South Saskatchewan Regiment, (The Prairiemen)
Canadian Infantry Corps.
Military Medal G.VI Pte. C. Inf. C.
War Medal 1939-45
Canadian Voluntary Service Medal with bar Dieppe
Letter of Transmittal
Wednesday, November 09, 2005 3:48 AM
... I've attempted to send my write up - incomplete as it is...The coloured areas of text indicate where I've more work to do.... obtaining a photograph of 'our Bernard' would round it all off very nicely.
Should you wish to, you have my permission to publish all or part of the document.
Lets hope we get some positive responses - it would be nice to hear also from anyone who can remember being with him in Stalag 2/D at Stargard, or possibly a personal account of Stalag 2/D from any former SSR men held POW at the camp - a long shot but as the old adage goes 'if you don't ask - you don't get'.
Wednesday, November 09, 2005 3:48 AM
... I've attempted to send my write up - incomplete as it is...The coloured areas of text indicate where I've more work to do.... obtaining a photograph of 'our Bernard' would round it all off very nicely.
Thrice wounded in action and taken Prisoner of War...
19th August 1942- Dieppe Raid - Operation 'Jubilee'
Bernard O'Neill of Weyburn, Saskatchewan, Canada was, to judge by his military records, something of 'a character'; a man seemingly, with a volatile temperament. He was among the first in the queue to volunteer for the SSR (South Saskatchewan Regiment) at the Legion Hall, Weyburn, Saskatchewan on 1st October 1939 and was, within a couple of months, promoted Lance Corporal then Acting/Corporal.
The battalion was moved firstly to Camp Shilo, Manitoba and then to Toronto where Corporal Bernard O'Neill came 'off the rails' somewhat, when in November 1940 he was reduced to the ranks for drunkenness and a few weeks later sentenced to 24 days detention in the Military Prison in Toronto for being absent without leave.
Two weeks later, on the 16th December the SSR, including the hopefully chastened O'Neill, embarked for the UK, where they took up positions in southern England for the anticipated German invasion - it never came.
Bernard O'Neill's sojourn in England was not uneventful and by March 1941 he was again, promoted to his former rank. Inevitably it seems, he was again, by November of that same year, reduced to the rank of Private for similar offences.
But it would appear that despite his numerous misdemeanours, he had, in the eyes of his commanding officer, sufficient potential to warrant special considerations. He was singled out for Divisional Intelligence Training School and later, selected to join a platoon under Captain R.S. Stephens, to attend a special Commando course in Northern Scotland..
Having successfully negotiated both courses, he rejoined his battalion as a scout with the Intelligence Section of HQ Company, where he worked closely under the direction of the CO.
Colonel Merritt's confidence in the ebullient O'Neill was a short time later to be fully vindicated on the bloody beaches of a small, German held, coastal town in northern France.
In the spring of 1942, the SSR, as part of the 2nd Canadian Division, had been selected to prepare for what was termed a 'reconnaissance in force' to test the German Great Wall Defences on the Northern French coast. After a number of false starts, the operation was code-named 'Jubilee' - and the chosen objective was Dieppe.
For the proposed raid it would appear that O'Neill received specific instructions. He was detailed to act as scout/runner to Colonel Merritt, with orders to stay at his side at all times
Operation Jubilee - The Plan
The bloodiest nine hours of Canadian military history occurred on the pebble beaches of a small resort town on the northern French coast. Sixty odd years have come and gone since the men of Maj. Gen. 'Ham' Roberts' 2nd Canadian Division stormed ashore into a cauldron of fire at Dieppe on 19 August 1942, but the battle, like Pearl Harbour for Americans or Dunkirk for the British, is forever etched on the Canadian collective psyche.
Not since the Somme in 1916 had a Canadian division suffered such shattering losses: almost 1,000 men killed, 2,000 captured and as many wounded in nine hours. Over 24 volumes have been written on a raid that was, and still is, a highly controversial affair. Although a tactical failure, it has been hailed by some as a bitter strategic victory.
'If I had the same decision to make again, I would do as I did before,' said Lord Mountbatten after the war, 'it gave the Allies the priceless secret of victory.' That unlocked secret was that any invasion force contemplating a frontal surprise attack on the coast of France would need heavy fire support from the sea and air, and specialised naval forces designed for beach assaults, and artificial harbours (then under serious study).
The basic ideas behind the Dieppe Raid were to demonstrate to Russia (and to Germany) that Allied intentions and abilities to launch cross-Channel operations were credible. In early 1942, the British Chiefs of Staff Committee had issued a directive to Lord Mountbatten, 41 year-old Chief of Combined Operations, urging that 'raids in force designed to obtain information and experience in the enemy's defence system are to be pressed forward as opportunities arise.' Capt. John Hughes-Hallett of the Royal Navy, Mountbatten's chief of staff, drew up initial plans for the operation, selecting Dieppe, the old peacetime terminus for cross-Channel ferries from Newhaven, as a suitable objective. Dieppe satisfied RAF requirements that the target be well within their air umbrella and the sea routes were short enough so that the troops could be landed without getting too seasick. Hughes-Hallett wrote: 'Given a little darkness and a lot of surprise we can visit this poor man's Monte Carlo for at least a day!'
H-hour for the raid (after many stops and starts) was set for 4.50 am on 19 August 1942, though due to lack of sea room and trained landing craft crews the four flank attacks across at YELLOW, BLUE, GREEN and ORANGE beaches were to be launched half an hour ahead of the main attack. The Canadian Deputy Commander of the raid, Brig. Churchill Mann, explains how things were supposed to unfold:
'On the extreme right (ORANGE) commandos were to destroy the Varengeville battery. At Pourville (GREEN) the South Saskatchewan Regiment was to land astride the River Scie. Thirty minutes later the Cameron Highlanders would advance through the Saskatchewan's beachhead, move inland, join tanks from Dieppe and assault an airdrome and a German Divisional headquarters believed to be at Arques.
'There were to be two other attacks at H-Hour plus 30 minutes. On the left half of the beach at Dieppe (RED), the Essex Scottish and the Calgary Regiment were to land simultaneously and advance rapidly into the town to secure the harbour area for engineer demolitions. On the right half of Dieppe beach (WHITE), the RHLI would land with other Calgary tanks and move through the town to secure exits for other tanks to proceed inland where they could join the Camerons.
'Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal were to land later, occupying the perimeter of the town after the Essex and Royal Hamilton Light Infantry had seized it. All Canadian units were to withdraw across the main Dieppe beaches, with the Fusiliers Mont-Royal serving as rearguard.'
Well has it been stated by von Moltke that 'no plan survives contact with the enemy'. The Royal Regiment of Canada's landing at BLUE beach, a self-contained flank attack and the most crucial to the success of the main Dieppe attack, was a bloody débâcle. It had been drummed into The Royals that theirs was the most vital landing of all; that failure would result in untold losses on the main beaches and disaster for the operation. They had also been assured that everything would be done to help them. Given a proper touch-down they could be over the beach, up through the gorge, and on to the eastern headland before the Germans could react. That fickle mistress of war - surprise - with the addition of smoke-laying aircraft and the cover of darkness would give them the edge. The Royals had accepted this heavy responsibility on the basis of what all good troops require: a fair fighting chance.
The chance, however, never came. The first wave of the Royals landed 20 minutes later than planned when the effects of the smoke screens and darkness had been entirely lost. Worse still, the German defenders, comprising only two platoons and some technicians, were fully alert. The local commander had countermanded the customary 'stand-down' at dawn after hearing a fire-fight offshore between a German coastal convoy encountering the Royals' landing craft and causing their 20-minute delay. Nowhere was the fire more intense than at BLUE beach. A Royals private wrote,
Ross Munro, a Canadian war correspondent, was in the stern of one of the Royals' landing craft and,
Thus a German garrison of 60 men was able to bloodily repulse a Canadian battalion with relative ease. The collapse of the BLUE beach assault resulted in the German guns on the eastern headland remaining intact, watching and waiting intently as the main flotillas came in like lambs to the slaughter at RED and WHITE beaches.
Canadian soldiers' visions of Dieppe were blinkered. Their final approach to the beaches was inside a crowded landing craft smelling of cordite and diesel. With the exception of the commander and helmsman, soldiers could only visualise what awaited them outside by using their sense of hearing. One soldier recalled,
When the ramps went down, some men had a brief glimpse of the French shoreline before they were killed. Of course there was no hope of surprising the German defenders covering RED and WHITE beaches. The planners accordingly had detailed nine Churchill tanks of the Calgary Regiment to land simultaneously with the infantry and give intimate fire support. Due to a navigational error, however, the tanks were 15 minutes late in landing and, in the interim, the German defenders had recovered quickly from ineffectual naval and air bombardments and swept the beaches with a murderous fire. The official Canadian Army History underlines the significance of this lapse of momentum, stating that 'in any opposed landing, the first minute or two after the craft touch down are of crucial importance; and it may be said that during that minute or two, the Dieppe battle, on the main beaches, was lost. The impetus of the attack ebbed quickly away and by the time the tanks arrived the psychological moment was past.'
The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI) landed on WHITE beach in a devastating fire, their task being to capture the prominent Casino on the waterfront and to advance inland and destroy anti-aircraft and machine-gun emplacements on the Western Headland. A platoon of 'D' Company was reduced to two men in the space of three minutes. A Bren gunner reported: 'We landed on the beach but could go no further because the mortar fire and machine-gun fire was so intense and accurate. We could see the enemy on the cliff in front of us but could not seem to touch him.' This feeling of helplessness and frustration occurs with great frequency in most survivors' recollections.
Lt. Col. R. R. Labatt, the RHLI CO, could see his battalion was 'in one hell of a mess' and ordered his men to 'keep firing at German positions on their right to keep Jerries from coming down from the cliffs'. The RHLI converged on the Casino as it was the only cover on the open beach. It took them almost an hour to clear it in vicious hand-to-hand fighting. Once cleared, it became their sanctuary.
Meanwhile, on RED beach the Essex Scottish had landed with little difficulty but they were not blessed with a building within which to shelter. When the Essex got to the second double apron wire barrier, all hell broke loose. Machine-guns and anti-tank guns firing on fixed lines opened up and mortar concentrations started to rain down on them. Pte. Eugene Cousineau remembered 'the first blast of heavy fire stunned us for a moment but we soon recovered and when we reached the protection of the sea wall, most of our section were present. We couldn't see the Germans, who were hidden in the buildings along the waterfront, but their machine-gun and mortar fire was intense. Early on, the morale was high despite the casualties and the men were all smoking and laughing.'
Behind the sea wall, most of the battalion seemed content to sit, their will for further combat ebbing away as casualties mounted. 'Every time you showed your head over the wall the snipers went at you,' recalled another private. In truth, the only Canadian soldiers on the beach that saw most of the action from relative safety were the tankers inside their virtually invulnerable Churchills. According to reports, not one of the tanks was pierced by shell or bullet during the action, nor any of the crews hit while inside their tank. Of the 29 Churchills that landed, two were 'drowned' while many others bogged down in the sand and fist-sized boulders. Some got round the lower ends of the sea wall and on to the town esplanade, but none could get past the concrete obstacles the Germans had erected to bar the way into the streets of Dieppe. Most returned to the beach and continued to fire on German positions until their ammo ran out. In effect, they became pillboxes and strong-points supporting the infantry. Survivors to this day speak in the warmest terms of the manner in which the tanks fought. Tank fire certainly contributed to the safe evacuation of many men off the main beaches. The fact that only one trooper of the tanks that went ashore returned to England after the raid is stark testimony of the Calgary Regiment's dedication in providing fire support until the last moment.
War correspondent Ross Munro told the story of a highly motivated private aboard his landing craft:
It was only when the Royals CO, Lt. Col. Douglas Catto, got ashore at Puys beach with the second wave that command and discipline were reasserted over the survivors and the slaughter diminished for the first time. Then the regiment started to fight back as much as circumstances would permit.
Capt. D. F. MacRae, the only regimental officer of the Essex Scottish who returned to England after the raid, reported that their troops 'had rushed out of the assault craft in perfect drill order and up to the first wire obstacle. So far as I know only one man was lost in the crossing.' However, only one party of the Essex got across the esplanade and into Dieppe. This party, led by CSM Cornelius Stapleton, used a Bangalore torpedo to breach the barbed wire festooning the top of the sea wall and then sprinted into the streets of the town firing their Brens and lobbing grenades. This small group inflicted maximum casualties on the Germans, then, out of ammo and aware that no one else was coming to support them, they returned to their battalion, which was still pinned down behind the sea wall. For his determined action, CSM Stapleton received a Distinguished Conduct Medal.
On GREEN beach, the Saskatchewans landed in near darkness and virtually unopposed. But the main part of the battalion had been landed on the wrong side of the River Scie estuary and faced crossing a narrow bridge through Pourville in order to approach their objective on the cliffs. By then alert to the situation, the German defenders targeted the bridge with machine gun and mortar fire, leaving it covered with dead and wounded. Colonel Merritt led the next rush forward waving his steel helmet with the rallying shout 'Come on over - there's nothing to it!' His audacity took the enemy by surprise, one group of men followed him over the bridge and others used the supporting girders to cross. Merritt soon had most of his surviving men on the far side but shortage of mortar ammunition and lack of communications to the destroyers lying offshore to call for supporting shell-fire made any further advance impossible.
Finding all moves forward to his objectives blocked by concrete enemy pillboxes, Merritt led an attack on each in turn, personally killing the occupants of one by throwing grenades through the enemy's firing ports. By the time the last enemy strongpoint had been silenced both Merritt and the ever-present O'Neill had been wounded and the battalion reduced to fewer than 300 men.
Merritt held on to an improvised perimeter nevertheless and kept contact with his section positions by means of his one remaining runner, the indefatigable O'Neill - all the other runners had been picked off by German snipers who were by now crowding the cliff tops.. O'Neill dashed from cover to cover conveying his C.O's instructions, seemingly with a charmed life, as machine gun and rifle bullets spattered at his heals. On one such hectic mission, one German sniper jubilantly laid claim to yet another victim as O'Neill, rushing across an exposed street, was bowled over by the sniper's bullet. But within seconds the bloody and begrimed young messenger was up and spurting forward again, blood welling from the fresh wound on his face, where the sniper's bullet had so nearly found its mark.
Forced back at every turn, a Private with the S.S.R, as they fought from house to house in Pourville, remembers that German snipers and machine-guns combined with mortar fire finally pushed his company over the edge:
[Camerons land - CO killed as he leaves the LC - and pass through SSR]
[Can only proceed about a mile inland until forced back by ever increasing numbers of German reinforcements]
[Camerons withdraw through Merritt's position]
[Special Section SSR lead Nisenthal to Radar Staion etc]
When the time came to move back to the beach, Merritt coolly gave instructions for an orderly withdrawal and announced his intention to hold off the enemy from a rearguard position in a small bandstand near the beach to cover the attempt at re-embarkation.
For their respective numerous acts of bravery, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Cecil Ingersol Merritt was awarded the Victoria Cross, the first to be won by a Canadian in the Second World War. Private Bernard Michael O'Neill, indefatigable at his C.O.'s side, was awarded a well-earned Military Medal.
Lt. Col. Menard of the Fusiliers was wounded almost as soon as he got ashore with his battalion, 'but discipline and training proved strong enough to keep me going. I saw a German pillbox still holding out and I began flanking it with a group of my men.' At this point Lt. Col. Menard was hit a second time but he 'crouched low and kept moving. We had covered about 25 yards when a man crumpled up in front of me.' It was one of Menard's company commanders and his best friend, mortally wounded.
One LCT offloading a troop of tanks gained a respite from heavy gunfire mainly through the mad fury of one young officer. Despite his face being burned, one eye missing, and his tank disabled and helpless, he climbed from the turret while machine-gun bullets rattled off it. He dropped to the beach, blood streaming down his burned face, and crawled to an abandoned tank on the beach. Vanishing inside it, he traversed the turret and fought a single-handed duel with the guns on the harbour moles that were concentrating on the landing craft.
Most soldiers in World War II did not expect to be left to die of their wounds on the battlefield, but this is exactly what happened to many on the beaches of Dieppe. Organised casualty evacuation was next to impossible. Those wounded while still aboard their landing craft were the lucky ones. Their comrades wounded ashore usually lay where they were hit if immobilised, and were likely to be hit several times again or killed unless pulled to cover.
Conspicuous among the many who risked life and limb to save their fellow Canadians was the Reverend John Foote, the RHLI padre. The regimental chaplain saved at least 30 lives, lifting wounded men on his back in a welter of fire, walking calmly out into the water bobbing with khaki corpses, and putting his charges on the nearest landing craft. When the last boat was leaving, two sailors pulled him into it. As it moved full speed astern, Foote suddenly leapt out into the water. Returning to the beach he said later, 'It seemed to me the men ashore would need me far more in captivity than any of those going home.' John Foote, a prisoner until May 1945, was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross.
Lieutenant Colonel Labatt of the RHLI later told CBC radio the sad tale of Canadian wounded left along the shoreline on the withdrawal of the last boats:
Colonel Merritt's Final Defensive Block
Despite a fierce resistance, 'C' Company had been forced from a house that they had fortified, thus permitting the Germans to occupy the vacated position, which commanded the whole embarkation area.
On the promenade wall, the few remaining men of the SSR under Colonel Merritt were holding on valiantly in order to keep the beach as clear as possible for those of the Canadian raiders able to make it to the heavy shingle. A few Assault Landing Craft, heroically piloted by Royal Naval seamen, brave enough to venture tantalizingly close inshore, rolled in the swell, despite a veritable maelstrom of artillery and small arms fire directed at them. Many brave British 'Tars' were to perish in their valiant attempts to rescue their colonial cousins.
The tide was ebbing fast, exposing more and more beach and by the time the Camerons arrived, there was an expanse of shingle some 200 yards wide which had to be crossed, after which a further 150 yards had to be waded through the surf as the landing craft could not come closer without risk of stranding.
The landing craft arrived at 1030 and attempts were made to cross the fire swept beach with the wounded in order to re-embark. Protected to some extent by gunfire and smoke screens from the Royal Navy and overhead aircraft straffing attacks, the Canadians gradually contracted into a ring on the beach, pressed inwards by advancing German troops.
[As the last landing craft pulled away, Lieutenant Colonel Merrit, by now severely wounded, with the ever-present Bernie O'Neil at his elbow etc etc ]
[Colonel Merritt was finally obliged to surrender in the face of overwhelming odds, as the Germans brought in ever increasing numbers of tanks and armoured carriers. All of those unable to make it to the beach- including the courageous O'Neill - were taken prisoner-of-war.……………]
It became apparent shortly after noon that further evacuation of troops on BLUE, WHITE, RED and GREEN beaches was impossible. At 1:10 pm, Maj. Gen. Roberts aboard HMS Calpe received a simple message from Brigadier Southam's improvised headquarters on the main beach: 'Our people have surrendered.'
Between 350 and 400 men were evacuated from the main beaches and, of the 4,963 Canadians who had embarked for Dieppe, 2,210 were brought back to England. Of these, nearly 1,000 had never landed, so in fact, only 30 per cent of the soldiers who went ashore were successfully evacuated. The official Canadian War History solemnly states, 'so ended the brave and bitter day'.
Under the shaded dockside lights in the English ports, tired and grimy men drank strong tea and told their tales, and the ambulance trains filled and slowly drew out. Back on the Dieppe beaches the Germans were still collecting the Canadian wounded, and the Canadian dead in their hundreds lay yet where they had fallen.'
The Canadian army did no more fighting in the months that immediately followed. Canada counted and recounted the staggering losses. Official statistics revealed that the Division had suffered 56 officers and 851 other ranks killed in action and 158 officers and 2,302 other ranks wounded.
The SSR alone left 84 dead on Green Beach and 89 more, including Colonel Merritt and Private O'Neill, were taken prisoner.
The accusations, rationalisations and excuses started to fly as soon as the Canadians debarked from their ships in the English ports. This exercise in bitterness, anguish and doubt has never abated. In hindsight, it has always been obvious that the Dieppe Raid was poorly planned. The haunting question remains, and will always remain, whether the lessons learned were worth the enormous price.
After an unsuccessful attempt to escape, Merritt was incarcerated in the notorious Colditz Castle prison. Both he and Bernard O'Neill spent the remainder of the war as prisoners of the Germans.
Shackled -insert reasons
It is worth noting that immediately after the Dieppe raid, the German High Command announced that all the Canadians taken prisoner at Dieppe should be handcuffed or shackled during daylight hours; this dictate lasted for 408 day before it was rescinded.
With the speedy advance of the Allied forces and the war drawing to its conclusion, the prison camp at Stargard which Bernard O'Neill was being held was liberated.
Was it the Russians or the Americans who liberated the camp ?? insert….
On the 14th May 1945 Bernard O'Neill was reported as 'Now safe in U.K. - wounded'
The very high number of Canadian casualties sustained in the course of the ill-fated Dieppe raid, soured relationships between the Canadians and the British, the extent of which can be gauged by one contemporary Canadian commentator, who wryly observed after the war, that 'Dieppe was more costly to the Canadians than the eleven months of post Normandy fighting..'
The 'Value' of Defeat
Combined Operations said at the time that the paramount lesson learned at Dieppe for landings yet to come was 'the need for overwhelming fire support, including close support during the initial stages of the attack' - what the boys from Quebec, Ontario and the Prairies would have called 'a fair fighting chance'.
Many historians have argued that success that day at Dieppe would have deprived the Allies of many valuable lessons and led to failure afterward. In fact, they suggest failure in 1942 was necessary. One Canadian soldier, General Harry Crerar, 1st Canadian Army Commander two years after the raid, had no problem in agreeing with such a blunt assessment.
'If Dieppe had been a success,' said 'the Allied invasion would have been launched far too soon, with inadequate preparations, and I think it would have been a disaster. Dieppe saved us from that.'
Crerar was on hand to take the official salute from the soldiers of 2nd Canadian Division when they liberated Dieppe in September 1944, 'probably the most impressive and meaningful Canadian parade of the war' according to a newspaper account. When Crerar belatedly flew back from the ceremony to an important conference at 21st Army Group Headquarters with Gen. Bernard Montgomery, the British general soundly chastised him for his tardiness. Crerar relates that he told his irascible commander in no uncertain terms that 'I had had a definite responsibility to my country that at times might run counter to his wishes.' He had told Monty that, 'there was a powerful reason why I had to be at Dieppe! In fact … hundreds of reasons - the Canadian dead buried there!'
Military Medal - Canadian Gazette 9th February 1946 (Operation 'Jubilee').
'In recognition of gallant and distinguished services in the combined attack on Dieppe'
“Pte. O'Neill was a member of the Battalion Intelligence section and was attached as a runner to the Commanding Officer, South Saskatchewan Regiment at Dieppe, 10 August 1942. He accompanied the Commanding Officer throughout the engagement and performed valuable services. On innumerable occasions he was the target for enemy snipers and on three separate occasions was slightly wounded in the hand, in the face and in the body. Despite these wounds and the continued fire directed against him, he carried out his duties with the utmost bravery, coolness and reliability. He executed all his tasks with both initiative and intelligence and his services were of the highest value to the battalion throughout the engagement”
One bizarre aftermath of the Dieppe raid was the awarding of 10 million Francs to the French citizens of Dieppe by the Germans - ostensibly for damages suffered. The award came at the instigation of the Commander of the German 302 Division, who pointed out that the conduct of the French citizens had been;“…more than correct. Despite the losses suffered they aided the German troops in their combat, rendering services of all kinds. They put out our fires, attended the wounded and provided the combatants with food and drink…
LN/gcs 11 Nov 2005 12Mar2013