Opinion

Kent

Remember lessons learned at Dieppe

Simon Kent

By Simon Kent, Special to the Toronto Sun

Veterans salute during a Dieppe 70th anniversary memorial service at the National War Memorial, August 19, 2012. (Errol McGihon/QMI Agency)

Veterans salute during a Dieppe 70th anniversary memorial service at the National War Memorial, August 19, 2012. (Errol McGihon/QMI Agency)

It speaks volumes for the Canadian character that when our soldiers hear battlefield gunfire they run towards it — not the other way.

It is in their training — some might say their national DNA — to actively go into harm’s way wherever it presents itself.

So it was 71 years ago when Canada made its opening land-based foray into the European theatre of the Second World War.

Just after 5 a.m. on Aug. 19, 1942, an amphibious force composed almost entirely of Canadian infantry went ashore near the French town of Dieppe and suffered an horrendous toll in a fight that was as good as over by 10:50 a.m.

In those five hours and 50 minutes, a total of 3,623 of the 6,086 men (almost 60%) who made it ashore were killed, wounded or captured.

The figures include 913 deaths and 1,946 captives, some of who died in German prisoner-of-war camps, according to Veterans Affairs.

It was a massive price in blood for the men of the Canadian Second Division who lost more prisoners than in the whole 11 months of the later campaign in North-West Europe, or the 20 months during which Canadians fought in Italy.

Canadian strength had already been tested elsewhere, with close to 2,000 men and women involved in the fall of Hong Kong. They had fought for 18 days but were eventually overwhelmed by superior Japanese forces.

In a way what happened at Dieppe was a continuation of that desperate fight to hold that British colony as the world desperately worked to find a way to halt the forces of tyranny.

Canada’s losses on the pebble shorefront at Dieppe were not in vain.

Planners took away lessons on how to conduct an opposed amphibious landing and applied them with detail to D-Day.

Lord Louis Mountbatten, whose Combined Operations Command had planned and executed the raid, long maintained that the lives lost at Dieppe saved thousands more at Normandy.

“The battle of D-Day was won on the beaches of Dieppe,” he insisted, justifying it ultimately as “one of the most vital operations of the Second World War. It gave to the Allies the priceless secret of victory.”

Maybe.

What is more certain is Canada had asked for the Dieppe assignment and sought a purpose for the troops already stationed in Britain and anxious to play their part.

They knew the risks but as one of Canada’s last survivors of the raid told me last week, he was “excited” at the chance to take on the Nazis.

It was why Arthur Rossell had left the family farm and joined the Essex Scottish Regiment.

Rossell told me he “wanted to fight for freedom and fight for Canada.”

The fact Canadians went looking for action has subsequently been confirmed by Victoria Cross winner Lt.-Col. C.C.I. Merritt.

He said after the war: “We were very glad to go, we were delighted.” Taken prisoner during the assault, Merritt recalled, “We were up against a very difficult situation and we didn’t win; but to hell with this business of saying the generals did us dirt.”

Canadians have been involved in conflicts since Dieppe including D-Day and Korea, more recently in the mountains of Afghanistan. There has been peace to keep as well in places as far apart as the Balkans and East Timor.

All combatants have been heirs of that Canadian tradition of moving towards the fight and not away.

As for those who gave their lives at Dieppe, three simple words suffice.

Lest we forget.

 


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