The lessons of Dieppe
Seventy-five years ago this Saturday (August 19, 1942), Glengarrians were thick in the middle of what’s often referred to as Canada’s “darkest day” of the Second World War – the ill-fated Dieppe raid in German-occupied northern France.
Among those who landed on the beaches were Capt. Donald Fraser (D.F.) MacRae of Williamstown; Pte. John Kennedy, Ptes. Hector and Raymond Rochon, all of Alexandria; Pte. Louis Lapierre, of Lancaster; and Kenzie McRae, of Glen Robertson.
Capt. MacRae, a Glen Roy native who sustained a serious hip injury, rescued several comrades while under heavy enemy fire and consequently, was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery.
Hector Rochon and Louis Lapierre were captured by the enemy and spent the rest of the war in a German prisoner-of-war camp.
Pte. Kennedy who suffered a head injury, survived the assault – but was killed in action in September 1944.
Raymond Rochon, initially reported as missing in action at Dieppe, was confirmed killed-inaction in May 1943.
Kenzie McRae survived the raid and returned safely to England.
On the morning of Aug. 19, 1942, approximately 6,100 troops – including nearly 5,000 Canadians – landed at Dieppe, a heavily-defended German-held port town on France’s northern coast.
The operation, however, went horribly wrong and by early afternoon, several hours after the assault had begun around 5 a.m., and only a few hours after a general retreat was sounded at 11, more than 3,300 men from the Canadian force – 68 percent of its original contingent – had been killed in action, wounded, captured or were missing.
Of that total, 1,946 had been taken prisoner by the Germans and 907 were dead.
The casualties and captured had been the victims of poor planning, a lack of training, and their superiors’ underestimation of the strength of their well-entrenched enemy’s defences.
In the bloody aftermath of the Dieppe Raid, another local man – Lt. John James (J.J.) Denovan of Dalkeith – was inspired to come up with an invention that would help prevent the massive number of casualties and loss of life that occurred that day.
A member of the Royal Canadian Engineers doing liaison duty with the Department of Tank Design, part of the British Ministry of Supply at the time, the young officer, still grieving from the loss of several former Queen’s University engineering classmates killed at Dieppe, realized that changes had to be made in how amphibious operations, as well as other types of military engagements, were conducted.
Citing the physical impediments faced by armoured crews and their vehicles at Dieppe – namely concrete barriers referred to as “dragons’ teeth” and metal angle beam “Czech hedgehog” anti-tank defences – Lt. Denovan and a group of colleagues set about developing a converted prototype of the Churchill tank used by the British and Canadian armies that would help invading forces overcome these obstacles.
In a story on the front page of the May 14, 1953 edition of The
News, the former officer explained his plans.
“What was needed was something to bring in the engineers with the first wave of the assault, so they could dispose of obstacles which were holding everybody else up,” he stated, pointing out that “only one tank in the Dieppe Raid got into the town itself... The beach defences were that strong.”
The prototype of what would eventually become known as the Churchill AVRE (Assault Vehicle Royal Engineers) had its internal ammunition storage compartment removed and replaced by a new side door that unfolded to become an armoured screen which would allow engineers riding in the tank to emerge, place lit explosive charges on the impeding obstacle, and then safely retreat to their tank.
The hole caused by the explosion would be large enough to drive the tank through.
Subsequent modifications to the vehicles included the installations of racks to hold demolition charges used exclusively by the engineers; the cutting of holes in the tanks’ floors for the dropping of Bangalore torpedoes – used to make paths through mine fields; and the replacement of the Churchill’s standard six-pounder turret gun with a mortar capable of hurling 50-lb. demolition charges more than 80 yards.
These innovations played a key role throughout the remainder of the war – including the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, and the subsequent campaigns inland through France, Holland and Germany – as the modified tanks were able to break through concrete walls, barriers, roadblocks, bunkers and other fortifications, as well as safely clear away mines using flail (roller and waited chain) attachments affixed to the tanks’ fronts.
To say that a Glengarrian’s ingenuity not only helped to save the lives of countless Allied soldiers, but contributed to the eventual victory over Nazi Germany as well is no exaggeration.