Donald Dean‘s story is a quite remarkable one. Spanning two world wars, and the small matter of Britain’s highest honour for bravery, there can’t be many tales out there quite like this.
What I really like as well, is that Dean’s memoirs have such an easily-readable manner, which is no doubt down to his affable yet modest nature. Joining the Artists Rifles on the outbreak of war (he was underage), Dean was soon identified as an officer candidate and commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Queens Royal West Kent Regiment. Promoted to Captain by 1917, he was severely wounded in an action at Passchendaele, where he led a Platoon in defending an outpost for days against a vastly superior enemy. Modestly, he makes virtually no mention in his memoirs of his VC.
Dean was recalled to service immediately prior to the start of the Second World War, when the British Army was expanding after the Munich Crisis. Dean was originally given command of a Battalion of the Buffs, in the process raising several more Battalions. Upon the outbreak of war, however, his divisional commander removed him from command, with the explanation that he did not want his division to be commanded by territorials. Even First World War veterans with the VC. Unfortunately I have not been able to trace the Major-General in question.
Passed over for command in his Regiment, Dean was transferred to take command units in the Pioneer Corps. Historically the Army’s Navvies, and possibly the least glamorous unit in the army, the Pioneers performed valuable yet unsung physical labour. Taking part in the withdrawal to Dunkirk, Dean’s units of Pioneers held together firm on the perimeter of Boulogne while unmentioned units of the Guards fell back, commandeering their own ships in the process. Dean was strongly warned never to mention the fiasco. That a man who had been adjudged as an ‘amateur’ when it came to commanding an infantry unit led a Pioneer unit in a rearguard action should not be lost on the reader. The Pioneer Corps was traditionally a dumping ground for men who were deemed not clever enough or fit enough for the rest of the Army, and unwanted officers such as Dean, but as so often in British military history the Pioneers punched well above their expectations.
After returning from Dunkirk Dean and his Pioneers defended a section of the British coastline, before he left to take command of the Pioneer element of one of the least known operations in the Second World War – the invasion of Madagascar. Held by the Vichy French, a British task force secured the island as a safety measure against capture by the Japanese. Once ashore on Madagascar, Dean had an extremely complicated task in leading a rag-tag labour force, including natives and other various contingents. Commanding such diverse units must have called upon leadership and people skills in spades. Dean was not averse to taking matters into his own hands, and at one point was censured by a senior commander for ‘wanton destruction of civilian property’ for using metal railings to form an improvised roadway!
After Madagascar Dean was transferred to command Pioneer forces in Italy. There once again Dean was in command of a polyglot collection of men, including British, Canadian, South African, Polish, native Africans and Italians to name but a few. By the end of the war he had acquired the monicker ‘Dogsbody Dean’ for his ability to deal with any awkward situation, and for handling any task given to him. Not a bad record at all for someone deemed not good enough to command an infantry Battalion in 1939. We can only wonder what the Army missed out on thanks to that ridiculous decision.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dean’s remarkable story – there cannot be many others like it. He gives some valuable insights into leadership in war, and some very useful anecdotes about the human experience of war.