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Legion Magazine – May/June 2003 « Douglas Fisher



Legion Magazine – May/June 2003

Ten years ago or so a lot of veterans of WW II were fuming with anger over the televised series, The Valour And The Horror, written, directed, and produced by Brian McKenna and funded by the CBC and the National Film Board. The brouhaha went on for several years, certainly awakening a lot of dormant interest in the war of many veterans and their families, and in the long run, in my judgment, the critics carried the day and the country. The series had shameful distortions and was not, as McKenna kept insisting, a seamless, truthful epic about British bloody mindedness, poor Canadian military generalship and barbaric losses in airmen, soldiers and civilians, notably German civilians.

Of course, in the following decade McKenna has never been penitent. Indeed, in Maclean’s magazine issue for Nov. 11, 2002, he returned to one of his “Horror” disasters with an article emphasizing the culpability of Canadian senior officers for the near wipe-out of the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada in the Normandy battle of July 25, 1944, to take Verrières Ridge from the Germans.

He replayed the line that the scale of the disaster and the reasons for it had been “covered up” by officers of the time and later by military historians. He argued that those officers immediate to the debacle blamed the inexperience and bad judgment of Major Philip Griffin, the Black Watch leader of the assault who was killed during its course and was given no posthumous award. McKenna accused General Guy Simonds of holding back the masses of tanks at his disposal and faults the lack of artillery fire in support of the Black Watch’s ill-fated attack on the northern side of the ridge.

It was rather surprising to me that this piece in Maclean’s didn’t resurrect the critical heat of the early 1990s. On first reading it I was going to rocket a grievance to the editor; then I chose to wait for the uproar, and not much came, in Maclean’s or elsewhere.
Then in early February a copy of a long letter sent to Maclean’s about McKenna was sent to me by its author, J.W. Keith, a former infantry company leader in Normandy of the Regina Rifles. Oh, it is such a splendid debunking of McKenna on the battle for Verrières Ridge. I longed to put most of its 4,000-odd words in print. This isn’t possible but some brief excerpts show the scope of Keith’s savvy and his research.

On the allegation of a “cover up” he cites plain references to the bitter casualties in the failed attack in the official Canadian army histories and in books of such respected authors as Ross Munro, Jeffery Williams, and Denis Whitaker. And he goes on: “George Blackburn’s excellent book The Guns Of Normandy tells the Black Watch story and has detailed coverage of artillery support problems and tank action.

“… Verrières Ridge was NOT defended as McKenna says by ‘six of Hitler’s elite divisions. Army historian C.P. Stacey shows the German dispositions on July 24-25 and discusses them … stating ‘On the eve of the operation there were seven German armoured divisions facing the Second British Army. Four of these were SS Panzer divisions. Confronting Second Canadian Corps were one infantry division, two Panzer divisions and part of a Panzer division, the rest of which was in reserve a few miles south. The ridge itself was defended by the German infantry division and part of a Panzer division.’

“The fate of the Black Watch was neither a rare nor unique event. Such costly actions were common occurrences to the infantry of all countries involved in WW II. A few Canadian examples were the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry who lost 200 men (53 killed) taking and holding Verrières village on the Black Watch left.… In operation Atlantic on July 20 the South Saskatchewan Regiment attacked the same part of the ridge as the Black Watch, also reaching its objective but having to withdraw. They lost 215 men (62 killed). On the same day the Essex Scottish were counter-attacked by German tanks and lost 244 (62 killed).

“Both the Reginas and the Black Watch fought many more brave and costly battles. They share the dubious distinction of suffering the highest monthly casualty average of all Canadian battalions in the war, 177 per month each, the Black Watch had 1,772 in 10 months, the Regina Rifles 1,946 in 11 months. The high casualties were due to the many times Canadian units attacked and frequently defeated German defensive forces which often were at least equal in numbers and much better armed. They did their job and did it well. What is amazing is that despite heavy losses our infantry battalions remained effective—as I can attest personally—to the end.”

Keith wrote this about Griffin. “I have not discussed whether he should have undertaken what surely seemed a hopeless task. He must have known what happened to the South Saskatchewan Regiment a few days before and, of course, knew that his right flank was not secure. It was a terrible decision for a young, inexperienced officer to have to make, especially when burdened by all the Black Watch traditions.”

He closed his letter to the editor of Maclean’s: “Please read some of the references I have given and try to persuade Mr. McKenna to do likewise. Perhaps then he might cease to write the nonsense he does.”

I doubt this will happen, knowing both the editor and Mr. McKenna as I do.

* * *

Norman Christie of CEF Books at mid-life is physically muscular and brings an aggressive personality to the pursuit of a consuming interest in Canada’s military history. He has spent the last dozen years in work relating to wars and remembrance. Recently he came by with several new publications for me which had been prepared and issued by the firm he founded in 1996 on coming back to Ottawa after five years working in England and on the continent for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. He had a position with it he attained as an engineer, not as a historian.

With the Commission he found himself increasingly aggravated at the dearth of handy information for visitors to the battlefields and the cemeteries of WW I. So many visitors knew so little about the battles on the Western front. As for books about WW I, most of those published in the 1920s have been out of print for half a century, and most libraries no longer stock them.

So Christie studied the literature available and thought about what would be most informative and memorable for those from Canada for purchase, either before they came to visit the memorials in northern France or while there.

So, what should he do? Simple, to draw up a planned schedule of booklets covering the main battles of the Canadian Expeditionary Force—such as Vimy Ridge or Passchendaele—research each battle, write a narrative, and work up layout, design, drawings, maps, and photographs with a printer. He felt sure that the booklets, under the series title, For King And Empire, would sell to visitors at memorable places like Ypres and Vimy. For sales in Canada he had to find bookstores and school librarians for marketing. The readership he had in mind was of plain people and high schoolers.
Well, Christie has made his way since a very chancy start, the first series doing well overseas. He has added two more lines of publication. These are a series on WW II actions and a series of reprints of WW I memoirs by Canadians which have been long out of print.

The most impact on me as a reader has been from CEF new editions of old books, written by veterans well-known in the 1920s across Canada like Will Bird, a Nova Scotian veteran and novelist.

The latest of such reprints in paperback is Battery Action: The Story Of The 43rd Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, 1916-1919. Like most of the CEF Books it is “supported by the Canadian War Museum.”

The daily slug of this group of some 200 soldiers not far behind the trenches at the front through counter-fire, snipers, mud, rain, lice, and burial parties grips one’s interest and respect. Serving the guns demanded fearsome hard work, digging pits, wrestling with mules, ammunition loads, and worn-out guns while existing on poor food, an occasional rum, and too many weeks in action at a stretch.The first two diarists of the 43rd Battery—both literate, witty, and imaginative—were killed by German artillery fire. Some of the tone of civil levity and thoughtful jocularity showing in the diary may be due to an abundance of University of Toronto undergraduates in the battery. The account is intimate, and for its time, rather politically incorrect. There was some bite but little in mean-minded cleavage between the other ranks and officers. The rogues, jokers, braggarts, scroungers, and womanizers are there. So are the reliable soldiers and the good companions.

Several of the other publications new to me were in the second booklet series on WW II actions, titled Access To History. It will run eventually to a score of items. Each has some 42 pages, liberally illustrated, most notably with colour reproductions of war artists such as Lawren Harris and Charles Comfort, plus maps and battle diagrams.
Christie has sought learned authors for most of these works, for example, naval historian Roger Sarty for The Battle Of The Atlantic; historian and war veteran Reg Roy for D-Day! The Canadians And The Normandy Landings, June 1944; and historian William Rodney, for Deadly Mission: Canadian Airmen Over Nuremberg, March 30-31, 1944.
The last in this trio, about the most dangerous Bomber Command raid of the war, is exceptionally lucid and thought-provoking in a short but vivid account.

Christie hopes to do considerably more about the Royal Canadian Air Force in all aspects of the air war. In the Access To History series, I’ve found battles and their consequences better presented in brief, crisp narratives, supplemented by readable maps and apt quotes of participants than I once thought possible. One advantage this series has had in reaching younger readers has been helpful sponsorship and promotion by the Ontario Command of The Royal Canadian Legion.

It continues to bother Christie that the roles and worth of Canadians in the Great War of 1914–18 are so little known to the generations of today. And nothing near a plain understanding exists now of how much the Empire and the Crown meant for Canadians, particularly in English Canada. Of course, one reason this waned so rapidly was the spur to nationalism of Canadian victories at the front and the great expansion on the industrial and production side of the war at home, which weakened the economic importance of imperial trade. Also, Robert Borden and Mackenzie King as prime ministers had both pursued a theme of “from colony to nation” rather adroitly, pushing away a Westminster-based Empire and Commonwealth. So many Canadians in the 1920s wanted the British connection made less aristocratic and patronizing.
Christie rates the awareness today about aspects of Canada’s mighty commitments in WW II as much higher because so many veterans and their children are still alive, but also because they have both written and recalled more about the war and their roles in it.
He has a regret, which I share, that so much has been written or broadcast about the clutch of Canadian disasters in WW II, particularly at Hong Kong and Dieppe and about the reinforcement crisis which weakened the army’s strength in Northwest Europe so severely from the late fall of 1944 to April 1945.

I think Christie in a freelance, rather lone-wolf way has done something worthwhile for our identity as a nationality and a community by popularizing particulars on our activities in war. For a listing of CEF books and booklets try him at Box 40083, 2440 Bank St., Ottawa, ON K1V 0W8, or phone (613) 247-8873.