Thursday, 21 August 2014

72nd ANNIVERSARY OF THE DIEPPE RAID


The promenade and beach at Dieppe, Seine Maritime, today. With its bright noisy fairground,  people enjoying blustery  August walks on the pebbles, the ferry port buzzing with visitors, shops, markets, cafes, restaurants  - it is hard to imagine how it was seventy two years ago. 
On 19th August 1942, the scene looked a little different, as a disastrous raid from the UK led to the deaths of hundreds of young men on Dieppe's beaches, most of them Canadian volunteers. This photo is on the information board at Puys Beach - scene of one of the worst massacres. The raid, it is said, can be justified because we learned much from our mistakes that day that led to our success on D-Day, two years later. However, these assumptions can be questioned.  There is a good reasoned article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/dieppe_raid_01.shtml

Afternoon, 18th August. The first ceremony we attended was in remembrance of  two badly injured young Canadian airmen who were cared for by the villagers of St Aubin le Cauf at great risk to themselves.  Sadly, the airmen both died, and were buried in the local churchyard. After the war, the families of the airmen asked that their lads should stay among those who had cared for them. Every year, still, the village remembers them in style.
This permanent display is above their graves, on the church wall. John Edwin Gardiner, aged 23.  Norman Monchier, aged 19. RIP

Then on to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Canadian Cemetery, Cimitiere des Vertus, for a twilight vigil. Here, there are 948 graves, of which 187 are unidentified. 

The vast majority are Canadian soldiers, sailors, airmen who died on the day  - 19th August 1942.   Annually, on this date, schoolchildren place red roses by every grave. It was the most poignant experience, to walk between these graves and see the same date on them all.  More casualties of the raid are buried in Rouen, where the wounded were taken to hospital. Others lie in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey. 

After a wreath laying at the foot of the Cross of Sacrifice, there was a vigil held in front of the Stone of  Remembrance,  and an 'eternal flame' (inverted commas as it is dismantled after the ceremony...) burning at the heart of a maple leaf.  Here, the young people in red jackets, forming the Fourth Guard to stand vigil, are members of the Vimy Foundation 
The following day, 19th August, the actual day of the raid, we were back at the Cimitiere des Vertus for the main wreath laying, and the number of wreaths was astonishing. Moving. Above you can see  just some of the wreaths waiting to be placed - some young people from the Vimy Foundation again, and four clergymen who would be taking an interfaith service in French and English. 













'The Angel of Dieppe' - Sister Agnes-Marie Valois, who celebrated her 100th birthday in July. She tended casualties on the beach.  Seeing a German soldier about to shoot a badly injured young Canadian, she stood between the injured man and the gun and said he'd have to shoot her first.

"It wasn't war," she said. 'It was a massacre."

























Sister Agnes-Marie laid a wreath. She stood, with help,  throughout the silence.
















Then we went to a new development on the outskirts of Dieppe, where seven of the new streets are being named after the fallen of 19th August. Robert Boulanger was the youngest to die that day.


Flowers were laid at the new street sign with due dignity,  and a minute's silence. All in the middle of a huge building site. The mayor of Dieppe's speech was very good - knitting the past, the present, and the future as well - represented by the two hundred families who will be moving in to the first phase of the development.
Back to the town and to the Square du Canada, and the main memorial in town, where wreaths were laid by many many individuals and groups, including the Dieppe Fair queen resplendent in  a dress of mauve and silver netting. Speeches followed in the community hall which replaced the casino, destroyed in the war.



On to the final ceremony, at Puys Beach, where the Canadians took their worst losses. Chris laid a wreath here, as he had at all the other places, causing not a little interest in his 18th century court get-up as High Sheriff. In the pic is Revernd Canon Will Pratt, C's Chaplain.



Today Puys Beach was benign, with the sun shining, families playing on the sand. Seventy two years ago it was a different story - the beach strewn with bodies of both dead and wounded, as the landing craft had emptied out their men onto a beach with no access to the valley. In front of them rose a wall topped with barbed wire, and there were gun emplacements on either side. You can still see these.



Puys Beach 19th August, 1942. 

So ended one of the most moving series of commemorations. The series had begin at Newhaven, in Sussex, the week before, with a ceremony at the Canadian Engineers' memorial, as so many of the Canadian soldiers left from here for Dieppe.
        In Newhaven, I chatted to an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair - a veteran of the Raid. His name is Alan Saunders, and he is nearly 92. Blind now, he told me he was looking forward to going on the longest zip wire in Europe, in north Wales, after his 92nd birthday. (!) He was wearing not only his own WW11 medals, but those of his father who served in WW1.

        On 19th August 1942 he was nineteen years old and serving with the Royal Marine Commandos. Caught on a French beach amid shellfire and bullets, he and three chums decided to swim for it rather than stay and be killed. They made it five miles out into the channel before being picked up by one of our destroyers.
        At the wreath laying, he was just about able to stand out of his chair, make his way with the help of two colleagues across the grass to the memorial, and lay a wreath.

Then he stood alone, snapped to attention, and saluted.



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