Jack McFarland once said he left his youth on the shores of Dieppe.

Now, in death, the iconic Hamilton veteran is going back to rest.

A large contingent of McFarland's family is in the French coastal seaport this weekend alongside current members of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI), and family members of soldiers who have passed on, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Dieppe Raid — one of the bloodiest in the history of the Canadian military and a dark day for Hamilton.

"His family is spreading Jack's ashes on the beach. That's what he wanted," said Honourary Lt.-Col. Don Cranston, who is in France with the RHLI.

"Dieppe really is the blackest day in our regiment's history," he said.

'We have to remember that when push came to shove, with evil in the world, they stood up.' - Honourary Lt.-Col. Don Cranston,

But it wasn't supposed to be. The Dieppe Raid was to be Canada's first real exercise of the Second World War.

"The information we had was that it was going to be a piece of cake, as they say. As a matter of fact, somebody said that, during our briefing," McFarland told CBC, before his death last year.

Instead, it was a massacre.

Running headlong into SS fire

McFarland was just a private back then, training on the Isle of Wight. He was "gung ho to go" and see some action. Close to 5,000 Canadians took to their boats on Aug. 19, 1942, alongside some American Rangers and British commandos, expecting the exercise to end quickly.

"We were told we were going to face a bunch of old has-beens," McFarland said.

"But we were facing the SS."

Remembering Dieppe, 75 years on1:22

There was little naval support, reduced aerial cover fire, and indications that the Germans knew they were coming.

Soldiers ran headlong into a hail of bullets, right out of the gates of their assault craft.

"Two guys were down before I got off the boat. They were just blasting us," McFarland said.

He helped load a wounded officer onto an assault craft, and tried to escape himself.

But a German bomber came overhead on a strafing run, dropping anti personnel bombs into the water. McFarland was hit, and thought for sure the bomb had blown his arm off.

His arm was smashed, and bore a deep, cavernous scar he would have for the rest of his life.

Over 900 Canadians dead

He spent the next three years as a prisoner of war, one of 1,946 captured that day — 174 of which came from Hamilton.

In just a few short hours, 907 Canadians died, and 197 soldiers from the RHLI were among them.

Back home, Hamiltonians had some idea a massive tactical move was happening, but the details of its aftermath didn't trickle in for a few agonizing days.

li-dieppepaper-620

The front page of the Hamilton Spectator on Aug. 21, 1942 shows some of the men who died in Dieppe. (Local History and Archives, Hamilton Public Library)

The first news of death would have come from local radio stations CHML or CKOC. Initial reports listed only a handful dead. It wasn't until the coming days that people knew the full extent of the loss.

Fear and worry gripped Hamilton families as dreaded telegrams arrived by the dozens. People huddled around radios or flocked to the Hamilton Spectator building, where bulletins were posted on the wall outside.

When they opened the paper on Friday, they found rows of handsome black and white photographs of those missing or dead. Some of the faces were jovial. Some were determined. Many were unbearably young.

Canadian Press war correspondent Ross Munro came to Ivor Wynne Stadium a few days later to give a firsthand account of the raid. About 6,000, hungry for information, attended.

Only 2 survivors left

After McFarland's death last February at the age of 95, there are only two surviving members of the Dieppe raid left in the RHLI: Fred Englebrecht and Ken Curry.

They will be at Dieppe Veterans Memorial Park near the lift bridge in Hamilton this weekend to mark the anniversary — first at a candlelight vigil on Friday night running from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., and then a memorial service on Saturday at 11 a.m.

Fred Engelbrecht and Jack McFarland

Fred Engelbrecht (right) and the late Jack McFarland were both captured in the raid on Dieppe during the Second World War on Aug. 19, 1942. (Adam Carter/CBC)

In France, several formal memorial services will take place, honouring the regiments that took part in the raid.

But a less formal one is happening in Dieppe between the RHLI and the Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment out of Windsor, Ont, which was next to the Hamilton regiment on the beach that day.

"We're going to meet them on the beach, and break out some scotch and salute the men who did their best that day," Cranston said.

Jack's story7:39

When walking through the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery in France, there are dozens of Hamilton names chiseled into the headstones. As the raid's last survivors near the end of their lives, it's imperative that their memories and legacies are preserved, Crantston said.

"Would we have the fortitude to go, to do what they did? I honestly don't know," Cranston said. "It's extremely important. We have to remember them.

"We have to remember that when push came to shove, with evil in the world, they stood up."

adam.carter@cbc.ca

With files from Reg Sherren and Samantha Craggs