War crimes following D-Day remembered on P.E.I.
'Some were just shot without being interrogated, just in fits of rage'
On the 75th anniversary of D-Day, one Prince Edward Islander's thoughts are more focused on an infamous series of events in the days that followed — including the murder of at least five men from Prince Edward Island taken prisoner.
The successful landing in Normandy on June 6, 1944, was the beginning of a successful year-long campaign to defeat Nazi Germany. But for the Canadians the victory on Juno Beach would be followed the next day by a defeat at the hands of the 12th SS Panzer Division.
As the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, a regiment that included many Prince Edward Islanders, pushed ahead into Authie it got too far in front of other Canadian troops, including artillery support. The 12th SS overwhelmed the regiment, taking many as prisoners.
Over the coming weeks, an estimated 156 would be killed — incidents described in the only World War II war crimes trial tried by a Canadian court. Five of the victims were from P.E.I., including 23-year-old Lance Corp. Douglas Sumner Orford, Angus Orford's uncle.
"Canadian soldiers being taken prisoner of war, and then some were interrogated and some were just shot without being interrogated, just in fits of rage by these young fanatical Nazi soldiers," said Orford.
Brothers in London
Born almost two decades after the end of the war, Orford never knew his uncle, but he said his father and Douglas were very close.
"They were in different regiments when they were training in England. Dad, Clifford, was in the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and Douglas was with the North Nova Scotia Highlanders," he said.
"They would communicate to one another meet in London and see some sights and I remember Dad telling me that they'd go to Mooney's Irish pub for a few beers."
Ian J. Campbell, author of Murder at the Abbaye, an account of just one of the massacres that followed the defeat at Authie, said the 12th SS was made up of officers who were veterans of the Eastern Front, a particularly brutal campaign, and young recruits, most not yet 20, who for close to half of their lives had been indoctrinated into Nazism in the Hitler Youth.
"What you had was a bunch of really hardened leaders at the junior level and at the officer level, with a bunch of raw recruits that were young fervent Nazis," said Campbell.
"They were more ready to follow orders and to achieve the orders by any means and shooting people down in the street, shooting prisoners of war, they didn't blink in doing that."
The 5 Islanders who were murdered
In his book Conduct Unbecoming, Howard Margolian describes many of the incidents in which Canadian POWs were killed by German troops.
Lance Corp. Orford was killed while being marched away from the battle scene as it was still being bombarded by British warships. While on the march, Orford's column encountered a column of German reinforcements.
The approaching German troops opened fire on the disarmed prisoners. Orford was among nine Canadian soldiers killed. Also among the dead was Priv. Joseph F. Arsenault. Arsenault was 30 years old, and left behind his parents in Summerside and a wife in Tyne Valley.
Corp. William Lewis McKinnon, a 23-year-old from St. Peter's Bay, also died while being marched away from the British bombardment. McKinnon was killed by one of his German escorts.
Another Arsenault, Lance Corp. Joseph Ralph Arsenault, was killed shortly after being captured. He was in a line of prisoners being searched. He had unclipped two grenades from his jacket and was holding them out to be seized. A German officer spoke to Arsenault in French. Arsenault responded in the same language, and for unknown reasons the German shot him dead.
Arsenault was 26. His parents and his wife, Anna May, were left behind in Summerside.
Lance Corp. John Bernard Murray, a 39-year-old from Charlottetown, was also killed shortly after being captured and disarmed, along with seven other Canadian prisoners.
These Islanders all died on June 7, 1944, the day following D-Day. The war crimes continued into July. Col. Kurt Meyer, the officer in charge of the 12th SS, would be convicted of war crimes in December of 1945 and sentenced to death.
That death sentence was commuted to life in prison. Meyer served five years in Dorchester Penitentiary in New Brunswick before being transferred to a British military prison in West Germany in 1951. He was released in 1954, and died in 1961 at the age of 51.