July 17, 2000

 

 

Canadian battalion commander whose war lasted only six hours - long enough for him to win the Victoria Cross for heroic leadership at Dieppe.

Awesome courage and sacrifice: the Dieppe Raid left 84 members of the South Saskatchewan Regiment dead on the beaches, with 89, including Merritt (below), taken prisoner.

 

 

LIEUTENANT-COLONEL CECIL MERRITT, VC

 

Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt, VC, hero of the Dieppe Raid, was born in Vancouver on November 10, 1908. He died there on July 12 aged 91

 

The Dieppe Raid in 1942, in which Lieutenant-Colonel "Cec" Merritt won the Victoria Cross for gallantry and inspiring leadership, was subsequently judged a military disaster and needless waste of lives, especially Canadian lives. Even so, it was a terrific fight and those who survived looked back on August 19 as a day of awesome courage and sacrifice.

The military purpose was to gain experience of an opposed landing and the capture of a continental port in anticipation of launching a second front in northwest Europe. There were also political factors. The Western Allies were under intense pressure from Stalin to "do something" to draw German reinforcements and aircraft away from the Eastern Front in Russia.

The United States Chiefs of Staff believed that a cross-Channel invasion was feasible in 1943, but Winston Churchill and his military chiefs knew this would be premature. A large-scale raid on the French coast was therefore proposed as a response in spirit to Moscow and, incidentally, a means of demonstrating to the Americans the immense difficulties a full-scale invasion would present.

There was also a Canadian factor. When Britain faced invasion in 1940-41, Canadian troops had been rushed across the Atlantic to strengthen the country's defences. Now that danger had passed, the Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, declined permission for these troops to be diverted to North Africa - a place of no interest to Canada - but was anxious they should be seen making a current contribution to the war. Therefore Canada provided the bulk of the troops for Dieppe.

Some 5,000 men of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, 1,000 British Commandos and 50 United States Rangers comprised the landing force. The original plan envisaged a devastating naval bombardment and extensive support by ground-attack aircraft, but both were significantly scaled down. This was to minimise civilian casualties and avoid rubble in the streets impeding the landing force advance. A frontal attack on the town was thought preferable to an encircling manoeuvre on the grounds that the operation would be judged a failure if the port were not taken.

Two experienced British Commando units (Numbers 3 and 4) were assigned to land before dawn to destroy German heavy gun batteries on promontories east and west of the port, a task in which they were largely successful. Two Canadian battalions were scheduled to land at the same time to the immediate east and west of Dieppe to give landward support to the attacks on the guns and form a secure perimeter for the main force to land. The right flank Canadian battalion assigned to Green Beach was the South Saskatchewan Regiment commanded by Merritt. His objectives were Pourville, west of the port, then the cliffs above the village.

His force crossed the Channel in Royal Navy destroyers, transferred to landing craft ten miles offshore and reached Green Beach on time, in near darkness and unopposed. But the main part of the battalion was landed on the wrong side of the River Scie estuary and faced crossing a narrow bridge though Pourville in order to approach their objectives on the cliffs.

By then alert to the situation, the German defenders targeted the bridge with machinegun and mortar fire. Initial Canadian attempts failed to storm the bridge, leaving it covered with dead and wounded. Merritt led the next rush forward, waving his steel helmet with the rallying shout "Come on over. There's nothing to it!"

His audacity took the enemy by surprise; one group of men followed him over the bridge and others used the girders to cross. Merritt soon had most of his surviving men on the far bank, but shortage of mortar ammunition and lack of communications to the destroyers to call for supporting fire made any further advance impossible.

Meanwhile, the company landed on the west bank of the Scie had reached its objective and sent a success signal to the operation command ship. This and one from Lord Lovat's Number 4 Commando were the only two success signals sent in the entire operation.

Finding all moves towards his objectives blocked by concrete "pillboxes", Merritt led an attack on each in turn, personally killing the occupants of one by throwing grenades through the enemy's firing ports. When the last enemy strongpoint had been silenced, Merritt had been twice wounded and his battalion reduced to fewer than 300 men.

He held on to an improvised perimeter nevertheless, and kept contact with his section positions by moving from one to another after his runners had been killed. When the time came to move back to the beach, Merritt coolly gave instructions for an orderly withdrawal and announced his intention to hold off the enemy from a rearguard position in a small bandstand near the beach to cover the reembarkation.

The South Saskatchewan battalion left 84 dead on Green Beach and 89 more, including Merritt and eight other officers, were taken prisoner. His citation for award of the Victoria Cross concluded: "To this commanding officer's personal daring the success of his unit's operations and the safe re-embarkation of a large portion of it were chiefly due."

Merritt was sent to prison camp Oflag VIIB at Eichstätt in Bavaria. Together with 64 others, he escaped through a 120ft tunnel during the night of June 3-4, 1943. Only a handful reached safety. Merritt was recaptured and sentenced to 14 days' solitary confinement. He remarked after being freed: "My war lasted six hours. There are plenty of Canadians who went all the way from the landings in Sicily to the very end." He was dismissive of his time as a prisoner of war with the words: "It was an enforced idleness. It cannot be translated into virtue."

Charles Cecil Ingersoll Merritt was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, the elder son of Major Cecil Merritt, who was killed at Ypres in the First World War. He entered the Royal Military College Kingston, Ontario, at the age of 16 and graduated with honours. He was commissioned into the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada (a Militia regiment) in 1929 but read for the Bar and practised law in Vancouver until mobilised at the outbreak of war.

He returned to his law practice after the war and served as Member for Vancouver-Burrard in the Canadian Federal Parliament, 1945-49. He was appointed Honorary Colonel of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada in 1951.

When Terence Robertson's book Dieppe - The Shame and the Glory was published in 1963, Merritt remarked: "You can wipe out the shame. It is to the everlasting credit of the Canadian soldier that every man got off the landing craft and went ashore. In neither the planning nor the performance need anyone be ashamed."

These were generous words. While Canadian courage and fighting tenacity were never in question, the British interpretation of intelligence on German troop strengths and fortifications at Dieppe was seriously flawed. Hence the planning assumptions regarding enemy strengths and their calibre were mistaken, as were judgments on the nature of the beach and obstacles.

The Canadian chaplain John Foote, who also won the VC at Dieppe, spoke for all Canadians who fought there when he said: "They were proud to have been the first to go back to the Continent and were confident they had shown the way for others to follow."

Cecil Merritt's death reduces to 24 the number of living holders of the Victoria Cross. He and his wife Grace had two sons and a daughter.

 

 


 

 

Charles C.I. Merritt, Canadian War Hero, Dies at 91

 

By Richard Goldstein,, July 22, 2000

 

Lt. Col. Charles C.I. Merritt, a Canadian Army officer who was taken captive in the Dieppe raid of World War II but emerged as a heroic figure on a disastrous day for his countrymen, died July 12 in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was 91.

He received the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valor in the British Commonwealth.

At 4:52 in the morning, Aug. 19, 1942, 523 soldiers of the South Saskatchewan Regiment commanded by Colonel Merritt scrambled out of landing craft in the English Channel and dashed across a pebbled beach on the western flank of the German-occupied port of Dieppe, France. They were among 5,000 Canadians, 1,000 British commandos and 50 United States Rangers testing assault tactics as a prelude to the D-Day invasion mounted almost two years later.

The raiders had orders to destroy port facilities, radar installations and the guns overlooking the beach, then withdraw.

Arriving at the village of Pourville, Colonel Merritt's troops came under heavy fire from German pillboxes on the cliffs, and soon fallen Canadians were piled two deep along a 100-foot-long bridge.

Colonel Merritt saw that a house 100 yards inland would provide cover for his men. He removed his steel helmet, wrapped it around his wrist, went to the center of the bridge and shouted: "Come on over. They can't hit anything. There's nothing to worry about here."

His back was turned to the German defenders in disdain while shells tore away chunks of concrete on the bridge.

"Now let's go get them," he said.

He dashed toward the house, leading a small group of soldiers, four of whom were shot down. He then returned to the bridge and told the troops who had hung back: "Hardly anyone got hurt.

Now let's have all of you over this time. Keep your heads down and run like hell."

He led the way, 40 soldiers following.

Soon afterward, Colonel Merritt sprang from the shelter of the house and sprinted to a pillbox, his men following reluctantly. He blew it up with grenades and then led his soldiers in destroying additional pillboxes. But as the morning wore on, the main force of German defenders could not be dislodged.

Orders came to end the raid at 11 a.m., but hundreds of Canadian troops were under intense fire on the beach as they waited for boats to return them to England.

Colonel Merritt led a rear-guard action that provided covering fire for those soldiers and was shot in the shoulder when he dashed onto the beach to pick up an unconscious corporal.

In midafternoon, after all the boats had departed, Colonel Merritt and more than 80 soldiers who had covered the retreat with him had to surrender.

"We were not in a position to take Paris," he remarked long afterward.

On Oct. 2, 1942, while Colonel Merritt was being held at a prisoner of war camp in Bavaria, Canadian authorities announced that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross for "matchless gallantry and inspiring leadership."

On the night of June 3, 1943, Colonel Merritt and more than 64 other prisoners escaped from the camp through a 120-foot tunnel, but he and most of the others were quickly recaptured, and he remained a prisoner until the war ended.

Charles Cecil Ingersoll Merritt, known as Cecil or Cec, was born in Vancouver on Nov. 10, 1908. A broad-shouldered 6-footer, he graduated from the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, then practiced law until mobilized from the reserves in September 1939.

He left for war with a directive from his wife, Grace: "Don't try to win medals, Cec. You just come home."

When he did come back, he was elected to the Canadian Parliament from a Vancouver district and served four years in Ottawa. He then returned to his law practice.

He is survived by two sons, Cecil of Bellevue, Wash., and Peter of Edmonton, Alberta, and a daughter, Elizabeth Merritt of Vancouver.

Colonel Merritt was one of two Canadians who won the Victoria Cross for their actions at Dieppe. The Rev. John Foote, chaplain of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, who was also taken prisoner, was honored for aiding wounded soldiers under fire.

Colonel Merritt's death leaves 24 living holders of the Victoria Cross, established by Queen Victoria in 1856. There is only one surviving Canadian winner of the medal, Ernest Smith, 86, of Vancouver, honored for valor in the Italian campaign of World War II.

More than half of the Canadians who came ashore at Dieppe were killed, wounded or captured, and few of the raid's objectives were attained, the troops having received inadequate fire support from ships and aircraft. But Colonel Merritt refused to join in criticism of the commanders who planned the raid.

"We were very glad to go, we were delighted," he said. "We were up against a very difficult situation, and we didn't win. But to hell with this business of saying the generals done us dirt."


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© 2000 by Neil Mishalov