WITH THE CANADIANS IN NORMANDY
AN ADDRESS BY
Chairman: The President, Mr. C. R. Conquergood
Tuesday, November 28, 1944
MR. CONQUERGOOD: Our guest speaker today is a Canadian, born in Pincher Creek, Alberta, educated at Calgary Normal School and the University of Alberta, later taking a post-graduate course in the University of London and the London School of Economics. This might be described simply as the preparatory stage of his career. The second stage began in 1931 as a reporter with the Toronto Daily Star. In 1933, he was reporting in Russia, Germany, and other European centres. For the succeeding ten years, he has been in many countries in Europe, Africa and India. I think the second stage of his career ended this year with the publication of his book-"Ten Years to Alamein". This book contains over three hundred pages of the most vivid comment and description of political and battle scenes. His first book will, I am sure, create for him as high a place in the world of book lovers as he has achieved in the field of reporting.
Mr. Halton was with the troops on 'D' Day when the battle in Normandy opened, and, in the third stage of his career, we shall expect not only to hear his voice, but also to read his writings as he returns again in the near future to the heat of the conflict.
With these preliminary remarks then, in the style of a radio announcer, I may simply say to you, Gentlemen, you will now hear Matthew Halton, CBC War Correspondent, speaking to you from The Empire Club, in the Royal York Hotel, Toronto.
MR. MATTHEW HALTON: Gentlemen: May I first thank the Chairman for his introduction and say that I am a bit disturbed to see here at the head table Mr. Reid Forsee, of the C.B.C. The first time I ever made a radio broadcast in Canada he taught me how to do it. He said, "If you are speaking too low, I will do this (illustrating the signal). If you are speaking too loudly I will do this." I hope today he will do the latter.
I am also pleased to see at the head table Mr. Tait and Mr. Main Johnson, of the Toronto Star. I met Mr. Tait a few minutes ago before lunch. My expense account on the Toronto Star was far larger than on the C.B.C. I pretended to forget I was off the Toronto Star and I asked Mr. Tait if I could come in and render my expense account. He said "Okay."
To begin my talk today I would like to mention another Toronto man-that splendid red-headed war correspondent, Ralph Allen of the Toronto Globe and Mail. One day in Normandy the Canadian Press Club was having a baseball game and "Red" Allen was the umpire. I was sitting on the sidelines. After about the third inning the ball game was interrupted" by a lot of men with strange looking instruments who came along, looking almost like curlers. I said, "What's cooking?" They said, "Get out of the way, Boys. This field is mined. We are trying to pick up the mines."
The ball game was stopped and "Red" Allen said, "Let us go on up to the war." We went up and as we went. "Red" said, "When is this war going to end?" I said, "I have been a pessimist about the war since it began in 1933, but I think this is it. I think once we have won the Battle of Normandy that will be the Battle of France, and the Battle of Germany will be nearly over." I bet him ten pounds and tomorrow I lose my ten pounds. Obviously, the war in Germany will not be over by the 30th of November. It nearly did end. As you know in September we did land three air-borne divisions on the Continent. That was one of the boldest strokes in military history, and it very nearly did succeed. If we had only had a bridge across the river at Arnheim, there were three British armoured divisions ready to rush across the flank of Northern Germany but the Germans just managed to hold and the war did not end.
Why did they hold? They held chiefly because of education. In the last war they gave up. They began to give up in August, 1918. They gave up because the Kaiser and his people had not indoctrinated the Germans as Hitler has indoctrinated them this time since 1933, with the ferocity of his own ideas. The Germans fought at Arnheim as I have seen them fight so often, and as the Canadians have seen them fight in Sicily, at Ortona and other places. And even today our forgotten army in Italy is fighting these young Nazi fanatics. They are fanatics because they are educated to be fanatics.
I always remember in 1933, not very long after that day in January, when I was in Berlin and saw Hitler come to power. I saw voung Nazis of ten years old learn to throw hand grenades.
And that wasn't the important thing, although it was bad enough. If one wrote of those things in those days one was called a war monger and a sensationalist. "That guy is just making trouble."
And one saw worse things than that. In 1933 I got permission to go to Dachau concentration camp in Germany. I thought the Germans would have a show for me. So I didn't see much in the concentration camp until I asked the Commandant, "Why is it you have so many guards here?" A shiver of horror went down my spine when he said. "We have to inure our young men to ferocity." That was the first time I realized that the Germans were deliberately inculcating ferocity, not for fun, as Genghis Khan and other conquerors and brutes have done in history, but deliberately, as an instrument of policy.
The thing went on for many years. I won't spend much time on those few years before the war. There were people who saw what was happening. There was Winston Churchill who from the moment he began to see, started making the greatest series of warning orations since the Philippics of Demosthenes, and he was called a warmonger.
Then began the greatest conspiracy against genius in all British history, because he was not impressed with what everyone else was saying, "Thank God for Hitler. He is saving Europe from Communism." He had the wit and reason to see that Naziism, which these people were clutching to their frightened bosoms, was a greater menace than Communism. He was more interested in the continuing greatness of the British Empire and Christian civilization.
Anyway, the war came. The first time I ever went to war was in Spain in 1936. I saw the people of Spain, aided by these "bad" people, the Communists, fighting the Franco Dictatorship, and I saw a few young Canadians help them, not only the day they stormed the Fascist headquarters in Barcelona, but after that for two or three years. Incidentally, it just occurred to me now that yesterday I met somebody who had never heard of the MacKenzie Papineau Battalion, "The Mad Caps", the group of Canadians, some Communists, who saw that the second Great War of our century had begun in Spain on July 17, 1936.
Since the beginning of the Spanish War in 1936 I have been covering many wars. I have seen many soldiers in action-Czechoslovakians, Russians, Spanish, Finnish, Germans, British, New Zealanders, Australians, South Africans, but a year and a half ago, for the first time, I saw Canadians in action in Sicily. I had been away from my own country a number of years-thirteen years. I never came back except for holidays in the Rockies and I tended to get out of touch with men of my own country, but I saw Canadians in action and I became a better Canadian than I had ever been before.
I could talk from now until tomorrow or Christmas about Canadians in Italy, but I don't think I have time today, much as I would like, for example, to tell you about the Battle of Ortona, the first severe battle the Canadians had fought since the Great War, the battle that became almost as important as anything in Normandy, almost as important as the road from Caen to Falaise. The First Canadian Division got to Ortona.
I would like to talk about D-Day. There were those awful days of waiting in England and the three or four days of relief before the invasion, and when I said to myself, "There is going to be an assault landing. Why am I going? I don't have to. I am not an infantryman." I was with the formation that General Keller commanded-the Third Canadian Division-in the assault landing on D-Day. I remember him talking to these troops and he said, "Gentlemen, if you want to die, when you get on shore, stay on the beaches. If you want to live get off the beaches. "But", he said, "at the risk of sounding like a 'blood and guts' General, I want to say to you, it doesn't matter whether you live or die so long as you do this job. The important thing is this enterprise. Please remember you have an individual responsibility. Please remember, the whole fate of the invasion may depend on you. Your division may be overwhelmed. Your brigade may be overwhelmed. Your whole company may be overrun, but you must take cover in your slit trench or wherever you are."
And on the night of D-Day, one Canadian brigade--it happened to be a Western Canada brigade--had reached its objective.
On D-Day plus one, two and three-true enough it happened by an accident of war that Rommel chose this point to attack with his tactical reserves of Panzer and Tiger tanks--the division was not overrun. The Brigade Headquarters was overrun and Regimental Headquarters were overrun and it looked for a time as if that invasion were going to fail but these men fought on. Battalions were gone, companies gone, and at such a time men by all the rules of war have the right to surrender. But these men fought on and when two German tanks came in to Headquarters, the little courtyard which was headquarters of the Regina Rifles, the Italian cook came out with a Piat mortar that he had never used before and knocked out the two of them.
Not many weeks ago in Germany when I had left the Canadians and gone to join that great fighting formation, the First American Infantry Division, the Colonel of Intelligence there gave me a document, a captured document that was a transcript of all telephone conversations between Rommel and the Chief-of-Staff at Supreme Headquarters, between D-Day and the end of July. It was a fascinating document. It began with Rommel telephoning Headquarters and saying, "Here it is, but it is not the main thing. We have to drive this thing into the sea by nightfall. It is not the main thing. In two or three days the main thing is coming in the Calais area."
By nightfall they hadn't driven the invading force into the sea. A call came from Hitler's Supreme Headquarters, "What went wrong yesterday?" Rommel saying,
"I am not quite sure what went wrong. The enemy had more tanks ashore than we expected but we will do it by tonight."
He telephoned to the Corps Commanders of two of the finest German Divisions that ever fought: the First Adolph Hitler S.S. Division and the First Hitler Youth S.S. Division.
It was not driven into the sea that night. By, then Hitler was having a little apoplexy and biting his carpets--if he does bite them.
This is a transcript of the telephone conversations that took place. Hitler didn't trust even his Generals and he had secretaries take down what they said on the phone. Again on the third day he asked why the thing had not succeeded, and Rommel said, "Against any other troops in the world but the Canadians we would have driven this invasion into the sea." I don't say the Canadians are the best fighting men in the world, though I would like to think so after something like that.
The fight went on from the beaches of Normandy to Caen. I would like to talk about it for a long time. I would like to talk of the Battle of Carpiquet--on the way to Caen. It was a tiny village with an airdrome. A brigade had to take the place--the North Shore, the Queen's Own of Toronto, the Chaudiere. They decided they needed another brigade and they borrowed the Winnipeg Rifles, four regiments, plus a regiment of tanks. You know how they operate-one squadron of tanks with each regiment during an attack.
Again the Commanding Officer, the Brigadier, said to them before the attack: "To win the Battle of France we have got to win the Battle of Normandy. To win the Battle of Normandy we have got to take Caen. To take Caen we have got to take Carpiquet. It is imperative. Here is the order, saying there must be no failure."
This was a battle I decided to see. We war correspondents are over-glamourized people. We get credit very often-it is not our fault, it is not the fault of the people who give us the credit-for describing what someone else does, because sometimes people naturally project their admiration more into the teller of the story than the people he is telling about. But, while it is an over-glamourized profession on the whole, occasionally we go into battle.
I have found through all my experiences as a war correspondent the best way to see a battle is to get somewhere on the flank, More by accident than by design, I stumbled into a company of a Canadian Scottish regiment, who were giving covering fire and drawing enemy fire. After being challenged by a sentry--we didn't know the password and it was one of those uncomfortable moments--very uncomfortable--you have to beg a man not to shoot you--I met the Company Commander, Major Crofton, of British Columbia. I said I would like to see the battle. "Splendid", he said.
It is wonderful to see the reaction of the Company when you get to the front. Away back in the army where everybody is a big operator or a big dealer, they look down on the war correspondent, When you get to the Division they are glad to see you. When you get to the Brigade they give you a drink of wine. When you get to the Regiment they give you. as they did this time at Carpiquet, a turkey dinner in a pig pen, four hundred yards from the enemy. And they offered us a drink of red wine.
In the morning the attack began. I have been going to wars, as I said. for a long time. I still don't understand war. I don't understand how men attack. They had a barrage of 450 guns for the initial stages--a two battalion attack. When the smoke cleared I could see the men coming through on one of the most intensive barrages in history. It is a sight one has seen before and one will see again. I suppose, but which always fascinates-men advancing through a wheat field. Those of you who have not been to war may think of attack as charging and running. They can't do that. They have to charge through a wheat field, and carry their Sten gun or their Bren gun and hand grenades. They seem to be advancing very slowly--eight or ten men here behind a tank and eight or nine there, and the enemy mortar fire coming down on them. A mortar shell falls on your tank a cloud of smoke and dirt and you are watching from the pig pen at the end of the Carpiquet airdrome.
The smoke clears. You see two or three going to their knees and falling over. You see the rest going on and you wonder how they can do it. Two of them come to a slit trench where there is one German. These men threw two hand grenades and the German caught them in his hand and threw them back, The third hand grenade blew the German's right arm off. He caught the fourth and fifth in his left hand and threw them back, and the sixth killed him.
That is the kind of opposition they were up against as they fought their way through the wheat field, the Chaudiere and the North Shore-English-speaking and French-speaking.
One would have no realization in that pig-pen at Carpiquet that Canada is now facing the most serious political crisis since Confederation began. One would have thought that the English-speaking Canadians and the French-speaking Canadians were going almost hand in hand across that wheat field.
I am not going into the political crisis at all just now. One thing I would say. No matter what one may think, no matter what one's opinions about French Canada, no matter what one's opinions about this worst political crisis since 1867--that is, in 77 years--whatever the rights or wrongs about the conscription situation nobody can say that the French Canadians are taking their present attitude because of lack of guts or physical courage on the battle field.
And so these men, these Canadians, against what one British General called the worst odds they had ever met in Normandy until that date, took Carpiquet. the
Chaudiere and the North Shore taking the north hangars of the village and the Queen's Own of Toronto taking the south hangars. The control buildings were taken and as a result of that battle that day, with atrocious losses, we got Caen.
I would like to digress a moment to say something about the French. Many Canadian. British and American soldiers went to Normandy believing what so many of us used to say, "You can't expect much from the French," "The French had fallen in 1940" and "The French were rotten at the core."
This statement was not only an insult to France but an affront to fact. France was not rotten at the core. France was rotten where we were rotten--at the top.
You would be astonished at the number of Canadian soldiers who, if you asked them, "Do you believe France is decadent?" would tell you about stories about Frenchmen saving their lives. From D-Day on, the men and women of the French Maquis were going through the German lines to our lines to give information. The French peasants of Normandy would come out of their houses over their own dead to cheer us. We did expect we would be met with coldness, if not with hostility. In the town of Caen we had killed 5,000 and wounded 17,000 with our bombs. We got into Caen, on the morning of July 9th, the Seaforth Highlanders, the Regina Rifles, the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders. The town was completely ruined. Every street I crawled through was just a ruin. Men had to climb over rubble. Then I and my colleague of the C.B.C. came to two or three streets which were not completely destroyed. We came to a tiny square, half the size of this room, in which was the famous church, the "Abbey of Men", in which William the Conqueror built his own tomb. We went into this church and I and my colleague were the first Allied men in uniform the people had seen.
Two thousand men, women and children had taken refuge there since D-Day from the fury of the attack. Several times we had loosed a thousand bombers on this town. There was the fury of constant fighting and--shelling every day. These two thousand men, women and children were in this church--as clean as this room. They dressed their wounded on the tomb of William the Conqueror. The babies were born at the foot of the sanctuary. Now, when they saw us, they came out in this little square, amid their own dead and wounded, with mortar fire falling on the square and the church, and street fighting all around, they came out to sing the Marseillaise and raise a flag on a lamp post and cheer.
Seeing that, and other such things elsewhere in France, you begin to understand what freedom means. From Caen the battle goes on to Falaise--the road from Caen to Falaise. The Canadians and the British had the hard job of handling six out of eight crack armoured and panzer divisions, so the Allies on the right could make -the end run into Brittany. It was a tough battle. You get up two regiments every day and find nothing much left of them. Nevertheless they fought on, beyond human endurance, to Falaise, where the escape gap was closed and where Major Dave Currie and his men outnumbered by fifteen to one, as the citation tells, fought for three days and three nights without sleep to close the escape gap.
And also, I would like to mention something about the British troops. As you know the British troops are seldom given enough credit. The British say the Canadians are wonderful, the Americans are wonderful, the New Zealanders are wonderful. They never say much about themselves.
One of the greatest stories of the Battle of France is that of the British Thirieth Corps. I got into Brussels with an armoured regiment of the Thirtieth Corps and met General Horrocks, whom I had first seen in the desert. He said, "We were tired, exhausted, and had lost all our young men. The enemy was about to break but he wasn't quite broken. I was doubtful how we could make him break before we began to break."
He added, "Fortunately, I had 550 guns at the end of my wireless mast and six squadrons of Typhoons and every time there was the slightest resistance we brought them all to bear. Then the enemy broke and we crossed the Seine."
Then he said, "We had to get from the Seine to the Somme and get the bridge over the Somme at Amiens before the enemy destroyed them. It was a difficult under taking. I had to move an armoured division by night. It is not an easy thing to do. But I smelled the air. Sometimes when a General smells the air it doesn't smell right. This time it smelled right."
"I went up to Philip Roberts, Commanding the Eleventh Armoured Division and I said exactly what I said in Tunisia where I sent an armoured division through an arm of the sea to cut off the Germans, 'It is moonlight tonight, Philip'."
That night the slow British did forty-three miles in a night, including two battles, to take the bridges of Amiens.
General McNaughton told me in 1940 that a division could move five miles in a day in the last war. In this war they are able to move twenty miles in a day. That night the British did forty-three miles and the next night an entire corps, and a corps has a certain number of divisions, did sixty-three miles in a clay.
So we got to Germany and it was very interesting travelling along with one of the armoured regiments to go through the battle-fields of the old war. There was Vimy. In the old war the British Empire lost over a million dead and the French lost one million, three hundred thousand dead, and now we went through the entire depth of this area in an hour. It was an astonishing thing to pass the memorial of Vimy Ridge and go through that area in an hour and so on to Brussels and to Arnheim, where we nearly won the war.
Then one day I left the British and the Canadian armies to go down to the Americans because I wanted to get back into Germany. The last time I had been in Germany was on October 1st, 1938, when I went into Czechoslovakia with the First German Army. I was speechless with shame because until then there had been a chance that the forces of sanity in the world might decide to impose the law. After that it was sure that what Spengler called the Second Great War of our time was coming.
So it was very interesting to me to go into Germany again in September with the American First Armoured Division and to see these young Germans, to talk to German civilians.
It was wonderful at first, not that I am a revengeful person, to see our Typhoons and artillery destroying not French towns or Belgian towns or Dutch towns, but destroying German towns, because it was the first time since the Napoleonic War that war has actually come to Germany in a big way.
Then to talk to the civilians. I remember talking to a young girl of sixteen. I asked her why she hadn't got away, because there had been a proclamation instructing all Germans to leave. I said, "Do you think Germany is going to lose the war now?"
"No, of course not. Hitler has secret weapons that will paralyze mankind. Anyway, if we do lose the war it will be a crime against mankind, a crime against the world."
There were the young Germans of the S.S. Paratroop Division who fought so well at Ortona, who are fighting so well today. How do they do it? Well, they do it, first because they are Germans, who are great fighting people. They do it, secondly, because it is a policed state and they have got to fight when they are told. They do it chiefly because they are educated to do it from childhood. They do it because they have been suckled on ferocity. They do it because in 1933 they were taught as children of eight and ten to throw hand grenades and die for their country.
And the point is you could do that with any children. One of the hardest problems facing the world today, is what we are going to do with German. What are we going to do with these young people? We have got to punish them and we have got to police them. These people must be made to know what war is. They must be made to suffer. But that is only the beginning. ReveivZe settles no problems, unless you want to exterminate them and there are people who say we must kill off all the Germans or sterilize them. They are the same people, in my experience, who used to say: "Thank God for the Germans. They are saving Europe from Communism."
Well, Gentlemen, there aren't enough machine guns or sterilizing instruments to kill off all the Germans or sterilize them. To coin a public speaker's phrase, "I yield to no one in my hatred of them." but they are a great people. The world needs them. Europe needs them. And after we punish them, and I really believe they should be dealt with severely, and after we police them for fifty years, what are we going to do then?
You have got to educate them. You have got to do what Hitler did--inculcate our ideas--if we get a chance. Perhaps we won't have a chance. Perhaps Russia will settle this matter for them, but if we have any handling of them we have got to educate them.
That, is the largest problem in the world today. The next biggest problem is how are we going to educate ourselves. And I rush toward my close. How are we going to educate ourselves?
It became obvious before 1933 that the world had to face another war unless we inaugurated a reign of law. It seems to me, Gentlemen, just as you could see plainly in 1933-you didn't have to be a seer or a prophet, you could just add up the facts, so you can see now, that the Second Great War was only the second great war of our century unless somehow we inaugurate a reign of law.
How can we do it? Perhaps Russia and Britain and the United States won't get along together. How then are we going to inaugurate a reign of law? People to this day I see, reading the papers, saying the world needs good will. The reason you can walk down the streets of Toronto tonight in safety is not because there is good will in Toronto. It is because there is a police force that will thrash the living daylights out of anybody who breaks the law.
In my opinion we are too late for good will. The standards of international, scientific and technical and political development have outrun the standards of international good will.
It reminds me of being at Geneva once and of a famous statesman asking me to come down to his room to hear the speech he was going to read to the League of Nations the next day. It was in 1937, when the world was at the cross-roads, and he read his speech and it was all about the leading nations not being effective because there vas no good will in the world. He was a famous statesman and I was only a newspaper correspondent, but I had to say. "Sir, surely if the world were overflowing with good will you wouldn't need a League of Nations."
It is the same now. We have got to have not only a League of Nations but an international police force. I know this is an old phrase, a hackneyed and cliched phrase. I am afraid we are not going to get it. I have become rather pessimistic. In the field with an army I don't get all the news and I haven't had time to read all the reports about the Dumbarton Oaks Conference. It seems to me it has not gone so far as the last League of Nations. We won't have peace in the world if we wait for agreement between America, Britain and Russia. No matter how we want to get a League, things still point to a clash in the future. I can see it now.
I fear and forecast that within five years you will be able to tell whether or not we are going to have another war. Look at the field of conflict. Look at China. The conflict might be over China and it might be fought in Canada. It is hard to tell, but it is certainly coming unless we do the most difficult thing on earth and that is somehow to agree to abrogate some degree of national sovereignty.
There is the problem. How can we reconcile national sovereignty with a super state? In my opinion we certainly won't have peace in the world unless we have a super state, unless we can say in advance, as I remember Titulescu, that great Rumanian, that great European. saying to me in 1936, "We shall have peace in the world when those who want it say in advance that they will go to war." That is what we have got to do now.
I leave with you this infinitely difficult problem. Probably I should not have mentioned it because I haven't time to talk about it and express my own perhaps callow and incomplete views on the matter. But we will not have lasting peace unless we resolve this question, this dilemma, of how to reconcile a diminution of national sovereignty with a super state and an international police force.