Return of the Rileys
Seventy-five years ago, nearly 200 soldiers with the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry were massacred in the raid on Dieppe in the Second World War. Next week, a group of Rileys heads back to the beach in France to salute fallen comrades
THEY SAY IT WAS THE DARKEST DAY in Canadian military history and 75 years after the disastrous raid of Dieppe the wounds still run deep in Hamilton.
Nearly 200 soldiers from the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry died on the stony beach in France on Aug. 19, 1942. Virtually everyone in the city at the time knew someone who was killed and today the carnage still haunts family memories.
Now the stage is set for what is being seen as the last major commemoration of the battle with ceremonies in France and Hamilton on the 75th anniversary date.
A group of more than 50 Riley soldiers, officers and family members is heading to Dieppe to join a larger contingency of other Canadian regiments to salute their fallen comrades.
The 10-day RHLI pilgrimage will also stop at other battlefields such as Vimy Ridge, the
Somme, Passchendaele and Normandy to remember other fallen Rileys and other Canadian soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice.
It’s all a sesquicentennial journey through Hamilton eyes at Canada’s coming of age in the blood and muck of European war — and The Spectator will be covering it along the way in the paper and online.
But one thing that will be conspicuous in Dieppe — and along the rest of the route — is the fewer numbers of veterans themselves. There is no one alive from the First World War and the ranks of vets from the Second World War have severely dwindled with survivors well into their 90s.
THE CASE of the RHLI, there are only two known living participants from the raid — Fred Engelbrecht, 97, and Ken Curry, 95. Both were captured and spent the rest of the war and prisoners of Nazis.
It will be the first time that a major commemoration in Dieppe, France — which tend to happen every five years — did not include Dieppe veterans from the Rileys. It marks a turning point where the battle and the war are exiting living memory.
Engelbrecht said: “I probably could have gone but I didn’t want to go because it brings back a lot of bad memories. I lost an awful lot of friends that day.”
Curry, who lives in Victoria B.C., says “when I found out that Fred was going to stay in Hamilton, I decided that I should spend the day with him.”
Both are planning to attend the annual service at the Dieppe monument on the Beach Strip in Hamilton.
RHLI officials say there could possibly be other surviving Riley Dieppe vets from the 582 who landed on the beach that day. But they aren’t aware of any. Last February, they were taken aback to learn that Erkki Ahonpa had died at the age of 96. The regiment had not heard anything about him for numerous years and assumed he had passed on some time ago.
His death notice said he joined the RHLI when he was 18 and was wounded at Dieppe but “because he was a strong swimmer he survived until rescued.”
Also last year, one of the city’s most well-known veterans of the raid, Jack McFarland, died at the age of 95.
McFarland family members will be part of the Riley group travelling to France and they will spread his ashes on the beach.
“My dad went four times to Dieppe,” says son Jack McFarland Jr. “This was his request to have his ashes taken back there.”
RHLI COMMANDING officer Lt.-Col. J.P. Hoekstra says “The trip we are embarking on is a pilgrimage of sorts.
“It was a tragedy for us, yet it was still a watershed moment where the Canadians were working together as a unit to liberate Europe from oppression.”
Military historian Tim Cook, from the Canadian Military Museum in Ottawa, says: “Dieppe was one day in a very long and bloody war, but it is a single day that continues to haunt Canadians ... There is something about Dieppe that continues to demand answers.
“It really hits you in the gut when you are at the beach. When you stand there, you really do feel it. It’s impossible to imagine how someone could think landing a force there would be successful.”
In a matter of hours, more than 1,000 Allied troops (who were mostly Canadian) were killed. Another 2,300 became prisoners of war. All kinds of military gear was left in wreckage on the beach or submerged in the English Channel.
The element of surprise was compromised when the fleet of Allied ships came upon a German convoy.
The landing was delayed with most troops hitting the beach in daylight instead of darkness. Plans to knock out fortifications failed.
When it came time for the Rileys to land at what is referred to as White Beach, they found themselves headlong in a hail of enemy fire.
“When they dropped the ramp on the boat, they were firing everything at us. When it cooled down a bit, we started firing back, but there wasn’t that many of us to fire back. Most were lying badly wounded or dead on the beach,” Curry said in an interview.
“When the bullets started to come, they were like hail. They were mowing us down. It was something terrible.”
In a matter of hours, more than 1,000 Allied troops (who were mostly Canadian) were killed. Another 2,300 became prisoners of war.
Above: A German soldier walks amid the carnage left after the raid on Dieppe on Aug. 19, 1942.
Dale Gibbons, the son of RHLI veteran Frank Gibbons, visited Dieppe in 2016 to see the beach where his father was wounded and his uncle Harry was killed.
The beach at Dieppe looking toward the west headland, with the military waste of a battle gone wrong.