The les­sons of Dieppe

The Glengarry News - - The Opinion Page - BY SCOTT CARMICHAEL News Staff

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.

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