When arriving at Dieppe from the Rouen road, several signs show the way to the Canadian cemetary. Far away, one can see the sea. As is the case in all outskirts,
a shopping mall spreads its hoardings in the middle of a gigantic car park. Thousands of people come by every day, not far from the Vertus cemetary, where the Canadians of Operation Jubilee are buried. How many of them know about the tragedy of these Canadians that were washed ashore on the beach there, behind the town, sixty-five years ago?
On the Normandy coast, nature has recovered its rights. The sea-beaten cliffs push the blockhouses into the sea and only the sound ot the waves on the shingles is there to give rhythm to the passing of time. From place to place, the monuments keep reminding the tourists of the events of August 19th, 1942.
But who still remembers the tragedy that was played out there?
Yet the momuments erected along the coast in memory of the 1942 landing are numerous. They are the anchorage of all the ceremonies. But do they still conjure up anything to the passers by or has the memory swallowed them into a collective memory that is more and more blurred? The small tourist train that follows the coast passes along again and again and delivers its commentaries on the landing. The train operator’s remarks might change depending on humour or the season. The small train rides along smoothly.
Carrying along with it the now far-away memory of those 1,200 dead. All the inhabitants of Dieppe know about the tragedy, it is part of their history and for the elder ones of their daily life, with the rue du 19 août 1942, the rue Ménard, the Canadians’ Public Garden.
How to forget, refuse the memory of such a mistake? Some Dieppe people will tell you that it was « absolutely necessary », others will remember the dead and the prisoners. They start talking about it almost naturally, then their voices change, they become more grave, try to get over their emotion, pull themselves together, get it under control with difficulty and start their story again. Even if they try to find excuses, the vision of bodies washed ashore by the sea remains engraved in their memories. Some talk about it, staring away, as if these Canadians were relatives, part of their family somehow, and after a moment of silence, they will confess that indeed it was so ill-prepared and useless.
The collective memory modifies, invents, synthesizes. It also remembers another landing, a successful one this time. June 1944 carries victory along with it. Two years after Dieppe, the Canadians and all the others would have fallen on those shingle beaches for nothing.
It is up to the survivors to judge. It is interesting to ask oneself if oblivion and memory are or not each other’s invention.
At Pourville, a little girl is playing on the beach, where an unknown soldier fell. In any case, he is up there in the Vertus cemetary, with 400 others. One day perhaps, when she is older, she might go and see this Norman lawn with its white steles in order to understand. C’est tout ce qu’ils voulaient, qu’on ne les oublie jamais.
On August 19th, 1942, an allied forces landing takes place on the beaches of Dieppe and its surroundings, it is Operation Jubilee. 13,000 men take part in Operation Jubilee,
6,000 of them land, among whom 4,965 Canadians, 1,200 British from the Commandos and Royal Marines. Transport is carried out by 250 ships. A thousand aircraft support the landing forces. Operation Jubilee takes place on several fronts.
The attacks on Dieppe, Puys and Pourville are led mostly by Canadians. The British commandos are in charge of side operations. They had wished to establish their own pre-operation plans and the following events would prove them right.
Dieppe was chosen for its size and the compatibility of its distance from the existing means of transport: it allows for aerial support. Once they have landed in Dieppe, supported by tanks from the Calgary regiment, the troops are to take the town, gain mastership of the whole German defense area, destroy the harbour’s facilities, the gasworks and seize barges in the harbour.
At 13.00 hours, the raid is over, it is a failure.
1,380 allied soldiers are killed, among whom 913 Canadians, 1,600 are wounded, more than 2,000 are taken prisoner, 107 aircraft have been shot down, 48 civilians have been killed and 100 wounded.
The raid is over, the war goes on, history is on the march.
On the boats on the way back already people remember, the defenders remember and so do the civilians. The sea washes the corpses ashore on the beach stewn with wrecked tanks.
The war goes on, history is on the march.
« In Canada, Dieppe suggests fright, anger, the incompetence of those in charge, fatality, uselessness, savagery, ruthlessness, sadness but also above everything else, heroism and incredible bravery. » (*)
It was the end of the economic crisis. Canadian families were very numerous, fifteen or sixteen children was not a rare thing. There was also a spirit of adventure. Most of them were volunteers. A member of the Empire, Canada sees its victories first hailed as British victories. At the battle of Vimy in 1917, it had already made itself famous for pushing back the front and leaving 11, 285 dead. These dates, 1917 and 1942, leave an imprint on a nation’s memory.
How to reveal the disaster to the Canadians without demoralizing the people or reviving national divisions. The human losses are announced gradually. Communiques and official photographs are carefully selected. Censorship is more and more present. Information becomes hierachical as well as the strategic, heroic tale and the revelations. The newspapers will establish the story and seek to freeze the memory, all the articles being written from the same sources. But that happened without counting on the men’s memories, the memories of those who had been there on the French coast and who would come back one day with their little fragments of memory.
Another town, Dieppe in Canada. The thing must have been an important one for it to have given its name to one on one’s territory. The name remains associated with a tragedy. The same name so as not to forget that this is where they had started from to go and fight. 913, it is the number of shingles picked from the Dieppe beaches, which make up the monument in Dieppe, Canada.
But to fight what or rather whom? The memory might tell us one day. What did they know about the events that were shaking Europe? What did they know about Hitler, seen from the immense plains of Manitoba? To leave to win, for adventure’s sake, thousands of miles from home.
Time has passed but memory is tenacious. Lord Mountbatten, one of the raid’s masterminds, delivers a surrealistic speech in front of the Dieppe veterans on September 28th, 1973. The flags are lowered to ground level with the bugle homage to the dead. Behind the flags, the personalities, the officials, and endless handshakes. One might chance to meet eyes that are freezing, fixed on something that doesn’t exist – in any case looking matters no more. On this day of August 19th, 2001, in the Norman warmth, a veteran was with « the others », whose name only is known to us as engraved in stone.
A solitary memory, others will come, anonymously, to see them again, well aligned as if on a march past, on this lawn always so well trimmed, to lay a flower and a moment of their life. To keep a bearing point in order not to forget, to never forget. They will leave passing across the Canadians’ crossroads, where thousands of people pass. Commemoration or not, medals or no medals, speeches, memory can do anything in order not to forget, even if time has already taken its due.
What is striking in all these commemorations, is the everlasting gratefulness of the people of Dieppe towards those men. Outside the official homages where the people are standing behind gates, they are there, of all ages, to shout out thanks to that handful of survivors who are marching in the street. It is the most moving moment that we saw, you could see real happiness on the faces of those veterans. They went away again with this image and the real certainty that they would never be forgotten.
« Live » memory is a die-hard thing. Little by little, it surfaces again and astonishingly gets more and more precise. It reenacts the facts to stage them again and say one must not forget. One cannot dissemble any longer. As commemorations go by, the pieces of the puzzle come together. It’s a race for the veterans who periodically rehash their stories or that of a missing comrade. They are like sponges.
It is the incredible military weakness which was to be fatal to the attempt of putting back together the memory of Dieppe. In 1989, the Canadian historian Brian Loring Villa emhasized the improvised character of the Dieppe raid and the non-authorized launching of the operation.
s the memory of men more reliable than that of written material or pictures? Nature erases, eats away, burns, dissimulates, invades, with eternity on its side. The vegetal reign unchains itself, covers up everything, rubs out all traces. What is left of the training on the Isle of Wight?
Everyone sought to forget the war, and all it carries along with it, but there are always medals, flags, handshakes for the survivors with a little music for emotion’s sake. Superb monuments to the dead with some mistakes, some oversights, but it’s all right, it’s done. One tries to give them a common destiny and pull them out of anonymousness.
(*) Major Don Allen and lieutenant-commander Jean-Guy Nadeau, the sons of survivors of the raid.
A letter by Robert Boulanger
Dear mom and dad,
Only just a few minutesago we were assembled to be told that we would finally embark to go and fight the enemy in the next twenty-four hours. Even though I cried out « hurray » like the other blokes in the platoon, I don’t feel so brave, but you can rest assured that I will never be a cause of dishonour to the family’s name. We have trained extemely hard for that day. I have great confidence that we will eventually win our first fight, so that you may be proud that I was one of the participants.
Since we arrived in England, we hear speak of the other comrades from all the parts of the Empire, as well as Englishmen, who fight on so many fronts. Now us Canadians, it is our turn to join them in the battle. In the place where we are now stationed, our colonel, Dollard Menard, has just confirmed the news and, in utmost secrecy, has told us the place where we would attack the enemy. It makes me very sad but I can disclose neither the name nor the location of it.
We know exactly what kind of situation we are getting involved in, and it is with confidence that we will attack.
Our chaplain, Padré Sabourin, has gathered all those that want to receive a general absolution, as well as the Holy Communion. Almost all have answered the call. I want to be at peace with God, in case something should happen to me. My good friend, Jacques Nadeau is doing the same. Following the detailed instructions that our officers and non-commissioned officers gave us, we are invited to take part in a scrumptious meal. We are served by the female auxiliaries of the Royal Navy. The tables are covered with white tablecloths and each of us has their own complete place-setting. It is a long time since we have been treated this way by Military Service. I’m carrying on with my letter aboard our landing barge, which will take us to our target. We are lucky because the sea is very calm, and the temperature and weather are fine. We were told that our engagement with the enemy will take place around five a.m. In the meantime, I’m checking my gun and equipment again, for the third time, as I’m listening to my comrades talk about various things.
Some tell jokes, bu on hearing them one can feel the existing tension, and I can feel it too by the way. Lieutenant Masson gives us his last recommendations, just as we are weighing anchor. Sergeant Lapointe asks lots of questions because it is the first time that he has led a platoon of men. Jacques is busy tinkering with his bike just now and seems worried about something, because he is muttering as is usual when this happens.
The Moon is bright enough for me to be able to continue. We’ve been sailing for one hour and a half and I must hurry before it gets totally dark.
I seize the occasion to ask forgiveness for all the sorrow and mistakes that I may have caused mostly when I enrolled. Roger told me how much pain I caused to you, I hope that if I come back alive from this adventure and if I come back home, at the end of the war, I will do all I can to dry your tears, mum, I will do all in my power to make you forget all the anxieties that I have caused.
I hope you have received my letter from last week. I know that I celebrated the eighteenth anniversary of my birth on the 13th and that I am not doing the right thing by going to fight.
But when you learn how bravely I fought, you will forgive all the sorrow that I have caused.
Dawn is looming on the horizon already but during the night I said all the prayers that you have taught me, with even more fervour than usual.
A few minutes ago, I thought we had already started action against the Germans. Over there, on our left, the rumbling of guns with the lighted sky made us believe it. Our boat task-force is sailing slowly and Lieutenant Masson tells us that the first assault wave is heading for its objective. It is much brighter now, I can see better what I am writing, I hope that you can read my words.
We are being warned that we are very near the French coast.
I can believe it since with can hear the firing of guns as well as the noise of the explosions, even the hiss of the shells passing overhead. I realize at last that we are no more exercising.
A landing barge right next to ours has just been hit and has disintegrated with all those on board.
We didn’t have time to see much, because within the space of one or two minutes, there was nothing to be seen anymore.
Oh my God! Protect us from such a fate!
So many comrades and friends who were there just two minutes ago have gone forever. It is horrible. Other boats near our group and other groups have been hit and have had the same fate.
If I had to be among the casualties, Jacques will tell you what happened to me, because we have promised each other to do so, in case one of us two didn’t come back.
I love you and tell my brothers and sisters that I love them too with all my heart.
Born in Paris in 1951.
A photographer by training, he is now a director with INRA (the French National Institute for Agronomic research), where he directs scientific films meant for general audiences, more than two hundred of them, some of which receiving awards in national or international festivals.
Fragments de mémoire a été tourné en Super 16 et conformé en Béta numérique Durée 120 minutes – 16/9 cadre 1,78
De nombreuses personnes ont aidé à la réalisation de ce documentaire, quelles en soient vivement remerciées.
Fragments de mémoire
Dieppe 19 août 1942
Un film de Gérard Paillard
Bernard Dartigues Gérard Paillard
Christophe Rocle Marie-Noëlle Poulain
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