Brian McKenna recounts the worst Canadian disaster after Dieppe

November 11 2002


Brian McKenna recounts the worst Canadian disaster after Dieppe

November 11 2002


Brian McKenna recounts the worst Canadian disaster after Dieppe


Ten years after the CBC broadcast of his award-winning The Valour and the Horror, arguably Canada’s most controversial documentary series, filmmaker Brian McKenna reveals aspects of one little-known heroic story— and its cover-up—that got lost in the tumult.

AT THE FOOT of Verrières Ridge sits the Norman farming village of St-Martin, crossed by ancient hedgerows and surrounded by stone walls. Through the village, past the shop that sells Calvados as old as the battle, runs a cobblestoned street with a stately name—Rue du Royal Black Watch of Canada. The French villagers here keep green the memory of the Canadian boys who

crossed the Atlantic six decades ago to fight and die on that ridge.

Canadians have good reason for not knowing this searing story so well. For decades, Canada’s military establishment, abetted by its official historians, disguised and concealed the calamity. They lied, burned documents and blackened the name of the young officer who led the Black Watch into desperate battle that day. They did it to protect reputations and keep smooth careers. In so doing, they kept from the country the full impact of a battle that was second only

to Dieppe as a Canadian catastrophe in the Second World War.

JULY 25,1944. Cicadas herald a glorious summer dawn as the Black Watch regiment occupies St-Martin. Since the D-Day landings seven weeks earlier, the Germans have ferociously resisted all Allied attempts at a breakout to Paris, some 200 km away. In front of the regiment lies a field of wheat stretching to the crest of Verrières Ridge where the cream of the Nazi force awaits.

The Black Watch has a key role in a planned massive Canadian assault on entrenched German positions on the ridge. With the entire 2nd Canadian Corps attacking, some

30,000 men, the offensive has echoes of Vimy Ridge. For the attack, Charles Foulkes commands the Corps’ 2nd Division from the cellar of an old brewery, well back from the front. Maj.-Gen. Foulkes has given the Black Watch a daunting task. The regiment must first scale the ridge and then capture the strategic hamlet of Fontenay-le-Marmion on the other side.

The Black Watch boasts a grand esprit de corps. Its pipes and drums have lured volunteers, one as young as 17, from across Canada and the U.S. But above all, the regiment is the pride of English Montreal. Many of the young officers hail from McGill, where they starred for the football and hockey Redmen. Now they are soldiers taught to fear dishonour more than the enemy.

Overall commander of the Black Watch

and the entire 2nd Canadian Corps is the icy Guy Granville Simonds. Educated at Kingston’s Royal Military College, the Britishborn Simonds is an artillery general, famous for orchestrating bombardments, but awkward at deploying infantry and tanks.

Lt.-Gen. Simonds orders Foulkes and his other generals to conduct a blitzkrieg, a breakout battle at Verrières Ridge. Simonds dubs it Operation Spring. Although he commands masses of tanks, Simonds holds them back. He decrees that the Black Watch and 17 other infantry regiments must lead the breakout. To give the infantry some cover, the attack will go in at night. Still, it will be foot soldiers against German tanks.

Bruce Ducat of the Black Watch is one of those foot soldiers. His chums call him Duke. Before he enlisted, Ducat worked at a soda fountain in Verdun, Que. Now, he’s a 24-yearold corporal with a Sten machine gun that keeps breaking down. Afraid it will jam, Ducat takes his entrenching tool, a small shovel, and desperately sharpens the blade. Ducat and the Canadians are facing one of the most formidable armies ever assembled in a dark cause. Defending Verrières Ridge are six of Hitler’s elite SS Panzer Divisions, hardened by four years of ruthless fighting on the Russian front.

By 5 ; 3 0, thinking the coast is clear, Montrealer Stuart Cantlie is leading the Black Watch down a lane past an apple orchard, his officers close behind. Suddenly, a German MG 42 machine gun opens fire, taking down Cantlie, 36, and badly wounding the next in command. Cantlie’s last words: “Someone take over.”

That someone is Philip Griffin, only 26, but sensible, tough and respected. Maj. Griffin hails from Vancouver and was doing post-graduate work in biochemistry at McGill when war broke out. “He wanted to be a scientist,” remembers his sister, Eileen, “and cure mankind.” Duke Ducat likes Griffin the fighter: “A good soldier, a good officer. Looked like a smart young college boy—but tough as nails and fair.”

At this point, all hell has broken loose at St-Martin. Griffin and the Black Watch are hit from every direction. Griffin discovers the Germans are infiltrating from a labyrinth of mining tunnels under the ridge. By the time he feels safe enough to move forward, the sun is well over the horizon.

Back at headquarters, there is great consternation. Operation Spring is turning into a debacle, with Canadian attacks failing all along the ridge. Suddenly word comes that one assault is working. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry has seized the town of Verrières in the centre of the ridge. Now, if the generals can get the Black Watch moving on the

right flank, perhaps the day will turn around.

“Get cracking!” is a favourite Simonds’ exhortation. That’s what he wants the Black Watch to do. Foulkes stays put in the brewery cellar, but Bill Megill, the Black Watch brigade commander, is dispatched to StMartin. Brig.-Gen. Megill says later that he arrived to find Griffin preparing to attack up the ridge—and that he counselled caution and brought no pressure to bear on the young officer.

That version is hotly disputed by at least one Black Watch survivor, Campbell Stuart of Montreal. On this terrible morning, Capt. Stuart, 24, is entrusted with the role of mid-

According to Ducat, now 82, Griffin was a ‘good soldier, a good officer-tough as nails’

dleman on the wireless between Griffin and headquarters. Stuart remembers nothing but pressure, a blizzard of orders. In a letter to The Valour and the Horror team, Stuart recalls: “I found myself receiving messages from brigade, to pass on to Maj. Griffin, demanding an immediate attack, and replies from Maj. Griffin stressing the foolhardiness of pressing an attack.” Stuart claims the final straw was the appearance of Megill. “Maj. Griffin came to the conclusion that the honour of the regiment was at stake and

ordered the attack to go forward.”

No darkness will cloak their advance. The Black Watch will attack in bright sunshine. Griffin pledges the assault for 0900 hours. The young major is promised tanks to cover his attack. At zero hour the tanks have not appeared. Griffin is promised a barrage of Simonds’ famed artillery. At zero hour there is no sign of artillery. But Griffin has given his word. There will be an attack—and the Black Watch does not retreat.

The seconds tick down. Ducat watches Griffin raise his hand into the air like a flag, and point up the slope. The Royal Highland Regiment of Canada, the Black Watch,

some 300 of Canada’s best, begins to advance through the wheat up the slope of Verrières Ridge. They have a kilometre to go across open ground, too far to run, so they march. Ducat is horrified: “Something was terrible wrong. Never, never in all our rehearsals in England did we ever attack like this, long lines of infantry like in the Great War, with no covering artillery fire.”

Atop the ridge, German tanks are preparing a massive counterattack as the Black Watch suddenly appear in their sights. Peter Prein, a signals officer with 2nd Panzer SS, saw them coming. “In four years in Russia, we never saw anything like it,” he recalled in an interview. “The soldiers were marching upright, holding their rifles across their breasts in readiness, as if on parade drill.” The Black Watch, already under intense fire from the German 272nd Infantry Division, now feels the full force of the 88 mm tank cannons of 2nd Panzer. Prein and his fellow Germans are dumbfounded at the Black Watch reaction: “Despite strong fire, scarcely anyone looked for cover. Waves of men rolled steadily forward, even with their visible losses.”

Hundreds of the Watch are falling, “rifles across their breasts” a poor substitute for tank armour. Ducat sees his chum Tex Richards go down, a fountain of blood spurting from his stomach, crying, “Help me Duke!” But Ducat doesn’t stop. “Our orders were to press on, no matter what. It was the Black Watch way.”

Ducat is among 60 Black Watch still climbing the ridge. Most are wounded and drenched with the blood of comrades. Now, with the German trenches in sight, they break into a running assault. “We followed Griffin,” says Ducat, “he was always in our light.”

Astonishingly, the Black Watch reach the German trenches at the crest. Ducat’s Sten gun fails, again, but he charges with his spade. Suddenly, a German shell blows him into the air, gashing his face, breaking his right arm and paralyzing his left. “Blood was spouting from a hole in my left arm. I prayed the Our Father and it stopped.”

A minute before the explosion, Ducat looks up to see Griffin and “seven or eight men, all that was left” attack over the crestand disappear. Later, Simonds’ artillery barrage finally comes cannonading down—atop the Black Watch lying wounded near the crest. Ducat is captured.

Back at St-Martin, Campbell Stuart, or-

dered to stay behind to preserve a command structure, is no longer on the wireless with headquarters. He is desperately trying to contact Griffin. “The regiment had disappeared,” Stuart says. “This was perhaps the worst moment of my life.” He goes for help and finds Simonds’ tanks still in reserve. On his way back, the young captain is hit by German fire. He survives, but loses a leg.

At the foot of Verrières Ridge, there is keening. Black Watch pipers, serving as stretcher bearers, begin to search for “the missing boys.” Of about 325 Black Watch who

began the day, 123 are killed and 184 are wounded or captured. Some 16 soldiers stagger back. “You should know that we did not fire on these retreating men,” points out Prein. “We were too deeply impressed— and embarrassed—by this sacrifice and gallantry of men who had no chance. It had been sheer butchery.”

Weeks later, when the German army retreats from Verrières Ridge, the corpses of the Black Watch are found along the path of their assault. At the crest, in a glade of poplars, the body of Philip Griffin is found, with the last seven of his lovely men, all killed by German fire.

Canada hears nothing of the “butchery.” Despite 1,500 Canadian casualties suffered across the ridge, Simonds and his commanders put out word of a victory. Truth is added to the casualty list as one war reporter recounts how the Germans facing “tired, muddy and excited Canadians” outside StMartin “came out with the white flag.”

For years afterwards, internal controversy swirls around the fate of the Black Watch— but the public hears little of it. In 1945, army historian C.P. Stacey, in a first draft of an account of the Normandy campaign, described Verrières as a “bloody day,” second only to Dieppe. Stacey then discovered the peril of being on a first name basis with his corps commander. “Guy [Simonds] didn’t like it,” confessed Stacey in his memoirs, A Date with History, “and he particularly didn’t like the emphasis on the losses.”

Cowed by Simonds, and anxious to land a full-time job as the army’s official historian, Stacey backed down. In the final version, he eradicated the comparison to Dieppe, “while at the same time emphasizing the inexperience of the 2nd Division (which had been less than a fortnight in the line) and the importance of the one objective (the village of Verrières) which we had taken and held. This satisfied Guy.”

Meanwhile, further airbrushing the record, Simonds wrote a 1946 report declaring that Operation Spring was designed not as a breakout batde, but merely a “holding attack” to distract the Germans, allowing the U.S. to break out elsewhere. This revisionism was denounced by Foulkes who, according to Stacey in his memoirs, clearly recalled Simonds advertising a breakout battle.

At the time of the massacre, Simonds had blamed Foulkes, the Black Watch divisional commander. But after the war, blaming

Foulkes became impolitic—Foulkes was now Simonds’ boss. So, in his 1946 report, Simonds decided the Black Watch tragedy would be laid at the grave of someone who could never answer back—Philip Griffin. “The action of the Black Watch was most gallant, but was tactically unsound in its detailed execution,” he wrote. Foulkes, writes Stacey, acidly retorted that Simonds was blaming “our troops for our misfortunes.”

Fearful that both their reputations would suffer if word got out that another Dieppe had unfolded on Verrières Ridge, the generals agreed to keep secret their clash by destroying Simonds’ report. But Stacey, now the army’s official historian, rescued one copy from the burning barrel and squirrelled it away in the army’s historical section. He had the right impulses, but in the end would prove a house historian. In 1972, long after he had retired from the army to teach history at the University of Toronto, Stacey received a letter from Philip Griffin’s brother, Bert, asking for help in digging up the true story of what happened on Verrières Ridge, and getting some recognition for his brother.

Stacey wrote back expressing “interest and sympathy.” He suggested why Philip

Griffin was not considered for the Victoria Cross. “In your brother’s case, the lack of detailed information about the incident—the result of the fact that so few men came back— would probably have militated against a VC recommendation being made.”

Stacey was disingenuous—he hid the fact that possibly the most exhaustive investigation of any regimental action in Canadian history had been conducted on the attack, with virtually every survivor interviewed. “The army knew Griffin deserved a VC,” says Bruce Ducat, now 82, who still lives in Verdun. “The VC is for valour. That was Griffin on Verrières Ridge.” But a Victoria Cross for Griffin would have drawn attention to the calamity—and raised dis-

‘We were deeply impressedand embarrassed-by this sacrifice and gallantry of men who had no chance. It was sheer butchery.’

turbing questions about the generals.

At the same time as Stacey typed this discouraging note to Bert Griffin, he wrote another letter warning his successor at the army historical section, Sidney Wise, that Griffin’s brother might come around. Stacey suggested Wise conceal the rescued copy of the 1946 Simonds report. “In the event of a visit from Mr. Griffin, it would be well to make sure that he doesn’t see this particular piece of paper,” Stacey wrote Wise. When Bert Griffin, a decorated war officer himself, finally visited, Wise ensured that he never saw the report. “They didn’t do it to spare my feelings,” Griffin, now 91, said in an interview when informed of the cover-up. “They knew I was Philip’s champion and wouldn’t have let it rest.”

Near Verrières Ridge, Philip Griffin and the boys of the Black Watch can be found side by side in the splendid Canadian military cemetery at Bretteville-sur-Laize. Each of their graves is under a white stone marker engraved with a maple leaf, their only tribute the flowers of the fields. On Griffin’s headstone is a line from Pilgrim’s Progress, an epitaph chosen by his family. “And the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.” 1711