A tale of survival
My father, who extended a long family tradition of answering the call to duty in the Second World War, won’t have a street named after him just yet, writes PAUL COUVRETTE.
‘Lunch, when are they serving lunch?” Dad asks politely. “You just ate lunch,” I explain. Oscar Couvrette turns 93 Saturday. He is the one of a handful of survivors of Ottawa’s regiment, the Cameron Highlanders, who landed on DDay and most likely the last living Canadian to have invaded a foreign country. The Camerons were formed in 1856 and served in every engagement since Riel.
Dad never missed the Cenotaph parade and became a celebrity, making the cover of dozens of newspapers and magazines. His children and many grandkids could only wonder how this amiable, quiet man could have done the deeds of war.
Oscar joined the Canadian Army at 18. He was an ambitious kid in the Depression who packed groceries for a dollar a day. The Army offered $1.10. The camaraderie of his pals played a part, as they succumbed to the rousing war propaganda. What he did not know and what genealogy would unearth was that Couvrettes have fought in every conflict since the Carignan Salières Regiment in 1665 protecting Montreal against the Iroquois. During the Upper Canada revolts they were among a handful of French Canadian Loyalists. Couvrettes fought in the War of 1812 and the War to End All Wars, the First World War. There was, no doubt, something in the blood.
Oscar was part of Z Force that landed in Iceland on July 9, 1940. Churchill deemed Iceland a threat, given its strategic position. Unlike D-Day where we were invited by a government in absentia, the Icelandic government protested. Camerons endured the Icelandic winter in tents but only saw combat once, strafed by a German fighter. Icelanders eventually warmed to the Canadians and Oscar won the heart of one Icelandic woman whose name he remembers to this day.
On June 6, 1944, he landed at Bernières-sur-Mer supporting the Chauds Regiment. He was the first man off the landing craft, not out of heroism, but simply because he could not stand the smell of vomit. The surreal nature of D-Day was personified by Pipe Major Scott who paraded in kilt along the beach playing the bagpipes. Men were slaughtered wholesale, while Scott suffered nary a scratch.
Dad returned to those beaches many times to bathe in the adoration of French schoolchildren. He was feted by royalty and prime ministers, honoured by townsfolk as he walked through towns in his Camerons kilt. Oscar drove a motorcycle as a dispatch rider and eventually a Bren Carrier through the hedgerows. His language skills were used to communicate with the Resistance. My father’s actions included fighting the SS 12th Panzers at Carpiquet, and the battles of Falaise, Rouen and Boulogne.
Death was ever present. On DDay his sergeant was in a foxhole 20 feet away when a mortar landed. It was as random as that. Most irksome to Dad was the sheer madness of it all when it came to death. He saw for himself hundreds of his brothers in arms killed by friendly fire. Only once did he shed a tear about the war and it was at Ardenne Abbey 50 years after Kurt Meyer’s men murdered Canadian prisoners. Soldiers all saw the irony that is war. Dad had fought in Caen where 10,000 bodies lay in the summer sun after our “victory.”
Bertrand Russell wrote “Patriots always talk of dying for their country, but never of killing for their country.” Dad rarely spoke of his wartime exploits to a young boy who constantly asked if he had killed any Germans. In later years he told me that the 12th SS Panzers that he fought were really just kids his age and younger. I never once saw any pride in his eyes — more like duty. Dad was, however ingenious at it. He had the brainstorm to wait until the SS were lined up for chow, thinking that they were beyond the range of his Vickers 303. He had calculated an arc that would allow the burst to fall where they stood. One thousand rounds lit up the sky and his spotter made a slicing motion ... and only then did the full impact of having mowed down men whose crime was lining up for a warm meal hit home.
In war, you laugh or go insane. One day at a farmhouse, just prior to the battle of Falaise, his unit came under mortar attack. Everyone jumped for cover, including one of his buddies who leaped head first into a pig sty. Jumping up, he leaped into a horse stall used to store duck feathers which poked through his uniform. The platoon split a gut laughing as the poor unfortunate ran around the barnyard in some discomfort covered in pig slop and feathers, screaming for someone to pull them out.
I am not certain whether it was courage or simple mischievousness that caused my father to impersonate a general at a bunker just south of Boulogne-sur-Mer. The Germans waved a white flag, but demanded that terms be discussed only with a senior officer. They had all been killed and Dad was the only person to negotiate since the Nazi spoke only German and French.
A long overcoat covering his lowly uniform, he advanced on the bunker with two soldiers who showed the greatest of deference. The German met him in mid field asking only “What is your rank?” PFC Couvrette answered, “General Nuisance.”
A snappy salute and a Luger was handed over and out marched a company of tired defenders who surely would have taken many more lives that day.
An hour later, they kicked in a booby trapped door, which killed the entire platoon except Dad. He suffered burns over 90 per cent of his body. This was, however, the luckiest day of his life, for his backpack contained dynamite, which miraculously did not explode. Sixty years later, we noticed that Dad had a preoccupation with the sounds of the compressor on the refrigerator. He shared with me that he was worried that the fridge door might catch fire. Unfortunately I brushed it off to some form of mild dementia but now I realize how badly I had missed the signs of PTSD. The cost of war, it seems, is not always paid on the battlefield.
English politician Tony Benn once wrote that “all war is a failure of diplomacy.”
As the politicians line up for that photo op at the Cenotaph, I can’t help but think that one November it would be wonderful if our leaders showed up where the real cost of war lives every day: the Perley veterans’ health centre.
Those who died surely paid the ultimate price, but those who linger on with wounds to the body and the psyche pay a daily toll.
Tom Brokaw coined the term the “Greatest Generation” in reference to men who lived through the Depression and fought in the Second World War. They valued hard work for the work itself, not for the entitlements. They valued duty over personal happiness, eschewed style over achievement. Those who have not met such men are truly the poorer.
Oscar was no angel. On D-Day on the landing craft he was busy with a deck of cards. Apparently the men had lost their sense of reason and he landed in France with more than $5,000 in his backpack, a small fortune in those days. On returning to Canada a hero he was granted a plum position as chauffeur for Paul Martin Sr., minister of health, but in his off hours he ran numbers! Gambling was, of course, illegal in those days before OLG.
When Dad first entered the Perley, I began the process of applying for a street naming in honour of the Couvrette name. I was not solely thinking of my father, but of the generations of Couvrettes who had been warriors.
I had unearthed the fact that Canadian icon Joe Montferrand was in fact a distant cousin and had been taught how to fight by his mother Marie Louise Couvrette. Dad’s forefathers, I discovered had not missed an engagement in any Canadian battle since 1665.
A few months of paperwork, and sure enough a call came in that the powers that be would certainly consider the matter. They simply wanted to know when exactly my Dad had passed away, since they only name streets for veterans after they had died. Wincing, I relayed the story to my father who with his typical summation of events, pronounced his classic synopsis: “Knuckleheads.”
“Lunch, when is it?” Oscar asks again. I reveal a chocolate chip cookie. We have to be careful because the nurses will have my hide if they spot us. I tell him once again that he is 93 and remind him of the button we gave him that reads “I Survived Damn Near Everything.” He gives me a knowing smile.
We sit quietly and watch the last of the fall leaves touch the Earth.
Portrait of Ottawa’s Cameron Highlanders by The Service Photo Company, Surrey 1942. Restored by Couvrette Studio. Oscar Couvrette is fourth from the top right.