"No Essex officer returned. ... Out of 30 officers who lived together at Aldershot and previously, I am the only original. Others had been transferred or were shot down in France.... Lads say they are glad I didn't go. I couldn't have done much good...."
DIEPPE, France -- This beach, so alive during the day with carnival rides, confectionary booths and sunbathers, is haunted in the early dawn....
I could feel the ghosts of history reaching out to touch me on the shoulder, to remind me that once, here, on this spot, men fought and died, including more than 100 in my semi-adopted regiment, the Essex Scottish.
I was walking the beach at 5:45 a.m., Aug. 19, where the men came ashore exactly 50 years before under withering enfilading fire from the bluffs at either side of the beaches. They were late and arrived in full view of the waiting Germans, who were merciless.
Slipping around on the egg-shaped stones that tripped the men up and threw the treads off the Churchill tanks that tried to provide close support, I understood for certain that I was right all those months ago to push for the special section and to accept the Veterans Affairs department invitation to go on this pilgrimage....
"Red," I said, "you know ... they aren't planning anything at all to mark the 50th anniversary of Dieppe. It fractured this city, just tore it up. I mean, only 50 or so of the 553 men came back from the raid, and half them were wounded. The rest were dead, like my cousin, or captured."
I ranted on, as I am wont to do, cursing the malignant newsroom gods who would ignore such a shattering event, until she stopped me cold.
"Write a memo," she said. "Tell them what you're telling me. Maybe you can persuade them."
Huh. Right as usual. Want something done? GOYA and do it.
So I wrote a memo to the bosses suggesting a special section. They jumped at it and gave me a team of three -- two of them, like me, the offspring of Second War veterans and the third the nephew of one -- to work parttime on the project.
We interviewed survivors, we interviewed relatives. We called overseas to England and France. We called all over North America, from Cape May to Ottawa to California. We got pictures, we got stories, we got obsessed.
We pieced together a timeline of the day that was so detailed and so accurate it was cited later in the official history of the Essex Scottish. We compiled the first ever complete Dieppe casualty list, taken directly from the regimental war diaries.
Halfway through the process, a call came from Veterans Affairs asking us if we'd like to send someone along with the 50 veterans they were taking back to Dieppe in August.
I thought about it for awhile, but in the end said yes, I'd go. Then "Hell yes".
So that was what brought me here to this killing ground where the Second Canadian Infantry Division was so badly mauled it took two years to rebuild it. The impact on the cities where the regiments were raised made the army change the rules, so that never again would so many from a single area be so exposed.
The statistics were and are terrible. About 900 Canadians were killed on the beach or in the water, nearly 2,000 were taken prisoner. Many of those who made it back to England were wounded. More died there and in captivity. All of it happened in the space of a few hours on that hot morning, Aug. 19, 1942.
Why was the raid -- a frontal attack on a fortified coastal city -- ever planned? Why was it cancelled once -- when the men were all ready to embark -- and remounted a month later, when security could have been compromised?
Most of all, was anything learned? Did it do any good?
Maybe the best answer to that came from an interview I did later that morning on the beach.
One of the aging men was a card-carrying member of the Resistance who was 17 when the raid on his hometown took place. He firmly believed it played a vital role, including helping convince Stalin that a second front in Europe was not possible that early in the war.
The other was a member of the Association des anciens combattants et prisonniers de guerre de Dieppe, who pointedly noted that nearly 3,000 dead or captured Canadians weren't much help.
"Ah," said the other gently, "but if you hadn't come at all, we'd still be under German rule."