In a worn red leather journal, in the messy handwriting of a doctor, Captain Laurence Guy Alexander recorded a devastating day in Canada’s history: Aug. 19, 1942.
As Canadians mark the 70th anniversary of Second World War’s Dieppe Raid, Capt. Alexander’s grandson Rob Alexander is left reading his grandfather’s account of that mission, learning about a man he never knew.
Doc Alexander, one of the Captain’s nicknames, survived the deadly Dieppe operation, albeit leaving France’s beach with a cracked jaw and shrapnel in his left ankle. Of the 117 army men and 13 naval men on his tank landing craft, only 30 from the army and three from the navy made it back, according to Capt. Alexander’s diary. Eight of the survivors were wounded.
“Explosions were occurring inside and out, and at one time the inside of the boat was a sheet of flame. Men were blown overboard,” Capt. Alexander wrote on the day of the raid. “Many whom I had just finished bandaging, when I turned back I found had been killed, and nearly all were blown completely off the ship.”
His boat floated helplessly as German forces attacked.
“Oil, water and blood were over everything – it was an awful mess,” the medical officer for the 14th Canadian Army Tank Battalion, Calgary Regiment wrote. They were known as the Calgary Tanks.
Capt. Alexander, who was born in Fredericton and served in both World Wars, was awarded Canada’s Military Cross and made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Near the end of the Second World War he returned to his wife and four children in Calgary.
About 107,600 Canadian Second World War veterans are still alive, although it is unknown how many of them participated in Dieppe. As so few returned to England after the battle, it is unlikely many remain. Of the 4,963 Canadians sent to Dieppe’s beaches, only 2,210 returned. There were 913 ere killed and 1,946 were taken prisoner, according to Veterans Affairs Canada.
Seven Dieppe veterans returned to the port city Friday to commemorate the fight code-named Operation Jubilee. Even with their vivid stories, photographs, and mementos such as Capt. Alexander’s journals, it is still difficult for younger generations to grasp the severity of the devastation at Dieppe.
“To me, it is unimaginable,” Capt. Alexander’s grandson Rob said. “I can’t picture what it would have been like for him on that landing craft because he described it as shellfire worse than anything he experienced in the First World War. …The amount of shells, and machine gun bullets, and mortars and even torpedoes. They were attacked by planes. Just that sheer volume of explosive firepower was absolutely remarkable.”
Veteran Raymond Gilbert, 90, a trooper, remembers Capt. Alexander “as one great guy.”
Mr. Gilbert was captured during Dieppe and spent 21/2 years as a prisoner of war, did not know what happened to his regiment’s doctor that fateful day.
“After we had all come back from the war…[Capt. Alexander] called me up and said: “Ray, I’m opening an office and I need some patients,” Mr. Gilbert said. “He happened to bring my first one into being, and my second child.”
Capt. Alexander’s grandson has learned, through his the leather-bound journals, family stories and research, that he was a committed doctor. He pioneered the use of Jeeps as ambulances, treated folks belonging to the Stoney Nakoda First Nation, served as the Calgary Stampeders’ team doctor, and was a staff doctor for The Hudson’s Bay Co.
Doc Alexander made house calls and could be paid in chickens.
“This is the only way I can get to know him,” Mr. Alexander’s grandson said of his research. “He had an unfailing positive attitude. In the middle of this horrific experience … he would also bandage them up and make an effort to cheer them up. Whether it was a wink or a joke or a smile or whatever it took.”