Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Friday, August 14, 2009

Dieppe August 1942

Doug Shenstone and his trusty typewriter ar war.

I first met Doug Shenstone in 1959 when he was a senior technical editor in Ottawa, and with whom I was to become very friendly during the following years. Doug was a real down-to-earth office-worker pen-pusher. He was also about six foot two inches tall and in good shape.

In August, 1942, as a orderly-room staff-sergeant in the Canadian Royal Hamilton Light Infantry stationed in England, Doug, at the advanced age of 34, (his young comrades called him ‘Grandpa”) had volunteered to carry not only his Sten gun and grenades up the stony beaches of Dieppe, but also his battalion’s typewriter. All the time under murderous fire blazing from the German defenders ensconced safely in their cliff top pillboxes and fortifications.

Doug’s task on that terrible day was to establish a battalion headquarters office in a church, near the expected soon-to-be-captured casino, across the road from the sea wall. Unfortunately, very few Canadians managed to get over the seawall alive and so Doug spent six hours fighting and dodging around in the very centre of the confusion and ghastly carnage.

He eventually did reach the church but realized his battalion officers had obviously been lost in the fray and so were incapable of keeping the planned rendezvous. So Doug, despite his triumphant and perilous delivery of his trusty typewriter, was unable to even signal the cookhouse, as to how many to expect for breakfast the next day. He certainly was in no position to relay any messages of glorious victory to boneheaded Lord Louis Mountbatten.

Doug earned a Mentioned-in-Dispatches that day. I never did ask him if he himself wrote that particular dispatch. Or any other. He abandoned his typewriter when trying to make his way back down to the beach. And I suppose he delivered his own dispatches, if any, by his own bloody hands when he was one of the very few lucky ones to actually get back to England. I seem to remember, when we were somewhat mellowed one Sunday morning, Doug telling me that having finally abandoned his typewriter for his sten gun, he asked the soldier next to him to pass him a fresh magazine. He reached out to take it from the other man’s extended arm but in that instant his comrades hand erupted into a bloody mess, hit by an enemy bullet.

I was always impressed, and puzzled, by the positive and optimistic thinking of his army superiors who decided a typewriter would be worth its lugging up that awful foreshore. The Dieppe beach is just a mass of egg-and-apple-sized rounded stones that afford little traction. Running army boots would just react as if in a foot-deep coating of lumpy molasses—as might be encountered in some horrendous nightmare. So the Canadians, heavy and wet from jumping into the sea from their landing craft, desperately trying to run uphill against a hail of bullets and shrapnel whilst lugging mortars mounted on bicycle-wheel carts that tipped over on the loose pebbles, and hampered by many other impediments, meant many valuable lives wastefully thrown away.

Thirty years later, when I visited Dieppe with a friend, Guy Robillard an ex-infantry-officer of the ‘Van Doos’—Royal 22e RĂ©giment, and a veteran of Korea—I myself tried running up that same beach carrying nothing more than a small camera. It was like struggling to get out of a quicksand.

Just along the coast, at Puit, we stood at the water’s edge and looked up to the old German gun positions on the high cliffs that straddled and overlooked every part of the landing area. My eyes filled with angry tears as I imagined those loyal soldiers scrambling helplessly in disarray for a brief minute or two of horrendous ordeal before they were cut down and stilled forever.

That a few Canadians did get into the town proper was borne stark witness by a small unofficial plaque of simple remembrance near an old-fashioned, above ground, sidewalk pissoir. Standing modestly close by the big cathedral, it says, in French, that it was on that spot that two Canadian soldiers, who had taken momentary refuge in that flimsy mens’ public convenience, had been killed by a hail of German fire as they emerged in desperation from its thin cover.

As Guy and I examined the little monument some of the local people who lived on the other side of that narrow street told us that from their house windows across the way they had actually seen this tragedy happen. And they proudly said, forcefully, it was they themselves, they who lived there and had watched those brave men die—it was they who had paid to have that beautiful little plaque of commemoration made and erected. With their own money. It was nothing to do with the French government, they insisted. It was theirs. It was their street, their memory, and their tribute to their two Canadian soldiers.

I have Kodachrome slides (which I have had digitized) of that little memorial—shown here. But not of the little pissoir, (of whose primary intended humanitarian purpose Guy and I had taken proper advantage before noticing the monument). Strangely, and to my constant regret, though the little pissoir, full of bullet holes, was still standing there, I failed to photograph it. I just didn’t and cannot fathom why I did not. An inexcusable error. Or at least, if I did take photos, I cannot find them today. So far. I’ve got lots of pix of the town, beach and war graves,

I think Dieppe was a prime example to my mind, of how one should never wage war. That is, never attack the enemy where he appears to be strongest. In fact, I myself favour the advice given by a legendary American baseball manager to his team’s batters: ‘Hit it where they ain’t.’ I mean, what happens, usually? The enemy stacks up all his forces, mounts his machine guns and artillery in a superior position and then invites his opponents to come right in front of him and attack, full on towards his gun barrels so he can mow them all down. And the other side, believing that it takes two to tango, politely complies. Their generals blithely accept the invitation to have their troops massacred. Why don’t they go a bit to the left or right and attack? Or wait a bit. Postpone the attack. I know they say the best form of defence is attack but I think they’ve got it back to front. More likely it should read, the best form of attack is defence. Look at the Battle of Britain, for fine example.

One has only to read the citations accompanying the posthumous awards of honour for extreme bravery shown by combat heroes: “...Corporal Bloggs pressed home his attack against overwhelming odds...” for example. My thinking is to press home the attack against underwhelming odds. Ok, you get no VC but afterwards you do get to go in quiet pubs and have nice friendly pints of beer. I was always thankful to be in a single-seat fighter aeroplane and therefore somewhat in charge of my own destiny if it should ever loom up in full reality.

Douglas Shenstone, was discharged at war’s end as a sergeant-major. He became a well-know pewter craftsmen in later years and I enjoyed visiting him and his wife, Doris. I would watch him pewtering away in his little workshop in his quiet riverside garden on the banks of the Rideau River. And sharing a peaceful drink or two.

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