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

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - MARK MCNEIL The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor

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.

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