After some debate and procrastination, I have finally decided to write another book. This new publication would deal with the liberation of Boulogne and Calais, France, in September 1944. The battles for these cities were unusual for the Canadian Army because they involved carefully-planned operations against two fortified cities which had been designated as “Festungs,” or strongholds, by Hitler.
These battles stand out because they were so unique – there were few battles in Northwest Europe for fortified cities. For me, the operations against Boulogne and Calais were especially interesting as they were in sharp contrast to the difficult fighting the Canadian Army had just experienced in the open fields of Normandy following D-Day. So, they seemed to deserve special attention.
Bu there is much more to this story than the events of September 1944. The drama begins in the spring of 1940 when the German panzers burst through the French lines on the Meuse River and threatened to destroy the British Expeditionary Force as it retreated to Dunkirk. British forces hastily dispatched to reinforce the meagre French garrisons of Boulogne and Calais found themselves fighting for their lives as soon as they landed. The stories of these initial battles are among the most outstanding examples of courage in the Second World War.
But in addition, the story of how the French citizens in this region suffered during the German occupation should be told. Following the defeat of France in June, 1940, Boulogne and Calais and the entire département of the Pas de Calais were separated from the rest of France and designated as a “Zone Interdite,” or Forbidden Zone. The region came under a particularly harsh German military administration because it was now the front line against Britain. Initially, the German military planned to launch Operation Sea-Lion from here, to invade and conquer Britain. However, when the Luftwaffe suffered defeat in the Battle of Britain, the Germans began construction of massive fortifications along the coast, which they called the “Atlantikwall,” designed to defeat any Allied landing while their armies turned east against Soviet Russia. As a result, the citizens of Boulogne and Calais continued remained on the front-line in the West and suffered further destruction and casualties, now by Allied bombing raids.
This entire story from 1940 to 1944 is one which is little known and should be told.
On October 23, the British government’s international development minister, Rory Stewart said, when asked about British citizens who had joined ISIS in Syria, that “the only way of dealing with them will be, in almost every case, to kill them.” Following this cold-blooded statement, controversy erupted in Britain, the US and, to a lesser degree, in Canada.
Admittedly, in this new era of Islamic extremism, a problem exists in many countries following the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in the Middle East regarding what to do about those who abandoned their country of citizenship and joined the extremist movement. Should such persons, who pose a potential threat, be allowed to return to the country where they have citizenship? If so, should they be prosecuted, monitored, or rehabilitated? The question can extend not only to those who were fighters but even to their wives and children. Canada shares this problem, as an estimated 60 such jihadis have returned to Canada already and nearly 200 are believed to be still outside the country. It is an extraordinary issue that Western countries may have to face as the war against terror continues into the 21st century.
Unfortunately, Stewart’s solution is facile and, in making it, he has added impetus to the further erosion of civil rights that followed 9/11. His attitude is a product of fear and is a simple impulsive reaction. Executing persons based on the suspicion that they are a threat, without giving them the opportunity to defend themselves under the legal system of a democratic country, simply has to be considered as extrajudicial assassination. It has already been reported that other countries – such as the United States, France and Australia – have abandoned their rule of law on this issue and have ordered their special forces operating in Iraq and Syria to hunt down and kill ISIS fighters identified as their nationals. This practice has been further confirmed by Britain’s defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, who more recently declared that he intends to “destroy and eliminate” all Britons accused of terrorism. The Sunday Times has reported that the Special Air Service Regiment has been given a “kill list” for this purpose.
Just what do these statements mean? This policy has never been fully explained or debated by the British government, and it appears that not all officials support it based on preliminary reports. The wording of the statements made to the media have been the only evidence of this practice and it is unclear how it is to be accomplished. For example, certainly no objections will be raised if any British ISIS fighters have been killed during the fighting for Mosul and Raqqa. No one probably knows if any fighters killed during these battles were British or, if they had been identified as such, it would have been after their death in battle. Other questions, however, remain about Stewart and Williamson’s cloudy statements. Does this mean that British special operations soldiers are scouring sites holding ISIS prisoners with a list of names designated by some committee in London for elimination? Or, if a fighter is wounded in a battle, would they given their right to treatment under the Hague Convention; or would they executed instead? Does the policy of killing extend to children and women if they are assumed to have been indoctrinated because of their migration to the Islamic State?
In Canada, the main reaction to the issue has centred about what the government plans to do about returning jihadis. The Canadian government has rejected the option of selective execution. Ralph Goodale, Public Safety Minister, more specifically and to his credit has clarified that “Canada does not engage in death squads.” Instead, it would apply appropriate legal means to stop or convict Canadian terrorists returning from abroad and would probably attempt to reintegrate families if they were to return. A clearly defined program does not seem to have been developed on this issue as yet. At the moment, it seems that the government will probably attempt to steer a course that is consistent with Canadian law while putting in place measures for public safety in dealing with returning jihadis.
Up to this time, the issue of killing Canadian citizens who support ISIS has not been relevant. Up to February 2016, Canadian CF-188 Hornets operated with the US-led coalition fighting against the Islamic State, making 251 combat sorties. A number of ISIS fighters would have been killed as a result of these sorties, some of them possibly Canadian citizens, but there is no indication that any were specifically targeted during these missions. At least seven Canadian jihadis have been reported killed while fighting for ISIS, but these were the result of US air strikes. On the ground, Canadian Special Forces have been and continue to be involved with the fight against ISIS in support of the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq. As a matter of military security, up to now the extent of their involvement in front-line action is not clear. However, any actions taken by these troops would have had to be consistent with Canadian military doctrine which incorporates the international Law of Armed Conflict, and only allows killing enemy combatants (regardless of citizenship) during combat. At the same time, this Law prohibits killing enemy fighters who have surrendered and put down their arms. Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan has stated that the Canadian Armed Forces have not issued any directive to target specific foreign fighters. Killing an enemy fighter in circumstances other than battle would constitute a war crime.
The problem of how to deal with these people still needs to be resolved; but at least in Canada the rights of all citizens remains intact. Rosa Parks, former counsellor to the US undersecretary of defense, put it best when she wrote: “Do we want to live in a world in which every state considers itself to have a legal right to kill people … secretly and with no public disclosure or due process, based on its own unilateral assertions of national security prerogatives?” Unfortunately, we have entered a new phase in the history of warfare in which the old values have become blurred.
August 19 will always be remembered as the date on which men of the Canadian army fought valiantly in one of their most disastrous battles of the Second World War - the raid on the port of Dieppe.
Morale was high when, late on the night of August 18, 1942, almost 5,000 troops set sail from England. They had been training intensely for two long years in preparation for returning to the continent seized by Nazi Germany. The men of the 2nd Division took some pride that they had been selected to make up the main force of the biggest strike against the enemy since 1940. But the raid did not go well. The German defences were too strong, the planning was poor, and the Canadians had too little support to succeed. As a result, the Canadians suffered shocking losses - 3,367 men killed, wounded or captured, a casualty rate of almost 70% of those who had embarked
Today, many decades later, the city of Windsor, Ontario, continues to remember sacrifices made by the men of its local reserve regiment who landed that day. Of the 553 men of The Essex Scottish Regiment (now The Essex and Kent Scottish) who embarked, only 53 returned to England on August 19, 1940; and, of those, 27 were wounded. To honour these men, in 2006 a black granite memorial was erected on the beach in Dieppe and, in 2010, a similar memorial was placed as the centrepiece of the Dieppe Memorial Garden in Windsor on the Detroit River.
We must continue to remember those who lost their lives in the raid, were injured, or suffered for years as prisoners of war. We should also remember those who showed extraordinary courage in the desperate situation on the beaches that day. Gallantry decorations were soon after awarded to ten officers and men of The Essex Scottish: Captains Hugh Kennedy and Donald MacRae, Sergeant W.E. Hussey, Lance-Sergeant Les Dixon, Corporal Robert Carle, and Privates J. Maier, R.A.M. Baker, L.D. DeLaurier, G.E. Marchant and J.H. Mizon.
Les Dixon was one of those who received special recognition for his actions at Dieppe, but he is also notable because this was his first of several awards for outstanding courage in the war. Leaping out of their landing craft as it hit the beach at Dieppe, Dixon and his men immediately found themselves under heavy enemy fire and faced with coils of barbed wire just metres from the water's edge. Despite the enemy fire and their own casualties, the wire was cut and Dixon led his men through the gap to the sea wall where he organized the survivors to fight back. Although they could not advance over the wall, Dixon began directing Bren-gun fire against enemy positions. At some point in the fight he was wounded but he continued to inspire his men to return fire until the order came to withdraw to the landing craft. While doing so, he assisted some of his men to reach the boats; they were some of the few who managed to return to England and safety.
the Les Dixon recovered from his wounds and was back with the battalion when it landed in Normandy in July 1944. Later that month, in the struggle to capture Verrieres Ridge, he again showed initiative and courage in battle and was awarded the Military medal for the second time. He remained with his battalion over the next six months as it advanced from Normandy, through Holland and into Germany. In February 1945, he was awarded his third Military Medal for stubbornly defending his company headquarters from being overrun during a German counter-attack in the Rhineland.
By the end of the war, Les Dixon and one other British sergeant were the only two soldiers who received the special recognition of being awarded the Military Medal with two Bars.
As another anniversary of the landing on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 is marked on the calendar, we should pause to remember some of those men who showed remarkable courage on that day but have since been forgotten. Sixty five men received immediate awards for valour under fire on Juno Beach: 53 to men of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, 7 to those in the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, and 3 to the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.
Lance-Sergeant Walter Douglas Armstrong of the Regina Rifles is one of those who showed great determination as he faced his first test of combat. Despite heavy machine gun fire on the beach, he crawled forward until he located the enemy position that was pinning his unit down. Then he led two of his riflemen to clear out the enemy weapon trench, which allowed his company to move forward into one of their objectives, a building on the battalion’s flank. Armstrong was wounded in the leg during this advance, but did not reveal his injury when asked if he had been hit. After taking out a German light machine gun position, he then crawled back to his company under fire, pin-pointed another machine gun position and then crawled to a position when he could support his unit with fire while it did a flanking movement against further enemy opposition. Armstrong remained commanding his men, leading them forward, until later in the day he finally was ordered to go back to the beach dressing section for medical attention by his company commander. It was men like Lance-Sergeant Armstrong that ensured the Canadians captured their objectives on Juno Beach that day and advanced inland
The chapter entitled "The Great War" in Courage Rewarded covers the experiences of Canadian soldiers in the First World War, describing how they found courage to overcome fear in dreadful conditions of combat. The excerpt below deals with the Battle of Vimy Ridge in particular:
The bombardment opened up on March 27 and gradually increased in intensity until the morning of April 9. At 0530, the final bombardment began and, as the troops rose and marched up the slope, it rolled ahead of them, smashing German trenches and artillery positions. The Germans were blinded by a driving wind, with snow and sleet, and by mid-afternoon all objectives had been taken except for two strongpoints on high ground. All the same, it had been a bitter battle, as Donald Ross of the 87th Battalion described it:
"I was shot going across no-man’s land. Despite my wound, I managed to get into the enemy’s trench with the rest. Instead of finding our battalion on our right and left we found the enemy…. A terrific battle followed. My rifle, which held 10 rounds, was soon emptied, and as we were too close-quarter to reload I had to use my bayonet, which broke shortly, and then made a club of my rifle.
While the Canadian soldiers had carried out their task firmly and courageously, they had not done it with the same romantic vision that they had in 1915. Even in victory, the Canadian Corps still lost almost11,000 men killed or wounded in seven days on the Ridge. Lieutenant Claude Williams later wrote that “none of us have lost our nerve, but the novelty has worn off, we have seen too much of the shady side of fighting to love it for the mere sake of adventure. When called upon we are cheerfully ready to do anything we are told but do not feel the same wild enthusiasm as formerly. We are all steadied and sobered up.”
Some, however, felt that they had had enough after Vimy: Donald Ross wrote, “I believe I am beginning to show the white feather. I have finished writing to Captain Troop to see if he can find me a job here in England… When we went over the top at Vimy we had 900 [officers and men]. When counted going out they had 121 officers and men. So you can imagine what it was like.
The men of the Canadian Corps, however, were now battle-hardened veterans after having survived the experiences of 1916, and their fatalistic attitude helped stiffen the resolve of the new replacements. According to Captain John MacGregor of the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion, “most of my section had been with me on the Somme; we were fatalists; if we were going to stop one, so be it."
The completeness and swiftness of the victory was stunning, more so perhaps in comparison with the meagre gains of 1916. The British historian Richard Holmes has written that “the capture of Vimy Ridge remains to this day a remarkable feat of arms. It represents a triumph of co-ordination, preparation and sheer courage.” Among the gallantry decorations later awarded for this battle, four Canadian soldiers would receive the Victoria Cross.
The next day, all the major Canadian newspapers trumpeted the story, in colourful language that would initiate the pattern in which this military accomplishment would be seen for years ahead. The Vancouver Sun wrote, “Historic Achievement of Canada’s Soldiers was in Conformity with Past Record.” The Nottingham Guardian stated that “Canadian valour will stand out as in imperishable addition to the glory of the gallant colonials.” And the New York Times published that the battle would be “in Canada’s history, one of the great days, a day of glory to furnish inspiration to her sons for generations.”
My visit to Pembroke on November 19 to sign copies of Combat Mission Kandahar was great. I sold some books and I had many interesting discussions in the Pembroke Mall with passers-by, not only with local residents but also with members of the military who live in Pembroke or were in town from CFB Petawawa. I was quite pleased that some of the presently-serving soldiers, who I am sure know Afghanistan better than me, wanted to buy the book. I think they felt that, by publishing Combat Mission Kandahar, the mission was not forgotten.
These meetings impressed on me how the small town of Pembroke is really influenced by the base. On later reflection, however, it seemed that something other than the theme of my book was often and surprisingly turning up in the discussions - that is, how the daily lives of many in Petawawa are affected by PTSD. I had avoided writing about PTSD because it is such an enormous and complex subject on its own; but a number of those people stopping at my table readily raised the subject. I now wonder whether the problem is really more prevalent than we are led to believe as we continue to see it on TV or read about it in newspapers. From my unscientific observation from this book signing, I have come to guess that it is more pervasive than acknowledged. It seems that many people around Pembroke/Petawawa clearly have it on their minds, living with it or knowing someone with it.
Right at the start, one woman told me that her husband, who had been in the Special Forces, has PTSD; despite that, her daughter is presently going into boot camp as a new recruit. The person who impressed me the most however was a young woman who came up to my table near the end of the afternoon. Pretty, well-dressed, smiling, she did not come to talk about the book. She calmly talked about her husband and how she had to deal with his PTSD. My part of the conversation was awkward as I was unsure what she expected me to say. But I was sympathetic and tried to reply as best as I could. She was not complaining but just talked for a few minutes. It was only later that I came to think that she did not want any grand statements from me, no sympathy; she just knew I was there and was interested, and she wanted to talk to someone about it. Thinking about it later, I believed I could have been a better listener and asked more questions, but I hope I helped in some small way.
Combat Mission Kandahar has been launched - not into space but geographically across Canada. Although my new book was released in early August, it finally had its official Launch on September 18 at the Black Squirrel Books & Cafe in Ottawa. The Black Squirrel is a small but friendly bookstore in the older part of Ottawa South, a nice place to enjoy a friendly and informal gathering to get things going. A highlight of the night was the attendance of one of the soldiers featured in the book, Franck Dupere, who impressed the audience with his answers to many questions asked of him. It was obvious that the people attending were very eager to better understand what Afghanistan meant to him and how his positive attitude to life still keeps him strong despite his permanent injuries.
Perhaps oversimlifying it, I wrote Combat Mission Kandahar because of curiosity.
I have been curious about military history since I can remember. My sense of history is especially attracted to what is happening now. When Canada was drawn into warfare in Afghanistan, I sensed that this was history in the making. I had to find out everything I could about what was going on there, about what our soldiers were facing, and what they were doing about it.
The mission in Kandahar is today’s reality. But it is unwritten reality, not clearly documented. Parts of the mission have been well described by some journalists in scattered snapshots. A handful of books give a more complete but still limited picture (the best that comes to mind are Contact Charlie, Kandahar Tour, The Patrol, and Fighting for Afghanistan). But all this still reveals only small segments of the whole picture.
What Canadian troops did in Kandahar remains shrouded in the Fog of War – with the “Fog” meaning there is no overall authoritative account describing what happened between 2006 and 2011.
The Department of National Defence (DND) is working on an official history but such histories take a long time to produce and it will still be only the “official” version.
I was lured by the challenger of clearing away part of this cloud, and throwing some light on this missing history. But finding the pieces of the puzzle and putting them tougher was a real task. No official records of any substance are available to the public. I did receive some war diaries through Access to Information from DND; however all but the most trivial entries had been redacted out. Much of my initial understanding came from journalists who provided pieces of the puzzle which explain some events, with Brian Hutchinson and Murray Brewster standing out (although many others also contributed significantly). The source that finally put many pieces of the full picture together was Carl Forsberg of the Institute for the Study of War and his reports, The Taliban’s Campaign for Kandahar and Power and Politics in Kandahar. In these documents, Forsberg explains what was going on in this strategic province better than anyone else in the public sphere.
Of course, the soldiers whom I interviewed provided me with useful information about what happened during their deployment. As part of these interviews, however, two officers stand out because of the special effort they made to help me understand the dynamics of their rotation. One was Dean Tremblay who commanded the RCD’s D Squadron in the Shah Wali Kot in 2008. He went over every word in Chapter 5 with a fine-tooth comb. The other officer, who I am most indebted to, is Alain Gauthier who was commanding officer of the first Van Doos battle group to be deployed to Kandahar. He readily invited me to sit down with him while he explained, with great courtesy and thoroughness, what his unit had done in 2007.
Understanding the combat mission, however, was not the only purpose for writing this book. The other reason was to help Canadians understand and remember what their soldiers did in Afghanistan.The Canadian public and their military’s attention is now focused on other conflicts, where the world seems more threatening than it has been in many decades. A new Canadian mission has committed substantial troops to a battle group in Latvia and this will undoubtedly be the new focus for years to come. It is therefore important to capture memories of Afghanistan before these fade.
I also wrote this book for a personal reason. I was very fortunate to find seven soldiers who were willing to patiently answer my many questions – questions from a civilian whose military experience ended fifty years earlier and was not familiar with the difference between a C7 and C9 weapon, knew little about explosive ordnance removal, and was especially ignorant about the meaning of Psychological Operations. Once these men had agreed to meet with me and lay out their very personal experiences, I felt compelled to complete this book to justify the trust they had shown in talking to me.
Finally, in the end, this book is meant to give credit to all those soldiers who made that long difficult trip from Canada to Kandahar Air Base, where they unhesitatingly carried out their duties under harsh living conditions while facing serious injury or death daily. Above all, I hope this book helps Canadians to continue to remember those of our citizens, military and civilian, who still struggle to live with injuries or who did not come back.
The wooden cross at KAF, which reads “We Remember/Nous Nous Souvenons,” reflects this unwritten dedication.
With no military records about Afghanistan available to the public, the only way to understand what happened there is to interview soldiers who deployed. Writing my book Combat Mission Kandahar was therefore a challenge because not all soldiers want to talk about their experiences By using many different contacts, however, I finally found seven soldiers who were willing to do that.
I was fortunate in finding these seven who agreed to be interviewed and who make up the main chapters of my book. Based on the interviews, I think they had a sense that the public should know about what the Canadians had done there. It’s also likely that answering my questions provided some cathartic relief. At least they knew, from the interest I showed, that someone cared. The experiences of these soldiers were all quite different because they had had completely different roles in Afghanistan. As a result, by the end, I could sense a different tone in each interview that fascinated me and that helped me understand the person I was interviewing a bit better.
Here are three examples.
For Richard Stacey the tone that stood out was that of duty and responsibility. That was as expected since he was a Master Warrant Officer looking after all the men and women under his command. He admitted anxiety when his column had been ambushed on the Arghandab River, but his first priority had always been the care of those under him – regardless of whether they had been Canadian, American, or Afghan. During my interviews with him, I was impressed by the courtesy with which he treated me, and the sharp, decisive mind he seemed to exhibit when recalling every detail about Afghanistan. I believe it would have been a great comfort to serve under him in any dangerous circumstance, with his attitude reflected in his words: “I never once thought about dying. It’s not about me. It’s about my soldiers!”
Franck Dupéré, on the other hand, impressed me with his overall enthusiastic and positive attitude about his tour and indeed life in general. He displayed no regrets, even after being severely wounded by a suicide bomber. Today, his right arm and hand remain weak and I just found out that he recently lost his right eye despite attempts by medical specialists to save it. I could only describe his attitude as that of joie de vivre as he continues to seek new challenges despite all handicaps. Most amazingly, after recovering from his wounds he joined the True Patriot Love expedition to climb a mountain in the Himalayas; that only whetted his appetite and he has just returned from a solo climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. He is the ultimate example of resilience, as shown in his words: “Life is so short. There’s two ways to see it. Either you see the good way or bad – it’s your choice. I still have one arm, one eye, so I can still see my kids growing. I still have one hand; I can touch them, put them to bed.”
Rob Peel seemed to have landed in an ideal job for his aptitudes when he became a mentor to the Afghan National Army after arriving in Afghanistan. During our interviews, he showed a strong natural empathy towards the Afghans, readily accepting the differences between their culture and our Western way of life. This empathy showed up first even before he deployed, as he took the initiative to seek out books on Afghan history and culture. As he explained to me, “There was always going to be issues with the Afghans – as there are issues with the Canadian Forces too. But they are different than we are. And us applying our model to them and expecting results in a mere five years since their army was created is extremely unfair. They have different values and a different culture.”
I could go on in equal detail about what the tone I sensed from the words used by the other interviewees, each unique in their own way. Looking back at all these men and my talks with them, the overall impression I am left with is that they are really representative of the majority of soldiers sent to Afghanistan, who must be considered to have been part of the most professional force ever deployed by Canada on an overseas combat campaign.
I have not thought about Leo for a long time but the request took me back over twenty years ago when I first made contact with him for an article I wanted to write. I had come across the citation for his first award which stated that he had single-handedly liberated the town of Zwolle in the Netherlands. I naturally found this amazing. Leo replied to my requests readily in his characteristic enthusiastic manner, writing “anybody who is interested to talk about the Third Division is a friend of mine.” In the coming weeks, Leo wrote to me several times, elaborating on his remembrances of what he did in the Second World War and in Korea, and passing on to me some press clippings of his visits to Zwolle where he became an honoured visitor many times after 1960. This resulted in my article in Canadian Military History Journal in 1996, http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol5/iss1/11.
Leo’s story seems to have had some kind of revival in recent years, as shown by a Google search which comes up with a multitude of entries including some YouTube videos. Unfortunately, I found some of these exaggerated and inaccurate: one has called Leo “the real Rambo;” another said he was “the most badass war machine in World War 2;” or a Wikipedia entry which implies he held off two Chinese divisions totally 14,000 men in the Korean War! While I find these claims irritating, I have to admit that Leo’s record was outstanding and he deserves to be remembered.
Some of Leo’s exploits were so unusual that I regret to say that, as a chronic cynic, I had trouble believing him at first. His eyesight had been damaged in Normandy. With that, how was he was able to continue through the rest of the campaign? But even more so, how was he accepted into the Canadian Special Force for the Korean War - while receiving a 20% disability pension? But one of his officers in Korea confirmed this as true – he got through the enlistment medical with the influence of LCol Jacques Dextraze, wore a patch over his bad eye in Korea, and qualified as a sniper with this other eye!
Was he courageous? All his officers gave him credit for that. Platoon leader Charly Forbes described Leo as being “sloppy in his dress, perhaps the typical French Canadian voyageur ...generally very social, certainly not a parade sergeant. Very comfortable in his job - and fearless!” Company commander Armand Ross perhaps said it best by writing that “Leo possessed a high degree of the ideal qualities of a member of the scout platoon, i.e., bravery, initiative and dependable in combat. It would have been preferable if he had a greater sense of discipline outside the battlefield. However, too much discipline may come in conflict with personal initiative.” It is probably no surprise that, after having been promoted to corporal in England, Leo committed some disciplinary indiscretions and was demoted back to private. But on the battlefield, his commanding officers in both wars looked to him when a particularly difficult job had to be done.
Unfortunately, Leo passed away in 2008. I now wish I had dropped writing the article at that time and carried on to interview Leo in depth, to write a full book on his experiences. In any case, I am glad that at least the memory of this courageous Canadian is still alive.
T. Robert Fowler, author, Canadian military history