Hamilton, the Dieppe Raid and a lasting mark on a city

This article is about the recent passing of Hamilton’s last Dieppe raid veteran and the mark that the raid left on the city for decades to come.

Hello Ward 8 Neighbours,

Ken Curry, the last Dieppe Raid survivor, passed away this past week at the age of 97. For many in Hamilton, the Dieppe Raid is a sad chapter in Canadian history, with nearly 3,000 men out of 6,000 killed on the beaches of the French coast in 1942, with a third of the 900 Royal Hamilton Light Infantrymen never making it home that day.

For more details, please continue reading below…

Background

By 1942, the Allied war effort was stalled. The United Kingdom was still suffering from German air raids, France had surrendered, and the United States was only getting into the war effort after the Pearl Harbour bombing in December of 1941.  The Allies knew that they would need to cross the English channel at a certain point.

In 1942, however, the Allies were far from ready for a full-scale invasion of France. As a compromise, the idea of a small raid caught the imagination of British war planners. The raid would probe the German defenses, gather intelligence and with luck persuade the German leaders to divert forces from the Eastern Front.

As the top British brass, such as General Bernard Montgomery, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Winston Churchill himself, got involved in the planning, the plan grew and grew until some 5,000 Canadians were involved. The Canadians were assured they would be supported by the full weight of the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and paratroopers. And that the infantry would go ashore accompanied by dozens of tanks.

Raid

On the morning of August 19 about 5,000 Canadians; supported by 500 British Commandos and under 100 U.S. Army Rangers, raided the beaches at Dieppe. Among the close to 5,000 Canadians were 582 men from the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry – all Hamiltonians.

The raid was disastrous from the start. The promised Royal Navy force decided that it could not risk sending battleships or even heavy cruisers off Dieppe, since they would be prey to the Luftwaffe. In the event, all surprise was lost when the invading Allies encountered a German convoy en route to Dieppe.

The RHLI, by many accounts, encountered some of the fiercest fighting in the town of Dieppe that morning and by the end of the day, when Allied forces were forced to retreat, 211 soldiers from the RHLI lay dead – the single largest loss of life of Hamiltonians in a day in the city’s history.

The raid did prove valuable in terms of planning for the D-Day invasion, with information about coastal defences, improvements in the technique of troop deployment, fire support and tactics, which greatly reduced D-Day casualties. The lessons learned at Dieppe were instrumental in saving countless lives on June 6, 1944.

Hamilton’s Contribution in Dieppe Lives On

A total of 582 members of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry took part in the assault of Dieppe. In the end, 200 Hamiltonians (197 from the RHLI) died, and nearly 300 were wounded or taken prisoner.

One of those prisoners, John Weir Foote – Chaplain of the RHLI, would receive the Victoria Cross for his heroic service that day. With close to 500 of the 582 members killed, wounded or taken prisoner, Hamilton was deeply affected.

And it is that deep attachment to loss that morning in Dieppe which continues to be a focal point in Hamilton’s legacy of serving the country during war time and in its Remembrance Day ceremonies each year.

Hundreds of Hamiltonians have lost their lives serving their country, from the First World War to the most recent tragedies involving friendly fire in Afghanistan and the 2014 shootings at Parliament Hill.

Canadian war graves in the Netherlands

Today, the legacy of Hamilton and Dieppe can be felt at the Dieppe Veterans’ Memorial Park, which opened in 2003.

The landscape architect who designed the Memorial worked with veterans to honour their experience in 1942, consulting with with them each step of the way – basically recreating the Dieppe beach landing they encountered that August morning.

The group met numerous times before the park was opened in August 2003.

According to a CBC News article from 2012:

The shapes, textures and layers of Dieppe’s beach were all woven into the design.

The beach rocks that surround the entrance to the memorial represent the conditions of the beach at Dieppe. To the soldiers’ surprise, the port wasn’t covered in sand, but in “pebbles the size of your fist,” Budrevics said. These rocks got caught up in the tanks’ treads, he said. “That’s why our boys didn’t get up onto the beach.”

Over the years since the park opened, stories have emerged that some of the stones on Hamilton’s site are from Dieppe, France.

“Families of veterans have taken one or two beach stones, put them in their luggage and exchanged them with rocks on Dieppe,” Budrevics said.

The pillared wall that separates the plaza from the stones is meant to replicate what was known as “the casino” – the most prominent building on the waterfront, which the soldiers were intended to attack and seek shelter in.

The ceremonial plaza, where visitors gather and the annual memorial service takes place, represents the town square of Dieppe.

The Queen Elizabeth highway, which can be seen from the memorial, resembles the highlands behind the beach of Dieppe. “We lucked into that because of the location,” Budrevics said.

And the memorial cairn at the top of the park “is an exact replica of the one the Canadians have built in France,” he said.

An emotional response

When it was done and publicly opened for the first time on Aug.19, 2003, Budrevics said the veterans – “the boys,” as he calls them – were “visibly shaken.”

Until then, the memorial services had been held at the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry Veteran’s Association building. For years, if not decades, the veterans had been asking the City for a more commemorative space to publicly acknowledge the day than within the legion’s dark walls, Budrevics said.

“They gulped and approached the cairn,” he said. They were bought to tears.

“When the guys come around, either walking or in a wheelchair, it’s like ‘whoa,’ it just brings you back to your childhood – and they were kids,” Budrevics said.

With the passing of Ken Curry, the last of the Hamilton Dieppe veterans are gone. but not forgotten. Hamilton’s legacy and history will always be interwoven with the tragedy of Dieppe.

Questions or concerns

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