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Remembering David Currie, V.C.

Major David Currie.
Wikimedia
Major David Currie remembered it being around 5 o’clock on a Wednesday when he first heard the news of having earned the Victoria Cross.

“I was staggered,” recalled The South Alberta Regiment tanker in a CBC radio interview recorded in the Netherlands. “I sat down, had a cigarette, and thought it over.”

Currie, born July 8, 1912, was 32-years-old when he displayed actions worthy of the military’s highest honour. Although a native of Sunderland, Sask., he grew up in Moose Jaw where his family lived between 1913 and 1939. It was there that he went to school, eventually pursuing a career as a vehicle mechanic and welder.

That changed on Jan. 30, 1940, when Currie enlisted in the army with the rank of lieutenant. In April 1941, he was promoted to captain and assigned to the Royal Canadian Engineers training school in Dundurn, Sask.

Currie’s ascent continued when, six months later, he transferred to the Canadian Armoured Corps training school at Camp Borden—the latter institution of which opened on July 11, 1916, incidentally 108 years ago this week.

By May 1942, the Prairie-born soldier had found his military home after being attached to the 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (The South Alberta Regiment), departing with the unit for overseas duty that August. Within the tank formation around two years later—at that stage a well-respected major of ‘C’ Squadron—Currie would ascend once more to legendary leader.

The day was Aug. 18, 1944, and the Allies were completing the encirclement of two German armies in what had been dubbed the Falaise pocket in Normandy, France. The approximately 100,000-strong enemy force, against Hitler’s orders, planned to escape via a narrow channel between the French communities of Chambois, Saint-Lambert-sur-Dives and Trun.

Polish and Canadian troops—including Currie’s South Alberta Regiment within the 4th Canadian Armoured Division—needed to prevent the mass exodus. One of the most important objectives was Saint-Lambert-sur-Dives, where the main bridge over the River Dives could facilitate a German withdrawal without a stout Allied defence. It was a bridge that had to be held at all costs.

Currie, in command of a small battle group, would carry out the task.

“I remember thinking at the time it was the toughest job the regiment had ever been given,” the Canadian officer recalled after receiving his orders.

Infantrymen of ‘B’ Company, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, riding in a captured German truck with German prisoners, in Saint-Lambert-sur-Dives, France, Aug. 19, 1944.
LAC M# 3212087
Mustering a force comprising 15 tanks of his very own ‘C’ Squadron, together with 55 infantrymen of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada, the major set out toward the Norman village. His men encountered stiff resistance almost immediately, resulting in two Shermans being knocked out.

Undeterred, Currie temporarily halted the assault and crept into Saint-Lambert-sur-Dives alone on foot. Helping to evacuate the two beleaguered tank crews under enemy noses, he also reconnoitred enemy positions ahead of a renewed attack planned for first light the following day, Aug. 19.

The morning assault encountered a similarly tough German defence. Nevertheless, by midday, the Canadian battle group had clawed about halfway into the village and, most crucially, had seized the bridge.

Subsequent enemy counterattacks descended on the men relentlessly. At one stage, remembered Currie, the Germans swarmed the South Alberta’s tanks in a desperate attempt to dislodge them from the objective.

“The boys were fending them off with pistols, grenades and swinging the turret of the tank around to knock them off,” noted the major.

But the Canadians held on until reinforcements arrived later in the day. Bolstered by ‘C’ Company of the Argylls and a composite company of The Lincoln and Welland Regiment—in addition to a forward observation officer for directing artillery fire—the battle group remained steadfast in its vicious struggle.

Currie performed not one, but many heroic deeds during some 36 hours of fighting. Once, he used a rifle from his tank turret to neutralize enemy snipers who had infiltrated to within 50 yards of the Canadian headquarters. In another instance, he insisted that an Allied artillery bombardment, despite falling within 14 metres of his position, continue due to its effectiveness against the Germans.

When not directing his armour against targets, Currie was on the ground shoring up his infantry’s defences. At a critical juncture, confronted by a withdrawing group of Canadians, the major rallied and returned them to their posts. He also helped silence a feared Tiger tank while in direct command of his Sherman.

At dusk on Aug. 20, the enemy launched a last-ditch effort to break through, only for the force to be routed before it could be deployed. It seemed the death knell of German resistance in Saint-Lambert-sur-Dives had finally rung out.

At least seven German tanks, 12 88mm guns, and 40 vehicles were destroyed in the process, along with an estimated 300 killed, 500 wounded and 2,100 captured. Amid the carnage, Canadian photographer Donald I. Grant had captured the scene of Currie accepting the surrender of an enemy officer. Not only would it become one of the most iconic images of Canada’s participation in the Second World War, but it’s also considered one of the only known visuals of someone in the process of displaying VC-awarded actions.

Major Currie (left of centre, holding a revolver) accepting the surrender of German troops at Saint-Lambert-sur-Dives, France, Aug. 19, 1944.
Lieut. Donald I. Grant/Wikimedia
Currie, of course, wouldn’t know of the award at the time, not least because he had slept a mere hour since entering Saint-Lambert-sur-Dives.

With his duty done and The North Nova Scotia Highlanders having relieved the bloodied battle group, the major, according to his VC citation, fell asleep on his feet and collapsed.

Two German armies had been largely, if not completely, denied a large-scale retreat out of the Falaise pocket—with a just amount of credit afforded to David Currie, V.C. But, he would maintain his modesty throughout his life, heaping considerable, and equally worthy, praise on those who served under him.

“The boys fought very well throughout the whole show,” he said.

Currie later served as sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons, retiring in 1978. He died of a heart attack on June 29, 1983, age 73. He was buried alongside fellow V.C. recipients Billy Bishop and Thomas William Holmes, in Greenwood Cemetery in Owen Sound, Ont.


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