So some must wonder how Cecil, at 16, could have arrived at RMC so young, and to even know that's what he wanted in life. But that is another story. It would have to tell of a great great grandfather who came over from England to fight in the War of 1812. And a father he really could not have known for very long. he was only eight when his dad was killed after serving in WW1 for only 7 months. It was at a place called Ypres and it would be there that the Canadian soldiers faced, for the first time ever, the battlefield horror of chlorine gas.
It had to be pretty tough to be only 8 and not having a father, but then Uncle Reggie stepped in. Reggie like his brother Cecil both served in the same regiment, but only Reggie came back home alive. As a sort of step-father he stepped in to look after his nephew Cecil and saw to it that he got good basic education... first at public school in Vancouver where he was born, then off to a private school in Victoria BC then known as University School, and then finally to one of the finest universities in Canada... RMC
No doubt during all of this schooling he learned a little about Canadian history and had a smile on his face and a felling of incredible pride when the teacher talked about Canada's 6th Prime Minister, Sir Charles Tupper, a former Premier of Nova Scotia and Lt Governor of that province to boot. (I am a direct descendant of Charles' brother Marshall.)
Cecil practiced law, managed an active association with the Seaforth and became an active rugby player and also was married and starting to raise a family of two boys when WW11 started. He immediately signed up for full time service and was transferred into the South Saskatchewan Regiment.
In December 1940. and with the rank of Major Cecil Merritt boarded a troop-carrier that carried him across the Atlantic through U Boat infested territory. On the same ship sailed a brother destined for Sicily and a sister who had enrolled with the Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC, of which my mother also served) and was destined to be driving Lorries about London. But Cecil was soon off to the War Staff College. Upon graduation he was promoted not only to Lt. Colonel but assigned back to the South Saskatchewan's as their new Commanding Officer by March of 1942.
The purpose of that exercise was to determine if a major port could be seized, held for a while and then abandoned. In the process hopefully some valuable information could be obtained from captured prisoners. While there hopefully they could also do some damage to serious gun emplacements and maybe destroy some strategic buildings and even capture some intelligence thought to be held in a local hotel.
The plan called for mostly Canadians but also 2 British commando units, and some Royal Navy and Air Force backup. The commandos would take the port town but the Canadians would be expected to take and secure the operating base for the commando's to do their thing. There would be six beach areas spread along about a 20 mile beach head, Thus several groups were given specific initial tasks and then to meet up about 5 miles inland to tackle secondary targets. At least that was the plan.
Today's story deals with GREEN beach and of course the South Saskatchewan Regiment.
Members of the Royal Regiment of Canada would later report that when they landed... there was no surprise and the enemy was waiting, due to a confrontation a few miles of shore with some enemy gunboats who no doubt passed the word of the impeding landing. Thus, when they landed a few miles to the east of Merritt's men they had very heavy casualties... as did Merritt's men. They also found that intelligence reports underestimated the strength of the enemy and seemed to have forgotten to tell them about the beach...not of sand...but pebbles the size of baseballs that neither tank nor man could move through quickly.
Once they dealt with obstacles at the beach and moved closer to their targets Merrrit's men realized that they had to cross the long and narrow bridge that spanned the River Scie shown above, Several attempts led to many Canadians being slaughtered on the bridge. When Merritt moved to the front to motivate the men he took off his own helmet and started to cross the bridge and caught the enemy by surprise. he waved his troops on with shouts that they should..."Come on over, there's nothing to it." Several men made it across and Merritt actually went back and forth at least four separate times escorted more of his men to cross. More swam across and some even swung from the girders below to get across. But then the enemy action intensified with further allied casualties and Merritt taking a slug through the shoulder and another through the abdomen. But even with that he was observed hauling yet another to safety over his back.
During all of this Merritt lost his runners and filled in at the job himself running from unit to unit to get situation reports. Having no fear for his own life he even led charges against two pill boxes and took both out, one using grenades. But hours into the battle his regiment has been reduced to about 300 men. Worse yet, his ammunition and mortar shells were almost running out when the word came down to make it back to the beach and prepare for de-embarking. Following orders he moved the men back but then decided to round up all tommy guns and ammunition he could find and delegated 8 officers to set up a rearguard that he would personally command and hold the enemy off advancing on the de-embarking men. Most got off safely, But the vessels had to escape leaving the officers behind.
The brave men kept up harassing the enemy until such time as the ammunition was all used up. It was then that since Merritt felt the enemy were now simply using them for target practice, the honorable thing to do was surrender. But he refused to carry the white flag. He ordered a German prisoner to do it.
When the men finally got to a POW camp days later he heard the rumour that he had been awarded a Victoria Cross... But to his shagrin it was posthumous, so the story goes. And he was very much alive and still very much full of fight.
And to show his fight he and his men harassed the guards at every possible opportunity. There were three classes a German troops on hand and they would often pit one against the other and then stand back to watch them argue with each other. On a more serious note after digging a tunnel of about 125 ft from the back of one of the buildings to the chicken coup of a neighbouring farmer, 64 POW's including Merritt escaped and headed towards Switzerland before all got caught. But in the process they tied up over 50,000 troops, home guard and Hitler youth on the hunt for over a week, and thus, took them away from their other duties, many on the front line. Merritt was thrown in solitary confinement for his part for 14 days, probably on a ration of just bread and water.
Not learning his lesson a second escape later resulted in all being caught again. This time Merritt was sent off to the medieval prison called Colditz in the German mountains as it was said to be escape proof. His leadership in the prisons was also said to have played a role in his being awarded an Efficiency Medal after the war.
Merritt would spend 32 months held as a POW before being released, and would later claim that so held was nothing of a virtue.
After the war Merritt would return to Vancouver expecting to take up with the legal business again but was called away to Ottawa to serve in the federal government as an MP for one of the Vancouver ridings. Having done this for about 5 years he would later return to Vancouver yet again get back in uniform as the Honourary Colonel for his old regiment... the Seaforth Highlanders.
Lt. Colonel Cecil Ingersoll Merritt was awarded the Victoria Cross on 2 October 1942. It would be the first Canadian awarding of the VC in the war. He would later clain that his war only lasted a total of 6 hours. At the age of 91 Colonel Merritt passed away of 12 July 2000. That was 13 years ago last Friday.
In Windsor Ontario there is a street named after him and back in France at Pourville the very bridge he conquered was renamed the Merritt Bridge on one end and on the other for famed painter Monet.