Monday, November 8, 2021

Lobbying for the Canadian Victoria Cross is a Legacy of a Very Imperfect Honours System

Four countries in the Commonwealth of Nations include the Victoria Cross as their highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy. The United Kingdom established the award in 1856 and generously shared it throughout the British Empire. As nations of the Empire earned their political independence they also developed their own systems of recognizing military bravery and leadership. The Canadian Honours system was developed for the nation's centennial year in 1967. The Victoria Cross was retained as its pre-eminent award, and in 1993 the Victoria Cross (Canada) superceded the Imperial version. Canada's VC is nearly identical, with the English inscription FOR VALOUR changed to Latin, so as to be appropriate for both anglophone and francophone recipients. Australia and New Zealand adopted their own VC medals in 1991 and 1999, and have awarded five and one respectively.

Canada has never awarded its own Victoria Cross. While Canadian soldiers have fought, and died, in a number of military battles and campaigns since the end of the Second World War (most notably the Korean War and the War in Afghanistan), the last award of a Victoria Cross to a Canadian was in 1945.

The efficiency, loyalty and bravery of Canadian soldiers has been their hallmark since the first overseas deployment of Canadian soldiers in 1884-5 during the Nile River expedition. Battle honours - and Victoria Crosses - were earned by Canadian units and individuals in the Boer War, First World War and Second World War. British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers currently hold the supreme award and on the face of it, an injustice has occurred. There have therefore been attempts in the past few years to lobby for certain individuals to receive the Canadian VC. 

War in Afghanistan Candidates

Master Corporal Paul Franklin has been put forth as one such deserving soldier.(1) Severely injured in a car bombing in Afghanistan on 15 January 2006, he put a tourniquet on the stump of his left leg and then gave life-saving first aid to two injured comrades. Diplomat Glyn Berry and two civilians were unfortunately killed in the blast. Others began to lobby for the award of the Victoria Cross to Franklin, citing the extreme devotion to duty and comrades that drove him despite the pain and shock of losing his own leg, actions so astonishing and worthy of recognition it is almost a disservice to reduce them to mere letters on a page. Franklin, however, disagreed.

"His official stance on the matter," says Edmonton friend Greg Scratchley, "is that since he was well beyond incapacitated during the event, any suggestion of actions 'heroic' or 'valourous' are likely unsupported -- or unsubstantiated.

"He does not believe that the event warrants such consideration as their mission to protect Glyn Berry was ultimately unsuccessful."(2)

 

Master Corporal Paul Franklin

This year, in time for Remembrance Day, a private citizen's petition has been made to the Canadian Parliament asking that the Victoria Cross be awarded to Private Jess Larochelle for actions in Afghanistan. The citation of his Star of Military Valour makes it clear his actions were undeniably worthy of some form of recognition:

On October 14, 2006, Private Larochelle of the 1st Royal Canadian Regiment Battle Group was manning an observation post when it was destroyed by an enemy rocket in Pashmul, Afghanistan. Although he was alone, severely injured, and under sustained enemy fire in his exposed position at the ruined observation post, he aggressively provided covering fire over the otherwise undefended flank of his company’s position. While two members of the personnel were killed and three others were wounded in the initial attack, Private Larochelle’s heroic actions permitted the remainder of the company to defend their battle positions and to successfully fend off the sustained attack of more than 20 insurgents. His valiant conduct saved the lives of many members of his company.(3)

A Facebook group is lobbying not just for Larochelle, but nine other Canadians to be considered for the award of the Victoria Cross.  The group cites "missing information" in the case of Larochelle as a justification for the review of his case:

What (the medal citation) doesn’t say (is) that his injuries were a broken back, detached retina, deaf in his right ear, and firing all the rockets caused shoulder problems. 2 years later shrapnel was still pushing itself out of his body. Imagine coming too with all these injuries and fighting off a sustained attack. It also doesn’t mention that the two LAVs on that flank had weapon stoppages meaning he was the only sustained fire on that flank. And by his own testimony he says he volunteered to go to the OP despite the fact that the platoon was short handed and undermanned. With knowledge that an attack was imminent he went down to the OP with 2 C6 machine guns meaning you would have needed 4 people to properly man that position because the C6 is a 2 man weapon. This information is missing from his citation and because of this we are calling for a review.(4)

The response to the call for a petition has been understandably emotional. How could such a brave soldier go unrewarded? The short answer is that he didn't, and while we will get to that further on, it may be worth covering some historical ground. The canadiansoldiers.com website is devoted to sharing information about the Canadian Army in the 20th Century, and this blog was started specifically to, in part, be able to add historical context to current events.

Development of Military Honours 1914-18

Canada, originally called British North America, became a semi-autonomous nation in 1867 but only slowly developed into its own nationhood. The federal government of Canada, for example, was powerless to institute its own foreign policy until the Statute of Westminster in 1922 and Canada didn't issue its own passports until 1947 when residents were finally recognized as Canadian citizens rather than British subjects.

Canada did not officially have an army, or at least didn't call it that, until 1940. The Militia was a small, mostly amateur force which was able to assemble "expeditionary forces" for British conflicts in Africa and Europe. The British system of awards was considered appropriate to recognize bravery and merit.

In 1914, the British system of honours was severely stressed as the major nations of the world threw their military forces at each other in an unprecedented prolonged, industrialized conflict. About 7,000 Canadians had served in the Boer War, that number was eclipsed in the opening weeks of the First World War, and nearly that many Canadians were killed or wounded in the first major Canadian battle at Ypres in April 1915. All told over 600,000 Canadians would join the Canadian Expeditionary Force.

Recognizing their bravery was difficult. In 1914 there were only three awards available to the rank and file: the Victoria Cross, a medal of great prestige, the Distinguished Conduct Medal, or a mention in dispatches. The DCM was only awarded to deserving non-commissioned soldiers (including warrant officers) and not commissioned officers. By 1916 so many DCM had been awarded that there were fears its value was being diluted, and an additional, lesser, award for bravery called the Military Medal was minted, also for award to non-commissioned soldiers only.

Recognizing that no award existed for junior officers, the Military Cross was instituted as a bravery award in 1914, for warrant officers and junior commissioned officers (lieutenants or captains). Officers ranked major or higher were eligible for the Distinguished Service Order.

Patchwork System

The system of recognition, in other words, was not a single, smoothly thought out system of awards, but a patchwork to which additional pieces were continually added. There were a number of notable issues with the system.

  • Only the VC and the Mention in Dispatches could be awarded posthumously. If a soldier died, his bravery could only be recognized by one, the other, or nothing. Since by 1917 the VC was a singular honour standing atop a whole hierarchy of awards, it often meant otherwise deserving soldiers who would have been recognized by some form of award had they lived were denied any award at all.
  • The Mention in Dispatches had no insignia until after the war when a bronze oakleaf device was issued for wear on the ribbon of service medals minted after 1918.
  • There were no established standards for the bestowal of any of these awards. A VC could be awarded to a soldier who had never received a valour award, and likewise a soldier might be awarded the Military Medal three separate times (each additional award signified by a rosette on the ribbon) instead of receiving progressively higher awards. The criteria were entirely subjective, and varied from service to service, or unit to unit. Historian Hugh Halliday has devoted an entire book to discussing this issue with regards to the VC.(5)

The patchwork system led to frustrations.

Frederick Philip Griffin
Acting C.O., 1st Bn The Black Watch (RHR) of Canada
Killed in Action 25 July 1944

Major Phil Griffin of The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada famously led his battalion up Verrières Ridge during Operation SPRING in July 1944. Of 325 men to cross the start line, 307 became casualties and Griffin died at the head of his men in what became the worst single day of the war for the Canadian Army after Dieppe.(6) His brigade commander faced the same conundrum many commanders did: how to recognize a dead hero given the inability to posthumously award most of the available decorations. Convinced that Griffin would have received a DSO had he lived, Brigadier Bill Megill felt he had no choice but to award a Mention in Dispatches instead, the only other option being the Victoria Cross which Megill did not, apparently, feel the action merited. 

The family of Phil Griffin were not satisfied that justice had been done by the award of a Mention in Despatches. They embarked on a 20 year campaign to have the Victoria Cross awarded retroactively instead. Griffin's older brother refused the award of the Canada Centennial Medal in 1967, 22 years later, as a protest against what he felt was an unfair awards system that had denied his dead brother the proper recognition for his valour in Normandy.(7)

In other words, lobbying for the Victoria Cross is nothing new. For as long as Canada has awarded the VC, there have been people convinced it has not been awarded often enough.

Downgrading

Naturally, the nomination for a soldier to receive the Victoria Cross was no guarantee that he would receive it and awards had to be approved up the chain of command. In the Second World War, this went up as far as army group level. When Clarence "Ken" Crockett of The Calgary Highlanders forged a bridgehead over the Albert Canal with a ten-man patrol in September 1944, opening the way for his entire brigade to cross the obstacle, his nomination for the VC was submitted by his unit and approved by the brigade commander, division commander, corps commander and army commander before the army group commander, Field Marshal Montgomery, downgraded it to a Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Clarence "Ken" Crockett, DCM

The list of unsuccessful nominees for the VC is extensive, though there is no official record of such. They usually include men who were granted lesser awards in place of the VC, either because of differing criteria (Crockett's battalion commander apparently interpreted the prerequisites for award of the VC different than his army group commander) or as noted above the inability to bestow appropriate awards posthumously.

Among the first such nominee was Lance Corporal George William Allan of the 10th Battalion, CEF, who received the DCM for actions at St. Julien in 1915. Allan was awarded the DCM posthumously, which was technically possible only when an intended recipient died after the award was approved but before it could be officially presented. The 10th Battalion also nominated Captain Charles Costigan for the VC in November 1915 for leading a successful trench raid. He lived, but received the DSO instead. 

There is no official listing of how many battalions submitted unsuccessful Victoria Cross nominations in the same way, but no shortage of references in unit histories. Sergeant John Sturley of the 46th Battalion received the DCM for charging a machine gun, instead of the requested VC. Lieutenant James Dunwoody of the Fort Garry Horse was nominated for a VC and instead received the DSO for leading his troop of horse cavalry against enemy machine guns in October 1918.

It is well known that the Dieppe Raid resulted in two Canadian VC awards (and one British), but at least three other nominations were made, including Lance Sergeant J.P. Beauvais of Les Fusilier Mont-Royal (who was killed and thus eligible only for the Mention in Dispatches after his VC nomination was denied), Corporal H.C. Keyes of The South Saskatchewan Regiment, and Lieutenant William Wedd of The Royal Regiment of Canada, who was also killed and Mentioned in Dispatches following an unsuccessful VC nomination.

Daniel Dancocks recounted the following in his history of the Italian Campaign:

Late in the afternoon (of 22 Jul 1943), "A" Company (of the PPCLI) launched an attack on a hill to the left of Leonforte, but the Patricias were soon pinned down by heavy machine-gun fire. Reinforcements arrived, in the form of a non-commissioned officer and two privates, with a Bren light machine-gun. This trio was ordered to knock out a German machine-gun post, but the NCO and one private were shot down within twenty-five feet of the objective. While the men of A Company watched in disbelief, the survivor, Private S.J. Cousins, picked up the Bren gun and, firing it from the hip, charged the enemy. Miraculously unscathed, he leaped among the Germans and killed all five of them. Reloading, he repeated the performance, charging another machine-gun post and wiping it out. In the face of Cousin's courageous attack, German resistance collapsed.

Private Cousins should have won the Victoria Cross...He was recommended for it, but for some reason it did not go through. The Patricias themselves might be at fault, for not promoting it properly, and, as former staff officer George Kitching points out, "I don't think we thought of VCs in the Sicily days." Unfortunately, Cousins was killed a short time later (by an errant Canadian artillery shell); because the lesser medals for which he qualified as a private could not be awarded posthumously, his only recognition came in the form of a mention in despatches.(8)

The list of men recommended for the Victoria Cross and whose nominations were denied, usually to be replaced with a lower award, goes on:

  • Lance Corporal Gerard Gagnon (Royal 22e Régiment)
  • Private John Low (The Loyal Edmonton Regiment)
  • Sapper Milton McNaughton (Royal Canadian Engineers)
  • Lieutenant Norman Ballard (The 48th Highlanders of Canada)
  • Lieutenant Edward Perkins (Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians))
  • Captain Ian Grant (The Three Rivers Regiment)
  • Corporal Frank Weitzel (The Highland Light Infantry of Canada) 
  • Captain Jack Birnie Smith (The Royal Canadian Regiment)
  • Sergeant Yvon Piuze (Royal 22e Régiment)
  • Private Gordon Crozier (The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders)
  • Captain Robert Marsh (CANLOAN serving with 6th Battalion, The Royal Welch Fusiliers)
  • Sergeant Norman Tuttle (The Highland Light Infantry of Canada)
  • Private Joseph Albert Bray (The 48th Highlanders of Canada)
  • Major David Rogers (The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada)
  • Major Jake Powell (1st Hussars)
The Korean War also produced at least one VC nominee, Lance Corporal E.W. Poole, a medic attached to the 2nd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment, who received a DCM after an unsuccessful nomination for the VC.

Establishing Criteria - 2nd Canadian Corps

The criteria for the various awards is generally clear but individual commanders always had different interpretations of appropriateness, and these interpretations often varied from their commanders. In February 1944, Lieutenant-General Guy G. Simonds, commanding 2nd Canadian Corps, turned his attention to the matter of awards and attempted to clarify matters for all his subordinates training for the invasion of Northwest Europe. He made it clear to all commanders that, as the approving authority for all nominations in the Canadian formations, he would be scrutinizing them according to his own interpretation of the award criteria. In a document dated 26 Feb 1944 (over three months before D-Day in Normandy), he emphasized his thinking on a "proper allocation of honours and awards" as thus:
  • recognition should be given to exceptional acts or duties conducted (over time) with outstanding ability and/or under difficult conditions
  • aggressiveness and skill should be encouraged
  • foolhardiness and "medal hunting" was to be discouraged, along with useless risk of loss of life and equipment
  • recognition should be given to "acts of such outstanding gallantry that they are an example to the Army for all time."
He went on to specifically outline his vision of the criteria for the VC, DSO, MC, DCM and MM. Actions that directly made or contributed to an "effective blow against the enemy" and a direct contribution to the success of a battle, were considered the standard. It was not enough, except "in most extraordinary circumstances" to rescue friendly personnel, salvage equipment, extricate a neighbouring unit from a predicament, etc.  The actions also had to be in the line of duty, and Simonds gave the example of an artillery observer who, seized by lust for battle, left his post and joined an infantry unit. No matter how gallantly he behaved, Simonds considered that officer foolhardy for leaving his duties in which he could have offered support to the infantry instead.

Lieutenant-General G.G. Simonds
General Officer Commanding 2nd Canadian Corps
1944-45

Simonds was adamant that the actions had to have been done under enemy fire. To merit the Military Cross, for example, a nominee had to have performed actions that ensured the success of at least his entire battalion and possibly an entire brigade. 

In the case of the VC the act must be so outstanding as to provide an example to the Army for all time and its effect in damage to the enemy and furtherance of operations must be marked beyond question and of first importance. Whenever a case is considered for a recommendation for the VC, as far as operational circumstances permit, the Brigade Commander concerned should visit the ground accompanies by the eye-witnesses of the act. Each eye-witness should be called forward, out of hearing of others, and describe to the Brigadier, on the ground, exactly what he saw. These accounts should be taken down at the time and eventually attached to the recommendation.(9)

Simonds talks at length in the document about rationale. For example rewarding a unit by giving a medal to its commander was legitimate, as "there would be no question as to who would bear the responsibility if it did badly." He was also sensitive to the bestowal of "bad" (i.e. undeserved) awards. The litmus test for this was how the troops reacted, and Simonds told his formation commanders (those leading divisions and brigades) to ask themselves the question "would the frontline soldier, if he knew the facts, consider this well deserved?"

Despite the publication of this 12-paragraph document, the list above of failed VC nominations suggests there was no consensus on what was, or wasn't, worthy of the Victoria Cross. Hugh Halliday, whose book Valour Reconsidered was referenced above, concluded after lengthy research that "defining a 'VC standard' practically defies description." Many commanders, in giving their approval or disapproval, often reference that the action was (or wasn't) "up to standard" but surviving notes almost never go into detail as to what that standard was, or why it was or wasn't met.(10)

The German Example

The ability to clearly define which honours were or were not appropriate was probably not aided by the way the honours system developed. The Germans in the Second World War had what on the surface appears to be a much cleaner and easier system to navigate. The Iron Cross 2nd Class was bestowed for either acts of valour or meritorious service. The medal was freely distributed and as many as 25% of the Wehrmacht received it. For additional acts of either valour or merit, the Iron Cross 1st Class was awarded. A holder of the 1st Class award was thus eligible for the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. A series of additional awards were recognized by, in order, an oak leaf device, a oak leaf with swords, a golden oak leaf with swords, and a golden oak leaf with swords and diamonds. 

Each level of award had all the previous levels as a prerequisite so there was no confusion about which level might be more appropriate. While some awards could be made concurrently with lower grades, this was rare at the higher levels. Posthumous awards were possible, and rank was not necessarily a barrier as there were a number of highly experienced NCOs who received the swords.  The very highest levels were generally worn only by formation commanders and fighter pilots who amassed large numbers of enemy aircraft kills. The highest grade was awarded just once, to a dive bomber/fighter pilot who flew 2,500 sorties in the course of his wartime career. There was a "bridge" award instituted during the war, the German Cross in Gold, and other exceptions. Those interested can see my video on YouTube which discusses the entire system of combat awards and the role they played in German military culture.



Common Combat Awards of the German Army 1939-1945

One would not expect to find many lobbyists for awards in a repressive fascist regime such as Nazi Germany, but there was probably less reason to feel that the system was unjust. Indeed, their system of awards was clearly laid out in a logical, progressive manner with clear prerequisites and while nominations and approvals were probably just as contentious on occasion as in the other nations, the system was generally well thought out and well-regarded by the troops (as the reader will recall, one of Simonds' main criteria approving awards was a "sniff test" of how popular the award would be with the frontline soldiers). Despite Hollywood portrayals to the contrary, German soldiers felt the Iron Cross (or lack thereof) was a true measure of a soldier's worth.(11)

Reforming the Systems of Honours

The British, and Canadians, were aware of the shortcomings of their shared honours system. Canada was also desirous of having its own national awards, and had been from the very year it became a nation in 1867 when it proposed its own order of knighthood and a year later began discussing an entirely Canadian suite of awards. Canada's first national service medal was created in 1934 for members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the Canadian Forces Decoration was minted after the Second World War. Shortly after Canada celebrated its 100th anniversary as a country in 1967, a larger national system of honours and awards was instituted, including the Order of Canada and a number of military bravery awards to replace the DSO, DCM, MC, MM etc. while retaining the Victoria Cross.

In the 1990s the British also reformed their system of honours. The DCM and MM were replaced, with a new Conspicuous Gallantry Cross as second only to the VC. The Military Cross was opened up to all service personnel regardless of rank. 

The Canadian and British reforms both removed rank requirements from decorations and allowed for a greater number of major awards to be given posthumously, hopefully eliminating many of the frustrations of past commanders in finding an appropriate level of award.

What Do I Have To Do?


The Star of Military Valour currently sits second to the Victoria Cross in the Canadian system of honours, though because the VC has not been awarded since 1945, may be said in fact to reside at the top. Only 18 awards of the SMV have been made since its adoption in 1993, since it can only be awarded in war time for acts of valour in the presence of an armed enemy.

The first award was made to Sergeant Patrick Tower of the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry in 2006. The citation reads:

Sergeant Tower is recognized for valiant actions taken on August 3, 2006, in the Pashmul region of Afghanistan. Following an enemy strike against an outlying friendly position that resulted in numerous casualties, Sergeant Tower assembled the platoon medic and a third soldier and led them across 150 metres of open terrain, under heavy enemy fire, to render assistance. On learning that the acting platoon commander had perished, Sergeant Tower assumed command and led the successful extraction of the force under continuous small arms and rocket-propelled grenade fire. Sergeant Tower’s courage and selfless devotion to duty contributed directly to the survival of the remaining platoon members.(12)

 

Pat Tower, SMV, CD

There can be no doubt it was a fitting action for bestowal of the very first SMV, though a narrow reading of Lieutenant-General Simonds' proposed criteria suggest it might not have approved in 1944. However, many of the Victoria Crosses bestowed by other Commonwealth nations since 1945 may well not have qualified for a VC under Simonds' stingy criteria that they somehow contribute materially to the destruction of the enemy (rather than preserve friendly life and equipment). 

The only recipient to date of New Zealand's VC, Willie Apiata, was recognized for carrying a wounded comrade out of action while under fire. 

In total disregard of his own safety, Lance Corporal Apiata stood up and lifted his comrade bodily. He then carried him across the seventy metres of broken, rocky and fire swept ground, fully exposed in the glare of battle to heavy enemy fire and into the face of returning fire from the main Troop position. That neither he nor his colleague were hit is scarcely possible. Having delivered his wounded companion to relative shelter with the remainder of the patrol, Lance Corporal Apiata re-armed himself and rejoined the fight in counter-attack.

Willie Apiata, VC

The first British award of a Victoria Cross to a living recipient in the years after the Falklands War of 1982 occured in 2005 when Private Johnson Beharry was invested by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with the supreme award. Like Apiata, his award was given for rescuing comrades under fire, rather than what Simonds might have described as striking "an effective blow against the enemy." 

Johnson Beharry, VC

Of course, Simonds' opinion was only one opinion. It should be noted that a Canadian, too, was awarded a VC in 1945 for rescuing comrades under fire rather than destroying the enemy - though at the time, he was not under Simonds' command. Frederick G. Topham was a medic with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, under command of the British 6th Airborne Division, which did not report to Simonds.

Frederick G. Topham, VC
1st Canadian Parachute Battalion

The Case for a Canadian VC

Had Private Larochelle been awarded the VC instead of the SMV at the time of the investment, it is hard to believe anyone would have reacted negatively. The citation shows bravery and a clear devotion to duty, and by securing an otherwise empty flank would have met even Simonds' narrower definition of a VC-worthy action in which the nominee contributed materially to the success of his unit. How do the other SMV's compare (if it is possible to do such a thing)? I leave it to the reader to judge:

Major William Hilton Fletcher

As officer commanding C Company, Task Force Afghanistan, from January to August 2006, Major Fletcher repeatedly demonstrated extraordinary bravery by exposing himself to intense fire while leading his forces, on foot, to assault heavily defended enemy positions. On two occasions, the soldiers at his side were struck by enemy fire. He immediately rendered first aid and then continued to head the subsequent assaults. On these occasions and in ensuing combat actions, his selfless courage, tactical acumen and effective command were pivotal to the success of his company in defeating a determined opponent.(13)

 Corporal Sean Teal 

On 03 September 2006, during Operation MEDUSA, the light utility vehicle driven by Corporal Teal, a member of 7 Platoon Charles Company, was hit and destroyed by enemy rocket-propelled grenade fire. Despite being wounded, Corporal Teal assessed the situation and under heavy enemy fire, moved to report the situation and bring assistance. He then returned twice to the vehicle to provide treatment to his severely wounded comrades, including the platoon medic, and to evacuate all personnel injured of killed. His brave and professional actions saved lives and allowed the orderly withdrawal of his platoon under heavy fire.”

Captain Jonathan Snyder SMV (posthumous)
Master-Corporal J. Donovan Ball SMV

Corporals Baker, Ball and Bancarz, and Captains Peel and Snyder were deployed to Afghanistan to serve as mentors to an Afghan company, when they were ambushed by Taliban insurgents on 04 June 2008. With little chance of survival, they exposed themselves to great peril and retaliated against the enemy while encouraging the Afghan soldiers to do the same. Captain Snyder seized control of the situation and ensured that the Afghan soldiers retrieved their wounded comrades. Corporal Ball led a two-man team across broken terrain to secure an extraction route that allowed for the execution of a fighting withdrawal by Captain Peel and corporals Bancarz and Baker. Because of their dedication, leadership and valour, many Afghan and Canadian lives were saved.

Master Corporal Jeremy Pinchin

On November 16, 2008, Master Corporal Pinchin’s small sniper detachment was on an isolated rooftop, in Zhari District, Afghanistan, protecting the southern flank of a joint Canadian-Afghan patrol. As they were advancing on an enemy position, they were attacked and outnumbered by a well-coordinated group of insurgents. When a fellow soldier sustained a life-threatening wound, Master Corporal Pinchin immediately administered first aid and shielded him, thus exposing himself to great risk. Fortunately, his protective armour bore the brunt of several enemy strikes as he aided his comrade. Master Corporal Pinchin’s selfless act of heroism saved the life of a fellow soldier.

Caporal Jean-François Roger Donald Belzil

On April 9, 2011, upon intercepting enemy radio transmissions, 3 Platoon, A Company, awaited an attack on the security cordon established to the north of Zangabad, Afghanistan. When the first insurgent shot rang out, Corporal Belzil and Corporal Cousineau moved in that direction with their anti-tank gun, coming across a Canadian section and its Afghan counterpart pinned down under enemy fire, as well as a seriously wounded Afghan soldier lying out in the open. Thanks to Corporal Cousineau’s effective covering fire, and despite heavy enemy fire, Corporal Belzil succeeded in destroying the stronghold from which the deadly insurgent shots originated. They both then pulled the wounded soldier to cover and administered first aid. Corporal Belzil and Corporal Cousineau’s composure and disregard for personal danger helped to push back the enemy attack and save the life of an Afghan soldier.

Politics

Aside from the difficult task of determining specific criteria for which the Victoria Cross should be awarded, politics has not been an uncommon factor in the history of the award. When the award was promulgated during the Crimean War, there was nothing else like it, and so prestige automatically attached to it. As the suite of awards grew in size, that prestige never faded. And from the outset, as Halliday describes in his book, units began to covet the award. The 55th Regiment of Foot is said to have submitted 32 nominations for individuals of that regiment serving in Crimea (two were approved). The 57th and 77th Regiments of Foot nominated 31 and 38 men respectively, and they also received two each.

And in the early days, there was confusion about just what the medal should be awarded for. A member of the Rifle Brigade received the VC in 1857 for extinguishing a fire aboard an ammunition train. It was not done in the "presence of the enemy" but that had not yet been made a requirement, and the regiment was so pleased with the award that they nominated another man who rescued a child from a burning building. That time, the answer was a polite no.

By the time of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the number of VCs a unit had received was an unofficial measure of that unit's prestige. Lobbying for the award was subtle and, according to Halliday, difficult to document up to and including the Second World War. That is no longer the case.

The development of modern communications, including television...and...the internet, has put tools at the disposal of lobbyists that have enabled many groups...to argue for their rights and champions to ever broader audiences.(14)

Some lobbies have been more righteous than others. Sir Sam Hughes, the bellicose Minister of Militia and Defence in the First World War, had actually been a pretty brave soldier in South Africa. Unfortunately, he had the self-confidence to not just boast about it, but to actually request the Victoria Cross. To lobby for others, particularly a comrade in your regiment, was one thing, to lobby for yourself was simply not done.(15)

Retroactive Awards: Changing the Past

Halliday has an entire chapter about retroactively awarding the Victoria Cross (for what it is worth, titled Righting Wrongs or Settling Scores?) which is fascinating reading. Even by the time of the First World War, when it was firmly established that the VC would be used to reward valour on the battlefield, under fire, as the most senior of a suite of awards, there have been ongoing campaigns to "redress" cases where soldiers were denied the VC or never nominated. But the most intense debates followed the creation of the national VCs (Australian, New Zealand, Canadian).

Why?

Halliday argues that a sense of grievance is pushing the modern day lobbyists. Among these grievances are the (coincidental) reality that Canadian awards were pursued in a largely British system (recall, above, the Crockett VC nomination which was approved by every Canadian in the chain of command until the first Britisher in the chain laid pen to paper and degraded it to a DCM.)

Halliday warns, moreover, that going back and reclassifying awards such as the DSO, DCM, MM as VC based on such grievances would create a new class of VC which would cheapen the award and make it "less honourable even to future nominees."

That is one opinion. The United States has been (retro-)actively pursuing Medal of Honor awards for decades, in many cases recognizing soldiers of visible minority groups who received lesser awards, notably the Japanese-American Nisei and black soldiers who served in racially segregated units in the Second World War.

As Halliday says, where do you stop? If a number of DSO and DCM (and we may now include the SMV though none had been awarded at the time he wrote his book) are regraded as Victoria Crosses, does that mean other awards should be re-examined?

Halliday's conclusion: "The past happened. Get used to it."

Modern Politics - Medals

Even if one felt that a grave injustice had been done to Private Larochelle, it is hard to imagine a worse way to achieve redress than by a public lobbying campaign. 

From a purely practical standpoint, the current government doesn't seem to care about medals. Canada has issued a robust series of commemorative medals (to citizens and service personnel alike), such as the Centennial Medal in 1967, and the Canada 125 medal 25 years later, both in honour of the anniversary of Confederation. The commemoratives not only mark significant events, but are a means for organizations (and military units) to reward individuals for service to their communities.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was personally delighted to be a recipient of the Alberta Centennial Medal in 2005. It did not come with a citation, other than "for outstanding service to the province of Alberta" but when I realized several others in my military unit had also received the award, and that they were all men whose enthusiasm and work ethic I had long admired, I was humbled to feel that others had felt me worthy of being associated with that distinguished company.

In 2017, Canada did not follow up with the issue of a Canada 150 Medal. Some 42,000 of the Canada 125 Medal had been awarded in 1992, 45,000 Queen's Gold Jubilee Medals in 2002 and 60,000 Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medals in 2012. A working group set out to reduce the number of Canada 150 Medals and in the end, the project was cancelled entirely. Asked to explain why, the federal minister responsible responded that a different program would recognize important "ambassadors" but provided no details. Journalist Colin Kenny noted what a lost opportunity it was at the time, a rare occasion in which rank and file Canadians might be given a tangible reward for community achievements.(16)

The proposed Canada 150 Medal.
(Postmedia)

Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly scrapped
plans for the award of the Canada 150 Medal

The government - the same government that is now being petitioned about the Victoria Cross - had no interest in rewarding thousands of Canadians in a very inexpensive yet tangible way.

Appeals to Emotion

Then again, the current government seems far more comfortable dealing with issues emotionally than logically. The national flag was lowered in commemoration of newly rediscovered graves of indigenous children who died in residential schools. And then not raised again for months. The permanently dipped flags seem to symbolize more a willingness to look like it is doing the right thing, than taking the actual actions to get there. So perhaps an appeal to emotion to the federal powers that be will get proponents of the Canadian Victoria Cross the resolution they are seeking.

I personally have no stake in the discussion, other than a belief that justice for one may not be justice for all. Halliday is correct that retroactively upgrading awards runs the risk of cheapening the Victoria Cross. I think that risk is extremely low given the number of SMV that could realistically be expected to be affected, and the case of Private Derochelle seems to be the strongest if one keeps criteria like Simonds' in mind.

The question needs to be considered, however, what would the status of the SMV become? Right now 18 recipients can be said to have been awarded Canada's highest held decoration for valour in the face of the enemy. Changing just one of them to a Victoria Cross would immediately impact the other 17 recipients.

I wonder if anyone has asked any of them (the surviving recipients) what they think?

Pat Tower shares a Facebook account with his wife, and I include that account in my list of contacts (friends, as Facebook calls them). They are acquaintances, I spoke briefly with Tower when he was regimental support staff for my reserve unit, and his wife was a long serving member of our sister unit in the local armouries. I am both ashamed and proud to say that while he served in my unit, I had no idea he had been awarded the SMV (I am not proud at all to admit as well that I had no idea at that time what an SMV even is). The rumour - and if I am speaking out of turn I regret it, but I had it from source I consider reliable - was that Tower didn't want to be trotted out to regimental functions as a "token hero" and requested to come to us in order to be able to concentrate on soldiering without a lot of distractions or focus on himself. From the brief conversations I had with him, I believe it. Canadians (everyone, I think, really) like their heroes humble and my interactions with him proved him to be so. Tower's comments minutes after receiving the medal cement it in my mind:

"You know, the award's a great honour and although it's an individual recognition...I see it more as....the whole platoon contributed that day, and I saw so many...privates and corporals in my platoon...stepping up to the next level that day. Corporals acting as section commanders,...due to other soldiers being wounded, and their leaders being wounded...Every member of Nine Platoon and the reconnaissance platoon that was attached to us...deserves a bit of the medal...and deserves the recognition for what happened that day."

For what it is worth, my reserve unit sent more soldiers to Afghanistan, as a percentage of unit strength, than any other unit, and of the dozens who deployed, only one was decorated for bravery under fire, with a mention in dispatches (some also received various commander's commendations). Should they, too, start lobbying for medals?

Having a Canadian like Private Derochelle in possession of the Victoria Cross would be a "neat" thing to have, like when the local sports team wins a national championship. I doubt very much that is an appropriate reason for doing it.

And if it means diminishing 17 other heroes, perhaps it is best to leave well enough alone.

If on the other hand, men like Sergeant Tower who hold the SMV and have been decorated for bravery under fire had come forth to lobby for this, who among the rest of us could possibly dare question their judgement?

My Final Word

I have no doubt those who are advocating for the retroactive upgrading of Private Derochelle's SMV to a Victoria Cross - including General Rick Hillier - have their hearts in the right place. My own operational experience in the military is limited to a day and a half long deployment, passing sandbags during the 2013 Alberta Flood. I have no doubt General Hillier, and the other veterans who are visibly supporting this initiative, are better placed to judge than I am. 

But I'm still leery of signing the petition. History - only a tiny fraction of which has been shared above - has shown the whole question of awards in general and the VC in particular to be an incredibly complex question which is best resolved not by appeals to emotion and knee-jerk reactions, but by laying a firm groundwork for the future, as this question will undoubtedly come up again in future conflicts.

The answer - I think - should lie in education. Perhaps we can start by educating people who are ignorant (like I was 15 years ago) of what an SMV is and what brave soldiers have to do to get it. Maybe then we wouldn't be so keen on pursuing the VC, as if an SMV or MMV (or mention in dispatches) are something to sneeze at. 

Whatever is decided with regards to Private Derochelle, let it be for sound reasons, taking into account the rich history of the award itself, and let those reasons be clearly articulated to the public. 

And as an absolute final thought - let's hope that respect and support for our Canadian military veterans, whether they served in Afghanistan or elsewhere, will not be predicated on which medals they have, but simply on the fact that they served.

Notes

1. “You can’t regret life” - Legion Magazine

2. Toronto Sun, 27 Jan 2006, accessed at http://torontosun.canoe.ca/News/Canada/2006/01/27/1414186-sun.html

3.https://www.blatherwick.net/documents/Current%20Canadian%20Honours/07a%20SMV%20Star%20of%20Military%20Valour.pdf

4. "Valour in the Presence of the Enemy", https://www.facebook.com/Valour-in-the-Presence-of-the-Enemy-115919716985560/about/?ref=page_internal 


5. Hugh Halliday's book Valour Reconsidered is highly recommended reading, which discusses the Victoria Cross in particular and Canadian award policies in general. https://www.amazon.ca/Valour-Reconsidered-Inquiries-Victoria-Extreme/dp/1896941478

6. Copp, Terry. The Brigade pp.81-82 https://www.amazon.ca/Brigade-Fifth-Canadian-Infantry-World/dp/0811734226/

7. Halliday, Ibid, pp.38-39

8. Dancocks, Daniel G. D-Day Dodgers: The Canadians in Italy 1943-45 https://www.amazon.ca/D-Day-Dodgers-Canadians-Italy-1943-1945/dp/0771025440

9. A transcription of the entire document appears in Terry Copp's Guy Simonds and the Art of Command. https://www.amazon.ca/Guy-Simonds-Command-Terry-Copp/dp/0662445880

10. Halliday, Ibid, p.39

11. An excellent discussion of how German soldiers felt about their awards can be found in Neitzel and Welzer's Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing and Dying https://www.amazon.ca/Soldaten-Fighting-Killing-Sonke-Neitzel/dp/1849839492

12. Accessed online at https://www.blatherwick.net/documents/Current%20Canadian%20Honours/07a%20SMV%20Star%20of%20Military%20Valour.pdf

13. Citations from the website of the Governor General. https://www.gg.ca/en/honours/recipients/142-8

14. Halliday, Ibid, p.162

15. Cook, Tim. The Madman and the Butcher: The Sensational Wars of Sam Hughes and General Arthur Currie (Penguin Books Ltd, London, UK, 2010)  pp.8-28

16. https://torontosun.com/2017/01/05/why-no-medals-for-everyday-canadians




Saturday, October 23, 2021

Alec Baldwin, "prop guns" and what film set tragedies mean for military hobbyists

It may be a sign of the times that the recent tragic shooting on the set of Rust became politicized within minutes of the story going public. Details are sketchy, but what is known is that Alec Baldwin, who is starring in as well as producing this Western period piece, aimed a firearm towards a camera behind which the director of cinematography and director were located. The firearm discharged - what was discharged, be it wadding, debris, or an actual bullet isn't certain at this time - and Halyna Hutchins, the cinematography director, was mortally injured and died on the way to hospital while Joel Souza, the director, was injured.

There is no doubt it was an unintended action, one which should never have happened. While the lives of Hutchins' family have been changed forever, it is safe to assume that Baldwin's has as well. Baldwin was reportedly and obviously distraught. 

Commentary on social media was full of conjecture, not aided by the media's use of language. Constant references to a "prop gun" haven't helped. What does this all mean, in particular for legitimate firearms owners and those who use them in film work or military reenactment?

Prop Gun

The media keeps referring to the "prop gun" that Baldwin was using on the film set. Is this an accurate categorization?

Australia's ABC News provides this useful summary:


My own involvement in motion pictures goes back to 1993 and the filming of Legends of the Fall. The stuntmen on the set had rubber rifles which they carried when filming scenes needing them to do stunts (usually death flips off of air ramps). The rubber rifles ensured no one would be hurt when they went flying, which was intended to look dramatic on the screen. These were no doubt "prop guns."

The rest of the extras, myself included, had real, working rifles. They were treated as such; signed out and tracked by the movie staff, and tightly controlled. Blank ammunition was given out only minutes before a scene was to be filmed, after careful inspection. Below is a photo of the extras depicting Canadian soldiers doing a test firing of their rifles with blank ammunition on the trench set. Film crew are standing safely behind the firing line.

I honestly don't know if the motion picture industry has a specific technical definition of "prop gun" but the use of the term by the media is obscuring the fact that what are being used are actual firearms. Which are inherently dangerous if not treated with respect.

BFONG

Another question commonly cropping up in the comments sections is why "real guns" have to be used. "Why can't they just get guns that don't shoot anything but blanks?"

Such a thing exists, called a BFONG (Blank Fire Only Non Gun) in the United States. They don't appear to be much of a solution to the issue of using real guns on movie sets. They would be expensive to produce, especially given the low demand for them, and the high number of firearm models that would need to be replicated to satisfy film-makers. The Internet Movie Firearms Database gives an idea of just how many different types of firearms have been used in film. It is a detail as important as the kind of automobiles you see in the background. The wrong type will kill verisimilitude, and while film-makers in the past have shown a willingness to ignore this level of detail, modern audiences are becoming increasingly more sophisticated in their expectations. 

Vintage firearms like the Lee Enfield rifles we used on Legends of the Fall were produced in the millions to satisfy the needs of an industrial war effort in a global conflict. It is far cheaper to find these vintage firearms than it would be to tool a factory for a limited run of BFONGs. And if simple safety controls are instituted on a film set, there should be no difference in the degree of safety.

And the use of guns that fire only blanks is no guarantee of safety in itself, either.

Blanks

Firearm safety is one of the first things taught in the military, and even soldiers whose job is to pull the trigger on enemy soldiers have it instilled into them that the cardinal firearm safety rules are to be obeyed at all times - treat it as loaded, don't point at anything you don't want injured or killed, don't rest your finger on the trigger and be aware of what surrounds your target.


Blank cartridges are used in firearms to simulate the firing of real ammunition, for military/police training, film work, or public displays. Blank cartridges are usually of a similar design to regular firearm ammunition, with the exception that they have no projectile (bullet). They do have enough powder to both make a loud noise, as well as supply gas/explosive force to work the action of semi-automatic or automatic weapons.

Even blanks have the power to kill, something vividly described to those of us on Southern Alberta Militia District Battle School basic training course 8803 in the spring of 1988. Warrant Officer Bruce Waterhouse assembled us on our first day in the field, took the blank firing attachment (BFA) off his FN rifle, and pointed the muzzle at an apple retrieved from the day's rations. He fired one blank cartridge which obliterated the apple. It was a vivid description of what could go wrong - so vivid I remember it to this day.

Sadly, the film industry's moment of clarity came with the death of  Jon-Erik Hexum, who was killed after pantomiming a game of Russian Roulette with an on-set firearm loaded with a blank cartridge. The death of Brandon Lee has also become a learning tool for motion picture crews and reenactment groups in their safety training. 

In other words, the dangers of using blank ammunition are no secret and have been known to film-makers all along. Any comments about why the Rust event happened will be speculation until an investigation is completed. I can only predict that it will reveal safety protocols, long a part of motion picture work, will be shown to have been violated.

Murder

It is unfortunate for Mr. Baldwin that his passion for issues, and willingness to make public commentary on his views, have apparently left little sympathy for him among many commentators. One comment standing out is that "if he had received NRA training this wouldn't have happened."  Possibly, but we don't know what controls were in place on the set. Other comments are ridiculous on the face of it and obviously politically motivated, such as the notion that Baldwin should be tried for murder. (I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to me you would have to prove intent, in other words, that Baldwin wanted to kill members of his own crew. If such evidence comes to light, maybe, but I'm sure anyone making that suggestion at this stage has no such evidence.)

There will be an investigation and the justice system will decide what path to pursue. New information is coming to light by the minute, and what happened will be determined in the fullness of time. For those rooting for Mr. Baldwin's severe punishment, I would point out that cases of negligence (which is surely what this is, though who's is yet to be seen) seem not to engender heavy repurcussions. One need only look at the death of Vic Morrow and child actors Renee Shinn Chen and Myca Dinh Le on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie and in particular the legal battle that followed. The manslaughter charges that were brought on several key members of the production staff, who had urged dangerous and unsafe working conditions, never stuck.


Baldwin has been outspoken on firearms rights, joining a group known as the NoRA (No Rifle Association), whose mandate is to enhance protections from gun violence. The NoRA website presents some clear policy goals which seems to focus on gun violence (and by inference gun crime). It might be fair to say that legitimate firearm owners share many of the same goals as the NoRA, though probably differ dramatically in their opinions of how to get there.

Baldwin, however, has built a reputation for making over the top political statements for dramatic effect. In 1998 he joked during President Clinton's impeachment trial that "If we were in another country ... we would stone Henry Hyde to death and we would go to their homes and kill their wives and their children. We would kill their families, for what they're doing to this country." Hyde at the time was a Republican senator who spoke out in favour of impeachment. Baldwin's enthusiastic portrayal of President Trump as a criminal and stupid man on Saturday Night Live in more recent years has further alienated him from a large portion of the American public.

Nonetheless, it's disheartening to see comments about how Baldwin "deserves" what happened, or that this is somehow "karma" for his vocal liberal views. If one truly believes in karma, it makes no sense to think karma would kill an innocent cinematographer in order to punish Baldwin. Firearm rights advocates would do well not to make such disgusting comments. I have to believe Baldwin will be suffering in some way as a result of this tragedy for the rest of his life as certainly as Ms. Hutchins' family will.

What Does This Mean For Military Reenactors?

This event should not have an impact on military reenactors since the dangers of using blank ammunition are already well known. Groups should already have rigorous safety procedures in place. The group I belong to, the First Special Service Force Living History Association in Alberta, has a vigorous safety program which includes taking an annual course regarding on-set and firearm safety from a card-carrying motion picture armourer. This is in addition to the requirements of firearms owners in Canada to take basic gun safety courses to be able to possess firearms.

Sadly, safety often becomes a priority only in the wake of a tragedy, or a near miss. The following is from the safety manual of the World War II Living History Association, describing the impetus for the publication of an extensive safety manual in 1993:

At the LHA sponsored 1992 World War II & Motor Vehicle Rally I observed a “soldier” (who was not a member of any of the organized units in attendance) hand a loaded semi-automatic pistol to a child of about ten years of age. The youngster was not accompanied by an adult, but quickly wheeled about to show his family what he was holding. In so doing he leveled the muzzle at live people at a distance of no more than three feet. Had the gun discharged serious injury would have resulted, even with blank ammunition. The person who had handed the gun to this child finally guided him in a safer direction at which time he allowed the boy to fire the pistol without benefit of any instruction. The owner of the pistol, at my insistence then removed the gun from the boy’s possession and actually had the weapon pointed at himself at one point in doing so.

It is trite to suggest that it only takes one bad event to change your group forever, but it is also true. It doesn't have to be a tragedy in your own group to spur change. 

  • Make safety a priority if you haven't already - and in actions, not words. Have an annual certification of some kind with basic firearms safety. Do it yourself, or require members to take a local hunter's course, motion picture safety course, etc. Someone in your area is teaching this stuff. Seek them out and make learning it mandatory for your group.
  • Walk the talk - once you're certified, pay attention to the little indiscretions that come up and take them seriously. Our local group had a member raise several red flags which we all willfully ignored. It started with the small stuff like muzzle awareness. Asking him not to point his rifle at other members while casually sitting in camp was met with resentment. It escalated, to the firing of pyrotechnics into an enemy encampment, to firing blanks directly over the head of someone seated on the ground in front of him without warning. We should have acted more strongly than we did, but we assumed because he was a "good guy" who entertained us with stories and camaraderie that it would fix itself. It didn't. The last straw was when he showed up early to an event, alone, armed with bear bangers and set four sections of farm property ablaze. Our "good guy" lied about what happened and threatened to sue when he was temporarily suspended from the unit. His suspension was then made permanent. No one was hurt, but several buildings and vehicles were scorched and our relationship with the property owner, where we hosted our events, was obviously damaged. We consider ourselves lucky it wasn't worse. What we learned - I hope - was that small problems can easily become much larger and more serious ones if you let a culture of permissiveness arise around safety infractions.
  • Re-enactment (and film work) is inherently dangerous when firearms are involved. Use language that reinforces this reality. They aren't "prop guns" they are firearms. "Accidental discharges" aren't accidents - they are "negligent discharges." Take responsibility, and insist that all your members do. True "accidents" are rare. "Negligence" is far more common in human endeavours. Recognize this.
The use of common sense, reinforced by mandatory protocols, will prevent fatal and other life-changing mistakes from happening. But only if all the members are committed to doing so. Hold each other accountable.

My Final Word

This tragic event, which should never have happened, has already set off a firestorm of discussion which has been hopelessly confused by basic misunderstandings of basic concepts and language. Perhaps it is an opportunity to provide some permanent clarity. As a start I would suggest banning use of the term "prop gun" to describe a functioning firearm, particularly if it causes complacency. Complacency is the true enemy of safety. 

Speaking a common, accurate language is vital to safe work and play spaces. The film Conspiracy has a character that professes his belief that words can be very deceptive:

"(Practicing law) has made me distrustful of language.

A gun means what it says."

Regardless, I would add, of whether you call it a prop or not.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Battle of Walcheren Causeway depicted in Netflix film The Forgotten Battle

 

In the summer of 2020 a trailer began making the rounds online of a new film called de slag om de Schelde.  




Fans of Canadian military history had reason to be excited. In English, of course, the title is "Battle of the Scheldt" and refers to a major campaign of the Second World War, fought in the Netherlands in the autumn of 1944, with major Canadian participation. The 1st Canadian Army had shaken free of Normandy and taken the left flank of all the Allied armies in Europe. It was a weighty responsibility, as there would eventually be just seven army headquarters on the Continent (1st Canadian, 2nd British, 1st US, 3rd US, 7th US, 9th US, and 1st French) divided into three Army Groups: the 21st (British-Canadian), the 12th (American) and the 6th (French-American). In strategic reserve was the 1st Allied Airborne Army with several divisions of parachute and glider troops under command.

The Long Left Flank, as Canadian historian Jeffery Williams called it, was not a backwater. Within the area of operations of 1st Canadian Army were a number of rocket sites from which flying bombs were hurled at the United Kingdom. There was an imperative to quickly destroy these sites, and it was not the only strategic imperative to Canadian operations. Having thoroughly smashed the German 15th Army in Normandy, the Allied armies advanced across northern France so fast that keeping them supplied quickly became a problem. The Germans showed an unwillingness to give up control of the ports along the Channel coast and many, like Dunkirk, remained in German hands until the end of the war. Others, like Le Havre and Calais, fell to the Canadians (and British formations under their command) only after hard fighting. This meant supplies had to be moved by truck over long distances, consuming gasoline and manpower as the French rail system had been thoroughly smashed by Allied bombing before D-Day.



Battle of the Scheldt

The capture of Antwerp in August 1944, with port facilities intact, promised to solve the worsening supply crisis by providing a major port close to the front lines. The only problem was that the Germans controlled the Scheldt Estuary, the waterway leading from the North Sea into the port. Priority was not given to clearing the estuary, and instead the Allies gambled on Operation MARKET-GARDEN, an ambitious plan to forge a bridgehead over the Rhine River at Arnhem and endanger the German industrial heartland, the Ruhr. The plan failed, and in late September, 1st Canadian Army was given the go-ahead to clear the Scheldt.


The battle lasted for over a month and was primarily a Canadian affair. The 3rd and 4th divisions fought south of the estuary to reduce the so-called Breskens Pocket while 2nd Canadian Division battered at the neck of the South Beveland Peninsula and then raced west towards Walcheren Island where German coastal batteries kept Allied shipping at bay. The Canadians weighed their options, decided not to use paratroops on Walcheren Island, and instead bombed the dikes, flooding much of the island instead. British commandos landed on the western side of the island while the Canadians approached from the east.

Walcheren Causeway

The only land link between Walcheren Island and the South Beveland Peninsula was the Walcheren Causeway. The Dutch referred to the feature as the Sloedam (literally, a dam across the Slooe Channel). The feature was a mile long and only 40 metres wide, carrying a rail line and hardened road linking the island to the isthmus. The occupying Germans had begun to heavily fortify the area in 1942 following the Dieppe Raid. There were a number of concrete bunkers and gun positions in the area by 1944, though most of them were sited to defend against an amphibious landing coming from the North Sea, not a land assault. The Germans did have some idea of how difficult an assault over the causeway from east to west would be, for they had done it themselves in 1940 during their initial invasion of the Netherlands. A unit of SS troops attempted an assault and took heavy losses from the French Army defenders. The causeway was devoid of cover, with just a single row of trees along its length.

Monument to the French soldiers killed at the Walcheren Causeway ("Sloedam") in May 1940. Photographed in 2015.

The 5th Canadian Brigade approached the causeway on 30 October 1944. Both sides made their preparations. The Germans blew a large, deep crater on the causeway itself to prevent Canadian tanks from crossing. They emplaced machine guns in bunkers on the western end, and added a high-velocity gun for good measure able to fire straight down the road. A number of 20mm anti-aircraft guns were sited along the eastern shoreline of Walcheren Island able to fire onto the causeway itself. The Canadians, not sure of what they might be facing, planned to "bounce" the causeway with a rapid attack. One of the 5th Brigade's battalions had trained in the UK to use assault boats, expecting to need them to cross the Seine under fire. The Seine crossing never materialized, and now reconnaissance parties went out to see if they could make use of that training at Walcheren. They reported that the water and mud flats surrounding the causeway was too deep to ford and too shallow to take boats.

The Canadians were left with no choice but an assault over the Causeway. The first attack went in on the 31st in the form of a company of the Black Watch, which was turned back with heavy casualties. Their brigade-mates, the Calgary Highlanders, made a second attempt in darkness and similarly went only as far as the crater. 

Painting by Robert Johnson depicting the assault of The Calgary Highlanders over the Walcheren Causeway on 31 October 1944.

An extensive artillery fire plan was drawn up, and Major Bruce Mackenzie's "D" Company went forward on the morning of 1 November under heavy supporting fires, captured the far end, and established a bridgehead. For the better part of two days, the Calgary Highlanders fought off desperate counter-attacks, to be relieved by Le Régiment de Maisonneuve, who were in turn relieved by a battalion of Glasgow Highlanders. As they fought at the causeway, British commandos landed on Walcheren from the sea, with additional landings by the 52nd Lowland Division. The island fell after a few more days, the last act of the Battle of the Scheldt, but by then the Canadians had been relieved and shipped off to the Nijmegen Salient for a much needed rest.

Walcheren Island is visible at far left. After the battle, the Canadians moved into the salient created around Nijmegen (upper right) during the failed Operation MARKET-GARDEN and spent the winter of 1944-45 there.

Legacy of the Causeway Battle

The Calgary Highlanders decided after the Second World War that the battle at the causeway, in which 64 of their men had been killed or wounded, would be held in special esteem. Each year the regiment commemorates the battle, usually with representation by the local Dutch-Canadian community. For the regiment, it ranks as one of their most significant events in over a century of service. 


The Calgary Highlanders parade to remember the Battle of Walcheren Causeway in November 2010. Inspecting the guard is Captain Peter J. Boyle, guard commander, Colonel P. Bury, commander of 41 Canadian Brigade Group, and Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Owens, commanding officer of The Calgary Highlanders. In red is Ms. Irene Bakker, Honorary Consul of the Consulate of the Netherlands in Calgary, representing the Dutch community.

Battle of the Scheldt on the Big Screen

The film, which had its Dutch premiere in 2020, is now coming to Netflix in North America on 15 October 2021 under the English language title THE FORGOTTEN BATTLE. Canadian military history enthusiasts can see much to like in the trailer, not least of which are the references to, and depictions of, the Battle of Walcheren Causeway.

Above, a screen shot from the film, referencing the Sloedam. Below, a marked map in the possession of the Calgary Highlanders Regimental Museum and Archives. This is a "defence overprint" version of the military map of the causeway with German positions, minefields, etc. added to the map.

Based on screenshots and promotional stills, it appears at the least that The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada will be represented. These images show the correct blue lozenge shoulder flashes and rectangular divisional patches of the 2nd Canadian Division. 



Other details are the subject of discussion by keen-eyed observers, battle dress patterns and No. 1 Mk III rifles which were not in use at the time. Military enthusiasts have come to expect inaccuracies, minor and major, in uniforms, weapons and tactics in films so this is nothing new. And it should be noted the story revolves around three major characters, none of whom are Canadian. It would appear the Canadian battle scenes are backdrop to the story of the main protagonists: a German, a Dutch resistance fighter and a British glider pilot.


Walcheren Causeway Geography

The causeway no longer exists as such. The Dutch have continually "reclaimed" land from the sea, and this has been the case with the area separating Walcheren Island and South Beveland. The former Slooe Channel has been diked and is today used as farmland. A new highway has been built south of the former causeway. There are still German bunkers on the eastern edge of what used to be the Slooe Channel, and the former causeway today carries a high-speed rail line.

The author at the site of the former causeway, looking west. In 1944 most of the land shown here was under water. The power poles mark the path of the former rail line and causeway.


Photo of the Causeway taken in 1946 looking east from Walcheren Island. The row of poplars is gone, but the hardened road and railway line are still present.

The set designer has incorporated the unique 1944 period telephone poles into the set.


From the book SLAGVELD SLOEDAM, translated from the Dutch, showing German defensive positions in October 1944. WN (Widerstandnest) were small "resistance nests", two or more of these could be grouped into a Stützpunkt (strongpoint) - the strongpoints were named after famous German generals.

Google Map 3D view of the battlefield today, looking west from above South Beveland toward Walcheren. Much land has been reclaimed from the sea, the brown lines indicate areas that were under water in 1944. Camera is looking west from what was the Canadian end of the Causeway on 31 October 1944, toward the German-held end. Landmark labels refer to following photos taken in 2015.


Observation Bunker 1


Bunker Ruins

View from north of the Causeway, looking south. The camera is on a low dyke that formed the eastern shore of the former Slooe Channel. The darker green crops in this photo would have been under water in 1944.

Concrete Shelter

Tobruk Bunker. These were named by the Allies after encountering one-man concrete fighting positions like this near Tobruk, North Africa. The bunker has a deep shelter underneath the round fighting position above ground.

View from what was the eastern end of the Walcheren Causeway, looking straight west from what was the Canadian end. Railway is in the same location as the old causeway line, but the track bed has been elevated several feet from the 1944 line. Farmland at right would have been under water in 1944.

Observation Bunker 2 is about halfway down the causeway south of the rail line on the 1944 map shown below - it is today north of the rail line.

Map is a wartime "Defence Overprint" from the collection of The Calgary Highlanders, dated at about the time of the battle. Numerals in yellow are grid reference numbers. Numerals indicate landmarks from the photographs above: (1) Observation Bunker 1 (2) Bunker Ruins (3) Concrete Shelter and (4) Tobruk Bunker.

Conclusion

The Battle of Walcheren Causeway has great importance to the regiments that fought there (The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) of Canada, The Calgary Highlanders, and Le Régiment de Maisonneuve, as well as 1st Battalion, Glasgow Highlanders of the British 52nd (Lowland) Division) but is largely unknown outside of military history circles. With little of the original battlefield surviving into the current day, it is exciting to think that the battle will be brought back into the public consciousness by this major motion picture.

Further Information