Bravery through fire: the Victoria Cross at Dieppe
The Raid of Dieppe was a military failure for the Allies, with over half of the nearly 5 000 Canadian troops that made up the bulk of the attacking force captured or killed by the Germans. But in the midst of carnage, acts of courage shine all the brighter. At Dieppe, there were two Canadian soldiers whose extraordinary bravery would see them awarded the Victoria Cross—the Commonwealth’s highest military honour.
The bridge at Pourville
Pourville was on the western flank of the Raid of Dieppe. The Canadian units that landed there initially met light opposition and were able to push inland—but resistance intensified as the South Saskatchewan Regiment attempted to cross the River Scie.
The leadership of Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Cecil Ingersoll Merritt was instrumental in crossing the bridge (today, it has been renamed in his honour). He walked out into fire, leading his men by example; as the rest of the regiment made the crossing, he went back and forth across the river, accompanying them every step of the way.
Unfortunately, the SSR was stopped well short of Dieppe and had to retreat. Again, LCol Merritt guided his men across the bridge; though the regiment took heavy casualties, many were able to make it out. The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada, who had pressed on towards an inland airfield, were in a similar position; both units were scrambling for the Pourville beach, where landing craft was facing heavy fire in their attempt to come to shore.
Once again, LCol Merritt proved his mettle. Despite having been wounded twice, he led a courageous rearguard which enabled most of both units to re-embark. But the rearguard could not be evacuated; as the landing craft drew away, they continued to fight until they were eventually forced to surrender.
LCol Merritt survived his time as a prisoner of war and eventually returned to Canada, where he served as a Member of Parliament for Vancouver—Burrard from 1945 to 1949. At the end of his term he returned to his law practice. He died in Vancouver in 2000, aged 91.
Caretaker of men
The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry was one of the few units in the main attack on Dieppe that was able to make it into the town itself. They had landed at the west end of the promenade, and were able to take an isolated casino and the surrounding concrete “pillbox” blockades. From this secure position they pushed into Dieppe to engage in vicious street fighting.
Reverend John Weir Foote was the military chaplain attached to the Rileys. For eight hours, he continually exposed himself to heavy fire to administer first aid, inject morphine, and move injured men to safety—first to the Regimental Aid Post on the beach, then onto the landing craft when they made it to shore to begin the evacuation.
On several occasions during the evacuation he had the opportunity to re-embark, but declined in favour of returning to the beach to save more men. And then, in a final show of staggering bravery, he climbed down from the landing craft that would have carried him to safety and surrendered to the Germans—unwilling to leave his fellow prisoners of war to enemy care.
Rev. Foote is the only member of the Canadian Chaplain Service to receive the Victoria Cross. After the Second World War, he returned to Canada, where he went into provincial politics. He was the Member of Provincial Parliament for Durham, Ont. from 1948 until his retirement in 1959. He died in 1988 in Cobourg, Ont.
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