Douglas & McIntyre

Interviews with author(s) of “Holding Juno”

Sort By
Mark  Zuehlke

Mark Zuehlke

September 2012

The Dieppe raid was the first major action the Canadian Army fought in Europe during World War II. Yet Tragedy at Dieppe is the tenth volume in your Canadian Battle Series. Why so long getting to this story?

I first started writing about the role Canada’s army played in World War II due to a fascination with the then almost unknown battle to capture the town of Ortona, Italy in December 1943. That resulted in publication of Ortona in 1999, which became a bestseller and led eventually to the creation of the Canadian Battle Series and the intent to chronicle the entire fighting experience of the Canadian Army in World War II. As the series has never had a chronological approach to the war, I decided to leave the Dieppe raid until it could be marked by its 70th anniversary.

The other nine volumes in the series chronicle major battles or campaigns in which the Canadians were victorious. Dieppe was a defeat and a decisive one at that. Did that make the story more difficult to write?

Not really. Remember, although the Canadians emerge as victors in the other Canadian Battle Series volumes, they—or a number of the army’s regiments—often lose battles within them and suffer heavy loss of life. These defeats are as significant and dramatic a part of our history as the victories.

The Dieppe raid took place over a very short time span—little more than nine hours of August 19, 1942. Your writing style entails weaving many experiences of individual soldiers in with the larger historical record to create a thorough history of combat that is highly readable. Was it harder to bring these two elements together in a book about such a short battle?

One thing that surprised me when I started researching the Dieppe raid was the vast amount of reports, interviews with soldiers, and individual accounts written by soldiers that the Canadian Army amassed in the aftermath of the raid and immediately after the repatriation of prisoners in 1945. I came away from the archives in Ottawa and the United Kingdom with thousands of pages of historical documents. Included in those documents were hundreds of accounts by individual soldiers on what happened to them and the men around them. So I had a feast of riches rather than a famine. And during those few short hours the combat was fast and furious, so once I started writing about the raid it unfolded at an extremely intense pace.

About the last third of Tragedy at Dieppe details the actual raid. Like you say, the pace in that part is intense. It’s also, I think, very emotional for most Canadians to read because so many soldiers are killed, wounded, or forced to surrender when the evacuation attempts fail. Yet the book goes beyond just describing the raid and looks back to examine why the raid happened and how the Canadians became involved in the first place. Were you surprised by some of the material you found that dealt with the reasons behind the raid’s launching?

Very much so. Over the years a number of writers and historians have claimed to have found a single motivating force behind the raid. What I discovered from the historical records was that most of these forces were at work, but that no single one dominated the decision-making process that led to the raid’s launch.

What were some of these forces?

There was the Soviet pressure for the western Allies to somehow tie the Germans down on a second front that would draw troops away from the Russian front. Also the Americans, having just joined the war, were eager to go at the Germans with a major amphibious operation across the English Channel involving many divisions. Operational control and planning of raids against German-held territory rested with British Combined Operations, which was headed up by Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. He and his planners, particularly Captain John Hughes-Hallett, were eager to carry out a much larger raid than the hit-and-run commando operations of 1940 and 1941. The Royal Air Force command, meanwhile, was anxious to draw the Luftwaffe into a showdown air battle in which they hoped to destroy so many German fighters that planes would have to be drawn away from the Russian front to replace them. And then there were the intelligence operatives who planned to go ashore with the troops and loot ciphers, specialized equipment (such as gunsights, radar technology, and possibly even an enigma machine), and other records that might prove useful or informative. These are just a sample of various reasons that emerged as I worked through the documents. So you have a perfect storm building where all these motivations for a raid coalesce to create an unstoppable movement towards the launching of a major raid.

But why Dieppe?

Dieppe was the only real target of sufficient importance to meet the requirements of all these motivations. It was a small enough port that the planners believed it would not be too heavily defended, which would not be the case with nearby cities like Calais. It lay within the critical range of RAF fighter cover at that time and left enough loitering time over target for the desired air battle to take place. Most of what the intelligence people sought was believed to be in Dieppe or nearby. In late January, 1942 the Combined Operations planners brought Dieppe into their crosshairs for a raid set to take place in June. It was to involve an entire division.

And that division was to be Canadian?

Not originally. Mountbatten actually wanted the Royal Marine Division, which had amphibious landing experience while the Canadians had none. But there was increasing pressure from senior Canadian officers and politicians desiring their troops in the United Kingdom to see combat. The chief agent here was Lieutenant General Harry Crerar, who commanded I Canadian Corps. Crerar was a highly capable political general and he was able to build a convincing case that led to 2nd Canadian Infantry Division’s selection to provide the majority of the troops for the raid and to be trained for amphibious operations.

So the Canadians were not selected to be fodder for a raid the British planners knew was doomed to fail?

No, Hughes-Hallett and the other planners knew the raid was risky. But they thought there was a good likelihood it could succeed and in war there are no guarantees. Of course, as it turned out, much of their intelligence on the German defences was in error. The Germans proved far stronger, better prepared, and better equipped than expected.

Again, reading Tragedy at Dieppe, it’s striking how the planning process leading to the raid was fraught with large degrees of debate, disagreement, and even rancour between those putting the operation together. And so many of the major personalities of the war are involved.

That’s right. We have Winston Churchill playing a pivotal role. Bernard Montgomery wades in and completely changes the game plan from a raid against beaches on either flank of Dieppe to one where the main thrust lands on the beach directly fronting the town. Mountbatten is all over the plan, of course. Dwight Eisenhower is involved. Ian Fleming, the master spy who went on to write the James Bond novels, was even on the sidelines.

You say sidelines. Yet the recent television documentary Dieppe Uncovered maintains that his No. 30 Assault Unit—a commando team created to steal Ultra-related intelligence from the Germans—was the reason behind the entire raid being launched. Do you disagree with that?

Completely. It is true that the small No. 30 Assault Unit was along on the raid with a mission to break into the small Dieppe naval headquarters and loot Ultra-related intelligence. But they, as is true of all the numerous intelligence operatives accompanying the raiders, were along because the opportunity presented itself. They were not the driving force here. That force was Combined Operations. Mountbatten and Hughes-Hallett had their plan for a raid on Dieppe well in place before Fleming’s people started considering Dieppe in April, 1942. Fleming’s staff were responding to events and not driving them. They were really in the caboose and not the engine at the front of the train. But giving Fleming a starring role does make for good television!

So the documentary’s argument that those Canadians and other troops, naval personnel, and flyers killed on August 19 did not die in vain because there was this intelligence gathering mission is not valid?

That argument struck me as bizarre the moment I heard it. Even if the raid had been driven by this urgent intelligence gathering purpose, not a single objective was won by the raiders on August 19. The raid can only be described as an abject failure and hence those who died that day did so in vain. That is a hard, inarguable truth. There is no silver lining here, despite the documentary seeking to provide one. But, and this is important, the fact the raid was a failure does not take away from the fact that the Canadians and everyone else involved in the raid showed great courage, resilience, and determination in the face of overwhelming odds against them. That the raid failed is no reflection on the Canadians. The raid failed because, despite all the extensive planning, it was doomed by flawed intelligence analysis of German strength and preparation.

Dieppe was a tragic defeat for Canada?

It was the single most costly day of the war for our army. In those nine hours 807 Canadians were killed and 1,946 taken prisoner. Of the 4,963 Canadians involved, 3,367 became casualties—including 568 of the prisoners who were wounded. For the Canadian units involved in the raid, the losses were so high that they were still just completing the recovery process when the invasion of Normandy occurred on June 6, 1944.

As mentioned, about a third of the book covers the actual, riveting bloodbath of the raid. Yet the rest of the book, which describes the planning, decision making, cancellation of the raid and its re-launch on August 19 is also a gripping read—almost like a spy or military thriller with heroism and villainy galore. How do you do that?

The Dieppe raid was a hastily organized one. Combined Operations thought it up in late January. They had no intelligence to build upon. They had no troops. No landing craft. The air force had no plan. Everything had to be quickly cobbled together because they were originally looking at June. And all along there was also the ongoing debate at the Combined Chiefs of Staff, who had to give the raid their blessing, over whether to green light it at all. I was able to draw on the unpublished memoirs of Captain John Hughes-Hallett, who was in the very vortex of the entire process. And there were other key players who left behind diaries, letters, and reports citing discussions that took place. I found minutes of meetings where fateful decisions were taken, such as Montgomery’s insistence on the entire Canadian tank regiment and the majority of the infantry being landed in front of Dieppe. So the story of the raid’s planning is an incredibly dramatic one that I was able to relate in the same “you are there” style that I bring to the actual detailing of the battles. Tragedy at Dieppe is unique to the Canadian Battle Series in there being much story focused on the lead up to the raid, but it still fits snugly into the Canadian Battle Series style. A style that I like to think of as being accurate history that reads like the best novel.

This is number ten. Is that it for the series?

No, not at all. In fall 2014 the plan is to publish Decision on the Rhine, which will detail the critical battle that First Canadian Army fought in February and March of 1945 to clear the southern bank of the Rhine River and open the way for the invasion into the heart of Germany and the liberation campaign in the Netherlands that I told in On to Victory. Another untold chapter of Canada’s Army in World War II is the march up the coast of France and Belgium to capture and open the channel ports—including Dieppe—after the breakout from Normandy. That’s a story that needs to be related in greater detail than it ever has been. I’m proud that the Canadian Battle Series is now the most detailed retelling of the experience of an Allied army in World War II by one writer ever published anywhere in the world. I think the Canadian veterans of the war deserve a tribute like that and I am glad to have—with Tragedy at Dieppe—been able to pay particular tribute to those who fought with such courage at Dieppe.

D&M Marketing, Sep 10, 2012
Read more >>
Mark  Zuehlke

Mark Zuehlke

September 2012

The Dieppe raid was the first major action the Canadian Army fought in Europe during World War II. Yet Tragedy at Dieppe is the tenth volume in your Canadian Battle Series. Why so long getting to this story?

I first started writing about the role Canada’s army played in World War II due to a fascination with the then almost unknown battle to capture the town of Ortona, Italy in December 1943. That resulted in publication of Ortona in 1999, which became a bestseller and led eventually to the creation of the Canadian Battle Series and the intent to chronicle the entire fighting experience of the Canadian Army in World War II. As the series has never had a chronological approach to the war, I decided to leave the Dieppe raid until it could be marked by its 70th anniversary.

The other nine volumes in the series chronicle major battles or campaigns in which the Canadians were victorious. Dieppe was a defeat and a decisive one at that. Did that make the story more difficult to write?

Not really. Remember, although the Canadians emerge as victors in the other Canadian Battle Series volumes, they—or a number of the army’s regiments—often lose battles within them and suffer heavy loss of life. These defeats are as significant and dramatic a part of our history as the victories.

The Dieppe raid took place over a very short time span—little more than nine hours of August 19, 1942. Your writing style entails weaving many experiences of individual soldiers in with the larger historical record to create a thorough history of combat that is highly readable. Was it harder to bring these two elements together in a book about such a short battle?

One thing that surprised me when I started researching the Dieppe raid was the vast amount of reports, interviews with soldiers, and individual accounts written by soldiers that the Canadian Army amassed in the aftermath of the raid and immediately after the repatriation of prisoners in 1945. I came away from the archives in Ottawa and the United Kingdom with thousands of pages of historical documents. Included in those documents were hundreds of accounts by individual soldiers on what happened to them and the men around them. So I had a feast of riches rather than a famine. And during those few short hours the combat was fast and furious, so once I started writing about the raid it unfolded at an extremely intense pace.

About the last third of Tragedy at Dieppe details the actual raid. Like you say, the pace in that part is intense. It’s also, I think, very emotional for most Canadians to read because so many soldiers are killed, wounded, or forced to surrender when the evacuation attempts fail. Yet the book goes beyond just describing the raid and looks back to examine why the raid happened and how the Canadians became involved in the first place. Were you surprised by some of the material you found that dealt with the reasons behind the raid’s launching?

Very much so. Over the years a number of writers and historians have claimed to have found a single motivating force behind the raid. What I discovered from the historical records was that most of these forces were at work, but that no single one dominated the decision-making process that led to the raid’s launch.

What were some of these forces?

There was the Soviet pressure for the western Allies to somehow tie the Germans down on a second front that would draw troops away from the Russian front. Also the Americans, having just joined the war, were eager to go at the Germans with a major amphibious operation across the English Channel involving many divisions. Operational control and planning of raids against German-held territory rested with British Combined Operations, which was headed up by Vice-Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. He and his planners, particularly Captain John Hughes-Hallett, were eager to carry out a much larger raid than the hit-and-run commando operations of 1940 and 1941. The Royal Air Force command, meanwhile, was anxious to draw the Luftwaffe into a showdown air battle in which they hoped to destroy so many German fighters that planes would have to be drawn away from the Russian front to replace them. And then there were the intelligence operatives who planned to go ashore with the troops and loot ciphers, specialized equipment (such as gunsights, radar technology, and possibly even an enigma machine), and other records that might prove useful or informative. These are just a sample of various reasons that emerged as I worked through the documents. So you have a perfect storm building where all these motivations for a raid coalesce to create an unstoppable movement towards the launching of a major raid.

But why Dieppe?

Dieppe was the only real target of sufficient importance to meet the requirements of all these motivations. It was a small enough port that the planners believed it would not be too heavily defended, which would not be the case with nearby cities like Calais. It lay within the critical range of RAF fighter cover at that time and left enough loitering time over target for the desired air battle to take place. Most of what the intelligence people sought was believed to be in Dieppe or nearby. In late January, 1942 the Combined Operations planners brought Dieppe into their crosshairs for a raid set to take place in June. It was to involve an entire division.

And that division was to be Canadian?

Not originally. Mountbatten actually wanted the Royal Marine Division, which had amphibious landing experience while the Canadians had none. But there was increasing pressure from senior Canadian officers and politicians desiring their troops in the United Kingdom to see combat. The chief agent here was Lieutenant General Harry Crerar, who commanded I Canadian Corps. Crerar was a highly capable political general and he was able to build a convincing case that led to 2nd Canadian Infantry Division’s selection to provide the majority of the troops for the raid and to be trained for amphibious operations.

So the Canadians were not selected to be fodder for a raid the British planners knew was doomed to fail?

No, Hughes-Hallett and the other planners knew the raid was risky. But they thought there was a good likelihood it could succeed and in war there are no guarantees. Of course, as it turned out, much of their intelligence on the German defences was in error. The Germans proved far stronger, better prepared, and better equipped than expected.

Again, reading Tragedy at Dieppe, it’s striking how the planning process leading to the raid was fraught with large degrees of debate, disagreement, and even rancour between those putting the operation together. And so many of the major personalities of the war are involved.

That’s right. We have Winston Churchill playing a pivotal role. Bernard Montgomery wades in and completely changes the game plan from a raid against beaches on either flank of Dieppe to one where the main thrust lands on the beach directly fronting the town. Mountbatten is all over the plan, of course. Dwight Eisenhower is involved. Ian Fleming, the master spy who went on to write the James Bond novels, was even on the sidelines.

You say sidelines. Yet the recent television documentary Dieppe Uncovered maintains that his No. 30 Assault Unit—a commando team created to steal Ultra-related intelligence from the Germans—was the reason behind the entire raid being launched. Do you disagree with that?

Completely. It is true that the small No. 30 Assault Unit was along on the raid with a mission to break into the small Dieppe naval headquarters and loot Ultra-related intelligence. But they, as is true of all the numerous intelligence operatives accompanying the raiders, were along because the opportunity presented itself. They were not the driving force here. That force was Combined Operations. Mountbatten and Hughes-Hallett had their plan for a raid on Dieppe well in place before Fleming’s people started considering Dieppe in April, 1942. Fleming’s staff were responding to events and not driving them. They were really in the caboose and not the engine at the front of the train. But giving Fleming a starring role does make for good television!

So the documentary’s argument that those Canadians and other troops, naval personnel, and flyers killed on August 19 did not die in vain because there was this intelligence gathering mission is not valid?

That argument struck me as bizarre the moment I heard it. Even if the raid had been driven by this urgent intelligence gathering purpose, not a single objective was won by the raiders on August 19. The raid can only be described as an abject failure and hence those who died that day did so in vain. That is a hard, inarguable truth. There is no silver lining here, despite the documentary seeking to provide one. But, and this is important, the fact the raid was a failure does not take away from the fact that the Canadians and everyone else involved in the raid showed great courage, resilience, and determination in the face of overwhelming odds against them. That the raid failed is no reflection on the Canadians. The raid failed because, despite all the extensive planning, it was doomed by flawed intelligence analysis of German strength and preparation.

Dieppe was a tragic defeat for Canada?

It was the single most costly day of the war for our army. In those nine hours 807 Canadians were killed and 1,946 taken prisoner. Of the 4,963 Canadians involved, 3,367 became casualties—including 568 of the prisoners who were wounded. For the Canadian units involved in the raid, the losses were so high that they were still just completing the recovery process when the invasion of Normandy occurred on June 6, 1944.

As mentioned, about a third of the book covers the actual, riveting bloodbath of the raid. Yet the rest of the book, which describes the planning, decision making, cancellation of the raid and its re-launch on August 19 is also a gripping read—almost like a spy or military thriller with heroism and villainy galore. How do you do that?

The Dieppe raid was a hastily organized one. Combined Operations thought it up in late January. They had no intelligence to build upon. They had no troops. No landing craft. The air force had no plan. Everything had to be quickly cobbled together because they were originally looking at June. And all along there was also the ongoing debate at the Combined Chiefs of Staff, who had to give the raid their blessing, over whether to green light it at all. I was able to draw on the unpublished memoirs of Captain John Hughes-Hallett, who was in the very vortex of the entire process. And there were other key players who left behind diaries, letters, and reports citing discussions that took place. I found minutes of meetings where fateful decisions were taken, such as Montgomery’s insistence on the entire Canadian tank regiment and the majority of the infantry being landed in front of Dieppe. So the story of the raid’s planning is an incredibly dramatic one that I was able to relate in the same “you are there” style that I bring to the actual detailing of the battles. Tragedy at Dieppe is unique to the Canadian Battle Series in there being much story focused on the lead up to the raid, but it still fits snugly into the Canadian Battle Series style. A style that I like to think of as being accurate history that reads like the best novel.

This is number ten. Is that it for the series?

No, not at all. In fall 2014 the plan is to publish Decision on the Rhine, which will detail the critical battle that First Canadian Army fought in February and March of 1945 to clear the southern bank of the Rhine River and open the way for the invasion into the heart of Germany and the liberation campaign in the Netherlands that I told in On to Victory. Another untold chapter of Canada’s Army in World War II is the march up the coast of France and Belgium to capture and open the channel ports—including Dieppe—after the breakout from Normandy. That’s a story that needs to be related in greater detail than it ever has been. I’m proud that the Canadian Battle Series is now the most detailed retelling of the experience of an Allied army in World War II by one writer ever published anywhere in the world. I think the Canadian veterans of the war deserve a tribute like that and I am glad to have—with Tragedy at Dieppe—been able to pay particular tribute to those who fought with such courage at Dieppe.

D&M Marketing, Sep 10, 2012
Read more >>
Mark  Zuehlke

Mark Zuehlke

October 2007

Mark Zuehlke is an award-winning author who is passionate about documenting lesser known battles in Canada's military history. Here, he talks to Douglas & McIntyre about his newest contribution, Terrible Victory.

Terrible Victory is your sixth book on Canadians in World War II. Why did you choose to focus on the Scheldt Estuary Campaign?

I am drawn to the Canadian campaigns that have received little past attention. After finishing Holding Juno my attention turned to the Scheldt Estuary Campaign when I realized it was the most horrific campaign Canadians were involved in during World War II and yet no definitive account of that experience existed. Here was a natural gap in our historical record that needed filling, so away I went.

Tell me about your research. What was the most exciting material that you unearthed while researching Terrible Victory?

Early on I had posted on my website the fact I was researching a book on the Scheldt Campaign. This led to two extremely important contacts. First, Dutch historian Johan van Doorn came forward with much material he had unearthed on the part his hometown of Woensdrecht had played in the battle. When I went to Holland, Johan accompanied me for almost two weeks as we toured the entire battlefield in great detail. Second, Cecil Law—a south Saskatchewan veteran—came forward and wrote out a number of thorough and very personal recollections of his experiences as a young lieutenant facing his first major combat experience. Had it not been for the website it is unlikely I would have made contact with either Johan or Cecil.

How had the Scheldt campaign been handled previously?

The only Canadian book that focused exclusively on the campaign before was Denis and Shelagh Withaker’s Tug of War, but as Denis was a veteran of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, the book placed greatest weight on that regiment’s experiences and less on the other Canadian regiments and divisions. Beyond this book the campaign generally showed up only as a chapter or two in histories of World War II.

The Scheldt campaign was about seven weeks long and the entire First Canadian Army eventually became engaged in it. Was it difficult to capture all that in a single book?

Very much so. I think the length and complexity of the campaign was the reason that no definitive work had been previously produced. In most cases during World War II campaigns followed a fairly linear development whereby the attacker was advancing together in the same direction. In clearing the Scheldt Estuary, however, the Canadians were forced to fight asymmetrically whereby the 3rd Division of the First Canadian Army was engaged on the southern bank of the estuary in an advance westward toward the sea; the 2nd Division was advancing from Antwerp in a northerly direction and then hooking westward across the South Beveland Peninsula and Walcheren Island to clear the northern bank; and finally the 4th Division was driving northeastward to gain control of the immediate mainland terrain.

First Canadian Army fought all these actions simultaneously and this was one of the realities that made the campaign such a challenge in terms of command and control. And also it was impossible for one division to reinforce the other or to take over the fighting as a division became exhausted and badly reduced by casualties. In effect, each division was forced to win its battle alone and for that reason I felt the campaign had to be told chronologically, shifting from one division and regiment to another so that the overall story unfolded as it had in reality.

Let’s talk a little about the campaign itself. You say it was the hardest Canadians fought. In what terms?

First, it was the most costly in casualties suffered. About 15,000 First Canadian Army troops were killed, wounded or missing at its end and at least half of these were Canadians with the rest being mostly British or Polish soldiers. Secondly, it was also a battle fought in the most hellish conditions imaginable. Much of the ground was Dutch and Belgian polders, basically land reclaimed from the sea that was as flat and open as a billiard table. Heavy fall rains, and deliberate flooding caused by the Germans blowing the dykes that held back the sea, reduced it to a muddy mire beyond anything that soldiers had experienced in the trenches of World War I. Movement was often confined to the tops of the dykes, which left the troops silhouetted and exposed to German defensive fire. Tanks could barely operate at all, so the fighting was often carried out by infantry lacking any direct armoured support. Time and again it was necessary to carry out amphibious attacks across wide canals or rivers where the Germans were dug in on the opposite bank. As one veteran put it, these conditions made the Scheldt Estuary campaign “hell on earth.”

And some say it was a “hell on earth” that was unnecessary. Any truth to that?

All too much. Antwerp fell to the British on September 4th and at the time the Germans were in disarray and had literally no troops or defensive positions established to defend the Scheldt Estuary. If the British had pushed on and cleared these approaches then the ground could have been won at little cost. But General Bernard Montgomery had his attention fixed on launching Operation Market Garden, which he hoped would carry the Allies across the Rhine and bring a hurried end to the war. So he never ordered the estuary to be secured, which was essential to opening Antwerp to Allied ship movement. By the time the Canadians began trying to clear this ground nine days later the Germans had recovered and poured thousands of troops into the area with orders to fight to the end to keep the estuary from being opened.

Why was the Scheldt Estuary so important to the Allies?

At the time Antwerp was the largest port in Europe and its capture was vital to enabling the Allies to supply the armies that were beginning to fight their way into Germany. Although Antwerp fell on September 4th, its possession was without value until the banks of the Scheldt Estuary were in Allied hands because all the shipping had to travel its length of about sixty miles from the North Sea to the port facilities. This was why First Canadian Army had to fight the campaign and why it had to win as quickly as possible without regard to casualties.

So an unnecessary campaign became desperately important to the Allies?

Correct. And the fact that First Canadian Army triumphed in the face of such fanatical resistance and in such difficult conditions is one of the most little known stories of World War II.

Of course it’s often the case, is it not, that Canada’s contributions and sacrifices throughout World War II receive scant attention outside the country or even inside it for that matter?

Sadly, this is all too often the case. You can read many World War II histories written by American or British writers and seldom be aware that Canadians served in the Italian campaign or that First Canadian Army played a major role in the North-West Europe campaign. And as a result many Canadians are equally unaware of our historical record in World War II. This is one of the major reasons that I have continued to research and write about the experience of Canadians in the major battles they fought during the course of the war. I felt that it was essential that these stories be available to Canadians in a highly readable form so that the sacrifices of the generation that marched to war between 1939 and 1945 not be lost and forgotten.

Reviewers and readers alike regularly comment on how your books bring the combat experience of Canadian soldiers in World War II to life in graphic detail. How do you do that?

It results from carrying out methodical and far reaching research that includes interviewing veterans and consulting their letters and memoirs, digging up the many reports and after-action accounts that soldiers prepared following combat incidents, and developing a clear understanding of the overarching issues that affected the particular campaign. Once I have all that material in hand I am able to meld it all together giving it a “you are there” feel by recreating conversations between individuals, walking through moments of combat literally alongside an individual soldier so that the reader can experience his thoughts and fears and be there when he ducks right to avoid incoming machinegun fire or is hit by shrapnel from an exploding grenade. I want Canadians who read my books to come away with as close a sense of what the soldiers in the war experienced as possible.

Do you know if there are many living veterans of Scheldt Estuary Campaign? Do you know what regions in Canada they’re living in?

Each day the number of veterans of World War II dwindles and this is, of course, true of veterans of the Scheldt. But in every region of Canada I was able to locate a few Scheldt veterans. This is not surprising as First Canadian Army consisted of regiments drawn from every province, excluding Newfoundland which was not part of the Dominion at that time.

So what’s next?

I’m working now on a book about Canada’s role in the invasion of Sicily in July and August of 1943. A sort of prequel to the Italian trilogy, you might say. After that I return to Normandy to follow First Canadian Army through the campaign there of July and August 1944. There are a lot of stories about Canada’s role in World War II still to explore and bring to life.

DM Marketing, Oct 29, 2007
Read more >>
Mark  Zuehlke

Mark Zuehlke

October 2007

Mark Zuehlke is an award-winning author who is passionate about documenting lesser known battles in Canada's military history. Here, he talks to Douglas & McIntyre about his newest contribution, Terrible Victory.

Terrible Victory is your sixth book on Canadians in World War II. Why did you choose to focus on the Scheldt Estuary Campaign?

I am drawn to the Canadian campaigns that have received little past attention. After finishing Holding Juno my attention turned to the Scheldt Estuary Campaign when I realized it was the most horrific campaign Canadians were involved in during World War II and yet no definitive account of that experience existed. Here was a natural gap in our historical record that needed filling, so away I went.

Tell me about your research. What was the most exciting material that you unearthed while researching Terrible Victory?

Early on I had posted on my website the fact I was researching a book on the Scheldt Campaign. This led to two extremely important contacts. First, Dutch historian Johan van Doorn came forward with much material he had unearthed on the part his hometown of Woensdrecht had played in the battle. When I went to Holland, Johan accompanied me for almost two weeks as we toured the entire battlefield in great detail. Second, Cecil Law—a south Saskatchewan veteran—came forward and wrote out a number of thorough and very personal recollections of his experiences as a young lieutenant facing his first major combat experience. Had it not been for the website it is unlikely I would have made contact with either Johan or Cecil.

How had the Scheldt campaign been handled previously?

The only Canadian book that focused exclusively on the campaign before was Denis and Shelagh Withaker’s Tug of War, but as Denis was a veteran of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, the book placed greatest weight on that regiment’s experiences and less on the other Canadian regiments and divisions. Beyond this book the campaign generally showed up only as a chapter or two in histories of World War II.

The Scheldt campaign was about seven weeks long and the entire First Canadian Army eventually became engaged in it. Was it difficult to capture all that in a single book?

Very much so. I think the length and complexity of the campaign was the reason that no definitive work had been previously produced. In most cases during World War II campaigns followed a fairly linear development whereby the attacker was advancing together in the same direction. In clearing the Scheldt Estuary, however, the Canadians were forced to fight asymmetrically whereby the 3rd Division of the First Canadian Army was engaged on the southern bank of the estuary in an advance westward toward the sea; the 2nd Division was advancing from Antwerp in a northerly direction and then hooking westward across the South Beveland Peninsula and Walcheren Island to clear the northern bank; and finally the 4th Division was driving northeastward to gain control of the immediate mainland terrain.

First Canadian Army fought all these actions simultaneously and this was one of the realities that made the campaign such a challenge in terms of command and control. And also it was impossible for one division to reinforce the other or to take over the fighting as a division became exhausted and badly reduced by casualties. In effect, each division was forced to win its battle alone and for that reason I felt the campaign had to be told chronologically, shifting from one division and regiment to another so that the overall story unfolded as it had in reality.

Let’s talk a little about the campaign itself. You say it was the hardest Canadians fought. In what terms?

First, it was the most costly in casualties suffered. About 15,000 First Canadian Army troops were killed, wounded or missing at its end and at least half of these were Canadians with the rest being mostly British or Polish soldiers. Secondly, it was also a battle fought in the most hellish conditions imaginable. Much of the ground was Dutch and Belgian polders, basically land reclaimed from the sea that was as flat and open as a billiard table. Heavy fall rains, and deliberate flooding caused by the Germans blowing the dykes that held back the sea, reduced it to a muddy mire beyond anything that soldiers had experienced in the trenches of World War I. Movement was often confined to the tops of the dykes, which left the troops silhouetted and exposed to German defensive fire. Tanks could barely operate at all, so the fighting was often carried out by infantry lacking any direct armoured support. Time and again it was necessary to carry out amphibious attacks across wide canals or rivers where the Germans were dug in on the opposite bank. As one veteran put it, these conditions made the Scheldt Estuary campaign “hell on earth.”

And some say it was a “hell on earth” that was unnecessary. Any truth to that?

All too much. Antwerp fell to the British on September 4th and at the time the Germans were in disarray and had literally no troops or defensive positions established to defend the Scheldt Estuary. If the British had pushed on and cleared these approaches then the ground could have been won at little cost. But General Bernard Montgomery had his attention fixed on launching Operation Market Garden, which he hoped would carry the Allies across the Rhine and bring a hurried end to the war. So he never ordered the estuary to be secured, which was essential to opening Antwerp to Allied ship movement. By the time the Canadians began trying to clear this ground nine days later the Germans had recovered and poured thousands of troops into the area with orders to fight to the end to keep the estuary from being opened.

Why was the Scheldt Estuary so important to the Allies?

At the time Antwerp was the largest port in Europe and its capture was vital to enabling the Allies to supply the armies that were beginning to fight their way into Germany. Although Antwerp fell on September 4th, its possession was without value until the banks of the Scheldt Estuary were in Allied hands because all the shipping had to travel its length of about sixty miles from the North Sea to the port facilities. This was why First Canadian Army had to fight the campaign and why it had to win as quickly as possible without regard to casualties.

So an unnecessary campaign became desperately important to the Allies?

Correct. And the fact that First Canadian Army triumphed in the face of such fanatical resistance and in such difficult conditions is one of the most little known stories of World War II.

Of course it’s often the case, is it not, that Canada’s contributions and sacrifices throughout World War II receive scant attention outside the country or even inside it for that matter?

Sadly, this is all too often the case. You can read many World War II histories written by American or British writers and seldom be aware that Canadians served in the Italian campaign or that First Canadian Army played a major role in the North-West Europe campaign. And as a result many Canadians are equally unaware of our historical record in World War II. This is one of the major reasons that I have continued to research and write about the experience of Canadians in the major battles they fought during the course of the war. I felt that it was essential that these stories be available to Canadians in a highly readable form so that the sacrifices of the generation that marched to war between 1939 and 1945 not be lost and forgotten.

Reviewers and readers alike regularly comment on how your books bring the combat experience of Canadian soldiers in World War II to life in graphic detail. How do you do that?

It results from carrying out methodical and far reaching research that includes interviewing veterans and consulting their letters and memoirs, digging up the many reports and after-action accounts that soldiers prepared following combat incidents, and developing a clear understanding of the overarching issues that affected the particular campaign. Once I have all that material in hand I am able to meld it all together giving it a “you are there” feel by recreating conversations between individuals, walking through moments of combat literally alongside an individual soldier so that the reader can experience his thoughts and fears and be there when he ducks right to avoid incoming machinegun fire or is hit by shrapnel from an exploding grenade. I want Canadians who read my books to come away with as close a sense of what the soldiers in the war experienced as possible.

Do you know if there are many living veterans of Scheldt Estuary Campaign? Do you know what regions in Canada they’re living in?

Each day the number of veterans of World War II dwindles and this is, of course, true of veterans of the Scheldt. But in every region of Canada I was able to locate a few Scheldt veterans. This is not surprising as First Canadian Army consisted of regiments drawn from every province, excluding Newfoundland which was not part of the Dominion at that time.

So what’s next?

I’m working now on a book about Canada’s role in the invasion of Sicily in July and August of 1943. A sort of prequel to the Italian trilogy, you might say. After that I return to Normandy to follow First Canadian Army through the campaign there of July and August 1944. There are a lot of stories about Canada’s role in World War II still to explore and bring to life.

DM Marketing, Oct 29, 2007
Read more >>