Bitterness lingers 75 years after Dieppe: ‘My father always felt that they had been sacrificed’
Three children of men captured in the disastrous Second World War raid by Canadian troops share experiences of fathers’ silent horror.
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By early 1942, in one of the bleakest periods of the Second World War, Germany occupied most of Europe. Allied forces had been pushed back across the English Channel to Britain. Nazi forces were driving into the Soviet Union toward Moscow.
The Allies were desperate for a foothold on the continent and a chance to stop Hitler’s war machine.
So 75 years ago, the Royal Regiment of Canada, mostly men from Toronto, many not long out of boyhood, was tapped to be part of the star-crossed Raid on Dieppe, in occupied France, in the early hours of Aug. 19.
“Everything was against them,” says Doug Olver, son of Pte. William Olver, who would survive a catastrophe that was to write Dieppe into a dark chapter of this country’s history books.
Canadians accounted for almost 5,000 of the 6,100 troops involved in the raid, code-named Operation Jubilee. More than 900 Canadian soldiers were killed and thousands more wounded and taken prisoner.
Of the 554 soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Canada, landing on the beach at Puys, 227 died in battle or later from wounds and 264 were taken prisoner.
It was the highest casualty rate of any Canadian battalion in all of the Second World War for one day’s fighting.
It was only about 18 months ago that Doug Surphlis, Doug Olver and Jayne Poolton-Turvey got to know each other.
But you might say, that as sons and daughter of men who were part of the Raid on Dieppe and ended up as PoWs, they have been living with versions of the same story and the consequences of that awful morning all their lives.
“My mother said it destroyed hundreds of families in Toronto,” says Doug Olver, a retired corrections officer from Georgetown.
So many men killed. So many badly wounded. So many brutalized in PoW camps and returning after the war with what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“They never got help for it,” says Poolton-Turvey, of Barrie. “They just came back and slid into whatever job or career, family, mortgages, whatever, and they lived their lives.
“We all lived with a former prisoner-of-war who had PTSD and they suffered in silence,” she says.
While silence about war’s horror was not uncommon among vets, it was compounded for the Dieppe men with embarrassment at the disaster of it all and guilt at the massive losses.
“They never spoke about it because it was such a horror story on Blue Beach,” says Olver, using the code name for the beach at Puys.
“When I was a kid, I never heard the word ‘Dieppe’ uttered in my house except once a year. My father always took Aug. 19 off. He wasn’t a drinker, but he would have a couple of scotches that day. And my mother would whisper, ‘Dieppe.’ ”
Buried along with the grief was the anger at what the decision-makers had sent them into at Dieppe.
“They were sent there without any hope of success,” says Poolton-Turvey. “My father always felt that they had been sacrificed.”
That’s why she, Olver and Surphlis got active in their “Every Man Remembered” campaign, and why the three children of Royal Regiment soldiers will be present at Dieppe on Saturday for the 75th anniversary of the raid.
Along with about 75 other descendants of soldiers, they will sail into Dieppe to “see what (their relatives) would have seen as they were going in.”
Initially, the Raid on Dieppe was to be known as “Operation Rutter” and planned for July 1942. It was intended to test German coastal defences and gain experience for the massive amphibious assault — D-Day — that would be necessary to defeat Germany.
Bad weather caused that plan to be postponed. Many wanted it abandoned entirely.
Doug Olver says his father recalled that when the men were told of the first assault plan in July, there was cheering by soldiers eager to get on with the job.
But after they returned from leave after the cancellation and were told in August that the raid was back on as Operation Jubilee, “they were in shock.
“They thought, ‘Oh, my God, what if word has leaked out since last month?’ ”
The Royals were expected to take the small beach and scale the western headlands to knock out German artillery that overlooked the town of Dieppe and its harbour. That would enable the main Canadian force to gain a foothold within Dieppe and beyond.
Everything depended on “stealth, surprise, the cover of darkness,” Olver says. “That was the only way they could succeed in this difficult task of climbing the cliffs.”
From the beginning, however, the plans went awry.
About few kilometres out from Dieppe, as soldiers the were climbing from their mother ships into artillery landing craft at about 3:40 a.m., they ran into a German naval convoy.
The battle was short but loud. “Bullets are pinging off the little craft that my father and uncle were kneeling down in,” Olver says.
The noise alerted any German who might have been sleeping on the coast.
“They’re now in their concrete pillboxes, at their posts,” Olver says. “They just quietly watched as the first wave came in.”
Pte. William Olver, just turned 23, was in the first landing craft and touched down at 5:07 a.m., his son says. They were 17 minutes late because of the engagement with the German convoy and the cover of night was giving way to dawn.
By the time the second wave landed shortly afterward, it was broad daylight.
William Olver was the first man to hit the Puys beach, which was about the size of a football field and shaped like a horseshoe. Olver was also one of the first to cross the beach to the base of the seawall. “That’s what saved his life,” says Doug Olver.
“The Germans waited until his boat was empty and other boats had come on shore. Then they opened a horrific crossfire.
“You’re being shot at from the front, you’re being shot from the left, you’re being shot from the right and right behind you is the English Channel. You had nowhere to go.”
The Allied soldiers “never saw one German until it was all over,” he says.
“There were only approximately 60-70 Germans defending that beach against about 600 men,” Olver says. “But that’s all they needed because of the gun pillboxes.”
As the Canadians were cut down like targets in a shooting range on the beach, or even before they could exit their landing craft, Olver’s father reached the four-metre high seawall with a few other men.
One was Sgt. Charles Surphlis, who almost drowned in the landing. The two men, along with two others on the beach that day, would become friends in the PoW camp and work together after the war for 30 years in the Metropolitan Toronto Police.
Olver blew a hole in the wall and began to scale it.
That’s when he saw the first enemy soldiers, waiting for him.
Atop the seawall, the Canadians were stripped of their weapons. But a young soldier with Olver was shot in the head when the Germans spotted a penknife in his hand.
“So my father thought they were all going to be executed.”
On the beach below, as hundreds of Olver’s comrades lay dead or dying, another German officer came along and taunted him about how prepared the enemy had been for the Allied arrival.
“What happened? You are four days late.”
The campaign to honour the men of Dieppe has “kind of consumed my life,” says Poolton-Turvey, who wrote a book with her late father, Pte. Jack Poolton, in 1998 called Destined to Survive.
“I would go with him to speak at schools and community groups, and I started to learn the story.”
Last year, a group of Dieppe descendants gathered to share information and ensure the sacrifice of their fathers is not forgotten.
Since then, Poolton-Turvey has tried to track down information on almost all the Royals who landed on Blue Beach.
It will be collected in one place where all those vets will be recognized, where future generations can find information about their ancestors.
Poolton-Turvey also organized the tour in which family members of Dieppe vets have travelled to France for the anniversary.
“We’re all going to be standing there shoulder to shoulder honouring the men.”
Photos, a short biography and a Canadian flag will be placed on the graves of the 189 Royal Regiment soldiers buried in the cemetery at Dieppe. (The bodies of some of those killed were never found and others who died later of wounds are buried elsewhere.)
Of the Royals landing on Blue Beach, more than 260 were taken prisoner. During almost three years in captivity, they were given meagre rations, shackled for months at a time, and near the end of the war some endured a “death march” across Germany before being liberated in 1945.
These men were heroes “who never got recognized,” says Poolton-Turvey.
“I’m going to make sure that people know.”