Roland “Rolly” Gravel served as a gunner with The Fusiliers Mont-Royal regiment during the Second World War. He was among the 6,000 troops who landed at the coastal port of Dieppe, France, on 19 August 1942. The attack was a disaster, and Gravel was taken prisoner. Learn all about the hardships Gravel faced as prisoner of war.
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“The Germans, you could tell, weren't feeding us very much since we were young, well-trained and in good health. They wanted to discourage us from escaping by being too weak. After the ten days, with very little to eat, they put us on trains that transported animals.”
Our regiment, Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, was in England for a year and a half to train. We were there with two or three other regiments for special training on an island called the Isle of Wight, in England. It was commando training on how to carry out raids. There’s a difference between a raid and an invasion. A raid could be carried out on land, or on sea to land, and so on, and it was an attack with a battle for an objective followed by a quick withdrawal.
We trained on the Isle of Wight for four months and then we moved to the English coast. One day, the colonel got the battalion together and said, "Men, we've been here for almost two years. Tomorrow morning, we are going to attack Dieppe". The port of France which was here and we were in Newhaven. For all the soldiers, it was like they were going on vacation because they had spent a year and a half training all day and all night, all the time. Everyone was happy. It was the beginning of July. Unfortunately, there were only three days per month that we could arrive and attack via the sea because of the tides. We loaded onto the boats but unfortunately it rained and it rained for the three days and everything was cancelled. We went back to our camps and the following month, in August, they decided to carry out the attack again. We were still just as happy to go.
What happened on August 19, 1942 is that we attacked Dieppe in the morning, the first troops landed at 5:30 and then everything was over between 12:30-1:00 in the afternoon. We unloaded at 7:00 in the morning. My company was directly in the middle of the town so, like everything else, we mopped up the beach and started fighting with the enemy, unfortunately, without us knowing that there was an accumulation of Germans who just happened to be training in the area around Dieppe, so they sent all of those Germans to the town of Dieppe. All in all, we were about 5 miles away. According to British Intelligence, after the war, they calculated that we were facing over 12 thousand Germans. And despite this, we fought from 5:30 in the morning like I said, until 12:30-1:00 in the afternoon. The dead were everywhere, and naturally there were also a lot of wounded. We surrendered with a white flag at approximately 12:45-1:00. We felt two things; the first was not having achieved all of the objectives we had set out to achieve and the second was joy for being alive, those of us who remained. Those were the two feelings we had.
We were declared prisoners and we surrendered our weapons. Then we crossed the town of Dieppe by foot, surrounded by guards, until we reached the hospital, the town hospital, where they separated us from our men; the officers on one side and the men - the soldiers - on the other. The first night the officers - I can't speak for the men since I don't know what happened - took us to a church in Envermeu to spend the night, which was about 3 or 4 kilometres outside of Dieppe. We spent the night in the church and then after that, a train took us to Verneuil, which was a small town outside of Paris, to a former French army camp which was no longer being used. They took us there and we were there for ten days. The Germans, you could tell, weren't feeding us very much since we were young, well-trained and in good health. They wanted to discourage us from escaping by being too weak. After the ten days, with very little to eat, they put us on trains that transported animals. They were marked ''20 horses, 40 men'' and things like that. It took us two days to get to a little town in the south, in Bavaria, in the south of Germany, to a little town called Eichstätt to a prisoner-of-war camp for Commonwealth officers. During raids, we had orders to bind our prisoners. Not bind their feet or hands, but just bind their two thumbs with a cord and then put their hands behind their backs, and loop the cord around the neck. This was described in all of our daily orders that were issued at the time. The Germans, in collecting all kinds of things, found a copy of our orders, they saw them. So, during the fall of 1943, they read the orders and they said that we, not us but our superior officers, acted against the rules of the international court of Geneva. So they handcuffed us- the Canadians only, no other Commonwealth officers- with special handcuffs from 8:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night. That lasted for four months. Then they put us in chains, which was a bit more comfortable since we could put our hands in our pockets, even though there were big metal bracelets. The chains lasted for nine months, from 8:00 in the morning until 8:00 at night. All of that ended the next year, I would say around Christmas time.
The hardest thing, funny enough, was when we saw the mail arrive because of course, the mail didn't come every day. Receiving mail from our families was the best for our morale. So if an officer who was particularly difficult knew that we had seen the mail truck arrive, he wouldn't give it to us. He would wait one day, two days, a week before he gave it to us. That was hard, very hard.
The liberation happened like this: the Germans, through the intermediary of Red Cross representatives, created a delegation of British and Americans to go meet the American army which was nearby to request that they allow them a chance to move the camp. The Americans simply said, ''Do you want to move or stay here?'' They said, ''Some have been here for five years and there are others that have spent three years as prisoners''. It wasn't just soldiers, but also airmen and sailors. They said, ''We're staying; attack, we don't want to move anymore''. So they said, ''Tell the Germans that we’ll attack tomorrow morning at 5:00''. So the next day exactly they attacked; but they made sure to overshoot the camp, from one side to the other. It started at 5:00 and towards 11:00, we saw the American tanks roll in to the camp. For us, the war was ending.
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