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Excerpts from
Courage Rewarded: Canadian Soldiers Under Fire 1900-2007

The Black Watch of Canada on Verrières Ridge, July 1944

On July 20, 1944, the fresh 2nd Canadian Infantry Division launched the first attack to capture Verrières, but it was a disaster, costing over 1,000 casualties for no gain. To seize the ridge, a more carefully prepared offensive, Operation "Spring," was then organized. Unfortunately, this assault on July 25 by both 2nd and 3rd Divisions was even more disastrous, gaining only part of the ridge at a cost of a further 1,500 casualties. One company of the Royal Regiment of Canada was destroyed, all the supporting tanks of the 1st Hussars were knocked out, and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry lost 200 men. As the Royal Regiment's historian put it, "the entire area looked like a charnel house, with dead bodies and blazing vehicles everywhere."

The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, however, suffered the worst casualties on July 25. When the senior officer commanding the Black Watch attack was killed, a junior company commander, Major Frederick Phillip Griffin took over and was determined the attack should go through. Despite lack of tank support and delays, he led his 300 men up the open ridge where they came under a hail of enemy fire from all sides. One Black Watch officer later wrote: "you never need to be ashamed of having belonged to the Black Watch. The troops were steady as a rock and we kept going." Only sixty men reached the top of the ridge. The situation here was hopeless and Griffin ordered the remaining men to make their way back as best as they could. In the end, only fifteen men reached safety; Griffin's body was later found at the crest where it lay among the other dead. Canadian military historians later described the offensive of July 25 as "one of the blackest days in the history of the Canadian Army," and, with respect to the Black Watch, "except for the Dieppe operation, there is no other instance in the Second World War when a Canadian battalion had so many casualties in a single day."

This disastrous attack resulted in one of the more controversial episodes regarding a posthumous recommendation during the war. With only 15 men surviving from over 300 committed to the attack, the Black Watch's fighting strength had been shattered and it now had to be rebuilt over a period of weeks. In Canada, senior regimental officers and concerned friends, including several from prominent Montreal families, demanded that the conditions that led to such a disaster be investigated. Controversy over the event still exists today. Some accounts present Major Philip Griffin as insisting the attack proceed, despite indications showing the plan was going awry; others claim that Griffin was ordered by his brigade commander, Brigadier William J. Megill, to proceed despite protests from Griffin that the odds were against them. In any case, Griffin's bravery could not be criticized as his body was found at the farthest point of the advance where he had led the surviving members of the attack. Griffin was eventually awarded a posthumous Mention in Despatches although some felt he should have been recommended for the Victoria Cross. Making this case in 1945, Lieutenant-Colonel A.W. Wright wrote to a colleague that some of the survivors of the attack, who had been taken prisoner and freed later in the war, had expected that Griffin would have been awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. According to Wright, the survivors "cannot understand why nothing has been done about it. I am pointing this out because this whole question was being discussed the last time I was in the Armory [sic] when everybody felt that all these stories (which are continually being added to) should be fitted together, and some action should be taken to reopen or to build up a case for some worthwhile recognition of the Battalion's heroism in Normandy."

But not all felt that Griffin's act was up to the standard of the Victoria Cross. According to historian David O'Keefe, some survivors felt that, while Griffin had acted bravely, there was some cause to criticize him. Historian Terry Copp argued that attacking over open ground without proper support against an enemy position that was held in strength was "ill-considered." Consequently, Copp felt that Griffin's sense of duty lacked judgment and he could never be considered for a Victoria Cross. The grief of Major Griffin's father was such, however, that in February 1945 he felt compelled to appeal to the Governor General to express disappointment that his son had not received the Victoria Cross. He wrote that many others had agreed his son had not received proper recognition for his "outstanding bravery, determination and leadership." He argued that an injustice had been done and he asked the Governor General to request the King to open an investigation into the matter. He concluded, "I hope that justice will yet be given to my son and his Regiment, and thus stem the growing feeling of indignation." The senior Griffin's letter was passed on to Brigadier Megill who replied on March 17 to the General Officer Commanding the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. Megill gave credit to Major Griffin's action as being "in the highest traditions of the Service." However, he maintained his conclusion that a Victoria Cross was not warranted: "had he [Major Griffin] lived he would undoubtedly have been recommended for the Distinguished Service Order. As this award may not be granted posthumously he was recommended by me to be Mentioned in Despatches which was the only possible alternative."

The controversy, however, did not go away. Three decades later when historian Reginald Roy was doing research for his book on the battle of Normandy, he contacted Megill. Megill then wrote to Roy that he felt "undoubtedly Major Griffin should have called off the attack when it was clear that they & could not get supporting fire from either artillery or tanks because of lack of communications. However, I would like to say in defence of his persistence against overwhelming odds that he was a very brave and proud man and a company commander is not a battalion commander. I doubt if he really realized what his responsibilities were. He was leading his men as he had done before, not directing the battalion. His plan of attack was sound enough but he then reverted to personal leadership."

With more passage of time, the perspective on this issue continued to change. It is clear that on the opening day of Operation Spring, tension was high at all command levels. The German defences were deadly and the battalions that opened the offensive were incurring heavy losses with little gain. General Simonds was determined that all his battalion commanders must push forward with maximum effort. The General Officer Commanding the 2nd Division arrived at Megill's headquarters to inform him that General Simonds was furious at the lack of progress by Megill's brigade and had sent him forward to get it moving. As Megill described it, "there was pressure to attack on that front from every Headquarters from that of General Eisenhower down. 'The whip was out' as a British friend of mine said later&. In the light of after events the persistence in attack when the chances of success were slight may seem unjustified, but I assure you that we were told in no uncertain terms that to keep the pressure up was vital& " On further reflection, Megill summed the situation up by stating, "an attack had to made and it was made&. Once started, everyone was determined that there would be no drawing back. As at Dieppe, critics can say it was too costly, they cannot say that Canadian soldiers did not give it their best shot in the belief they were making a necessary, even if costly, contribution to eventual victory." In his latest analysis of the situation, military historian Terry Copp came to a similar conclusion. So Major Griffin did his duty. He sent them forward with the ethos of a truly professional officer - he would not send his men where he would not go himself.