Just outside Caen, surrounded by fields and very quickly surburban housing, is the Abbey Ardenne. We know this because of a postcard we found of a nice old doorway. We matched it late in the spring, not many weeks before an anniversary the Abbey will never forget.
The secret garden
We parked next to a field of sunny yellow buttercups and walked around the tidy and closed Abbey. Little appears to have changed, which is quite misleading.
Disappointed the Abbey was closed, we were pleased to notice an opening, a leafy path into the Abbey grounds. It didn’t announce itself but we did not feel unwelcome.
The pathway led us into a tiny secret garden surrounded by a high stone wall. A couple of trees, some chairs and a splash of colour.
An unexpected memorial
The flowers on the memorial were fresh, next to them pictures of young soldiers and red paper poppies. One wall of the garden had a long poster, a row of young soldiers faces.
This area is close to the D-Day landing beaches so we thought perhaps the Abbey had been chosen as a quiet place of contemplation for families of Canadian solders lost during those battles. But the true story is even more shocking.
These young men, barely out of school and fighting for freedom were out manoeuvred and captured.
Capture and betrayal
Taken to the Abbey Ardenne as prisoners of war they had hopes of escape; that their side would overcome and they would be able to fight on, and eventually go home to families and loved ones, a job well done. But the Abbey was held by one of WW2’s most infamous war criminals.
Kurt Meyer, commander of the 25th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, had chosen the Abbey as his base because the tower offered excellent views across the fields to Caen, or north to Courseulles-sur-Mer.
The infamous war criminal
War was suiting Kurt considerably better than his earlier career attempts as apprentice shopkeeper, road builder and postman. Daring and brave, by 1944 he had fought his way successfully across Europe, securing the Iron Cross in 1939 and the Gold Cross in 1942. But there were also rumours of innocent civilians shot and villages razed to the ground.
On 7 June 1944 the battles that started with D-Day raged around the Abbey. Fury, fear, desperation, we do not know exactly how Kurt Meyer and his men felt but we do know they were not thinking of compassion and Geneva Conventions as they captured a group of Canadian soldiers.
Take no prisoners
Some witnesses say Kurt demanded no prisoners be taken – offering death not freedom. He denied it but was a famously strong leader. Who else at the Abbey could have taken the next, horrific decision?
Under armed guard seven Canadians were taken to the end of the passageway we unknowingly found that warm spring day.
One by one their names were called for them to walk along the path to the tiny garden. And there, one by one, they were shot in the back of the head.
Bravery to the end
A witness, Jesionek, says that the prisoners, realising the hell they were in each shook hands with his comrades before marching silently into the garden.
On 7 & 8 June a total of 18 Canadian prisoners of war were murdered at the Abbey Ardenne.
At Meyer’s war crimes trial in December 1945, the massacre at the Abbey formed the core of the five charges laid against him. Kurt was released in 1954, after nine years in prison.
Here are the names of the young Canadians murdered in and around the Abbey:
7 June 1944:
North Nova Scotia Highlanders:
- Private Ivan Crowe
- Private Charles Doucette
- Corporal Joseph MacIntyre
- Private Reginald Keeping
- Private James Moss
27th Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment):
- Trooper James Bolt
- Trooper George Gill
- Trooper Thomas Henry
- Trooper Roger Lockhead
- Trooper Harold Philip
- Lieutenant Thomas Windsor
On 8 June seven more prisoners from the North Nova Scotia Highlanders were executed:
- Private Walter Doherty
- Private Hollis McKeil
- Private Hugh MacDonald
- Private George McNaughton
- Private George Millar
- Private Thomas Mont
- Private Raymond Moore
On 17 June, two more Canadian soldiers, Lieutenant Fred Williams and Lance Corporal George Pollard, are also believed to have been killed at the Abbey.
The Abbey Ardenne
Abbey Ardenne was badly damaged during WW2, but careful reconstruction hides the scars.
The garden is truly beautiful, it’s atmosphere serene. We hope those betrayed young men rest in peace.
- More about the history of the Abbey, it’s role in the Resistance, images of occupation, extensive war damage and the tragic discovery of the bodies of Canadian soldiers here