Stephanie Morgenstern stood on one of Dieppe’s steep, stony beaches in the north of France and — surprisingly for a TV screenwriter — found herself at a loss for words.
Morgenstern and her husband, Mark Ellis, are the creative team behind “X Company,” a CBC drama returning for a second season in January. The series is based on an actual, top secret, Second World War spy training facility that was located about an hour east of Toronto on the north shore of Lake Ontario. The second season finds the fictional spy camp recruits immersed in one of the most savage battles of the war: the ill-fated Allied invasion at Dieppe.
“It’s quite overwhelming actually to be where such an extraordinary event happened,” Morgenstern says on the phone. “To be standing on this beach takes your breath away. You feel so small and insignificant compared to the scale of courage.”
Morgenstern’s voice trails off.
In a matter of hours, Canadian forces suffered over 900 casualties at Dieppe on the morning of Aug. 19, 1942 with 2,000 more taken prisoner. The coastal town has never forgotten, and marks every anniversary with monuments, pageantry and hundreds of Canadian flags.
“Being there really re-inspired me and re-energized me,” says Ellis. “You feel ghosts there, you feel proud of your country. It makes you really want to do justice to those men who were actually there 70-plus years ago now.”
The show’s second season, according to Morgenstern, will be more serialized than season 1, with Dieppe “the culminating event of the season,” spread over two episodes.
The Dieppe invasion was a way to, as Ellis says, “reference such a quintessential story of Canadian loss and sacrifice. We wanted to honour (the soldiers), but also tell it from an angle that hadn’t been told before.”
In the last few years — thanks in part to the work of Canadian military historian David O’Keefe and the 2012 documentary “Dieppe Uncovered” — evidence has emerged to suggest the doomed dawn raid had a purpose and a complexity that went far beyond its legacy as a military failure. The savage battles along the beaches may have been a diversion tactic designed to allow special forces to raid German command posts and capture code-carrying “Enigma” machines.
Will there be any losses among the core group of characters who make up the X Company?
“I don’t want to give too many spoilers away,” says Morgenstern. “I’ll just say the weight of the tragedy hits the gang personally. I think it is realistic and fitting that we do face mortality.”
— Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.