In a military operation, especially as part of a war, absolute secrecy is vital. Those involved with the planning have to know that they can trust everyone who is around them. One of the most important operations of World War II was the D-Day attack…Operation Overlord. Success was vital, and failure was simply not an option, no matter how many men were lost. The attack on Pearl Harbor had finally drawn the United States into World War II, and now we were in it to win it.
The success of any mission is found in the planning, so in August 1943, Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met in Quebec for the first of two meetings code-named “Quadrant.” Technically, the meeting was the first of two “Quebec Conferences.” The meetings couldn’t even officially talk about the name of the actual operation, “Operation Overlord, which was later known as D-Day to the world. The Americans and the Brits had differences of opinion as to just how the operation was to be handled, but in order to make this operation work, they would have to be in complete agreement, and the mission would have to be kept completely covert!! No one could know the details.
Everyone, from the top men down to the paper supplier was screened to make sure of their loyalties. No stone was left unturned. If any information was leaked, thousands of men could die, and the fate of the world could have been severely compromised. Nevertheless, something was “missed” somehow. A young Canadian named Émile Couture was in charge of stationery supplies that fateful day, and in reality, he had no intention of being a traitor or playing any other nefarious part in the leak of information into the operation. Nevertheless, he managed to walk out of those meetings with the tactical plans for the invasions. It wasn’t even accidental…exactly.
Roosevelt and Churchill were excellent strategists, and their very detailed plans were perfectly laid out. The operation was going to be an amazing success. Now, all they had to do was to keep everything secret until the actual day, as yet unnamed, of the operation. The plans included detailed listings of Allied military assets to be used in the landings…the number of planes, combat cars, ships, and ground soldiers. They only had to keep it very quiet, because the leak of this information could have turned the tide of the war in favor of the Axis powers, and had that happened, our world would be vastly different even from the strange world we are experiencing today. Sergeant Major Émile Couture had been tasked with cleaning up after the meetings and instructed to make sure nothing was left behind.
Couture was doing his job in a meticulous fashion, but while cleaning an office on the third floor of the hotel, he discovered a leather portfolio that was inscribed “Churchill-Roosevelt, Quebec Conference, 1943. Maybe he thought it was just an empty portfolio, and so thought he could actually have an amazing souvenir of such a monumental meeting. Just think of the stories he could tell his children and grandchildren about the time he got to help out with such an important meeting between two of the most important men if his time. History doesn’t really tell us what he was thinking, but he decided to keep the portfolio as a souvenir without realizing what was actually in the portfolio. Couture walked out of the Château Frontenac without anyone being any the wiser and drove to the cottage where he was living with his cousins in Lac-Beauport just a few miles outside of Quebec City. Then he took time to examine his “treasure” only to find that he could actually be tried for treason. Couture was more than frightened. He was terrified, and he hid the files under his mattress overnight.
In the morning, knowing that he would have to face the music, he took the portfolio and its files to his superior, Brigadier Edmond Blais. Blais told Couture to go home and wait. He would be dealt with in the morning. Couture could have been put in prison for the remainder of the war in order to make certain that he did not leak the information he had seen. He was, after all, a low-ranking soldier, and shouldn’t have access to such top-secret information. Instead, he was sent home after being questioned by Scotland Yard and the FBI.
Whether Couture was terrified to say anything, or just an honorable soldier, he never leaked the information he had seen. Blais must have liked Couture, because he sent a letter on August 28, 1943, in which he recommended the Sergeant Major Émile Couture be awarded “the greatest accomplishment that can be given an NCO (non-commissioned officer).
On June 6, 1944, the Allies staged the largest amphibious military landing in history. Always remembered as D-Day, Operation Overlord saw 150,000 troops hit the beaches of Normandy, push back the German army and set the course for the eventual victory of the Allied forces. The secret of D-Day was kept, and the operation went off without a hitch.
Couture was rewarded for his discretion during a ceremony in September 1944, when he was commended for his actions by being granted a British Empire Medal. During the ceremony, there was no mention of what Couture had actually done to merit the award other than “services rendered.” I wonder if anyone thought that odd. Nevertheless, they really couldn’t tell, because it would have been embarrassing to the military for the public to see how easily someone walked out of the hotel with top secret documents.
Couture’s daughter, Anne Couture, insists that her father never told anyone. But someone did leak the story, and Couture became the center of the media’s attention. He gave several interviews over time, but he never told anyone whose office he had been cleaning when he found the documents or who he thought might have left them there. Though, Anne admits, he may have told her mother. If he did, Georgette Larochelle isn’t telling anyone, and in an effort to clear the record concerning her husband’s involvement in the whole incident. She has turned over all the memorabilia and documentation the family has kept over the years. It has all been donated to the Royal Museum and has been displayed in an exhibit since the 75th anniversary of the 2nd Quebec Conference.
According to the museum’s director and curator, the documents are “convincing and some of the artifacts are considered invaluable” to the museum. He called the personal items which were specially made for the conference, “a great witness of this event of national significance.”