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Seventy years later, a Hamilton vet returns to Dieppe

'The last man standing' returns to the beach where he was captured by the Germans on that fateful day.
Fred Engelbrecht looks forward to returning to Dieppe, France for his fourth visit. (Kate Adach/CBC)

Ninety-two year old veteran Fred Engelbrecht bursts into belly laughter every time he’s asked why he’s returning to the French port of Dieppe this weekend — where he served as a soldier and was captured as a prisoner in the devastating 1942 raid.

"I think they sent me this time because there wasn’t anyone left," he said. "I’m the last man standing, so to speak."

This isn’t entirely true. Engelbrecht is one of at least three Dieppe Raid veterans who live in Hamilton today, but the others are unable to attend for health or family reasons.

Because he’s able, Engelbrecht has been invited by Veterans Affairs Canada to fly to France with a small delegation to commemorate the event. The group left Ottawa on Thursday. Engelbrecht left his Mountain home on Wednesday morning.

"The truth is, I feel very honoured because I’ve been there four times," he said. "In one way, I owe it to the people I left behind, the people I left there."

Engelbrecht was one of 582 soldiers that the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry landed on the fateful morning of Aug. 19, 1942. Only 211 of them returned to England that afternoon, most of them injured. Another 197 men were killed and 174 were taken as prisoners-of-war. Engelbrecht was among them.

"I will never forget Dieppe," he said. "I remember everything like it was yesterday. I could walk you through everything that happened on the beach."

The day of the Dieppe Raid, Engelbrecht became a prisoner of war. He and the others were tied and shackled for months, forced to perform labour for years, and in 1945, to trek the grueling "death march" across Poland to Germany.

The elderly Hamilton resident will be standing on the Dieppe beach once again, this time flanked by government staff and RHLI members to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the raid — and massacre.

"The raid was a massacre, a complete massacre. A stupid massacre of thousands of men," Engelbrecht said.

He will be joined by six other veterans from across the country, the Minister of Veterans Affairs, representatives from RHLI, his son David and others.

When he says he has been four times, he is including this trip and the initial raid. "I had to be there for that one," he laughed.

He went again in 1979 so that he could tour his wife, June, through the areas he remembered. Then he returned with his eldest daughter in 2007 as part of the government’s 65-year anniversary visit.

This will be the first visit for RHLI’s commanding officer Dan Stepaniuk. This year not only marks the 70th anniversary of the raid, but it is also the 150th anniversary of the RHLI.

Stepaniuk says he’s looking forward to going for both of these reasons, and because he believes "it’s important for people to make the pilgrimage to Dieppe.

"I understand that it’s humbling to stand there on the beach with the cliffs on either side of you, to think that that’s where soldiers attacked," he said.

Stepaniuk pointed out that "99.9 per cent" of Hamilton’s current regiment is made up of volunteers who "don’t do this for the pay," he said. "Just like in Dieppe."

He and the city’s infantry group will lay a wreath on an RHLI memorial cenotaph that sits on the esplanade near Dieppe beach, he said.

Despite that Engelbrecht experienced so much trauma stemming from that beach, "I enjoy going back," he said. "I meet old friends. It’s nice for me."