Sharing with you things that are on my mind...Maybe yours too. Come back to Wrights Lane for a visit anytime!

18 May, 2013


Quiet and shady Hughes Street in Dresden (circa 1910)
as young Graeme Black would have known it.
What follows is a story I stumbled upon while doing some unrelated research several years ago.  The name "Dresden" bounced out at me. Countless hours of additional research and development were required.  In the end, I think that it was well worth the effort.
Young Graeme Delamere Black was a tall, handsome lad -- blond hair, quiet, adventurous.  He was the youngest son of Dresden Bank of Commerce manager Redmond Black and his wife Grace. The oldest son, by a couple of years, was Redmond Jr.

The Black family lived on the corner of Hughes and North Street in my hometown of Dresden, several hundred yards from the Wright homestead on Sydenham Street.  Graeme was born on the 9th of May in 1911, and in a few years would be kicking stones and picking up sticks on the same dirt sidewalks and streets as had my dad, Ken, a few years earlier.  He would also take the same one mile hike to school as my dad and, several decades later, me.

Redmond Sr. immigrated from England while Grace was a Scottish lass.  (It is not known if the Redmonds married before or after coming to Canada.).  They were staunch Anglicans.

Capt. Graeme D. Black
With soon-to-be teenagers Redmond Jr. and Graeme in tow, the Blacks would eventually move to London and then Toronto.  Still in his late teens and with Canada suffering fallout from the Great Depression, Graeme would find himself across the Atlantic in his father's homeland and working for a handbag manufacturer.  He was destined for a more exciting life, however.  His destiny turned out to be the British Army where he quickly rose to the rank of Lieutenant and gained the reputation of being a fighting man's fighting man.  The rest is history.  Here's the balance of a World War II hero's story that does not have the happiest of endings. Not many war stories have happy endings -- that too is reality.

Bedraggled, beaten, starved and manacled, seven British soldiers captured on an undercover sabotage mission in occupied Europe were hauled from their cells at the infamous Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Nazi Germany.  Their private war was over. Forced to their knees beside an open trench, they were shot in the back of their necks by SS troops. Their summary execution 70 years ago on October 18, 1942, was a landmark of World War II.

They were the first to die as a result of Adolf Hitler’s notorious (and illegal) Kommandobefehl or Commando Order, his revengeful instruction for dealing with members of the elite British Commando force who fell into German hands. But more about that later.

The Commandos were the poster boys of the British military in World War II, the toughest and the bravest, cherry-picked from every regiment, ruthlessly trained and then let loose on clandestine missions in German-occupied Europe.  Hundreds of them died on what in many cases were suicide missions, operations so daring and dangerous that the commanders who sent them were grateful if any got back alive.

It was Winston Churchill who set up the Commando units, in the aftermath of Dunkirk. Britain stood alone and under siege, and until the country recovered the strength to fight back in numbers, the Commandos would be the ones to take the battle into the enemy’s backyard.  They would be the inspirational daredevils who would defiantly battle on for Britain and pave the way to eventual victory.

The Rambos of their day, they dashed across the Channel to cause mayhem in French ports, infiltrated enemy positions in the North African desert, blew up power plants, lighthouses, gun emplacements, anything whose loss would inflict damage on the enemy.  They were trained to march, run, climb, swim, canoe, shoot and brawl better than anyone else. And to kill without compunction — a strong arm round a sentry’s neck from behind, a quick jab with a knife in the neck, another enemy down.

Capt. Black in 1941 photo.

The British public loved their exploits, graphically retold in newspaper articles and radio broadcasts. A man in a green beret was guaranteed to be "stood" drinks all night in any pub by a grateful, doting public.  But Hitler came to loathe them as they stormed the walls of Fortress Europe and opened up chinks in his armour. Hence his secret order, issued after 18 months of incursions, to execute each and every one of them.

Even if they were in uniform and even if they had surrendered, Hitler fulminated, they were not to be treated as prisoners-of-war. They were "bandits" and "criminals", to be "eliminated", no questions asked.  A month later, 34 more commandos were dead when the gliders taking them on a secret mission behind enemy lines crashed. Those who didn’t die in the wreckage were summarily shot.

And the carnage went on as Hitler pursued his vendetta against a force that so dramatically mocked his mastery of the Continent. That the Fuhrer felt compelled to respond so ruthlessly was, bizarrely, a back-handed compliment, a badge of honour for his tormentors.

The mission for which those previously-mentioned seven brave men paid with their lives that day in Sachsenhausen was typical of the damage and the irritation they were causing.  Twelve hand-picked men, comprised of two officers, eight Commandos from No. 2 Commando and two Norwegian corporals working for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), set out on what was designated Operation Musketoon. The mission was led by dashing 31-year-old Captain Graeme Black — whose pre-war occupation, improbable for a hardened warrior, had been making handbags for the couturier Norman Hartnell.

Yes, that "Captain Black" was the same young lad whose roots were planted in good old Dresden, Ontario.  He was without question the bravest of the brave. Much decorated, he led by example.  Who would have known?  As it turned out, virtually no one in Dresden knew what had become of him.  If anyone did know of his exploits, it was certainly a well-kept secret.  He deserved better.

Black's mission was to penetrate deep into enemy-occupied Norway and shut down a smelting plant producing much-needed aluminium for the German army. His squad spent four days crammed in the hull of an ageing submarine in the North Atlantic before being infiltrated into the coastal waters of enemy-occupied Norway in rubber dinghies. The power station was located at the head of Glomfjord. Black anticipated that the Germans would be well prepared for a frontal attack since access from other directions was very difficult especially with the onset of the Arctic winter. To achieve the element of surprise he decided to disembark in Bjaerangsfjord immediately south of Glomfjord, the original choice. They paddled four miles to the shore, hiked up a mountain carrying 60 pounds of gelignite apiece and hauled themselves across a glacier on ropes. Their target was not the plant itself but a hydro-electric station that powered it. The team split in two, with Black leading the main force to the generator building, creeping in the dark past the barracks where 100 German soldiers were sleeping.
Re the above illustration (still trying to find the name of the
artist): The Free French submarine "Junon" was selected for
this raid because it had a silhouette similar to some German
U boats. This was a useful attribute especially when working
close to enemy coastlines. She slipped her moorings in the
Orkney Islands at 11.40 a.m. on Sept.11, 1942 escorted for a
while by submarines HMS Sturgeon, Tigress and Thunderbolt.
On board were the crew, Capt. Black's Commando squad, two
rubber dinghies lashed to her casing and a variety of guns,
ammunition, explosives and supplies
Once inside, they worked feverishly to pack explosives around the turbines and attach delayed-action fuses. It was all done in the dark in 15 frantic minutes, then they were out and on their way, heading back up the mountain.They had gone just a few hundred yards away when there was a tremendous explosion behind them and they stopped to gaze back with satisfaction. Job done.

Meanwhile, the other team had climbed high above the building to plant collars of gelignite around huge iron pipes feeding water to the plant. A second explosion sent millions of gallons of water and ton after ton of mud and gravel cascading down into the remains of the turbine room.  Soon the machinery was under 15 feet of silt and sand. Job doubly done.

But now the saboteurs faced the hardest part of their mission — getting away. Ahead lay a 40-mile trek to neutral Sweden across tough mountainous terrain, with what seemed like the entire German army now on their tails.  They paused on a ridge, taking pot shots at their pursuers, hoping to hold them off. salvos of German bullets sent them scurrying on. There was a life-and-death struggle with an enemy patrol in a hut where they sought shelter and one Commando was fatally wounded.   The rest split up but for the seven there was no escape. They emerged into an open bowl to see field-grey uniforms lining the rim on all sides. Captain Black crouched behind a rock, but when a couple of grenades were tossed towards them, they stepped out with their hands up. It was all over.

Of the others, three battled through blizzards and snow drifts, waded rivers and hid from tracker aircraft buzzing overhead for a week before making it to safety. The other went half-mad with hunger and cold but was helped by locals until, after 13 days on the run, he crossed into Sweden.

The captured Commandos, meantime, were transported to the most heavily guarded concentration camp in Europe.  Unaware of  the degree of security, Black attempted to organize an escape plan which was doomed to failure and effectively aborted.  He and second-in-command, Joseph Houghton were resultantly transferred to prison cells in Berlin where they were executed by firing squad and their bodies burned.  Black was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Order. It is said that Hitler was confused over the fact that Captain Black came from a place called Dresden.  He thought that it was Dresden, Germany, and that his captive was a German traitor.  Black was apparently able to convince Hitler of his true nationality, but it had little bearing on his immanent brutal death.

It is a cruel twist to the story that the hopes of relatives and friends were raised when the Germans let it be known that the Commandos had escaped. This of course was a cover-up to prevent the grotesque truth being revealed. Hopes and expectations for many back home had remained high and it was only after the war that the real fate of the men became known.  The mission, however, was trumpeted a great success.  Once again Britain’s shock troops had made their mark, as they had done in dozens of daring raids on the coast of France, in Italy and North Africa, inflicting pain and retribution on the enemy and hampering the German war effort.

The image of the invincible British Commando, dagger between his teeth, striking night after night in a carefully co-ordinated campaign of sabotage and raiding, was a symbol of defiance against all the odds. No wonder Hitler wanted to crush it.

The Commandos were a magnificent exercise in bravado and guts at a time when Britain’s very survival was in doubt. Those six brave Britons and one Canadian who went to their gruesome death in a Nazi concentration camp and prison 70 years ago, might have taken some final comfort from knowing that.

In a public statement issued several years ago, British Army Veteran Robert Bishop reflected on first-hand impressions of his then training officer, Lt. Graeme Black.

WW2 Vet Bob Bishop
"Lieutenant Black was my first training officer when I arrived as a 17 year old, accepted for Commando service. I well remember him as a very respected leader and also as a man who had already won the Military Cross. Behind the ribbon of the M.C. he had four bullet holes in his left shoulder from the Vaagso, Norway raid.

"After No. 2 Commando had been decimated in the St. Nazaire raid, Lieutenant Black was promoted to Captain and became my Troop Commander. He was held in high esteem and we were sorry when he departed for another operation in Norway.  I have never forgotten him.

"During the course of World War II, the British Army Commandos earned 38 battle honours and many other awards, including eight Victoria Crosses. It was a record which prompted the Founder of the Commandos, Winston Churchill, to pay the following tribute to the Commandos:

'We may feel that nothing of which we have any knowledge or record has ever been done by mortal men, which surpasses their feats of arms. Truly we may say of them, when shall their glory fade?'

"I like to think that maybe Sir Winston had Captain Black in mind."

So, there you have it -- an amazing story about a British war hero who was a Canadian, and a boy from my hometown of Dresden to boot.  I cannot help but wonder if in his final hours, Black took solice in thinking fondly of those childhood days in his home on the quiet and peaceful corner of Hughes and North streets.  It would be nice if he did.
Last known photo of  Capt. Graeme Black (standing, centre) with members of his Commando unit.

Memorial for British and Commonwealth Soldiers at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Oranieburg, Germany.


Janet Bishop said...

So wonderful to find this. Thank you for helping spread Capt. Block's story. It was so very important to my husband, Bob Bishop, and to me.

Janet Bishop said...

My thanks to Dawn Heuston for sending me this post. I am so glad someone has given Capt. Black the recognition he deserves in his home town. That was my husband, Bob Bishop's, biggest wish and aim. Mine too.

Dick Wright said...

Thank you for taking the time to respond to this Wrights Lane post Janet. While several years after the fact, you have made the effort all worthwhile. Stories like Capt. Black's deserve to be shared with the current generation.