OTTAWA — Legend has that when Canadian troops stormed ashore under a hail of German gunfire at the French port of Dieppe in August 1942, one of the hundreds who eventually died in the attack was carrying an old flag.
Exactly how that red and white flag ended up at the Nazi-held French port — and even whether it was definitively there — remains a mystery.
But more than 80 years later, that flag will play a central role in commemorating the doomed raid on Dieppe during this year’s national Remembrance Day ceremony — thanks to three Americans.
What is known about the now-150-year-old flag begins at a garage sale in Columbus, Neb., in 1965. That was where Charles Lowry found the old Red Ensign in the hands of an American veteran.
“It was an old flag and he was just going to throw it away,” says Charles's son Mike Lowry. “And Dad said: ‘What's the story with the flag?’”
The veteran told Charles he had been a guard at a prisoner-of-war camp at the end of the Second World War in 1945. At one point, he noticed a German prisoner hiding what he presumed to be a Nazi flag, that turned out to be a Red Ensign.
The Red Ensign served as Canada’s de facto national flag from 1892 to 1965, when it was replaced by the Maple Leaf. The design featured a Union Jack and different coats of arms, depending on the provinces that were part of Confederation at the time.
This particular flag, whose age has been confirmed by the Royal Canadian Legion, dates back to the period between 1870 and 1873, after Manitoba joined Confederation but before British Columbia.
The American veteran didn’t know any of this at the time. What he did know was what the German soldier told him: That the flag had been taken off one of the 916 Canadian soldiers who died three years earlier during the ill-fated raid at Dieppe.
In the early morning hours of Aug. 19, 1942, nearly 5,000 Canadian soldiers, along with 1,100 British and American troops, waded ashore at the Nazi-held French port with orders to take and hold as much ground as possible before withdrawing.
While the purpose was to test the German’s defences and the feasibility of a launching an amphibious Allied assault on Europe, the results were disastrous: 2,400 Canadians were wounded or captured in addition to the hundreds who were killed.
“The German claimed he wasn't involved in the fighting but was just with a burial detail, and found it on a dead Canadian and basically took it as a souvenir,” Mike says. “They took it away from him, needless to say, and the plan was to give it to some Canadian unit.”
The flag instead travelled back to Nebraska and into the hands of Charles, who set about trying to identify it with Mike, who was in high school at the time.
“The library in Columbus had two books on flags,” Mike recalls. “We went through them and we went through every Canadian province. And when we ran out of Canadian provinces, we started looking at Australia and New Zealand and British colonies around the world.
“We never could find it. And it was an effort by (my dad). I know he was constantly trying to find out, even after I was in college, he was still looking to try to find somebody that would know something.”
When Charles died in 2003 at the age of 93, the Red Ensign was passed on to Mike, who had largely forgotten about it. But remembering his father’s desire to get it back to its rightful home, he started the search anew.
He eventually confirmed its Canadian heritage, at which point he reached out to the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. But after a lukewarm response, he contacted the Royal Canadian Legion about five years ago, which was eager to take it.
How a 70-year-old flag might have ended up at Dieppe remains uncertain, but the Legion says Canadian soldiers often carried flags into battle during the First World War. Some of those were then given to soldiers in the Second World War, perhaps for luck.
The Red Ensign visited Dieppe with a delegation of veterans in 2019, and Legion spokeswoman Nujma Bond says it will be given a place of honour in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Remembrance Day to commemorate the battle.
“It really is a story of hope and remembrance and unity,” Bond says. “And we're really pleased to be able to share that with Canadians and to visually have that flag as a symbol of remembrance and a symbol of sacrifice.”
Asked how he feels to know the flag that his father rescued from the trash will be featured during Canada’s national Remembrance Day ceremony, Mike says his mind goes back to his father.
“Dad wanted to give it back to a family or to a unit that it belonged to,” he says. “And I feel like now it's been given back to the entire country. I think he’d be very humble and very proud of that. I know I am.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 6, 2022.
Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press