Whenever Canadians hear the word “Dieppe” they are reminded of August 19, 1942, described by the Canadian Veterans’ Association as: “one of the most devastating and bloody chapters in Canadian military history. Of the 4,963 Canadians who embarked from England for the operation, only 2,210 returned, and many of them were wounded. Casualties totaled 3,367, including 916 dead and 1,946 prisoners of war.”
Under the guise of attempting to capture a German Enigma coding machine, the Allied forces consisting mainly of Canadians were launched on to the shores of the German-occupied French seaside town in the early morning hours in a disastrous raid planned by Lord Admiral Louis Mountbatten. Transportation vehicles and equipment bogged down when the small stones on the beach became lodged in the tracks. The Germans were ready and waiting for the Canadians as they crossed the beach on foot and proceeded through a seaside casino and across the promenade into a nearby theatre.
In September of this year, we were part of a group of Canadians visiting sites from both world wars. Our hotel was located directly overlooking the beach where the Canadians landed and next to the theatre where many soldiers were killed or captured on that bloody morning in 1942. We were immediately struck by the display of Canadian flags and memorials erected throughout the downtown area by the French people in recognition of the sacrifice of our young soldiers. The waterside facade of the theatre had been demolished many years ago and the interior remained vacant and abandoned for more than forty years until it was re-opened as a museum dedicated to the memory of those Canadians. Volunteer French citizens have formed a historical society that maintains and operates the museum.
Our group was admitted to the museum early in the morning. As we sat on wooden chairs in the centre of the dilapidated theatre, our guide described the day with detailed explanations of the soldiers’ progress and challenges that terrible morning. We were surrounded by displays of original uniforms, equipment and photographs as the events of the day were explained to us. One particular Canadian soldier had been blinded and severely wounded during the raid. When he was taken to hospital to be attended to by a French doctor, he heard a nursing sister ask the doctor to please take care of the Canadian soldier first because he was in great pain. Fifty years later when that same soldier attended a reunion in Dieppe he recognized the nun’s voice as the one who had probably saved his life that day in 1942. At the reunion she was eighty years old and also remembered the soldier.
We were deeply touched by the level of respect and attention paid to the recognition of those Canadians in August 1942. We were privileged to have as part of our group, the son of veteran of Dieppe who was one of the few fortunate ones to be evacuated. He was also one of the Canadians who were successful in liberating Dieppe from the Germans two years later in June 1944 and proudly marched through town. We later visited the cemetery where many of the soldiers who died on August 19, 1942 are buried and remain forever at peace.