It’s been 72 years since Britain and its allies attacked the French port of Dieppe, and Maurice Lawson still cries a little sometimes when he thinks about it.
Lawson was part of B company of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, or the Rileys, then. He was 20 and full of bravado, a native east ender from working class Hamilton, and as he rode in on a boat as part of Operation Jubilee, there was little time for nerves.
He disembarked with his eye on a target about a mile inward — a casino. He made it there, but soon heard other companies were getting hammered on the waterfront, and turned and headed back.
He was captured there and spent two and a half years as a prisoner of war.
These stories are increasingly difficult to hear first hand now. Lawson, 92, was one of only three remaining Dieppe veterans at the annual memorial service at Dieppe Veterans’ Memorial Park in Hamilton on Tuesday.
And even though he’s attended several ceremonies over the years, and he’s stood countless times for O Canada and God Save the Queen, and he’s heard the Ode of Remembrance called out over a solemn crowd — “At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them” — it’s still emotional.
“You see the tears?” he said. “That’s what it’s like.”
“We had a batch of 12 men going in the group I was in and five of them were lost in action. So that’s what I’m thinking about.”
Lawson grew up in the east end. His father, James Stanley Lawson, was also in the military. His dad died on Sept. 29, 1939, 18 days before Canada declared war on Germany.
All three Lawson boys wanted to follow in his footsteps, but Lawson’s older brothers had health problems. When Lawson turned 17, he joined.
He left friends, family and a girlfriend behind when he headed overseas. Sailing into Dieppe on Aug. 19, 1942, “I wasn’t scared, but I didn’t have very many senses either,” he said.
Warsaw Concerto brings back memories
He and his fellow men knew they were on a historic mission. “They tried to force that into us so we would give our best,” he said. “Whatever our best was, that’s what they wanted.”
So that’s what they gave. Lawson and his fellow Rileys made it to the casino before they were called back. When they came back to the waterfront carnage, Lawson lifted another soldier onto the boat only to have it sail away without him.
Lawson jumped into the water, stripping out of his clothes as he swam after the boats, trying to reach them as enemy shells exploded around him. He could only swim so far and so hard before he had to turn and swim back to shore, where Germans awaited him.
He was in a prisoner of war camp for two and a half years. The Russians liberated him, his daughter Gail said. When he hears the Warsaw Concerto, the memories flood back.
“Every time he hears it, he says, ‘I remember walking over Warsaw,’” she said.
A life of hating turnip
Remnants of war appeared in other ways too. Decades later, Lawson walked into a butcher shop and a man jumped over the counter, saying “You saved my life! You saved my life!” The family wonders now, his daughter Janet said, if that man had something to do with the man her father lifted into the boat.
Food is another common memory trigger. To this day, after army rations and POW food, Lawson still can’t stand the smell of turnips. His wife made it for dinner a few years later, his daughters say, and he walked into the kitchen and right back out again, telling her he'd be back when she made something else.
Debbie Adams laid a wreath Tuesday for her dad Stanley Darch, who died in April. Darch was a past president of the RHLI Veterans Association and a life member of the National Prisoner of War Association. He also served with Lawson.
Food was a common theme in her dad’s memories too.
“I was a very fussy eater and he would say, ‘You would have eaten every scrap on your plate if you were in my camp,’” Adams recalled.
Still wanted to stand for the anthem
Lawson has three daughters — Janet, Gail and Joan — and spoke little of the war as they were growing up. He’d tell them funny stories, like bayoneting a cow while on patrol in England or knitting with barbed wire in the POW camp. But the stories revealed little of the violence and loss he endured.
All that came out at the annual memorial service, where his daughters laid comforting hands on his shoulders.
“He was emotional, but also, he wanted to stand up,” Janet said of her dad, who uses a wheelchair. “So part of that was us saying ‘No, you’re not.’”
Heavy on Lawson’s mind, he said, was “my chums.”
“Not the ones that got killed, but their families at home and how they felt about it,” he said. “That had to be tough on them, because it would be tough on mine.”