In Remembrance

November 11th is Remembrance Day, a day to pay our respects to all the men and women who fought for our freedom. I listened to a radio broadcast this afternoon in which Jian Ghomeshi interviewed Robert Fisk who is the Middle East war corespondent for the The Independent newspaper. He recently wrote an article, “Do those who flaunt the poppy on their lapels know that they mock the war dead?” He feels that too many people wear the poppy as a fashion statement. He suggests that those who wear it are pro- war.  I buy and wear the poppy, but do it only as a sign of respect to those who have served and lost their lives in the wars past and present.

I recently watched Judy Jackson’s new documentary on war-related trauma, ‘War in the Mind,’ and was moved deeply by the accounts of these young men and the emotional trauma caused by their experiences in Afghanistan. These men spoke of their loss of feeling value for human life. There were veterans from World War 2 who admitted they still felt traumatized by memories of combat. These men were taking a therapeutic course designed to help them with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. It was heart-wrenching to watch these men, so emotionally damaged, try to repair enough to live out the rest of their lives in some semblance of normality. The question is, will they ever?

I have a relative who was a decorated war hero and so on November 11, Remembrance Day, I will think of him and his remarkable story. I don’t know how he was affected by all that he experienced, but his incredible escape from a German prison war camp is documented in books which I have in my library and will pass down to my son.

This is his story:

Mel Dalphond, a former Morinville resident, was a 24 year old gunner with the first Canadian bomber squadron to go into action against the Germans in WWII.  On July 23, 1941 his battalion attacked three battleships holed up in Brest Harbour. German Messerschmidt fighters sent barrages of bullets flying through the air as his aircraft avoided anti-aircraft artillery blasts from the ships below. During the dogfight, a bullet tore through the young soldier’s back and the plane began to drop earthward. Because he was locked in the gunner’s seat, he had to force the turret to swing around so that his straining hand could reach the latch to free himself. He then crawled through the tiny opening into the fuselage and rescued his wounded navigator.

He pulled the navigator through the hatch and jumped from the crashing aircraft. After deploying his parachute, Dalphond found himself alone in the back yard of a French farm. Through the generous help of local French townspeople, Dalphond recovered from his injuries and attempted to escape the country. He made it only as far as Gavornie on the Spanish border.

German soldiers, using German Shepherds, tracked him down and hauled him into the Gestapo. His first prison was an old military school guarded by Vichy French and Italians. He found an escape tunnel already under construction and enthusiastically joined into the digging effort. He also collected keys – an activity that landed him in solitary confinement for over two weeks.

Mel Dalphond “The Great Escape”

He was then transferred to a more secure facility, Ford de la Revere, consisting of underground dungeons carved from solid rock.  To provide ventilation, 60-foot air shafts were extended straight down from the mountain-top to the cell blocks with their openings protected by bars and barbed wire. Dalphond wedged his back against one side of the shaft and his knees against the other, clambered up the shaft, cut one of the bars, then lowered a makeshift rope to his friends. They were captured two days later; his 30 day solitary confinement let him reflect on the need for better knowledge of the area and the need for local contacts in order for an escape attempt to be successful. Dalphond was now considered the official leader of the escape committee.

Since he was closely watched by the guards, Dalphond could no longer directly work on escapes. Instead he directed two escape groups – one searching for escape routes in the sewers and another tunneling through the rock under the barbed wire fence. He also gathered intelligence from new arrivals so that he could identify sympathizers who would help him and his men escape the country. Finally on the night of Dalphond’s “great escape,” 52 men took to the sewers and the home-made tunnel and fled into the night.

Dalphond, who escaped through the tunnel, was free from the POW camp. Under the Geneva Convention, escapees were considered spies and were forbidden to return to the conflict. Since he could not return to the front lines, he took his pilot’s training and flew back to Canada.

This Remembrance Day article was graciously contributed by Adrienne S Moody.


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