Seventy-five years ago on Aug. 19, 1942 during the Second World War, Canada suffered its worst military disaster at the French coastal port of Dieppe. Approximately 5,000 Canadians were involved in the raid — 3,367 Canadians were killed, wounded or captured.
Two Canadians were awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery that day, the first being awarded Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Ingersoll Cecil “Cec” Merritt, commanding officer of the South Saskatchewan Regiment.
Cec Merritt was born just inside the boundary of Stanley Park Nov. 10, 1908 to Sophie Almon Tupper and Cecil Mack Merritt. Cec’s mother was the granddaughter of Nova Scotia’s Father of Confederation and former Prime Minister of Canada, Sir Charles Tupper.
I first met Cec Merritt at a reunion of the South Saskatchewan Regiment (SSR) in Langley in July 1993. One of my first interviews was with Merritt as he recalled the raid with Major Lefty White, who commanded B Company of the SSRs at Dieppe, and Ed Dunkerly, who was a Company Sergeant-Major of D Company at Dieppe. Both Merritt and White were taken prisoner by the Germans. Dunkerly, who suffered three wounds, made it back to England.
Merritt attended Lord Roberts Public School in Vancouver’s West End. His father served with the 16th Canadian Scottish in the First World War and was killed on April 23, 1915 during the Second Battle of Ypres where the Germans first used poison gas on the Western Front. The senior Merritt has no known grave, and his name is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.
Later Merritt would attend University School in Victoria and Royal Military College in Kingston before being taken into his Uncle Reggie Tucker’s law firm where he specialized in maritime law. Merritt joined the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders of Vancouver Militia in 1926 on the same day that another prominent Seaforth, Bert Hoffmeister, joined the regiment. Hoffmeister would go on to distinguish himself as one of Canada’s finest soldiers of the Second World War, commanding the Seaforth Highlanders in Sicily and Southern Italy, serving as the Brigadier of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade in Ortona, and commanding the 5th Canadian Armoured Division in Italy and the Netherlands. Hoffmeister would finish the war as Canada’s most-decorated officer, being awarded a Distinguished Service Order and two bars as well as numerous other prominent medals and honours. He also is considered by prominent Canadian military historians as Canada’s best-fighting divisional commander of the war.
Merritt and Hoffmeister also joined the Vancouver Rowing Club. Merritt, of solid stature, played football for the Vancouver Meraloma, which played its games at the recreation grounds on Beatty at Dunsmuir Streets where the old Vancouver bus depot used to be. When I asked Merritt years later about his football experience, he replied, “I could always get them a few yards when the team needed them.”
When the Second World War broke out, Merritt went active and was promoted to company commander. He apologized to his mother that all three siblings had joined the war effort and were headed overseas, to which his mother replied, “I don’t want you to go, but I’d kick you out if you didn’t go.” When the Seaforths left for England in 1939, Merritt commanded “C” Company; 25 years earlier his father had commanded “C” Company of the 16th Canadian Scottish when the battalion went overseas.
Merritt was promoted to lieutenant-colonel to command the South Saskatchewan Regiment in 1941. The 2nd Canadian Infantry Division was chosen by Lieutenant-General Harry Crerar to participate in Operation Rutter, to raid the French coastal resort town of Dieppe in May 1942. In addition to the main beach at Dieppe, No 3 and No 4 British Commandos would land on the eastern and western flanks of the raid to take out the large gun batteries. The Royal Regiment of Canada would land at the small village of Puys to the east of Dieppe, and the South Saskatchewan, reinforced by the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders, would land at the village of Pourville to the west of Dieppe. All five landing points involved steep cliffs.
The raid, overseen by Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, was originally scheduled to take place during the first week of July as Operation Rutter. It was cancelled largely because of unfavourable weather, men went on leave, and was remounted in August 1942 as Operation Jubilee. Corporal Herman Keys recalled the crossing to Dieppe as “a clear and calm moonlit night.” The stillness of the night and sea were broken by a firefight between the No 3 British Commando landing party when they ran into a German convoy near the French Coast. Unfortunately, the incident alerted the Germans to the raid and took away the element of surprise.
The South Saskatchewan Regiment was to land just before dawn astride the River Scie in Pourville, codenamed Green Beach. A and D Companies were to land on the east side of the River Scie, and B and C Companies to the west of the river. All four companies were unfortunately landed on the west side of the River Scie. Only C Company with two platoons of B Company, led by Major Claude Orme, who taught high school in Chilliwack following the war, was successful in capturing its objective, the headlands and gun positions on the cliffs to the west of Pourville. They were the only Canadian unit that day to send the “Sorry” signal to command headquarters that day, the codename for success. The remainder of B Company was to clear the village of Pourville while A and D Companies had to cross a bridge over the River Scie to secure their objectives on the eastern cliffs. A Company had to seize a German radar station, and attached to their regiment was an air force radar technician, Jack Nissenthal, who was to be shot by his own men if he was in danger of being taken prisoner, for fear of the Germans stealing British radar secrets in subsequent interrogations. D Company was to seize a stronghold known as the “Farm of the Four Winds.”
It was in this situation that Colonel Merritt arrived, seeing many of the men reluctant to cross the bridge and taking cover among nearby buildings and structures. “The problem was that we had never been shot at before.” Merritt, who was uncomfortable wearing his helmet because of his large head, stood up on the bridge waving his helmet while ordering his men to follow behind him as he crossed the bridge in a zig-zag manner between volleys of German fire. He did this several times.
Within the hour the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders landed at Pourville to a piper playing “Wi a Hundred Pipers” alongside Lieutenant-Colonel Gosling in the landing craft. Colonel Gosling was fatally struck in the head by a sniper’s bullet as he stepped ashore.
Merritt continued to encourage his men in the advance towards the high ground after they had crossed the bridge. At one point, Merritt himself dodged heavy fire and with hand grenades destroyed one of the enemy pillboxes that was hindering the advance. This was not the only pillbox that Merritt attempted to take out that day. After Corporal Herman Keys had dropped a grenade in the breech of a gun, he pulled Merritt back to safety.
All the SSR veterans whom I interviewed about the SSR at Pourville recall seeing Merritt everywhere that day, leading his men on and rescuing at least two of his officers, Captain Murray Osten, Acting-Company Commander of A Company, was severely wounded and thrown into the River Scie from the force of a shell. It was Merritt who dragged him out of the water. At one point Merritt noticed a pair of light brown boots sticking out from what appeared to be a dead Canadian solder lying near a German pillbox. Merritt recognized these as belonging to Lieutenant Les England, a young man who he was quite fond of. Company Sergeant-Major Ed Dunkerley would say following the raid, “I have never seen a braver man than Colonel Merritt that day at Pourville.”
However, the landings on the beaches at Dieppe and at Puys were not going well. At least half of the Churchill tanks of the Calgary Regiment were unable to advance on the main beach, their tracks being impeded by the type of small stones on the beach, causing the tanks to lose their tracks. Without artillery support and with the destroyers armed only with four-inch guns, it was impossible to gain the high ground. Finally Major-General Ham Roberts, GOC 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, ordered a withdrawal at 11 a.m.
Merritt recalled that the weight of many men trying to push the landing craft off the beach on a falling tide anchored these vessels in the sand. “When things go wrong, they go really wrong!”
With the sound of the large air war overhead, men were slaughtered on the beaches as they ran for the landing craft. Major Lefty White compared the German fire at Pourville to a musical piece, called “The Storm,” beginning as a pitter-patter, then becoming a hailstorm of bullets. What had been a reasonably successful morning for the SSR now threatened to become a disaster. Company Sergeant-Major Ed Dunkerley recalled, “The Germans selected the beach to be the killing ground, and they made a very good job of it. Dunkerley, though wounded in three places, including a serious wound in the hip, recalls helping to throw the bodies of dead Canadian soldiers back into the water so that they could rescue other live Canadian soldiers. “For thirty feet out from the shore or more, the water was red with good Canadian blood.”
On the beach behind the seawall, Merritt organized a fierce rearguard action to enable his men and the men of the Queens’ Own Cameron Highlanders to get off the beach. Along with some of his remaining officers and men, Merritt chose to stay with his men and not to leave the beach until the last possible moment. Under heavy fire, Merritt assembled the remaining forces, guns, and ammunition for this rearguard action. At some point he was wounded in the shoulder as he attempted to retrieve a wounded corporal from the surf. Sergeant Gib Renwick of the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders, who became a Vancouver police officer after the war, sought to rescue Merritt, but was himself hit as he carried Merritt to safety. He was later rescued by a German soldier and received the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his actions.
Approximately 350 of the 523 SSR soldiers made it back to England. “We got more of our men off the beach than anyone,” reflected Merritt. Still 84 members of the regiment would lose their lives that day with another 167 wounded, and 89 men captured. Eventually it became apparent to Colonel Merritt that he and his remaining men could not be evacuated from the beach because the Royal Navy were no longer able to send in any more landing craft under such a heavy curtain of German fire. The sight of the last landing craft disappearing through a smokescreen back to England remained forever etched on Merritt’s mind. Merritt and his men were out of ammunition, and with the Germans landing mortar bombs nearby, Merritt felt that there was no point in losing more men in a futile situation.
The job of waving the white flag of surrender fell to the German-speaking Sergeant Abe “Schelley” Schellenberg.
The Canadians now heard the words from their German captors: “For you the war is over.”
Thus began almost three years of captivity in a German prisoner-of-war camp, 18 months of those in wrist shackles after Canadian orders to detain German prisoners with their hands behind their back was found in a Canadian tank at Dieppe, and Hitler ordered retaliatory measures.
The wounded were herded in a cattle car to the Rouen Hospital. Colonel Merritt with his arm in a sling visited each one of his wounded men in the hospital, saying to Paul Delorme, one of the last SSR survivors of the raid who presently lives in England, “We had a lot of fun over there, didn’t we.” One of the nurses who treated the Canadian wounded, Sister Agnes-Marie Valois, is still living at the age of 103 in the Thiebermont Monastery near Dieppe. She has become a great friend of the Canadians receiving many international honours, including the Order of Canada and the Legion of Honour.
Merritt was initially held in a German offlag. Lefty White recalled the prisoners having a great celebration when word of Cec Merritt being awarded the Victoria Cross. “Even the German guards joined in. Merritt, of course, gives credit to the many acts of heroism that day by his men. He marvelled years later at the innovative ability of the Prairie Men to accomplish many tasks. “I never saw fear in the face of any of my men that day.”
Merritt would soon escape from that camp, participating in the longest tunnel escape in the war with the exception of The Great Escape. “I wondered around for three days before I was picked up,” recalled Merritt. He spent the remainder of the war in the infamous Colditz Castle where hardened escapers were held. Following the war he returned to his law practise, spending one term as a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament for Vancouver. His figure adorned a Canadian war poster with the caption: “Men of Valor: They fight for you.”
Merrit died in 2000.
Ken MacLeod is a retired teacher and an Honorary Life Member of both the South Saskatchewan Regiment and the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada. As a military historian he has conducted 29 pilgrimages in northwest Europe and Sicily-Italy to visit the battlefields where Canadians in the First and Second World Wars and also lie buried and are commemorated.