Hitler's Visit Still Haunting
By Greg van Moorsel
5 April 2007
Retrieved from history's dustbin, it's still a disturbing image all these 67 years later. There, smiling in the grainy photograph, is Adolf Hitler -- a phalanx of jack-booted Nazis at his side -- touring Canada's dramatic First World War memorial at Vimy Ridge.
Why one of history's monsters was even there, at a site built to honour 60,000 Canadian war dead, is one question.
Why the arresting June 1940 photograph was roundly published in Germany, yet shielded from most Canadians, is another.
How the image finally found its way into "The London Free Press", three years after the Second World War, is another strand to the story of wartime propaganda and censorship.
The tie-in is Ron Laidlaw, then a young Free Press photographer, who scooped up the Hitler shot in a stack of photographs he found as the Allies chased Hitler's armies out of France.
Laidlaw, now 87, can't recall exactly where he got those photographs. He thinks it was while the unit he was following as an RCAF war photographer overran a German airfield between Paris and Brussels in 1944.
His real quarry that day, stumbling upon the airfield darkroom, was a prized Leica camera -- "a beauty," he recalls. But as he reached for it, he noticed "peanut bombs," nasty little explosives the fleeing Germans had scattered.
Instead, Laidlaw grabbed the cache of photographs without knowing what images it held.
Bigger stuff on his mind, he wasn't even offended when he finally saw the Vimy shot of Hitler and his leather-coated sidekicks -- "henchmen," The Free Press caption later read.
"I didn't make any judgments. I was more interested in staying alive," he notes.
"I probably didn't even know that was a war cemetery," Laidlaw says of the Vimy monument to Canada's First World War dead, including the 5,600 who fell at Vimy.
"And Hitler, well, he was just a guy we wanted to kill."
Those questions won't be on the minds of the many Canadians Vimy-bound for Monday's 90th anniversary of that battle to salute those who fell fighting an earlier generation of Germans.
Canada's largest war monument -- two white limestone pillars towering 69 metres, or 10 storeys, over a hill in France -- has had a big facelift for the occasion.
But back in June 1940, only four years after King Edward VIII dedicated it, the site's fate was in doubt.
The Germans were conquering France and the British had retreated across the English Channel when a propaganda skirmish broke out over the memorial.
Even Mackenzie King, Canada's wartime prime minister, was drawn into the fray.
Stoking public anger at home, Canadian newspapers reported the Germans had destroyed the monument.
But while the Germans went after many historic French sites, scrapping statues and rubbing out reminders of past defeats, Vimy was spared.
Hitler was even said to have admired the big Canadian landmark, imposing but with an elegant triumphal sweep.
To prove the allegations of destruction false, Hitler and his brass toured Vimy and the Nazi propaganda mill kicked in, cranking out their photographs.
One of the photographs, published in Germany, seethed anger in its caption, slamming the "English Minister of Lies" for claiming "the 'German Barbarians' " had destroyed the site.
"Our photograph," it continued, "is one of the most striking picture documents for the shameless mendacity of the English propaganda. Meanwhile, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King has repudiated the English lie."
Hitler never fought at Vimy, but served in the area as a German infantryman during the First World War. He was said to have a soft spot for the soldiers of the Great War.
What a villain he would become -- the world would soon learn about his Nazi death camps and other atrocities.
Still, destroying war memorials was something of a taboo, says Jonathan Vance, a war historian at the University of Western Ontario, whose grandfather fought at Vimy.
"I think there were kind of tacit orders that none of this stuff was to be touched," he says. "I think (Hitler) kind of believed, in some kind of perverse way, that whatever else the Nazis were doing, they shouldn't be destroying cemeteries and war monuments.
"At the height of the Vimy war of words", Vance says, "the British flew over the area to make sure the monument was OK."
In the end, the only damage done was the German capture of the civilian groundskeeper.
As for Laidlaw -- the news photographer-turned RCAF shutterbug who found the arresting image -- danger, thrills, even minor celebrity, followed him to war's end.
Back home after the war, the award-winning photographer made a leap of faith by jumping to a career in television, then still in its infancy. He went on to become news director at CFPL-TV in London.
Still in London, Laidlaw says he's rediscovering his "first love" -- photography. Only now, "it's just a hobby.
How Hitler Spared Vimy Ridge
Nazi dictator assigned special Waffen-SS troops to guard historic site during World War II
Special to the Star
7 April 2007
When Hitler's armies were advancing across France in 1940, the Canadian government put out a story that German troops were damaging the memorial at Vimy Ridge.
Walter Allward's soaring monument had been unveiled only a short time before, in 1936, the only official ceremony (except for abdication) in the short reign of Edward VIII. A popular postage stamp was widely in circulation, so Canadians were thoroughly familiar with Vimy Ridge, and they were outraged. There was someone else who was outraged by this story; his name was Adolf Hitler.
The monument at Vimy Ridge was Hitler's favourite memorial from World War I, because it is a monument to peace, not a celebration of war. There are no carved guns at Vimy Ridge, no helmeted soldiers, no stacks of cannonballs. Instead, the figures are of Canada grieving for her lost sons.
Hitler went to Vimy Ridge on 2 June 1940, called in the world's press as best he could and insisted they take his picture on the unscathed steps. He then assigned special troops from the Waffen-SS to guard Vimy Ridge.
The SS had a vicious reputation - they were Hitler's personal army, they guarded him. And it was also their job to protect Vimy Ridge, not only from Allied armies but also from regular Wehrmacht soldiers who, rather understandably, might want to deface it. No one would defy the SS.
Hitler's plan was a great success. All the Australian war graves in France from World War I were destroyed in World War II. But the cemetery beside Vimy Ridge and the memorial itself remained untouched because the Waffen-SS did its job.
The Vimy memorial stands there today, ready for this week's ceremonies, mainly because the government of Canada has invested a great deal of money in repairing it.
But the Vimy memorial is there at all because it was saved by its most infamous fan, Adolf Hitler.
Ron Haggart is a former "Toronto Star" columnist. His father was at Vimy Ridge with the 72nd Seaforth Highlanders from Vancouver, a regiment which, fortunately, was in the third wave.
The general safety of the memorial was a cause for concern for the Canadian government. In 1939, the increased threat of conflict with Nazi Germany amplified the Canadian government’s level of concern. Canada could do little more than protect the sculptures and the bases of the pylons with sandbags and await developments. When war did break out, the British Expeditionary Force deployed to France and assumed responsibility for the Arras sector, which included Vimy. In late May 1940, following the British retreat in the aftermath of the Battle of Arras, the status and condition of the memorial became unknown. The Germans took control of the site and held the site's caretaker, George Stubbs, in an Ilag internment camp for Allied civilians in St. Denis, France. The rumoured destruction of the Vimy Memorial, either during the fighting or at the hands of the Germans, was widely reported in both Canada and the United Kingdom. The rumours eventually led the German Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda to publish denials. Adolf Hitler, who reportedly admired the memorial for its peaceful nature, was photographed by the press while personally touring it and the preserved trenches on 2 June 1940 to demonstrate the memorial had not been desecrated. He ordered Waffen-SS troops to guard the memorial from both German and Allied armies. While all Australian World War I memorial graves in France were damaged during the war, the Vimy memorial was preserved, although the undamaged state of the memorial was not conclusively confirmed until September 1944 when the Welsh Guards recaptured Vimy Ridge.