Main Seven Days in Hell

Seven Days in Hell

Centred around one of Canada's most storied regiments, Seven Days in Hell tells the epic story of the men from the Black Watch during the bloody battle for Verrières Ridge, a dramatic saga that unfolded just weeks after one of Canada's greatest military triumphs of the Second World War. O'Keefe takes us on a heart-pounding journey at the sharp end of combat during the infamous Normandy campaign. More than 300 soldiers from the Black Watch found themselves pinned down, as the result of strategic blunders and the fog of war, and only a handful walked away. Thrust into a nightmare, Black Watch Highlanders who hailed from across Canada, the United States, Great Britain and the Allied world found themselves embroiled in a mortal contest against elite Waffen-SS units and grizzled Eastern Front veterans, where station, rank, race and religion mattered little, and only character won the day. Drawn from formerly classified documents and rare first-person testimony of the men who...
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The End and Other Beginnings

Language: english
File: EPUB, 1.81 MB
Maps





Dedication

For those who no longer speak





Contents




Cover

Maps

Title Page

Dedication

Author’s Note

Introduction

1. La Voie Sacrée

2. Albatross

3. Inoculation

4. Bounce the Orne

5. Ifs

6. Hill 61

7. Maestro

8. The Four Horsemen, Act I: St. Martin

9. The Four Horsemen, Act II: The Ridge

10. The Four Horsemen, Act III: Der Hexenkessel (The Witch’s Cauldron)

11. Odds and Sods

12. The Abacus War

Epilogue: The Bitter Harvest

Acknowledgements

Endnotes

Bibliography

Index

Photo Section

About the Author

Also by David O’Keefe

Copyright

About the Publisher





Author’s Note

WHEN I FIRST WALKED THROUGH THE DOORS OF the “Castle on Bleury Street,” the Black Watch armoury in the heart of Montreal, in the late winter of 1991, I had no idea where my journey would lead. At that time, the first Gulf War had just erupted, and I had decided that the time had come to follow in the footsteps of my grandfather, my father, uncles, great-uncles and cousins who had served during both World Wars, Korea and the First Gulf War, a service to the country that would extend into Bosnia and Afghanistan.

My tenure as a young subaltern with the Black Watch was both brief and thoroughly undistinguished, and I left the uniform after two years to pursue my passion for military history. Over the next two decades, I maintained my association with the Department of National Defence, working as a researcher with the Directorate of History and Heritage before returning to the Black Watch, where I served as regimental historian. During that period, I penned a series of academic articles concerning the experiences of the 1st Battalion in 1944–45 and interviewed (formally and otherwise) most of the men quoted directly in this work. Many of those men went on to be lifelong friends, and as a fan of military history, I stood in awe of their courage and fortitude, but as a historian, I remained professionally distanced and detached, objective, questioning and critical. I made this distinction clear upfront and told them I was sworn to tell it as the evidence portrayed it, rather than simply as they saw it. To a man, they respected that caveat, and they responded openly and honestly—sometimes, as you will read in the pages, painfully so.

Sadly, all of these men are now gone, as the ravages of time wait for no man. For whatever reason, the snipers in the battalion’s scout platoon enjoyed greater longevity than their brethren in the rifle companies, and as such, their story began to dominate the Black Watch narrative, leading one rifleman to quip, “Bloody scouts think they won the damn war!” Indeed, the scouts were, as Corporal Jimmy “Hook” Wilkinson recalled, “the eyes and ears of the battalion,” and over time they had developed a distinct sense of themselves, in part due to their longevity, in part their unique, almost bohemian role in the battalion, but more importantly, the fact that they had come through the bloodbath on Verrières Ridge in that half-forgotten summer of 1944 and lived to tell their tales.

Memory, of course, is a fickle beast, and I have relied on their recollections primarily for tone and atmosphere, or to convey impressions or express their intensely personal experiences or inner thoughts. Any claims of fact that have an impact upon the overall narrative, I have cross-referenced with the archival record to verify historical accuracy and reduce the degree of bias associated with any historical venture.

To avoid a flood of repetitive references, all the direct quotations (unless otherwise noted) have come from these conversations. Some of these men, as you will notice, were enlightened, eloquent and highly educated; others, not so much. But all of them opened up in a straightforward fashion and entrusted with me their emotive recollections, which in some cases they had withheld from families or friends, awaiting the proper context for their unveiling.

I have also employed the narrative style; as a professor of history, I have taught in classrooms, on battlefields, on television and in monograph and journal form, and have not found any other vehicle that can deliver a multitude of complex, interlaced, nuanced and layered concepts in a simple (but never simplistic) fashion. In this respect, I have dared invoke the spirit of Cornelius Ryan and Stephen Ambrose, whose oral history tradition has thrilled and captivated millions over the last five decades, though I have anchored my work in a deep and thorough corpus of research whose scope remains both broad and deep, and provides evidence that organically shocks, amazes, electrifies and magnetizes the public conscience. What has evolved in this work, and has been the main constant throughout my career in history, is that truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.

My view on military history falls in line with that of the pre-eminent military thinker and historian Sir Basil Liddell-Hart, who believed that military history should never fall into the realm of the “sentimental treasure,” where our understanding and engagement are limited to an annual polishing of our national historical trophies. Ideally, history should, through the engagement of unsettling facts, teach us about those hard-earned experiences so that we may develop an understanding and, above all, empathy for those who went before us. This is the main focus of the book.

As such, themes of heroism, courage, determination, resilience and friendship walk hand in hand with cowardice, frailty, chaos and horror throughout the following narrative. I have made a point of not sugar-coating what befell these men in July 1944. Telling their story in an unvarnished fashion was the only option, given their openness and honesty; the only way to justly honour their memory.

With that said, on the one hand, I stand in awe of what these men endured, and they have my undying respect; on the other, I do not wish for one second to see my children bear what they had to. After all, if we cannot learn and draw from history—particularly military history—then what is the point?

Perhaps the first word in this work should go to Hook Wilkinson, who for decades was a stalwart at every Black Watch regimental function, from parades to battlefield pilgrimages, funerals, mess dinners and veteran association gatherings. Over that time, his stories poured forth—some true, some embellished and oft-repeated, leading most to politely chalk up his claim as “the best shot in the regiment” to visions of glory distorted by time. “I’m sure you were, Jimmy” or “Wow, that’s great, Jim” tended to be the polite yet all too patronizing response to his boast.

Then, in 2015, while filming the documentary Black Watch Snipers with Yap Films for History Television, our brilliant director Robin Bicknell had a creative brainstorm: Why not gather up the surviving Black Watch snipers and take them to a range to reunite them with their best friend, their Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mark I sniper rifle, for a day of target practice?

Three of the four remaining Back Watch snipers agreed to participate, including Hook Wilkinson, but one remained steadfast in a vow he made when the war ended to give up the killing, dying and misery of war, and to never touch a weapon of any kind again. Seven decades later, he remained true to his word.

However, at the age of ninety-two, and not having touched the Lee-Enfield since he left the army seven decades earlier, Hook took aim and proceeded to put the entire clip down range in less than a dozen seconds, packing four out of his five rounds together in a tight two-inch grouping at a distance of one hundred yards. His performance brought the crowd at the range to stunned silence. The old boy still had it, and nobody dared dismiss his claims out of hand again.





Introduction

VERRIÈRES RIDGE, NORMANDY, JULY 25, 1944, 0930 HOURS—H-HOUR

NONE OF THE MEN IN THE 1ST BATTALION OF Canada’s Black Watch had seen the sun for a week when it pierced through a thin veil of overcast to beat down upon their position at the foot of Verrières Ridge. As they quickly surmised, its warm rays did little more than taunt and torment, for nothing could relieve the tension and gut-gnawing dread that had ballooned during their week-long baptism of fire that now reached its crescendo.

Each of the 320 hollow-eyed, grimy and grim Highlanders, all that remained of four battered rifle companies, sat, knelt or crouched in a muddied, vacant beet field, waiting for the next move. Their heavy woollen battledress, smeared with mud, plaster dust, ash and splatters of blood, sported sweat-soaked armpits, groins and necklines that bore witness to their week-long macabre dance with the unholy trinity of sweltering heat, intense combat and waves of soul-destroying fear and anxiety.

Having learned to take nothing for granted in the moments before battle, some of the men fumbled with buttoned flies or webbed belts to relieve themselves from what the ancient Greeks termed “watery bowels,” while others chose to suck back a freshly rolled cigarette or wolf down a slice of hardtack, washed down with a hidden stash of rum, to help steady overly taut nerves. Men of a more religious bent silently muttered prayers or fondled rosary beads, while those suffering from the vagaries of crushing fatigue built up over the last seven days sat despondent and stone-faced, staring aimlessly into a swath of flaxen-coloured wheat fifty or so yards ahead. Racked by fatigue that clouded minds, impaired judgment and left them ragged and sapped of strength, some toyed with trading near-paralytic exhaustion for death.

The northern slope of Verrières Ridge, coated now with thick, tall wheat standing shoulder high, rose from beyond a curtain of grain. Shimmering impressively in the prevailing breeze, it accentuated the long, slow and gentle slope that led to the main line of German resistance concealed behind its crest.

In the wake of the four Black Watch rifle companies priming for the second phase of Operation Spring, the largest Canadian Army set-piece attack since Vimy Ridge a generation earlier, lay the battle-scarred artifacts that chronicled the latest chapter of Canada’s most storied regiment.

A thousand yards behind sat Hill 61, a slight rise that the Black Watch called home for four gruelling days and nights. Littered with singed wheat, smashed vehicles and hundreds of abandoned slit trenches, the pitted and scarred landscape testified to the constant cascade of shells unleashed by two rival armies locked in desperate battle. Sitting exposed to enemy observation, they dodged constant German sniper fire and the thunder of rocket, mortar and artillery shells that crashed down in torrents of white-hot steel and high explosive while fending off enemy patrols that used the blanket of wheat as cover to infiltrate their lines by day and by night.

They took the pounding devoid of sleep, hot food and rum they sorely needed to steady rapidly fraying nerves. All the while they watched comrades die, collapse or disappear, irretrievably swallowed by the dirt and the grain, or consumed by imploded psyches.

In the shallow valley at the foot of Hill 61, spiralling columns of smoke eddied up from the ghostlike ruins of the conjoined towns of St. André and St. Martin. The mining and farming community, which had stood for centuries, devastated over the previous week by massive artillery stonks and close combat encounters, sat rubbled, strewn with debris and the unburied dead. Periodically, muffled explosions from unattended fires erupted, punctuating the strange, almost serene calm that befell the beet field, a development that seemed far out of step with the corps-wide battle raging across the entire front.

Off to their immediate right stood a small cluster of industrial buildings that the locals now call Cité de la Mine. Oblivious to the existence of a 1,200-foot shaft that burrowed down to the iron deposits far below Verrières, the men in the Black Watch had mistaken it for nothing more than a factory until it gave up its secrets when they had passed through moments earlier. Smouldering now from a liberal dousing of white phosphorus grenades and fistfuls of Composition C crammed into ventilation ducts and pithead openings, the corrugated steel and tin structure displayed ominous traces of the Highlanders’ wrath. Wall panels and sidings that once flashed in the sunlight stood scorched and blackened, riddled with bullet holes and pockmarked by shrapnel. Doors and window frames hung limply, ripped from their hinges by blasts that left mounds of shattered glass glinting in the sun, guide ropes severed, skips alight and trolleys overturned. In almost every corner, dead and dying German grenadiers, unable to escape to burrows underground, lay slumped in grotesque attitudes on conveyor belts and refuse heaps, while others dangled from power pylons atop the thirty-foot-high tipple used to load the iron deposits.

Not a single man spoke in the beet field—or if they did, nobody remembered. Nightmares festering from the recent fighting bubbled to the surface and clashed headlong with their bid to husband whatever fumes of courage remained for their final assault. They wondered in the back of their minds if the attack would indeed go on. After a series of nasty surprises and fatal encounters with the Germans in St. Martin, the battalion was now four hours behind the schedule of the tightly timed corps plan, which left the men in a most unenviable predicament. Instead of pushing up the wide-open slopes of Verrières in the haze of the pre-dawn light, they now faced the unnerving prospect of a matinee performance.

The nature of their objective, lying just over a mile on a straight line through the wheat field ahead, weighed heavily on their minds. Tucked into the reverse slope of Verrières, only a handful of the men knew the town by name, and fewer cared. All the villages south of the Norman capital of Caen featured fieldstone houses ringed by high dirt mounds crowned with dense hedges and thickets, all converted over the previous ten days into potent fortresses brimming with automatic weapons and anti-tank guns supported by artillery, rockets, mortars and battle groups (Kampfgruppen) from elite panzer divisions. With the capture of this village considered vital for the success of the entire corps plan, the men in the Black Watch harboured no doubts that its fanatical defenders would fight tooth and nail to hold out at all costs.

Getting to their objective, however, was their immediate problem. As with previous attacks that week, they expected to have a squadron of Sherman tanks in support, which would pepper the objective with direct fire while the artillery dropped an indirect curtain of steel and high explosive fifty yards ahead of their position, steadily creeping forward as they advanced. Smoke would shroud the battlefield in a great, thick mist to their right, cutting off enemy observation from the heights across the Orne River to the west. But as H-hour arrived, none of these elements so crucial for success had materialized.

Undaunted, the acting commanding officer waved his right arm and 320 men rose to their feet in unison like a fleet weighing anchor. Following a slight pause, the mass of soldiery lurched forward on his cry of “Black Watch advance” and embarked upon the most contentious chapter in their regiment’s long and storied history.

Clomping through the mud with rifles across their chests at the ready and bayonets fixed, the Highlanders momentarily dipped into the sea of wheat and discovered the going more trying than first imagined. Rationing in England had prohibited training in this type of terrain, and although they had had a brief taste earlier in the week, it proved nothing compared with the almost labyrinthine world they now entered, with command and control reduced to a limited series of verbal cues.

Cutting telltale paths into the grain as they bounded up the northern slope of Verrières, the Highlanders continued to move slowly up the gentle rise that in centuries past had hosted the armies of William the Conqueror and King Henry V, but now masked a more sinister horde. Spread out in a loose configuration and carefully concealed in slit trenches and skilfully placed weapons pits, Wehrmacht and SS panzer-grenadiers, snipers, machine guns, panzers and anti-tank guns, from some of the best units Hitler still had to offer, waited patiently, baiting their quarry into a carefully crafted killing field.

To a man, each of the 320 Highlanders wading up the slope came from the ranks of the citizen-soldier, men who volunteered for service and left the relative safety of their homes to cross an ocean to fight someone else’s war. Although known as a Montreal regiment, one-third of the men heading towards their destiny on the ridge came from all parts of Canada, the British Isles and Nazi-occupied Europe, and included a contingent of Americans who had arrived before Pearl Harbor to ensure that they got in on the action.

Slogging steadily through the wheat, prairie boys, longshoremen and lumberjacks strode side by side with men from the working and middle classes, the wealthy and the powerful. Former bookkeepers, truck drivers, bartenders, machine-shop fitters and general labourers joined with saints, sinners and rogues. Caucasian, African Canadians and First Nations men moving seamlessly with Jews and gentiles, communists and socialists, capitalists, conservatives and liberals. Shepherded by captains of industry, college athletes, lawyers, stockbrokers and private-school prefects, the men maintained an unyielding faith and obedience to authority underscored by their devotion to principle, duty, friendship and the ironclad concept of “regiment”; all now set for bonding and branding by Verrières Ridge.

Plowing through a horseshoe-shaped draw under enemy observation from the centre and both flanks, only the hushed snick snick of German sniper bullets cutting through the thick stalks met the advance. On occasion, deafening clanks signalled that they had found their mark, while the growl from section commanders and platoon sergeants to “keep together” rose above the clamour of the shuffling and the cursing.

Fifty yards into the field, the feathery whine and muffled crumps announced the arrival of mortar-ranging shots falling behind the trailing rifle companies. Soon a screen of high explosive and white-hot shrapnel arrived, erasing any notion of escape or withdrawal. In quick succession, German artillery observers, dug in on the crest and the heights across the Orne River valley, zeroed in on the ten-foot whip antennas of the battalion’s wireless sets, waving madly above the wheat. In quick succession, the crackle of wireless traffic ceased as German mortar shells found their mark. With communications cut, the men in the Black Watch could not have been more alone.

A hundred yards into their advance, German machine guns, sitting snugly in camouflaged hides lining the flanks as well as up on the ridge, barked to life. Firing on fixed lines, their bright green-and-yellow tracer ripped into the field from three sides, cutting deadly swaths into the wheat with scythe-like precision, their searing-hot rounds tearing flesh, tissue and tendons, leaving organs and bones shattered. The Highlanders, devoid of cover, bobbed and weaved in the chest-high grain, desperately seeking any channel to avoid the accurate and deadly German fire pouring down, each man hoping not to draw the short straw in this morbid game of “fate or luck.”

One by one, however, the men started to fall, swallowed by the wheat that reduced command and control to almost nil. The cadence of the few officers and NCOs still left on their feet, once calm and firm, now rose sharply with an increased sense of urgency. With no hope of stopping, of withdrawal or of mercy, they could only continue to chide: “Stay in step! Keep it together! Keep moving, men; keep moving forward!”

Any trepidation built up in the moments before the attack had vanished, replaced now by a scorching rush of adrenalin injected into ever-tightening veins. With their hearts now racing, throats burning and the near-deafening tone of carotid arteries pounding in their ears, only the cries from the wounded and the dying rose above the racket. Once smooth and controlled, their collective glide hastened in pace, turning rapidly into a frantic gallop as they slammed headlong into the German picket halfway up the ridge. Hidden beneath the grain, any defender naive enough to offer surrender received no quarter when the Highlanders overran their slits.

German rocket and heavy artillery fire joined the choir just yards from the crest, and a hurricane of steel and fire greeted the mass of humanity scurrying through the wheat. The normally pleasant scent of petrichor, kicked up from the soggy soil with each blast, mixed paradoxically with the bleach-like stench of cordite, the charcoal-like smell of singed flesh and the sulphuric stink of melted hair. With every step, the ground shook; bodies and body parts flew in all directions, striking those still pushing forward up the ridge.

The only reward for the intrepid Highlanders who reached the crest came in the form of elite panzers and Panzergrenadiers who opened fire at point-blank range. Within seconds, shredded bowels and punctured bladders unleashed the pungent, metallic scent of blood and the rancid pong of feces and urine. From beneath the grain, earth-curdling screeches from the wounded and dying, calling out in vain for a medic, a stretcher-bearer or their mothers. In short order, cries turned to whimpers and then, mercifully, irreversible silence.

Drenched in sweat and wild-eyed with rage and terror, the Highlanders who were still on their feet continued to press through the withering fire and the carnage, spurred on by desperate “do or die” calls from their acting commanding officer, whose repeated pleas to push on rose above the cacophony. “C’mon, men! Keep moving! We can reach the objective.”





1

La Voie Sacrée

We have been inspected by General Eisenhower and General Foulkes lately. General Foulkes said that we might be home by Christmas—if we do a good forceful job—hope he is right. Optimism is abundant over here, but it is tempered by cold, calculating logic and the determination to hit hard and well.

—LETTER FROM LIEUTENANT COLONEL S.S.T. CANTLIE TO COLONEL PAUL P. HUTCHISON

TO PRIVATE MIKE BRUNNER, THE ENGLISH CHANNEL off Juno Beach seemed “busier than Montreal’s Ste. Catherine Street on a Saturday night.” Perched along the rail of the Landing Ship Infantry Isle of Guernsey and saddled next to his fellow scouts from the 1st Battalion of Canada’s Black Watch, the twenty-one-year-old, saggy-eyed sniper stood gobsmacked by the sheer magnitude of the spectacle. No photograph, newspaper article or embroidered news report could justly articulate the scene.

One month to the day after one of the greatest amphibious forces in history crashed ashore on five invasion beaches along the Normandy coast of France, close to a million American, British, French and Canadian troops serving under British general Bernard Law Montgomery’s 21st Army Group stood locked in desperate battle with over 400,000 of their German foe. Under the overall command of the Allied supreme commander, American general Dwight David Eisenhower, Montgomery’s multinational force formed the tip of the spear in what he coined an Allied “Crusade in Europe.”

Entirely sober to the far-reaching gravity of his mission, “Ike,” as the men called Eisenhower, had told the Black Watch just weeks before that he had planned the invasion of Europe without any alternative, save ultimate victory. The vista now on display from the deck of the Isle of Guernsey did little to belie his vow.1

Hundreds of destroyers, frigates, patrol boats and trawlers, all painted in a multitude of camouflage schemes, ran frantic search patterns for U-boats that threatened the endless collection of vulnerable Allied Liberty ships queued to deliver their consignments ashore. Each of these vessels sprouted barrage balloons tethered to their sterns to thwart German low-level air attack. They sat low-slung in the water, full with food, vehicles, tanks, guns and ordnance of all calibres destined for the front line, twelve miles inland from the Juno Beach sector.

Flanked as usual by the Wilkinson brothers, Brunner and his best friend, Private Dale Sharpe, observed the massive logistical tail of the greatest invasion force ever assembled. With each ship anchored tightly together, it appeared to Brunner that, given a chance, “a man could run the entire length of the landing zone without once touching water or sand.” In sharp contrast, scores of smaller tenders and amphibious vehicles scurried about, shuffling material from ship to shore with worker-bee determination while cranes on makeshift jetties swivelled unendingly to offload equipment and supplies.

Peering through the detached sniper scopes of their Lee-Enfield rifles, which they kept tucked into the bulging pockets of their camouflaged sniper smocks, Brunner and Sharpe could make out endless winding columns of diesel-belching trucks, tanks, carriers and jeeps queued behind bulldozers, busily carving escape paths through the dunes. Marching on each side, men from the Calgary Highlanders and Régiment de Maisonneuve, who were brigaded with the Black Watch in the 2nd Canadian Division’s 5th Brigade, trudged forward, conforming to shrill blasts from the beach master’s whistle. Long lines of dishevelled and dejected German prisoners of war under armed guard snaked their way along the smooth sand towards a collection of makeshift barbed-wire enclosures.

The British battleship HMS Rodney, at station not far from the shoreline, set the backbeat for this display, unleashing thunderous salvos from its nine 16-inch naval guns at regular intervals, flinging mammoth high-explosive shells towards German lines just north of the Norman capital of Caen.

High above the beach on this crystal-clear day, the scouts spotted all types of Allied aircraft, suitably painted with broad black-and-white invasion stripes for easy identification, soaring at a multitude of levels on an equal number of missions. White contrails from the supercharged engines of heavy bombers, barely visible at 20,000 feet, left telltale signs that an unsuspecting German city had only hours to spare before it reaped the whirlwind from a mixture of blockbuster and incendiary bombs.

German retaliation came in the form of Hitler’s latest vengeance weapon unveiled after D-Day: the pilotless V-1 flying bomb, dubbed the “buzz bomb,” “doodlebug” or “robot bomb” by the Allied press due to the drone of its rocket engine. A V-1 would periodically glide past at 3,000 feet on course for England, with a pair of Royal Air Force fighters in pursuit, aiming to catch and kill the missile before it struck the London area.

Directly above the beach, at 10,000 feet, squadrons of rocket-firing Typhoon fighter-bombers from British and Canadian squadrons circled and soared, ready to pounce on German panzer columns, artillery positions, trains, bridges and supply dumps—anything that would help the Allied advance or hinder the German ability to rush reinforcements to their ever-congealing front line. For Corporal Jimmy “Hook” Wilkinson, nothing proved more exhilarating than the violent lurch forward of each plane as it dove on its prey with engines whining and rockets screaming. As each aircraft disappeared below the horizon, the scouts engaged in a bluster of speculative comment about the results of these hawk-like endeavours. Soon the reappearance of the Typhoons, roaring past at what seemed a yard or two above the field of barrage balloons, told the tale. Each sported empty rocket rails and clean-sounding engines that testified to their successful escape from German flak guns liberally distributed across the area. Much to the delight of the scouts, one cocky and confident pilot wagged his wings as he raced past overhead, on his way to a newly minted grass landing strip to rearm, refuel and return later that day.

Brunner, awestruck and frozen by the spectacle, struggled to find the words to articulate his raw emotions but knew full well that he and his Black Watch mates now stood at the precipice of history. After four long and tedious years on defensive duty in southeastern England, punctuated only by the disastrous Dieppe raid in 1942 and the odd barroom dust-up with rival units in the 5th Canadian Infantry Brigade, their time to “get at ’em” had finally arrived.

No sooner, however, had this schoolboy excitement erupted than Sharpe spotted a pocket of debris kicking up in the backwash off the port quarter. Hook Wilkinson, having returned to the rail at Sharpe’s request, took in the spectacle floating atop the Delft-hued surf. Empty ammunition boxes, canvas tenting, wooden crates, discarded margarine and bully beef tins, torn battledress tunics and other trappings of war drifted slowly past, all victims of the ferocious battle ashore and a mighty gale-force tempest that had pounded the invasion beaches two weeks earlier.

Soon, large splinters from wood timbers cloaked with seaweed and draped with shards of discarded fabric bubbled to the surface. Hook noticed the carcass of a dead mongrel, followed by one distinctly human in form. Still intact despite grotesque bloating, it was anyone’s guess whether this soldier was friend or foe. The cadaver scratched the camouflaged hull and permanently dipped beneath the waves. It took concussive salvos from the guns of the Rodney and the equally jarring, high-pitched howl of their platoon sergeant, Bernard “Barney” Benson, to shake the scouts loose from their morbid daze and return them to the job at hand.

The exhilaration and trepidation of the Juno Beach sector and its parallel with Montreal’s main drag struck a primal chord in Brunner, who had spent many nights staring at the pulsating glow of its neon lights blanketing the ceiling of the family’s overcrowded flat in the city’s Chinatown district. The draw of the strip’s trolley cars, taxicabs, cinemas, diners and five-and-dimes adorned with glowing signs advertising Sweet Caporal cigarettes paled in comparison with the intimidating nature of its pool halls, lounges, nightclubs, brothels and gaggles of working girls planted on each corner.

The oldest of five children, Brunner spoke little more than a rural dialect of German when his family arrived in Canada following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He found it difficult to fit into a neighbourhood where he would hear Cantonese as often as English, Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Yiddish or joual, the incumbent Quebecois French slang endemic to working-class Montreal.

The Great Depression robbed Brunner, as it did most men in the ranks of the Black Watch, of his secondary education, which he reluctantly forfeited to help his family survive. After toiling as a delivery boy and then as a collection agent for a garment factory in Montreal’s usually vibrant shmatte trade, he worked for two years in a brush factory close to the Black Watch Armoury, earning less than fifty cents per hour. Brunner, thoroughly fed up with his predicament, enlisted in the army in the fall of 1942 but balked at joining the Black Watch, fearing he would not make it in such an elite regiment. Instead, seduced by an article in Maclean’s magazine, the “short, stocky” candidate, who the recruiting officer noted possessed a “friendly, but rather unimpressive personality,” joined the Canadian Parachute Battalion.2

Within a year, his dream of earning his jump wings and distinctive maroon beret ended when he suffered a punctured eardrum in training, which prompted a transfer, by chance, to the Black Watch. Now, as Brunner sucked back one last smoke and readied his pack for disembarkation, he quietly relished the irony of the move; once derided for his accent and bastardized German, his linguistic skills now made him indispensable to the scout platoon for translation and interrogation.

UNLIKE BRUNNER, THE WILKINSON BROTHERS HAD COME of age on separate paths on the “strip” in Montreal. Raised, like many men in the ranks of the Black Watch, in an English-speaking, working-class neighbourhood, the Wilkinson brothers came from Verdun, a rough, predominantly Irish borough that shared its name with the horrific bloodbath in France during their father’s Great War.

Verdun, a spiritual and romantic symbol of French defiance and sacrifice, also served as the anvil that tested and tempered manhood. If a young man had not journeyed up the Voie Sacrée (the Sacred Way) that led to the frontline trenches to be baptized by the crimson waves of blood in this meat-grinder battle of attrition, then somehow he had failed, not only as a Frenchman, but more importantly, as a man. By extension, although never presented in such melodramatic prose, if as a Canadian one had not weathered a similar purgatorial rite of passage at Ypres, the Somme or Passchendaele, or stood atop the holy mount of Vimy Ridge, he somehow remained unproven and, to some, unworthy.

Short of combat, pilgrimages to and from the strip provided the Wilkinson brothers with a personal Voie Sacrée where they navigated perilous channels of cheap booze, gambling, petty crime and the ever-present spectre of destitution.

When war came in the summer of 1939, Jim Wilkinson viewed it as his contemporaries did, as salvation from the Depression. His mother, however, like most mothers, did not see it quite that way. His enlistment in 1940, followed a year later by his brother’s, brought her waves of anguish and a sense of premature loss. Despite her vehement and passionate protests, their father said little. The son of a Boer War veteran himself, Old Man Wilkinson had suffered horribly in the trenches from a gas attack in the Great War, which left him with chronic blistering and a fatalistic outlook on life. When Hook enlisted, his father offered no words of wisdom, nor sage advice. “He knew exactly where I was heading and what the situation would be,” Hook lamented, “but all he said was ‘good luck.’”

Perhaps sensing that nothing he said would change their minds, let alone adequately prepare them for what lay ahead, Old Man Wilkinson, like his father before him, quietly passed the torch and watched his boys embark on their tortuous journey towards manhood.

The reasons young men such as Brunner, the Wilkinson brothers, Dale Sharpe and hundreds of thousands of others in Canada volunteered to fight proved complex and multi-faceted. Traditionally, sense of duty and desire for adventure topped the list, but for many young men gripped by the economic woes of the Dirty Thirties, it offered a steady job—and, as Brunner put it, one that “needed to be done.”

For Hook Wilkinson, who drew upon his father’s hatred for the Hun, it came down to principle. “It wasn’t a pleasant situation,” he declared, “we were fighting a people who were killing babies and old people and putting them into slave labour camps.”

Dale Sharpe, a twenty-six-year-old father of three from Belleville, Ontario, had other reasons for enlisting. Pragmatism, interlaced with a sense of duty, motivated him. With the provisions of the National Resources Mobilization Act in full swing, he reckoned it would not be long before full-fledged conscription compelled him to leave his job as a truck driver, and he decided to beat the government to the punch. In the fall of 1943, he reluctantly enlisted and left his wife, June, to explain to their young children that their father, like many other fathers, had gone off to work but would be home as soon as the job was done.

Underlining their practical, romantic or principled reasons for answering the call, many men sensed their world around them had slipped into an abyss socially, morally and economically. Ill-equipped to understand the nuanced elements of this existential crisis, let alone articulate them, they nonetheless felt that the seductive draw of service to one’s country, and the promise it offered, was the elixir for their woes. Joining an elite and exclusive club like the Black Watch also helped, for its ironclad structure and purpose elevated their sagging pride and masculinity, much needed in an era of intellectual, ideological and cultural poverty. Joining the Black Watch guaranteed three square meals a day and a steady source of honest money, and they could signal their virility with the sharp cut and flash of their distinctive and most manly Scottish Highland uniform.

Comprising the distinctive government tartan kilt, khaki tunic and striking red hackle—a feathered regimental battle honour perched askew on their balmoral headdress—the uniform restored, unbeknownst to them, an aspect of their masculinity the Depression had usurped. Their uniform was the symbol of belonging and represented a place where they fit in and found respect. Indeed, the Black Watch provided the surrogate family they longed for, and as a result they struck an unwritten social contract: in exchange for respect and salvation, they would give their minds, bodies and, if necessary, young lives for the sake of the country and, perhaps more importantly, the regiment. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before men like Hook Wilkinson would be found boasting in the mess after a few cold ones that his “body did not carry normal blood,” but rather, “Black Watch blood.”

Jimmy Wilkinson earned the sobriquet “Hook” the moment he joined the Black Watch in part for the prominent proboscis planted firmly in the centre of his face, but also for its bowed angle, the result of a nasty hockey injury that required twenty-five stitches to close.

By the time he arrived off Juno Beach, Hook, now twenty-three, had five years of military service behind him and had risen to the rank of corporal. The self-proclaimed crack shot of the regiment—thoroughly backed by top marks in a pair of sniper courses—Hook was a natural for the new scout platoon when it formed in early February of 1944. In short order, he became the right-hand man of Barney Benson, the scout platoon sergeant, tasked with canvassing the unit for suitable candidates.

Scouts and snipers had long been part of the order of battle with infantry battalions since the days before the Great War. Traditionally, the scout/sniper was merely the company’s best shot, who roamed the battlefield employing his deadly arts in ad hoc fashion. But the exceedingly effective and coordinated German sniper effort in North Africa and Italy, which created a degree of despondency, confusion and paralysis far disproportionate to their numbers, prompted a fundamental shift in Allied thinking.

In early 1944, the British and Canadian armies sought a more professional approach to rival the Germans, and that manifested itself in the creation of a dedicated scout platoon for infantry battalions. Carved out of the existing establishment, the newly crafted Black Watch scout platoon that Hook and Benson cobbled together had the dual role of scouting and sniping. The original cadre called for a platoon of thirty men, with twenty trained as scouts and the other ten qualified as snipers. By the time the Black Watch set foot in Normandy, only twenty-two had made the stringent cut, but of these, all but two had qualified as both scouts and snipers.

Their main job consisted of patrolling by day and night and conducting reconnaissance, listening and liaison patrols, all of which came with their inherent dangers. Infiltrating enemy territory was never easy, and the constant stress associated with dodging enemy sentries, patrols, land mines and even their own trigger-happy sentries upon return weighed heavily. At times, the scouts would also undertake highly dangerous fighting patrols and advanced guard work when the battalion was on the attack or consolidating newly won ground. Here, they operated as sentinels—or human tripwires, as Wilkinson put it—pushing out in front of the lead companies to stir up trouble, forcing the enemy’s hand and nullifying surprise and limiting casualties to the rest of the battalion. As Hook saw it, “We were the ears, eyes and nose of the battalion. It was our business to get as much information as possible and keep the commanding officer informed.” As such, they entered into a close collaboration with company and platoon commanders, the intelligence section of battalion and brigade headquarters, and the scouts became, as Hook noted, “the proverbial flies on the wall” when plans took shape and decisions came down.

Unlike German snipers, who roamed the battlefields as lone wolves, the Canadians worked in teams while patrolling and sniping. Taught to emulate the shikaris of India, the hunters of the European forests or trappers of the Canadian north, all of whom pitted themselves against wild animals, they strove to combine the art of the hunter with the “wiles of a poacher” underscored by steadfast determination to hunt down the enemy and kill him with one round.3

Although the army honed the soldiers’ skills to stalk and kill, they paid little attention to their ability to cope. Most of the snipers couched the fruits of their deadly vocation in terms of a necessary evil generated by the grander scheme of war. None of the snipers in the Black Watch made soldiering a career; all had been peaceful and normally law-abiding citizens before the war who had had parts of their humanity stripped away by basic training that refashioned them to soldier, to fight and to kill. At first, the army expected it would be harder for men from urban environments, unfamiliar with the harsh life of the rural recruit. They were wrong. Basic training, later amplified by their advanced sniper course, taught them how to suppress feelings of overt remorse, compassion, sympathy and pity—treating their job as a grand game—or purged them altogether. None, of course, expected that the hunter at times could also become the hunted.

To varying degrees, each man succumbed to the process of dehumanization designed to make it easier to pull the trigger and kill another human being. They never considered (at least in the moment) the man between their sights, whose life screeched abruptly to a halt following a bullet to the brain or heart—that he was somebody’s brother, father, son, friend or lover, possessing, as they did, hopes and dreams, fears and fantasies, compassion, creativity or empathy. He was “just a target” and one-dimensional. He did not possess a family or first name or even a unique identity; he was “the Hun,” “the Boche,” “Fritz,” “Heinie” or that “Nazi bastard,” and in no measure did he resemble them. In their minds, he was a beast, a murderer who had provoked killing in cold blood, which they saw as warranted, justified and ultimately forgiven. “After all,” as Hook put it bluntly, “he had it coming.”

The primary requirement for any of the snipers was the ability to shoot accurately. “You had to learn to group your shots,” Hook recalled. “If they’re spread all over the place, that means you’re a rotten shot and you don’t belong in the scouts.” To qualify, the candidate had to hit a man’s head at two hundred yards, or his torso at four hundred yards, with a grouping of five shots no wider than two and a half inches, nine times out of ten.

But it was more than pure marksmanship that made a prime scout or sniper. In addition to keen eyesight and night vision, a scout/sniper had to possess the right type of character to conduct operations of this nature. Given that the work was solitary, Hook found that the best candidates were men who liked to play alone or work in small groups, and all had “intelligence beyond the usual recruit; someone who could take the initiative, as you would be your own master in the field on many occasions.”

In theory, no terrain was off-limits for a scout/sniper, and they had to be ready to endure swamps and mosquito-infested forests, shallow streams, muddy shell holes, manure piles or any location that no person in their right mind would ever enter. At times, the prevailing conditions compelled them to live an animalistic existence, forced to urinate and defecate where they lay and suffer through extremes of cold and heat, hunger and thirst. To Hook, “patience was the name of the game.” They had to lie silent for hours on end, in the most uncomfortable and inhospitable hides, often surrounded and behind enemy lines. They chewed gum to tackle restlessness and popped “pep pills” (five-milligram Benzedrine tablets) or “confidence drugs” to stay awake. “We had rum or Scotch to keep us steady,” Hook recalled. “We were well stocked.”

To build up the platoon, Hook stayed close to home, combing his former rifle company for men he knew and could trust. One of the first he approached was Private Frank Balsis, a strapping and extremely aggressive twenty-two-year-old Lithuanian who passed his downtime in the boxing ring or reading detective novels. Quick with his fists, Balsis came as part of a package deal that also landed his sparring partner, the 2nd Canadian Division’s middleweight boxing champion, Private Harold Burden.

Hook skimmed off the company’s best shots, grabbing his mates Paul Welligan, Syd Ayling and Jackie Jack. Then he raided the other companies for their marksmen as well. In no time, he landed Privates Arthur Bowmaster, Bill Pugh and Bobby Williams, along with highly devout Lance Corporal Tommy Latham, whose kid brother Jim, an RCAF gunner, was killed in March over Nuremberg on his first bombing mission.

Benson found Brunner and Sharpe in C Company and later added the slight Charlie Lee, who, at just five foot one and 111 pounds, barely made the cut for the army. Small but alert and highly athletic, Lee, who had just turned twenty-two before he arrived in Normandy, was the only man in the scout platoon besides Barney Benson who spoke French fluently, and, like Brunner, became indispensable for liaison and reconnaissance.

The majority of the men recruited were in their early twenties and single, but there were exceptions. Lance Corporal Melvin Cameron was the old man of the platoon at age thirty, while Dale Sharpe was twenty-six. Private Fred Delutis, who recently celebrated his twenty-eighth birthday, arrived in Normandy just weeks after his wife and children had narrowly escaped death when a Liberator bomber en route to England from Canada crashed near their flat in the Griffintown district of Montreal, killing all aboard as well as eight of their unsuspecting neighbours on the ground.

In short order, Hook scooped up a diverse assortment of characters for the platoon—“all self-reliant, non-conformist types,” as he put it. “There was no doubt; we had our loners, our free-thinkers, and men with a will of their own—all who danced to their own tune.” What this collection of personalities had in common was the desire to hunt down the enemy and kill him, and either like doing so or learn to live with it. As Hook viewed it, “Sniping was not for everyone; in war, you need your heroes, but sometimes you just need your killers.”

THE ONE MAN HOOK AVOIDED, DESPITE HIS IMMENSE natural talent, was his kid brother George, who proved equally deadly with a scoped .303 Lee-Enfield. Saddled unimaginatively with the derivative moniker “Young Hook,” George was slightly taller and thinner, and unlike his brother boasted chiselled features. Despite their bloodline, they had an estranged relationship.

No matter what their age, the brothers never saw eye to eye, and the rancour continued throughout their time in the army. Hook was brash, severe and direct, with a penchant for self-righteousness; he was frightfully unforgiving of others for what he perceived to be their failings. In Jim’s opinion, his kid brother was the epitome of what he detested: an inconsiderate loner, carefree to the point of recklessness, and always on the hustle.

One of George’s redeeming features, however, and something Jim could not deny, was that he “had guts” and plenty of them, earned in the hard school of Montreal’s main drag. While Hook spent his hard-earned half-dollar catching a Canadiens hockey game at the Forum or a Royals baseball game at Delorimier Downs, the collection of matchboxes the roguish-looking George hoarded testified to his cavorting in the nightclubs and pool halls that his brother scorned, and which men like Mike Brunner proved too impoverished and timid to enter.

Hook’s hesitation stemmed from his belief that his brother’s “guts” would translate into “fool’s courage” once the fighting started. Dreading the moment their mother’s heart would shatter upon learning that George had caught one in battle—a victim, no doubt, of a self-centred and impulsive misadventure—Hook had no desire to take on the weighty responsibility of policing his kid brother. To assuage any guilt, Hook protested vehemently to Benson, then to the scout platoon commander, Lieutenant Stan Duffield, and finally to the support company commander, Captain Ronnie Bennett, to have his brother sent back to his rifle company after Sergeant Tommy Garvin snapped up Young Hook for the scout platoon just before D-Day. His gripe went for naught, but after arguing that he wanted to spare his mother from a crushing “Sullivan brothers” scenario should both brothers die on the same patrol, Hook wrestled a gentlemen’s agreement out of the battalion that forbade the brothers from working together in the field.

Despite Hook’s misgivings, George quickly took to army life in a way few expected. After two years in uniform, he had developed an affinity for roughing it in the outdoors and genuine respect for the hard-slogging nature of life in the PBI—the poor bloody infantry. More surprising, perhaps, was his vow that when the war was over, he would leave the city and flee to some unnamed spot in northern Canada to cut his path as a fur trapper for the Hudson’s Bay Company. As for what he thought about his brother’s opinion of him? George really could not care less.

IMMEDIATELY UPON FORMATION, THE SCOUTS BEGAN TO tout themselves as an elite unit within the framework of the Black Watch. In their minds, they had come from the best platoon in the 1st Battalion and had siphoned off the top shots in the other companies to form an all-star squad. “As soon as they formed,” recalled Corporal Gordy Donald from A Company, “they strutted around as though they’d won the bloody war!”

Bravado, hubris and arrogance were indeed par for the course, given the nature of their job, but not every Highlander who joined the platoon came with a stellar pedigree. Some company commanders proved unwilling to part with their best men and instead pawned off the ill-disciplined, the malcontented and those who, for whatever reason, did not fit into the tightly woven fabric of a frontline rifle company.

One of the first offered up was the notoriously clumsy Private Alex Duncan, plagued by a short attention span and a long series of gaffes on his record. The last straw came when he bounced a live grenade off the sill of an open window during a training exercise that not only exploded in his face but nearly exterminated his entire section. Left with nothing more than a permanent twitch in his left eye, the hapless Duncan found himself transferred to the scout platoon before his discharge from the aid station.

Another prime candidate was Private Kenneth Giviens, who matched Hook step for step as the battalion’s best shot. Giviens was a star high-school running back from upstate New York who had turned down a university football scholarship to come north and join the Canadian Army before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Brimming with “piss and vinegar,” as Hook put it, and most eager to get into battle, the static nature of defensive duties assigned to the Black Watch in England did not sit well with the feisty Giviens. On the same day that the orders arrived to organize the scout platoon, a field general court-martial handed the serial truant a six-month sentence to military prison for going absent without leave nearly ten times in less than two years, meaning he could not join the battalion until August at the earliest.

Not everyone Wilkinson approached had the right makeup to become a scout, however. Recalling accounts of Francis Pegahmagabow, the legendary Canadian sniper of the Great War credited with 378 kills on the Western Front, coupled with Dale Sharpe’s tales of hunting with the Tyendinaga from the Napanee area, Hook decided to recruit every “Indian” he could find, expecting them to be naturals for the scout platoon.

What he found instead was Private Carmen Barnhardt, a Mohawk band member from the Six Nations Reserve in Caledonia, Ontario. Of medium size but powerfully built, the former truck driver and aspiring violin virtuoso appeared the perfect candidate, until Hook quickly discovered the hollow nature of his racially inspired assumption. Barnhardt, although highly skilled with a two-inch mortar, possessed horrible eyesight and a permanent twitch in his neck and the fingers of his right hand, the result of a childhood febrile attack that made pinpoint aiming of any rifle impossible under the best conditions. Thwarted in his effort, Hook could only lament, “He could fire a mortar and play a mean fiddle, but Hell knows he couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn at ten paces.”

ALTHOUGH THE SCOUT PLATOON SERVED ALONGSIDE THE mortar, pioneer, carrier and anti-tank platoons as part of the specialized support company under the command of Captain Ronnie Bennett, from its inception it developed a distinct subculture within the battalion. Part of this phenomenon had to do with its assigned role, which proved much more individualistic than life in the traditional rifle company. Working as they did in small groups, and usually at all hours of the day, the scouts were always on call, whether the battle raged or not. As a result, strict attention to discipline and deportment, two hallmarks of the Black Watch, tended to slacken to counterbalance the constant fatigue and stress. “The scouts lived a bohemian existence,” remembered Gordy Donald. “They dressed differently, used different equipment, shaved their heads and played by their own rules; they even had their own cook!”

The pillars of the scouts’ identity came in part with their job description, but also with their uniform and equipment, which separated them from the men in the rifle companies. The first was their much-coveted Denison smock, camouflaged with swaths of maroon, light-brown and drab paint. Initially designed for British and Canadian paratroopers, the heavy twill garment was warm and wind-resistant, and was intended to be worn over equipment to prevent interference with a parachute harness during a drop. The sniper’s variant came with specialized pockets to squirrel away emergency rations, water, Benzedrine inhalers, field dressing and a morphine ampoule, folded maps, compass, sketchbook and grease pencils. The snipers also carried their stock of ammunition: fifty rounds of ordinary “ball,” five of tracer and five of armour-piercing.

The tent-sized smock tended to swamp the average-sized man, but the opposite held for Dale Sharpe, whom Hook characterized as a “Big Fella—wide as a bull and strong as one too.” Sharpe stood close to six feet and carried two hundred pounds of tightly packed muscle on a frame of sizable girth. Few could forget how snugly the smock fit over Sharpe’s shoulders and biceps. Impressed with Sharpe’s obvious brute strength, Brunner chalked him up as “a guy you would . . . follow anywhere.”

The scouts also displayed a penchant for bladed weapons and carried both their standard-issue Lee-Enfield bayonets and either a commando-style Fairbairn-Sykes knife or a Nepalese Gurkha kukri, if they could get their hands on one from the black market, or win one by rolling dice or playing poker.

Their heads were cleanly shorn, against tradition in a regiment that prided itself on being clean-shaven and immaculately groomed. Unlike the famous Mohawk cuts of the American 101st Airborne Division (the Screaming Eagles), who donned them as symbols of virility and martial prowess, the Black Watch scouts did so out of pure practicality, to accommodate the mesh veil that covered their heads and faces while on patrol or in a sniper hide. The scouts pulled the veils, made of mesh spaced just wide enough to permit a view of the ground ahead while maintaining concealment, over their faces and shoulders to eliminate the sheen from their cheeks, chin and forehead and to break the sharp lines of the body to help them blend into the natural surroundings. Doubling as a battle scarf, it provided extra warmth in chilly weather and blocked out choking clouds of diesel and dust, the stench of death on the battlefield or the noxious fumes found in a heavily frequented latrine. When not in use, the scouts tucked it up under the helmet, but as Brunner and his mates soon discovered, its extra warmth necessitated that they “keep clean and cool,” and so the clippers came out. These ingenious garments became the scout platoon’s unofficial tribal headdress, much to the delight of Dale Sharpe, whose helmet brought on chronic, blinding migraines, and to army photographers constantly trolling for fresh story angles in a sea of olive-drab uniformity.

Their signature item, however, came with their tool of the trade, the Lee-Enfield No. 4 Mark 1 (T) sniper rifle. Primarily, this was the same rifle issued to the regular soldiers, a bolt-action, ten-shot weapon with an eight-inch spike bayonet that resembled a long nail rather than a knife. “The men liked the rifle,” wrote Captain John Kemp, the second-in-command of D Company. “They understood it, they could use it, they trusted it; it was a very good weapon, and they’d done a lot of shooting with it.” Reliable, steady and extremely accurate, it was what every frontline soldier needed: a pig of a weapon able to get down and dirty and still come up firing accurately every time without jamming.

Their sniper variant was slightly different from those issued to the men in the rifle companies, however. The T stood for telescopic, which denoted that it had successfully passed a craftsman’s selection process that saw it picked off the production line by a keen-eyed armourer and then sent to an expert fitter to ensure that the barrel and the specially crafted No. 32 Mark I sniper scope aligned precisely. The delicate nature of the rig made scouts overattentive, far beyond the average infantryman’s love for his weapon, and their relationship bordered on the obsessive. “When you weren’t sniping,” recalled Bill Pugh, “you protected your weapon because they were a little class above the average rifle. The scope received special care, and you carried your scope inside a bag inside your smock . . . Nothing was going to damage that.”4

What the scouts loved the most about the Lee-Enfield was its bolt action, which ran fast and smooth and permitted reloading in a split second without the shooter needing to move off his sights until the stripper clips emptied. Equipped with a specially mounted wooden cheek rest that increased accuracy, the rifle provided the ability to rapidly engage multiple targets, allowing the scouts to fire faster and more precisely than their German counterparts, an advantage that at many times would prove the difference between victory and defeat, life and death.

STAN DUFFIELD, A BRITISH-BORN LIEUTENANT WHO HAD transferred into the battalion from the Victoria Rifles in 1942, took the reins of the scout platoon upon its inception. A highly skilled rifle platoon commander and tactician, Duffield had recently guided his platoon, which included Hook, Benson and Garvin, to victory in a division-wide battle drill competition where his prize for beating over one hundred competitors took the form of his appointment to command the fledgling unit.

Duffield, whom others begrudgingly respected for his immense tactical prowess, was a twenty-three-year-old bank teller with an aloof personality that did not blend well with his platoon of free spirits.5 The men viewed him as a “cold fish” and a bit of a snob, and suspected that their overly ambitious lieutenant, who seemed to have taken his appointment as a demotion, already had one foot out the door, aiming for a return to a rifle company at a moment’s notice. As a result, the men gravitated more than usual towards their platoon sergeant, Barney Benson, who, having shared the same struggles as they had growing up on the north side of Montreal’s strip, was very much “one of them.” In short order, the “popular and prominent” NCO had achieved such a tight grip on the men that most in the battalion, including the officers, referred to the platoon simply as “Benson and his scouts.”6

Benson had left school as a young teenager, after his mother died, to provide for his family. Bouncing from one dead-end job to another, he landed work as an apprentice machinist in the fall of 1939, but within months his “sense of duty” led him to join the Black Watch. Over the next two years, he progressed steadily up the ranks, training first as a wireless operator and then developing his expertise with land mines as part of the pioneer platoon under Lieutenant George “Booby Trap” Buch.7 Unlike his men, however, Benson had no formal training in scouting or sniping, but that was not his primary job. He brought an abundance of pure leadership that provided the glue for the nascent unit.

Traditionally, company sergeants major and platoon sergeants, the linchpins of the battalion who bridged the gap between officers and men and ensured that discipline, deportment and orders were carried out to the fullest, tended to be a stern and sarcastic lot. Each presented a godlike figure for their men, and many chose to employ fear as their motivator of choice: fear of them, fear of regiment and fear of God—and usually in that order. Benson, on the other hand, took a different route. Unlike his tightly wound brethren who would scold and growl, the scout platoon sergeant was unusually soft-spoken and possessed an almost comedically high-pitched voice. “Benson, I liked right away,” Brunner related. “He was relaxed and always ready to laugh. He was a lot of fun.”

Anything but traditional, the scout platoon sergeant nonetheless garnered respect from his peers and the scouts for his calm and steady approach. “You always do things for somebody you like better than somebody you don’t like,” one scout remembered. With little need to throw his weight around, his “suggestions” and “requests,” usually delivered with a customary wink and a laugh, the scouts instantly took for orders.

Benson stood five feet, nine inches, but with two hundred pounds of muscle draped over his stocky frame, the men found him as intimidating as he was nice. Like all good combat leaders, he had an abundance of talent and courage and knew his job well. But he also had a dark side. The scouts soon learned never to do anything that would wipe the grin off his face or diminish the glint of laughter in his eye. According to Hook, Benson had “a switch” that, when flipped, would see him turn ice-cold. “He just got this look,” Hook recalled. “His eyes darkened when they fixed on his target, and you knew he meant business.”

This dichotomy did not diminish him in the eyes of his men; rather, it served to inspire, and as one scout later recalled, “Anybody would do anything for Barney Benson.” Indeed, this group of young men, tasked to carry out a highly specialized and deadly trade, required the right type of leader: one who acted more like a big brother, father or trusted uncle rather than a despotic platoon sergeant. They got that in spades with Benson.

THE HEART OF LIEUTENANT COLONEL STUART STEPHEN Tuffnell Cantlie’s battalion lay in its four rifle companies (designated A, B, C and D), each of them 120 strong, that would do the battalion’s heavy lifting—the fighting. Each, commanded by a major with a captain as his second-in-command, was subdivided into three rifle platoons of thirty-six men, led by a lieutenant.

On the eve of embarkation for France, Cantlie assured the regimental elders he had found “good officers” and “red-blooded men” to take the battalion into combat. By all indications, after years of sifting and weeding, his company commanders were the pick of the litter, all extremely talented and highly trained— destined, it appeared, for greatness.

The best of this stellar lot was Major Eric Motzfeldt, who commanded C Company. Tall and fair-haired, the extremely charismatic “Great Dane,” as both his fellow officers and men called him, had immigrated to Canada from Denmark in 1929 to open a thriving brokerage firm in downtown Montreal. Having learned of the Black Watch through the widely publicized exploits of Lieutenant Thomas Dinesen, a fellow Dane who earned the Victoria Cross with the 42nd Battalion in World War I, and later through the Scottish heritage of his wife, Louise Drynan Fraser, he joined the regiment in 1940 at the age of thirty-three.8 A mature and steadying type, Motzfeldt spoke Danish, Norwegian, English and Swedish fluently and had more than a working knowledge of French and German. A qualified sniper instructor, he trained many of the Black Watch snipers in their basic course and had served as the battalion’s intelligence officer before assuming command of his company in 1943.9 Revered for his tactical acumen and stern leadership, he doubled as Cantlie’s trusted advisor, or “battle adjutant.” The Black Watch CO seldom made a move without his consultation.

Like Motzfeldt, Majors Alan Stevenson (B Company) and George “Pudge” Fraser (D Company) were both older and mature types and supremely talented. Each had spent time as course instructors or commanders at a multitude of Canadian and British army training establishments and battle schools.10 Like Motzfeldt, they knew their stuff.

The A Company commander, Major Phillip Griffin, was something of a phenom within the Black Watch. Just twenty-six, he was a decade younger than his fellow company commanders. Listed at a touch under five feet, eight inches and 140 pounds, Griffin, known privately amongst his family as the “Little Major,” was wiry and highly athletic and always managed, no matter the circumstance, to look as though he had just come off parade. With glowing white teeth that contrasted sharply with his deeply tanned face, his penchant for aviator sunglasses and whipping around the English countryside with Ronnie Bennett on a pair of Norton motorbikes, he appeared the “typical college boy,” as Bruce Ducat related, “but Jesus, he was tough as nails.”

A thoroughly gifted company commander, Griffin inspired confidence in everyone around him and enjoyed an unparalleled run of professional success and a meteoric rise through the officer ranks. By the time he reached Normandy, he found himself on the fast track for a battalion command.11

Stern, exacting and demanding, Griffin was self-assured about his professional abilities, but on a personal level he was shy and reserved, which many mistook for conceit and pretentiousness. As Captain John Kemp, who served with Griffin for four years, noted, “Phil was excellent . . . absolutely first class (and) a terribly interesting, slightly introspective individual. I admired him hugely (but) I can’t say I ever knew him very well.”12 Indeed, with the exception of Motzfeldt, his brother Shirley, who served as Cantlie’s intelligence officer, and Ronnie Bennett, very few penetrated his tightly affixed mask of command.13

Although from the same vintage, the support company commander, Captain Ronnie Bennett, was like Pudge Fraser and Stevenson: a “mature type” who, according to his superiors, was “keen, capable and efficient” and possessed “brains.” Over his years of training, he had proved himself thoroughly “reliable and steady” and was considered by all to be an “excellent officer.”14

Like Cantlie, Bennett came from the elite of Canadian society, where family obligations, expectations and duty meshed seamlessly with the ethos of the regiment. The nephew of Viscount R.B. Bennett, Canada’s eleventh prime minister, Ronnie had moved from the family estate in Sackville, Nova Scotia, as a young teen (followed by his kid brother Harrison) into the hallowed halls of Bishop’s College School (BCS), an exclusive educational institution in the lush Eastern Townships outside Montreal. He went on to McGill University to complete a degree in political science and economics, pledging (like many Black Watch officers) the Alpha Psi chapter of the Zeta Psi fraternity, whose alums included Henry Ford, Percival Molson, Victoria Cross recipient Fred Fisher and Dr. John McCrae, who penned the eternal “In Flanders Fields.”15

Unlike the men under his command, Bennett (and his fellow officers) did not have to forgo his education to help his family survive; little had changed in the social sense for the upper echelons of Canadian society. College courses, fraternity gatherings and drinks at the posh Berkeley Hotel before a McGill–Queen’s grudge match on the gridiron all continued unabated, as did summer vacations at exclusive Métis Beach and escorting the city’s most eligible debutantes to the St. Andrew’s Ball each fall.

Following his time at McGill University, Bennett attended law school at Osgoode Hall in Toronto and articled with McCarthy and McCarthy, the country’s leading law firm.16 When war broke out, he followed in his brother’s footsteps and joined the Black Watch in the spring of 1940, and within a few weeks he had shipped out to England—but not before marrying Dorothy Janet Dobell, a descendant of politician and business magnate R. Reid Dobell. Their spring wedding was the toast of the country’s society pages.17

The Bennetts’ connection to the Black Watch started as teenagers, during their tenure at BCS. Although not a military academy, the boarding school—founded in 1836, more than thirty years before Confederation—had a long and storied military tradition. By the time the Second World War rolled around, nearly a thousand BCS “old boys” had gone off to war, including former 1st Canadian Army commander General Andrew McNaughton; Lieutenant General Ken Stuart, the Canadian chief of the general staff; Brigadier Bob Moncel, who at the age of twenty-seven was the youngest to hold that rank in the Canadian Army; and Major Sydney “Rad” Radley-Walters, who had become Canada’s leading tank ace in Normandy.

On its centenary in 1936, the BCS cadet corps officially allied with the Black Watch to work as a feeder for the regiment’s officer corps.18 By the time the 1st Battalion arrived off the shores of Juno Beach, a sizable portion of its officers had been groomed by BCS and now held key appointments within Cantlie’s battalion.

In addition to Bennett, who controlled the scout, pioneer, anti-tank, carrier and mortar platoons in his support company, Lieutenant George Buch commanded the pioneer; Captain John Kemp was the second-in-command in D Company; and Captain Campbell Stuart worked as Cantlie’s battalion adjutant. Lieutenant Alan Robinson, a star cricket player, was Griffin’s most trusted platoon commander in A Company, while the renowned artist George MacKay, who had resigned his commission early in the war to ensure that he saw action, served as a lance corporal and platoon mate of Corporal Bruce Ducat in Stevenson’s B Company. Even Captain Bill Doheny, Brigadier William J. Megill’s intelligence officer, called himself a BCS old boy.19

The central force in their upbringing during these most formative years was their headmaster, the highly prominent and influential Major Crawford Grier. A former artillery officer in the Great War who not only ran the school but commanded all army cadets in Canada and was active in the Boy Scouts, Grier was known as a “builder of men.”20 Gruff and steadfast, loved and hated, “the Bear,” as the boys called him, was a firebrand who was not reluctant to take his feelings about the sluggish Canadian war effort public.21 On Thanksgiving Day 1941, he publicly condemned the King government’s failure to pull out all the stops in the present war, arguing for conscription before it was too late. Likening the current climate in Canada to that found in Abel Gance’s film masterpiece J’accuse, where the current generation had failed to live up to the sacrifices of the Lost Generation in the trenches, he chastised politicians and citizens alike for their lack of urgency and proportionate response to Hitler, tyranny and fascism.

Wounded at the Somme, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele, Grier was the very personification of duty, courage and sacrifice, and he wielded immense influence and power while shaping his pupils. Although few could argue with the altruistic nature of his “prod to the Canadian conscience,” his methodology was rooted in his experiences on the battlefield in the Great War, where sacrifice formed the foundation of honour, something he expected his boys to achieve and, more importantly, maintain.22

No student could forget the symbolism on display throughout the school. In the junior library, a portrait of BCS old boy Wyatt Rawson greeted the teens—bare-headed, sword drawn, mortally wounded, gallantly piloting the Highland Brigade forward in the face of withering fire and certain death at Tel-el-Kebir in Egypt in 1882. As former pupil Bob Moncel, who would serve as the operations officer of the 2nd Canadian Corps in Normandy, stated, “We feel he is one of us, and that represents the true BCS spirit.”23

Any trembling pupil who dared enter the Bear’s office came face to face with yet another emblematic portrait. Over his desk hovered a painting of sixteen-year-old Jack Travers Cornwell; it encapsulated the BCS spirit and provided the context for any subsequent discussion within the chamber. A former Boy Scout, “Jutland Jack” was forever ensconced in naval lore as the third-youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross, which had been awarded to him posthumously for remaining at his gun on HMS Chester during the Battle of Jutland in 1916, despite intense enemy fire that resulted in mortal wounds that eventually took his life.24

In retrospect, George Buch lamented, “We never stood a chance, really. We knew what was expected of us,” and as it did for family and regiment, “honour came in the shape of duty, obedience and sacrifice, and that was it.”

FOLLOWING CLOSE BEHIND A LONE PIPER BELTING OUT “Australian Ladies,” the 1st Battalion of the Black Watch, led by the scout platoon, made a dry landing on Juno Beach, marking the first time since the guns fell silent on November 11, 1918, that the regiment had a full battalion in a combat zone. Behind the scouts and the wailing pipes came the four rifle companies and the support company that formed the 1st Battalion, shaking out for their march towards their bivouac area before heading south towards Carpiquet airfield, a former Luftwaffe base outside Caen whose capture the BBC had announced earlier that morning.

To Hook Wilkinson, life on Juno Beach resembled “organized chaos,” as “if somebody was trying to stir up a riot. Nobody appeared to know what they were doing.” Everywhere, trucks and jeeps teeming with ammunition, petrol and supplies jockeyed for position with Bren gun carriers towing anti-tank guns, while engineers, hard at work to remove the debris of war, strove to fix temporary bridges, clear barbed wire and lift land mines and booby traps from the sand and scores of abandoned German bunkers. The Black Watch cleared the dunes faster than expected, and as Hook put it, “army normalcy” suddenly returned.

The fields to either side of their line of march seemed to be in use for miles, crowded as they were with tented hospitals, camouflaged ammunition and petrol dumps, repair parks for half-cannibalized vehicles and emergency landing strips for the air force. Signposts adorned with skulls and crossbones and scrawled with “Achtung Minen” appeared almost every half mile or so. The Germans had carefully sown the route with anti-personnel Schu mines, nasty “Bouncing Bettys” and powerful anti-tank Teller mines, designed to castrate or obliterate any intruder.

The thin, claustrophobic road, lined with the traditional Norman hedgerows and dotted at intervals with burly provosts directing the flood of traffic moving towards the front, quickly gave way to the fertile, lush and windswept fields beyond the beach. Here, orchards of stunted apple and pear trees intermingled with patches of wheat that, having gone unharvested, stood shoulder high, rustling in the saltwater breeze. This serene portrait transported Private Jimmy Bennett, a nineteen-year-old rifleman in C Company, marching behind the scouts. He reminisced about more peaceful times on the family farm that sat a few “country miles” outside Melville, Saskatchewan, on Canada’s equally lush and windswept prairies.

Bennett, a high-strung twenty-two-year-old inflicted with chronic anxiety, noted the great paths torn into the wheat by tanks, guns and infantry that resembled those slashed by tractor and scythe at home. Periodically, the ground appeared torn and pockmarked by shell and bomb craters, littered with slit trenches and indistinct debris. Rabbits, attempting to find new burrows amid the hollowed pastures, ran wildly about, spurring memories for Bennett of chasing gophers with his ten siblings in tow. He slipped into a welcomed and calming stream of thought. Enthralled by military history—particularly the works of Will Bird, who served with the Black Watch in the trenches on the Western Front—Bennett envisioned himself now walking alongside his own ghosts with warm hands, hoping that someday people would learn about his adventures with an equal sense of foreboding, empathy and awe.

Then they came upon fields laced with the dead, almost all German, who remained unburied. Bloated in the sweltering July heat, the corpses jittered with maggots busy scouring flesh and marrow while dark clouds of flies gathered above, searching for sanctuary. Beyond them, newly dug graves for Canadian soldiers lay in a checkerboard pattern of small dirt mounds with bone-coloured crosses affixed to each, crudely marked with name, rank, service number, regiment and date of death. “You hadn’t gone very far when you ran into a bunch of temporary graves from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders,” remembered Gordy Donald, marching with A Company. “It was very upsetting to see the number of people killed on the beach.”

The only interruption in the pace of the Black Watch trek came when a dispatch rider on a Norton motorbike weaved through, or a jeep ambulance, stacked with a quartet of supine patients, parted their lines in a bid to make the evacuation centre on Juno Beach.

Occasionally, a thin trickle of civilian traffic plodded by: an old woman on a bicycle, a farm labourer pushing a cart and a team of horses harnessed to a plow, all attempting to maintain the rhythm and semblance of normality while the battle raged. Some villages they passed seemed barely touched by the war; others were grey and grim, with only rubble to attest to their existence, prematurely stomped out by speculative artillery stonks or air strikes conducted for the vilest of reasons: expediency.

Periodically, pockets of dead cattle and horses littered the fields, most on their backs, bloated and rigid, legs pointing to the sky, each besieged like their human counterparts by maggots and flies. For Bennett, neither the freshly marked graves of his Canadian brothers in arms nor the decomposing corpses of the enemy dead matched this obscenity. Dead humans Bennett could rationalize, for humans are deterministic, capable of making decisions that influence or shape their fate to varying degrees. But these poor, innocent beasts took no part in the quarrel and did not deserve to share man’s fate. Horseback riding had always been Bennett’s escape from the daily grind on the farm. Now, however, the sight of their faces, teeth bared, wild-eyed and frozen in fear, etched a permanent scar on his psyche. With all vestiges of his romantic interlude quashed, Bennett started to reel as his anxiety blossomed and the encroaching reality and suffocating indignity of war unleashed a series of rapid-fire questions akin to a condemned prisoner: What’s happening here? Am I dreaming or is this the truth? How am I going to get out of this mess? Only the sudden and merciful approach of desperate locals diverted his attention from the refrain constantly beating in his head.

In a bid for psychological self-preservation, Bennett shifted his focus to the predicament of the French. “How in Heaven’s name,” he wondered, “would the locals get back to a reasonable semblance of life when the fighting was done?” Everywhere he looked, civilians worked feverishly to corral scattered livestock, repair shattered roofs and walls of their homes or mend torn fences. Some farmers, saddled now with excess meat from cattle cut down by artillery, streamed forward to hawk their excess meat before it turned.

At one point, a coven of elderly women approached the men in D Company, offering a purple, rock-hard substance purported to be candy. Sergeant MacGregor “Mac” Roulston, fearful that the gift might contain poison, ordered his men to decline the offer, but not before they had issued their sweets to a collection of grimy schoolchildren who supplanted the British idiom “Any gum, chum?” with a bastardized “Avez-vous de gum, chum?”25

Although Roulston expected the wild revelry of liberation that greeted the 3rd Canadian Division troops in the days following D-Day, the French civilians the Black Watch encountered remained restrained and noncommittal. A month into the invasion, the pace of the Allied offensive had slackened, and with it came the spectre of stalemate, which stoked fears among the French that Nazi reprisals would be swift and furious should the Germans wrestle the Allies to a standstill or push the invaders back into the sea. But fear of the Germans was not the only thing that muted the French in this region of Normandy. Some civilians harboured a quiet contempt for the Allies due to the destruction wrought by their pre-invasion bombing raids, and now their incessant artillery fire. Although the local population longed for freedom from their occupiers, they preferred that some other spot in the country have the honour of sacrificing homes, families and friends for the glory of Allied victory and French liberation.

The scout platoon crossed paths with another batch of prisoners of war marching under armed guard, making for the enclosures on the beach as they neared the bivouac point. To Hook Wilkinson, his first glimpse of Nazi prisoners left him with the impression that a whole generation of German manhood had gone missing. The “rabble on display” included only the very young or the very old, with most over forty or under eighteen, and as Hook related, “some looked much younger as most couldn’t even shave.”

Brunner, eavesdropping on snippets of their conversations, chuckled at the wild speculation concerning their impending fate. Many wondered if they’d end up in England, Scotland or the United States, while others, seeing the Canadians march past, feared they would end up in the Siberia-like “gulag” system in northern Canada that Nazi propaganda had invented and taught them to dread.

The other thing that surprised Brunner was just how few of these men spoke proper German, as a sizable portion hailed from the conquered regions of eastern Europe and Russia. These Ostfront soldiers, men captured by the Nazis who then either volunteered or were pressed into battle, all wore Wehrmacht uniforms but spoke regional dialects endemic to Poland, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia or the Baltic states. At one point, Hook noticed a small group of Mongolians and Koreans whom the less-than-worldly men around him collectively referred to as “Japs.” All of them, in Hook’s assessment, “were weedy specimens,” evidence no doubt that Hitler had failed in his crusade to produce anything close to his vaunted “master race.” Then the Hitler Youth prisoners appeared.

Striding past the Black Watch columns, these tall, blond, sinewy teenagers, who had survived the nasty fighting for the battered and blackened Carpiquet airfield outside Caen, wore the distinctive pea-dot camouflage smocks with Hitlerjugend embroidered on their cuffs. Members of the fanatical 12th SS Panzer Division, each of these teenagers remained thoroughly committed to Nazi doctrine despite their recent defeat and impending incarceration.

Mere infants when Hitler took power in 1932, they grew up fully immersed in Nazi racial ideology and the bravado of Hitler’s triumphs, and above all, they oozed a genocidal self-righteousness that manifested itself in the murder of nearly two hundred Canadian and British prisoners in the days immediately following the invasion.26 As one war correspondent later opined, “They were poured into that mould at the age of six and removed from it as perfect Nazis when they were sixteen. As the finest flower of the Hitlerian experimentation, much superior to the non-conditioned Nazis, their cold, cruel mind does not recognize the difference between war and murder.”27 Led by hard-bitten veteran officers and NCOs transferred from the 1st SS Leibstandarte Division (Hitler’s bodyguard) fresh from the Russian front, where laws of war had no place and execution of prisoners was commonplace, their adolescent fanaticism meshed readily with their mentor’s murderous intent.

Captain John Taylor, second-in-command of D Company, informed the regimental elders that “we take bloody good care never to be on the receiving end of their treachery,” for “unlike the Hun” of the Great War, these “are a fanatical, sneaky, sulky bunch of bastards” who “knew every dirty trick and used them all.”28

This resilience, outright defiance and refusal to yield, which these child prisoners maintained despite their precarious predicament, left a lasting impression on the men. Bound for captivity and forced re-education, the young Highlanders bombarded the SS prisoners with a steady volley of insults that grew in bandwagon measure. Rude hand gestures that promised the insertion of rusty objects into sensitive areas gave way to broadsides of mucus-laden spit, followed by verbal and gesticular assurances that they would be carnally entertaining their mothers and sisters in the Fatherland before long. This torrent of invective, delivered with buckshot precision, hit a fever pitch until one surly SS teenager shot back—in perfect English with an all-too-confident smirk—“Don’t worry, we’ll get you next time.” The stunning retort quieted the mob instantly, leaving Hook Wilkinson to wonder, “Christ! What did he mean by ‘next time’?”

THE BLACK WATCH REACHED ITS BIVOUAC AREA IN ONE of the hundreds of nondescript farmer’s fields not far behind Juno Beach on the morning of July 7. The four rifle companies, made up of three platoons of thirty-six men each, hunkered down as they traditionally wound in a box formation with battalion headquarters in the middle of the pack. As per routine, Lieutenant Colonel S.S.T. Cantlie ordered Captain Ronnie Bennett to parcel out the elements of his support company throughout the position, with sniper teams and guns from the anti-tank platoon dug in on either flank, and his mortar and carrier platoon in the centre near battalion headquarters.

Unlike in England, where digging in lacked a sense of urgency, the aerial show overhead, the battle-scarred land, the constant rumble of artillery fire and the freshly dug graves made the exercise self-evident for most.

For the infantryman, the safest place on earth was in the ground with his slit trench, which served as his home away from home and his fortress where, as Gordy Donald described, “we ate, slept, shaved, fought, and sometimes died.” Although most men shared a slit with one standing guard while the other slept in two-hour bursts, many preferred to go it alone.

Within minutes of their arrival, the men had set about excavating the ground, building up the foundation and tilling the bottom to absorb rainwater or, in an emergency, an enemy grenade. Scrounging the nearby ruins, they pillaged wood planks or straw to use as flooring or impromptu bedding and corrugated steel or an old door for a roof. Covered with shovelfuls of dirt, it not only provided concealment but offered extra protection from airborne bursts of red-hot shrapnel.

The holes were dug no more than shoulder-width and body-length. The men drilled down as far as time and the terrain would allow. “We wanted our slits as deep and tight as possible,” Hook recalled, for it “cut down the odds of being hit.” Although at times lonely, cold and wet, with vile dampness that penetrated to the marrow, they proved “snug and as comforting as the womb when the shelling started,” Gordy Donald recounted. “As the men had learned in training, only a direct hit would knock it out, and this was never a function of location but rather, fate or luck.”

Digging into the Normandy dirt, however, did not prove easy; the sweltering heat and alternating bouts of torrential rain left anything below the soft topsoil akin to Roman concrete. Bruce “Duke” Ducat, the diminutive, straight-talking corporal from B Company and self-proclaimed “lazy bastard,” took the easy route and employed a nearby drainage ditch as a ready-made slit. Smug and secure in his choice, he drew his rain cape across his body and drifted off, finally getting some sleep after nearly forty-eight hours on the move. A few hours later, Ducat awoke in horror to find “rats running over him” and that mosquitoes had taken liberties with his face and hands. Fighting off the rodents with the butt of his Sten gun, he discovered that his cheeks, his forehead and the backs of his hands were swollen and riddled with insect bites. At a loss for what attracted the squirming horde that now came at him in waves, Ducat discovered a long-forgotten chocolate bar in the pouch of his webbing and tossed it the length of the ditch, unleashing squeals of delight as the vermin descended upon their prey and devoured it whole. From then on, Ducat always dug in.

As expected, men who had never faced combat before were a bit jumpy on the first night in the beachhead, and they needed time to acclimatize to their surroundings, a process the army called “inoculation.” Few men other than Ducat slept the first night, as even in the quietest moments their battlefield remained awash in eerie white noise punctuated on occasion by a distant shot or explosion, the bark of a dog or a lone rooster crowing. At daybreak, the skies cleared and the sun streaked in over the city of Caen, twelve miles to the southeast. Then the bombers came.

For nearly half a millennium, the cultural, political, financial and spiritual capital of western Normandy had remained unmolested following its sacking by a marauding English army under King Edward III in the fourteenth century. In peacetime, the eleventh-century home of William the Conqueror housed nearly 60,000 civilians, but after a series of air raids that started on D-Day, coupled with the approach of the ground fighting, only 25,000 intrepid citizens remained in and around the environs by early July.29 Late on the evening of July 7, another British force arrived, this time to plunder from above as the dramatic and lethal overture in the latest Allied bid to capture the city.

Three miles to the northwest, Mike Brunner and Dale Sharpe emerged from soggy slit trenches just before 2200 hours, summoned by a drone that resembled a thunderstorm but whose rhythm was all man-made. A series of Pathfinder aircraft buzzed overhead at top speed, dropping green flares to mark the target area for a swarm of black dots that followed. Slowly, these transformed into the silhouette of aircraft, revealing a force of 467 heavy bombers (Lancaster and Halifax types) from RAF Bomber Command, strung out in an elongated stream, soaring on a course for Caen.

The appearance of these aircraft, customarily employed to eradicate German cities, over the bridgehead marked a new, experimental role for these heavy bombers: carpet bombing of enemy positions to aid the advance of the ground troops. Designed with the massive artillery barrages of the Great War in mind, the scheme called for the annihilation of the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and SS positions that Allied intelligence suspected lay in the fields on and around the northern outskirts of the town.

The plan, which looked most plausible on the map, required the bombers to lay down a tightly boxed blanket (or carpet) of high-explosive and fragmentation bombs, some with delayed fuses designed to explode hours later, on the German main line of resistance (Hauptkampflinie) north of Caen. Joined soon after by the fire from hundreds of artillery pieces and the sixteen-inch naval guns of HMS Rodney, they designed this impressive collection of firepower to blind, bewilder and obliterate the defender while at the same time bolstering the killer instinct and sagging morale of the veteran British and Canadian forces that had fought continuously since D-Day. At least on the latter point, the plan succeeded: their timely arrival transformed the atmosphere instantly from static to electric.

As Hook Wilkinson noted, “Not a single enemy fighter rose up to meet the Armada.” Only anxious squirts of tracer fire from German anti-aircraft guns lining the outer ring of Caen offered a feeble challenge, which accounted for only one bomber. From the ground, Hook could see the unlucky victim dropped from the pack, engines sputtering and belching smoke while its pilot fought with the controls to level out the craft that twisted directly over their heads. Somehow the enterprising captain regained stability, forcing it to climb before it turned towards the English Channel. An explosion in the starboard engine sealed its fate, and the Lancaster plunged into the sea and exploded on impact, but not before the crew had bailed out, descending safely just behind Juno Beach.

There is nothing that excites the soldier buried deep in a man’s soul than when he witnesses the unbridled power of his side dishing it out to the enemy with overwhelming and almost apocalyptic force. When the descending ordnance first came into sight, Jimmy Bennett stood transfixed, eagerly anticipating the first eruption. When the convulsive impact of the first bombs sent violent plumes of dust, dirt and debris skyward in jagged yellow, grey and black plumes as the carpet unfolded, the men around him burst in wild revelry, which unleashed a rush of adrenalin in the young private from the prairies. The sound waves from the eruptions took almost a second to reach Bennett, compressing his sternum and rendering his bowels uncomfortably weak. In the rush of excitement, the men around him cheered and shouted as the aircraft flew overhead, waving their helmets or balmorals in a show of support and gratitude while one young officer, whom Bennett did not know, eagerly cheered the fate of the German defenders with a schoolboy’s glee: “They’re not liberating—they’re liquidating!”

When the dust clouds dissipated before the second wave arrived, the mood changed swiftly from the sanguine to the horrified. Something had gone horribly wrong. Instead of the air strike hitting German lines north of Caen, they followed the Pathfinder’s flares as they drifted to the east of their intended mark and now flickered directly over the city itself. Seconds later, the bombers began delivering their deadly payloads directly into the centre of the old city in a most dreadful case of targeting error.

The disaster that unfolded before his eyes thrust Bennett into a moral paradox, forcing him to reconcile his initial blood lust with the unmitigated horror unleashed inadvertently upon the civilian population. Abruptly, his new-found sense of pride, power and fledgling confidence vanished amidst the conundrum that few convincingly reconciled as the “price of victory”; in just forty minutes, two-thirds of the thousand-year-old city lay in ruins, and speculation moved to the likely number of French civilians who undoubtedly perished in the maelstrom: Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? It was anyone’s agonizing guess, but the sudden change in fortune left Jimmy Bennett crestfallen and sickened. “That was unnecessary,” he told himself, reflecting on the repugnant utterance of the young officer. “It sure wasn’t liberating . . . it was liquidating. That’s exactly what it was.”





2

Albatross

The Esprit de Corps one finds in a regiment is built up and kept alive by the feeling that the members of it are part of an organization that has a background in history that such members can be proud of and look up to. This instills a feeling in the members that they must not let the Regiment down or do anything that will sully its good name.

—COLONEL PAUL P. HUTCHISON, REGIMENTAL COMMANDANT, THE BLACK WATCH, 1944

WITH PIPE IN HAND AND HIS LEATHER BINOCULAR case dangling above his Sam Brown belt, his balmoral fluttering in the breeze, Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Stephen Tuffnell Cantlie cut a striking figure most befitting a Black Watch commanding officer. Tall and slender with thick brown hair, hazel eyes and exquisitely groomed moustache, he possessed the self-confidence and arrogance to match his supreme talent, silver-screen looks and Errol Flynn panache. “There was no doubt that Cantlie was a first-class prick,” Corporal Bruce Ducat explained, “and thank God for that!”

Known to the men as “SST,” “The Colonel” or “The Boss,” and privately among more senior officers as Stew, Cantlie was a youthful thirty-six, despite being an “old Black Watcher” well into his nineteenth year of service with the regiment. Dutifully responding to family tradition, SST began his military career as a teenage cadet and followed his father (class of 1893) and older cousin Stephen Cantlie (class of 1925) into the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario, where he earned the prestigious Sword of Honour for outstanding conduct and discipline upon graduating in 1929. Viewed by his group of exceedingly impressive peers as a “leader of men . . . chosen to guide the destinies of this class,” Cantlie was every bit an upper-class “man’s man” for his time. Intelligent, courageous in thought and action, he came from the mould of the classic officer and gentleman who remained persuasive and tactful but ready to settle any dispute in the boxing ring, where, as the RMC yearbook quintessentially chimed, “many a man felt the full force of his argument.”1

Instead of taking up a post in the tiny permanent force of the Canadian Army, Cantlie chose to return to the Black Watch upon graduation, viewing it as his destiny to one day take command—something expected of a Cantlie. His sense of legacy, tradition and noblesse oblige was rooted in his wealthy Scottish ancestry and upbringing in Montreal’s Golden Square Mile. The family name was equally synonymous with the regiment and with the elites of Canadian industry, finance and politics; his clan included Lord Mount Stephen, Lord Strathcona and Richard B. Angus, all past presidents of the Bank of Montreal, co-founders of the Canadian Pacific Railway and driving forces in Canadian Confederation.

His uncle George Cantlie, the “father” of the regiment and its current honorary colonel, who presided over the regimental elders in Montreal, had raised the legendary 42nd Battalion and led them to fame in the trenches during the Great War. His son Stephen, who graduated from RMC four years before SST, took command of the 1st Battalion in 1942, but a year later was relieved of duties and sent home in disgrace, crushed by the immense pressure to equal, if not surpass, the regiment’s Great War performance and add to its stellar legacy.2

Convinced that family pedigree and regimental nepotism, rather than talent, played a large part in Stephen Cantlie’s rise and fall, Canadian Army High Command pushed for an outsider (or “stranger,” as the Black Watch elders called them) with no regimental entanglements to whip the 1st Battalion back into fighting shape. Few in the Black Watch took this seriously at first, until Brigade produced a candidate; in record time, regimental ranks closed, favours were asked and granted in Masonic fashion, and SST got the nod.

Unlike his cousin, Stew Cantlie possessed a wealth of passion, energy and drive, and more importantly, the supreme confidence needed to take the helm of a unit whose elders kept a keen eye on their prized commodity through a regimental mafia interlaced within the Canadian defence establishment.3

Few could argue with his appointment; High Command got the strict disciplinarian it de