Germany still hasn’t reckoned with this Nazi atrocity

A massacre of Canadian civilians has gone unnoticed
A massacre of Canadian civilians has gone unnoticed

During the Second World War Canada punched substantially above its weight. More than a million Canadians and Newfoundlanders (the province didn’t join the national federation until 1949) served, and 45,000 lost their lives.

Canadian pilots excelled in the Battle of Britain and then in Bomber Command, and by 1945 the Canadian navy was the fourth largest in the world. 80 years ago, on D-Day five beaches were invaded – two by the Americans, two by the British, and one, Juno, by the Canadians. Quite extraordinary for a country of less than 12 million people.

Something that is perhaps less well-known is that Canadian soldiers were also the victims of one of the worst military atrocities of the entire Second World War. In the days following the invasion, between June 7 and 11, 156 men were executed after surrendering.

That figure represents one in seven of all Canadians who died in the first week after D-Day. It’s a quite extraordinary statistic, including the killing of unarmed and often wounded men to the mass execution of prisoners, who were protected under the Geneva Convention and were of no threat to their captors.

The perpetrators of these atrocities were soldiers of the 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitler Youth) but only one of those responsible, Colonel Kurt Meyer, was ever charged. In other words, the crime went largely unpunished.

The murders began on June 7 when a number of North Nova Scotia Highlanders and the Sherbrooke Fusiliers were captured after the battle of Authie. That night 11 Canadians were taken into a garden and shot in the head. Seven more were murdered in the early hours of the following morning.

On June 8, 64 Canadians, many from the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, were taken prisoner. They were taken to the Château d’Audrieu, under the command of the 12th SS Panzer, and 45 of them were slaughtered. After the battle of Bretteville-sur-Odon, 36 Canadian prisoners, mainly from the Cameron Highlanders and Regina Rifles, were executed, some shot at point-blank range and others by machine-gun fire.

On June 11, Canadian troops from the 2nd Armoured Brigade and the Queen’s Own Rifles were defeated in an attack close to the village of Le Mesnil-Patry. Their losses were heavy, and many were wounded. After the defeat, a number of the prisoners were shot by their captors. In one incident a Canadian was shot dead but his two comrades survived and were able to report what had happened.

These survivors weren’t alone. As the killings continued in the days to come the Germans tried to hide their crimes, but the allies were advancing too quickly. They found increasing evidence of a massacre, and several weeks later, a Canadian newspaper headline announced, “Canuck Soldiers Murdered!”

The campaign following the invasion was intense and costly. There was little time to investigate war crimes while attacks and counter-attacks thundered on. By the time the Nazis surrendered, their obscene behaviour towards civilian populations, and the full horror of the Holocaust, was emerging, meaning that the fate of the 156 young Canadians was, if not forgotten, relegated to secondary status. Many of the SS grenadiers who had been involved were dead.

The commander of the 12th SS Panzer, Kurt Meyer, was eventually put on trial in December 1945. Canadian and German soldiers and French civilians gave evidence. Meyer was sentenced to death, but on appeal his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.

The Canadian public were outraged, the Soviet Union considered demanding Meyer be sent to Moscow to face a trial for war crimes committed while serving on the eastern front. Meyer was instead sent to a prison in New Brunswick, Canada. He asked for clemency in 1951, in an era when the US and Britain were looking to West Germany as an ally against Soviet expansion. Subsequently, he was returned to Germany, and released in 1954. He used his freedom to become an active apologist for the Waffen SS, and died of natural causes in 1961, lionised by many in his home country.

There are memorials in Canada and in France to the victims of the Normandy Massacres: but not many, and the names of the victims are now mostly forgotten. 15,000 people attended the funeral of Kurt Meyer.