Thursday 28 May
The flight was at 17:50 Toronto time. As I found my seat I heard “There’s another one of the military ones – you get to sit between the two long-haired hippy freaks!” What an introduction! Steve Osterberg and Whitney Lackenbauer found it very funny that with their long hair they were on a military trip with “military types.” Although I was not in the military, they lumped me in that group because they read that I was a member of the Queen’s York Rangers military band. Steve is an MA student at Laurier and Whitney is at Waterloo. They were both reading about the murdered POWs in Normandy. Sitting behind us were Mike Steinberg and Deborah Ng – two “real” military types. Mike is a Master Corporal in the 6 Field Engineer Squadron and Deborah is a Private in the King’s Own Calgary Regiment. Early in the trip we spotted Andrew Iarocci about three rows behind us. We tried to get the man beside Mike to switch seats but he would not, so we did not really get to talk to Andrew until we landed. We found out later that he is a student at Western and has a passion for military artifacts.
None of us could sleep on the plane because we were all so excited. We spent most of the flight getting to know one another. Think about it – a bunch of military history geeks together. We all have different levels of knowledge and experience. We talked about our interests and specialties. We were all very anxious and hyper. The flight was quite uneventful. We were all impressed with KLM. The service was wonderful – lots of food and drinks, even hot napkins. You really noticed a difference after flying budget airlines such as Canada 3000 or Air Transat.
Friday 29 May
We reached Schiphol, the Amsterdam Airport around 07:30 Amsterdam time. We were finally able to talk with Andrew. I finally got to use my British passport. I walked right through customs but then I had to wait for the others. You could tell that we were now in Europe. People were smoking everywhere and they were selling beer at 8 o’clock in the morning. Well – we had to abide by the local customs so – Heineken all around! We decided that we were going to get along just fine. The group coming from Montréal must have thought we were crazy. When they showed up, we were drinking beer and having a great time. We introduced ourselves and promptly forgot everyone’s name.
Included in the Montréal group were Kelly Deschênes, a Lieutenant in Le Régiment de Hull and a lecturer at RMC; Kate Fitzpatrick, a student at McGill; Patrice Collin, a student at Ottawa U. and volunteer guide at the Canadian War Museum; Jeff Rivard, an MA student from New Brunswick; Nicole Winsor, a student at Mount Allison; and Janine Stingel, a Canadian historian on the trip to help with the sound recording. It would take a few days before all of this information was processed. Until then, we all smiled a lot.
The flight to Paris at 09:40 was fairly boring. We talked a bit but by this time we were all very tired. We reached the Charles de Gaulle Airport at about 12:30 where we first met Professor Terry Copp and his wife Linda. It was interesting, finally, to meet in person someone that you had talked to via phone and e-mail. We found our luggage and set off for the vans. I was supposed to be a driver but was told that I had only sent the front half of my licence and therefore could not be put on the insurance – at least I was not the only one – three others had done the same.
Our trip to the past began with World War I sites in the Somme Valley. In 1916, the Germans held the initiative and on 21 February they struck at Verdun “determined to bleed the French Army to death.” The British and French planned a “Great Offensive” in 1916 to take the pressure off. The Somme Valley was chosen as the location. This battle was intended to wear down the German Army but unfortunately they were well prepared. The offensive, from 1 July to mid-November 1916, turned into attritional warfare and produced 1.2 million casualties, evenly shared by both sides. The British suffered 58,000 casualties including 20,000 killed. Thirty-two battalions lost more than 500 men out of an average strength of 800.
Our first stop was in Thiepval. The 36th Ulster Division lost five and a half thousand men in the first two days of July 1916. The Irish were the only Allied unit to obtain their objective on 1 July 1916. On 1 July, following a very effective preliminary bombardment, the Ulstermen quickly took the German front line and moved to the crest so rapidly that the Germans had no time to come up from their dug outs in the Schwaben Redoubt. So successful was the advance that by 10:00 some Royal Irish Rifles had reached the German Second Line south of Grandcourt where, unfortunately, they came under their own barrage, not due to lift from there until 10:10. This successful penetration of the German lines had to be largely given up before nightfall because it was not matched by the attacks by other Allied forces up the Ancre valley to the north or on Thiepval to the south. The German machine-gunners cut down the Lancashire and Northumberland Fusiliers on the left of the 32nd Div. in Thiepval, and attempts to take the village had been abandoned. The Ulstermen were thus exposed in a narrow salient (long narrow strip of land), open to attack from three sides, and were running out of ammunition and supplies. A full German counter attack at 22:00 finally forced them to withdraw, giving up most of their gains, including the Schwaben Redoubt. The village of Thiepval was not to fall to the British until late September, and the Schwaben Redoubt remained in German hands until mid-October 1916.
The Ulster Memorial Tower is a memorial dedicated to the 36th Ulster Division and to Northern Ireland’s soldiers in other units. Built in 1921, it was the first memorial on the Western Front and was a replica of Helen’s Tower, Clandeboye, Co. Down. A plaque placed in the grounds by the Royal Irish Rangers commemorates the soldiers of the 36th (Irish) Division and nine recipients of the Victoria Cross. This site did not really provoke much emotion among us. This was our first stop, and as of yet, we were well removed from the horrors of the battle. We had all seen monuments before. To me, it was just another museum filled with artifacts and numbers and statistics. I did not fully appreciate the scope of the disaster.
It did hold some personal interest in that my father is from Belfast. He did not serve in World War II, but I had one uncle (and several great-uncles) that served in the RAF and another in the Merchant Marines. I have no idea about my paternal grandfather who died when I was very young. I come from a family where war was never talked about. For example, I found out a week before I left that my maternal grandfather was a Stoker 1st Class on the Frigate HMCS Frontenac – he would not talk about his experiences. It was only after he died that my grandmother sent for his records.
At the entrance to the Tower, Terry gave us his first lecture about historiography. We were to try to understand that people believed at the time that the war necessary. They believed that the world would be destroyed if Kaiser Wilhelm and the Germans won. With previous wars in their minds, most people thought that these dramatic battles would lead to quick success. On 1 July 1916 the army and soldiers were optimistic that the battle would lead to a breakthrough. Even when it didn’t, they still thought it to be glorious. The people in the 1920’s set out to “build a memory” or idea about the war. In Canada we believed that we (our soldiers) had done great things for a great purpose. This theme would come up repeatedly while visiting these battlefields and monuments.
Our next stop was Beaumont Hamel, the site of a horrific Newfoundland Regiment massacre. Newfoundland was a part of the British Empire in 1916. Because it is now a part of Canada, the battlefield is considered a Canadian site. (The Canadians were still on the Ypres Salient when the battle began). This battle was also part of the Somme offensive. This site evoked a very different memory – one of ongoing sacrifice. The memory is bleak and dismal, but also proud. In this battle there were 700 casualties, including 230 dead, in thirty minutes. Think about it – 700 men in thirty minutes. Those numbers are staggering. As for casualties relative to the number of men engaged, this battle was among the most murderous of the entire battle of the Somme. In two days, over half the Division was lost (casualties). In the entire battle of 141 days, there were more than one million casualties. The first twenty-four hours saw 57,470 casualties alone. In Britain, “the Shadow of the Somme” now affects the national psyche. With numbers like that, it is hardly surprising. The battle began on 25 June and was so loud that the people of England could hear it.
Two of the reserve battalions of the 88th Brigade, the 1st Newfoundland and the 1st Essex Regiment, were ordered forward to “occupy enemy’s first trench.” The two battalions were assembled in the reserve trench along the Hamel-Auchonvillers road (preserved today just inside the entrance). The 1st Essex attack was delayed for an hour, the time it took them to get their own front line through communication trenches clogged with the dead and wounded of the 87th Brigade. To avoid a similar hold-up, the Newfoundlanders moved forward “direct over the open” from the reserve trench, the lone battalion exposed to German machine-gun fire and shelling from about 250m before even reaching their own front lines. The diary showed that they advanced “by the book,” i.e. with the men properly spaced according to the formation prescribed for assaulting infantry, and all at a walking pace! Many men were cut down before they even reached their own wire and, when the survivors did so, the disaster was completed. The Newfoundlanders had to “bunch-up” to pass through the all too few lanes cut in their own wire and here, as their War Diary graphically describes, they were “mown down in heaps.” Only a few made it down the slope into No Man’s Land, past the “Danger Tree” and onto the German’s lines, where they too, were shot. When it was over, only 68 men out of 800 who had gone into action returned, with all of the officers dead or wounded. The 1st Newfoundland Regiment had been virtually annihilated – for no gain whatsoever. Shortly after 10:00 the attack was halted and, despite attempts to mount a second attack later in the day, on the evening of 1 July Beaumont Hamel was still occupied by the Germans.
The park contains a large Caribou monument on top of a hill. A path leads up to an orientation table on top of the Caribou mound, from where the entire battlefield is visible making it easier to understand the trench system. A single tree escaped the devastation of the war and still survives today, now petrified. It is known as “the Danger Tree,” named because its site was a particularly exposed observation point. The monument at the entrance to the park commemorates the 29th Division, to which the British attached the Newfoundland Regiment. The park has preserved within it both the British and the German lines of 1916, with No Man’s Land in between the two. There are also monuments dedicated to the 29th and 51st Divisions and three cemeteries included in the park.
In a population as small as Newfoundland, this one battle alone affected almost every single family. It still affects them to this day. The Sunday before Canada Day (1 July) is their Day of Remembrance. I was a part of this ceremony in 1997 as a member of the QYR band. With the exception of the 50th Anniversary of D-Day in which I participated in Toronto, that ceremony was the most moving, dramatic and awe-inspiring sight that I had ever seen. Eighty-one years later and there were still hundreds of people there with dozens of wreaths. Even Premier Brian Tobin attended. To someone from Ontario, that was very impressive. We also visited the Beaumont Hamel Legion where a painting of the Caribou Monument dominated the entrance. The members of the legion told us of the battle. It is still very much a part of their history. (However, on a side note, my roommate who is from Newfoundland did not know anything about the battle until she also participated in the parade. I guess no one in Canada is taught their history anymore). There are a number of smaller Caribou monuments dotting the French countryside.
It was here that the “numbers and statistics” began to take on meaning. There are no words to describe the feelings that I experienced as I walked in the trenches. My first thought was – how many men died on the very ground I was standing on? It was very eerie. What struck me was the fact that the front lines were so close together. The soldiers could probably see each others faces while trying to kill each other. In today’s modern warfare this would not happen. I thought about the individual soldier – what was he thinking as he ran across No Man’s Land? I have talked to World War I Vets. They told me that at the beginning of the war there was nothing personal against the Germans – being a soldier was just a job. However, as the war progressed they saw their friends being killed and maimed. It became very personal. Did these soldiers hate their German enemy? Were they just doing a job? Or, were they simply trying to survive?
It was sobering to watch school children run around the trenches playing. This is what these men fought and died for. The Caribou itself was stunning. The kids really enjoyed it because it was something they could relate to. Let’s hope they can begin to appreciate the sacrifice it represents.
The cemeteries. These were our first ones, and, in this small battlefield there were three. I spent the most time in the “Y Ravine Cemetery” which was found right next to the “Y Ravine.” So many men – so many young men. It was very chilling seeing row upon row of graves with the same date inscribed on the tombstones. What was even worse was seeing the anonymous inscriptions. “A Soldier of the Great War.” This means that there was not enough of the corpse to identify. Of course, even worse than that was the inscription “Two Soldiers of the Great War.” The implications of that were numbing. It was something you really did not want to think about.
On the good side, these cemeteries are very peaceful. They are very well maintained. You could see the respect taken in the care of this final resting place. It gives you a sense of pride to look at this peaceful place, at least here, they are not forgotten.
We learned from Terry about the medals that the British received during the war. There are three: the 1914 or 1914-1915 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. These are known as ‘Pip’, ‘Squeak’ and ‘Wilfred’. The families of those killed in action received commemorative death plaques nicknamed ‘Dead Men’s Pennies’.
Our last stop of the day was the Canadian memorial and the Tank Corps memorial at Corcelette just outside Pozieres. An attempt to break through the German defences between Thiepval and Combles was planned for 15 September 1916. How was the deadly German machine-gun fire to be overcome? The answer, it was hoped, would be the ‘tank’, designed to go ahead of the infantry and clear a path for them. The ‘tanks’ were so named because their true purpose was initially hidden behind the pretense that they were water carriers. The Allies planned to unveil this new weapon on the front between Flers and Corcelette on 15 September. Although individual tanks proved useful on that day, they were too few, mechanically unreliable, unable to cope with the shell-cratered landscape and, above all, slow. They were easy targets for German shells and the infantry soon got ahead of them. The infantry made the gains on 15 September in the usual way, against unequal odds, but the hoped-for breakthrough did not occur. Some people complained that the Allies had revealed the secret of the tank too early in 1916 before they had an opportunity to work out the proper tactics for its use.
The two Canadian divisions involved in the Battle of the Somme occupied the sector stretching from Mouquet Farm to the north of Corcelette. Supported by tanks, they distinguished themselves in the capture of the village on 15 September and in taking the renowned “Regina” trench. A granite memorial stands to the right of the road approaching the village. Its bilingual inscription tells the story: “The Canadian Corps played a valiant role in forcing back the Germans on these slopes during the Battle of the Somme. September 3rd – November 18th 1916.” Casualties reached 24,000 men. This is one of six identical memorials. It is a simpler version of memorials located at other Canadian battlefields.
After this, it was back to the hotel in Amiens. Amiens is the capital city of Picardy. Apparently there were few traces left of the city after the First World War and even less after 1944. The only item that we observed that related to the war was a plaque to the Resistance. It is inscribed: “Aux Picards Martyrs De La Resistance.”
We all went out to dinner together and got our first taste of the legendary rude French waiter! Twelve of us went to eat at an outdoor restaurant by the canal. The waiter didn’t want to serve us because it would be too much trouble! We would find this attitude prevalent across France. Several of us went for a drink afterwards and got identical service. This was very strange to us, coming from a country where money and service mean more. It was something that we would have to adjust to.
Saturday 30 May
Our first stop today was the Australian memorial near Villers Bretonneux, 15 km east of Amiens. It is located on the 1918 dividing line between the Canadian 4th Division and the Australian 3rd Division of the 18 August 1918 Offensive. Although this was considered a Canadian and Australian battle, about 40 per cent of the soldiers were British. The memorial is the Australian “Vimy”, in that, it contains all of the names of their missing soldiers. Approximately one third of the cemetery itself consists of Canadian graves.
The Germans called this battle “the Black Day for the German Army.” Villers Bretonneux was the farthest west the Germans ever got in their advance on Amiens in 1918. The Germans captured the village on 23 April 1918 but, on the following day, the 4th and the 5th Australian Divisions recaptured it. On 18 August 1918, the “Black Day” as Ludendorff, Germany’s Chief of Staff called it, the 2nd and 5th Australian Divisions advanced from the eastern outskirts of Villers Bretonneux for the start of the Allied Offensive that eventually pushed the Germans back for the last time. It is for this reason that the Australian National War memorial overlooks Villers Bretonneux and why the village was ‘adopted’ by the city of Melbourne. The memorial was damaged during the Second World War. Although restored, the superficial scars have been left as a plaque informs us “for the purposes of historical interest.”
We spent about half an hour at this memorial. The sheer size of the graveyard and the vast number of names were mind boggling. We asked about the graves and were told that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, along with the Red Cross, had spent a long time matching ID tags with the bodies. They have done a truly tremendous job. At last these soldiers rest at peace where they can be remembered. The cemetery had an air of tranquility and peacefulness about it. The enormous amount of work is evident. Most of the graves bear a unit or branch crest. If not, a Maple Leaf, a Caribou or some other insignia is used to denote their nationality. Some do not even have a name but there is always something – even if it is just a cross and the comment “known unto God.” Many graves have “believed to be . . . ” – they forgot nobody. I commented that, over here, people actually believe that Canadians gave a damn about their soldiers. We felt very proud and very emotional.
The Australians are very much like Canadians. They gave a tremendous war effort but are barely remembered in the history books. The names of their battles were written around the top of the memorial. These battle honours depict just how involved they were:
Somme 1916-18 Pozieres Bapaume 1917 Arras 1917 Ballecourt
Messines Ypres 1917 Menin Road Polygon Wood Broodseinde
Poelcappelle Avre Ancre 1918 Villers-Bretonneax Lys Hazebrouck Hamel
Marne 1918 Amiens Albert 1918 Albert 1918 (Chuignes) Mont-St Quentin
Hindenburg Line Epehy St Quentin Canal Beaurevoir
Our next stop was the “Historical de la Grande Guerre 14-18 Historique Chateau” in Peronne located in the heart of the Somme Battle. This museum is an attempt by Britain, Germany and France to portray their cultural history. The military and personal possessions on display belonged to soldiers from the principal nations involved in the war. The “Historical” illustrates the daily life of the British, German and French civilians who were swiftly drawn into the first “total war.” It presents the war history from all three perspectives. I was quite impressed at the relative impartiality and unbiased reporting. While they show normal artifacts, the museum also has an extensive collection of art and propaganda. Many images were extremely disturbing. Posters (on both sides) showed women being raped or dismembered or crucified. I guess that’s the point of propaganda.
The museum houses the largest collection of drawings by German artist Otto Dix (1891-1969). Dix was twenty-four while on the western front. His pictures were very anti-militaristic. These were not exactly my taste in drawings, but the images were still quite powerful. Dix wrote in his memoirs: “The fact is, although young at the time, one doesn’t realise just to what extent the shock was profound. For at least 10 years I dreamt that I was crawling through ruined houses or corridors where there was scarcely room to pass. The ruins were always present in my dreams.”
Our final stop of the day was Vimy Ridge. You really have to see this memorial to believe it. It is huge. It is supposed to be the biggest Canadian memorial in the world, and seeing was believing. As we drove up to the memorial, Terry explained how there are still unexploded shells left in the fields. After eighty years they are still finding shells. Occasionally these shells will kill a French farmer when he steps on one. The French Government still arranges to pick them up when they are unearthed. I have also heard that there are some fields in Belgium that cannot grow crops because of the concentration of gases still present. I don’t know if that is true but it probably is. We arranged to have a guide show us around and she explained the history of the battle and the memorial.
The memorial stands on Hill 145, the highest point of the 14 km long ridge. This Ridge was a vital part of the German defence system. Rising 61 metres above the Douai Plain, it protected an area of occupied France in which mines and factories were in full production for Germany. It was a linchpin covering the junction of the main Hindenburg Line and the defence systems running north to the coast of the English Channel. Since its capture in October 1914, the Germans had been building fortifications to add to its natural strength and dominance. It was so well fortified that all attempts to take it by Allied forces during the first three years of the war had failed.
The Commander of the Canadian Corps, LtGen Sir Julian Byng, planned an assault on a front of seven km by all four divisions abreast. To reach their final objectives on the far side of the Ridge, the Canadians had to capture the commanding heights of Hill 135 and Hill 145, which formed its crest.
The operation was conducted in four stages dictated by the German zones of defence. At planned intervals, fresh troops from each division took over the advance. The assault on “the Pimple,” a German stronghold at the northern tip of Vimy Ridge overlooking the Souchez Valley, began twenty-four hours after the main attack.
The slopes of the Ridge favoured the defenders. Because the incline on the west was gradual, many Canadians had to attack over open ground where they were prime targets for artillery, machine-gun and rifle fire. They faced three main defensive lines, consisting of a maze of trenches, concrete machine-gun strong points that had hedges of barbed wire woven around them and deep dugouts all linked by communications trenches and connecting tunnels. As well, there were vast underground chambers, some capable of sheltering entire German battalions from Allied shells.
No Allied operation on the Western front was more thoroughly planned than this deliberate frontal attack on what was a virtually invincible position. Canadian Commander of 1st Division, Major-General Arthur Currie, dictated: “Take time to train them” – and the Canadian Corps did, down to the smallest unit and the individual soldier. They laid out a full scale replica of the battle area. Canadian units carried out repeated exercises rehearsing exactly what they would do throughout the day of the attack. They gave out maps to guide the smallest units. The troops were fully informed about their objectives and their routes.
German, French and British engineers had dug many long tunnels under No Man’s Land. These were filled with explosive charges which blew up enemy trenches leaving huge craters as a new feature of the landscape. Working at night, Canadian tunnelling companies used the existing tunnels to build a new underground network for the Vimy assault. They dug twelve deep subways (underground tunnels) totalling more than 5 km in length through which assault troops moved to their jump off points. The subways protected the soldiers from shelling and permitted the wounded to be brought back from the battlefield. Some were quite short, while one, the Goodman Subway, opposite La Folie Farm, was 1.2 km long. All had piped water and most were lit by electricity provided by generators. They also housed telephone lines.
Into the walls were cut chambers for brigade and battalion headquarters, ammunition stores, communications centres and dressing stations. The largest of several deep caverns, the Zivy Cave, could hold a whole battalion. Smaller tunnels leading off the subways to the front line called ‘saps’, after the sappers who built them, were sealed until zero hour and then blown out. At that point, the Canadians pushed out to attack, right out onto the battlefield.
The maze of tunnels and caverns was one of the most remarkable engineering feats of the war. The extensive underground network reduced casualties among the advancing infantry and returning wounded, and enabled supplies to be brought up under less hazardous conditions.
A massive artillery barrage preceded the infantry assault which began on 20 March. This involved 245 heavy guns and howitzers and more than 600 pieces of field artillery. Supporting British artillery added 132 more heavy guns and 102 field pieces. All this firepower amounted to one heavy gun for every 20 metres of frontage and one field gun for every 10 metres.
On 2 April, the Allies stepped up the bombardment. By the time the infantry set out, a million artillery shells had battered the Germans. One Canadian commented that shells poured over his head onto enemy positions “like water from a hose.” More than 80 % of the German guns had been identified by aerial reconnaissance and by other spotting methods that Canadians had perfected. Few survived intact. The Germans called this period “the week of suffering.” Trenches were shattered and a new artillery shell-fuse demolished many barbed-wire entanglements thereby easing the Canadians’ dangerous path to combat.
The impact of the air war was significant at Vimy. While aerial reconnaissance yielded valuable intelligence about enemy positions and artillery sites, fighter aircraft prevented the enemy from gaining a clear idea of Allied intentions. German observation aircraft and balloons were attacked and shot down. This work was important and dangerous – balloons were defended by fighters and anti-aircraft guns. The soon-to-be-famous Canadian fighter pilot, Billy Bishop, won the Military Cross on 7 April for shooting down a balloon near Vimy.
At 5:30 on the morning of 9 April 1917, Easter Monday, the creeping artillery barrage moved steadily towards the German front lines. Behind it advanced 20,000 soldiers of the first attacking wave of the four Canadian divisions. Guided by paint-marked stakes, the leading infantry companies crossed the devastation of No Man’s Land, picking their way through the shell holes and shattered trenches. Each soldier carried at least 32 kg of equipment, and, some say, a similar weight of the all-pervasive mud on uniform and equipment. This made climbing in and out of the many trenches and craters particularly hazardous.
There was some hand-to-hand combat, but the greatest resistance, and the heaviest Canadian losses, came from the strongly emplaced machine-guns in the German intermediate line. Overcoming this resistance, three of the four divisions captured their part of the ridge by midday, right on schedule. In the final stage, the 2nd Canadian Division was assisted by the British 13th Brigade which fell under its command for the operation. The 4th Canadian Division’s principle objective was Hill 145, the highest and most important feature of the whole Ridge. Once taken, its summit would give the Canadians a commanding view of German rearward defences in the Douai plain and those remaining on the Ridge itself.
The brigades of the 4th Division were hampered by fire from the Pimple, the other prominent height, which inflicted costly losses on the advancing waves of infantry. Renewed attacks were mounted using troops that were originally scheduled to attack the Pimple. Finally, in the afternoon of 10 April, a fresh assault by a relieving brigade cleared the summit of Hill 145 and thus placed the whole of Vimy Ridge in Canadian hands. Two days later, units of the 10th Canadian Brigade successfully stormed the Pimple. By that time, the enemy had accepted the loss of Vimy Ridge as permanent and pulled back more than 3 km.
Four Canadians won the Victoria Cross, 3 in the first day. The victory did not come without cost. Out of 10,602 casualties, 3,598 were Canadians. While no level of casualties can ever be called “acceptable,” those at Vimy were lower than the terrible norm of many major assaults on the Western front. They were also far lighter than those of any previous offensive at the Ridge. Earlier French, British and German struggles had cost at least 200,000 casualties.
The memorial does more than mark the site of a great Canadian victory. It is a testament to the continuing war historiography of our country. In 1919, the Canadian War Memorial Association wanted a memorial to commemorate the achievements of the Canadian Corps. The focus was to be power, success and victory. Back then, the war was still considered a glorious success. Emphasis was not placed on death and destruction. The war was a forum where Canadians gained independence and recognition. The figures on the memorial, endurance, virtue, and valour, depict the characteristics that were deemed important. Nevertheless, eventually, revisionism began to creep into the question. By the 1930’s, war was seen as inherently evil. No decent Christian person could be seen to glorify anything about the war. The memorial was irrevocably changed. An original figure, seen crushing a German coal helmet, was considered too militaristic and so removed. The once proud and glorious memorial was turned into a grave for the unknown soldiers and the monument itself was inscribed with all of the names of the men missing in action. The focus became one of suffering.
The monument was unveiled in 1936, right after the invasion of the Rhineland. The ceremonies and speeches focused on appeasement and the need to avoid war. Designed by Canadian sculptor and architect Walter Seymour Allward, the Vimy Memorial stands on Hill 145 overlooking the Canadian battlefield of 1917 at one of the points of the heaviest fighting. It took eleven years and $1.5 million to build and was unveiled on 26 July 1936 by King Edward VIII in the presence of Prince Albert LeBrun of France and 50,000 or more Canadian or French Veterans and their families. In his address, the King noted, “It is a memorial to no man, but a memorial to a nation.” At the base of the memorial, in both English and French, are these words: “To the valour of their countrymen in the Great War and in memory of their sixty thousand dead this monument is raised by the people of Canada.” Inscribed on the ramparts are the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers posted “missing, presumed dead” in France. The ninety-one hectare (250 acre) park is adorned with 11,285 Canadian Maple Leafs and shrubs to match the number of missing soldiers.
Allward claimed that the design came to him in a dream. He described it like this: “At the base of the strong impregnable walls of defence are the defenders, one group showing the Breaking of the Sword, the other the Sympathy of the Canadians for the Helpless. Above these are the mouths of guns covered with olive and laurels. On the wall stands an heroic figure of Canada brooding over the graves of her valiant dead; below is suggested a grave with a helmet, laurels, etc. Behind her stand two pylons symbolizing the two forces – Canadian and French – while between, at the base of these, is the Spirit of Sacrifice, who, giving all, throws the torch to his Comrades. Looking up they see the figures of peace, Justice, Truth and Knowledge, etc., for which they fought, chanting the Hymn of Peace. Around these figures are the shields of Britain, Canada and France. On the outside of the pylons is the cross.”
The memorial park is well kept and clean – to the point of anal retentiveness. There are signs listing the things you could NOT do – singing, playing etc. You are not even allowed to lie down on the grass. Linda saw a young man being told by a guard to get up, and she, herself, had just gotten up! We all felt a little offended. We were Canadians and this was our monument. We certainly knew that it was a sacred spot and we knew how to behave. If we didn’t – then – speak to us. Would they throw us out for singing the National Anthem? We talked to Summer, a guide from Beaumont-Hamel. She said that since Vimy has been there for so long, everything is very regimented. At Beaumont Hamel, they are allowed to tailor their tours to the groups. For example, they can be less serious with kids. At Vimy, the guides seemed to speak from pre-rehearsed scripts. Anything that did not fit into their ‘ordered’ schedule was a BAD THING. Summer also related a story to us. As she watched a group of school children get off a bus, she heard their teacher say something to the effect of “O.K., fun’s over. It’s time for history.” We all agreed that that attitude was unnecessary and wrong but that is the attitude perpetuated by the Vimy guides.
The worst of this attitude surfaced when we toured the Grange Tunnel system. We ended up calling our guide the “Tunnel Nazi.” You had to make an appointment to see the tunnel, which we did. When we arrived, we saw that there was an entire group already waiting. Janine simply stated that she thought it was a private tour and then the fireworks erupted. Our guide, who was extremely rude, spent a good five minutes telling us off for presuming that we were so special. Even after we had said that it was no problem, she continued. We did not expect that kind of behavior from a fellow Canadian. She even made a point of telling our group that although the site was officially Canadian territory, if we did anything wrong, the French authorities would still arrest us. Once in the tunnel her attitude got worse. She hurried us through, wouldn’t let us take pictures and we didn’t have time for questions. As Andrew stated “We came half way around the world to be rushed through part of our heritage?” It was unacceptable. I complained to Veteran’s Affairs when I got home. We should not have been treated like that. (I have not received a response as of yet).
That aside, the tunnel was very impressive. It was dug out of chalk (and yes, the chalk does write on a chalkboard). Could you imagine living in that day after day? What Terry calls the “character” of the Canadian Army certainly showed here. I honestly do not think that our army could do something like that today. Someone would complain to the media that it was cruel. These men just did it because it was necessary. It was as simple as that. The pride and the awe that we felt for these men was overwhelming. We got some background history of life in the tunnels. Both sides had done a lot of digging. This meant, however, that both sides knew that the other side was also doing it. So, on top of living in chalk, the soldiers had to be careful that the Germans did not hear exactly where they were digging. If they were heard, the Germans would tunnel underneath the original tunnel and proceed to blow it up. The craters outside the tunnel entrance testify to the success of this procedure.
We saw a communications room, a CO’s room and an officers’ mess. Not exactly what you would call luxury. We also saw an unexploded shell. The shell came all the way through the tunnel but miraculously did not explode. I am curious, however, if the thing could still explode or if they have disarmed it. Probably disarmed. I must have missed that in the “Nazi’s” speech. That really brought home the dangers that the soldiers had to live with. The thought of being down there, knowing that the Germans were listening – ready to bomb – HELL. The fact that, against all odds, they persevered and actually triumphed, it’s amazing. Could we do this today? Hard to say, but I think not.
Outside we got to roam around in the trenches. I had an overwhelming feeling of walking on rivers of blood. Scary thought. We had been told that the massive amounts of blood helped the grass to grow. I think that I would have preferred a more artificial means of horticulture. It was a little difficult to get a good sense of the trenches. Erosion and time have made them very small. Nevertheless, with a little imagination you can picture how it would have been. Once again the small distances between the front lines impressed me. The same questions that I asked at Beaumont Hamel applied here as well. You really have to see these trenches and see the distances before you can begin to understand the courage and fortitude of the soldiers. Pictures do not do it justice. We ran down into the Grange Crater. It is massive. It shows just how deep the second tunnel underneath was. Mind-boggling seemed to be a very good word for much of what we had seen and would see. We left the memorial very sobered students.
Sunday 31 May
Today we saw our first Canadian cemetery. They decided to be easy on us and make it Dieppe. Wow. Out of 944 graves, 697 are Canadians, most victims of Dieppe. We had all seen the “cheesy” Bell commercial that showed a young kid calling his grandfather from the beaches. We all had to admit that, even before we had seen the beach, it made us teary eyed. Terry warned us about the emotions that we would feel. He still can not go into the cemetery (even after having been there numerous times) without being overwhelmed. We made arrangements to be alone for a little while after the visit. Terry told us to remember that Dieppe had been liberated by the Canadians in 1944. We should focus, not just on the disaster, but at the joy of eventual liberation. It would make the sorrow a little easier to deal with.
At every Canadian cemetery, we were each given a Canadian flag to put on one of the graves. It was our way of showing respect and remembrance. I wrote down the name of each grave that I put my flag on. I could not decide which grave to put it on. It somehow seemed that I would be placing that one man above the rest. Yes – irrational and emotional but that’s how I felt. I eventually put the flag between two graves marked with the inscription “Two Soldiers of the 1939-1945 War, 19th August 1942” That way I figured that I was honouring four of them. I also found one of the first three killed of the newly formed Canadian Intelligence Corps (officially founded October 1942):
L. 22063 Sergeant
Canadian Intelligence Corps
19th August 1942.
It is very hard to describe the emotions at seeing our flags marking the graves. We were not the only ones. There were various flags, flowers and cards on many of the graves. Obviously, the families of these men still care.
I would like to give some background on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. They have done such a fantastic job on these cemeteries. They are beautiful, peaceful, and in every one, you get the feeling that these soldiers will never be forgotten. The founder of the commission was Sir Fabian Arthur Goulstone Ware (no kidding). Being too old for service in World War I, he commanded a mobile unit of the British Red Cross. He recognized the importance of proper graves both in response to demands from home and for the morale of the troops. In 1915 his work in recording and maintaining graves was recognised by the creation of the “Graves Registration Commission” which remained under his command until it left the Red Cross and became part of the British Army. In 1917 the Imperial (later Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was established with the Prince of Wales as its President and Ware as Vice-Chairman, a post he held until his retirement in 1948.
The cemeteries are set up with a definite purpose in mind. The headstones are made of white granite. Each family was given space to write a message or epitaph. The Maple Leaf is carved at the top of most graves. Newfoundland soldiers (World War I) are marked with the Caribou. Many are marked with their unit or service crest. The following information is recorded: service number, full name, regiment or affiliation, date of death and a cross. Jewish soldiers have a Star of David. Ware sought advice from the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew and used the most distinguished architects of the day. Four basic principles were followed:
*each of the dead would be commemorated individually by name on a headstone or memorial;
*the headstone or memorial would be permanent;
*headstones would be uniform, and
*there would be no distinction made because of military or civil rank, race or creed.
1,700,000 men and women of the Commonwealth died in the two World Wars. Of these, the remains of 925,000 were found and their graves were marked. Where the remains could not be found, the name was placed on a memorial. There are war graves in 148 countries, mostly in 2,500 war cemeteries and plots constructed by the Commission.
There are six member governments and the cost of construction and upkeep is based on the proportion of graves:
United Kingdom 77.81%
New Zealand 2.10%
South Africa 2.07%
Newfoundland was a founding member until Confederation in 1949.
Canadian Forces Commemorated
Identified Burials Commemorated on Memorials
1914-1918 45,146 19,651
1939-1945 37,284 8,058
Both 82,430 27,709
Total Commemorated 110,139
Where to begin? I walked up and down the rows and read each and every grave. Row after row after row. Reading the same date and the same group of regiments on almost every stone was difficult. I know members of many of the current regiments. If we were to ever go to war, it could be them. The majority were in their early twenties. The entire group seemed really affected and subdued. The images were so powerful. It brought tears to my eyes to see 18, 19 and 20 year old kids lying there. When you see something like this, it really brings home our freedom. This is not a joke. These graves are real. These men died so we could be free. It’s that simple.
Dieppe – one of the worst disasters in Canadian history. These men – so eager to fight – so quick to die. Terry told us again to remember that the Canadians liberated Dieppe in 1944. With the sorrow of this Canadian disaster can come some joy at the liberation. The French lined the streets for their liberators. Apparently Canadian Army Commander LtGen Crerar got in trouble with British General Montgomery because he went to the victory parade instead of a conference. Knowing the importance of this particular town to the Canadians, I think he made the right decision. He should have been with his troops and Monty should have understood this. People associated with the military tend to think in statistics, wins, losses, battles etc. We often forget that these were individual men who died. Crerar seemed to understand that.
The cemetery was so peaceful (with the exception of an incredibly large beehive in one of the trees). Rabbits were running among the graves. What an obvious symbol for new life. The peacefulness of their surroundings was a stark contrast to how these soldiers died. I couldn’t help thinking that they must be pleased. The whole thing was so emotional. It is so difficult to put into words. You would think that it would be easy, obvious, but the words that come out always seem so trite. I wrote “We will never forget” in the visitor book. It seems like such a cliché but I know that that is the feeling of everyone on this trip.
The reasons behind the raid were numerous. The Russians were having a hard time on the Eastern Front. Stalin demanded that the Allies show good faith and open a second front to take some pressure off his armies. The Americans were eager to show the public that they were doing something. Many people claim that the Canadians also were anxious to get into battle. The Allies needed to experiment with invasion tactics but the British dragged their heels. The Battle of the Atlantic still raged making it difficult to get men and materiel across the ocean. Prime Minister Churchill preferred smaller raids. It must be remembered that the Americans had not suffered a Somme or a Vimy. Churchill remembered these losses and was determined not to have them recur.
The raid on Dieppe remains one of the most controversial battles of the war. Many questions are still unanswered. Some historians have claimed that Prime Minister Churchill was not informed of the raid. They claim that Mountbatten, Advisor on Combined Operations, and the Chiefs of Staff mounted the raid on their own. This, according to BGen Denis Whitaker, was not true. Whitaker, as a Captain, was the highest ranking officer to make it off the beach. In his research for his book, Dieppe: Tragedy to Triumph, Whitaker claims that there is ample evidence to support the fact that Churchill possessed knowledge of the raid. Canadians were seen to have been bullied into participation. Again, this was not quite true. The senior commanders such as Crerar and Montgomery himself felt that the raid had a very good chance of success. MGen Ham Roberts, the Canadian Dieppe Military Force Commander, was worried that something would go wrong but he felt that if everything went as planned, the raid would be a success. Another popular criticism was that the Canadian Army consisted of untrained troops. This was also not true. The Canadians trained extensively in England and at the Isle of Wight in particular for this raid.
One of the biggest controversies involved the intelligence gathering and security efforts of the Allies. Many soldiers were convinced that news of the raid had been leaked. This was not so. It was a series of bad coincidences and sometimes incompetence that allowed the Germans to be ready for the attack. Intelligence was not the best it could have been. There had been extensive air reconnaissance of the area and detailed maps were produced. Unfortunately, many mistakes were made in the analysis of the photos and in other areas. It must be remembered that this was a necessarily difficult job. The Germans were practicing the same type of secrecy as the Allies. Gathering intelligence was a slow, labourious and often boring job. In short, mistakes were made but often it was a matter of the nature of the job and the lack of technology. No one deliberately set out to kill a bunch of Canadians.
For a simple raid, the plan was very detailed. It called for four preliminary landings at dawn to be followed by a frontal assault on the beach itself half an hour later. The two outer flanks, code named Yellow and Orange were the tasks of British Commandos. Their task was to attack the coastal batteries on the cliffs. The middle eastern flank, Blue, at Puys, was given to the Royal Regiment of Canada. They were to clear a dominant headland overlooking the main beaches. The task of the South Saskatchewan Regiment on the middle western flank, Green, at Puorville, was more detailed. They were to clear an even higher headland. They were then to be followed by the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada whose objective was the radar installation farther inland. The main attack consisted of two beaches, Red and White. The Essex Scottish and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry respectively were to clear the beaches helped by the 14th Canadian Army Tank Regiment (the Calgary Regiment). The CATR was to push through the town and link up with the Camerons against the radar installation. This was just the bare bones of the plans. There were literally hundreds of secondary objectives.
With very few exceptions, the entire raid was a disaster. Our first stop was Blue Beach. Without exception, as every student turned the corner and saw the beach, the first words out of our mouths were “Oh My God” or “Mon Dieu.” Here was a massive expanse of beach that the Royals had to run across. You could look up on the cliffs and still see the gun batteries in place. The Royals had landed late and, as such, the Germans were well aware of their presence. Looking down from these emplacements you could see the entire beach. “Fish in a barrel” was a phrase that came to mind – “sitting ducks” was another.
One author wrote, “The enemy opened fire on the attackers long before they could reach the beach. Dead and wounded piled up in the doorways of the landing craft or sank and struggled in the shallow water. Not more than 15 of the first wave of Royals were able to reach the sea wall.” The Royals ran across the beach in the face of violent machine-gun fire. Not many made it safely across. LtCol Catto managed to lead a small party of men up the high cliff. They cleared two houses at the top but then encountered German reinforcements and eventually surrendered. Those remaining soldiers pinned on the beach were hit by mortar and machine-gun fire until they were forced to surrender. The Royals suffered 209 fatalaties that morning. It was the highest toll suffered by a battalion in a single day during the entire war. Many more men were taken prisoner. In all, only 65 of 554 men made it back to England.
Needless to say, it was quite an experience to walk across that same expanse of beach. What must it have been like? Was it courage or stupidity? We have all talked to Vets and read about it but I don’t think we can ever understand the mind set of those soldiers. This was a different kind of battlefield from Vimy or Beaumont-Hamel. You could actually ‘see’ the soldiers running across the beach, screaming, getting shot. I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, I felt pride. These were our soldiers. They were brave, skilled and honourable. On the other hand, I felt incredible despair and sadness. How many died? Was their sacrifice worth it? When you look at the country we live in, I guess it was. But what a price.
We walked along the beach for about an hour. Some of the guys traced Catto’s route and they had trouble! Not so easy even when the Germans aren’t shooting at you. On the beach, the small stones, or chert, made it almost impossible to walk. All I could think was – try doing this in full kit and under fire! The beauty and the tranquility of the beach was totally in contrast to the carnage we know to have happened. I do believe that the soldiers had to fight. Hitler’s war machine had to be stopped. But how do you reconcile that fact with the thousands (eventually millions) of deaths? And so young. Is freedom worth that price? Obviously, the soldiers thought so.
At this point, it was very hard not to feel hatred or animosity towards the Germans. But, we had to remember that, for the most part, their soldiers were just like our soldiers. They had wives, children, and families. (The SS is another story). They were told that they were defending their way of life. You cannot blame the ordinary soldier for decisions made by the top brass. Also, that type of hatred is counter-productive. The whole point of remembering is to never let it happen again. This will not happen if we continue to hate.
There was a dilapidated gun placement at the far end of the beach. It was an interesting experience to walk around it. It was covered with moss and half submerged in the water at high tide. It was in very poor condition and apparently being used as a garbage dump. It was a very good analogy for how we treat our soldiers and especially our Vets – forgotten, misused and alone.
After our walk on the beach, we drove to an anti-aircraft battery that used to house 88mm guns. Again, there was a wonderful view of the beach and the ocean. We talked about the so-called mistakes made during the raid. We tend to practice hindsight history or armchair generalship. But the question you have to ask is, what would you have done differently? Many criticized the absence of paratroopers. This was after D-Day and Market-Garden had shown their usefulness. At the time of the Dieppe raid, there was absolutely no evidence that they would have been effective. The RAF and RCAF have also been heavily criticized by both the public and the soldiers for their lack of participation. Many soldiers did not realize that the airplanes had less than 10 minutes of fuel once they reached the coast if they wanted to get back home. To the soldiers on the ground, the pilots looked timid and cowardly for leaving so quickly. People also wondered why bombing raids were not conducted first to knock out the coastal defences. The simple fact was that there was no evidence that they could actually hit anything. Bomb technology was not what it is today. They did not have the luxury of computers that calculated the angle of descent, speed, etc. The bomb was literally placed under the plane with a clamp. When the pilot thought he was over his target, he released the clamp. That was it.
The air battle was the largest in history. The Allies thought they had won when, in terms of actual numbers, they lost. But, you can look at it another way. The Germans could not afford to lose what they did, so even though we lost more in numbers, they, in fact, suffered more. Small comfort to the pilots but hurting the Germans was what it was all about. So actually, the claim that we won was not idle propaganda as some noted historians have claimed. With 106 lost aircraft, the RAF sustained its highest losses in a single day. The Luftwaffe lost 48 with 24 damaged.
When analysing this battle, we have to remember the human factor and the lack of technology. A commander cannot possibly know how his men will deal with such incredible unknowns. Sometimes they exceed expectations, other times they don’t. How could you possibly train someone to run across a field under the tremendous fire that they encountered? A commander cannot also predict when communications are going to fail. All he can do is ensure that his men have the best equipment and training available and hope for the best. Radios of the era, again, were not what they are today. What kind of contingency plans could they have made? Carrier pigeons? Signal flags and heliographs? While there were many mistakes made, mostly in intelligence and planning, it seems to me that they did the best they could with available resources. You certainly cannot fault the soldiers. They performed admirably under horrific circumstances.
Monday 1 June
Deborah and I got up early and walked around the town. We found many monuments dedicated to both the Canadians and the Allies. At the bottom of the Dieppe Chateau is a park named Canada Square. There were at least three monuments and one plaque relating to the raid. One impressive monument showed the very close relationship between Dieppe and Canada. Prime Minister King’s battlefield tour of 1946 was also inscribed there. We also found a single gravestone at the back of Eglise St-Rémy. It was inscribed “Ici le 19 Août 1942 sont tombés deux Canadiens.” What was particularly sad about this was the fact that it has been vandalized. I found that particularly disturbing. I never did learn who the soldiers were but that kind of disrespect is unacceptable. Unfortunately, we did not think to clean it up in time so Terry has made a note of making sure that it is done next year.
When we gathered with the group, we walked to the Fusiliers Mont-Royal monument on the boundary of Red and White beaches. Terry and Patrice lectured us on the battle. We talked about the changes to and flaws of the plan. For example, the timing of the original “Rutter” plan encompassed two tides. The new “Jubilee” changed that to one. That meant that they only had eight hours to accomplish the many objectives. Was this enough time? Why were the changes made? A bombing raid was also cancelled. A big problem was the lack of communication between the Air Force and the ground forces. In fact, there was none. The Air Force put on their own show. This, I will never understand. The decision was also made to train the artillery personnel to use captured weapons. Was this wise? Should they have maybe been a little more pessimistic? It’s hard to say. At the time, no one in the Allied high command had a realistic idea of the kind of fire support required in offensive operations against dug-in defensive positions. The artillery-based doctrine that emerged in North Africa that came to dominate Allied military planning for the rest of the war was quite foreign to Allied Generals in 1942.
The Essex Scottish made very little progress on the eastern Red beach. This was partially because the failure at Blue left the eastern headland in German hands. From it, they could enfilade (fire obliquely down) the main beaches. Three successive attacks over the sea wall were beaten back with heavy losses. Only one small party managed to cross the promenade and misleading reports of this success unfortunately led to the commitment of the reserve, Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal. Roberts also believed that the Royals had not yet landed and were still available as further reinforcements. As Terry has written “the fog of war was total.” The FMRs, too, accomplished little. While casualties were not as high as the Royals, they were still severe. The Essex suffered 107 fatal casualties while the FMR endured 109. This, of course did not account for wounded or PWs. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (Rileys) had a harder time on White beach although they had greater success. Landing across from the Casino on the promenade, they managed to clear it and the strongly-held pill boxes nearby. Groups of infantry and sappers crossed the boulevard behind the Casino and actually made it into town. Here they encountered ferocious street fighting. The Rileys suffered 186 fatal casualties. Honourary Captain John Weir, the regimental chaplain, won the Victoria Cross for staying with and comforting his men.
There has been much controversy about the role of the tanks in this battle. Primarily due to the fact that they were late. The first Churchill landed 10-15 minutes after the infantry. Much has been made of the fact that the “chert” got stuck in the treads which caused them to fall off. In spite of all of this, and through heavy firing, fifteen managed to cross the sea wall and provided effective support for the infantry with their machine-guns. Some could not get off the beach but instead became mini bunkers, using their guns to engage the pill boxes. Others, using rolls of chestnut paling, crossed the shingle and surmounted the low sea wall, only to discover that roadblocks across the streets leading into town formed an effective barrier. Not one of these blocks was breached by the engineers and not one tank made it into the town. Some were able to roam along the promenade firing on enemy positions but none made it through to the radar station. They did, however, cover the evacuation until the operation ended about midday. Many armoured personnel became prisoners as they stayed until the end helping with the withdrawal.
Visualizing this battle was more difficult. Much of the landscape has been changed. The Casino is gone, there are hotels and restaurants along the promenade and there are vendors and beach huts dotting the shore. There are, however, one or two buildings still standing that can be seen in the original air photos. Here, even more than Blue, it is hard to imagine the carnage in such a happy little resort town. Except for the monument, there is not much along the beach to give reminders of what once happened there. The raid was so complex that even after an hour’s lecture we still only know partial details.
Our next stop was Green beach in Pourville. Here the South Saskatchewan Regiment managed to land their first wave without encountering a single opposing shot. This, in itself, leads me to believe that security had not been broken. It was only when the Germans broadcast the news of the other landings that the general alarm was sounded. After the South Sasks had penetrated the sea wall the resistance stiffened and despite some definite heroics, they could not hold the high ground east of the River Scie.
We went first to the radar defences overlooking the beach. As with all these beaches, the Germans, again, had a clear line of fire across the entire beach. The South Sasks were supposed to hold the defences and the perimeter of the valley. Of course, they only had forty-six separate objectives! They did not hold the valley. Part of the problem was a lack of weapons. The unit did not carry mortars with them. They were heavy and used extra manpower. The rationale was that they would take them off the German prisoners. Well, they didn’t take any prisoners.
The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders were fairly successful. They were always under control. The one flaw was that Major AT Law, commander, was preoccupied with the thought of withdrawal over finishing his mission and he withdrew his men early. The Camerons had no firepower beyond personal weapons and there was no sign of the supporting tanks. The firing had died down on the main beach. Did this mean success or failure? If it were a failure then the withdrawal would be the most dangerous time. Law’s judgement was confirmed when brigade issued an order to withdraw. Without the tanks, there was not much that they could do besides individual heroism. The Camerons suffered sixty-eight fatal casualties.
We then went towards the beach. We didn’t actually spend any time on the beach itself. A bridge over the River Scie was called the LtCol CC Merritt Bridge. Legends are made of this stuff. When “A” and “D” Companies of the South Sasks arrived on the wrong side of the bridge, Merritt led several groups of men across earning the Victoria Cross. The bridge was dedicated to him by the townspeople on 19 August 1992.
We stopped for lunch on Orange 1, the beach of Lord Lovat’s Commandos. No. 4 Commandos task was to destroy a coastal battery with two companies, one from the front and one from behind (Lord Lovat). This attack was completely successful. Again, this would point to the raid not being compromised. All of us decided to do the “Commando Climb” here. It wasn’t the actual trail, but the one right next to it. (The real one had stairs built into it and Terry assured us that it was similar). The boys decided to play military and “leapfrog”up. Would you believe that two of them got hurt? Soldiers they are not.
Thus ended the tour of the Dieppe raid. The Canadians suffered 3,367 casualties including 901 fatal casualties and 1,946 PWs. As in Terry’s book, I will give the last word to a report from the HQ of the German 15th Army:
The enemy, almost entirely Canadian soldiers, fought – so far as he was able to fight at all – well and bravely. The chief reasons for the large number of prisoners and casualties are probably:
- Lack of artillery support . . .
- Underestimation of the strength of the defences . . .
- The effect of our own defensive weapons . . .
- The craft provided for re-embarkation were almost all hit and sank.
Now on to D-Day. Our final stop of the day was Gold beach at Arromanches. Here we saw the remnants of Mulberry A, the prefabricated harbour used in the invasion. There are 14 sections left in the water. What an experience. The fragments are absolutely immense. We, of course, climbed on them (right over the sign that said not to) and, of course, I fell into the water. Ah well, it’s all part of history. Just to look at these last pieces was incredible. The work that must have gone into their creation. It showed that some good things did come out of Dieppe. The military planners learned that the capture of a fortified port would be too costly in human life. Nonetheless, if the invasion were to succeed, the Allies needed a way of landing and handling the vast materiel and supplies needed by a modern mechanised army, namely 40kg per day per man. The idea of the prefabricated port was born. We would learn more about the Mulberry tomorrow when we visited the Arromanches museum.
By now we were staying at the Abbaye d’Ardenne. This was the Headquarters of Kurt Meyer of the 12th SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment. In the Abbaye garden this regiment murdered 20 Canadian PWs. We would be staying here for a week. As the week goes by, we will learn more and more about this all but forgotten part of Canadian history. The Abbaye is not open to the public. Certain groups, such as the Foundation, can reserve rooms for their students. The food and bedding etc. were brought in from the University of Caen. Our caretakers were Jean and Mireille, two very wonderful people. The place was so peaceful and beautiful. The war and simple time have taken their toll, however, but the place is slowly being restored. The Cathedral itself, Meyer’s lookout, has been condemned and the buildings still bear the marks of the 12th’s tanks. Out in the middle of nowhere, it was necessarily quiet. The perfect setting for long French dinners and conversations. Although the accommodations were spartan, you couldn’t ask for more luxury in such a peaceful atmosphere.
Tuesday 2 June
We went back to Arromanches this morning for a concentrated look at the D-Day invasion. We started the day at the D-Day Landing Museum right on the beach. This gave us our first taste of the history behind the invasion as we looked at dioramas of the landings and, because it was in Arromanches, watched a film showing the construction of Mulberry B. The museum, as usual, focused mainly on the British and the Americans but they had a decent Canadian exhibit showing all of the cap badges and some uniforms. It’s a start.
D-Day is now well known as the largest amphibious invasion in history. Involved were 156,205 land forces, more than 6,800 naval vessels (everything from warships to landing craft) and 31,000 air crews. It was one of the most spectacular and brutal battles fought in history. After more than two years of planning, five beaches on the Normandy coast were chosen, from west to east: Utah, Omaha (American), Gold (British), Juno (Canadian) and Sword (British).
One of the more spectacular concepts to come out of the planning was the idea of the artificial harbour. Churchill himself took a personal interest in this idea. In a now famous memo he wrote, “Bring me the best solution; do not waste time talking about the problems, these will look after themselves.” These harbours (two were planned) would provide shelter for shipping and would ease the problems of landing troops vehicles and supplies. Each harbour consisted of floating breakwaters (Gooseberries) forming an outer protective circle, concrete caissons (Phoenix) and derelict ships scuttled to form the perimeter of the harbour, pierheads that could rise and fall with the tide, and floating metal piers connecting the pierheads to the shore. The remains of the Mulberry that can be still seen today are the caissons and pontoons.
Mulberry B served the Allies well and was used until mid-November. Mulberry A, at Omaha beach, was destroyed in a storm on 19-20 June. Obviously, the Allies were hoping to capture other ports as they traveled north and west. Antwerp was considered a top priority because it was much closer to the advancing armies and would make the supply lines shorter and easier. The port was actually captured on 4 September. Unfortunately, it could not be used as a viable port until 28 November when the Walcheran Causeway was opened. We would visit Walcheran later in the trip to learn why.
During Christmas 1944, the Mulberry was finally dismantled. The bridging units were used to replace bridges that had been destroyed, thus saving on Bailey bridges. Some refloated caissons replaced sections of the dyke on Walcheran Island which Allied bombing had damaged. Finally, the British Army gave more than 183 steel sections of the floating jetties to the French. These were used, from 1945 to 1948, in the rebuilding of about sixty large civil engineering structures. In all, over 8,000 men worked for only eight months to build the Mulberries which, when finished, together weighed nearly one million tonnes and, besides the concrete used, involved 110,000 tonnes of steel. They supported more than a million Allied troops.
Our next stop was Juno beach, home to the Canadians. Their task was to defeat coastal defenses and advance inland, holding ground that they could defend against a major attack. They largely accomplished these tasks and, in fact, elements of the Canadians were the only groups to obtain their D-Day objective. Canada’s contribution to the landings was the 3rd Canadian Division. They were to land two brigades up with the reserve brigade waiting to pass through the divisional objective astride the Caen-Bayeux highway. The landings were scheduled just after low tide so that they could avoid mined beach obstacles. The Allies delayed H-Hour for thirty minutes because of the weather conditions and by the time landed the reserve companies, many obstacles were covered and mines caused a large number of casualties.
The assaulting infantry was to be preceded by armour, especially the Duplex Drive (DD) tanks which could “swim” ashore. Again, weather disrupted the schedule and, except at Nan Red beach at St-Aubin-sur-Mer, and part of Nan Green, the infantry landed ahead of the supporting armour.
The numbers, according to DND are very impressive. 21,400 Canadians landed on the 6th under the command of Major-General RFL Keller. The RCN and RCAF were also involved. What many people do not know is that the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion dropped in with the 6th British Airborne Division in the pre-landing drops. 3rd Div. suffered 961 killed or wounded and the Airborne suffered 113 casualties. In total, approximately 10,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded. Facing 3rd Div. was the 716th German Infantry Division, which on 1 May 1944, had a strength of 7,771 all ranks. There were also several mobile units of the 21st Panzer Division.
We were very rushed through this part of the tour and we did both Mike and Nan beaches the same day. It was very confusing to actually get the facts straight. We started in Courseulles-sur-Mer or Mike Red. Basically, at each beach, Terry would give us the details of each unit involved. (Lots of note-taking!) “Strongpoint Courseulles” was the most heavily defended area attacked by the Anglo-Canadian forces. East of the River Seulles the defenses included an 88mm gun, six machine-gun nests, a 50mm anti-tank gun and a 75mm gun in a separate casement. To the west there was another 75mm and two 50mm guns covered by six concrete machine-gun posts. German mortar teams were dug in with a carefully registered plan of the beach area so that their fire could be brought down quickly.
To the west of the river, Mike Red, “B” Company of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles landed and quickly opened a path to the minefield at La Valette and Graye-sur-Mer was captured shortly afterwards. Still further to the west, Mike Green, “C” Company of the Canadian Scottish Regiment met only slight resistance and found its primary objective, a 75mm gun at Vaux, had been hit by naval fire and had been abandoned. The nearby Chateau was taken after several hand grenades produced the surrender of a small group of Germans. The rest of the Canscots landed safely and moved inland to spearhead the advance to the Brigade objective.
We walked a little inland. Here, Terry lectured us on many misleading perceptions. The Canadians have long been considered naive, stupid or inexperienced. Conversely, the Germans have been seen as experienced and infallible. This was simply not the case. We walked to a small bridge just off the beach. It was a major crossing that would hinder the advance of any army yet the Germans did not destroy it in their retreat. Clearly not infallible military thinking. This was one of the hardest perceptions to overcome but it was very important to truly understand the war.
The Regina Rifles and “B” Company of the First Hussars landed east of the river at Nan Green. The artillery inflicted little damage as they were off the mark. “A” company of the Reginas had the hardest time as they landed in front of the strongpoint and were immediately pinned down by heavy fire. “B” Company, landing to the east and with immediate armoured support quickly got off the beach and began to clear Courseulles from the flank. “C” and “D” Companies came ashore but “D” suffered heavy casualties from the now submerged mines.
These beaches were a lot different from the other battlefields we had seen. Primarily, this battle was considered (aside from Omaha) an unqualified success. There was none of the sadness and despair that is associated with Dieppe. Canadians are very proud of their extensive role. We weren’t just helping the Allies – we had our own beach and our own objectives. For many, it was a vindication of Dieppe. This time we were taking the prisoners. At the same time, there was almost a thousand men killed. The same thoughts kept reoccurring – was it worth it? Was pride at having such a large part in the battle worth the sacrifice? If you talk to any Vets, you know the answer. Still, it’s very sad.
Behind Nan Green beach we saw “Bold”, a DD tank. This tank used two rear-mounted propellers, a waterproofed body, and inflated canvas collar on the upper surface (not there) to move through and displace water. The DD transmission (minus the screws) and the lip extending around the entire hull to which the canvas was attached can still be seen. This Sherman tank belonged to the 1st Canadian Hussars. It was one of the 5 (out of 19) that foundered on the run in. It was recovered in 1970. Many of the engineer and artillery units have added plaques to its side. These tanks provided vital support to the infantry when they encountered heavy fire from the resistance nests on the beach as well as further inland.
Earlier we had seen a Churchill Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineer (AVRE) just behind Mike Red. The AVRE transported engineer demolition teams and could ruin enemy pill-boxes with its turret-mounted 290mm mortar. The mortar could fire a 40lb projectile called a “Flying Dustbin”. This particular one was equipped with a “petard”. Here, we took our “official” group picture. Both of these tanks were from the 79th British Armoured Division under the command of Major-General Percy Hobart. His tank innovations were known as “Hobarts Funnies” or simply “the Zoo”. These tanks were very effective on D-Day
Our next stop was Bernieres-sur-Mer, Nan White. White beach was also heavily defended by the German 716th Division. The fire power included 2 50mm guns and 7 machine-guns. Two 81mm mortar positions, found 150 yards behind the beach, inflicted most of the casualties. Neither naval nor air bombardment did more than keep their heads down and the artillery firing from the landing crafts again missed their mark. Rocket projectiles fared better and helped to destroy some mines that covered the approaches to the resistance nests. The DD tanks and the AVREs of the Fort Garry Horse landed after the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada. “B” Company of the QOR landed 250 yards east of its objective, right in front of the main resistance nest. They lost sixty-five men before breaking through the defenses. Without the supporting armour, the soldiers had to run straight across the beach using grenades and sten guns to take out the machine-gun posts. “A” Company did receive casualties but was off the beach quickly. They managed to join the tanks and “A” Coy in clearing the town. The QOR were the only Allied troops to achieve their objective on that first day.
Le Régiment de la Chaudière began to land at 0830 hours, but German anti-tank guns, beach congestion, and traffic jams in the narrow village streets forced the battalion to wait in its assembly area till late in the morning. The Chauds also lost men when the tide came in covering the beach defenses. The mines could no longer be seen.
We walked along the entire stretch of the beach from Nan White to Nan Red. There is a very strong Canadian presence on White. We started our walk near the now famous QOR House. I am not sure if it was an objective or if it was just there in 44. I remember seeing it during the 50th Anniversary ceremonies on TV. There is also a bunker, called Place du Canada, that had many plaques and memorials on it. Mostly to the QOR but also to the Chauds and the Fort Garry Horse. I appreciated seeing such a commanding Canadian presence. There were Canadian flags everywhere.
The beach still looked very imposing. The open space and the length of it gave you an idea of how difficult crossing it would be. Depending on the tide, it may have been a longer route than Dieppe. Like Dieppe, imagining the soldiers running across the open expanse under fire was very easy. What courage they must have possessed. I have met some Vets of D-Day and they are, without exception, exceptional men. We were very lucky to have that kind of representation. Our walk down the beach ended in St. Aubin-sur-Mer. The distance between the beaches was not very great. You could see one from the next and it only took us about twenty minutes to walk it.
The North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment, “C” Squadron of the Fort Garry Horse and the 19th Field Regiment landed on Nan Red. Here there was an extensive resistance nest with a large underground area. Included in the complex were a 50mm gun and several concrete machine-gun posts. Behind the beach were two 81mm mortar positions. When the troops landed, they found that the defensive positions had been untouched by naval or air bombardment. “B” Coy, helped by armour captured the strongpoint late in the morning. “A” Coy, landing to the west, got off the beach quickly as did the reserve companies and 48 Royal Marine Commando that landed at Nan Red before attacking along the coast toward Sword.
We climbed on another 50mm gun casement. Although it was damaged, you could still see how thick it was. This made it almost invincible to head-on shell fire from the sea. Here, again, was more revisionist history. For the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, the French Government (I think the group was called the Comité du Débarquement) put up monuments marking the battle routes. The one at St. Aubin cheerfully mentioned how the Royal Marine Commandos had cleared the beach, never mentioning that the North Shores were actually there first. This was something that we would see over and over again. This gave us a valuable lesson. If our current generation does not teach proper military history, in another fifty years the Canadian content of this battle is sure to be completely forgotten. Considering the sacrifices, that is a tragic thought.
I remember reading a story about the 50th Anniversary. Considering the television coverage, you could believe that the Americans had cleared all five beaches by themselves. When someone mentioned to an American Vet traveling on the QEII that they were perhaps hogging the spotlight he replied that the Canadians should be doing more of it themselves. At this, a Canadian Vet replied that the American was right – but that was just the Canadian way. Maybe so, but I think that attitude has to change.
That night at the Abbaye, Whitney gave a talk on the Murdered POWs. In all, the 12th SS Panzer Division murdered 134 Canadian prisoners. This topic had been on our minds a lot as we were actually staying in a place where twenty of them had been killed. Most of us had not yet gone into the garden where it happened, preferring to wait for the ceremony Friday. Many students felt ‘spooked’ and some even had nightmares about the situation. I felt that it was a fitting tribute to the soldiers. Our presence there meant that another generation has learned of their fate and will tell others about it. They too will not be forgotten.
Twelve of the twenty dead were from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Six were from the 27th Canadian Armoured Regiment, the Sherbrooke Fusiliers. These eighteen were killed on 7-8 June. The final two, from the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, were killed on 17 June. All of the men were captured in and around Authie and Buron, small towns near the German Regimental Headquarters at the Abbaye. The caretakers of the Abbaye, the Vico’s, were involved in the French Resistance and as a consequence, were either in hiding or arrested at this time. It was not until January 1945 that they made a gruesome discovery in their garden – one of the sons found what appeared to be a jawbone. This led to an investigation and a mass grave containing six bodies was found. Another mass grave, containing five more bodies was found a month later. In April, one more body was found. In May, six more bodies were found. Finally, a last body was found against the outside wall. The remaining soldier has never been found.
Through eyewitness reports and autopsies, the fate of the soldiers was made known. They had died of shots to the head or were clubbed to death. Witnesses testified that the soldiers told the Germans nothing. It was as if they had resigned themselves to their fate. As each was led into the garden, they quietly shook hands; some wept. They were then led into the garden and shot. It was an ignoble end for such brave men. The man who has never been found was Lance Corporal George Pollard, SD&GH. They listed his age at twenty-two but apparently he lied. He had joined at the age of fifteen and was only nineteen when they murdered him.
SS Brigadefuehrer (Colonel) Kurt Meyer was in command of the 25th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of the 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitler Youth). He was brought to trial in Canada in December 1945. He, of course, denied any knowledge of the shootings (these twenty were only a small number of the dead). Nevertheless, he was found guilty on 28 December and sentenced to death, the first so sentenced in a postwar War Crimes Trial. This sentence was reduced to life imprisonment as the judge, General Chris Vokes, did not believe that the degree of responsibility was high enough. Meyer eventually served eight years at Dorchester in New Brunswick. I am told that the Canadian Army often went to him asking for advice. They also tried to convince him to enlist as he was apparently a tactical genius. How the world turns.
Ian J. Campbell has written a book on these killings called Conduct Unbecoming. Prior to that, he wrote a pamphlet entitled Abbaye d’Ardenne June 1944: Twenty Canadian Prisoners of War. At the end of this work he mentioned a visit by Meyer to the Abbaye in the 1950’s. When asked point-blank why he had lied at his trial he replied that admitting to an enemy Court that such things had been done was difficult for an officer. He then told how he had sent the NCO that had actually shot seven of the men to an untenable outpost position right after the incident, and that he had been killed the next day. Justice is mine . . .
We had a very interesting discussion on what constituted a murder during war time. The McKenna brothers practically claim that the Canadians killed indiscriminately during this period. According to Terry, there is absolutely no hard evidence of this type of Canadian brutality. He will admit that it probably existed, but not nearly to the extent claimed by these pseudo-historians. Many Vets have claimed that they “took no prisoners.” Well, this simply does not match facts with the overwhelming number of German prisoners taken. Most likely, the type of killing committed was on the battlefield. A soldier sees his comrades being slaughtered and when the German runs out of ammunition, he finally surrenders. In the heat of battle, it would be understandable simply to shoot. We all agreed that, while in a perfect world this wouldn’t happen, under the circumstances, it was understandable. What the Germans did was very different. These soldiers were taken from the battlefield, searched, interrogated (often for several days), sometimes beaten and then killed. Some were even forced to dig their own graves. I think that most people can see the moral distinction between the two.
Later that night LtCol Dave Patterson took us on a night trip to the Chateau D’Audrieu. He was a student on last year’s trip and came back this year because he wanted to learn more. He is now the Commandant of the Militia Land Forces Staff College. The area around the Chateau was the site of another mass murder campaign by members of the 12th SS. 25 members of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles had been captured during the battle at Putot. They were turned over to the 12th SS Recce Battalion, taken to their HQ at the Chateau, interrogated. In turn, they were taken in small groups into the woods and deliberately gunned down.
Simultaneously, other prisoners were being interrogated at Le Mesnil-Patry. They included thirty-three RWRs, four members of the 3rd Anti-tank Regiment and two members of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa. They were marched into a field and seated close together. Then, the SS guards advanced on the group, firing their weapons. 5 managed to escape but were captured 2 days later and remained PWs for the rest of the war. 4 more ran but were shot a short distance from the main group. Towards the end of the war, a mass grave of thirty-one bodies and a single grave were found. Two additional incidents were also uncovered. Two RWRs were shot at Le Mesnil-Patry, 1 RWR and 2 Royal Canadian Engineers were murdered at Cheux. In total: 58 members from the RWRs, 4 from the 3rd A/tk Reg’t, 2 from The Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, and 2 from the RCE.
A plaque in Audrieu reads “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 at Le Haut—on 8-9 and 11 June 1994”. The names of the men are all listed.
We walked around the woods behind the Chateau – it is now a 4-star hotel. They were quite accommodating to let a bunch of ragged Canadians traipse over their property in the middle of the night. The guests must have thought we were nuts. There was no physical evidence to see. As we walked on the trails, occasionally Col Patterson would say – they found so many bodies here – or something like that. He told us that the reason we were there was to keep the memory alive (shades of the McKennas again). If anyone tries to deny that it happened, we can say – we were there, we saw the woods, it happened. We now know enough to educate others. It was also our way of showing respect for the soldiers.
We stopped on a small street in Authie. The street sign reads “Place des 37 Canadiens.” Yet another example of the work of the infamous 12th. Thirty-seven Canadians were lain in the street and run over by tanks. That story has been proven and documented. What has not been proven was their condition at the time. Villagers say that the soldiers were wounded, but alive. There is no documentary evidence to back that up. The villagers also claim that they tried to stop it but were held back with the threat of guns. After it was over, they had to clean what was left of the soldiers off the street with shovels. When we heard about this, everyone fell silent. I think that we all inadvertently pictured it in our minds. It was a nightmare. There’s death and then there is this – how much worse could it get? We were all sickened by the story. The stories of these murders could go on and on. The SS were not human.
The distinction should be made again between the SS and the Wehrmacht, or regular army. The SS were absolute fanatics. They were a completely different breed of German. They embodied everything bad about Germany. The Wehrmacht were normal soldiers (although that point can be carried too far). Suffice it to say there were great differences. One of the big contrasts between the two was in the oath they took. A friend’s father served in the German Navy during the war. He says that the Wehrmacht oaths were to the German nation, the fatherland. The SS swore an oath to Hitler personally.
A soldier wrote a poem about these events:
Destruction and atrocities
Are kindred things of war,
That makes us wonder if this world
Is still worth fighting for.
A world where murdering monsters
Can stalk defenseless prey,
As were our nineteen comrades
Taken prisoner in the fray.
…May God, too, judge the killers
In trial by Bible truth,
And the guilty will be sentenced —
Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.
Wednesday 3 June
We started our morning with a visit to the Beny-sur-Mer Cemetery. 335 soldiers from D-Day lay here. 1,694 other Canadians and 115 airmen from subsequent operations and the advance through France are buried here. There are also 3 British and 1 French grave.
This was another devastating experience. Words still cannot describe the feelings. It seemed so ‘real’. That’s about the only way I can describe it. Now that we’re back, a lot of the emotion has gone (not all though). But I can honestly say that the emotion we all felt was very sincere and powerful. Even though we got along fabulously as a group, this was an event to be experienced alone. We all went off separately, each dealing with it in our own way. Afterwards, in the van, we would talk about it. We read the inscriptions that we liked and told what affected us the most. For some, it was the ages, others, like me, it was the inscriptions.
This was a huge cemetery. Again, I walked among the rows, reading the names and inscriptions on the graves. The simple ones hurt the most. “He spilled the sweet red wine of life that others might be free.” The inscriptions made by children really brought home the human element. These men were sons, brothers and fathers. Where do you put your one tiny flag in a cemetery of more than a thousand? Is one more important than another? I decided to put them on graves of units that I knew. Here, I put it on a Signals grave.
H. 20284 Signalman
Royal Canadian Corps of Signals
21st July 1944 Age 26
In Thy gracious keeping
Leave we now
Thy servant sleeping
We, as students, run around the battlefields, study tactics and strategy, calmly analyse mistakes and “play” commando. This is the result of real war. Everyone was crying or at least choked up. No one who has seen these graves can ever glorify war. Nevertheless, having seen them, glorifying the soldiers was very easy. Again, a trite phrase, but they made the ultimate sacrifice. I wanted to put Canadian flags on all of them. I wanted to be able to read each and every headstone – give each soldier his due recognition and respect. I couldn’t. There were simply too many of them. That upset me as I felt I should be doing more. I thought of all the people that I know in the Militia – there are a considerable number. What would I do if their names were on these graves? It’s so permanent. Devastating is not a powerful enough word.
I feel for all the parents, spouses, siblings, relatives and especially the children. I feel a mixture of pride, horror, sadness and glory. In a way, something like this brings us together as a nation. Every Canadian should be made to see these graves. Maybe it would make people realize that they fought for the very freedom we have today. We owe them a debt of gratitude for that. Some of us feel that gratitude very strongly, others don’t. That’s a shame.
And now for something completely different. We went to La Cambe, a German cemetery near Omaha beach. What an experience. Terry thought that we should see it as a contrast to the Canadians. It is very bleak and dark – very depressing. The Allied cemeteries are full of light and caring – the flowers and cards even after all this time are just incredible. Here, there are no flowers. The soldiers do not even have their own graves. The cemetery is dominated by a large mound in the middle with a very dark and Teutonic figure on the top. This is a mass grave. The singular graves are also mass graves. Each small plaque in the ground marks the site for four or more men. All that is listed is name, rank, date of birth and date of death. One contained the names of twenty-two men killed in a bomb blast. Small, black symbolic crosses are scattered among the graves in groups of five. We obviously did not have the same emotions about the Germans. We did feel sorrow at the deaths but most of us were left uneasy.
Across from the cemetery was an interpretive centre. This set off a major controversy among the group. In a blatantly revisionist manner, the centre claimed that “humans started war” and that the cemetery was for those “who died . . . under tyrannical regimes.” Wait a minute – the Germans started the war and it was their regime! Mike and I particularly felt this way. Others did not. Andrew thought that we should basically let it go. He asked if we were going to punish them forever. I think that he was missing the point. No, we should not punish them forever. We should, however, always remember what happened even if it is unpleasant. We, as a nation, have always criticized the Japanese for revising their war time history so why not the Germans? Simply because we are allies now should not change the past. We cannot place our contemporary political values on the war. We finally agreed that a cemetery was not the place to beat them over the head with it. This was where families came to remember their dead. They should be left in peace. So, the interpretive centre should not be there. After all of this, we named our van the “fanatic” van. It didn’t matter what you believed in – as long as you believed strongly.
Our next stop was to Pointe du Hoc, (halfway between Omaha and Utah beaches) the landing site of Rudder’s Rangers. This had an interesting story. The Rangers objective was to silence the heavy gun battery atop the cliffs. If not, these guns could enfilade the beaches and cause many casualties. Unknown at the time was the fact that the guns had been removed to the rear. The scaling of the cliff was done without much loss of life but withering counterattacks decimated the unit. By 7 June only ninety out of 225 Rangers had survived.
The bunkers have been left as they were fifty years ago. The surrounding ground still bears the craters from the heavy bombardment. The Tobruk holes (holes in the bunker in which one soldier could stand with a machine-gun) are still there. We walked through the main bunker. You can look out through the machine-gun slits and see the water of the channel. Inside are two plaques dedicated to the Rangers. One lists the names of the dead. The other states:
On June 6, 1944, Lt.Col. James Earl Rudder (1910-1970), a native Texan led companies D, E, and F of the United States Army’s 2nd Ranger Battalion in the capture and neutralization of the German coastal battery at Pointe du Hoc. Accomplishment of the mission, which included scaling the point’s rocky cliff was seen as crucial to the success of the Allied forces’ invasion of Normandy and eventual liberation of France. The original 225 Rudder’s Rangers fought two and one half days before relief. 90 men survived this mission.
We then went down to Omaha beach. This was the site of the biggest disaster of D-Day. Omaha suffered more casualties that the other four beaches combined. When you see the enormous cliffs, you will understand. As Terry pointed out – you would think that the planners would have avoided places like this after Dieppe. There was also the unfortunate matter of the German 352nd Infantry Division. Allied intelligence had identified and located all but two of the German units on the coast. This was one of them. The Americans were not aware that crack German troops would be waiting for them.
We walked along the entire length of the beach again. I have read The Longest Day, and I just saw the movie Saving Private Ryan. It must have been pure hell. I am told that the battle scene at the beginning of Ryan is very accurate. I have to admit that it almost made me sick. The helplessness and the fear. Most of these men didn’t have a chance. If it wasn’t the German fire, it was being drowned by kit that was too heavy or being hit by friendly fire. Yet, they did it. Against all odds, they did it. Maybe the Americans aren’t so bad after all.
This was the day for cemeteries. Our final one was the American cemetery at St. Laurent-sur-Mer. It is situated on a cliff overlooking Omaha. The Americans have a similar system to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission called the American Battle Monuments Commission. The World War II cemeteries are set up according to a specific plan. Besides the graves and chapels, each contains a sculpture and a museum area with battle maps and narratives depicting the course of the war in the region. This cemetery contains the graves of 9,386 dead, most of whom gave their lives in the landings and consequent operations in Normandy. There is also a memorial to the unknowns. On the walls of a semicircular garden are inscribed the names of 1,157 missing soldiers. At the centre of the museum area stands a bronze statue entitled “Spirit of American Youth.” The inscription reads “This embattled shore, portal of freedom is forever hallowed by the ideals the valour and the sacrifices of our fellow countrymen.”
I have to admit, that while the cemetery was breathtaking, I preferred our own. The crosses (stylized marble Latin crosses) contain only enough room for name, rank and unit. Unidentified soldiers are inscribed as “Here rest in honored glory a Comrade in Arms known but to God.” This is so impersonal compared with ours. At least the families get to acknowledge their loss with a personal note. As per usual, the American depiction of the Normandy campaign leaves something to be desired. Look very, very closely and you might see a lone Canadian Maple Leaf on the map. (Green at that – not even the standard red). But, that’s the Americans – ostentatious, larger than life. The whole attitude is different. They believe that everyone should be grateful to them personally for winning the war. In Commonwealth graves, the overwhelming sentiment is that the soldiers fought evil. The Americans demand gratitude. We ask for it. How typical.
One interesting feature of the cemetery is a small plaque near the entrance. It bears the inscription “To be Opened 6 June 2044”. Apparently it is a message from General Dwight D. Eisenhower. I have called the American Battle Monuments Commission in Arlington, Virginia for more information but I am still waiting for them to get back to me. There is also a strange quote outside the cemetery. It reads “Visitors, Look how many of them there were. Look how young they were. They died for your freedom. Hold back your tears – and keep silent.” I don’t understand that sentiment. Why must we not grieve? Maybe it’s a stoic American thing.
Finally (what a long day), we visited the gun batteries at Longues-sur-Mer on Gold beach. These are very impressive. For the most part the batteries and 205mm guns are largely intact although very rusty. It is one of the best preserved parts of the “Atlantic Wall.” These guns are so formidable – scary actually. They could hit a target some 20km away. I actually missed most of the lecture and seeing the command post. I met a British couple on holiday. The husband was a Vet. They were so excited at the prospect of young (or not so young) students studying the war. I also met British Vets at the American cemetery. They just love Canadians. I couldn’t get away from them. We had a really pleasant conversation (both times). We are far more appreciated away from home. It was nice to see.
Thursday 4 June
Today we did our first TEWT (Tactical Exercise Without Troops). I have to admit that I don’t know a lot about tactics and strategy – I’m a history major! Nevertheless, if you want to study military history you have to understand all aspects of it. How things happened, why certain decisions were made – not just what happened. We were split into two groups. We called them the Syndicate Anglaise (us) and the Syndicate Français – the reasons should be obvious. Our group was led by LtCol Dave Patterson (who by now was Uncle Dave). The other group got LtGen Belzile. He is a highly decorated Vet (of Korea and NATO) and the Vice-president of the Foundation. Both groups thought that they had gotten the better leader.
We were studying the battle at Putot-en-Bessin. This was a divisional objective of 8 June. We were the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. During the attack on Putot, the 12th SS took sixty-four Canadians prisoner and of those forty-five were murdered. We were given all the information that LtCol Meldram had. This included company strengths (which were under normal), artillery and armoured support available and enemy order of battle. We were not allowed to read about the battle beforehand and told to defend the town. We were also told that, as a commander or senior officers, we hadn’t slept in at least twenty-four hours and hadn’t eaten much.
We started at the Abbaye with this information and the same maps Meldram had. We placed our troops on the map based on that information. We then went out and walked the battlefield and changed almost everything. I don’t remember the details of where and why we decided to place troops. Col Patterson didn’t say much, just “are you sure you want to do that” or “why would you do that?” We got the message. In the end, with our decisions, all but one company would have been slaughtered. (We did, however, do better than the other group).
We learned about the life of a commander. Looking at the map, a railway line was running to the south of the town. This was considered a major anti-tank obstacle. So, were the Germans going to advance to the north or south of the line? I predicted north – if it were such a major obstacle, why try to surmount it on the battlefield? The railway line led straight into Caen which the Germans held. Therefore, they could start from the north and voila – it is no longer an obstacle. (I was half right, the tanks came from the north but the infantry came from the south). Nevertheless, when we got to the town, the tracks were so flat, it was no obstacle at all. In our first session, we had left an entire area undefended counting on that obstacle – rule number one – know your terrain, a map will not tell you everything.
The TEWT raised other small questions. For example, a church spire has the best view of the surrounding countryside. Therefore, it would seem the logical place for your headquarters. But, it is also the easiest target for the artillery. So what do you do? It’s not so easy to decide when the lives of your men are on the line. A commander will live with these deaths if he makes a mistake. They say that Gen Roberts (commander at Dieppe) was a broken man after the raid.
The point of the exercise was not to teach us how to be generals. It was much more complicated than that. Primarily, do not be so quick and easy to judge the Canadian commanders – it’s not so easy! Obviously, Meldram had far more experience than us but the point was well taken. War is an imprecise art. There are so many variables – first and foremost, you cannot predict what the enemy will do. There are also factors like weather, terrain, morale, support or lack there of and intelligence or lack there of. You make your decisions based on expertise and the information at hand. Mistakes made are not necessarily made out of ignorance, stupidity or cowardice. All armchair generals would do well to remember that.
That afternoon we went to Bayeux. Here we visited the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. On display outside on the lawn are an American M-10 tank destroyer, a British Churchill Mark VII Crocodile, and a German “Hetzer” Jagdpanzer (tank destroyer). The museum portrays the Canadian role rather well. As with the Arromanches museum, they have a complete set of cap badges. There is an extensive collection of uniforms and weaponry. They also carry an interesting collection of newspaper clippings and personal mementos.
One thing I particularly remember was a series of letters. These were letters to the mother of a pilot missing in action. There were six of them. The first started by informing the mother that her son was missing. Several more declared that he was still missing and presumed dead, but they were still looking. Number four, they found his body. The fifth told the mother that they would bury him in a Commonwealth grave. The final letter informed her where the body was and that she had the option of writing an epitaph. The care taken with this was astounding. Six letters to one of thousands of mothers in the same situation. I’m sure that small comforts like that helped the surviving families.
Finally, we went to the Bayeux Tapestry. You cannot go to Bayeux and miss the Tapestry. The Tapestry is a historical record created in the 11th century. It is an embroidery on a linen cloth using wool of various colours. The work was, probably, given to an Anglo-Saxon workshop supervised by Odon de Conteville, Bishop of Bayeux and half-brother of William the Conqueror. One of the first pieces of recorded history, the tapestry measures more than 70 metres long and 50 cm high. It retraces the history of the conquest of England by William the Conqueror. It is an incredible sight. We went through with the headphones provided which explained each panel. The detail is amazing (although some of it is a bit randy). Deborah (who was Asian) called William the first “White Man’s Hero.” An interesting thought.
Our night trip tonight was to the Carpiquet Airport. Now this was a messed up raid. The airport was a 3rd Div. objective. Given to 8th Brigade with the addition of the RWRs, Operation “Windsor,” 4-5 July, was to be completed before Operation “Charnwood” began on 8 July. This was an ill-conceived raid. Even with massive artillery, armoured and air support, the infantry still had to cross over a mile of open country. The Germans, of course, had every inch covered. The North Shores call Carpiquet “the gravest yard of the regiment.” They sustained their highest casualties there. For the RWRs it was a nightmare. They had already sustained very heavy losses on D-Day and Putot. Major JE Anderson of the North Shores wrote:
I am sure that at some time during the attack every man felt he could not go on. Men were being killed or wounded on all sides and the advance seemed pointless as well as hopeless. I never realized until the attack at Carpiquet how far discipline, pride of unit, and above all, pride in oneself and family, can carry a man even when each step forward meant possible death.
LtGen Belzile accompanied us on this trip. In his opinion, the battle was suicide and a frontal attack should never have been attempted. There was much criticism of Montgomery’s tactics of using too small a force for this job (he did it more than once). There was also some speculation that the Allies did not need the airport by that time. In Terry’s book, he lists the airfields opened on the continent by that time. There were five. So was this battle really that important? There are no easy answers. I did learn something interesting. The Germans had a brilliant response to the creeping artillery barrage. They would time their own artillery with the Allies only aim it just past. The Allies would think that they were firing short and stop to readjust. Pretty clever.
For the first time, you could get a good sense of the flatness and openness of the French countryside. Could you imagine? The only cover may have been some wheatfields. If you hid in the wheat, however, you couldn’t see anything. If you looked up, you could get your head blown off. As an added bonus, the wheat was gold and the soldiers were green. It wasn’t very hard to miss them. As we drove to and from the airport through the small villages I got a good sense of how horrific fighting in the towns could be. Everything consisted of stone. Each country farm house was a mini-fortress. The streets were also too narrow for tanks meaning that you would lose your armoured support.
Friday 5 June
We began early this morning by taking a trip up the ‘condemned’ Cathedral with Uncle Dave. I gather that it was the worst kept secret of the trip. Everyone kept asking us if we had been up yet even though we were not allowed to do it. The inside of the cathedral was in shambles. It had been shelled very extensively during the war and is only now being slowly restored. Add that to simple old age and you get a mess. The stone stairs were almost worn smooth. It was a pretty interesting trip that early in the morning, still half asleep. When we got to the top, it was worth it. Besides seeing a gorgeous view, we began to see why Meyer would have taken this as his headquarters. We couldn’t go all the way to the top, it had been boarded up, but we were still high enough. We looked across the field that Meyer had watched the North Novas advancing across. He had a perfect view. As the song says “I can see for miles and miles . . . “
It was a little depressing seeing such a marvelous building in that condition. Part of our past shelled beyond recognition. From the old pictures I have seen, they have done an incredible job with the restoration. Unfortunately, as Uncle Dave told us, they are trying to kick out the tenant farmer, M. Huart. His family has farmed this land for generations and he has a 99-year lease. That, apparently does not matter to the French Government. M. Huart was a small boy during the occupation. He was present when the Germans took over the Abbaye. The stories he has to tell! The government wants to make the church into an archives and a museum. Why can’t they do both? It’s ironic that they are tearing down a piece of history to supposedly remember history. It’s also tragic that this man, who as a small boy was kicked out of his home and threatened by the Germans, has to go through it again, this time by his own country.
Our first official stop today was at Le Memorial in Caen. We started at the Canadian memorial garden and the reflecting pool. The garden is quite spectacular and obviously much thought and effort went into its planning. Red maple trees surround the reflecting pool. It bears the inscription “NULLA DIES UMQUAM MEMORI VOS EXIMET AEVO” (Nothing shall ever blot you from the memory of time). We all stood around the pool, looking at the reflections. It was interesting in that you couldn’t see your own reflection but you could see everyone else’s. Our interpretation? – a soldier did not think of himself but of his comrades (OK, pretty lame). On stone tablets behind the pool are the names of the 122 communes in Normandy liberated by the Canadians in 1944.
Different types of soil or rock lead from the reflecting pool to the terrace. These indicate different parts of the battle: sea, beach, town etc. The memorial is also shaped like an arrow. This is supposed to symbolize the future. A path leads up the hill to the museum. The fissured terrace symbolizes the descent into the turmoil of war and danger. The way the path zigzagged is to symbolize the walking of the soldiers. The terrace wall, which consistes of pale-coloured Caen stone, is fissured by a vertical black granite claw, symbolizing war. At the top of the terrace are four glass steles on which are recorded the names of all the Canadian military units who fought in the Battle of Normandy.
The museum has a definite agenda. It is one of peace. It is a symbol of the ‘new’ Europe. The German flag flies with the rest of them. It is a little strange to see. We had the same argument as after La Cambe. They are putting modern day political sensibilities on the war. Although here, it might be a bit different. They are not saying that Germany was blameless. Only that today, there should be peace. I’m still not sure that I find it appropriate. I think that it is a wonderful sentiment but there is a great danger of trying to rewrite the past to keep that friendship alive.
The museum itself is very impressive. Frankly, I was surprised at the level of directness and balance that they have achieved. All of the nasty stuff is covered in great detail and without too much bias. For example, the role of the collaborators is tastefully yet brutally portrayed. This is one element in French history that many would like to forget. When you talk to the French, suddenly everyone was in the Resistance. That was just not so and the excesses of the Vichy Regime are largely ignored. The fact that they include the whole sordid history shows a degree of maturity and understanding. They don’t pull any punches. The pictures are quite graphic: dead soldiers, a hung woman, the execution of resistance fighters, concentration camp victims. It is a very impressive and disturbing display.
We made some time to visit the American Memorial Garden on the same grounds. What can I say, typically American. Beautiful, but too big and garish. The Canadians had a reflecting pool. The Americans had an entire bloody waterfall! The wall underneath carried plaques from every state. Apparently they had an American Battle of Normandy Foundation. Their trust went bankrupt mounting this display. Their representatives stayed in 4-star hotels and had lavish meals. Ours stayed in Motel 6. It makes you wonder where their priorities are. I think that we have the right idea.
Today was the day of ceremonies. The Canadians at the Abbaye were murdered on 7-8 June so the ceremonies are usually on the 7th. This year, however, some sports event was on so they moved them to the 5th. (The Tour de France?) The first was in Caen at Place de l’Ancienne Boucherie. It was short and sweet. Gen Belzile gave a speech about the Canadians and the Queen’s Own bugler played Last Post. That’s about it. Kelly and I wore our uniforms so we got plenty of recognition. I got to meet and salute a French General and I met the Military Attache to Paris. The second was at the reflecting pool. Just like the first except the Canadian Ambassador, Jacques Roy was there and he gave a short speech.
The third and final one was the most important. This one was actually in the garden where it happened. We had a place of honour right at the front. M. Vico, the son of the World War II caretaker (and former Resistance member) read detailed histories of five of the Canadians. He did this every year. It was very emotional listening to him speak of men so young. One of them simply came to help a friend and was captured. They were our ages. Everyone was in tears. Three wreaths were laid, one from the Foundation, one from the city of Caen and one from Canada. Each student put a fresh Maple Leaf on the memorial, one for each soldier (Kelly put down the balance). It was a very special moment. The bugler played Last Post. It was such an incredible feeling to be in uniform and to be able to salute at something like this.
After it was over, we all met the Ambassador. We gathered at the back of the garden and articulated what we had been thinking. “They were so young,” “They were our age,” “What were we doing at that age” etc. I think the one that lied about his age affected us the most. His body has never been found. The fact that they did not die in battle affected many. Small difference, but it is a difference. Soldiers do everything they can to stay alive but death is always a possibility. Death this way is so futile and unnecessary. It didn’t need to happen.
After dinner we drove out to Pegasus Bridge. This bridge (actually the Benouville Bridge) was a vital objective of the 6th British Airborne Division who landed in a pre-dawn air drop before D-Day. It was nicknamed Pegasus because of the Pegasus shoulder flashes worn by the Airborne. This was not the actual bridge. At some point, it became too unstable for use. The French Government wanted to replace it but the public outcry was too great. Instead, they moved it several km down the river. You can still see it (although we did not) complete with gun holes in its sides.
What many people do not realize was that the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was included in this drop. They played a vital role in securing the objectives. Their war diary states:
The initial stages of operation OVERLORD insofar as the 1st. Cdn. Parachute Battalion was cincerned [sic] were divided into three tasks. The protection of the left flank of the 9th Para Battalion in its approach march and attack on the MERVILLE battery 1577 was assigned to “A” Company. The blowing of two bridges over the RIVER DIVES at 1872 and 1972 and the holding of feature ROBEHOME 1873 was assigned to “B” Company with under command one section of 3 Para Sqdn Engineers. The destruction of a German Signal Exchange 1675 and the destruction of bridge 186759 plus neutralization of enemy positions at VARRAVILLE 1875 was assigned to “C” Company.
A monument at Le Mesnil Crossroads marks their rendezvous spot. The monument reads: “This memorial stands in tribute to all ranks of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion who dropped into Normandy in the early hours of D-Day, 6 June 1944, and upon this ground successfully defended a vital approach to the left flank of the Allied Expeditionary Force.” 113 men were killed during the operation.
Bob and George (the Queen’s Own musicians) and I stayed for the annual Airborne Reunion at the Gondree Café just past the bridge. I believe that this house was the first liberated during the raid. It was a far less formal ceremony but still very emotional. One of the Vets talked about the bar and what it meant to them. Quite a lot. Again, the French government is trying to close it down but I do not know the entire story (It’s apparently very complicated). It was a lot of fun. I got to meet some SAS Vets and a bunch of other Airborne Vets.
The present owner of the house also gave a speech. It was very touching. In British-accented english, she told of her life as a small girl in occupied France. The Germans had taken over the house and on many occasions threatened to kill the family. They took all the family had. She kept repeating “We knew you would come but we just didn’t know when.” She told of waking each morning thinking, “is today the day?” She spoke of the day they were liberated. The family heard terrible noises (shells and firefights) and hid in the basement. The Germans kept trying to get them out but they stayed silent thinking they would be killed. The next voice they heard was British saying “We are here.” She said her mother had vowed that no one in a maroon beret would ever pay for a drink. We left after two British buglers played the last post.
Saturday 6 June
Today was the 54th Anniversary of D-Day. We attended several small ceremonies on Juno beach. The major celebration was on the British Gold Beach. The first ceremony was at St Aubin-sur-Mer in honour of the Fort Garry Horse and the British 48th Commandos. A wreath was laid in the channel for the fallen. The second was in the Centre-Ville of St Aubin also dedicated to the FGH and the 48th Commandos. The third was held in Bernières-sur-Mer. This was a more formal affair honouring the FGH, the Chauds and the QOR. A member of the French Resistance was made an honorary member of the FGH.
They were very much like yesterday’s ceremonies but without all of the emotion of the garden. As I mentioned earlier, D-Day is considered a victory. At these ceremonies you honour the dead but you also honour the living. This also gives the French communities a chance to thank the Vets for their liberation. The small communities in France still remember the war. They still remember the sacrifices made by these soldiers. It’s an enjoyable feeling since they still honour the memories after all this time. It felt good to be a Canadian that day.
After lunch we had a lecture by Steve on Operation “Charnwood” at Hell’s Corners. This was the operation to take Caen, still in German hands. This battle was very important to the Canadians coming so soon after the misfortune of Carpiquet. They had been criticized and many had asked for the removal of MGen Keller after this “failure.” In the battle for Caen, the Canadians achieved all of their objectives while the British did not. 7th and 9th Bdes captured Buron, Gruchy, Authie and Cussy. The Canadians entered the city of Caen early 9 July. Terry pointed out that “there was no message of praise for Keller and his troops, but the men of 3rd Canadian Division knew both the value, and the cost, of their sacrifice.”
That evening after dinner we went over to M. Huart’s house for tea. His house had been taken over for Meyer’s HQ. He started by showing us Kurt Meyer’s map table. The table belongs to the family and is more than a hundred years old. There is still damage from shell fragments. When the family was going to fix it, they were convinced that it was a historical artifact and kept it as it was. It is still used for family dinners. There is also terrible damage to the massive stone walls from the shelling. Meyer had the table set up with one end near the far window of the HQ. He could look outside and see the tower. While looking at his maps, he could contact the observer in the tower by phone. When he got the information from the observer, he would call artillery strikes and troops movements.
What stories the man had to tell. We opened the gate in the courtyard. He told of how he saw the Canadians being marched through that gate with their hands on their heads as prisoners. He then saw them being searched and roughed up a bit. The Germans threw their papers on the ground (we assume it was British money and identity papers). I can’t remember whether he heard the shots or not. He was fairly convinced of what happened. To this day M. Huart still calls the Germans bastards.
He has many reasons for hating the Germans. At one point, Meyer wanted eggs. When the father refused his request, because they had no chickens, Meyer ordered his dog to attack. He recounted numerous times that Meyer threatened to kill both him and his family. He was just a child. It’s times like this that make you understand why they love the Allied soldiers so much. Although they lost their possession (like their towns) in the battles, they were freed of the constant terror they had been living under. The SS had no respect for human life. Imagine threatening a child like that and for what? These weren’t resistance fighters. They were simple farmers trying to survive.
We were told to feel very honoured that he talked to us and allowed us into his house. Many journalists have shown up and demanded access to the former HQ. To many, he simply refuses to co-operate. He has also had many Germans who consider the house a German historical site. They, of course, have a different opinion of Meyer. A German journalist named Meyer (no relation) was let in to see the table. He brought replica 1944 maps and had his picture taken looking out the window. After that, Huart refused to speak to him. To us he was wonderful. He sold postcards and maps of the invasion and would not let us pay for them because we were Canadian.
Sunday 7 June
This morning was a series of lectures on Operation “Spring.” South of Caen the country was open with a series of low ridges rising to around three hundred metres near Falaise. German anti-tank guns and mortars controlled movement in this area, particularly in daylight. They had repulsed the Allies in daylight attacks in operation “Atlantic.” Mortar fragments accounted for more than 75% of all Allied casualties. Montgomery, and by extension the Canadians, had often been criticized for their “laziness” at this time. Across the front, the Allies tried to develop a way to break through this defensive perimeter. There were no miraculous strategies; they simply had to force their way through. The 3rd Division was exhausted and bloodied from its part in the Carpiquet and Caen battles. 2nd Division was relatively inexperienced. This was the start of operation “Spring.”
Verrieres Ridge was they key to the defences south of Caen and was held by elements of three German divisions. Six Canadian infantry divisions and three tank squadrons attacked three separate strongpoints along an 8km front against entrenched German positions well situated on the high ground. They could not capture two of the three village strong-points, Tilly-la-Campagne and May-sur-Orne before dawn. Fort Garry Horse lost eleven tanks in an encounter with some Panthers. The Canadians tried to take Tilly four times; eventually it took an entire brigade. The third strongpoint, the Verrieres village was taken in a text-book operation. The Rileys cleared the village and dug in with well-positioned anti-tank defences. For three days they withstood repeated counter attacks. Holding this village was of vital importance as it was the start point for the next operation “Totalize.”
Further attacks were unlikely to succeed but in the confusion of battle, they were ordered anyway. Simonds believed that all three strong-points had been secured, therefore, the battle must continue. The Black Watch had lost both the commanding officer and the senior company commander in a Battle at St. Martin and had retired to St. Andre to prepare for a morning attack. They were ordered to press on with their attack on Fontenay. The acting commander FP Griffin has been vilified for his next actions. He decided to make a frontal attack up the western slope of Verrieres Ridge. They were slaughtered as the Germans held positions on both flanks. By midday 112 had been killed in action, nine died of wounds, 119 were wounded and eighty-two became POWs. It was the worst single day for a battalion since Dieppe.
In the end, the operation was finally called off. The losses were staggering. At least 450 were dead and 1000 wounded or taken prisoner. “Spring” was considered a defeat yet the battle cost the Germans precious men and equipment that they could ill afford to lose. It also altered their entire defence network.
We talked again about second guessing commanders. It seemed that with each battle, these commanders were dealing with new and different tactics. This was the first time that the Germans had used unarmed, unmanned tanks. These were sent onto the battlefield and exploded. They were about the size of Bren gun carriers. II Corps Commander LtGen Guy Simonds believed that another daylight attack would be fruitless so he used “Artificial Moonlight,” created by searchlights shining on cloud cover. Although this worked fairly well, “Monty’s Moonlight” was disturbing to many soldiers. They felt that they were being silhouetted. One of the main points brought up was the idea of assuming command. They did not train Lts and Sgts to take over. The 2 i/c (second in command) was regularly left out of battle just in case they needed him to assume command. Nevertheless, it was rare when two senior officers were killed in one action. What would you have done in Griffin’s place? He was ordered to take Fontenay. He believed that he had a good chance with armoured and artillery support. He also believed that the Canadians were holding the two towns flanking the ridge. He died in that attack. I am sure that he did not want to commit suicide.
We discussed the idea of battlefield morale. What would ever possess soldiers to run across that field? They would also do crazy things like try to get between the artillery barrages (ours and theirs). When the barrage lifted, they could be right on top of the Germans. According to BGen Whitaker (who was traveling with us for a couple of days), it was fear of being seen by your buddies as doing something that would be considered cowardly. I don’t know if it’s really that simple but he seemed to think so. I guess he would know. He was the highest ranking officer to make it off Dieppe beach as a Captain in the Rileys. He eventually became their commander. He had known more than his fair share of this type of battle. Uncle Dave also believed it was true. He said often, when one man broke, the rest followed. Once the stigma had been broken, falling was easier.
Finally, back to the McKenna brothers. In The Valour and the Horror, they make a big deal out of not using so-called tunnels on Verrieres Ridge. Well, they don’t exist. There is a mine shaft. The only way it would have been important was if the Germans had occupied the mine buildings and used the tunnels to hide. They didn’t do either, so the shaft was of no importance. We were there. That is the best way to counter stupid historians. Know the truth.
That afternoon we did our second TEWT. It was almost a complete disaster. We were supposed to be Corps Commander Simonds directing operation “Spring.” To put it politely, we all felt that Corps was too high a level of command for us. We didn’t have the knowledge of the capabilities and the structure of the units under our command. I didn’t really learn much other than a frontal attack was usually a mistake.
Tonight was our last night in the Abbaye. We took the time after dinner to give presents to Jean and Mireille and Lucie, their granddaughter. They had been so nice and helpful during our stay. M. Vico came in and gave us a long talk on the Canadians again. He also gave us many pamphlets and newspapers dealing with the campaign. After dinner I took a long walk around and a last look at the garden. I am going to miss the peacefulness here. It was always so quiet and calm.
Monday 8 June
Back on the road again. This was a rather mixed up day as we headed for Falaise. Our first stop this morning was the Bretteville-sur-Laize Cemetery at Cintheaux. The dead are from the battles south of Caen. It is the largest cemetery in Normandy. Out of 2958 graves, 2872 are Canadian, eighty British, one New Zealand and one French. The Mayor of Cintheaux joined us.
This was another beautiful cemetery. Even though this was about the 7th cemetery we had seen, the impact was still very powerful – surprisingly so. Flanders Fields didn’t quite fit (there were no crosses) but there were almost 3000 graves, row upon row. Once again, we were filled with sorrow but also respect and gratitude. Having just studied the battles that these soldiers had been involved in, you knew the courage they had and the dangers they faced. Someone suggested that these particular soldiers had it easier than the ones who lived. They were out of the fighting forever. Many who survived were maimed and disfigured. I am still sure that with few exceptions, they were still grateful to be alive.
The youngest soldier killed in Normandy was buried here:
E. 584 Private
Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal
Le 23 Juillet 1944 Age 16.
Fier et Brave Soldat
Dans la Paix Seigneur
Dore’s mother wrote the inscription meaning “Fervent Christian, Proud and Brave Soldier, Rest In the Peace of the Lord.” In one of the tragic stories of war, Dore had written his mother claiming “I am nowhere near the action.” The day after she got the letter, she received the telegram.
The Mayor of Cintheaux joined us. He related the story of Pte Dore. He claimed that the age on the grave was wrong. Dore was only fifteen. (15 and 9 months) It was quite a touching story. After the war, the town got in touch with Dore’s family. After corresponding for quite some time, they brought them over for the 50th Anniversary (he showed us pictures). The Mayor took about twenty minutes to tell us the history of the Canadians. He actually did very well. I think he was trying to impress us with the fact that he knew. He was sincere and he has not forgotten the Canadians under his charge. He has been the mayor for thirty-one years. The town holds four ceremonies at the cemetery each year: D-Day, 6 June, VE Day, 8 June, Birthday of Dore, 25 July and Remembrance Day, 11 November. He was proud of the fact that the Canadians were commemorated even better than the British or Americans. Seeing someone take so much interest in the Canadians was wonderful. Here, at least, the story will continue to be told.
BGen Whitaker was still with us. He had many friends buried here. (He must have been a major by this time). He held up very well at what must have been a painful experience. We were given flags again. Andrew was the first to find Dore’s grave and put his flag on it. I put mine on a BC Regiment grave:
K. 37076 Lance Corporal
British Columbia Regiment
12th August 1944.
I have a very close friend who used to be in the regiment.
We stopped by the side of the road to get a lecture from Kelly on the closing of the Falaise Gap. This was a very complicated battle. Simply put, the Falaise Pocket was about 35 miles wide and 12 miles deep. Approximately 200,000 Germans from twenty-one Divisions were trying to retreat. The British and the Americans were trying to cut them off in a pincer movement. The 4th Canadian Armoured Division was to capture Trun which would cut off the escape of five Panzer divisions. Many Germans managed to slip through the gap, although it was eventually closed.
The Canadians are usually left out of this battle in the history books. The Americans, British and Polish get all of the credit. In fact, Canadians accounted for most of the 3,043 German vehicles destroyed between Trun and Chambois. 2nd Canadian Army captured 12,000 of the 29,000 prisoners taken in the last week of the battle and played the largest role in blocking the escape routes. They did all of this after having been in continuous battle for several weeks (3rd Div. had been in action since 6 June).
Our next stop on the Falaise route was the Polish Cemetery at Urville-Langannerie. The story of the Polish soldiers was indeed a tragedy. At first, they fought to defend Poland. Then they made the trek to France and eventually England as the Germans overran both countries. Unfortunately, the British did not know what to do with them. They finally allowed them to form an Armoured and Airborne Division. They had no infantry and no reinforcements. They fought under different commands with great courage but not a lot of skill. The Armoured Division made history in the Falaise Gap while the Airborne were a key element in operation “Market-Garden.”
This cemetery had a different feel to it from the Commonwealth ones. I was tempted to say sparse but it was not that. Possibly because the sky was so overcast that day, it gave it a darker feel. The stone crosses were dark (kind of beige) and the sculpture in the middle was oppressive and militaristic. Like the German cemetery, the crosses only had name and rank and dates. Many had no names. Unlike the Germans, the area was beautifully landscaped with trees and flowers. I would put this somewhere in the middle. It was certainly peaceful but it did not have the same serenity as the Canadian sites.
We went back a little in time to operation “Totalize” when we visited the British Columbia Regiment memorial. “Totalize” was the first of two armoured thrusts towards Falaise intended to supplement the British and American efforts to push the Germans back to the Seine. Due to a combination of factors, the BC Regiment managed to break its way through the German defences and got lost. The BCRs were supposed to advance to Point 195. Advancing at night, they actually went to Point 140. Believing they were in the right place, they radioed success. Because they were in the wrong place at the right time, our own Air Force fired on them, thinking that they were Germans. Very shortly after, German Tigers and Panthers wiped them out. They lost forty-seven tanks and 240 men.
I will relate a little story that applies here. We were driving with a map to a place where Terry had been (Point 140) in broad daylight and we weren’t being shot at. You guessed it. We got lost. Now imagine the same trip, on foot, pitch black, flat (no landmarks), foreign country, you are tired, scared and being bombed (sometimes by your own aircraft). It becomes very hard to fault their flawed navigation.
As we stopped for lunch in Rouvres we had a lecture from Terry and BGen Whitaker on general issues. We must always remember the human element in war. Our soldiers were citizens, they were trained but were not (for the most part) professional soldiers. They had one priority – to live. They were not fighting to conquer Germany or for the Fatherland. Ideologically they were fighting for freedom, but on the battlefield they simply wanted to survive. This could mean that sometimes they were bold and sometimes they were cautious. That they were human as well is a point often overlooked by historians. This was the reason Terry felt it was so important to actually walk on the battlefields. We could see first hand and get a better appreciation for the problems they faced.
The purpose of the entire Normandy operation was to kill Germans. That may sound harsh but it was the truth. The Allies needed to wear down the Germans as much as possible. Terry related an analogy to us. In football, the coach always plans for a touchdown but he knows that he will only get a 1st down. It may not be a touchdown but it might put the team in a position to score. Battles are like this. Each battle has an objective but any realistic commander knows that it will not always work properly. He hopes that at least his army will be put in a position to achieve their goals.
The discussion turned to battle exhaustion. In August 1944 one in five non-fatal casualties in the Canadian Army were battle exhaustion. The symptoms included uncontrollable crying, shaking, being mute, reverting to a fetal position, or an inability to act on orders. (Not always together). Whitaker disagreed. As the CO of the Rileys he said they were fine and the cases weren’t that high. Terry replied that he may not have known. The men were listed as ‘exhaustion’ or ‘wound unknown’ and sent to the Battalion Aid Station. The unit would not know where they were or what happened. They could have fallen behind or it could have been a minor wound.
I asked Gen Whitaker how you could stop it. He felt that the best way to combat it was to keep morale up. As the CO, he would visit the company commanders, who would visit the troop commanders, who visited the platoon commanders and so on down the line. If the men felt that they were being taken cared of they felt better. For example, if a CO led from behind, he was often completely ignored; the officers ran things. There was one example of a CO who built a shelter behind the lines. Division HQ was told that if they did not remove him, the officers would not be held accountable for his safety. The men needed to depend on each other and their officers. As a matter of record, there was no evidence of “fragging” (killing your officer from behind and then claiming he died in battle) like in Vietnam.
After dinner some of us visited the Museé Aoút 1944 La Bataille de la Poche de Falaise. Here we finally got to see much of the hardware we had been talking about. At the first museum in Bayeux, the names of the different weapons were not that familiar. Now they were and when we saw the ‘dreaded’ 88, we knew what it could do. In a diorama of the battle, they showed the different types of armour used. We looked at the different types of tanks and Andrew told us why and how each specific one was used. Military knowledge is very tactile and visual. We need to see the terrain and equipment, walk the battlefields, climb the hills; only then do we understand.
Tuesday 9 June
This morning we walked the terrain for closing the Falaise Gap. How would we have done it better? We couldn’t. Basically, the Germans would destroy their equipment and walk through. Going through unnoticed was very easy for a single man. Only infantry could stop infantry. With the Dives River, they could stop only tanks. A man could wade across in the dark. The bottom line – we didn’t think that particular terrain could be held by armour alone, you needed infantry. But, where did you get them?
The idea of what to do with bridges became interesting while trying to close the gap. As small as the Dives River was, it was a formidable anti-tank obstacle. The banks were very steep. So, do you blow the bridge? 1st. Most of the small stone bridges couldn’t be destroyed with artillery. They were too sturdy. Also, Allied artillery probably couldn’t hit them. According to Uncle Dave the technology was not there for such precise firing. Arty was just used “to keep the hatches down and keep the infantry in the trenches.” 2nd. Most tanks could cross the stone rubble so it would be a delaying action at best. 3rd. You could possibly cut off your retreat or supply route. 4th. How long to build a Bailey or other bridge? It may delay the Germans but it would also delay you. So, for every solution there are ten new problems.
After this we drove to the Polish Monument at Coudehard-Montormel. It is a very impressive memorial to the Poles at the Falaise Gap. Included are plaques to the 1st Polish Division, the 21st Army Group, the 359th American Infantry Regiment and the Canadian Grenadier Guards. On display is an American Sherman tank. The Americans donated it and they named it “Gen Maczek,” after the Polish Division Commander. The site overlooks Trun where 4th Canadian Armoured Division occupied the crossroads.
The Polish, too, practice revisionist history. The plaque at the front reads:
At this historic site on August 19, 20, 21 and 22 of 1944, the heroes of the 1st Polish armoured Division, in bloody and victorious conflict, sealed the Falaise and Chambois gap where the encircled German Army suffered total defeat. This final blow destroyed the German strength and was the decisive element in the victory of the war of 1939-1945
There are so many things wrong with that statement I don’t know where to begin. We talked about it in the van. We believe that the Poles are more like us than the Americans. The Americans tend to think that no one else was in the war and they won it single-handedly. The Canadians tend to complain about it a lot but do nothing. We figure that the Poles finally got so fed up at hearing about the British and the Americans closing the gap, they decided to blow their own horn.
This is in stark contrast to the Canadian memorial plaque to Major David Curry. It reads:
Major David Vivian Currie VC South Alberta Regiment 29th Canadian Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment. During the last stages of August 1944, the Allies were encircling the German Armies in Normandy. The Germans, however, were desperately trying to escape the pocket through the village of St. Lambert-sur-Dives. Major D.V. Currie, Officer Commanding “C” Sqn of the South Alberta Regiment (SAR), 29th Canadian Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment, with under command detachments from the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, the Lincoln and Welland regiment and a troop of the 5th Anti-tank Regiment was charged with the closing of the Falaise Gap in the area. After suffering heavy casualties during three days and nights, with no officers left except Major Currie, the Gap was finally closed. For gallant leadership throughout this battle, Major Currie was awarded the Victoria Cross. This was the only Victoria Cross awarded to the Canadian Armoured Corps during World War II. 29 April 1992
We had the rest of the day off. I spent the afternoon walking around Falaise talking to people and practicing my French. I got a private tour of the Chateau. (I was the only one there). The guide was an eccentric, ageing Indiana Jones but it was kind of neat to have him all to myself. He had met several members of the tour the day before so he knew who I was. He pointed out the spot where the Canadians had placed their guns. It was the same spot used for centuries by attackers. Obviously, the Canadians knew a good offensive position when they saw one.
Wednesday 10 June
The battle for Normandy was over. The possibility of occupying Germany was now an option. The Canadians were ordered to develop a thrust to Rouen. Almost every Canadian battalion was operating at half strength by this time. We followed 2nd Division’s route to the Forêt de la Londe and some of the bloodiest fighting during the war. Many people think that after Normandy, the Canadians just waltzed through liberating everybody. The battles that got attention were The Battle of the Bulge and operation “Market-Garden”. Nothing could be further from the truth. This particular battle was one of the bloodiest and costly of the war.
We stopped just outside Vimoutiers where the division encountered their first heavy resistance. Here is one of only three Tiger tanks left in France. I have to admit, it doesn’t look all that scary. It looks like it was made out of cardboard. We all climbed on it and got our picture taken. That’s what kids do.
Our next stop was a small roadside memorial. If you don’t know what to look for, you will pass it. It is a beautifully landscaped little alcove abutting the forest with a gate made of carved maple leafs. This is the place where the Germans ambushed the Black Watch and the Royal Canadian Service Corps. The Service Corps were only armed with pistols when the assault occurred. The members of the Bosguerard, Berville and Boissey communes put up and maintain the memorial to “remember our Canadian friends.” I always value memorials put up by the people as opposed to the Regimental Associations.
Finally, we stopped at the forest itself. Sending 2nd Div. in to fight was a big mistake. Yes, Canadian commanders did make mistakes. Nevertheless, you should look at Simonds’ role overall. He was very effective at directing set-piece attacks. He was not as skilled with fluid battles. As Terry noted, he was “an intelligent, thoughtful and innovative commander who, being human, made mistakes.” The Germans had the forest heavily defended and would have to retreat eventually. So, there was no point to the attack. Looking at the forest, you could immediately see some of the problems. They were no nice straight paths to walk through. It was all dense underbrush. Command above company level was all but impossible. Two battalions were decimated during the three day battle. They suffered 577 casualties.
We spent the night in Boulogne. This city was the task of 3rd Div. Here they met against a concerted German resistance. This brought up yet another fallacy of the war. The Germans were supposed to be demoralized and in retreat. In fact, they often fought very well from heavily defended positions making each gain of the Allies come at a heavy cost. Generally, being on the defensive was easier than being on the offensive and the Germans had this advantage throughout the Channel Ports. Hitler had also told them to defend the Channel Ports to the death. As strange as it may seem now, most Germans felt that they would recoup over the winter and renew the attack in the spring. They believed that Hitler was sure to have a new plan.
Even with a well co-ordinated air, armour, artillery and infantry attack, operation “Wellhit” took 6 days complete. Divisional Intelligence reported that the “resistance offered by the Boulogne garrison has been surprisingly tenacious, when one considers that they are fully aware of the advances made by the Allied forward elements.” The Germans were not simply going to give up.
There was one interesting point about this battle. It had spectators reminiscent of the American Civil War. 3rd Division issued this order before the attack:
It is apparent that a large number of spectators are planning to attend operation Wellhit; these include naval, military and air force personnel as well as press correspondents . . . It is imperative that such spectators do not position themselves at an operational headquarters where staff is engaged in fighting a battle . . . ; all such spectators will be sent to a spectators’ stand which has been suitably marked . . . This formation accepts no responsibility for spectators within the divisional area.
That was just a little surreal.
Thursday 11 June
This morning we looked at the battle for Cap Gris Nez. While 7th and 8th Brigades were involved in the battle for Calais, 9th Brigade was tasked with neutralizing three main gun batteries at Cap Gris Nez. The Rileys were to take out the Floringzelle battery and the lighthouse strongpoint. The North Novas were to take Haringzelles and Cran aux Oeufs (fire-control post that supplied the firing co-ordinates). In another carefully orchestrated attack, the brigade was successful. They captured 1600 prisoners.
We first visited the Haringzelles battery, renamed the Todt battery after the designer of the Atlantic Wall Fritz Todt. He had just taken on the construction of the Atlantic wall when he was killed in an air accident that some historians still find mysterious. Albert Speer replaced him. The battery, which is among the best preserved offensive batteries, is 3 km SE of Cap Gris Nez. Four casemates (housing the guns) are spread out, the northernmost having been made into a museum. We visited number four.
Casemate four is absolutely huge. It is 47 metres long, 29 wide, and 20 high (10 above ground level). The roof and walls are 3.5 metres thick. It stands empty (except the requisite garbage). You can’t see anything in the room as it is far too dark. There is some German graffiti left on the walls. One shows Winston Churchill lost in a German fog. Another is an allegory showing an aircraft, a U-boat, a schnellboot, a factory and a coastal battery, formed up behind the Reich war banner and ready for battle, with the words “against England.” With the flash from a camera, you can see it. The Firing Chamber takes up about two thirds of the building. It opens outside so you can see very well. There is some very colourful modern graffiti on the walls (I think it may have been German but I’m not sure). Like every other military artifact, it has become a garbage dump and make-out joint.
At the museum (casemate 1) you get a better idea of the inside as there is electricity. It is not so much a museum as a military surplus store. It does have a few dioramas of the living quarters, but for the most part it is a collection of weapons and equipment, most for sale. Andrew was very happy. Outside, there is also a collection of weapons and equipment. There are numerous tanks and anti-tank obstacles. At the side is the enormous 280mm railway gun still on its tracks. During the war, this gun could shoot at Dover, and during the September fighting, was shot at from Dover.
We went to Cap Gris Nez for lunch. I have to admit that I was not quite sure what the significance of that particular piece of coastline was. There was a lighthouse there, so that may have been the one (or location) that the Rileys took out. It was a miserable day and most people were more interested in climbing down the cliffs. It was a beautiful view and we thought that we could see England. It could have been a boat. I stood on the cliffs and was picture girl because I didn’t climb down to the water.
Our last stop in France was the Calais Cemetery. Of the 603 graves there, 525 were Canadian, mostly from liberating the Channel Ports. There were also 117 airmen of which 69 were Canadian. They must have been working on the cemetery as there were hardly any flowers around the graves. It was, however, just like all the rest peaceful, serene and somewhat depressing. Our very high spirited group always became very serious and quiet while at the graves and after. I put my flag on:
C. 494956 Private
Special Service Troops Canadian Army
6 August 1944 Age 20
Grant unto him o Lord
And let perpetual light
Shine upon him
Friday 12 June
Today we were joined by LtCol Mac Savage (ret) of NATO. We started on our Belgian leg with another cemetery at Adagem. It was not any easier than the last one. There were 848 graves, mostly casualties of the Breskens Pocket. Canadian maples had been planted. I put my flag on a Chaplain’s grave. That’s always a little sadder I think. A man of peace.
Chaplain to the Forces
The Reverend T.E. Mooney BA
Canadian Chaplain Service
14th September 1944 Age 38
Greater love than this
No man hath
Caritus Christi Urget Nos
I wrote down some epitaphs. I found this one particularly sad:
H. 18244 Private
17th September 1944 Age 27
I often see his smiling face
As he bade his last good-bye
And he left his home forever
In a distant land to die
The simple ones were always the most emotional.
And now on to something a little more upbeat. We went to the Canada Museum in Adagem owned by Gilbert Van Landschoot. What an incredible place. The history of the museum is almost as interesting as the museum itself. On his deathbed, the elder Van Landschoot confessed that he had been in the Belgian Resistance during the war. He had helped people escape and had sabotaged German planes. All his son knew was that his father visited the cemetery every year and loved the Canadian Liberators. He asked his son to do something to remember the Canadians that had saved his life. After much thinking, the museum began to take shape. When he asked for help from the townspeople, they actually offered him money NOT to open a museum. Apparently, many were still ashamed of their collaborationist past. So, he did it himself.
The tearoom interior needs to be described. These are his words (from a handout he gave us):
The post in the middle supports the Cross, the symbol of the owner’s Catholic faith; similar religious feelings encouraged young Canadians to enlist. One shouldn’t forget that many Belgian and Dutch families emigrated to Canada after World War I. It were [sic] them who sent their children and grandchildren back to liberate Europe in World War II. Many young servicemen thought they were coming to a fair, the opposite proved true and many young Canadians fell here for our freedom.
Twelve smaller freestone pillars, symbolising the twelve apostles, support the oak ceiling. Furthermore, the three round pillars, represent the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. The four gothic windows in the entrance hall are symbolic of the four evangelists.
The middle post symbolizes the year, the two main beams divide the ceiling into four parts, the four seasons. Twelve pillars represent the months of the year, 52 cross beams the weeks and there are 366 smaller beams for the days in a leap year. The Canadians arrived in Belgium in 1944, which was a leap year.
The iron-work at the counter is part of a former communion-table (once, people received the Holy Communion here, now you can order a drink). The columns behind the counter used to be part of the rood-loft of a medieval church. The interior contains 60,000 old bricks. The massive oak ceiling, the largest in Europe, weighs 300 tons, the main beam alone weighs 22 tons and over 400 tons of freestone were used.
Ten people constructed it in thirty-four days. Because it is a private museum, he relies almost exclusively on donations. Much of his collection came from women who had been ‘involved’ with the Germans or Allies during the war. Because of this, many artifacts are German. He is working on getting more Canadian stuff. Terry wrote a lot of the english explanations. An experience like this humbles you. Mr. Van Landschoot has done so much work for strangers – more than most Canadians. He was so happy to see us. We had a private lunch in that gorgeous tearoom and then he gave us a talk on the museum. It makes you proud to be a Canadian when you see others that care so much about your country.
The museum itself is wonderful. It is very honest about the collaboration. It makes a pleasant change from all of those towns where everybody was supposedly in the resistance. It is, however, balanced. The Belgians are just as proud of their resistance efforts as the French. The museum is rather small but contains several large dioramas that are extremely well done. The only problem is that most of the explanations are in Flemish. They are slowly working on getting them all translated into english.
We had a little mini-TEWT on Leopold Canal. Our task was to cross a double canal. The original plan called for four companies to create a defensive perimeter and protect the engineers building bridges. They pinned down one company (out of the four) on the canal line and, consequently, there were three isolated pockets instead of a continuous perimeter. The Germans infiltrated through to the dyke between the canals and the operation had to be aborted. Mortar and artillery fire was so accurate that the Algonquins believed an enemy agent in Moerkerke directed it.
I found that I was actually learning things. My suggestion was to use artillery fire as we were forming up but to switch to mortar or machine-gun fire as we got closer. Artillery was too imprecise to keep using. We talked about using Buffaloes (amphibious vehicles) to cross the water. The canal did not look like that much of an obstacle but appearances can be deceiving. It looked like we could just swim across. As a canal, it would be too deep for this especially in full kit. In addition, it was arrow straight. You would be a sitting duck for any type of fire. The banks were too steep for tanks, making it a natural obstacle. So, here again, we got the idea that this was not just a simple maneuver. A set “attack profile” would not fit every battle. A commander had to be flexible and creative.
Our second mini-TEWT was at a pillbox on another stretch of the canal. As part of operation “Switchback,” 7th Brigade encountered some of their highest casualties of the war. The official figure of 533 (111 fatal), did not include those evacuated for battle exhaustion – about 70. 7th Brigade’s assault was to be a diversion to take attention away from the amphibious landings in the Breskens Pocket by the 9th Division. The 9th were not ready on time, however, but it was decided to send the 7th out anyway. They were alone for sixty-eight hours. This allowed the Germans to concentrate all of their fire on the single brigade attacking on a narrow front. One of every two men that crossed the canal became a casualty.
This battle showed another lesson – the best laid plans do not always go as planned. The Reginas simply refused to cross. Were they cowards? No, they were facing very heavy fire from the pill box. They merely decided to neutralize it first. They did it in a very unorthodox way, with a PIAT (Projector Infantry Anti-Tank). The morale of the story was that you have to account for the human element. These men were tired, cold, wet, battle scarred and pissed off. By this time, the Conscription crisis back home was beginning to affect the troops. They knew that there were trained soldiers in Canada but they were not being sent over as relief. Soldiers didn’t care about politics when they were dying and they knew reinforcements were available but not being used.
Just another reminder of the conditions: we stood on the pill box for this lecture in June, and we were all freezing. Imagine what it would have been like in October. We ran back to the vans for a little side trip into Holland. We stopped at Liberation Street in Eede. A monument marked the spot where exiled Queen Wilhelmina first stepped foot back on Dutch soil. The Canadians escorted her. The monument was right behind a memorial to 6th and 7th Brigades.
After supper we went on a side trip with Uncle Dave back to World War I. We started at the Tyne-Cot Cemetery. This is located on Passendale Ridge, the 3rd Battle of Ypres. 1st Ypres was a British battle and 2nd Ypres had the first gas attack against the Canadians. Tyne-Cot is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world. There are 11,908 graves and the names of 34,984 missing soldiers. This cemetery is the New Zealand Vimy.
This cemetery was a little bit different than the rest we had seen. Primarily, around the Cross of Sacrifice, the stones were not in ordered rows. When they first began to bury the dead, they buried them where they fell. They actually built the Cross on a German bunker. King George stood on the bunker and remarked that that spot needed to be marked to honour the dead. Later graves were put in the familiar pattern. There were several bunkers throughout the cemetery. The stones also faced towards the Cross. In all of the others, the graves faced the entrance.
We found a VC grave:
J.P. Robertson VC
27th Battalion Canadian Infantry
6 November 1917 Age 35
How good and how pleasant
It is for brethren to dwell
Together in unity. Mother.
He died very close to the spot where they buried him. Newfoundland soldiers are marked with a Caribou; they were not yet part of Canada but still considered separate from the British. It is still tranquil and peaceful. Even more interesting, there is one German grave here. I would like to find out the circumstances behind that.
The next monument we saw was the Sint Juliaan (St. Julien) memorial. This is absolutely breathtaking. The “Brooding Soldier,” designed by Frederick Clemesha of Regina, is a tall shaft of granite with a soldier emerging out of the top performing the drill movement “rest on arms reverse.” The inscription reads: “This column marks the battlefield where 18,000 Canadians on the British left withstood the first German gas attacks the 22nd- 24th April 1915. Two thousand fell and lie buried here.”
The politics surrounding the monument were the opposite to Vimy. Erected in the 1920’s, it was considered “too sad” for the Canadian public. It was still a time when the war and its soldiers were considered victorious and a source of pride. Clemesha apparently did not receive any more contracts for his war designs. It is the most moving monument I had seen. It is so understated and powerful. It had a great effect on everyone there. Politicians should keep their noses out of it and leave it to the soldiers. They know best how to honour their own.
Our next stop was a German World War I cemetery at Langemark. This is a really spooky place. As you walk through the gate, there is what seems to be a small garden at the front. In fact, it is a mass grave for over 22,000 soldiers. Their names are etched on stones that line the grave. The mental pictures are terrifying. As in La Cambe, each individual marker contains any where up to twenty-five men. At the back of the cemetery are four metal figures: the Four Souls. They are there to watch over their dead.
There was none of the discussion as after La Cambe. World War I was a different war. The origins were not so cut and dried. The Germans were still the enemy but the fanaticism of the Nazis was not there. Placed in a ring around the common grave were a series of wreaths. Looking at the wreaths, they were all from British regiments. That made us stop and think. If they can forgive them, we certainly can.
Our final stop of the night was at the Menin Gate in Ypres itself. This is quite a sight. It is an enormous gate filled with the names of missing soldiers of the Commonwealth. The names of 54,896 men are here including 6,994 Canadians. These are men who died before 16 August 1917. The remainder are seen at Tyne-Cot. More than 56,000 Canadians died in Belgium. We found the Canadian names up the stairs on the right-hand side. These numbers are staggering. There is some overlapping with Vimy but it is still incredible. These numbers are too big to comprehend and are only the missing soldiers, not the dead.
Every night at 8pm, buglers from the Ypres Fire Brigade play the Last Post. They have been doing this every single night since 1927. The only exception occurred during the four years of occupation in World War II. There are six buglers in total and they take turns. We talked to the three buglers playing that night. They had been doing the Last Post for 35, 18 and 3 years. What dedication. It is a moving ceremony. There is no fanfare. The police stopp traffic and the buglers walk out and play. No speeches, just silence. It was beautiful.
Saturday 13 June
Our free day. What’s my objective? – sleep. How do I accomplish this objective? – ignore my roommate. As much as the group is getting along wonderfully, we definitely need some down time. After the intensity of this tour, a day off is welcomed. And what better place to spend it than in Bruges. What a charming city. I didn’t even want to shop. All I wanted to do was walk around the city looking at the beautiful buildings and canals. We definitely need more bell towers in Canada. They sound so romantic.
I did a lot of walking and talking to the locals. Almost everyone speaks english here. Terry told us of a bridge somewhere in the city. It is a monument to the Manitoba Dragoons who liberated the city in 1944. Called the “Canada Bridge,” or “Bison Brug,” no one remembers where it is. Our mission, should we choose to accept it – find that bridge. I had a great time looking. I just asked people and they pointed in a direction. It’s amazing how many people you meet and how much of the city you see that way. I talked to one shop keeper who remembered seeing Canadians soldiers march through the gate. He has a Scottish cap badge (he thinks) from one of them. He told me that the square off of our hotel was where the Canadians parked all their jeeps. He also told me that his father had been a German prisoner. And we think we have it bad?
I met a couple of young kids – they’re so polite over here. I asked two young men if they knew where it was and they told me that they were French, there on vacation. But, they knocked on the door of a stranger, who happened to be German. She told me where the bridge was (by this point it was right around the corner). It was truly an international endeavour. It is a strange little bridge in the middle of nowhere. Off the main roads, there are these two huge Buffaloes just sitting there. The inscription reads “This bridge was erected in memory of the Canadian Forces who liberated the city of Bruges on September the 12th 1944.” Terry still owes me a case of beer for finding it.
Sunday 14 June
Back to work. Today we studied the Battles of the Scheldt. The Port of Antwerp had been taken by the Allies on 4 September. The problem was the Germans controlled both sides of the approaches to the city. Until these were cleared the Port could not be used. Remember, the Mulberries were only supposed to be temporary structures until more ports, further west and north, could be opened. The supply lines now stretched all across France. The distance had become too far for the supply lines to be really effective.
There were many arguments at the highest levels about the priority of this mission. Montgomery wanted to move into the Ruhr Valley and felt that the Canadian operation was secondary. As a result, he took away much of their manpower including most of their armoured support. They only support given to the Canadians was by Admiral Sir Betram Ramsey, Eisenhower’s Naval Commander. He believed that the Scheldt Estuary should be given the highest priority and that the Canadians wouldn’t be able to start operations until 1 November because of a shortage of ammunition. Monty argued and squirmed but eventually agreed that Antwerp would be the top priority and released some of the manpower.
Simonds replaced an ailing Crerar as Army Commander for this operation. Operation “Switchback” planned an attack in the rear of the Breskens Pocket using Buffaloes to land a brigade behind enemy defences. We had already studied the diversionary tactic by the 7th Brigade on Leopold Canal. Now we were going to look at the main assault by 9th Brigade.
The Canadians were up against stiff opposition. Hitler had decided to turn the area into “Fortress South Scheldt.” The German 64th Infantry Division was comprised of many veteran officers and NCOs from the Eastern Front. They were fully up to strength in both men and materiel. They, too, believed that the V 1 and 2 rockets would still demoralize the enemy and the war would turn around.
The plan did not proceed smoothly right from the start. Although it was meant to go ahead on 6 October, the 9th did not start training with the Buffalos until 5 October. The intent to send in 7th Brigade, as planned, was a failure as we had already seen. The 9th was delayed another 2 days. Once the operation began, there was mixed success. The North Novas, landing on Green beach achieved complete surprise. The Highland Light Infantry, on Amber beach got bogged down in the mud. Their landing point was much closer to the German positions at Biervliet, and the German response was quicker.
The fight continued until 2 November. The Germans held at each polder (an area of low, marshy ground, reclaimed from the sea and protected by a dyke) and then withdrew to a new defensive line where the fighting continued. A memo put out by General Eberding of the 64th showed the level of German commitment:
I hearby command that in cases where the names of deserters are ascertained their names will be made known to the civilian population at home and their next of kin will be looked upon as enemies of the German people….
The Germans only surrendered when their positions were outflanked or under direct fire. More than 8,000 men surrendered. Nevertheless, this battle cost 3rd Div. more than 2,000 casualties.
One of the main criticisms against MGen DC Spry, Commander of 3rd Division, was that he was too cautious. Gen Eberding had accused him of not exploiting several opportunities during the fight. That was probably true. Spry was simply trying to keep everyone alive. No army commander can be happy that his men have been fighting for months and are not considered all that important by a higher command (Monty and Ike). Canadians often seemed caught in the crossfire between the two senior commanders. This was the case here. I would not say that they were throwing away Canadian lives, but they hampered them a great deal. At one point, while denying that there was any ammunition shortage, 2nd Division was told that “the limit to artillery ammunition expenditure has been removed.” This type of resentment naturally led to caution.
Next, we discussed the battle at Woensdrecht. This was one of a series of battles designed to clear the area north of Antwerp and pave the way to capture Walcheran and South Beveland Islands. The battles for the Scheldt took over five weeks to complete and the battalions involved suffered heavily. We talked about why the Canadians were used after so much intense fighting through Normandy. The answer was twofold. Primarily, who else would do it? Whether the priorities were correct or not, the British were just as busy in other arenas. The Canadians happened to be on the left flank so they were chosen. The secondary reason is a bit more tenuous. The Canadians did not want to be left out of any major offensive. Whether the soldiers would have agreed with that, I don’t know. According to Terry, the Canadians (or their commanders anyway) were dealing with the “Shadow of Amiens.” They were trying to live up to their World War I reputation. A reputation is a lousy thing to die for but I guess it’s understandable.
Phase one of “Angus” called for the Black Watch to get on the dyke, one company at a time. They had some artillery and armour as support as well as air support, weather permitting.
13 October turned into “Black Friday” for the Black Watch. Out of 145 casualties, 56 were killed and 27 were taken prisoner.
It was a little hard to visualize this battle as there was a highway running across the field. We talked a bit about the mistakes that were made. Once again, the criticism of using a battalion for a brigade strength objective was raised. But, the question again is, where do you get the men? Here, as it turns out, the answer lay in changing priorities. As soon as Antwerp became Monty’s main objective, troops were released from other battles.
Our next battle field was the Walcheran Causeway. This, too, had brutal heavy fighting. 5th Brigade, acting as a diversion, had to cross the Sloedam causeway while the 52nd (Lowland) Scottish Division staged an amphibious attack on the south coast of the isthmus. The battle was not the “ill-conceived disaster” that it is so often portrayed. It was a necessary part to opening up Walcheran Island. Part of the problem was the inexperience of 52nd Division. 4th and 5th Brigades had reached the coast of Beveland in two days. It took the Scottish troops six days to move a smaller distance. 5th Brigade suffered 135 killed or wounded.
Monday 15 June
Our first stop in Holland was the Groesbeek Cemetery. There are 2,617 graves here. Of those, 2,338 are Canadian and 268 are British. There are also 2 Australian, 1 New Zealand, 1 Netherlands, and 7 other Allied graves. There are 2,424 Army, 190 Air Force and 3 Naval graves. This cemetery is also a memorial for all the unknowns in northwest Europe. 103 Canadian, 957 British and 2 South African names are listed there (total 1,062). The memorial plaque says:
These walls bear the names of the soldiers of the British Commonwealth and Empire who fell in the advance from the River Seine through the low countries and into Germany but to whom the fortunes of war denied a known grave. 30 August 44 – 5 May 45.
While this cemetery was just as powerful as the rest, there was a little difference. It did not evoke the same visual images as those where the battlefields were still the same. Many of the battlefields in this area were gone, the victims of urban expansion. When you walked through Dieppe or Beny-sur-Mer, the images of the fighting were very powerful. I think, as well, that I was more familiar with the Normandy battles. In Belgium and Holland, I was still learning about them. Generally, Holland is associated with the liberation by Canadians and, as such, is thought of as a good thing. It would take some re-thinking on my part to put this into perspective. These battles were just as fierce and bloody as earlier in the war. Canadians were fighting right up until 5 May 1945 when the cease-fire occurred.
The graves, themselves, still evoked an incredible sadness. I put my flag on:
Army Catering Corps
7th March 45 Age 27
You are always
In our hearts dear Fred
Your loving wife Ivy
It doesn’t get much worse than that. A young father in the Catering Corps. How does someone in the Catering Corps get killed? (Yes, I know how, it was a rhetorical question). But still, I can just see the letters home “It’s O.K. honey, I’m just a cook, how could I get hurt?”
Then there was:
D. 129577 Private
Corps of Military Staff Clerks Canadian Army
28 June 1945 Age 24
Ever remembered by his friends
I also saw:
Royal Canadian Corps of Signals
19th February 1945 Age 25
H. 57407 Private
Toronto Scottish Regiment
1st March Age 25
Mother. Father. Soldier John.
Mort a Valiant.
Dearly loved son and brother
As I mentioned before, the simple epitaphs were the most effective:
L. 74821 Private
1st Canadian Parachute Battalion
18th February 1945 Age 27
At the going down
Of the sun
And in the morning
We will remember him
We moved into the new year and operation “Veritable.” 1945 had not gone well for the Allies. The “Battle of the Bulge” proved that the Germans were still a fierce adversary. At this point, no one knew that the war would be over in five months. In yet another test of wills, Montgomery received priority for a northern offensive on the west bank of the Rhine. “Veritable,” starting off on 8 February, was one arm of a pincer movement carried out by 1st Canadian Army with British 30 Corps under its command. The other arm was the U.S. 9th Army. 3rd Div., now nicknamed the “Water Rats” used Buffaloes to clear the Rhine flank while 5th Brigade captured the village of Wyler to open up a supply route for 30 Corps. They suffered heavy casualties.
Montgomery was determined to destroy German forces in the Rhineland, and he intended to do it using a series of set-piece, attritional battles. To pursue this agenda, 7th Brigade tried to clear Moylen Wood. The Germans held the woods in strength and were supported by artillery fire. The Regina Rifles made several attempts to occupy the woods and received over 100 casualties. The Canscots and the Fort Garry Horse fared no better. Eventually, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles resorted to Wasp flamethrowers to clear the woods. In six days, 7th Brigade suffered 485 casualties.
We drove to the woods for our discussion. This battle showed the importance of knowing the terrain. It was an old forest, the trees were all over the place, not in neat orderly lines. The German 6th Para Battalion was able to hide and inflict heavy damage. This battle also showed the danger of trying to outguess your enemy. To the Germans, the woods offered an opportunity to direct observed fire on the Allied flank while protecting the main Cleve-Calcar road. To the Canadians, the woods were simply an area away from the main thrust which had already been bypassed. Simonds assumed that the Germans would use their resources to defend the Calcar Ridge. He was wrong. But, could the Canadians have simply bypassed it themselves? Not really as this would have left their flank exposed.
We stopped in Wyler, the border town on the west bank of the Rhine captured by 5th Brigade and the start point for “Veritable.” There is a memorial cairn by the side of the road. It is inscribed:
From this point around three hundred thousand British and Canadian soldiers set off on 8 Feb 45 for Wesel and the Rhine on Monty’s Operation Veritable. Pilgrim, strive with whatever it takes to realise your ideals
The other side reads:
Here – 17/18 Sept 1944 – Red Devils of 508 Prcht Inf landed with artillery by parachute and glider. Devils – or Angels – came to shield the District of Nijmegen. Pilgrim, no matter the name of the colour, shield the vulnerable.
The second inscription referrs to operation “Market-Garden.” This was the Airborne drop by the British, Americans and Poles from 17 to 24 September 1944.
Finally, we stopped at the “National Oorlogs – en Verzetsmuseum” (National War and Resistance Museum) in Overloon. Overloon was the site of an intense tank battle. The remnants of the battle were used as the basis for the museum. The Dutch are also very proud of their resistance efforts. The aim of the museum is twofold. They want to honour those fallen in the battle, but they also want to educate people about the war in general. The memorial stone states:
Linger a moment, visitor, and consider that the ground upon which you are standing, once was one of the most contested sectors of the battlefield of Overloon. In bitter man-to-man fights many young men, having escaped death on the battlefields of Nettuno and Normandy, found their final resting place under these trees.
This is a very good museum but with some definite historical flaws. The number and types of hardware are staggering. As mentioned earlier, it is so important when studying military history to see the types of weapons you have been discussing. It gives you insight into potential flaws or strengths. This museum carries everything from a German Midget Submarine to a British Bailey Bridge to a Mobile Canadian Workshop. It also has a very large tank collection including the British Sherman V Crab Mk I (mine sweeping tank) and a German Type V Panther. These are all on display outside so you are able to get a good look at all sides.
The museum inside was equally impressive. Beginning with displays on World War I and the inter-war years, the museum follows the chronology of World War II. They have special exhibits on events and things important to the Dutch. The Resistance display focuses on items like propaganda, the underground press and terror by the Nazis. The museum also houses one of the most effective exhibits on the Holocaust that I have ever seen. It is very simple, but the pictures and sculptures are chilling. Also displayed are artifacts from the camps themselves. Things like playing cards made by the inmates, drawings and poetry. It is not to be missed.
While the museum is very good, it has one major flaw. Where were the Canadians? I do believe that we liberated a great deal of Holland. The Princess of Holland gave birth to her daughter in Ottawa. My mother told me a very interesting story. Princess Juliana applied for, and was granted, asylum in Ottawa. She was pregnant. Dutch law dictated that no member of the Royal Family could inherit the throne unless born on Dutch soil. When Juliana was about to give birth, the floor of her room, on the 7th floor of the Ottawa Civic Hospital, was sprinkled with Dutch soil and the flag was raised. The room was declared Dutch soil by Ottawa. Thus, Princess Beatrix could inherit the throne. As a gift, 4 million tulip bulbs were given to Canada. At the museum, we were mentioned twice. First, saying that the princess had taken refuge in Canada (no mention of the baby), and second, a passing reference to the Falaise Gap. This is completely unacceptable considering the role played by Canadians in Holland. We were not, perhaps, in the battle of Overloon, but the museum did not focus solely on that. When I asked Terry about it, he said he had given up. He has brought it to their attention in the past but they don’t care. This apathetic attitude is one we have to change.
We had our official banquet tonight. Tuesday was a free day so Terry wanted us to do whatever we wanted. We made reservations at Cuirin’s Floating Restaurant. It was a Portugese restaurant at the waterside. All they served was kebabs but they were wonderful. It was the best food of the trip. Everyone made speeches and we all had a great time.
Tuesday 16 June
Our last day in Europe! Although this was a free day, Kelly, Andrew and I decided to go to the Airborne Museum in Oosterbeek. This small town outside of Arnhem became famous as a place of slaughter during operation “Market-Garden.” The British Airborne got stuck here and suffered incredible casualties. We actually got there too early so we decided to visit the Airborne Cemetery in Oosterbeek. Although this is a Commonwealth cemetery, the majority of graves are British. There are 1,625 British, 33 Canadian, 4 Australian, two New Zealand, two Netherlands and 79 polish graves. Of these, 1,633 are soldiers, 113 are airmen and there is one sailor.
The Canadians in this cemetery are Canloan Officers. A memorial to these officers in Ottawa states in part: “Designated “Canloan” 673 Canadian Officers volunteered for loan to the British Army and took part in the invasion and liberation of Europe 1944-45. Canloan casualties were 465 of which 128 were fatal.” We found seven of them. I put my flag on:
Cdn. 652 Lieutenant
Royal Canadian Infantry Corps
Attd. the Wiltshire Regiment
1st October 1944
We finally made it to the museum. Hartenstein Hotel, the site of the museum, was the headquarters of MGen RE Urquhart, commander of the 1st British Airborne Division. This operation was part of Monty’s plan to push on to the Ruhr. The operation involved two parts. “Market,” consisted of the capture of the bridges between Eindhoven and Arnhem. This task was given to the 1st British Airborne Division, the 82nd and 101st American Airborne Divisions and the First Polish Independent Parachute Brigade Group. “Garden,” included the simultaneous ground advance of British 30 Corps. The operation was a partial success, but as the movie title suggests, Arnhem was “A Bridge Too Far” and the British were not able to capture it. We did not see that bridge but we could see the “Waal” bridge from our hotel in Nijmegen. This bridge was captured by the Americans.
The museum contains a large model of the area with spoken commentary as well as a number of photographs that illustrate the course of the battle. In addition, there is a large collection of original weapons and equipment of both Allied and German origin. There are several large dioramas in the basement depicting certain elements of the battle. They only made one mistake as far as I could see. A picture of Americans taking German prisoners was shown. Here is the problem: the Allies in the picture are actually Canadian and the picture was taken at St. Lambert-sur-Dives during the closing of the Falaise Gap. It is one of the most famous Canadian war pictures of Victoria Cross winner Major David Currie. Unfortunately, a mistake like that puts their other research into question.
Our afternoon was a complete waste. We tried to get into Amsterdam but a train strike hampered our efforts. Since none of us spoke Dutch, we didn’t find out what was happening until we had been riding on the train for over an hour. We ended up in Utrecht but finally decided just to go back to the hotel. It wasn’t a glorious end to the trip.
Wednesday 17 June
Today we all went our separate ways. Kelly was off to London, Kate left for Paris and Patrice stayed in Holland. The rest of us flew home. We were split up into two groups, one bound for Toronto, the other Montreal. I sat with Steve and Mike. We were as excited as on the way there, but this time because we were going home. Three weeks is enough time to be away.
What can I say about the trip? I can honestly say that it was one of the most profound experiences of my life. We could all read about war but seeing the battlefields and the graves made it more real. First, I learned to appreciate these soldiers and their sacrifices. I don’t think that I will ever take my freedom for granted again. It came at such a high price. We were taught so many lessons. I think the primary one was that war has a human element. We must never forget that these soldiers and commanders were human beings with human frailties. That, of course, leads into the second lesson; be very careful when second-guessing the decisions taken. We were not there; we can never know what exactly these commanders were thinking. Finally, it is our duty, as the next generation, to keep these lessons alive. We must teach the next generation what we have learned so these sacrifices will not be forgotten. I don’t think that will be too difficult. The experiences of this trip will remain with us forever.
Lest We Forget