before we rolled into Rouen. The city was a marvelous spectacle, the streets typically French. We searched in vain for a restaurant, but, when aided by a pair of loal teenagers, we ended up eating at a McDonalds. Our arteries hardened by the greasy food, our small band visited the world-famous Cathedral. For someone like myself, who has never done the ‘cultural’ tour of Europe, the site was simply spectacular, inside and out. After wandering the streets for a while longer, cheering on some youngsters playing roller hockey, and shopping with Steve and Kelly, I settled back into one of the vans and watched as the cityscape disappeared behind us.
From here on we followed the Second Division’s approach to the Forêt de la Londe, where the division suffered 577 casualties in three days of fighting against a well-organized blocking force preventing a crossing of the Seine. On 26 August 1944, Canadian service corps personnel were engaged in fighting near Bosguerard. For their efforts and in memorial to their losses, the nearby communes erected a monument in their honour which continued to be beautifully maintained today. Its surroundings are quaint and peaceful, save the rumblings of the cars and transports on the autoroute directly in front of it. Very clean hedgerows frame the monument, the visitor entering through a marvelous little wooden gate adorned with maple leaves. This monument was very personal, as genuine a tribute as can be.
We settled for the night at the Ibis Hotel in Boulogne. The old city contained a beautiful downtown expanse that stretched along the river and culminated in a marvelous walled citadel that was an illuminated spectacle at night. Nicole and I explored the town for a restaurant, finding ourselves walking in circles in pursuit of an elusive establishment (that we had seen earlier) while all the time engaged in deep conversations about life, love, Canada, politics, and whatever other thoughts came to mind. This probably explains why our navigational skills left so much to be desired!
After we sat for a delightful dinner of mussels and frites, the local speciality, Nicole and I met up with Mike and Kate and further wandered the evening away in the beautiful cityscape. We had a scrumptious crepe dessert in one of the cafés before sauntering back to the hotel, completing another wonderful day. As I drift to sleep, I cannot help but find myself longing for Jenn in what I feel is a tremendously romantic city.
DAY FOURTEEN (Thursday, 11 June 1998)
Waking up in Boulogne, we disembarked early to move up the coast to Brugge. Just north of the medieval port city, we stopped and received our first briefing from Professor Copp. Rolling sand dunes abounded on this stretch of the Channel coast beyond Boulogne, providing a magnificent backdrop for the historical overview.
There has been much debate about command decisions regarding this stage in the war effort. Professor Copp feels that Monty was correct in his opinions regarding “Market Garden.” However, by deciding to focus on the Channel Ports, he committed the Canadians to spending September of 1944 along the English Channel.
What were the Allies to do about the Channel Ports? Although the Germans had been defeated in Normandy, German garrisons were left along the coasts at fortified ports bypassed by the Allies. Their aim was to control them all; this meant that the Allied supply lines had to come all the way from Normandy. At the beginning of September the First Canadian Army liberated Dieppe and continued northward, reaching Boulogne on the 5th of the month and anticipating an easy victory. However, when the German Fifteenth Army began to withdraw into the north, a division was dropped into Boulogne to defend the city to the death. The city was ideally suited for defence in many respects, and the Germans laid mines, booby traps and barbed wire, covered by machine guns, along the approaches to the port. The six Canadian infantry battalions had an especially difficult time, suffering 462 casualties. In the end, the victory was not a one day affair, as some had expected, and the German garrison did not surrender until 22 September. Interesting, Professor Copp explained that at the time the battle was so popular with the citizenry that grandstands were constructed to seat viewers. With Boulogne secured, 7th and 8th Brigades pushed forward to take Calais. Again the Canadians were involved in a nasty battle, facing an enemy that fought to nearly the last man.
Apart from the accounts in Stacey there has been very little study of the Boulogne battles. Professor Copp suggested that existing sources on the post-Foret de la Londe to the Scheldt operations are to be found in war diaries and regimental histories. The hard fought Canadian victories in this area should not be glazed over by historians.
The Germans had set up a series of dummy gun positions along the coast, always believing that the Allies would land at the Pas de Calais. After all, the countryside was nearly flat after one pushed past the Calais beaches, and this location was in much closer proximity to Germany itself. They never believed the Allies would be stupid enough to attack Normandy. Why anyone would expect their enemy to take them on where they were at their strongest point is beyond me.
Moving through the region known as the “Cote Opale,” featuring some wonderful coastal scenery, we stopped at the Haringzelles Battery. From afar, the German coastal gun appeared as a lump of grey concrete ruins blemishing a rich green landscape. As we approached, the giant concrete edifice loomed eerily above, its thick concrete back revealing itself through twisted vines and fifty years of overgrowth. We twisted our way into the now-hollow shell of the emplacement, our adventure culminating with the discovery of an immense, amphitheater-sized, three-tiered room where the massive gun was once housed. Evidently, human presence in the structure was not a rare phenomenon. The concrete walls were covered in graffiti, almost mocking the severity of the original use of the property. We continued to explore the facility inside and out, eventually finding a dark room that, with the handy aid of a flashlight, yielded a wonderful surprise: German grafitti from the war depicting caricatures of Churchill and Eisenhower, urging the Nazis “… gegen Engeland.”
The Haringzelles Battery was disturbing in several respects, lacking as it did the controlled atmosphere and ‘cleanliness’ of the batteries we had previously visited at Longues-sur-mer. Here, the battery continued to wage a battle against the surrounding landscape, and time itself, for mastery and domination of the expanse on which it resided. Fifty years after the Allied ground forces spoiled its designated purpose (to defend an attack from the sea, which of course never came in the Pas de Calais area), the battery still seems alive. For once I actually respected graffiti in an abstract sort of way, seeing the names of visitors on the walls as a much needed testament to the reality that the battery had in fact been captured and conquered. Otherwise, the disturbing darkness that encompassed the building would have been tremendously unnerving.
Nearby we visited the Battery Todt at Haringzelles, captured by the North Nova Scotia Highlanders in 1944. The battery has been converted into a storehouse of military artifacts (Musée du Mur de l’Atlantique) which I would argue is a ‘museum’ in name only. The collection of weapons, vehicles, uniforms, and militaria in general is truly impressive. However, the artifacts were not put into context using placards, nor did I feel they were displayed in a manner that conveyed their importance in a meaningful way — at least not for someone like myself who does not have an expertise in weaponry. I lamented that the facility did not seem to house the artifacts in a manner aimed at ensuring their protection. The battery was dark, damp and dank, characteristics that I enjoyed because they gave a sense of what life would have been like for the Germans living therein, but which nevertheless cannot be reliable for preservation purposes.
The Museum of the Atlantic Wall bore some interesting fruit. First, the museum contained the uniform of a Canadian signalman circa 1944. As stated earlier, my grandfather, Pte. Edgar Lackenbauer, was active in Northwest Europe in September 1944 and would have worn such attire. Needless to say I was thrilled to see such a tribute! Second, I obtained a fuller understanding of armaments, guns and vehicles thanks to Andrew and Mike who answered my queries with their usual wealth of knowledge. Third, there were wonderful propoganda posters on the threat of Bolshevism to Europe. Fourth, behind the museum was a 280-mm German railway gun, of which only two remain in existence. Thirty-five metres long, the gun had a range of 62-86 kilometres. Professor Copp explained that it could fire across the Channel on Dover, but in general only a few rounds were fired and these uses were recorded in the battery. It nevertheless had a psychological effect on the British citizens and helped to tie down British troops.
From Batterie Todt we moved northward along the coast once again and stopped at Cap Gris Nez. The French military has now established a radar station at this position where the Highland Light Infantry overcame German defenders in mid-September 1944. After enjoying a light lunch, most of us descended an ad hoc path down the cliff to the sea shore. The view was spectacular, although obstructed somewhat by an overcast sky. The tide slapped against the rocks with mounting force, surprising some of us with an unforeseen soaker or two. It was quite an experience, the rich sea air filling my lungs as I strode from rock to slippery rock. Climbing back up I evidently did not fail to evade a single patch of mud, my pants saturated with earth and dampness. At least I could change in a few hours. I can not imagine the soldiers’ experiences of having to cope with the same clothing for multiple days on end.
The afternoon sky was a sober, overcast gray that fit the ambiance of the Calais Canadian War Cemetery. Leaving the comforts of the van – in both its shelter from the cool, damp air and the realities of what we are exploring – we walked through yet another testament to the sacrifices made by our Dominion in Northwest Europe. Access to the Calais cemetery was somewhat hidden from the parking lot behind a row of evergreens. Emerging around the corner, two beautiful stone buildings, light in colour, flanked the entrance gate. 525 Canadian soldiers and 69 Canadian airmen
The rows of headstones stood out starkly against the green, green grass, their dusky tone fittingly matched in the sky above. Reading the names and messages is as difficult as always, but my soul is fatigued today, perhaps by the weather. Sharon and I took charcoals rubbings of one of the gravestones on wax paper; mine came out quite clear, especially the maple leaf, and I may frame it when I return to Canada. Hunched over, my knees fully contracted, I look around me. The power of these landscapes is still remarkable. In my sorrow I still feel so proud at what these gentlemen accomplished in years gone by. I am pleased that the cemetery is surrounded by small pine trees for it gives me a sense of home. If they cannot be buried in Canadian soil back home, this is as proper a place as any. I cannot see beyond the evergreens at the back of the cemetery, the sky rendering all else a peculiar grey. Like the Second World War, the clouds seem so far away yet so close to me. I feel strangely alone. Before leaving this ground I utter a prayer that we, as Canadians, continue to visit this memorials in the future as the war becomes more and more a piece of the past, so that the memories of those who fought are never isolated from our collective experience as a nation.
We pushed forward. Before crossing into Belgium and heading towards Brugges, our destination for the next few days, we stopped at Fort Risban. On the wall of the fort, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles mounted a plaque to commemorate their small operation that contributed to the capture of Calais. We then crossed the border, a seamless transition that was unheeded by border guards. It is interesting to reflect on the importance of national sovereignty in a physical sense when it is understood against the backdrop of war, and how this contrasts with the ‘open-borders’ policies of the European Community today.
The evening was spent acquainting ourselves with Brugges, a magnificent centre in western Belgium. In my exhaustion, it was not difficult fading to sleep.
DAY FIFTEEN (Friday, 12 June 1998)
This morning began with a visit to the Adegem Canadian War Cemetery in the northwest corner of Belgium (not far from the Dutch border), one of three cemeteries from the Scheldt/Breskens Pocket battles. Of note, it also contained some of the fallen from the 1942 Dieppe attack. Most of the 848 Canadians who reside in its graves lost their lives during the fierce fighting to clear the south bank of the Scheldt River. Once again I was comforted by the meticulous condition in which the cemetery has been maintained. The inscriptions were again filled with a tenderness that touched my soul.
While walking the rows at Adegem, I was filled with a powerful realization that cemeteries and death really do trace the entire route of the Canadian campaign. I hope that this does not seem too facile a statement, and perhaps words cannot do justice to an enveloping sense regarding the scale of losses that war brings. Numbers on a page can never adequately illustrate the breadth of sacrifice. Canadian blood has truly soaked the soil across NorthWest Europe.
The cemeteries are a solemn tribute to Canadian sacrifices and the horrifying costs of winning a war. In the town of Adegem, Canadian soldiers finally get their due in a privately-funded museum all their own. Mr. Gilbert Van Landschoot constructed the Canada Museum as a labour of love in 1995; on his death-bed, his father had requested that he promise to “tell the current generation about the misery and the darkness about the war and about their liberation by the Canadians.” Built with his own hands (with the help of nine others) in a matter of weeks, the building is full of symbolism and beauty. The visitor is greeted at the entrance by stained glass windows detailing the provincial and federal coats-of-arms of Canada, those of the Flemish and Dutch towns liberated by the Canadians during the Second World War, and the military structure of the First Canadian Corps which liberated Flanders and opened the port of Antwerp (including regimental badges and formation patches).
The creator and builder of the museum, Mr. Van Landschoot, honoured us with a touching tribute to Canadians before we entered the exhibits. He explained the architectural symbolism in the tea room: the central post supports a Cross, a symbol of the owner’s Catholic faith and the religious impetus for enlistment during the war; twelve smaller pillars represent the twelve apostles; three round pillars represent the Holy Trinity; four Gothic windows represent the four evangelists; the four main parts of the ceiling represent the four seasons; the twelve pillars also represent the months of the year; there are fifty-two cross beams, the number of weeks in a year; and there are 366 smaller beams, representing the number of days in a leap year — 1944, the year in which Canadians liberated Belgium, was a leap year. The design did not come from a architect’s drafting table, but rather from a vision that Mr. Van Landschoot received.
In terms of content and artifacts the museum was exceptional. The owner has amassed a marvelous collection of uniforms (although they are in need of shirts and boots for their mannequins!), historical documentation, and tasteful mannequins (evidently a rare commodity in this part of Europe, at least insofar as museums are concerned!), all of which are woven together in an intriguing series of displays and dioramas on the Canadians at war in Flanders. I was proud to be a Canadian in the midst of this wonderful facility. We expressed our gratitude for Mr. Van Landschoot’s warm hospitality and sat down for a discussion with Professor Copp on the Battle of the Scheldt.
Professor Copp set the Scheldt operations against the backdrop of the manpower crisis and concomitant conscription crisis of 1944. Monty viewed Lt. Gen. Guy Simonds (the acting commander of the First Canadian Army) as a high-level thinking, creative general in stark contrast to his overt distate for Crerar (who was ill at the time). Regardless of Simonds’ reputation for innovation, his respect for the ‘human dimension’ may be criticized as harsh. A lot of men were lost under his command. In fact, the situation was so dismal that members of the service corps were being drafted into infantry positions upon their arrival on the continent.
Monty was faced with a dilemma: should the Canadians focus on the Channel Ports or on clearing the approaches to Antwerp? He and Eisenhower did not see eye-to-eye over the depth of commitment to clearing the approaches to Antwerp. Opening of the port of Antwerp was a requisite objective given that the main supply lines still extended back to Normandy. Although Antwerp had been occupied by Allied troops, the city lay eighty kilometres from the Channel, connected to the sea by a broad estuary held by the Germans. Beyond the estuary was the former island of South Beveland, joined to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. Further west lay a German stronghold, the fortified island of Walcheren, fortified into a powerful German stronghold. The south bank of the Scheldt was below sea level (“polder” country), rescued from the sea by the land-starved Dutch, and was well-suited to defence. So long as the Germans held the approaches to the city and the long winding estuary, Allied shipping could not access the port.
Simonds needed to clear the approaches to Antwerp using two infantry divisions already engaged and tired, and one armoured division with no reinforcements. Alanbrooke, preoccupied with the Pacific theatre, actually tried to get more troops back to England! 3rd Division was tasked with fighting for the Channel Ports; 2nd Division was to take Antwerp. Simonds seemed to believe that the Breskens Pocket operation would be an easy operation, although Ultra intercepts had shown that Hitler gave the area highest priority. It was not easy by any means. Although Walcheren Island was bombed under his orders to “sink” it, the German defences were located on the perimeter and thus evaded destruction. Furthermore, bomber command was no longer under Eisenhower’s control; it was now controlled by “Bomber” Harris who focused on the bombing of Germany. Simonds did request an airborne division but was refused because this would be a “tactical use of a strategic force.” Instead, Simonds had to settle with a whole whack of “Buffaloes.”
We thanked Mr. Van Landschoot once again and boarded the vans to examine the struggles for the Leopold Canal. Near Moerkerke we stopped to explore the crossing of the Leopold and the Canal de Dérivation de la lys. At this site we did a brief TEWT to explore the options available to a battalion tasked with crossing the twin canals, establishing a bridgehead and then holding it. I linked up with Mike and Sharon and we discussed matters, hindered by the difficulty in getting tanks across the canals to preserve a bridgehead on the other side. We suggested the use of Buffaloes, but Professor Copp said they were either unavailable at this stage in the war or could not have made the climb up the banks (I cannot remember which). As he later explained, the task had proven to much to the Algonquin Regiment.
On 13th September 1944 the four companies of the Algonquins were ferried across the two 90-foot canals and established a tenuous bridgehead, but they faced an insurmountable deluge of shell fire forcing them to make a hasty retreat. Furthermore, some German troops made their way down the centre island between the two canals. Most of the boats that had carried the Algonquins across had been destroyed by shell fire, so many had to swin back. Resistance had been fierce and had come unexpected to those issues orders to 4th Division. Rumours also abounded that young Belgian women in the area, who had cohabited with the Germans for four years, had collaborated and provided them with detailed information on the Canadian operation (for example, when the Canadians moved their battalion headquarters the German fire followed it). I supposed this must remain speculative; I do not know where one could corroborate such a rumour today.
Our next stop was along the highway north of Maldegem (near Strooiburg) where Seventh Brigade had crossed to take the Leopold Canal on 6 October. We walked along the north side to a German pillbox bunker, part of “Fortress South Scheldt” as the Germans knew it. Professor Copp described the battlefield to us atop the remains of the bunker, which yielded a perfect vantage point to overlook the ground from a tactical perspective. Our discussion focused on ‘Operation Switchback,’ and what Simonds should have done after he knew that 9th Brigade was delayed.
The fields surrounding us were broad and did not seem limiting to creative approaches. However, Professor Copp explained that in the Fall of 1944 most of the fields were flooded (represented by the dark areas on contemporary maps). In essence, the Breskens Pocket is essentially an island held to the continent by a small landbridge in the southeast corner. The fields we saw before us were “polders” (below sea level) that were submerged at the time of the Canadian attack, hindering infantry advances. The Germans had the crossroads of dykes and roadways well covered, forcing the Canadians to adapt to a new terrain. Clearly the canals were formidable obstacles, with German defences all along the Leopold supported by pillboxes. At this site, 7th Brigade did not win the battle with the Germans; it just drew reserves into itself. The Germans did not withdraw until after the 9th Brigade landings, recognizing that they would be cut off if they did not retreat.
A very interesting correlation was made between these operations and the conscription crisis at home. In Northwest Europe wounded and ‘battle exhausted’ soldiers were being sent into combat, while 50,000 trained infantrymen remained in Canada because of a political promise. My historical training has focused largely on domestic politics, and I must say that I am still wary to condemn Mackenzie King for his late announcement of conscription. The realities on the European battlefields make a compelling argument for conscription, but the prime minister had a country to hold together at home as well as abroad. Without a doubt conscription would have aided the military effort in Europe, but what would the cost have been domestically? Had it been invoked without careful political posturing and prudence, would we still have the same Canadian flag flying on all of the Canadian Corps memorials in Europe?
From the Leopold Canal we crossed the border into Holland for a brief pause in Eede. On the west side of the Liberation Highway a memorial has been constructed to the Royal Montreal Regiment, Regina Rifles, Can Scots, Royal Winnipeg Rifles, and 17th Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars for their actions from 8-19 October 1944. In the same square, just behind the monument, is a Bren Gun carrier. I was pleased that a tribute to the Canadian liberators was situated in the same location as the marker celebrating Queen Wilhemina’s triumphant return to her country from exile on 13 March 1945. Given what I have heard, the Dutch are supposed to be very respectful of Canadian contributions to the restoration of their freedom. This seems a suitable indication that this is truly the case.
Our quick venture into the Netherlands completed, we returned to our hotel in Belgium before setting out for more adventures. LCol Patterson agreed to take a vanload of us to view selected First World War sites. Our planned destination was Ypres (as the British pronounce it, “Wipers”), approached along the Passchendaele Ridge roadway. From the vehicle we overlooked the legendary Passchendaele battlefield, so important a venue for Canada’s Great War contribution.
The first stop was the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world. Tyne Cot is home to 11,956 graves, mostly British. The landscape is awesome in its size and layout, the neat rows broken by the remains of German bunkers contained within the cemetery walls. The Cross of Sacrifice in the centre is itself built on a bunker, surrounded by stones not bound by the convention of straight, orderly rows found elsewhere. LCol Patterson explained that this was the original cemetery undisturbed by the expansion around it. The back wall is bewildering in its breadth. An additional 35,000 names adorn its inner face:
1914 ici sont inscrits les noms d’officiers et soldats brittaniques
tombés dans le saillant d’Ypres aux quels les destins de la
Guerre n’ont pas accordé comme à leurs compagnons
dans la mort une sépulture connue et honorée 1918
My brain cannot comprehend the length of the list.
Beautiful roses and other flowers bloom between the crosses, splashes of red, yellow and pink amongst the austere white stones. Amongst this massive testament to Imperial sacrifice are the graves of 997 Canadians, 14 Newfoundlanders, and 1 Canadian unknown. J.P. Robertson, V.C., rests within one hundred metres of the spot where the action for which he won his award took place. Canadians, Brits, Scots, Irish, Australian, and New Zealand troops all share this common ground; for the latter this is ‘their Vimy.’ It is a painful reminder that the colonies all fought in common cause and died alongside the British during World War One. A life is a life, and I stand before twelve thousand that perished on the wasteland of the Western Front. I honour their sacrifice, but lament that their supreme gift to the cause of freedom had to be matched by so many within three short decades. Can we ever learn.
Hundreds of cemeteries dot the Ypres salient area. Some are small, some large. All speak to the carnage of World War One. I am overcome by sadness when I think that many of them must not be visited very often. I wonder how many Canadian dead lie out there in the fields, isolated from their homeland and their kin, perhaps even forgotten by the generations that followed them. The memories must be preserved, not by choice, but by obligation.
At St Julien (Sint Juliaan), “The Brooding Soldier” overlooks the site of the infamous 2nd Battle of Ypres so horrifically retold in Canadian history texts:
This column marks the battlefield where 18,000 Canadians on the British left withstood the first German gas attacks the
22-24 April 1915. 2,000 fell and lie buried nearby.
The monument was designed by Frederick Clemenshaw in 1921. Unfortunately, the sombre design was not very popular in the twenties – the solemn figure does not exude feelings of victory in any form. The arrows on the base point to Zonnebeke, Passchendaele, Poelcappelle, Langemarck, Boesinghe, Ypres, and Hodge. Perhaps I should know most of these names but I do not. Are they all important sites from the First World War? Something to search out when I get home.
The memorial at St Julien is quite striking in its simple, powerful design and captivating situation. The landscaping is marvelous, the evergreens giving off a fragrance that fills the summer air. The cedar trees have been trimmed to look like artillery shells. There is an ambiance of privacy, the rich green colour encircling the grounds sealing me off from everything except for the column that stands before me. The Brooding Soldier is a pillar of consistency against the moving clouds overhead, gallantly serving his ceremonial duty to preserve the memory of those who lost their lives at Ypres.
As we continued down the Langemark-Zonnebeke road, we arrived at the Deutscher Soldatenfriedhof in Langemark. This First World War cemetery was similar to the German burial ground we had visited in Normandy in its dark tone. In the entrance, a room was dedicated to German soldiers with no known grave. In contrast to the Commonwealth memorials, the names were almost microscopic in size. The victor gets the laurels and recognition, not the aggressive loser. Again the grave markers were small, black blocks lying flat on the ground with up to twenty-five names per marker. The cross groupings that I described at the cemetery in Normandy were also there, although this time they were grouped in threes and not fives. No one could offer me an explanation of what these symbolized. A small central pit contained the bodies of several thousand Germans, their names listed around it. I find it disturbing, all of this death, even if it is the enemy.
We reached our final objective of the town of Ypres (in Flemish, “Ieper”) about 1930 hrs. After grabbing a disappointing meal at a local fast food joint, we walked down to the street to the Menin Memorial Gate. It is hard to believe that, in the aftermath of the First World War, not a brick stood in this town. The massive structure that stands before me is a postwar creation to the memory of the British and imperial troops who died.
Every evening since the First World War (except during the occupation of WWII) members of the local fire brigade play the Last Post. At 2000 hrs sharp, amidst an impressive crowd of tourists like ourselves, three buglers did their part to remember the sacrifices. Traffic waited impatiently as the road through the Gate was blocked off for the brief ceremony. It comforted me to know that the Belgians invested this energy into commemorating the First World War on a daily basis.
The Gate is inscribed with the same message as the cemetery at Tyne Cot:
Here are Recorded the Names of Officers and Men who Fell in the Ypres Salient but to Whom the Fortune of War Denied the Known and Honoured Burial Given to their Comrades in Death.
The list of names is enormous. They wrap around the memorial, covering every wall and stairwell. The British are there, as are the Australians, South Africans, Indians and Canadians.* What horrors the PPCLI, RCR, Canadian Artillery, Canadian Mounted Rifles, Canadian Pioneers and Canadian Machine Gun Corps must have experienced on the Western Front. There are walls and walls of Canadians with no known grave. I wish I could read each of their names in turn and spend a second in reflection.
As we were leaving the Menin Gate a Canadian now living in Britain stopped our group and invited us out for a beer. He was quite a peculiar fellow, trying to dazzle us with his imperfect knowledge of Canadian and world military history. Some of the others did not take his comments with the grain of salt that I did (I spent much of the time snickering in silence) and appeared to be quite getting frustrated. I enjoyed his kind offering of beer for the lot of us and felt that listening to his rantings was a fair exchange. He was evidently saddened when we announced that we had to depart, encouraging us to stay for another round. It was, however, time for us to return to Brugge. The night was spent painting the Belgian town red. A large contingent of us headed out for a beer, eventually finding ourselves at a dance bar where we dispensed with the remainder of the night.
DAY SIXTEEN (Saturday, 13 June 1998)
My entry today will be brief, given that this was our ‘free day’ in Brugge. I began the day by going for a long walk and shopping with Nicole, who offered me assurances that my purchases would be welcomed back home. Belgian lace is all that it is cracked up to be. At lunchtime I went to Pizza Hut with Jeff and Sharon – perhaps not the most creative choice of establishments given our surroundings, but nevertheless satisfying and an enjoyable experience. Sharon and I spent the better part of the afternoon drinking wine and socializing before heading back to the hotel. For dinner most of us in the group went to Chicken-in for a tantalizing meal at a reasonable price. Unfortunately the service was ridiculously slow, but with all of our personalities it was not difficult to fill in the time with conversation. Steve, his friend Brendan and I dispensed with the rest of the evening at the Bauhaus bar below the international hostel. I met two woman from the West coast and talked with them at length, though nothing we discussed could be repeated here. Despite their invitations I returned to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning to garner what sleep I could.
It is perhaps worth mentioning, for the record, the significance of Brugge for Canadians remembering our war effort. After the 12th Manitoba Dragoons liberated Ostend, 4 Division moved on Brugge reaching the city on 8 September. They found that the Germans were still in occupation, but the mayor was pleading with the Germans to depart so as to preserve the city’s famed architecture. ‘Moncel Force’ (named after the CO of the Argylls) flanked the city and advanced through the Moerbrugge bridgehead. By the 12th the German withdrawal was complete and the Canadians entered the city amidst much pomp and circumstance. An elusive ‘Buffalo Bridge’ in Brugge commemorates the activities of the Manitoba Dragoons, and Terry offered a reward to the first individual to find it. While shopping for lace, Sharon and I spoke with a shopkeeper who drew us a map of where the bridge was located and shared his memories of the day of liberation, which he witnessed while he was a boy. He described the throngs of people in the square just in front of our hotel when the Canadian tanks rolled in. One can read as much as they desire in books, but the stories feel much more real when they are conveyed by directly by a participant. Sharon later went to snap a photo of the memorial at the bridge, but I declined to venture across the city in the rainy night.
DAY SEVENTEEN (Sunday, 14 June 1998)
We departed Brugge heading in the direction of Njimegen, our final destination on the tour. Our plan was to explore the Scheldt area and gain an appreciation for the battles for the Breskens Pocket and the Scheldt estuary. These operations are largely absent from Canadian collective memory, perhaps because they lacked the international profile of the Normandy campaign and coincided with British and American movements through the larger cities to the east. Perhaps the answer lies with Colonel Stacey himself, who argued that the morale of the German army had been defeated in Normandy and that after Falaise most of the German forces had fallen back to the western frontier of the Reich. However, understanding the breadth of the Canadian contribution to Allied victory must include a detailed look at the operations along the Belgian and Dutch coastlines. The terrain was not hospitable to the attacker, and the Germans had far from given up on the land they held in the region. In fact, they rolled up their sleeves and prepared to fight to their very deaths, taking as many Canadians with them as possible to impede the Allied advance.
Our first stop was a memorial to 9th Brigade in the town of Hoofdplaat, a small hamlet in the rear or coastal side of the Breskens Pocket. The memorial was much different in style from those in France and Belgium, consisting of an upright brick rectangle adorned with iron casting of a maple leaf, tank, rifle, buffalo, and another unknown vehicle. More compelling was the annual local activity associated with the site. The Belgians and Dutch in the region are still very mindful fo the Canadian presence, and Professor Copp explained that, every 1 November, Dutch and Belgian school children (amongst others) march to Knokke-Heist to celebrate their liberation. The story of the 33 kilometre “Liberation March” touched my heart, making me lament the lack of domestic Canadian involvement to celebrate Remembrance Day. The message on the memorial, translated in Dutch, English and French, contained the brief, heartfelt message:
Thanks to the Canadian Army
Which Landed Here on October 9th 1944
Later in the day, it was noted that Dutch grade sixes living in areas where there are Canadian cemeteries “adopt” graves and tend to them. These are then passed down to succeeding generations. I am in awe of the Dutch commitment to preserving the memory of the Canadians who liberated their land.
The next objective was “Green” beach just outside of Hoofdplaat (the landing commemorated on the above memorial), a part of the assault on the Pocket. Yesterday we examined the exploits of 7th Brigade in “Operation Switchback.” This morning we paused to look at the spot where 9th Brigade came ashore in their buffaloes. The dykes were much different than I expected, but nevertheless impressive in their scale. I do not know what I was looking for, but these large, grassy mounds that held back the sea were seemingly so simple but evidently effective.
We descended the opposite slope of the dyke, looking out over the West Scheldt in its vast expanse. Near the ‘groyne’ (an extension of land, like an earthen pier, pushing out into the sea) we listened to a brief discussion of the 9th Brigade assault by Terry. Professor Copp, once again, stressed the role of terrain in the Canadian experience. He reiterated his staunch belief that the terrain is the “primary source of the military historian,” and I do not harbour any doubts that this is the case. Citing Collingwood, Professor Copp asserted that the foremost responsibility of the historian is to “rethink” the thoughts of those making past decisions.
The plan had the brigade crossing the mouth of the Braakman in Buffaloes to land on the beach near Hoofdplaat, allowing the Allies to put pressure on the Germans from both directions. The North Novas landed on “Green” beach, near the groyne, while the Highland Light Infantry (from Waterloo County) landed just to the east (our left). Despite difficulties in maneouvering the amphibious vehicles through the locks and the concomitant delay, very few military operations went as smoothly as this one! The enemy was caught by surprise and 9th Brigade soon established a bridgehead and was able to repel a strong German counterattack. Professor Copp stressed that logistical concerns explain why Simonds made the decisions that he did.
From Hoofdplaat we drove through South Beveland to “the Causeway” linking Walcheren Island to the mainland. On the miserable morning of 24 October 1944, Second Brigade launched Operation “Vitality I,” an unsuccessful armoured thrust aimed at capturing the Beveland peninsula. The next day, a conventional infantry attack supported by artillery fire was a sheer victory, followed by an amphibious assault (“Vitality II”) by a brigade of the 52nd (Lowland) Scots who succeeded in forcing the Germans to retreat to Walcheren. A week later, Second Division was tasked with the capture of Walcheren across the narrow “causeway.” A nasty battle ensued and the Canadians established a precarious toehold, costing the Calgary Highlanders 63 casualties and the Maisonneuves 11. Although this attack across the well-defended causeway has been sharply criticized by some historians, Professor Copp argued that the attack was a necessary diversion (to take pressure off the Royal Marine Commando landings) indispensable to the overall plan to capture Walcheren.
A memorial square/garden has been set up at the causeway dedicated to the battle. On the left is a small, slab marker to the Canadians inscribed:
By the 2nd of November 1944
135 Canadian Infantry Soldiers
had been Killed or Wounded
on the Sloedam
to Liberate Walcheren.
Two poppy wreathes rested at the base, a kind tribute to the Canadian sacrifices. Across from the Canadian memorial was a dedication to the 52nd Lowland Division who “Forced a Crossing Here on 2 Nov 1944 and Liberated the Island.” This message proclaimed a victory for the Scottish division alone, and the casual observer reading both this and the Canadian memorial (which focused on the losses but not the gains) might be mistaken to see the Canadian efforts as failures overcome by the Scottish. Of course, I have problems with this overly simple and distorted perspective.
Today I was very tired, and I slept most of the drive to Woensdrecht. Arriving at 1410 hrs, we disembarked from our trusty transports to discuss the operation that preceded the activities on the causeway. The objective of 2nd Division was Walcheren (as discussed above), and Woensdrecht was the entrance to South Beveland. Looking around, the landscape is that of a wood-covered ridge, rising to about twenty metres, dominating otherwise very flat land. Visually, the terrain appears ideal for defence, given the clean sight lines from the ridge, the heavily wooded countryside which offered the Germans cover, and saturated or flooded land (which was there in 1944 but is now gone) limiting the attackers options.
Professor Copp set up the context of the mid-October 1944 struggle for Woensdrecht, which was not even mentioned in 2nd Division’s Operational Instruction. As I understand it, the Allied command did not expect the strong resistance offered by the German 6th Paratroop Regiment (with some mobile assault and anti-tank guns). 13 October 1944 is known as “The Second Black Day of the Black Watch;” the single battalion was sent across the flat fields on which we stood, only to be repulsed. Of 145 Black Watch casualties that disastrous day, 56 were killed or died from wounds and 27 were taken prisoner. Three days later, the Rileys (RHLI) were sent to capture the village under the leadership of CO Lt. Col. Denis Whittaker himself. They too sustained heavy casualties and could take the village but not the ridge, somehow maintaining a tenuous hold despite massive counterattacks over the next four days. They suffered 167 casualties during the bitter fighting.
Although Terry encouraged us to discuss alternate possibilities, we were quite fatigued and did not have as much to contribute as we would have liked. In the end, we could not figure out what could have been done to optimize results. During a small van discussion afterward we all agreed that the objective was not one for a single battalion, and thus the problem lay higher up the chain of command than with the Black Watch reinforcements criticized for the disastrous outing of 13 October.
In the end, the struggle for Walcheren was a success. The island’s capital, Middelburg, fell on 6 November, and resistance dissipated in the following days. By the end of the month the channel was cleared of mines and Allied convoys began entering the port of Antwerp. It was a fitting testament to the Canadian contributions that the first of these was led by the Canadian-built freighter Fort Cataraqui.
At this point we boarded our trusty vans for the long trip to Nijmegen. I did not last for long before drifting off to sleep. When we arrived at the City Parc Hotel (after a little difficulty in finding it) we unloaded our stuff and settled into our rooms. The hotel was not as glamourous as usual, and some people were stuck with ridiculously small rooms, but Jeff and I’s chamber was clean and certainly bearable. We ate dinner downstairs, where I regret having not ordered the house specialty – a cook-your-own feast that left my mouth drooling. Instead, I had dry schnitzel that could not stand up to the variety Jenn and I often prepare from the Farmer’s Market in Kitchener.
DAY EIGHTEEN (Monday, 15 June 1998)
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and today the tour drew to a close. Not only were we able to celebrate the conclusion of an incredible experience, but also to conceptualize the latter stages of the war and the thrusts that forever killed the Nazi nightmare in late 1944 and 1945.
The day began on a solemn note with a visit to the Groesbeck Canadian War Cemetery. Professor Copp prepared us for the cemetery by placing in context the Canadian soldiers’ experience after the Scheldt to the eve of Operation Veritable. After the Canadians pulled out of the Scheldt they were exhausted and they were sent to hold the line along the Maas and the Nijmegen salient. For all intents and purposes this was meant to be a rest period (there were a few unexpected clashes, like that with German paratroopers at Kapelsche Veer), and for almost three months the Canadians were given time to train while fresh troops arrived. Reinforcements, including about six thousand conscripts, brought everyone up to strength. There were careful attempts to conceal the conscripts from the others, but they fought well and the issue rapidly disappeared overseas. In addition, the Canadians took part in a number of “experimental” raids incorporating new techniques and/or technology, like the use of radar to locate mortars.
On 15 December 1945 the Germans launched the “Battle of the Bulge.” The Nazi onslaught was ultimately a failure. By early January 1945, the Canadians fought themselves back where they were on the previous 15 December. While the media and home front had been worried by the German offensive thrust, the generals and soldiers felt that the war was nearly over. Professor Copp believed that this set the context for the Yalta Conference. By February the Allies were prepared to launch their final offensive across the Rhine and into the heart of the Reich, and Canadian and British formations under General Crerar (composing the largest collection of troops ever commanded by a Canadian officer!) were charged with clearing the Rhineland.
“Operation Veritable,” as the operation came to be known, was planned to begin while the ground was still frozen to facilitate the movement of armour. However, when the Allied offensive was launched on February 8 (preceded by a massive air and artillery attack on the German positions), things did not go according to plan. There was a thaw and heavy rain, proving once again that plans and preparations are still at the mercy of weather. Mud and flooded ground hindered the Canadian advance, on occasion forcing the Canadian troops to slog their way through three foot deep water. A month of fighting on this watery landscape would take a terrible toll as the Canadians suffered over five thousand casualties.
The land on which this cemetery stands is the gift of the Dutch people for the perpetual resting place of the sailors, soldiers and airmen who are buried here.
The Groesbeck Canadian War Cemetery is an imposing landscape, containing the graves of 2350 Canadian soldiers killed during the heavy fighting of the battle of the Rhineland and the crossing of the Rhine, and also all those Canadians in Northwest Europe with no known grave. From the back end of the cemetery one can look into the Rhineland and into Germany. This is fitting, as many of the Canadians buried in this cemetery were brought across the Netherlands-Germany border after the war; General Crerar himself decreed that Canadians killed during the war were not to be interred in German soil. A list remembers those Canadians with no known graves.
I had an unusual, if not almost guilty feeling as I wandered through the cemetery today. The tears did not run down my cheeks this time, and this absence of physical emotion has left me bewildered. Am I hardening to the painful realities? Or am I now familiar with the mixed emotions of grief, sorrow, and pride that I feel in each cemetery and thus less likely to shed tears? Is my body simply fatigued from the tumultuous range of emotions I have experienced on this journey? I do not have a simple answer to these queries, but the very thought of the cemeteries continues to precipitate a chill in my spine and a series of unique emotive responses.
We crossed the border into Germany for the afternoon. There is a small memorial at the start line of Operation Veritable, right in front of the Reichswald. Almost like a silver bullet standing upright, the marker is inscribed (in Dutch and English):
From this point around three hundred thousand
British and Canadian soldiers
set off on 8 FEB 1945 for Wesel and the Rhine
on Monty’s Operation VERITABLE
Pilgrim, strive with whatever it takes
to realize your ideals.
It is hard to imagine that what is before me is an ARMY battlefield.
We then headed off to Moyland Wood, where the 30 British Corps was devastated by casualties. Once one breaks through the forest there is a wide range of open ground. Moyland Wood is a natural forest on a slight embankment, not a state forest (like the Reichswald or Hochwald, with their rows of planted trees). The open ground surrouding it was a perfect fire zone for the German defenders, who could hammer the Allied flank from the dominating salient. Lt.Gen. Simonds decided to use 7th Brigade to clear Moyland. They endeavoured to take it from the south side without any understanding of how deep the wood was, how heavily it was defended, and how freely the defenders could enter the trees from the north. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles eventually cleared the woods with flamethrowers and WASP tanks, working their way through it square by square. Moyland Wood was the worst operation for 3rd Division since the struggle for the Leopold Canal, and according to Professor Copp it should have been at least a two brigade objective. The Allies simply misjudged how committed the Nazis were to its defence. I would be inclined to agree given what I have read and his vivid depiction of events.
There was a very different feeling when I crossed into Germany. Certainly this would have been reinforced by the local populations, who I cannot imagine would have openly welcomed visitors on a Canadian military history tour. There are, of course, no markers to commemorative objectives like Moyland Wood. Furthermore, there are no cemeteries in Germany containing the graves of Canadian infantry or armoured personnel (save one soldier in the Reichwald Forest cemetery); the bodies were taken back into Holland. The only Canadians whose bodies reside in the region are marked by 706 RCAF headstones in the Reichwald Forest War Cemetery and 516 in the Rheinberg War Cemetery.
Following our visit to Moyland Wood, we turned around and worked our way back into Holland. Our final objective of the trip was to the Overloon War and Resistance Museum. The outdoor and indoor museum complex boasted several buildings and many vehicles, artillery pieces, and even airplanes (all of which were helpful to get a sense of scale and to compare to one another).
Entering the main museum exhibits, the visitor was greeted with the following message:
The documents and weapons here present are the witnesses and symbols of the inhumane violence perpetrated in war. May they urge you to reflect for a while upon the present-day situation in the world, in which not everybody lives in freedom, violence against humans is a daily practise and universal peace, which we all seek, alas, still appears to be an unattainable ideal.
My thoughts returned to the interpretation outside of the German cemetery at La Cambe, where a similar message had been conveyed. It was interesting that here, in Holland, no one seemed to have a problem with a Dutch museum drawing the ‘lessons learned’ and the experiences of the Second World War together with present atrocities.
I found the museum to be quite touching in several respect, most notably its hauntingly disturbing Holocaust memorials. Clearly the focus of the main exhibit was on the domestic Dutch experience. I was disappointed in the abysmal lack of content regarding Canadian contributions. Given the almost legendary status the Canadian soldiers are said to hold in collective consciousness of the Dutch people (alluded to by several veterans that I have spoken with, and historians like Jack Granatstein who describes the touching greetings to vets on Dutch streets during the fiftieth anniversary ceremonies), the visitor finds no such indication here. At Overloon the Canadian contributions are melted in as ‘British’ initiatives, and scarcely appear as distinctly Canadian efforts. Nor does one find any mention of the Dutch royals in Canada during the war, remembered in Ottawa each summer during the Tulip Festival. As the last official ‘historical’ stop on our trip, I feel that Terry’s warning, that Canadians are the only ones committed to keeping the memory of their Second World War sacrifices alive, has unfortunately been substantiated one too many times. We cannot afford to let the story of Canadian soldiers during the war disappear.
At about 1900 hrs, we assembled at our hotel in Njimegen, dressed in our most formal attire. After some photo opportunities on the hotel patio, we ventured towards the water for our farewell banquet aboard a decommissioned riverboat. It was a joyous occasion filled with reminiscing and humourous anecdotes, complemented with copious amounts of wine and beer. The food was marvelous, and I was forced to savour my meal as most of us took a turn at offering toasts. I, for one, raised my glass and offered my thanks to Serge and Jeanine for their wonderful contributions to the tour. At the end of dinner we presented Terry and Linda with a print as a token of our appreciation. As we prepared to leave the restaurant we milled about for a while, offering one another our formal goodbyes (of course we knew we would see each other afterwards, but it just seemed fitting) and posing for a few snapshots.
I must admit that I am extremely fatigued at this point. As I am heading off to Rotterdam in the morning to visit my girlfriend’s best friend, I declined to go out to the fairgrounds with the others.
(Tuesday, 16 June 1998 to Friday, 19 June 1998)
After rallying myself out of bed at the break of dawn (well, okay, not quite!), I prepared myself to break away from the group and carve my own path to visit Irene. At 0900 I boarded the train for Rotterdam, having said my final goodbyes to my new friends with whom I had learned so much over the previous weeks. On the train I experienced mixed feelings; sentiments of deep satisfaction with what I had experienced; sorrow at leaving the group behind; excitement over meeting up with Irene; anxiousness to make my way back to Canada; and a desire to sometime return and continue my quest for greater understanding. I can never be the same again.
It was wonderful to see Irene, a Canadian of Dutch ancestry now living and working in the Netherlands. She met me at the airport, and we went back to her apartment, catching up on gossip and the latest news and discussing our lives in various levels of detail. The morning quickly turned into evening and we hastily made our way to meet her new boyfriend, Nir, of whom I had heard a lot but none of us had met. He was a delightful man and a wonderful match for my friend.
The following morning we were off to Antwerp, the diamond capital of the world, to tour around and (I had hoped) purchase diamond earrings for Jenn. Unfortunately, upon arrival, I realized that I was far to much of an amateur to make an enlightened choice on diamonds, never mind which establishments would be reputable nor what would comprise a good deal. With Irene’s urging I gave up on this train of thought, opting instead to buy Jenn a variety of smaller gifts. On our travels we took in the local landmarks, shopped around, and ended up spending the better part of the afternoon in a McDonald’s (of all places!) talking up a storm. It just goes to show you, its not where you are, its who you are with that determines the agenda!
We returned to Rotterdam that evening, only to prepare for a day trip to Amsterdam the following morning. Once again Irene and I got off to an early start. During the train ride she explained much about Dutch culture, politics, the countryside, economics, etc., revealing that many of the concerns we dwell upon in Canada (for example, immigration questions and social welfare) are much exacerbated here and with more dramatic results. More and more I feel an appreciation of what we have accomplished as Canadians in terms of our nation-building exercise. This substantiates my belief that Canadians in general would be much more content if they spent more time exploring abroad.
Our time in Amsterdam was a blast. Our conversations were not what I would ever have imagined with Irene, and these, more than the city itself, have left a deep impression on me. After Irene calmed me down from a fit of “what should I get her, and him, and … ad infinitum,” we visited the Reichs Museum and beheld classic works of western European art, followed by a brief sojourn into the infamous ‘red light district,’ where we did not smoke or touch any of its notoriety (thought a few of the small boutiques yielded some eye-raising discoveries!). Irene speaks perfect Dutch, which I feel was a lifesaver and allowed us to experience more of the town than the average, Anglophone visitor. After dusk we caught the train back to Rotterdam and briefly celebrated the graduation of one of her friends. I spent the remainder of the evening putting my stuff together for the return to Canada.
Friday was my last day in Europe. I woke up and gathered my belongings, which had now grown to a seam-bursting day pack, an over-packed hiking backpack that extended far above my head and was at its maximum expansion in width, an attachment that Mike had lent me, and a large box that I planned to take as a carry-on containing my presents. In retrospect, it would have been helpful to pack another compact bag at the onset.
After a pleasant breakfast at Irene’s, her father (who has resided in Holland for many years) came by and I met him for the first time. He offered to take me to the train station, saving me the clumsiness of a tram ride with all of my belongings. After another visit to meet one of Irene’s good friends, Mr Bruggeman and Irene deposited me at the correct departure gate for the train and bid me farewell. At this point, after having concluded my trip on such a high note, I was comfortably prepared to return to Canada. I must admit I was a little apprehensive about taking the train without the help of a reliable tour guide and translator (they had always been around, whether the other tour members or Irene!), but I managed to stumble off at Skripol airport as planned. I had no difficulty getting on the plane, although the flight was delayed, first by forty-five minutes, then for another hour after boarding.
Whether it was excitement or discomfort, or a mixture of both, I did not sleep much on the flight. I must admit that KLM is the most impressive airline that I have ever flown with, and the trip went without a hitch. Once in Toronto, I was worried that my ponytail, the fact that I had been in Amsterdam, and the sheer bulk and type of luggage that I was returning with (like the big, brown box in my arms!) could delay my dispatch through customs. This concern was for naught, and I had all of my luggage in hand and was through customs in short order.
I burst through the doors to the welcoming area and … there were dozens of people waiting!!! Well, its fair to say that only one of them were looking for me in particular, and that the wide smile on her beautiful face was not difficult to spot in the crowd. It felt wonderful to hold Jenn in my arms and find myself greeted with a welcoming smooch. She knew who I was, so I must not have changed in my physical appearance during the tour. Inside, however,
in my mind, in my soul, and in my heart, I returned having experienced an unequivocal, sober awakening; a newfound bridge between past and present;and a better sense of what it means to be Canadian and proud of it.
In his recent book on the current direction of Canadian historiography, Professor Jack Granatstein (now head of the Canada War Museum in Ottawa) has argued that educators, politicians, and social activists have ‘killed Canadian history.’ We have distorted our past beyond recognition, he argues, and selectively recreated history to justify current socio-political campaigns. In Granatstein’s view, nothing has been beaten up more than our conceptualization of World War Two.
I share his concern that our collective memory of the war has been bastardized through the writing of biased, politically-motivated, ‘political correct,’ and generally ‘bad’ history. The other day, while cruising the Internet, I found a Canadian web site that suggested it was breaking new ground by illuminating the contributions of Canadian women to the war effort, a subject it claimed was unknown in this country. In fact, it contained little that was not common knowledge for anyone that had taken a high school or undergraduate history course in post-Confederation history, and certainly did not break any new ground whatsoever. As I read through the document, I realized that most people would have been familiar with all of the concepts described: oppressive sexism, the CWACs, increased presence in the labour force, and so on. All of which, of course, are important facets of study. However, I also came to think that few Canadians with an undergraduate in History from, say, the University of Waterloo, would be able to identify the battle of the Scheldt, or the closing of the Falaise Gap, or Beaumont Hamel, or the liberation of Boulogne, as Canadian events. It is time that we, as a country, moved past the outdated concept (expressed by some academics and social critics) that our educators are caught up in describing the exploits of White, male soldiers in Europe at the expense of domestic developments during the war. Those days are gone, yet the rhetoric remains. In fact, as many of us discussed during the tour, it is difficult to find a Canadian history course that goes into any detail about ‘military’ history. We were taught much about conscription, changes in the labour force, racism on the home front, and macro-foreign policy developments during the world wars, but little to nothing of what happened on European soil. I hope that those of us who experienced this tour will challenge those out-of-touch crusaders who still claim that we put too much emphasis on the ‘militarism’ of the wars. They have taken us too far the other way. My generation needs to learn about what happened overseas. We cannot afford to let the story of Canadian soldiers during the war disappear.
I never thought of myself as the type of person who would study military history. I grew up in household where my mother look on militarism with disdain and, as she now confesses, little interest was vested in deciphering why things happened. Guns were bad, and my G.I. Joe figures were a mockery of something that was ‘not a game’ according to my relatives. I still appreciate that war is horrible and sometimes criminal, but I have never been sold on the sort of ‘black and white’ history that my mother once offered. In my unwavering quest to understand why we have become the Canada of today, my searches often began and ended with the world wars. Certainly, as Granatstein argues, Canadian historians have displayed a propensity in recent years to dote on the unsavoury, domestic implications of the war in Canada, and not on the experiences of those who served overseas. I noted this void in my education early on and have spoke out against it ever since. I do not, however, share his pessimism on the future. I am a product of the university setting of the nineties, who has seen the war glazed over in numerous general history courses and has been ‘victimized’ by the socio-political biases of some academics, but I have still developed an intense appreciation for and desire to learn more about what Canadians experienced overseas. I also love that fact that my mother, the consummate critic of all things military, has recently taken a joy in reading literature on the world wars and the human side of conflict!
About two weeks before I left on the tour, I sat down on the couch with my partner Jennifer and went over what I hoped to accomplish on my journey.
First, and perhaps foremost, I wanted to explore ways of integrating high-level intellectual involvement and learning with having a lot of fun. My intensity and enthusiasm on both fronts can sometimes preclude the two pursuits from occurring simultaneously.
Second, I wanted to go into the trip without drowning myself in the literature that exists as I have a predisposition to do. I am, avowedly, someone who is chronically over-prepared, a trait that has not hindered me in my academic pursuits but nevertheless was something with which I wanted to experiment. I read a few books on Normandy and talked about the war with friends and professors, but wanted to ensure that I did not draw any conclusions before I walked the terrain and breathed the European air.
Third, I wanted another occasion to meet a variety of bright Canadians from across Canada. In the summer of 1992, at the end of secondary school, I was privileged to partake in a government-sponsored French language bursary program at the Cégep de Trois-Rivières, an experience that has contributed lasting friendships and precipitated lifelong learning. At the end of my undergraduate career the time was ripe for another such experience, and the opportunity that this study tour provided appeared ideal, bringing together a group of Canadians with research interests similar to my own.
Last, but certainly not least, the passing of my grandfather on 25 December 1992 meant that his story about the war would be left largely untold. My sister interviewed him about his experiences as a high school student, but unfortunately her recording is missing. On a personal level, it would be tragic if his sacrifices and experiences during the Second World War were truly lost for his younger grandchildren and, with the birth of my sister Natalie’s first child, his great-grandchildren. On a broader scale, I aspire to become an academic and teach at the post-secondary level. To understand present-day Canada, one must understand where we have come from. The Second World War was, I would argue, the most pivotal event in our national history. I touched all Canadians, and none more than those men and women who served overseas. Those who returned did so with a new outlook on the world, with new expectations, and with new optimism that contributed so much to where we are today. The memory of those who remain buried in European soil obliges me to ensure that their story is not forgotten. This was my chance to begin to understand it for myself, so that I may eventually pass what I have learned and experienced on to others.
In all of these respects, the 1998 Canadian Battlefields Foundation Study Tour was an unqualified success. The knowledge attained and emotions experienced during the tour went far beyond my wildest expectations.
The knowledge and heightened perceptions that I gained during the study tour were the outgrowth of superb intellectual guidance, conveyance of knowledge and approaches to study provided by the tour leaders and my colleagues. I will deal with each in turn.
On the study tour, Professor Terry Copp shared his intimate knowledge of the Normandy and Northwest European campaigns with clarity, passion, and insight. He made the past come alive and into focus, teaching me to think and question in an entirely new way. I cannot thank him enough.
Linda Copp, who spent most of the tour with a video camera in hand, was always a positive force. While the rest of us ranted in the back of the van or slept, she navigated with her husband and helped keep us on schedule. She and Terry are an amazing team.
Jeanine Stingel has a wonderful ability to make people feel comfortable. I felt relaxed in front of the camera, which is not an insignificant feat, and I owe this to her and Linda. She has a marvelous mind and is undoubtedly a first-rate historian who we will hear much more of in the years to come. We engaged in wonderful discussions on historiography and history (including the Guibord affair, with which she was well versed!), and she shared insights with me, drawing upon her broad knowledge of our Canadian experience. I am sure that she is already a great professor and will go far.
Serge Durflinger, Terry’s trusted Second-in-Command, burst onto the scene midway through the trip with his profound knowledge and enthusiasm. He and Jeanine also make quite a team, as I offered during my toast at the final banquet. The Canadian War Museum is very fortunate to have such a gentleman on their staff, and I am sure he will add much to that institution.
Mike Steinberg was my first roommate, a great friend, and a truly decent human being. He is one helluva tactician, and I am sure one of the ablest MCpls this country has to offer. If all NCOs and servicemen in general were like Mike, I can assuredly say that most of our current host of military concerns would be non-existent. We spent many an hour partying, and just as much time in serious conversation about any number of subjects. He also taught Steve and I how to salute, which I now do ad nauseum.
I have the highest respect and admiration for Nicole Windsor. Her personality is witty, intelligent, and compassionate, and she puts me at ease, as though I have known her forever. Her warm smile had a value for the tour much beyond description. She will undoubtedly make a marvelous lawyer, and I anticipate that we will see her name in the corridors of power in the years ahead.
Steve Osterberg, the other ‘long-haired freaky person’ on the tour, was a joy to be around. An intelligent man with an eye for adventure, he taught me a thing or two about mixing learning and fun. He has a ton of enthusiasm and compassion and will make a wonderful educator — so long as he doesn’t climb something out of his league, although I cannot imagine such an obstacle in existence!
Kelly Deschênes was another good friend on the tour. Always congenial and laid back in his demeanour, he was a delight to be around. In his overview of ‘Totalize’ he showed himself to be a great lecturer, whose skills will no doubt be put to good us at RMC. He is a veritable officer and a gentleman.
Apart from his snoring (he was my second roommate), Jeff Rivard is the strong, laid back, quiet type. He has a fine historian’s mind, with an impressive ability to digest material and ask the right question or offer a key insight. I can hardly wait to read his upcoming thesis.
Sharon Roe is a feisty, engaging individual and a lot of fun. I had the pleasure of spending a lot of time conversing with Sharon, who is not afraid to offer dissenting opinions and challenge prevailing concepts – all traits that I hold in the highest esteem.
I was pleased to meet someone from the University of Calgary on the tour, as that is where I am heading for graduate studies in the Fall. Deborah Ng, an engineering student with a keen interest in military history but not a lot of background in the subject, has an inquisite nature and a strong ambition to learn, as well as an inherent ability to synthesize matters and extract the key concepts. Although she has a quiet, reserved sort of appearance, she often surprised me with her sharp witticisms.
Patrice Collin is an energetic, congenial, and intelligent man with an unparalleled interest in the history of Canadians during the Second World War. A veritable French Canadian through and through, his penchant for fast driving kept our excursions exciting. Despite his self-reservations he should definitely do graduate work in military history – he really has a gift for it.
Without the apparently unlimited militaria knowledge of Andrew Iarocci, I do not think I would have taken away half of what I did from the museums. He kept us laughing with his clever quips and remarks, and we could hardly wait to see what he would buy next. Someday I am sure I will see him driving through southwestern Ontario in his vintage military jeep once he gets it up an running.
Kate Fitzpatrick, the bilingual Anglo-Montrealer with the legendary Jos Montferrand-like boyfriend back home, had a contagious smile, lively personality, and infatuation with my silk pajamas. I think that she may have felt the essence of the war and dealt with the morality of the conflict more thoroughly than the rest of us, at least if outward appearance is any indication. I respect her strong beliefs and unyielding delineations between right and wrong, even though I did not always agree with them.
On the aeroplane at the beginning of the tour, I quipped that, from the brief biographies Professor Copp had sent us, it was obvious that we were a bunch of ‘cracker jacks.’ Little did I know how true that statement would prove to be. Not only did we gel as a cohesive unit almost immediately, but we all maintained a sense of communal camaraderie throughout the tour. Each of us had something to offer and we all participated. I really could not have asked for a better group of compatriots with whom to tour the battlefields.
There were pleasant additions to the study tour. Although not an ‘official’ member of the 1998 contingent (he was a participant last year), Lieutenant Colonel Patterson was a superb addition to the group. Due to airline strikes he was stranded in Europe well beyond his anticipated date of departure, and we had the distinct pleasure of keeping him on a week and a bit longer than expected. He offered a wealth of information on the Normandy campaign, took us on many ‘optional’ excursions (including McDonalds), and shared some of his resources with me.
Brigadier Denis Whittaker, DSO, and his wife Shelagh brought their superb, and in Denis’ case first-hand, knowledge of the Normandy Campaign to life. I am honoured to know them both, and wish them well in writing their new book.
Lieutenant General Charles Belzile and Lieutenant Colonel Mac Savage, a former signals officer, actively participated with us at various stages of the study tour. Each brought unique perspectives and contributed to the overall experience. It was an honour to have them both present.
At the Abbaye, two members of the QOR band stationed at Moss Park Armoury in
Toronto, joined us to serve in the D-Day ceremonies. Bob and George were a bundle of energy, great musicians, and I could not think of two better guys to share drinks with in the evenings.
A special thanks also to Kelli, Mare, and the other tour guides from Beaumont Hamel who wined and dined with us during the tour. They were marvellous ambassadors for our country.
And last, but certainly not least, a deep and heartfelt thanks to the Canadian Battlefields Foundation for making this all possible. If each Canadian could experience what I have on this tour, I truly believe that this country would be a better place, with a much more resolute appreciation for the richness of our history and of those common ties that bind us together.
P. Whitney Lackenbauer
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IN FLANDERS FIELDS
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amidst the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt down, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you with failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.