I don’t know how I feel about this book. Hugh Brewster is an excellent writer, but the choice of material is slightly odd. Why are there two I Am Canada books that deal with Canadian soldiers being captured as POWs—this one, and Behind Enemy Lines? And yet no one wrote a book about the Canadian contribution on D-Day?
Prisoner of Dieppe: World War II, Alistair Morrison, Occupied France, 1942, Hugh Brewster, 2010.
So, I get where we’re coming from here. The failed raid on Dieppe was a big deal, which led to an awful lot of Canadians being kept prisoner for years, which is not something that most people learn a lot about in school. So yes—but again, I feel like the “Canadians kept as POWs” aspect was reasonably well covered in Behind Enemy Lines. Am I wrong? Is it because these men were kept for so long—until the liberation of France and invasion of Germany? I don’t know. Let’s recap and find out.
One of the things I did enjoy about this book is how unabashedly not-into-it Alistair is about being a soldier. He is a bookish, shy kid who moves from Scotland to Ontario with his parents and younger sisters, and when his father dies fairly young, his mother has to take over making the money. Alistair’s friend Mackie, who is older and far more athletic, more or less strong-arms Alistair into joining the military in the summer of 1940, and we’re off to the races. Alistair’s mother is devastated, since her husband, Alistair’s father, was gassed very badly in the First World War, and he was never right after that and it probably contributed to his early death. So we’re already not off to a great start.
We’re off to basic at Borden, where everything and everyone is miserable, until they finally ship out to England in the fall of 1940. Everyone is seasick on the way, but they make it to England without being torpedoed or sinking, and then they hang out in London. For what feels like forever. Alistair is the only one who wants to go do tourist stuff, because he’s a giant nerd, so he goes to the museums while Mackie and the rest of his friends all go do normal 20-something man things, like go to dance clubs and try to get with English women. This entire chapter is like something lifted out of a travelogue. We visit London Bridge, Big Ben, the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square, all kinds of stuff. It’s not all that interesting and I don’t blame Mackie for bailing.
Then they’re shipped off to the south coast of London to do nothing for several more months, and it isn’t until the spring of 1942 that they actually start training for anything. Let’s recap: this is almost their two-year anniversary of being in the army, and bloody fuck-all has happened to them so far. I don’t blame them for chomping at the bit when they hear that they might finally, finally, get something to do. Except then when they’re supposed to be doing a training exercise, the British drop them off at the wrong beach entirely, and everything gets laughably messed up.
But they do get picked to participate in the actual attempt to invade at Dieppe, which is almost immediately cancelled. Womp womp. The make-up raid is set for a few days later, and it’s actually reasonably well-written. Horrifying, but well-written. People are dying every which way, but Alistair makes it through with only some fairly-bad lacerations. Things don’t go well at all, and then they’re forced to surrender rather than be blown to bits.
They’re rounded up and marched behind German lines (including an exciting scene where a Spitfire strafes them and kills a whole bunch of their own men, war is the worst)—sixteen hundred of them all together. The French people in the countryside are devastated to see them walking through so obviously defeated, but the Germans won’t allow them to give the soldiers any food or drink. A British sergeant-major, Beesley, takes control and forms everyone into sections to maintain order, and sets them up with his catchphrase—“Make your enemy respect you. In time, they will fear you!” which will prove to be prophetic. And then they’re forcibly marched for what feels like the entirety of France—it’s not, but it’s an awfully long way for a bunch of men who have just been attacked. Eventually they’re loaded into boxcars, and while one man tries to escape, he’s dissuaded by a blast of machine gun fire. One of the interesting themes in this book is just how reluctant of a soldier Alistair is—he didn’t want to join up, he wasn’t excited to go on the raid of Dieppe when everyone else was, he didn’t want to try to escape when everyone else did, and so on. It’s partly rooted in his natural timidity, but partially because all he really wants out of the war is to save his own skin and go home safely. Who can blame him?
When they finally get to the camp, the barracks are slightly less miserable than the train car, but not by much. They’re fed barely anything, and what’s almost worse is that they have nothing to do. Nothing. Lots of cards, mostly. But there are no books to read, nothing. Alistair is almost losing his mind with boredom and tries to improve his high-school French by talking with the Quebecers who are there with him, but there’s really nothing else to do.
In the fall of 1942, the Germans claim that several German soldiers were found shot with their hands tied at Dieppe, and until Churchill apologizes, the prisoners of war will have their hands tied in consequence. So their hands are bound, and then they have even less to do. So Mackie asks Alistair to tell him some of the stories out of books and history he’s read, and Alistair basically tells him the entire history of Britain to keep them occupied. Eventually, having their hands tied isn’t enough, and the prisoners are shackled all the time instead—but one of the Canadians figures out a way to unlock them using a wire.
The men keep busy doing odd things—carving themselves wooden clogs, painting murals in the barracks, making tiny boilers out of odd bits of trash. But finally they hit on the most enticing plan of all, which is to build an escape tunnel out of the bottom of one of the bunkers. It’s incredibly long—40+ yards—and involved, since they have to dispose of all the sand and dirt and manage to bolster up the walls of the tunnel as well. Once it’s completed, Beesley and the “escape committee” (I love that there’s an escape committee) declare that they will allow only certain people to escape, and never en masse, which never works. The first man they pass out is a British colonel, and it’s a very elaborate deception—it involves fake clothes and identity papers and all kinds of stuff. Then there’s a dramatic program of hiding the missing men by passing them off as sick, taking their place, doubling up in roll call, etc., until the escapees are long since gone.
By the fall of 1943, escaping through the tunnel is getting so dangerous that only a few more men will be allowed, and Mackie is almost crazy with the desire to go. Alistair tries and tries and tries to talk him out of it, but Mackie escapes in the night, and is shot by the guards when he’s found and the escape tunnel is cemented up for good.
Alistair is so depressed after this that he can barely walk. So he spends most of the winter into 1944 wallowing in his own despair, and then later in 1944 they’re sent out to work on German farms. By 1945 it’s too dangerous as the Allies are advancing through Europe, and they’re back in the camp. (Yes, we did just advance through years of prison camp in a few pages.) The Russians are coming very close, and the prisoners are marched out in the dead of winter with a tide of refugees and eventually sent to a camp in the heart of Germany—while along the way they see boxcar after boxcar of emaciated dead bodies. They’re marched on again and again while Germany is in its death throes, and at one point while marching they’re strafed by another RAF plane and eighty-nine men who lived all that time in the prison camp are killed by their own damn men.
But they’re eventually discovered and liberated by some British soldiers, who are shocked at their condition, just in time to learn about Hitler’s death and the surrender. Alistair is quickly shipped to England, where he promptly comes down with pneumonia, and isn’t well enough to go back to Canada until July, where he is finally reunited with his family.
This one has a fascinating epilogue, which is true for very few of these books. Alistair marries and has a family, but leaves a letter for his grandson with what he describes as a terrible secret. It turns out that in his desperation to keep Mackie from escaping, during the day before the planned escape, Alistair takes one of the boxes they used to surreptitiously take dirt out of the tunnel and “accidentally” spills it in full view of the guards. The guards see it and find the tunnel after a search, and it’s cemented up. Alistair tries and tries and tries to convince Mackie that it’s okay, they’ll be moved to another camp where they’ll be able to escape more easily, but Mackie won’t even talk to him. And that night Mackie tries to escape just by climbing the wire fence and is shot by the guards on the way. As he’s being taken to the infirmary, Alistair begs to be able to see his friend, and the commandant says he is no friend—he is his Judas. After his return to Ontario, Alistair suffers a nervous breakdown before resolving to live for Mackie’s sake instead of his own.
Rating: B-. I have a lot of conflicted feelings about this book. On the one hand, as I mentioned before, I did think that the prisoner-of-war aspect is an odd thing to have in two separate books published just a year apart, but okay. And I get that when the book covers a timespan of literal years, it’s difficult to cover anything but one incident in major detail (that being the escape tunnel). But I would have liked to see a bit more introspection regarding how Alistair felt—we got lots of the boredom, but barely any mention of missing his family, hunger, wondering how the war was really going, etc. And I really, really appreciated the twist ending, although it was a punch in the gut for sure! It was unique and great, despite being a pretty harsh thing to cover for a book aimed at teenage boys. Overall, the book itself was not all that engaging—it didn’t grab me like some of the others have—and I think it’s the first I Am Canada book I haven’t wholeheartedly enjoyed despite my misgivings. It’s not bad. But it’s not the best.