ILLUSTRATIONS: SHARIF TARABAY
During the World War II campaign in Northwest Europe, which lasted from D-Day, June 6, 1944, until the German surrender in May 1945, four Canadian soldiers–David Vivian Currie, Aubrey Cosens, Frederick Albert Tilston and Frederick George Topham–earned Victoria Crosses.
There is a photograph taken in August 1944 at St-Lambert-sur-Dives, France, that shows Currie with pistol in hand, accepting the surrender of a German officer. Tanks and buildings are smouldering in the background. The noted Canadian military historian, C.P. Stacey, described the scene “as close as we are likely to come to a photograph of a man winning the Victoria Cross.” The occasion was the final entrapment of the Germans in the Falaise pocket.
The opportunity for the entrapment of a massive number of German troops arose around the time that the Americans had broken out of the hedgerows, and Hitler had ordered his commanders to counter-attack. With the Nazis moving west into action on Aug. 7, the Allies started making plans to trap them in a giant pocket. But for this to work, the Canadians–advancing from the north–had to reach the critical road junctions around the city of Falaise.
On Aug. 18, Currie, a major with the South Alberta Regiment, was in charge of a small mixed force of Canadian tanks, self-propelled anti-tank guns and infantry. He was given the task of blocking the German escape route through the village of St-Lambert-sur-Dives. His unit was held up by stiff enemy resistance in the village when two tanks were badly hit by German fire. The citation for his VC states that he “immediately entered the village alone on foot at last light through the enemy outposts to reconnoitre the German defences and extricate the crews of the disabled tanks, which he succeeded in doing in spite of heavy mortar fire.”
Early the next day, the major led an attack on the village in the face of vicious resistance from enemy tanks, guns and infantry. By midday, Currie’s small, but determined force had succeeded–without any previous artillery support–in seizing and consolidating a position halfway inside the village. For the next 36 hours, the Germans hurled one counter-attack after another at the Canadians. In Currie’s own words “They threw everything but the kitchen sink at us.”
But Currie had arranged his defences so that the counter-attacks were repulsed with heavy losses to the enemy. During the onslaught, Currie not only displayed a contemptuous defiance for the enemy as he led his men against repeated assaults, but took part in the battle himself. On one occasion he personally directed the fire of his command tank onto a German tank and succeeded in knocking it out.
During another attack he used a rifle from the turret to kill enemy snipers who had infiltrated to within 50 yards of his headquarters. Another time, even though his unit’s artillery fire was falling within 15 yards of his tank, he ordered it continued because it was having a devastating effect on the enemy. At dusk on Aug. 20, the enemy tried to mount a decisive attack to break their way out but failed miserably. The attack force was routed before it could be deployed. Currie promptly ordered an attack and completed the capture of the village, effectively blocking that part of the Chambois-Trun escape route and denying it to the Germans trapped in the Falaise pocket.
Throughout the engagement Currie had no respite from the battle. In fact, he managed only one hour’s sleep during the entire period. When relief finally arrived he was so exhausted he fell asleep on his feet and collapsed.
The yield to his regiment was enormous for a single unit: seven enemy tanks, 12 88-mm guns and 40 vehicles destroyed; hundreds of Germans killed or wounded; 2,100 captured.
Born in Sutherland, Sask., on July 8, 1912, Currie attended King George Public School and Central Collegiate. Later he attended the Moose Jaw Technical School where he studied auto mechanics and welding. Before WW II broke out he joined the militia and in January 1940 enlisted in the regular army with the rank of lieutenant.
Following the war Currie held several executive positions in Baie Comeau, Que., and Montreal. In 1959, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker appointed him sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons. In later years he served as vice-chairman of the Victoria Cross and George Cross associations and every two or three years led a delegation to England.
Currie died June 20, 1986, in hospital at Ottawa after suffering a heart attack. He was buried in Owen Sound, Ont.
Sergeant Aubrey Cosens was one of two non-commissioned Canadian soldiers in WW II to receive the VC–posthumously–for a heroic act in which he killed at least 20 Germans and took an equal number prisoner. Yet when his hometown of Latchford, Ont., wanted to name a bridge after him the provincial government refused permission on the grounds that the government didn’t name bridges after people because motorists might be tempted to slow down or stop on the bridge or its approaches while pondering the significance of the bridge’s name.
In Holland, on the night of Feb. 25-26, 1945, the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada launched an attack on the hamlet of Mooshof, a stronghold vital to the clearing of the Rhineland. Cosens’s platoon–supported by a pair of Sherman tanks–assaulted three farm buildings. Twice they were beaten back by the fanatical enemy defenders. One of the tanks was knocked out and the platoon suffered heavy casualties, including the platoon commander, who was killed.
Cosens immediately assumed command. Gathering the four survivors of the platoon he ordered them to cover him while he ran forward across open ground under heavy mortar fire to the remaining tank. He positioned himself in an exposed place in front of the turret and directed its fire. After leaping from the tank with Sten gun in hand, Cosens raced ahead while his four riflemen covered him with their fire. The tank then rolled forward and rammed the first farmhouse, knocking a hole in the wall. With bricks falling all around him, Cosens plunged into the building and went room to room killing Germans and taking prisoners. He then charged into the second and third farm buildings where he personally killed or captured all the occupants while under intense machine-gun and small arms fire.
After reorganizing his small band, he placed them at key points and positioned the tank for another attack. Not long after that he was struck in the head by a sniper’s bullet. He died almost instantly.
The son of a WW I veteran, Cosens was born on May 21, 1921. Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Porquis Junction near Iroquois Falls, Ont. He attended the local school and upon graduating went to work for the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railroad. On Nov. 12, 1940, he went to Hamilton and joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada (Hamilton) Regt. He later transferred to the Queen’s Own Rifles and was promoted from corporal to sergeant.
Cosens is buried in Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery at Nijmegen in the Netherlands where a plaque was erected in his memory. On Aug. 29, 1969, a provincial plaque was erected in his memory on Highway 11 near Porquis Junction. A tourist steamer on Lake Temagami is named after him as is the Latchford branch of The Royal Canadian Legion.
The question of naming a bridge in his honour was resolved when 2,500 delegates from the Legion’s Ontario Command persuaded the Ontario government to change its mind. In 1986, prominent signs were installed at both ends of the Sgt. Aubrey Cosens VC Memorial Bridge.
By February 1945, having cracked the vaunted Siegfried Line, the Canadians still had to breach the formidable defences around the Hochwald Forest that barred the way to the Rhine. The assault against these positions was launched Feb. 26.
As part of the 2nd Canadian Division, Major Frederick Tilston–in command of C Company of the Essex Scottish Regt.–took part in an operation to break the German defence line northeast of Udem and clear the northern half of the Hochwald, a thick coniferous wood several miles square, in an area that guarded the approach to the town of Xanten, the last enemy bastion west of the Rhine protecting the Wesel Bridge escape route.
It was March 1 and the plan called for the battalion to attack with two companies, A Co. under Paul Cropp on the right flank and Tilston’s C Co. on the left. The start line was at the edge of a group of farm buildings about 500 yards from the forest, across a stretch of level farmland that offered no cover whatsoever. The assault was scheduled to begin at 7:15 a.m. but due to the softness of the terrain it proved impossible for the tanks to support the infantry in Tilston’s sector. This delayed the advance until 9 a.m. when the Canadian artillery began bursting shells along the start line.
As C Co. began to advance, Tilston, with his wireless operator, was slightly ahead of the first two forward platoons with a third in reserve. Suddenly, German machine-guns opened up from two different directions. Men began to fall, including Tilston who was wounded in the head. However, he managed to get up and rejoin his men as they continued forward through a thick belt of barbed wire.
Enemy mortar fire added to the Essex Scottish casualties. With an open left flank and no tanks in support, the company simply had to keep moving ahead in the face of shells and machine-gun bullets that tore great gaps in the flanks. Tilston ran forward and silenced an enemy machine-gun post with a hand grenade. The citation for his VC states that he was the first to reach the enemy position and take the first prisoner. Meanwhile, the battalion’s Bren-gun carrier, which held the company’s ammunition supply, turned back to evacuate the worst of the wounded.
“Determined to maintain the momentum of the attack he ordered the reserve platoon to mop up these positions and, with outstanding gallantry, pressed on with his main force to the second line of enemy defences which were on the edge of the woods,” states the citation.
Before they arrived, however, the Germans had ducked back inside the bunkers and were now sniping at the Canadians from the rear. But in their haste they had left a pile of hand grenades and C Co. began flushing them out with their own weapons. This was fortuitous because with the Bren-gun carrier gone they were running short of ammunition.
Meanwhile, Cropp’s A Co. had reached its objective, a group of farm buildings to the right. With proper tank support, they had suffered fewer casualties and expended far less ammunition than their counterparts on their left. Between the two companies lay an open stretch of ground at the mercy of German mortar bombing and machine-gun fire.
By this time Tilston was wounded again, this time in the hip. “Shouting to his men to carry on without him and urging them to get into the woods, he struggled to his feet and rejoined them as they reached the trenches of their objective,” reads the citation. “Here an elaborate system of underground dugouts and trenches was manned in considerable strength and vicious hand-to-hand fighting followed.”
Despite his wounds, the major remained determined as ever to close with the enemy. He continued to inspire his men as he led them in clearing the trenches. Two enemy company headquarters were overrun in the process.
Later, with his company’s ammunition supply critically low, Tilston set off to replenish it from A Co.’s supply. As he approached, ignoring the German fire all around him, Cropp was flabbergasted: “I saw him coming, not worried, just a smile on his face…and in he sauntered, more or less, and said ‘We’re short of ammunition. What can we have?’ So we supplied him. He was, of course bleeding from a number of wounds and we patched them up and sent him back. But the thing that really struck me about Fred was that this man was really enjoying the war. Here am I, terrified by what’s going on most of the time and here is a man who is totally enjoying what is happening.”
Tilston ran back through a hail of German fire, this time loaded down with hundreds of rounds of ammunition and two boxes of grenades, just in time to help his men ward off an enemy counter-attack.
That type of fighting went on all afternoon but Tilston seemed impervious to the danger. He never got down into the trench. He stood on the parapet or squatted beside it, in the words of one of his platoon commanders, “to discuss our problem as if we were at a board meeting. He was absolutely cool….”
Tilston made at least six more hazardous trips to A Co. for ammunition. This allowed the company to hold on until the rest of the battalion arrived. On his last trip Tilston was wounded again, this time more critically when a mortar struck him and blew one of his legs off below the knee. The other leg was so badly shattered he couldn’t move.
“I was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” he recalled. “I made myself as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. I simply undid my webbing, got into a reasonably comfortable position, gave myself a shot of morphine and waited. I think I became unconscious, you know, intermittently.”
His men found him, but he refused to be moved until he had given complete instructions for consolidating his company’s position. He ordered his senior officer to take charge with the epigraph: “We held.” Slightly more than two dozen of the 103 men who had started out with the company that morning were still alive. Tilston was taken to a field dressing station and then shipped back to the Canadian military hospital in Sussex, England. Before returning to Canada, Tilston received his VC from the king at Buckingham Palace.
Tilston, who once said the most important quality in earning a VC was “inexperience”, was born in Toronto on June 11, 1906. He was educated at De La Salle High School and took a paper route to help with family finances.
A graduate of the Ontario College of Pharmacy, he worked as a salesman for a drug manufacturing company and became sales manager with headquarters in Windsor, Ont., where he joined the Essex Scottish. During a training exercise in England in December 1942, he took a bullet in the back that passed through his lung and entered the pericardium membrane around his heart. But within four months he had recovered sufficiently to rejoin his regiment.
During the Normandy Campaign, Tilston was riding in a jeep when it struck a landmine. He had a concussion and both ears were blown, and his right eye was damaged by shrapnel splinters, but after two months of medical treatment he was fit for duty.
After the war, Tilston returned to the drug manufacturing company he had worked with before the war. He rose to become president and eventually chairman of the board. He also became honorary director and past president of the Canadian Foundation for the Advancement of Pharmacy and the Proprietary Association of Canada. In 1965, he was named Man of the Year by the Independent Druggist Association of Montreal.
Tilston also became honorary colonel of his old regiment, renamed the Essex and Kent Scottish Regt. And he was named honorary president of the Col. Fred Tilston VC Branch of the Legion in Aurora, Ont. Tilston died in Toronto on Sept. 23, 1992.
At 11 a.m. on March 24, 1945, troops of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion were taking part in Operation Varsity, the airborne landings near Wesel on the east bank of the Rhine. Twenty-three Canadians were killed, 40 wounded and two taken prisoner.
Among the injured was Corporal Frederick George Topham, a medical orderly who was shot in the nose. Though bleeding profusely and in excruciating pain, he kept tending the wounded under savage enemy fire for six hours, an action that earned him the VC.
Almost immediately after he had parachuted onto German soil he heard a desperate cry from a wounded Canadian paratrooper stranded out in the open and dangerously exposed to enemy fire. Two medical orderlies had rushed to the man’s assistance but as they knelt down beside him they were killed by German machine-gunners. “Without hesitation and on his own initiative, Corporal Topham went forward through intense gunfire to replace the orderlies who had been killed before his eyes. As he worked on the wounded man he was shot through the nose,” states the citation.
After completing immediate first aid, Topham carried the man from the field through the fierce enemy fire to the shelter of a wood. During the next two hours he refused all medical help and, disregarding heavy and accurate German fire, continued to bring in casualties from the field. Only after all the wounded had been cleared would he consent to have his bleeding nose treated. He was then told he could evacuate, but he insisted on returning to his post.
While on his way back to join his company he came across a gun carrier that had received a direct hit. Enemy mortar shells were bursting all around and the vehicle was on fire with its mortar ammunition exploding. All three of the crew were wounded and in grave danger. Despite orders to stay clear, Topham ran on alone to rescue the occupants despite the risk of flame and detonating ammunition. He managed to bring all three men to safety, though one died later of his injuries.
The citation to Topham’s VC reads: “This NCO showed sustained gallantry in the highest order. For six hours, most of the time in great pain, he performed a series of acts of outstanding bravery, and his magnificent and selfless courage inspired all those who witnessed it.”
Topham was born in Toronto on Aug. 10, 1917. He was educated at King George Public School and Runnymede High School. Before becoming a paratrooper he worked as a hard-rock miner with the Wright Hargreaves Mine at Kirkland Lake, Ont.
In 1944, by which time the Canadian Army casualties were far greater than had been anticipated, the call went out for medical orderlies and Topham was one of the first to step forward and volunteer.
Shortly after the war tens of thousands of Torontonians lined Bay Street to give him a hero’s welcome home in an open-car procession that ended at city hall.
On Nov. 10, he laid the cornerstone for Sunnybrook Memorial Hospital. At the same time the County of York presented him with a government annuity to provide him with $100 a month after he turned 50.
Topham took a job as an emergency trouble shooter with the Toronto Electric Hydro System. He died suddenly on May 31, 1974. At his wife’s request, his funeral was private. In 1980, a provincial plaque in Topham’s honour was unveiled at the Etobicoke Civic Centre.
ILLUSTRATIONS: SHARIF TARABAY
With this issue, we wrap up our 18-part series Canada and the Victoria Cross. Launched in the January/February 2004 issue, the popular series by World War II Spitfire pilot Arthur Bishop– son of VC recipient Billy Bishop–has taken us from the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 to the end of WW II in 1945. Indeed, it has covered a lot of ground, air and sea in describing the Canadians who earned the VC, the most esteemed of all military honours.
As we noted at the beginning, what constitutes a Canadian VC has long been the subject of debate. For our series, each recipient had to meet one or more of the four criteria: (1) was a member of the Canadian forces at the time of the deed; (2) was born in Canada, its territories or Newfoundland; (3) had established a permanent residence in Canada, its territories or Newfoundland prior to the outbreak of war; or (4) was resident in Canada, its territories or Newfoundland at the outbreak of the war.
Among the Canadian-born recipients there are two that often go unnoticed. Indeed, we could find very little personal information on Lieutenant Raymond Harvey Lodge Joseph de Montmorency and Brigadier John Alexander Sinton, but what we could find clearly points to their Canadian connections and to their steadfast gallantry in the face of the enemy. Both individuals should have been profiled earlier in our series and for this we aplogize.
To get to know the first we have to go back to the Battle of Omdurman on Sept. 2, 1898. It was there in the sweltering heat of the Sudan where an army of 8,200 British and 17,600 Sudanese and Egyptian soldiers–under the command of British General Sir Horatio Kitchener–fought an army of 52,000 warriors led by Abdullah al-Taashi.
Although vastly outnumbered, the British recorded a decisive victory. Kitchener’s casualties amounted to 48 dead and nearly 400 wounded–a total that is tiny when compared to what the other side lost: 9,700 dead, 13,000 wounded and 5,000 captured.
The battle was without doubt a brutal display of the superiority of machine-guns and artillery over muskets and spears and other older weapons. Prior to the bloodletting, Kitchener had positioned his force in an arc around the village of Egeiga near the Nile River. Waiting in support in the Nile was a gunboat flotilla. Kitchener had also placed cavalry on either flank. A good part of the enemy force, meanwhile, was positioned directly opposite the British, but the majority was concealed by nearby hills.
The battle began early in the morning when the enemy force advanced straight at the British who opened fire. That frontal attack ended well before any of the enemy could reach the British positions. An enemy flanking move also ended with the enemy being badly scattered.
Intending to capitalize on the enemy’s confusion, Kitchener sent in the British light cavalry regiment, the 21st Lancers. Their job was to clear the plain, but that proved to be a difficult assignment because the regiment clashed with a force of some 2,500 infantry.
It was shortly after that charge that 31-year-old de Montmorency earned the VC. The official account of his deed notes that he had returned to help a second lieutenant who was lying surrounded by a great many enemy soldiers. He drove the enemy away and, finding that the officer was dead, put the body on his horse, which then broke away. Another British officer and a corporal came to his assistance and de Montmorency was able to rejoin the regiment which had begun to open fire on the enemy. Interestingly enough, the other officer was Paul Aloysius Kenna, who also earned a VC that day.
Very little is known about de Montmorency’s time in Canada, but we do know he was born in Montreal on Feb. 5, 1867. He was killed in action at Dordrecht, Cape Colony, South Africa, on Feb. 23, 1900.
Sinton was born in Victoria, B.C., on Dec. 2, 1884, but grew up in Northern Ireland. He attended Nicholson Memorial School and later the Belfast Royal Academical Institution. From there he went on to study medicine at Queen’s University in Belfast.
At the age of 31 he was serving in WW I as a captain in the Indian Medical Service. The account of his deed notes that on Jan. 21, 1916, at the Orah Ruins in Mesopotamia, Sinton attended to the wounded under extremely heavy fire. While working frantically to save his comrades, he was shot through both arms and through the side. Refusing to leave the battlefield, he remained on duty for as long as daylight lasted. His bravery on that day came as no surprise to those who were with him. Indeed, on three previous actions he had also displayed incredible bravery.
After the war Sinton joined the civilian branch of the Indian Medical Service. His main interest was researching treatment for malaria. In 1925, he became the first director of the malaria survey of India and Kasauli. In 1936, he retired, but continued research at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He was recalled to the Indian Medical Service during WW II and was placed in charge of a hospital.
His malarial research advanced our understanding of the disease and for him personally resulted in many honours and awards. In his later years he served as deputy lord lieutenant for County Tyrone in Northern Ireland. He died on March 25, 1956, at Cookstown, Northern Ireland.
— Dan Black
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