Murdered prisoners sparked Canada's first war-crimes trials 60 years ago
By JOHN WARD
Oct 16, 2005
OTTAWA (CP) - Three days after the D-Day invasion in June 1944, the British army occupied a Normandy mansion called Chateau d'Audrieu and found a row of 13 Canadian soldiers lying dead along a fence.
Beatrice Delafon, the young woman who had been left in charge of the mansion by its owner, her uncle, said the men had been prisoners murdered by their German captors.
So began Canada's first war-crimes investigations. They became a drawn-out and unsatisfying process, which would determine that more than 150 Canadians were massacred in Normandy by members of the 12th SS Panzer Division, but which would bring only one man to trial.
Since then, Canada has had a spotty six-decade record in bringing war criminals to justice, with as many failures as successes. This fall marks the 60th anniversary of Canada's tarnished legacy of prosecution - and even today, war criminals don't always pay for their crimes.
The roots go back to 1944, when the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade suffered just over 1,000 fatal casualties in Normandy. Of those, one in seven was murdered while a prisoner.
They weren't isolated incidents. Among the major massacres:
-23 men, mostly from the North Nova Scotia Regiment shot at Authie on June 7.
-18 men, again mostly North Novas, shot at l'Abbaye d'Ardenne, Meyer's headquarters on June 7-8.
-35 men, most from the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, shot on the Caen-Foutenay road on June 7.
-24 men, mainly from the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, shot at Chateau d'Audrieu, June 8.
Another 50 or so were murdered in small groups in another dozen incidents.
It's a grisly and little remembered tragedy. In the recent euphoria over the 60th anniversaries of D-Day and VE-Day, there was little if any mention of those victims.
The killings are blamed on the 12th SS Panzer Division. Its rank and file soldiers were teenage members of the Hitler Youth.
"They were young, they had been completely drowned in this propaganda, instilled with all of these Nazi virtues and they were fanatical," says Whitney Lackenbauer, a history professor at St. Jerome's University, an Ontario college affiliated with Waterloo University.
Their leaders, the officers and NCOs, were hard-bitten Nazis, many of whom learned their craft in the pitiless crucible of the Russian Front.
"These are seasoned veterans," Lackenbauer added. "They've been hardened in that particular theatre, where there was no love lost on either side and 'No prisoners' was a common order that was just accepted.
"They were obviously inculcating that same spirit in 17-and 18-year-olds."
The young fanatics and the bitter veterans made a volatile mix.
They fought to the death, in many cases, and likely did more to slow up Allied advances in Normandy than any other German unit.
In the end, though, the 12th SS was broken and retreated from Normandy without a single tank, self-propelled gun or artillery piece.
Brigadefuehrer Kurt Meyer, who was a regimental commander in the division before succeeding to command of the unit in June 1944, was captured by Belgian partisans in September 1944, during the great retreat.
He was marched into a Canadian court in Germany in October 1945, charged with the murder of 41 prisoners of war. He was the only man Canada ever tried for the killings.
His was Canada's first war crimes trial and although it riveted the country's attention and focused anger on the 34-year-old major general, it was also to prove that justice can be a tantalizingly elusive goal.
Bruce Macdonald, a Windsor, Ont., lawyer and wartime lieutenant-colonel who investigated the Normandy murders and prosecuted Meyer, said the case captivated Canadians.
"Probably no single event of World War II aroused more widespread and continued interest in Canada than the trial and subsequent treatment of SS Maj.-Gen. Kurt Meyer," he wrote in his 1954 book on the trial.
Meyer was eventually found guilty on two counts and sentenced to death, but that was commuted to life in prison and he was freed after 10 years.
In the end, one German officer was found responsible for killing Canadian prisoners and was executed. But he was tried and sentenced by a British court.
Wilhelm Mohnke, another SS officer who is widely believed to have ordered the murder of 35 Canadians in Normandy, spent 10 years in Soviet captivity, returned home and became a car salesman. He died in 2001, a 90-year-old pensioner.
Macdonald's Canadian War Crimes Investigation Unit was formed in June 1945 to gather evidence against the 12th SS. His investigators tracked down witnesses, conducted autopsies and scoured records to build their case, particularly against Meyer.
The SS general was a highly decorated soldier who had fought in Poland, France, Greece and Russia. He was noted for his drive and ruthlessness - he was said to have tossed a grenade at his own men to get them moving in one skirmish.
The man who had been the youngest division commander in the German army went on trial in December 1945 before a court martial made up of five Canadian generals, all combat veterans.
Macdonald had Lt.-Col. Clarence Campbell, later head of the NHL, as his assistant in the prosecution.
Meyer was defended by Lt.-Col. Maurice Andrew, a lawyer from Stratford, Ont., who had risen through the militia ranks to wartime command of the Perth Regiment.
The key evidence for the prosecution was delivered by Jan Jesionek, an ethnic German from Poland who had been pressed into the 12th SS. The young private testified he heard Meyer deliver a fateful line at l'Abbaye d'Ardenne: "In future, no more prisoners are to be taken."
Later that afternoon, Jesionek said, he watched as seven Canadians were marched, one by one, down a passageway into the chateau's garden, where each was shot in the head.
He said the young Canadians seemed to know what was coming. They shook hands with each other and said their goodbyes before walking, heads high, into the garden.
Andrew, though no fan of his Nazi client, conducted a spirited defence. He tried hard to cast doubt on Jesionek's testimony.
Among other things, Meyer offered a "you, too" defence, claiming that Canadians had killed German prisoners and if the SS killed any prisoners, it was in retaliation. He also claimed that written orders to take no prisoners had been found on the body of a dead Canadian officer.
Chris Madsen, a historian who teaches at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto, discounts both these defences.
"That shouldn't enter into it, what Meyer did," he said. "It's not an excuse if Canadians committed war crimes."
As for the mythical order to take no prisoners: "There's no proof there was ever an order like that."
Lackenbauer is even more unequivocal on that count: "There is absolutely not one, single shred of evidence that such an order ever existed."
The historian concedes that there likely were instances, in the heat of battle, when Canadians might have killed Germans trying to surrender or who had just surrendered. But there's a difference between that and the acts of the 12th SS.
"If Canadian soldiers committed individual acts of indiscretion, which they likely did, these were in no way comparable to the widespread and systematic atrocities of the 12 SS Panzer."
The trial ran Dec. 10-28 with a two-day Christmas break.
After 25 minutes of deliberation, Meyer was convicted of three of the five charges against him: that he counselled his troops not to take prisoners; that he was responsible for the deaths of seven soldiers at l'Abbaye; that he was responsible for the deaths of another 11 men at l'Abbaye.
He was acquitted on a charge connected with the murders at Authie and of giving a direct order for the murder of the Canadians at l'Abbaye.
The key was that Meyer was found responsible for the murders, by virtue of being the division commander.
But Lackenbauer said it is clearer than that. The l'Abbaye d'Ardenne was Meyer's headquarters. It's hard to believe he missed the repeated gunshots and the bodies. He gave at least tacit consent.
"Clearly, he had to be aware what was going on," Lackenbauer said. "Even if he didn't give explicit orders, was he giving de facto consent?"
The court sentenced Meyer to death by firing squad, but the sentence still had to be confirmed by the military chain of command and Maj.-Gen. Chris Vokes, the senior Canadian officer in Europe, wasn't happy with it.
In his memoirs, he says he studied the trial transcript and found much of the case against Meyer was circumstantial. He also says he was aware, as a divisional commander "that certain things probably did go on that were not always according to the rules."
"There was hearsay evidence," he wrote. "There was nothing direct. There was nothing that appeared to indicate Meyer said: "Shoot the bastards!" or words to that effect.
"So I ordered the execution stayed."
Meyer's sentence was commuted to life in prison and with that, much of the steam seemed to go out of Canada's war-crimes process.
OTTAWA (CP) - Quotes connected with the Canada's history of war-crimes prosecutions:
"A natural and brilliant soldier, Meyer was destined to become Nazi Germany's youngest general at the age of 34 and to be branded as a war criminal in 1945." Michael Reynolds, retired British general, describes Meyer in his book, Steel Inferno, 1st SS Panzer Corps in Normandy.
"It is the duty of all nations to bring to justice those who abuse or kill unarmed and surrendered soldiers who have made no attempt to escape or to interfere with the legitimate actions of their captors." Reynolds.
"It was inconceivable how he, sitting in his headquarters, could have heard a succession of regularly spaced pistol shots less than 150 feet away and not sent someone off to investigate. I would have." Canadian Maj.-Gen. Harry Foster, president of the Meyer court martial, commenting years later about Meyer's defence that he was unaware of the murders of Canadian PoWs at his headquarters.
"It is one of the sad realities of the postwar era, however, that the vast majority of suspected Nazi war criminals will die peacefully in their beds." Howard Margolian, former Canadian war-crimes investigator, in his book, Conduct Unbecoming.
"It may be that Meyer did give the order, but it was not proved, not to my satisfaction. I was not going to go to bed forever with his unwarranted death on my conscience." Maj.-Gen, Chris Vokes, the senior officer who commuted Meyer's death sentence to life in prison, in his memoirs three decades later.
"They didn't care what happened to these guys." Windsor lawyer Pat Brode, author of a definitive book on Canada's war crimes prosecutions, commenting on Canadian government indifference to the deaths of Canadian PoWs in Normandy.
"As a last resort, Canada might look to denaturalization and deportation. The commission gives to this process its lowest ranking because it does not really deal with the substantive issue of war crimes: it merely transfers the suspect to another country, provided there be one willing to accept the outcast." Report of Justice Jules Deschenes, 1987.
"War crimes and crimes against humanity were viewed as so heinous as to require a procedure so unmanageable as to make successful prosecution unlikely." Supreme Court Justice Gerard La Forest commenting on the case of Imre Finta, which effectively ended war crimes prosecutions in Canada.