'It was a bad day': Canadian POWs recall disastrous Dieppe raid 75 years later

To mark the 75th year since the disastrous raid on Dieppe, Paul Delorme, 97, and three other former soldiers have returned to the scene of their capture.

Some 9,000 Canadians taken prisoner during the Second World War; only a few are left to tell the story

Paul Delorme, left, and Stanley Edwards returned to the beach at Dieppe this week to mark the 75th anniversary of the disastrous raid there, August 19, 1942, when they were captured and taken to German POW camps. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

At the age of 21, Paul Delorme was a Canadian soldier like most others — until the day he found himself in a position no Canadian soldier would hold today: prisoner of war.

Looking back now, the time he spent behind enemy lines was painful for him but infinitely preferable to the front line. 

To mark the 75th year since the Dieppe raid, Delorme and three other former soldiers have returned to the scene of their capture here with an official government delegation. 

Dieppe Raid: 75th anniversary tribute

5 years ago
Duration 2:52
CBC's Nahlah Ayed travels to Normandy, France, for the 75th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid -- one of the darkest and bloodiest events in Canadian military history

It was August 19, 1942. 

The failed raid on the beaches of Dieppe was a bloodbath: in a few hours, it claimed hundreds of lives. Delorme survived but was captured, along with hundreds of others, and taken to the relative safety of German POW camps. 

2 escape attempts

Still, he did try to escape. 

After two attempts, he told CBC News this week while visiting Dieppe, an English-speaking German officer threatened to kill him. 

"He said, 'You see this bullet?'" Delorme recalled the officer saying. "'This is what you're doing to get in your head if you escape again.'" 

Shortly afterward, says Delorme, two other Canadians who tried to escape the camp were shot dead. 

Canadian and British prisoners at Dieppe, August 1942. (Bundesarchiv Bild)

"We buried these two men next day, rolled in black tar paper at the bottom of the stone quarry," Delorme, who is Métis, later wrote in a book about his experience, A Métis Man Goes to War

Of some 9,000 Canadians who endured life as POWs during the Second World War, only a few are left to propagate a chapter of Canadian war experience that is alien to most later generations.

'It was a bad day'

The Dieppe raid was singular for the record number of Canadian deaths in a single day, ultimately claiming the lives of more than 900. The many Canadians, young and old, visiting the nearby Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery this week acknowledges that loss. 

But the story of those who lived for a time in enemy hands isn't as easily revisited. 

Dieppe saw more than 1,900 Canadians captured — the largest group taken in Canadian war history. 

The beach at Dieppe as it looks today. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

One of them was Stanley Edwards, who was born in Big Valley, Alta., and was with the 14th Canadian Army Tank Regiment at Dieppe. He's returned for the first time since the raid to pick at old war wounds. 

He was 19 years old then. Though he's 94 now, his memories have also survived the years. 

"It was a bad day," he told CBC News. 

In captivity, he said, "we had no idea what was going to happen to us there." 

POWs treated harshly

The experiences of Canadian Second World War POWs are mixed: in many camps German forces lived up to Geneva Conventions and treated prisoners relatively humanely — allowing mail and Red Cross parcels to come through. But in others they treated prisoners harshly, forcing them into hard labour. Some were even executed. 

Delorme, who served with the South Saskatchewan Regiment and enlisted with the Royal Regina Rifles, was taken by train to a camp in Germany, initially shackled with other prisoners, and then put to work.

Canadian dead at Dieppe, August 1942. (Bundesarchiv Bild)

Delorme recalls working long hours in a salt mine and then a stone quarry, where he said he nevertheless learned skills that would serve him later in life. 

On his first attempt to escape his imprisonment he spent several days walking the countryside by night, in prisoner overalls, trying to get to the French border. But he was caught, spending almost three years in all before finally going home after the Allied victory. 

At the beach this week with his daughter on the latest of several visits here, Delorme, now 97, was slow in movement but not in wit, often joking and laughing — as he did when he suggested his work in the stone quarry was really a ruse for helping build a highway in for the Allies. 

The memories are fading for him but still difficult. 

"I remember pretty well everything: how some people got killed. I remember all that," he says. "Where are all my friends? Most of them buried in Dieppe. So I pay my respects.

"Sometimes I keep thinking they're better off than me." 

Dieppe paved the way for D-Day

As the war wore on, treatment in the camps worsened and diseases set in, terrible experiences that shaped the lives of many soldiers and their families. 

"When they take you prisoner, it's really hard to get used to that. And then coming home was another bad thing, from Germany to Canada," says Edwards. 

Stanley Edwards as a young soldier. (Stanley Edwards)

"Coming home to meet my mother, I had lost two brothers … and so it was hard. Very hard." 

Veterans Affairs Minister Kent Hehr is touring Dieppe with the four veterans and members of their families. 

Their sacrifices should be remembered, he says. "We have to pass it on to future generations." 

On the beach where nearly 3,000 Canadians were either killed or taken prisoner, August 19, 1942, was also remembered in today's ceremonies as a battle that paved the way for the D-Day landings, which changed the course of the war — still, at enormous cost.


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.