Dieppe welcomes Canadian veterans with open arms

Hamilton architect was moved as he watched Hamilton veteran Fred Engelbrecht walk the parade route on Sunday in France.
Hamilton veteran Fred Engelbrecht walked the parade route in Dieppe on Sunday as the 70th anniversary of the failed raid was remembered. (Bill Curran/Special)

Thousands of people joined seven Canadian veterans on Sunday to honour the 907 soldiers who died 70 years ago on a beach in France.

Hamilton architect Bill Curran was among those who attended the ceremonies in Dieppe.

"There was a very large crowd of all ages at the ceremony. It was a very touching and dignified event. Sadly it is likely one of the last few times a vet will be here," Curran said from France. "With most vets in wheelchairs now it was moving to see Hamilton RHLI vet Fred Engelbrecht proudly walk the entire parade route."

Curran also toured the Canadian military cemetery outside of town where 700 Canadians are buried. That almost 200 remain unidentified speaks to the carnage of the Dieppe Raid, he added.

The cemetary was crowded with visitors, and was adorned with many tribute wreaths. A fresh rose was placed in front of each grave.

Dieppe is the most Canadian city in France right now.

"There are Canadian flags all over the poles and balconies," said minister Steven Blaney, who spoke to CBC Hamilton from France Saturday evening. "Our veterans are being greeted by flashbulbs and open arms instead of German gunfire."

"I'm thrilled by the journey we're having right now."

Blaney is part of a contingent that includes seven Canadian veterans who are visiting the French city this weekend. They all survived the raid on Dieppe back on Aug 19, 1942.

The raid was a tactical disaster that cost the lives of 197 soldiers from the Hamilton regiment, who were among over 900 of the  Canadians who died.

Of the remaining soldiers from Hamilton's contingent, 109 were wounded and 174 were captured as prisoners of war.

Blaney says it's not just the French government commemorating the event — people in the streets of Dieppe are just as grateful for the sacrifice Canadian soldiers made there decades ago.

"You even go into little boutiques and they have Second World War memorabilia," he said. "It's amazing."

Blaney said he has spent hours with the now elderly veterans, listening to their stories. "They keep telling me they had no fear," he says. "They're critical of how the mission was planned and how it played out — but they were still fearless."

He has also met with people from France who remember the raid, and the immense toll it took on human life. "They were pulling bodies from the sea for weeks," he said.

One such story is that of a French nun, known simply as the "white angel." Now well into her nineties, she sat for hours with Canadian soldiers on the beach, comforting them until they died.

"You can feel the immense Canadian sacrifice that took place here," Blaney said. "We all need to remember what happened here and pass it on to the next generation."