Padre John Weir Foote, CD, V.C.
Padre Foote was a Presbyterian Chaplain who participated in the Dieppe Raid, alongside his compatriots in the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. Like many who stormed that particular beach in France that fateful day, he spent the rest of World War II as a Prisoner of War. Unlike the rest, however, he did so willingly. For his actions that day, he became the only member of the Canadian Chaplain Services to be awarded the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth’s highest honour.
On May 5th, 1904, he was born in the town of Madoc, Ontario, which is about 100 km NW of Kingston. He studied at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Queen's University in Kingston, Presbyterian College and McGill University, both in Montreal. After his studies were completed, he followed his calling as a minister, serving in Fort-Coulonge, Quebec, and Port Hope, Ontario. In August of 1929, he wed a young lady by the name of Edith Sheridan.
Upon the breakout of the 2nd World War, he joined the Canadian Army as a chaplain. He was assigned to minister to the men of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, as they trained and prepped for battle in Europe. Naturally, as regimental chaplain, he went along with them when they were sent to invade France, storming the shores of Dieppe in August of 1942. As I’m sure most of you are aware, it didn’t go all that well.
Honourary Captain Foote personally saved many lives by his efforts and his example inspired all around him. Those who observed him state that the calmness of this heroic officer as he walked about, collecting the wounded on the fire-swept beach will never be forgotten."
The London Gazette, 14th February 1946
Of the 6,090 men participating in the attack, 1,027 were killed and 2,340 were captured. Padre Foote attached himself to a medical aid post that was set-up in a slight depression on the beach. Instead of staying in the relative safety of the aid post, he continued to venture forth, to aid those wounded laying exposed to enemy fire on the beach. He would administer what aid he could give, and then carry the wounded back, as the fight raged around him.
As the hours passed, it became obvious that the Allies were losing; the landing craft began evacuating personnel from the beach. Padre Foote continued his tireless work, ferrying wounded to the landing craft, and cajoling others to do the same. For more than an hour, he did this, refusing offers to get into the landing craft, and escape to safety. He is credited with saving the lives of at least 30 soldiers that day. When the final boat was readying itself to get the heck out of there, Padre Foote was bodily dragged aboard the landing craft by two men.
Seeing the German soldiers taking anyone left behind prisoner, Padre Foote leapt into the water, declaring that those left behind would need him far more in captivity than those going home. He willingly surrendered to the Germans, and took his place with the rest of the POWs.
While in the POW camps, being an officer, he was offered preferential treatment, which he refused, insisting upon the same treatment as the men he came there to minister to. He spent his time caring for the physical, mental, and spiritual well being of his fellow prisoners. At times, he was rather outspoken to the Germans, with regards to the treatment of the other men, which I’m sure you can imagine came at no small risk to himself.
There they remained for the bulk of the war. John Foote, was eventually rescued from his P.O.W. camp on his 41st birthday, on 5 May, 1945, only 3 days before the surrender of the remainder of the German Army.
For his actions at Dieppe, Padre Foote was awarded the Victoria Cross. He donated his medal to the regimental museum of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, as he was of the opinion that many of the men who fought that day deserved the honour as much as he.
The armoury that houses the RHLI, including the museum where this Victoria Cross is now kept, has since been renamed the John Weir Foote V.C. Armouries.
Padre Foote remained in the Canadian Army until 1948, retiring at the rank of Honourary Major. That same year, he was elected as a Member of the Provincial Parliament of Ontario, representing the Durham riding. While an MPP, he initially served as the Deputy Commissioner for the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. After the 1951 election, Premier Leslie Frost appointed him to his cabinet, as the Ontario Minister of Reform Institutions. While in that position, he eliminated the routine use of corporal punishment, enacting a policy that authorized the use of “the strap” only at the discretion of the Minister. This was a rather controversial decision at the time, one which was blamed for riot that occurred in a Guelph prison in July of 1952.
He continued to serve in the cabinet until 1957, stepping down from his ministerial position due to health concerns, after a series of heart attacks. He remained on as an MPP until 1959, when he did not seek re-election.
In 1964 he was made the RHLI’s Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel, a volunteer position with the regiment, which consists primarily of public relations work, as well as helping keep up the morale of the troops. And, let’s face it, he became a P.O.W. for just that reason, so he might as well do it in Ontario as well as Germany.
Padre Foote eventually settled down into retirement with his wife Edith, in the community of Colbourg, Ontario. She passed away in 1986, and he followed 2 years hence.
Chief of the Defence Staff. “Canadian Forces Chaplain Branch Manual” A-CG-001-000/JD-000. 01 Jun 2003.
Wikipedia. “Dieppe Raid,” Wikipedia, the free encylopedia. 07 Nov 2008. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dieppe_Raid> (10 Nov 2008.)
Wikipedia. “John Weir Foote,” Wikipedia, the free encylopedia. 18 Sept 2008. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Weir_Foote> (10 Nov 2008.)
“Battle Account of Rev. John Foote Royal Hamilton Light Infantry RHLI Dieppe Raid,” Dieppe to Berlin: Canada in World War Two. 20 Jan 2002. <www.geocities.com/dieppe_berlin/1Canada/1-Stories/foote_rhli.htm> (10 Nov 2008.)
Farrell, Colin. “Corporal Punishment Archive,” coprun: World Corporal Punishment Research. October 1999. <www.corpun.com/capr5207.htm> (10 Nov 2008.)
Hopkins, Greg. "Reverend John Weir Foote, V.C.," Canadian Orange Biographies. 27 Jul 2008. <members.tripod.com/~Roughian/CanadianOrangeBiographies-2.html> (10 Nov 2008.)
Veteran Affairs Canada. “Rev. John Weir Foote,” For Valour. 21 Sept 1998. < www.vac-acc.gc.ca/general/sub.cfm?source=history/secondwar/citations/foote> (10 Nov 2008.)