The North Nova Scotia Highlanders sailed to England in 1941 but didn’t see action until D-Day, on June 6, 1944. Landing unopposed in reserve, the entire affair was almost an anticlimax. However, the next morning they were assigned to lead the advance, driving south through Buron and Authie to Carpiquet Airfield west of Caen. It would be their first battle and what they were entering wasn’t the war they expected.
Reconnaissance tanks led the attack. The infantry was mounted aboard the Sherman tanks of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers. Joining them were the carrier-mounted machine guns of the Cameron Highlanders (Ottawa) and a troop of M10 tank destroyers.
Initially, they met little resistance and by noon the reconnaissance tanks had the hangars of the airfield in sight. Despite having trained for years, they were novices in the arts of war, not realizing they were racing to their doom.
The North Novas were on the extreme left flank of the Canadian forces. They believed that the 185th British Infantry Brigade was advancing on their left. They were not. Their attack had failed.
Dominating the Canadian flank, on the outskirts of Caen stood Abbaye d’Ardenne, an imposing medieval monastery. It was securely in German hands. From there Kurt ‘Panzer’ Meyer, CO of the 25th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment of the 12th SS Division ‘Hitlerjugend’, was watching.
He deployed most of his tanks in front of the airfield. The rest of the tanks and his grenadiers were arrayed on a reverse slope along the exposed Canadian left flank. When the Canadian vanguard encountered the German tanks deployed across their axis of advance, the SS drove into their flank. The result was a confused melee compounded by the inexperience of all involved. Both sides took heavy casualties.
Tragically, the Hitlerjugend grenadiers were a different sort of soldier than the Nova Scotians they were battling. The 12th SS was comprised of the class born in 1926. In the Hitlerjugend (an organization for young German boys), they had been raised on a steady diet of Aryan superiority, anti-Semitism, militarism, and the glorification of violence.
These willing young fanatics had been trained and were led by veteran officers from 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (LAH) who had spent years in the no-holds-barred maelstrom of the Eastern Front. They inculcated a harsh martial code that deified the Fuhrer.
The SS overran the Canadians and drove them back to Villons-les-Buissons, their morning start line. The young grenadiers took many of the Highlanders prisoner. Major Don Learmont, CO of C Company, the vanguard, was one. He recalled their teenaged captors, “wildly excited and erratic… continually yelling and screeching at one another.”
Lance Cpl Bill MacKay, sharing a slit trench with a wounded Private Lorne Brown, watched Brown bayonetted repeatedly when he was unable to rise as ordered. Stonemason Constance Raymond Guilbert, surreptitiously watched as a Canadian soldier, unarmed and arms raised, “got within three or four meters of the Germans. He was shot down.”
The killing went on after the battle. Assembled in Authie for transfer to the rear, eight Highlanders were arbitrarily selected and murdered on the roadside. Some of the bodies were then dragged into the middle of the road.
Six days later, Guilbert recalled, when the locals were finally permitted to remove the remains, “We were obliged to take two of them up with a shovel because they had been reduced to jelly.” Another column of prisoners marching to the rear had a German troop truck purposely swerve into their column.
Surviving the trip to Meyer’s headquarters in the Abbaye was no guarantee of safety. The captors took 10 prisoners aside, executing them one by one in the garden. The next day, more than 24 hours after the battle, the Germans killed seven more prisoners in the Abbaye garden.
In total, they murdered 58 prisoners, mostly North Novas, in the wake of the June 7 battle. Eleven were killed while surrendering, 27 were murdered leaving the battle zone and another 20 were executed in cold blood.
The North Novas who waded ashore on D-Day realized, however imperfectly, that death was a distinct possibility. None anticipated being executed by teenaged fanatics.