At age 100, Honorary Col. David Lloyd Hart still remembers every detail of the bloody and chaotic scene on the beach during the ill-fated Allied raid on Dieppe in 1942.
Hart, a communications operator, remembers being stuck on a crippled boat about five metres from shore, unable to swim for the beach because he couldn’t leave the vessel’s radio unit.
“The fire was terrible,” he said at an interview at his home in Montreal.
“There was mortar fire, and there were machine-gun nests in the cliffs which weren’t seen by our intelligence people because they had them covered, and they had heavy six-pounder or more cannons shooting at us.”
The Canadian Forces calls Hart, who was born in July 1917, the country’s oldest and longest serving officer. (He has the honorary rank of colonel).
He enlisted in the reserves in 1937 with the Fourth Signal Regiment and was called to active duty in 1939.
He went on to receive a military medal for bravery for his actions in Dieppe after he insisted on briefly going off air to locate two brigades and pass on an order to withdraw.
The raid on occupied France would prove to be the bloodiest single day for Canada’s military in the entire Second World War.
What was supposed to be a stealth operation quickly went wrong when the Allied forces were spotted by German troops, who barraged the boats with heavy fire.
“We were sitting ducks,” said Hart, who escaped without a scratch.
Of the almost 5,000 Canadian soldiers who took part in the raid on occupied France, nearly 3,400 were captured, injured or died. The number of deaths totalled 916.
Hart remembers seeing soldiers crouched behind the seawall, trying to dig with stones for a place to hide.
“They couldn’t, they were actually helpless,” he recalled.
The ship he was on, hopelessly damaged, had to be towed all the way back to England.
Hart stayed in the military after the war, eventually going on to command the 11th Signal Regiment.
Since leaving active duty he has served in various honorary positions.
Hart, who is still active and who looks much younger than his 100 years, says he’s impressed by today’s young soldiers, who he believes are “just as good as we were.”
He’s also glad the military is doing a better job than they used to of supporting the many veterans who return from wars with post-traumatic stress disorder.
At times, however, he’s disappointed to see some people losing interest in Remembrance Day, or wearing white poppies to promote pacifism.
“People don’t understand,” he said. ”They seem to think that wars should be abolished. But war has been around ever since people were fighting one another 5,000 years ago.”
He returned to Dieppe for the 75th anniversary of the conflict this summer, which he described as an emotional experience.
While he says all veterans ”have to live with our memories,” he says that given the chance, he’d sign up again — if he were young enough, that is.
Hart, who remembers the days of scratchy crystal radio sets and gramophones, believes the drive to win military conflicts spurred many of the “marvellous” advancements in medicine, science and technology he’s seen in his lifetime.
“We have people going to the moon, and we have a spaceship that’s up in the sky doing experimentation,” he said. “And we’re talking about finally sending someone to Mars.
“These are all marvellous things.”
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press