Dieppe: Ross Munro’s eyewitness report

For eight raging hours, under intense Nazi fire from dawn into a sweltering afternoon, I watched Canadian troops fight the blazing, bloody battle of Dieppe.

So began Ross Munro’s epic account of the Allies’ first significant action on the Continent since the evacuation from Dunkirk more than two years earlier. Dieppe would in time become notorious, a debacle that helped the cause only in providing a primer for what not to do when it came time for a full-fledged invasion in 1944, but it was a sensational story at the time — and no one told it better than Munro.

Ross Munro (Library and Archives Canada)

The lanky, bespectacled, 28-year-old Ottawa native would end up being regarded as Canada’s foremost World War II correspondent, and his work at Dieppe went a long way toward establishing that reputation.

Munro, representing the Canadian Press, was one of 22 journalists selected to accompany the Allied raiding force, and was one of just three correspondents to go ashore in France on August 19, 1942.

Most North American newspapers published accounts of the raid in later editions that very day, reports cobbled together in London from official communiques. But when Munro’s piece hit the wires a day later, it dominated Canadian front pages on August 20 and was picked up throughout the United States, Australia and England as well.

The Leader-Post in Regina gave Munro a presentation worthy of a melodramatic newsreel, breaking up sections with headers punctuated by exclamation points: Boat Thrown Like Toy! … Everyone Was Calm! … Nazis Fire From Cliffs!

After sprinkling highlights of the action across several paragraphs, Munro circled back and started from the beginning: “The operation against Dieppe started from a British port Tuesday evening. I boarded a ship which also carried the Royal Regiment of Toronto. It was seven o’clock and only then were we told that Dieppe was our destination. The Royals took it coolly enough. They had been trained with the rest of the force for several months on combined operations for such a job.”

He followed with scenes of the soldiers calmly going about their preparations before it was time to go over the side into the smaller assault boats. Now Munro put himself back in the story, further humanizing it while also establishing his bona fides as someone who had been through training alongside the raiders.

Nobody seemed particularly nervous about the coming business though it was to be the Canadians’ first time in action. I made myself think in terms of manoeuvres, exercises in which I had taken part with these men in preparation for this night.

I had about convinced myself that this was another of those familiar exercises when at 4:10 a.m., about 50 minutes before we were due to hit the beach, a flare arched over the channel. Tracer bullets followed quickly, long green and red streaks marking their path. They were too close for comfort.

Munro describes German E-boats darting among the Allied fleet, Nazi anti-aircraft batteries opening up on the bombers serving as air support, and machine guns raking the shore.

By the time our boat touched the beach the din was at a crescendo. I peered out at the slope lying just in front of us and it was startling to discover it was dotted with the fallen forms of men in battle dress. The Royals ahead of us had been cut down as they stormed the slope. It came home to me only then that every one of those men had gone down under the bullets of the enemy at the top of the incline.

German photo of the aftermath of the Dieppe raid (Library and Archives Canada)

Munro’s assault craft didn’t unload its cargo, though — the correspondent estimated eight to 10 men in the boat had been hit “and a landing here seemed impossible,” prompting the naval officer in charge to get the boat off the beach.

Munro lauded the heroism of the orderlies attending to the wounded in his boat, and their patients’ stoicism: “I never heard one man even cry out.” Back in the Channel, the wounded were offloaded to a hospital ship and Munro transferred to another assault craft, “and then another and another” before finally finding a ride to shore.

He wasn’t there for long, but noted the area around the Dieppe esplanade “looked like a First Great War battleground, with broken buildings gutted or burning in all sections.” His impression was that the Canadians seemed to have the town “fairly well under control” by 10 a.m., but a Luftwaffe counterattack within the hour changed the equation, raking the fleet with bombs and machine-gun fire.

Munro describes a Stuka dive-bombing the assault craft carrying him back out to sea, even though it contained only himself and five sailors.

Through the afternoon I sailed north in a craft to which the Stukas had taken such a liking. It was just an ordinary assault landing craft, 30 feet long and looking like a floating packing box. This is the way hundreds of raiders started back to England but the sea stayed reasonably smooth.

I lay in the sun and slept, and woke to see the white cliffs of England in the mist ahead.

Idyllic as Munro made it sound, the reality was of course considerably messier. D.E. “Ernie” Burritt, the London bureau chief for the Canadian Press, documented his correspondent’s experience in a sidebar that was published the same day in many newspapers. It began:

A tall, unshaven young man burst into the London office of The Canadian Press early this morning, dropped his khaki-clad figure in front of a typewriter and began pounding out the journalistic history of Canada’s part in the Dieppe assault.

Burritt’s piece heaps praise on Munro’s work even before it has been printed back home, quoting Associated Press London bureau chief Robert Bunnelle calling it “one of the best stories of the war.”

Burritt continued:

For hours on end the former University of Toronto student sat in his torn, blood-stained battledress, ignoring food placed beside him. For three days and as many nights he had not been to bed and now as he sat typing from a scribbled sheaf of notes, he smoked endlessly and nibbled Benzedrine tablets given him by a Canadian medical officer to keep his eyelids open.

Munro downplayed his own experience in discussions with his colleagues, acknowledging his own role by saying “It’s exciting, damned exciting. It’s only now when I look back that I’m frightened.”

Reporters are taught from the very first day that they aren’t the story, but the Canadian Press was bound and determined to break that rule for Munro. It produced yet another story the following day, lapping up the praise heaped upon its star correspondent’s work — though the opening paragraph set it up as a national triumph: “The Canadian soldier, for the first time since 1918, hit the world’s front pages today…”

The victory lap didn’t end there, though. A little over a week later, Munro flew back across the Atlantic to New York and then on to Windsor, Ontario, where he would recount the Dieppe saga before a crowd estimated at 15,000.

According to reports in the Windsor Star, which devoted nearly two full pages to coverage of the event, the audience included family members of troops who had gone ashore that day — including a Mrs. Elizabeth Murphy, who had four sons officially listed as missing after the raid. He also met privately for more than an hour with wives of officers of the Windsor-based Essex Scottish Regiment, which he had accompanied in training leading up to the raid.

Munro then submitted to an interview with the assembled correspondents, telling them he “would much sooner be looking down the barrel of a machine gun” than on the receiving end of a press conference.

The theme throughout boiled down to patriotism, with a heavy emphasis on the bravery of the Canadian lads who made up the vast majority of the Allied force that day — about 5,000 of the approximately 6,100 personnel involved.

Though by the time of the Windsor rally casualty lists had begun to be printed in newspapers, it wasn’t until later that the public would get a full grasp of the carnage. According to Canadian government figures, 916 of the 4,963 Canadians involved were killed, and an additional 1,946 were captured — a staggering casualty rate, even without the wounded.

Though he wouldn’t have been able to grasp the full extent of the numbers based solely on what he observed, Munro was well aware the raid could hardly be called a success. In interviews later in life he acknowledged his inner turmoil at having to sugarcoat his accounts both in his copy and in subsequent public speaking engagements — which also were subject to government censorship policies.

That said, Munro’s depiction of the slice of the battle he witnessed remains a classic of the war correspondent’s canon, eschewing flowery prose for scene-setting depiction of the drama unfolding within eyesight. And it would hardly be the end of the story for Munro.

The following summer, he was among the first reporters ashore during the Allied invasion of Sicily, and he also witnessed firsthand the invasions of the Italian mainland and Normandy.

It took a couple more months after D-Day, though, for Munro to come full circle. He was with the 2nd Canadian Division as it liberated Dieppe on September 1, 1944, a little over two years after his previous brief visit to the seaside town.

I came back to Dieppe with the 2nd Division and if this was the last story I could write in this war I would want it to be this one. The entry into Dieppe completed a cycle. It was the climax of this war for thousands of Canadian soldiers. You could see the triumph in their faces as they whirled along the roads in Bren carriers, trucks and jeeps. This was their greatest day.

Ross Munro published his wartime memoir, Gauntlet to Overlord, in 1946 and stayed on as a European correspondent for the Canadian Press until 1948, when he joined Southam News as a national correspondent.

He later served as editor of the Vancouver Province and publisher of the Winnipeg Tribune, Canadian Magazine, the Edmonton Journal and the Montreal Gazette before retiring in 1979.

Munro died in Toronto on June 21, 1990, at age 76.

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