The Act of Remembering: A Case Study from World War Two

Ever since the end of World War One, on November 11th, 1918, the anniversary of this date has been an occasion for remembering. Each passing day the ranks of those who served in Canadas armed forces during the wars of the 20th century becomes smaller. All too soon, there will be no one left with personal recollections of the major conflicts that plagued the past century.

Now as never before, its time to pause and remember not the glorification of war but its folly; along with both the tragedies and triumphs associated with armed conflict. This is especially true in 2002 when the drums of war are, once more, beating all around us.

For many readers August 19, 1942 may not have any special significance. Yet there are those who will remember that this was the date of the controversial Dieppe Raid by units of the Canadian Armed Forces.

As one commentator so eloquently expressed it on the anniversary of the event last summer: Like a funeral bell tolling in the distance, the name Dieppe still rings hauntingly in Canadian ears, sixty years after one of the nations most notorious military defeats.

Code named Operation Jubilee, the commando raid began in the early hours of that fateful August day. Its objective was to invade the German-held port; destroy military installations and return to England as quickly as possible. The hope was that such action would cause the Germans to withdraw troops from the Russian front, in the expectation that an Allied invasion of the continent was imminent.

The whole operation was supposed to be over in twelve hours. The major assault directed at the Dieppe beach was preceded by landings on either side to neutralize the defenses overlooking the harbour. At least this was the plan. Unfortunately as events were to prove, the entire mission was doomed.

Operation Jubilee ended with tragic results. The Allied troops involved numbered 6,100 of whom roughly 5,000 were Canadian. The raid was supported by eight Allied destroyers and 74 air squadrons; with eight belonging to the Royal Canadian Air Force. When the dust of battle had cleared, 907 Canadians were killed and 1,946 taken prisoner. Hundreds of others suffered wounds, both mental and physical, that would for the rest of their lives, serve as grim reminders of the Raid.

When the casualties from both sides are combined it is estimated that over 1,800 lives were lost in a matter of hours. The Raid was also notable for the high cost of the accompanying air battle. The Royal Air Force lost 106 aircraft; while 13 Royal Canadian Air Force planes were downed.

Ever since August 19, 1942, military historians and strategists have debated the pros and cons of the Dieppe Raid. Recent research has laid to rest at least one rumour that persisted for many years. There is no evidence to support the claim that the Germans had gained prior knowledge of the Raid.

What can be said with validity, is that Operation Jubilee was both badly planned and executed. The strength of the well placed German defences was underestimated. The Canadian soldiers found themselves in an impossible situation from which there was little escape. Some strategists have suggested that Dieppe taught valuable lessons that made possible the successful invasion of Normandy two years later. If nothing else, the Allied Command was shown how not to launch an assault from the sea.

There was tragedy to be found on land and sea and in the air at Dieppe. But were there any triumphs? For certain, courage and valor were demonstrated in abundance. The seeming failure of Operation Jubilee had nothing to do with lack of bravery. It is worth noting that two Canadians earned the Victoria Cross at Dieppe. This, the Commonwealths highest award for valor, went to Lieutenant Colonel C. C. Merritt and to Reverend John Weir Foote, a chaplain with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry.

Merritt was in charge of a bridge crossing during the withdrawal. Walking calmly into the enemy fire, he led party after party across the bridge by the sheer force of his example. Merritt commanded a vigorous rearguard action which allowed many of his soldiers to successfully escape. He was subsequently wounded and taken as a prisoner of war.

Padre Foote was the first member of the Canadian Chaplaincy Service to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Through eight hours of battle he continually exposed himself to intense fire to help move the injured to an aid post, saving many lives by his gallant efforts. When the opportunity to withdraw came, he climbed from the landing craft, and walked to the enemy position to be taken prisoner. For the next three years he ministered to Canadian prisoners of war.

While the story of these two Victoria Cross winners was destined to become well known; there were countless other acts of valor displayed on that grey August day. The bravery under fire of the hundreds of ordinary foot soldiers must not be forgotten. A comment by American Admiral Chester Nimitz about another famous battle of World War Two — Iwo Jimo — is equally applicable to the Canadians who served at Dieppe. Among all of them, uncommon valor was a common virtue.

One last statistic. When the invasion of the continent finally materialized, it was preceded by the stongest bombardment that could be mustered by the Allied navy and air force. In 1944 the total loss of life was one-third that of Dieppes, among three times as many soldiers.

The Canadian sacrifices at Dieppe are still remembered by the people who live in this French seaport. Last August a group of Canadian veterans was warmly welcomed to mark the anniversary of the Raid. During the ceremonies, it was pointed out, that for centuries, Normandy and Canada have had close historical ties. These may be traced to the 17th century and the natives of Dieppe (known as Dieppois) who were numbered among the early settlers of New France.

Part of the ceremony took place in the Square du Canada, where a monument marks the historical ties mentioned above. On the wall behind, is a plaque that commemorates the Dieppe Raid. It reads in translation:

On the 19th August, 1942 on the beaches of Dieppe our Canadian cousins marked with their blood the road to our final liberation foretelling their victorious return on September 1, 1944

The last date was a reference to the fact that two years later, units of the Canadian Army liberated Dieppe. This day too, will always be remembered by the Dieppois

.And now a contemporary footnote. One highlight of the recent Royal Tour of New Brunswick was the official opening by Queen Elizabeth II of the new terminal building at the Greater Moncton International Airport. Of significance, is the fact that the airport is located in the town of Dieppe. Originally known as Leger Corner; it became a village in 1946 and was renamed Dieppe in honour of the Canadian servicemen who fell in the 1942 Raid. In 1952 the New Brunswick Dieppe was incorporated as a town and, along with the Queen, is celebrating its Jubilee in 2002.

The first airport was a landing field established in the 1920s. During World War Two hundreds of British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian airmen were trained here under the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. On your next visit to the new Terminal in Dieppe, check out the memorial plaque which summarizes some of Greater Monctons aeronautical history.