POLITICS

Canadian vets in France to mark 70th anniversary of bloody Dieppe raid

08/17/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 10/16/2012 05:12 EDT
Revisiting a scene of historical tragedy is a prospect few would relish. Add the idea of returning to a place associated with profound personal loss and the idea becomes even more daunting.

But when Arthur Rossell walks into the town of Dieppe, France, this weekend, that's precisely what he'll be doing.

The 92-year-old was one of the nearly 5,000 Canadians who took part in an ill-fated raid on the French port on Aug. 19, 1942. He was one of the lucky ones to return from a military operation widely viewed as the most tragic in Canadian history.

Rossell will be one of seven Second World War veterans revisiting the site of the bloody battle to commemorate its 70th anniversary. For Rossell, the trip represents a painful but necessary journey back into his past.

"When they called me from the Department of Veterans Affairs I was really hesitant and reluctant, but I've got reasons to go," Rossell said in a telephone interview from his home in Brampton, Ont.

Fred Engelbrecht, another member of the delegation, said returning to the site is a matter of moral obligation.

"I just thought it was my duty to go back and pay my respects to the people I left here," the 92-year-old from Hamilton, Ont., said Friday from Dieppe.

Rossell and his fellow soldiers in the Essex Scottish Regiment were just some of the 4,963 Canadians who sailed to Dieppe from England. British troops accounted for only about a thousand of the 6,000 soldiers deployed to try and seize the coastal port town. Eight squadrons from the Royal Canadian Air Force were among 74 also on hand to enhance the battle from the skies.

Michael Bechthold, managing editor of Canadian Military History journal and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the assault on Dieppe was intended to test the feasibility of landing troops from water and staging a full-scale attack.

Canadian troops who had been training in England for months were brought in to fight a battle that had taken on massive political significance, he said, adding British politicians were under intense pressure from Russia to try and turn the tide of the war.

"The western allies were suffering during the Battle of the Atlantic. Things weren't going well in the desert. France had been lost and it seemed like the war was going to be lost," Bechthold said.

"The Dieppe operation was ... a poke in the eye of Germany to show that 'we're still in this fight and we're not going to back down.'"

Rossell said word of the mission came as welcome news to him and his fellow soldiers.

"We were young and we were hyped up for action. We'd been idle in England for about two or three years ... But we never thought for one minute that we'd be walking right into a firepower."

That firepower was the German army, which had had plenty of time to mobilize after a small convoy accidentally encountered a group of allied ships preparing for an attack in Dieppe's eastern flank.

Losing the element of surprise, Bechthold said, was the final straw for a multi-pronged battle plan that had faults from the get-go.

"They thought that speed, surprise and shock were going to carry the day. The plan never envisioned a fight on the beaches, and when the Germans stopped them on the beaches, the plan was doomed to failure," Bechthold said.

Rossell said nearly half his comrades were overwhelmed by German firepower and perished before ever making it ashore. He attributes his own survival to the fact that he was tasked with protecting his commanding officer.

When the sun set on Dieppe that day, Canadian troops had been utterly routed. Bechthold said more than 900 Canadians had been slain in battle, while nearly 2,500 others had been wounded or taken prisoner.

History has branded Dieppe as one of the most obvious blights on Canada's military past, he said. Some historians point to the staggering casualty rate as proof that the plan should never have been executed, while others have found a silver lining by arguing the lessons learned at Dieppe served as a blueprint for the D-Day raid that would effectively end the war in Europe nearly two years later.

Bechthold said the truth is somewhat more nuanced.

"There was a whole lot of success in amphibious warfare that led to the success at Normandy," he said. "Dieppe was definitely an important part of the story, but not the only story."

Canadians themselves bore little blame in the failure of the raid, Bechthold said, adding the troops were victims of circumstance rather than the brains behind the flawed operation. Dieppe also speaks to the resilience of the Canadian troops, who went on to record other military triumphs at Verrieres Ridge, the Battle of the Scheldt and the Battle of the Rhineland, he said.

Rossell said he struggles with history's treatment of the raid on Dieppe, adding so much sacrifice must have served a greater purpose.

"A lot of people think it was a useless thing, but I guess it wasn't useless as far as the service is concerned. They must have learned something," he said.

Ray Gilbert, a 90-year-old veteran from Calgary, said the visit to Dieppe has shown him Canadians' sacrifices are honoured in at least one place — the town of Dieppe itself.

"The Canadian flag flies here always ever since that time," he said. "It means a great deal to us to see that."

The group of veterans and other visitors will attend several memorial ceremonies starting on Aug. 18.

Veterans Affairs Minister Steven Blaney will head Canada's official delegation. Other Canadians who will be on hand for the ceremonies include a group from the town of Dieppe, N.B., as well as representatives from the Royal Canadian Legion and Scouts Canada. Gov. Gen. David Johnston is also travelling to France to mark the event.

"Our government will continue to make sure that the sacrifices made by our nation's heroes will never be forgotten," Blaney's spokesman Jean-Christophe de le Rue said in an email.

Local commemoration ceremonies will also take place in Ottawa and Dieppe, N.B.