Donald Dean VC edited by Terry Crowdy

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.

Donald Dean VC is published by Pen and Sword



Filed under Army, Book of the Week, victoria cross, western front, World War One, World War Two

24 responses to “Donald Dean VC edited by Terry Crowdy

  1. Scholar’s Bookshelf catalogs used to keep me up-to-date on new WWI/II books, and since they went under I have little idea what’s going on, publishing-wise; so, thanks for this.

    • James Daly

      no problem, I know how hard it is trying to keep track of whats appearing on the bookshelves. I review books for Pen and Sword, The History Press, Casemate and their imprints. They send me catalogues every couple of months and I select books I would like to review, and they often send me additional books too. I sometimes get the odd book from Little Brown, Harper Collins too.

  2. John Erickson

    I have to beg your indulgence, James, to ask a question. How did the British Army handle conscientious objectors? The reason I ask is, the Pioneer Corps sounds quite like the American Civil Conservation Corps (CCC), which despite its’ name, took military men who “opted out” due to their CO status, in particular, the highly religious and peace-oriented Quakers and Amish (the later of whom I have spent much time among during our time here in Ohio). I’m curious if the two Corps were similarly staffed, since their functions are quite close, albeit their management styles radically different. I can enlighten with some more detailed stories of COs being taken out of their barracks in the middle of the night, told to dig a hole, then told it would be their grave if they didn’t volunteer to fight. (No wonder the Amish view the outside world with distrust.)

  3. James Daly

    Quite a few Conscientious objectors ended up in the Pioneer Corps, due to its nominal status as a non-combatant corps. Although it frequently ended up in either the front line or not far from it, particular in Italy where the Pioneers were employed hewing out dug outs in rocky mountains. Quiet a few of the ‘conchies’ suddenly found that they werent that objectionable and fell in with the war effort; this is something that Dean describes.

    The Pioneer corps was also home to many enemy aliens who had pledged to fight against Hitler – a number of German and Austrian Jews joined the Parachute Regiment via the Pioneer Corps.

    • John Erickson

      Their treatment of the so-called enemy aliens (weren’t those the bad guys from ID4?) sounds like the German Army treatment of Ukrainians. The Ukrainians absolutely despised the Soviets, welcomed the German Army as liberators, and signed up in numbers to fight the Soviets. The Germans promptly formed several Ukrainian battalions, then shipped them off to France to fight the Americans and British! The Germans thought they couldn’t trust them against other Russians. During the Normandy invasion, the vast majority of the Ukrainians fired the 5 rounds in their Mausers and surrendered, figuring they had “honoured their vow to fight for the Germans”. Of course, we were no better – we shipped them right back to the Soviets, who shot most of them and sent the rest to Siberia. It’s a pity that Army training in most countries fails to teach the traditions of enemy areas. Might have saved the US a lot of trouble in Iraq/Afghanistan.

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