A Dieppe Boy’s War
Friday, November 02, 2012
By Larry King
A two-hour French lunch had taken its toll, leaving us scurrying to find the Musée de Dieppe before it closed. It was in sight, located in a chateau towering atop a cliff facing the English Channel. But navigating the old town’s web-like street pattern was a challenge. Less than 30 minutes to go. The clock was ticking.
The ticket-taker said “Désolé” when asked if we could admit our dog. In France it isn’t a pointless question. She even offered to watch him. Nonetheless we declined; Wee Angus suffers from “separation anxiety”, which was why he insisted on accompanying us on this eight-week trip. Pam longed to see the museum’s ivory carvings, “detailed and exquisite”, but I had a different reason for coming to Dieppe. Angus and I left her and retreated to the shaded park, the “Square du Canada”, below the chateau. The elderly couple who had directed us to the museum entrance were still on their park bench. They also offered to look after Angus, so Pam and I could be reunited. I declined again, saying this park was my reason for visiting Dieppe. Plaques displayed names of Dieppois who explored and colonized “Nouvelle France”, dating from the 17th century. Names I recalled from elementary texts of the 1950s, long fallen from academic favour.
One date on monuments and plaques in one corner didn’t fit the overall pattern - le 19 août, 1942. For my parent’s generation in southwestern Ontario, the Dieppe commando raid was the mesmerizing moment of World War Two. The largest war memorial in that region is the Dieppe Garden, in Windsor, Essex County. The Essex Highlanders were one of eleven regiments - nine Canadian and two British, crushed on that date. An uncle was later in that regiment. His service, and that of two other uncles, in France and the Low Countries in 1944-5 was the motivation for our Canadian battlefields’ tour this spring of 2004. Neither the magnificent towering statues of women in mourning for Canada’s lost youth on the massive Vimy Ridge memorial nor the 60th anniversary ceremonies with surviving veterans of the Juno Beach landing was as emotionally wrenching as this site. From this park below the cliff a 2-km swath of pebbly beach stretches east to another steep headland. Between these cliffs, on the beach where 6000 commandos landed, there is now a promenade. Only plaques, easily missed, suggest the deadly few hours that coughed up 4500 casualties. Target practice for German defenders on the heights. Lessons from this raid, however costly, went the official justification, were essential in preparing for the successful Allied invasion on five Normandy beaches, including Juno, two years later – 6 June, 1944, D-Day.
The gentleman had penetrated my reverie with a quiet observation – “Canadians regularly come to this park to pay their respects for their countryman who died in that raid. Modern pilgrims.” He felt it unnecessary to verify my nationality, an unusual experience for me while on tour. They invited me to sit with them, as they expected that Angus and I had a long wait.
“Are you two from Dieppe? Were you here during the raid?”
He nodded and, without preamble, began to talk. He spoke more slowly than most French-speakers, as if he knew he had to accommodate my schoolboy French. I lack fluency à la Pierre Trudeau, but he patiently repeated whatever I missed. His wife filled in on occasion, with expressive gestures, not words. I could only record by ear, so the following story is as I recall it, written weeks later.
“That raid was my earliest childhood memory; I was just five. On that day, all Dieppois were in their cellars, heads down. The noise was terrifying. We, my mother and baby sister, remained coiled, arms over ears, long after the shooting stopped.” (He gestured to show the position they assumed.) “Mother couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say what happened. She was maddening in her reluctance to tell me about what was happening during those years of 'l’occupation’. But Werner would; I couldn’t wait to speak to Werner. I found him a few days later, on the promenade where we first met. I had adopted him as my ‘big brother’. He was nineteen, very blond, and sturdier than any Frenchman I had ever seen. I suppose that I stuck to him because my father, who worked on the ferry to England, was sent one day after l’occupation aboard his boat, as usual, but was never seen again. Perhaps this was why my mother didn’t explain wartime mysteries to her children.”
“It was after the daily parade on the promenade. Some friends and I were trying to fly a kite. He approached us, fixed it, showed us the proper technique. We were told German soldiers weren’t nice, to avoid them, but I instantly liked him. He was always kind, never bossy, the way we were told German soldiers were. Werner spent much of his off-duty time with me, especially; my sister was often with us, as Mother now had a job cleaning and cooking at the German headquarters during the day. Maybe we reminded him of family back home. Older kids often left whenever he approached. His French was good, but he said that it must improve. Would we help him? Our elders weren’t helpful, and maybe he was too shy to meet girls. It made me feel important to teach someone so big!
“Once in a while he would give us biscuits or chocolates sent by his family. One evening he came to our door with a box. A gift! I begged mother to let him stay for dinner. She shoved us inside, closed the door. They talked outside. Werner said very little. Shortly, she came back inside, without the box. She told us never to invite Werner here. Yes, he is nice, but he is a soldier; soldiers are supposed to stay in their quarters. I was embarrassed, but Werner later told me that she was right. I never said, but I wondered if papa would be angry if he ever found out.”
“Werner assured me that papa would come home once the war was over. Just as soon as ‘les Anglais’ realize that they could never defeat the Wehrmacht. He said that it was Germany’s duty to protect France from les Anglais, who didn’t want Germany and France to be friends. Because papa took the ferry to England, I then guessed that was where he was being held prisoner! Werner said I was right, but not to worry. England would send him home after it realized that Germany had won this war. I prayed for this to happen. Every night.” He smiled as if apologizing and shrugged. I nodded and asked him to continue. He gestured at the Square du Canada.
“Werner also told me that dupes of les Anglais, ‘les Canadiens’, were responsible for that terrifying raid. But the Germans taught them a lesson they will never forget. Any who survived are now returning to their homes, far across the ocean, never to trouble us again. I asked my mother about these Canadiens; she said they were our long-lost ‘cousins’ who left Normandy long ago, never to return. Then I told her my theory about papa’s whereabouts. When I told Werner about her reaction, he said that men never discuss war with women, so I knew that I must never mention it again to mother.
“Ah, those German soldiers. So impressive! Every day along the promenade, there was a parade. A magnificent band! Stirring music! Splendid marching! Such precision of arms and legs!" (Now animated, he stood and demonstrated the goose step – ‘le pas de l’oie’. His wife broke into a short laugh, then stifled it with her hand.) "The officers sometimes led the parade on horseback. It was entertainment. Werner was right! They had to be the best soldiers in the world. Why? Their uniforms, for one, were so clean, coats with such square shoulders, caps with shiny peaks and glittering medals. Werner said these were rewards for courage. On the other hand, Frenchmen wore such drab clothing. And we know German soldiers had lots of chocolates. I wanted this life when I became Werner’s age. To play a trumpet while riding a beautiful horse, leading brave strong soldiers.
“I shall never forget those ‘spectacles’ on the promenade. But life never remains the same. By next spring those Anglais brought destruction from the sky! We said ‘RAF’ as one word, not ‘aéroplane’. The promenade was no longer safe; most of these buildings here were built fifty years ago on the ruins of those bombarded by ‘la RAF’.” At a family reunion many years ago someone noticed that both my sister and I, seated side-by-side and conversing, had suddenly stopped talking and were shuddering. We each realized immediately we did so, because we heard an airplane, at a distance no one else had noticed. We knew immediately why we reacted this way. It was one of the very few times we ever discussed this period of our lives - we who had experienced so much together then.”
“I saw Werner less often, though I still looked for him. When I mentioned how frightened we were of la RAF and his promise that les Anglais would soon quit the war, he got angry for once. He shouted that it would be all over if only those cowardly Anglais would fight honourably! Honourably, he used that word. On land. Army-to-army. It confirmed for me that these Anglais who bombed us from planes were cowards. "Les Anglais will get cocky" Werner assured us, "and will try another invasion – don’t worry, it will never be at Dieppe – and then the glorious ‘Wehrmacht’ will demolish them, once and for all!” I believed him.
“Later that summer – a year after the raid - my sister and I were awakened by mother. She said that we two were to accompany Reynaud, to go with him to her cousin’s farm, further inland. Mother said she would come in a few days. We always wanted to visit a farm, now was our chance. Reynaud, about sixteen, was in the unlit kitchen with two bags of our clothes. All he said was not to make any noise; he said nothing else for the duration of our ‘excursion’, as mother called it. He took us through back alleys and, once out of town, across fields. We could not travel quickly. My sister, then four, was very courageous and never uttered a word of complaint, but I knew she was frightened and tired. She was my responsibility, so I had to be brave. After two hours or so, with no incident, I thought of it more as an adventure. We had never travelled outside of Dieppe. We reached the farm the following afternoon. I remembered my cousin and his wife from a family wedding in Dieppe. We stayed there; I started school in the nearby village that fall while helping with chores. Because mother’s house was much farther from the harbour than the German quarters where most of the bombs were landing, I worried more about Werner than mother. But I knew it would not be wise to ask my cousin’s wife to write him a letter, using my words, as she did when the letter was for my mother.
“Mother wrote often, but only visited once, at Christmas. In her letters she seemed cheerier than when we were together. She did not have to worry about us as much. With school, new friends and farm chores, there was so much to do that we never worried much about home. There were quiet pleasures, we had more to eat than in Dieppe (although fewer chocolates), and we hardly heard bombs exploding. My sister now slept without sobbing. Quiet farm life, although often boring, is much better for the nerves than the excitement of war.
“One Sunday the next summer – 1944 – after church in the nearby village, we stopped at the café in the square, as usual. The men had crowded together. This time, instead of talking in low voices, they were excited. Even a little boy on a remote farm had heard of the recent ‘grand débarquement’ on beaches far to the west. Reynaud was present, the first time I had seen him since he brought us to the farm. He commanded attention, unusual for one so young among elders. He insisted that it was true that ‘les Alliés’ were advancing eastward along the coast. Toward us! It was only a question of time. He was told sharply to lower his voice. Later, I asked my cousin what he meant – it’s only a question of time. And who were these ‘Alliés’? He paused, then said that it was ‘only a question of time’ before it would be safe enough for my sister and I to go home. Does that mean that les Anglais were finally going to quit fighting? I did not like being told to be patient, that soon all my questions would be answered. Adults were so secretive, as if I could not be trusted! I wonder if our children felt the same about us?" (His wife snickered, nodding yes.) "Even the older boys at school made a great show at having inside knowledge about the war which they would not share with us smaller boys. Yet what did these farm yokels know about la RAF and the Wehrmacht, compared to what I used to witness every day!
“Not long after, Reynaud came to the farm after morning chores. Our bags had been packed; it was now safe to return to Dieppe. My cousin and his wife hugged us both. "The ‘maudits Allemands’ are retreating; they’re losing the war!" It was clear by now that, being French, I was to acknowledge this as a joyous occasion. But frankly, I was still confused. War had made life in Dieppe, well, exciting compared to life at my cousin’s. And why was I supposed to be happy that the ‘cursed Germans’ were leaving. Werner, my best friend, would be gone!
“This time we rode in a horse-drawn cart in daylight. I thought our night departure from Dieppe was to avoid being spotted by la RAF. I didn’t know Reynaud was avoiding German patrols. Reynaud was much more talkative this time. No more bombing from the skies, he said, because la RAF had destroyed the ‘Luftwaffe’. See why I was confused? La RAF controlled the skies, as everyone was now saying, but how was that good? It was la RAF who bombed us! We left home because of la RAF, not the Germans. I didn’t know enough to ask Werner why the Germans didn’t use planes against la RAF. Then I realized that I had never seen a plane identified as 'German'. For the first time, I feared for Werner. But I remained convinced that the Wehrmacht would never lose to any army of les Alliés!
“I was surprised how close we were to Dieppe. From that journey two summers ago, I thought the farm must have been in the centre of France, but I could have walked home in a few hours by following the roads. Reynaud told us proudly that he was in ‘la Résistance’. That was why he said so little to us when he led us from home. ‘You cannot be in la Résistance if you talk too much.’ I didn’t mention that day in the café when he was told to shut up. ‘We in la Résistance made it possible for les Alliés to successfully invade Normandy!’ (At a family reunion following the war, my cousin sneered at the notion of Reynaud in la Résistance. He said Reynaud was safe for errands such as moving us because the Germans would not suspect that la Résistance would use such an indiscreet ‘imbécile’ for anything that threatened them. Or required thinking.).
As Reynaud clearly liked to talk, I peppered him with my many unanswered questions. As I suspected, those brutal Anglais were members of les Alliés. So were ‘les Américains’. Naturally, even so young and so isolated, I had heard of them! All boys, young and old, would do anything to see a 'film de cowboy'. 'Most Normands', said Reynaud, 'prefer to be liberated by les Américains because they distribute lots of cigarettes, and chocolates.' "I craved chocolates, having had so few on the farm. No Germans (except Werner) ever distributed candy, or cigarettes. Germans were very serious about war. But I wanted to start smoking. It was a sign of adulthood, you see. Replacing the Germans with les Américains was beginning to show promise.” (He winked.) “Look!” We stopped at an intersection and looked to where Reynaud was pointing. “There they are! Part of the army that just drove the Germans away. They must be looking for Germans in hiding.” They were the first soldiers I had seen in months, the first I had ever seen who were not Germans. They were trudging along the road toward us while we waited. I watched them pass in disbelief. “These, these ‘créatures’, (his actual word), defeated the Germans? Impossible! Unshaven! Cigarettes dangling from their mouths! Torn dirty uniforms, so ill fitting! And most astonishing? They didn’t even know how to march! Their feet shuffled, like drunks shuffling home from the tavern.” (He stood and compared their respective marching styles.) “Rifles not over their shoulders! Some even smiled and waved at us. Reynaud had waved to them first, then my sister. I kept my arms at my side.” (He demonstrated how rigidly he had sat in the cart.) “Soldiers don’t smile and wave when on duty. Soldiering is too important for such frivolity. I knew that much! Werner looked straight ahead when his unit marched past us on the promenade. He did smoke. He promised me a cigarette when I started school. But he never touched one while on duty. And the vehicles of this shabby bunch were no better. Muddy, dented, broken windshields, some doors had fallen off. These, these…‘vagabonds’ could not possibly have beaten the real soldiers of the Wehrmacht!
“Then Reynaud both astonished and embarrassed me. He stood on the cart seat, waved both arms and began shouting “ ‘Vive le Canada!’ ” and “ ‘Vive les braves Canadiens!’ ” Something like that. He turned to us, by way of explanation. 'Ils sont nos cousins, savez-vous ça?' “ ‘Cousins’? That’s what mother had said. But they looked in worse condition than old Frenchmen! Is that what life in Canada did to a man? Wait a minute! Weren’t they mostly killed or captured in the Dieppe raid? And Werner said that any who remained returned home, beaten by the best soldiers in the world. Did I say I was often confused?” (He shook his head, and gave a slow smile of incomprehension.) “I don’t remember anything else until the parade.
“It was back in Dieppe, where life once consisted of a daily parade. Just after our reunion with mother. No Germans to be seen. No Werner.” (He shook his head sadly). “But lots of cheering, never heard when the Germans paraded. From les Dieppois lining the streets, several rows deep, waving flags I had never seen before. Most were Union Jacks. But some had the Union Jack in the upper left corner. ‘Le drapeau canadien’. Everyone was explaining things to me now: before only Werner told me what I really wanted to know. But if they were our 'cousins', as so many called to them, why not a flag with a French symbol? (He smiled slyly.) "I really like your new flag with the maple leaf, by the way.
“ ‘Les soldats canadiens’ comported themselves better than when I first saw them, I grant you. They had shaved. They didn’t slouch. They did march. Not as smartly as the Germans, understand. No pas de l’oie. Much more restrained.” (Another sly smile.) “Their uniforms were now clean - well, cleaner than before. But they didn’t fit nearly as well as the Germans’. Were there no tailors in Canada?” (I made a hurried gesture of straightening my T-shirt and shorts. They both laughed.) “Those in the parade who had survived the 1942 raid were given a special ceremony, but I only learned about this much later.
“I think that I was ready to accept our ‘new order’; after all, tous les Dieppois were overjoyed. Even mother smiled once in a while. But as I was ready to accept ‘mes cousins’ as my new heroes to replace Werner and the Germans, I witnessed something so ‘dégoutant’ that it made me repudiate them forever. Well, for a few hours.” (It was hard to decipher the next part of the narrative through his guffaws.) "A noise! What type of noise? Music? A band? Well, it was from the parade, so I suppose it was a band. But the noise! These soldiers marched to the noise of honking geese. It came from some men puffing into sacks while pumping them with sticks.” (He imitated the playing of bagpipes.) “Hideous! Our cousins called this “marching music”? Even worse. The musicians, and some of the soldiers parading, WORE SKIRTS!!! I wanted to run away and scream. Impossible! The Wehrmacht beaten by soldiers who marched to war to the sound of squawking geese while dressed as ladies! Our cousins?! I thought I would be in denial, in total confusion for the rest of my life.” (He shook his head; his wife no longer attempted to stifle her laughter.)
“But I hope this 1er septembre to see some of these lovely ‘old ladies’. And they must bring their ‘cornemuses’. I now appreciate that kind of music. I have since heard it in Brittany, where ‘our’ Gaelic people live. I think that our Bretons and your “Nouvelle Écossais” (Nova Scotians) “are cousins, too.
“Of course, things could never return to normal, as they were before 1940. So said our wise elders. “People now congregated much more, on the streets, in the cafés, in the market. They talked louder, like real French people.”
“But I remember the odd angry shouting match, fingers pointing, people shoving.
I was told there was sometimes even fighting, policemen intervening. One day, returning from school, I saw the word ‘putain’ scrawled on our front door. When I showed it to mother, she wiped the word away before my sister ever saw it. Naturally, I knew not to ask her its meaning. It didn’t take me long to discover it, though; it’s” (a long pause) “upsetting when you find the meaning of this word and realize at the same time that it is being said about your mother. My sister told me two days after this incident that they had passed a prosperous couple in the market who shouted something at mother that my sister didn’t understand. Like me, she knew when not to question mother. I didn’t ask my sister if they used that word. I intended to, after we had grown up. But I have not done so, to this day.
“About twenty-five years ago, shortly after my mother’s passing, I received a surprise phone call. The caller was at the downtown post office. As he confirmed my identity, I recognized the voice, in spite of the passage of time. I agreed willingly to meet him at a certain café still in business that he recalled from his time in Dieppe. As I hung up, doubts arose, but then I rid myself of any anxiety. After all, we had parted as friends and I often wondered about his fate. West Germany’s success after the war was evident in Werner; his belt stretched to contain his prosperous stomach. His hair was now white, his face fleshier, but his eyes were as merry as I remembered. At least, before the heavy bombardments of ‘la RAF’ intensified in 1943. His unit evacuated Dieppe just before les Canadiens arrived; he survived the defence of the Rhine crossing by the British army when his regiment surrendered in the spring of 1945. He was treated fairly as a POW for the war’s duration and was greatly relieved not to have been transferred to the Eastern Front.
“He was from a village in the Black Forest, far enough from the bombing targets of les Alliés so that his parents and sisters survived the war. An older brother was killed in Italy. He didn’t elaborate further, but instead asked about my sister and me. At his only opportunity when he could speak to her alone briefly, he asked mother about us. She said we were safe somewhere and begged him to ask her no more questions; he said that he understood and never spoke to her again. I told him about our séjour at my cousin’s and our return to Dieppe. He laughed at his teen-aged naivety when I reminded him how he had convinced me of the Wehrmacht’s invincibility and acknowledged that the brainwashing of the Third Reich on its youth had been effective. I wanted to ask him if he had been a dedicated Nazi party member, but something restrained me. I guess I feared it would end our conversation. In total, we chatted for 3 hours, but not as freely as we did in those unforgettable days and months after the Canadian raid. I don’t even remember the details of this reunion as clearly as that youthful period about which I have just told you. He left me his address and an invitation to visit him, but I have never gone to Germany. I don’t suppose we ever will.” (He glanced at his wife, who confirmed this assessment with a nod.) “We exchanged a letter or two, but since then” (he shrugged) “we lost touch. Nothing intentional, but perhaps because of my father, or because we both knew that the war had greater implications beyond our short friendship, he felt that it might be too painful for me to keep in contact. Who knows? Just before leaving, he asked if I wouldn’t mind telling him about my mother’s fate. I am now certain that if Werner had been a true Nazi, he would have put us and our cousin’s family in great peril.
“You asked me earlier why was it necessary to move two children at night. Why would the Germans even care? Several children from coastal towns were transferred to farms in the interior when heavy bombardments began in 1943. I think the Germans wanted to keep us in targeted areas, as a deterrent to ‘la RAF’ or ‘la Résistance’. I’m not sure. But mother understood some German, she had studied the language in school. She needed work - the ferry stopped sending papa’s money shortly after he disappeared. With the support of the priest, she began to clean and cook at German headquarters. Just cleaning and cooking.” (There was the slightest emphasis.) “She thought by asking the Germans for permission to relocate us, she might lose her job, or worse, so she risked sending us to the farm at night. Anyway, she always carried a letter from the priest explaining her situation, to avoid any reprisals. But some people – that couple in the market, for instance, I’m certain – tried to disguise their, um, ‘co-op-ér-a-tion’ ” (he dragged out the word) “with the Nazis by accusing others. Loudly. DeGaulle once said every Frenchman was a member of ‘la Résistance’, that there were no collaborators. He must not have been in Dieppe in 1944-5. Some women had their heads shaved. But mother was never accused by ‘la Résistance’ of collaborating. Or” (a shrug) “of being too friendly with the Germans. I think Reynaud vouched for her. He was always welcome at our house. Maybe my cousin never gave him enough credit.”
Pam was now entering the park. The couple rose to take their leave. We shook hands. Then they fulsomely thanked us Canadiens for their liberation. I was embarrassed, insisting that it was our parent’s generation who deserved their gratitude. He waved this off. And especially, he continued, those soldiers in ladies’ skirts. As he matured, he realized that they were truly great soldiers. And gentlemen. We did not exchange names, as one might have expected. Werner and Reynaud were the only names he ever mentioned. He then took Pam to show her the plaque dated le 19 août, 1942.
His wife, in a hushed voice, said to me, “Thank you. He needs to talk more about what he experienced in those days. I heard today a few things he hadn’t even told me. Thank you! Thank you!”
Such testimony embarrassed me even further. I tried to acknowledge that he, and his sister, and many others trapped in those circumstances at such a tender age must be carrying an enormous emotional weight. This no doubt sounded much clumsier in my French than it now reads. But she nodded in agreement. “But he, more than most, I think”. Again, we shook hands. Then they left.
“You missed an amazing display”, Pam said. “I’m sorry you were stuck with Angus.”
“Don’t be”. I tried to sound both nonchalant and mysterious.