RETURN TO A KILLING GROUND-25 YEARS AFTER DIEPPE
I he beach at Dieppe, like all beaches on the English Channel, is most!]' stones. To lie on it you need a mattress, and when you walk it sounds as though you' re tramping across a carpet of walnuts. It's not quite a mile long, and at either end it is dominated by the limestone cliffs that make up the Normandy coast and are the twins of those at Dover. At high tide it's about 100 yards jrom the asphalt promenade down to where the sea froths, ojff-white, and it is so steep that you must take care the loose stones don't skid from beneath your feet and throw you ßat on your jace. It's a miserable place to sunbathe, let alone die.
WHEN HE WENT BACK to Dieppe in April, Brian McCool remembered the beach as being smaller than it really is. But then he only saw it the once— on the morning of August 19, 1942. That day one company of German infantry, plus gunners firing from the cliffs, blockhouses, an old castle and barricaded seafront hotels, so dominated the beach they were able to knock out three battalions of the Canadian Second Division, and tanks as well. On that unlovely beach at Dieppe 414 Canadians were killed. Another 421 died on other beaches nearby.
Of the 4.000 Canadians who landed at or near Dieppe, almost 3,400 were killed or wounded. As battles go. it demonstrated as well as any and better than most the ultimate absurdity of war. But chauvinists insist that to create a nation men must die for it (how often we hear that Canada “came to maturity" because of the Canadian part in Vimy Ridge, 1917). and instead of an inglorious military failure, best forgotten. Dieppe has become a celebrated moment in Canadian history. Elaborate quarter-century commemoration ceremonies are being staged in Dieppe in August, and a few score survivors of the raid, exofficers mostly, are flying back to Europe to take part.
But Brian McCool went back to Dieppe in spring, when northern Europe was a lustrous, fecund green. Me is 66 now, and the Ontario government's musical education expert: a big man of 5 feet 1 OVi inches and 267 pounds with the appetites and girth and good nature of Falstaff. Twenty-five years ago he was a major in the Royal Regiment of Canada, and at the time of Dieppe one of Canada’s Commando experts. At Dieppe, he was beachmaster with the task of making sure men and tanks and equipment landed on schedule and were ready to depart the same way. In the event, it was a largely superfluous job because a lot of boats did not reach the beach, and most of the men who did land got no farther than the beach itself. Then the tanks were knocked out and the boats sunk and the men captured.
The question remains: why Dieppe? I “ think Sometimes the point of
McCool was among them. As he said when explaining his role at Dieppe to me: "I was supposed to have had some 500 men in my command, but I never found more than about 120 of them and of those only 20 were alive when it ended. The Germans had that beach covered so well that when I did find some cover by a groyne — we scooped a hollow in the stones — 1 hardly moved more than 100 yards in any direction for the next six hours. I couldn't. And then I was captured, which is rather humiliating since you are then saying to your enemies, ‘Now, I've stopped trying to kill you so you must treat me well.' "
On the way back to Dieppe with McCool. I began to realize that when you’ve finished saying war is hell and uncivilized and otherwise insupportable, it still remains true that the man who has killed, seen others killed and faced the prospect himself must always be subtly set apart from those, like me, who have never put their lives on the line for any reason at all.
We flew to Düsseldorf, and drove the rest of the way. Near Liège in Belgium it was McCool who realized two gentle hills were those from which artillery dominated the valley during the World War I battle there; at the France-Belgium border, it was McCool who appreciated what hell the relentless flatlands must have been for the infantry; at Charleroi, it was McCool who spotted the dining-room’s brass flowerpot for what it really was — a Big Bertha artillery shell.
At Dieppe, McCool drove straight to the beach where memorials announce it as the spot where the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, the Essex Scottish Regiment of Windsor, Ont., the Calgary Tanks and the Fusiliers Mont-Royal of Montreal were for a morning embroiled in a / continued overleaf battle which, as McCool observed when he stood in the chill wind and surveyed the beach where his war began and ended 25 years ago, was a latter-day Charge of the Light Brigade. The officers, like McCool, were mostly men from the middleclass professions who had run the peacetime militia as rather comfortable gentlemen's clubs. To them and their men, war had until then been ill-imagined as a rather romantic confrontation between the forces of good and evil, with them wearing the white hats and, of course, being nobly triumphant.
all was to drive the Germans out of their minds with
It was, therefore, something of a shock when Dieppe turned out to be a massacre — of Canadians by Germans whose defenses and alertness so nicely complemented the Allies’ bad planning and inept execution. To this day McCool and many others are still half convinced there was a security leak.
In any event, it seems incredible now that a sane military commander would attempt a frontal beach assault at Dieppe. The main Dieppe beach is dominated by the cliffs, a 15thcentury castle, seafront hotels and apartments and the harbor mole arm, which juts a couple of hundred yards out to sea. The plan was for the town to be temporarily occupied by Allied forces, who would capture enemy documents, demolish a torpedo-storage dump and destroy the port facilities and military installations. Churchill, not wishing to alienate the French, banned pre-raid bombing.
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You can become afraid to remember the horrors, the ugly details of
death. To remember what really happened makes it hard to live in peace
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“Too big for a raid, too small for invasion. What was it?”
In the event, only a score or so soldiers got off the Dieppe heach into the lower town.
The other, flank attacks were at Pourville in the west and Puys in the east, both villages built in clefts in the duffs. At Pourville. the South Saskatchewan Regiment did get off the beach, but not far. At Puys. 554 men oí the Royal Regiment landed on a beach about 350 yards long. They were late and it was light when they landed. A handful of Germans promptly killed or wounded 522 of them, but the beach is so vulnerable from the heights that it's not the death toll that's remarkable: it's the number of survivors.
When Dieppe was over, it became necessary to justify it. It was mounted, some said, to prove to Stalin that the Allies were as ready as the Russians to fight on the European mainland. It was, said others, to satisfy Montgomery’s curiosity about the consequences of a frontal assault on a defended coastal towm. And there were those who argued it was vital to bolster the sagging morale of the beleaguered British. There had to be a reason, and a good one, for all those men to die. and in the end the one that was accepted as most satisfactory was that the myriad mistakes of Dieppe were a lesson that saved lives when the real invasion took place in 1944.
As McCool said when he w'ent back. “Sometimes I think the point of it all was to drive the Germans out of their minds with curiosity. After I was captured. I was questioned by a German officer. He was a decent type and he said, ‘Look. McCool. it was too big to be just a raid and too small to be an invasion, so tell us — what the hell was it?’ I told him I'd he glad to hear if he ever found out.”
We stayed at the Hôtel de l'Univers opposite the beach, where proprietor Jean Tilquin said that he believed Germans who fought at Dieppe also came back quite often, just like the Canadians. “The Germans who stay, sometimes we think they were here in the w'ar. but they don't say. I think they know it is better to be forgotten.” he said. Outside the hotel fly the flags of Britain, Canada. France — and West Germany. Tilquin and Paul Brunet, a local florist, both advised us to change our German car for a French one. We didn't do so. and if my French were better 1 might have been quite huit at the things people yelled w-hen we passed them and they spotted the large “D" (for Deutsch-
land) painted on the trunk of the car.
Brunet, it seemed, has a relationship with the relatives of those who died at Dieppe, which transcends the understandably commercial one of florist and bereaved. In Toronto, he was highly recommended as a helpful contact — and. indeed, he proved to be one. He explained that at the time
of the raid he was in the “passive defense corps”—a group w ho watched for fires and bomb damage and did rescue work. During the raid, he was standing in the main street. Rue de la Barre, w hen three Canadians appeared around a corner about 150 yards away. At the time he was wearing a German - supplied tin hat and plus
fours. Apparently thinking he was a German soldier in puttees, the Canadians opened fire, and missed.
It's a traumatic experience, being shot at. even in error. Brunet later provided a local artist with a description of the Canadians, and the three snarling soldiers the artist painted are fondly displayed in the florist's window each anniversary of the Dieppe Raid.
The scars of war have healed in Dieppe. The new buildings are already beginning to mellow, and no one lives m the German-built blockhouses on the cliffs any longer, as they cl id during the postwar housing crisis. But the cliffs are still pockmarked with the caves and gun emplacements the Germans built and, along with the seafront memorials, are the most visible reminder ol the raid. I he cemetery where 1.000 gravestones stand in parade - ground ranks is three miles outside the town, just off the Paris road. The cemetery was the second place McCool visited on his first I till day in Dieppe: the lirst was the beach again, at dawn, to show us how it was during the raid — how, alter the landing, the sun came up from behind the town and etched all the buildings and cliffs in shadows and blinded the men trying to fight their way off the beach.
“Something whipped past me, and he was dead, still smiling”
By the time he reached the cemetery it was midmorning on a sunny, gentle day. The cemetery is surrounded by farmland, and this day the usual oppressive quiet of burial grounds was broken cheerfully by birds, and by the muted buzz of tractors hauling seed potatoes in slow motion across the skyline. McCool stood for a long time looking at this sudden blaze of white marble gleaming in the sun amid the green and brown of the countryside, then set out to find the graves of those he remembered. There w;ere many old friends, old enemies and even an old pupil from his school - teaching days in the 1930s.
We also looked for the grave of a young British naval officer whose name,
McCool thought, might have been Hobson or Hodson. "He was a nice rosvcheeked lad who came up to me on the beach and was down on one knee, his face next to mine, shouting a report over the noise of the guns, when I felt something whip past my right cheek and suddenly there was a hole in his head and he was dead, still smiling . . . Curious sensation. having a man killed when his lips are four inches away from yours.” After a moment McCool shook his head as if to dislodge the thought, then added in the detached, unemotional classroom manner of a pedagogue. “That’s not unusual, you know. There have been many cases of people having heart attacks while walking upstairs and just standing there, dead. Pretty gruesome for anyone who finds them. 1 suppose.”
Throughout his trip back, McCool rarely talked about the horrors of
what happened during the Dieppe Raid itself. It seemed almost as though he was afraid to remember —to recall the detailed reality, that is: what happened before and since is more supportable. My father once told me that he didn’t want to remember what really happened in battle: he said that if he did, it would make it hard to live in peace.
No naval officer called Hobson or Hodson was among the 944 Commonwealth dead in the cemetery, so McCool obligingly posed for a lew photographs. took some of his own. and said that he thought there should be a Canadian flag at the cemetery. Then he left for Envermeu. a village about five miles inland. There a group of French farmers greeted us effusively when it was explained that McCool was a survivor of the raid, and because neither my French nor his proved adequate for the local accent, one ot
them wrote in my notebook: ''Beaucoup de reconnaissance et d'aniitier a tous les Canadiens'’ — which, roughly, means: "We are grateful to all Canadians and send them our best wishes."
We had gone to Envermeu because it was there that most of the captured Canadian officers were kept under guard for a time after the raid.
McCool was captured as he lay on the esplanade beside a knocked-out armored car. using the vehicle's radio in a bid to tell the headquarters’ ship that all was lost. "I was on my belly trying to look dead when 1 looked under one arm and saw a pair of foreign-looking boots. I looked under my other arm and saw another pair of boots, and 1 rolled over on my back and there were a half-dozen gents pointing bayonets at me. An officer told me to get up — you learn German pretty fast under those
conditions — so I got up and handed over my revolver and asked if I could stay behind on the beach and help with the wounded. He let me.
"I’m rather glad I was a Canadian captured by the Germans, and not the other way round. I heard some of our people talking about not bothering to take prisoners, but to shoot them instead. If I’d been a German that day I might not be alive today.”
Men surpass their own expectations of themselves in war, if they’ve been made to hate hard enough. It’s easily rationalized later. “The Germans were more used to making war and more likely to play by the rules than we amateurs." said McCool.
At Envermeu. the Canadian officers' prison was the parish church. By the time McCool was taken prisoner he'd emptied his revolver, but he still had half a dozen shells in his pocket. For some reason he cannot — or would rather not — remember, he had heen issued with soft-nosed dumdum bullets. Since these inflict the worst kind of wound, their use is outlawed by the Geneva Convention, an agreement drawn up by the civilized world to define acceptable ways in which we may slaughter one another. At the time, McCool was disturbed at the prospect of being found carrying dumdum bullets, since the Germans for whom they had been intended might have regarded it as a punishable breach of etiquette. He therefore dropped the bullets down the drain hole of the christening font. Whether they're still stuck in the pipes is in doubt: the curé of the church at the time died three months after the raid, and the incumbent priest has never heard of anyone finding the bullets, nor has he any complaints about the plumbing.
We next visited Pourville. where the South Saskatchewan Regiment and Cameron Highlanders had some success and i.ieutenant-Colonel Charles Merritt won the Victoria Cross for leading his men across an exposed bridge under ____lire. There McCool stopped for a beer, and the café proprietor graciously accepted a drink. He explained how he'd seen the Canadians, and McCool was reminded that when the news ot Merritt's VC reached the prison camp he was presented with a piece of chair covering. "My wife had sent me a sample of the new covering for our chesterfield, and it looked a hit like the VC ribbon, so we made up a ribbon and held an investiture," explained McCool. It’s a fond memory, that, and demonstrates McCool’s ambivalence toward war. Publicly, he takes the thinking-man’s line that war is deplorable. Yet for him. and others who fought, it remains the most significant of life's traumas. In war. life has a purpose: an importance it's impossible to repeat in the ennui of peace. War is a seductress faced by every generation.
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“The Germans aren’t too popular around here, you know”
It was at Puys that most of Mc-
( col's friends had died, because it was there that his Royal Regiment was almost completely wiped out. Only a score or so, led by the commanding officer, got off the beach and, after knocking out one machinegun nest and patrolling the area, they hid in a wood until captured. Among Dieppe veterans Puys is known as The
Abattoir. There's a little square there now. with the war memorial on one side and on the other the Cabriolet Discothèque, one of the better-known and noisier nightclubs on the northern coast of France.
Up on the cliffside behind the memorial. in the garden of a villa perched on the cliff edge, are two of the block-
houses from which Germans shot down most of the Royal Regiment. McCool climbed into the lower blockhouse, stood in the hole where once a gun turret had been, looked down on the sweep of the beach and said, as if in awe. "My God. I’d never seen it before but . . . how could anyone survive down there?” Well, not many did.
The other blockhouse is next to the villa, and has been turned into a wane cellar by the owners. Giles Mills, a former British Fleet Air Arm officer, and his wife Marianne. Over drinks, McCool again tried preaching his gospel of forgive and forget which had by now been coolly received by most of the French men and women we'd met.
“German veterans of Dieppe wanted to attend this year’s commemoration services, but the Canadians have objected." he told the Mills. "I'm president of the Fort York branch of the Canadian Legion, and I regret the Legion decided to take the same view'. Ciood God, the war's been over for 20 years. These people are our allies now, and they w'ere at the first memorial service 25 years ago—-when they buried our fellows with full military honors. All these objections to the Germans being there makes me think of an old German saying: 'Hell hath no fury like a noncombatant.' "
Mrs. Mills seemed doubtful. "The souvenirs, memories, are bad.” she said. Her husband said the Germans had wanted to send 200 people to the ceremonies, "which was just like them, and a bit too much for the local people to swallow. The Germans aren't too popular around here, you know." He said a former German officer always attended the annual August 19 anniversary services at Puys. "He commanded some of the guns that cut down the Royal Regiment, but at the services he never identifies himself. He just stands there, quietly taking part. I've talked with him hut he doesn't say much about the raid. It's hard to explain, really. He seems to think it was a bloody terrible carnage that didn't make much sense tor either side and should never happen again."
McCool saw much more of Dieppe. I here was the new artificial snow on an ersatz ski slope which opened the day he arrived. He also toured the harbor, and cliffs, where he looked through a coin-in-the-slot telescope at the beach and focused on a boy and his dog and said he supposed that was how he had looked to German gunners. He called at the new casino, built to replace the one which Canadians occupied during the raid and which the Germans promptly demolished because, being right next to the beach, it could again become an invaders' strongpoint. And in his spare moments he took to Ins hotel room to pore over a scene of Yeomen Of I lie Guard: he was scheduled to conduct a school orchestra in a performance of the operetta on his return to Toronto.
But always he went back to the beach — and to the cemetery .
They believed enough to die
It was here on the beach that the radioman died . . . there a mortar landed in a bomb crater, killing five of the eight men sheltering there — McCool being one of them . . . about here that the "cold-blooded courage of Dick Eidred |a McCool deputy] was the inspiration of a lifetime" . . . about there that Ross Calder, another deputy, had his finger severed by a bullet, and stuck it to the back of his hand with a field dressing in the vain hope a doctor could graft it back on later.
I was with McCool. listening, but he walked that beach alone. The sun was shining and two boys heaved stones out to sea and my imagination tailed me: I could neither see nor feel that morning of 25 years ago. nor could I understand.
After our first visit to the cemetery. McCool returned twice without me. Days later he said. "In that cemetery 1 felt more badly than I did when ! was on the beach and the bullets and shrapnel and bits of shattered stone were flying and all the bodies were around me. I can't explain it. except that then we were all in a state of shock. It is a shock, you know : you go into battle and find it isn’t at all what you expected."
And then he said. "My boy. you're going to write an article about all this and you won't have much trouble proving that war is the ultimate futility. You might even argue that the Dieppe Raid was one of the most futile things of all. But what you don't know is just how we felt when we went in to fight. It doesn't matter really whether the raid had any point or whether it was badly planned or whether some of us were cowards or maniacs or brutes. What is important is that a lot of good men believed in something enough to die for it. and you can't belittle that and you shouldn't try to."