Peaceful Abbey became a killing field for Canadian POWs
Gilbert Taylor Toronto Sun
As we strolled along that dusty road to l’Abbaye d’Ardenne in France on an early, summer’s afternoon, it was impossible to conceive of the evil that transpired there nearly 76 years ago.
Birds sang, fields of buttercups waved in the breeze. It was the perfect image of what a 12th-century monastery should be.
But there was nothing holy about what happened there in the days that followed the 1944 Allied invasion of Normandy.
The Germans, still reeling from the success of D-Day, were fighting back with ferocious tenacity.
The peaceful Abbey became headquarters for 33-year-old Standartenführer Kurt Meyer and his 20,000-member, 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend.
From the Abbaye’s tower, Meyer surveyed the countryside and directed his troops against a liberating army that included units of the Canadian expeditionary force.
The 12th SS Panzer was a particularly nasty piece of work, made up of children born in 1926, with a few members as young as 15 and 16.
Hitler himself enthusiastically approved the plan to build this fanatical division.
They were selected from the ranks of the Hitler Youth movement established in 1926 and made mandatory for all German youth by 1939.
In 1940, the Hitler Youth was eight million strong and a breeding ground for the most successful fighting element of the Third Reich.
The division’s young members took to their duties with unbridled enthusiasm and viciousness.
All they had known through their young years was the brutal, deep-rooted Nazi philosophy of, “Fight to the death for the fatherland.”
Their senior officers, hardened veterans of the Russian Front, used this blind loyalty to great advantage once their naive troops were in the field, putting their brutal training into practice.
On June 6, Canada’s North Nova Scotia Highlanders, backed by the tanks of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers, were fighting some eight kilometres northwest of Caen, near a town called Authie, when they first encountered the 12th SS Panzer Division.
On June 7, the Sherbrookes lost 28 tanks with 37 Canadians killed, 23 of them after they surrendered.
The British and Canadians forces were stopped in their tracks and held up for over a month, while inflicting significant losses on the German forces.
The murders of Canadian Prisoners of War started on the evening of June 6.
Incensed and wildly agitated, child soldiers of the 26th Regiment, 12th Waffen SS, fresh from battle under their 34-year-old commanding officer, the morphine-addicted, Lt.-Col. Wilhelm Mohnke, shot 35 Canadians somewhere near Fontenay-le-Pesnel.
By June 9, they had murdered another 48 Canadian prisoners.
Some 50 North Nova Scotia Highlanders and Sherbrooke Fusiliers were marched to l’Abbaye d’Ardenne, where 11 of them were chosen at random, led into the quiet garden and shot in the back of the neck.
The next morning another seven POWs were brought to that tranquil place for execution after Meyer commented, “What should we do with these prisoners? They only eat up our rations. In the future, no more prisoners are to be taken.”
Realising their time had come, every Canadian shook hands with his comrades and walked to his death.
On June 17, two members of the Stormont Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, captured while on patrol, met the same fate, bringing the total of Abbaye victims to 20.
By the time the Regina Rifles liberated the Abbey on July 8, 156 Canadian heroes had been murdered by the Hitler Youth, shot in the head or bludgeoned to death in locations throughout the Ardenne.
The weeks leading up to the capture had been costly for the Regina Rifles, with 200 dead and injured.
But the fight ended in a whimper with the Nazis slinking off in the dead of night.
With a company of Winnipeg Riflemen, The Reginas entered the grounds and found them strewn with German corpses.
On arrival, Capt. Gordon Brown said, “We then knew nothing about the soldiers of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, who had been buried somewhere under our feet.”
And what of Lt.-Col. Wilhelm Mohnke and his boss?
Mohnke was highly decorated and promoted to general as one of Hitler’s favourites.
He denied ordering the murder of POWs, and the Canadian War Crimes Tribunal never laid a glove on him.
After being held for years in a Soviet Gulag, he was allowed to live in freedom to the ripe old age of 90.
Meyer, a one-time mailman, was tried, convicted and sentenced to death only to have that sentence commuted to life, outraging Canadians everywhere.
After eight years in New Brunswick and German prisons he was released, some say to appease a recovering, post-war Germany.
He died in 1961 on his 51st birthday.
If you find your way to the garden of l’Abbaye d’Ardenne, you will see a rank of black and white photographs gazing down from an old stone wall.
These are the faces of youthful, Canadian heroes, cut down on holy ground, forever young in the face of death.
And if you listen closely, you might hear the echo of gunshots on a summer breeze, reminding us of a time when the world had gone mad, and heartless children stalked the land.
— Col. Gilbert Taylor, (HCol. retired) is the immediate past president of the Royal Canadian Military Institute and Ontario Branch of the Last Post Fund