Our BVP2017 group has officially returned home as of late last night. In the hustle and bustle of the program, we had to skip a few regular social media posts that have been favourites of our followers, especially #MascotMondays.Consequently, in honour of our #BVP2017 group returning home and the 75th Anniversary of the Dieppe Raid last Saturday, we are sharing the brief story of an animal that returned home as well, and received a medal for it.
In the early hours of 19 August 1942, from the beaches of Dieppe, Canadian forces released the carrier pigeon “Beachcomber“, who was entrusted with the delivery of an important message to England. Taking flight with blazing speed through hazardous conditions, including one of the largest aerial dogfights of the war, Beachcomber safely reached England, informing higher command that the Canadians had landed at Dieppe.In March 1944, the English People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals awarded Beachcomber the Dickin Medal, (awarded to animals who displayed conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in military service).
Beachcomber remains the only Canadian pigeon, and one of only three Canadian service animals, to be awarded the Dickin Medal.
The official citation reads:
Pigeon – NPS.41.NS.4230 Date of Award: 6 March 1944
“For bringing the first news to this country of the landing at Dieppe, under hazardous conditions in September, 1942, while serving with the Canadian Army.”
With the success of the Canadian Corps at Hill 70, Currie now turned his eyes to the town behind the hill – Lens. Despite drawing out the Germans into a costly attack, and causing some 20 000 casualties, the capture of Hill 70 had not forced a German withdrawal from the city. Currie had originally planned Hill 70 to avoid having to make the Corps attack a fortified city, which they had no previous experience doing, but with no German withdrawal and increasing pressure from his high command Currie was forced to consider going into Lens.
With input from his divisional commanders, Currie ordered the 2nd and 4th Divisions into the city in a narrow fronted, probing attack. The first attack took place at 4:35 am on 21 August with battalions from both divisions advancing from their lines to the outskirts of the city. They were met with extremely strong resistance, and in the maze of fortified cellars, ruined houses and block streets were continually harassed by the Germans. By the end of the day, the Canadians were forced to withdraw; they lost 1 154 soldiers in only one day.
Currie now knew what was waiting for him in Lens – a strong German force – but made an uncharacteristic miscalculation. Rather than bombard Lens from above and avoid any inner city combat, he decided to send the 4th Division back in to try and capture Green Crassier, a large slag heap to the south of the city. The 44th (Manitoba) Battalion was ordered into Lens on 23 August to try to take the Crassier, and while they managed to capture it initially, were left to hold it cut off from communications and without reinforcements. The 44th held out until the end of the day on 24 August but were forced to retreat and Curried called off the operation in Lens on 25 August 1917, ending the Battle of Hill 70. The city remained in German hands until the general German retreat of 1918. Total casualties for the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the period of 15 – 25 August 1917 were 9 198 killed, wounded, or missing.
The fighting at Lens demonstrated a form of warfare that would take precedence in the Second World War; urban warfare. Capturing the city required the Canadian Corps to go through Lens street by street to clear out all remaining enemy forces, something which they just did not have the resources or the training to do. Lens was the last time the Corps fought in a city until Valenciennes in 1918.
Full accounts of their lives and VC actions can be read by clicking on the hyperlinks in the men’s names.
Corporal Filip Konowal (47th (British Columbia) Battalion) – An immigrant from modern-day Ukraine, over two days of fighting, Konowal was involved in clearing cellars in the city. He attacked two machine gun nests single-handedly, killing their crews and destroying their guns. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery, the only Ukrainian-Canadian to receive one. Konowal’s post-war life was tragic; his family in Ukraine was believed killed during Stalin’s collectivization plan in the 1930s Konowal himself was convicted of murder after coming to the aid of a friend in 1919. He was institutionalized and treated for physical and mental traumas of the First World War. Later released, he worked as a janitor in the House of Commons.
On 15 August 1917, at 41 years of age, Sergeant Frederick Hobson, of Galt/Cambridge, Ontario, attacked Hill 70 alongside men of “A” company of the 20th Battalion (Central Ontario). Clearing a section of enemy trench known as Nabob Alley, Sgt. Hobson and his men established a blocking position for the inevitable counter-attacks. For the next three days the outpost held out, until a heavy bombardment in the early morning of 18August wiped out the 20th Battalion headquarters and all but one of the Lewis guns in the forward positions. As the lone Lewis gun began to fire, a German shell struck, burying the gun and sole surviving crew member in mud and debris. Sensing the situation, Hobson dashed forward, digging the buried man out.
“Guess that was a close call,” said the survivor, Private A.G. Fuller. “Guess so : let’s get the gun out,” replied Hobson. (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 52) As they began to dig, the enemy fired at them and advanced across the open wasteland.
‘A bullet hit Hobson, but he took no notice of his wound. Together he and Fuller got the gun into position and opened up on the Germans, who were now pouring down the trench. They were holding the enemy well when the gun jammed. Hobson picked up his rifle.
“I’ll keep them back,” he said to Fuller, “if you fix the gun!” ‘ (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 52)
Already wounded, Sgt. Hobson chargedthe group entering the trench, holding them off with rifle, club and bayonet. In the midst of the melee, a single rifle shot hitSgt. Hobson, killing him just as Private Fuller brought the Lewis gun back into action, ending the enemy threat. Reinforcements arrived only a few minutes later. For his actions that day, Sergeant Frederick Hobson was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. His body was lost in the subsequent fighting, and he is thus commemorated on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.
MajorOkill Massey Learmonth, VC, MC
Having already earned the Military Cross for prior actions in 1917, Major Okill Massey Learmonth, of Quebec City, went into the attack on Hill 70 with the 2nd Battalion (Eastern Ontario Regiment). Having held their line for three days, by the 18th of August, the 2nd Battalion had only 614 men left when enemy let loose a terrific bombardment in the early morning hours. Attacking with flamethrowers, the enemy was able to enter the 2nd Battalion trenches before a bombing party drove them out.
The attacks continued throughout the morning, with Learmonth personally charging an enemy force threatening his entire company, catching and hurling back enemy grenades and shouting encouragementfrom the parapet. Wounded twice, “he carried on as if he were perfectly fit and whole” (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 57). A third wound broke Learmonth’s leg, but failed to break his spirit. “Lying in the trench, he continued to direct his men, encouraging them, cheering them, advising them” (Canadian War Records Office, Thirty Canadian V.Cs., p. 57). As the enemy attacks died off, Learmonth was finally loaded onto a stretcher and carried out, passing valuable details to his junior officers along the way. He would die of his wounds the same day in hospital.
Major Okill Massey Learmonth, VC, MC was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross and later buried in Nouex-les-Mines Communal Cemetery. He was 23 years old.
In our post from 26 May 2017, Canadian Captain George B. McKean, VC, MC, MM, made reference to a Bruce Bairnsfather comic, “Well, If You Knows of A Better ‘Ole…”, while recounting an experience in No Man’s Land. Read it again here: http://www.vimyfoundation.ca/raid-reconnaissance/
Bruce Bairnsfather was a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment when he was hospitalized for shell shock and hearing damage after the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. While recovering, Bairnsfather developed a cartoon character called Old Bill.
Overwhelmingly ill-tempered and surly, humourous “Old Bill” featured in his own comic series, his adventures and misfortunes depicting everyday life at the front for the regular soldier. The “Old Bill” series became a massive hit with the troops and those at home by putting a humorous spin on the war. Recognized for its effect on morale, 2nd Lt. Bairnsfather was commissioned by the War Office to continue publishing the cartoons for the duration of the war. His comics were reproduced both in print and numerous other daily items.
Below is one of the most well-known Bairnsfather comics, printed on a dinner plate, featuring Old Bill and another soldier, huddled in a shell hole while shells burst all around. The soldier has grumbled to Old Bill on the state of his shell hole, to which the veteran provides the wisdom: “Well, if you knows of a better ‘ole, go to it.”
2 June 2017 marked the 100th Anniversary of the events for which Canadian pilot William Avery “Billy” Bishop, VC, CB, DSO & Bar, MC, DFC, ED was awarded the Victoria Cross. Quickly winning the confidence of his commanding officer, Bishop was allowed to fly with a generously loose leash, allowing him to go out on lone wolf patrols without supporting wingmen, and more importantly, witnesses. On June 2, 1917, Bishop set out on his own, patrolling over German lines. His citation for the Victoria Cross reads as follows:
“For most conspicuous bravery, determination and skill.
Captain Bishop, who had been sent out to work independently, flew first of all to an enemy aerodrome; finding no machine about, he flew on to another aerodrome about three miles south-east, which was at least twelve miles the other side of the line. Seven machines, some with their engines running, were on the ground. He attacked these from about fifty feet, and a mechanic, who was starting one of the engines, was seen to fall. One of the machines got off the ground, but at a height of sixty feet Captain Bishop fired fifteen rounds into it at very close range, and it crashed to the ground.
A second machine got off the ground, into which he fired thirty rounds at 150 yards range, and it fell into a tree.
Two more machines then rose from the aerodrome. One of these he engaged at the height of 1,000 feet, emptying the rest of his drum of ammunition. This machine crashed 300 yards from the aerodrome, after which Captain Bishop emptied a whole drum into the fourth hostile machine, and then flew back to his station.
Four hostile scouts were about 1,000 feet above him for about a mile of his return journey, but they would not attack.
His machine was very badly shot about by machine gun fire from the ground.” (London Gazette, no.30228, 11 August 1917)
In the years following his death in 1956, Billy Bishop’s war record has come under scrutiny due to discrepancies in his claimed actions. Researchers have found that many German war records and casualty reports do not match with Bishop’s claimed victories, while a vast number of his victories are logged in British records without any sworn statements of the necessary supporting witnesses. Meanwhile, proponents of Bishop’s impressive record argue that Germany’s spotty records may have been the result of their struggling to figuratively “keep a lid” on what would have been a propaganda disaster if Bishop’s successes became public. Moreover, the Germans were becoming increasingly selective of reporting damage at this stage of the war, often preferring to not take note of bad news. Ultimately, Billy Bishop’s career is marked by both unquestionable bravery, as displayed in his confirmed actions but also clouded by what may be half-truths and fabricated encounters.
For a more complete presentation and understanding of the arguments for and against Billy Bishop’s legacy, we suggest reading the following two articles:
Amidst the mud and misery of the frontline, a trip out of the line sometimes meant a bath and welcome change of uniform and underwear for the troops. But the process wasn’t quite as refreshing as it may sound. John Becker of the 75th (Mississauga) Battalion recounts his visit to the baths in the area of Gouy-Servins, France in June 1917:
“This particular bathhouse was a rough board building with a boiler fired by wood alongside. Inside we took off our clothes and threw underwear and socks in a heap at one end. The underwear was immediately grabbed by fatigue men before it walked off under its own power [infested by lice]. We passed into another room and under long pipes shooting streams of warm water. A sergeant-major called “Soap On.” We soaped for three minutes. “Soap Off” – we had to immediately rinse ourselves as in another minute the water was shut off. We passed on to the other end, wiped our louse bitten hides, got clean towels, fumigated underwear, and resumed our clothes. The underwear was whatever we were handed. Some of it had been used for a long time… It was supposed to be free from livestock [lice], but this didn’t take into account the babies that had laid their eggs in the seams of my trousers and tunic, and an hour later I was providing a dinner for those eggs and all their brothers and sisters.” (Becker, Silhouettes of the Great War, 84).
With the drive up the Belgian coast successfully underway, (the Battle of Messines ending June 14, 1917), it was hoped the cross-channel air raids would slowly be reduced. In the meantime, pilots and gunners continued to do battle with massive Zweppelin airships and winged bombers in the skies over England. One Canadian patrolling english skies in 1917 was Air Marshal Robert Leckie, CB, DSO, DSC, DFC, CD.
Just over 100 years and one month ago, in the early morning of 14 May 1917, then-Flight Sub Lieutenant Leckie was piloting Curtiss Flying Boat type H.12 No 8666, on a patrol to the north-east from RN Air Station Great Yarmouth. Off the coast of Terschelling, the Netherlands, the crew spotted Zeppelin L 22 10-15 miles away, seemingly at the end of its route patrolling the Dutch coast at 3,000 feet.
They increased speed and climbed to 6,000 feet. Nearing L 22 and still undetected, Leckie took control of the Curtiss from Flight Lieutenant C J Galpin, jettisoning three of their four bombs to lighten the aircraft as the crew moved to battle stations. CPO Whatling went to the rear Lewis Gun while Flt.-Lt. Galpin manned the two Lewis Guns in the bow.
Unspotted until only half a mile away from L 22, Leckie dove at the Zeppelin, roaring down out of dark fog and cloud to 3,800 feet, levelling out 20 feet below L 22’s gondolas. In the bow, Flt.-Lt. Galpin seized the moment and:
“opened fire with both guns at 50 yds range and observed incendiary bullets entering the envelope… the port gun jammed but the starboard gun fired nearly a complete tray before jamming also. We were then 100ft from her and turned hard a starboard while I tried to clear the starboard gun. As we began to turn I thought I saw a slight glow inside the envelope and 15 seconds later when she came in sight on our other side she was hanging tail down at an angle of 45 degrees… Five or six seconds later the whole ship was a glowing mass and she fell vertically by the tail. CPO Whatling observing from the after hatch saw the number L22 painted under the nose before it was consumed. He also saw two of the crew jump out, one from the after gun position on top of the tail fin and one from the after gondola. They had no parachutes. When the airship had fallen to about 1000ft four large columns of water went up below in quick succession either from bombs or engines becoming detached from the framework. After 45 seconds from the first ignition, the envelope was burnt off and the bare exoskeleton plunged into the sea, leaving a mass of black ash on the surface from which a column of brown smoke about 1500ft high sprang up and stood.” (Report by Flight Lieutenant C J Galpin on the destruction of Zeppelin L.22 on 14 May 1917, addressed to the Commanding Officer RN Air Station Great Yarmouth, dated 14 May 1917. Air 1/660 ).
The crew landed back at Yarmouth at 7:50 AM, with only two bullet holes from L 22’s return fire in their aircraft. For their actions that day, Flt.-Lt. Galpin received the Distinguished Service Order and Flight Sub-Lt. Leckie received the Distinguished Service Cross.
Today marks the 73rd Anniversary of the Normandy landings, made during the Second World War in 1944. In the early minutes of June 6, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion jumped from their aircraft, the first Canadians to set foot in France that monumental day. The paratroopers succeeded in securing the Drop Zone, before heading off and destroying numerous bridges on approaches to the beachhead. By midday, the Canadian paratroopers had achieved all their objectives.
Meanwhile, at 07:49 in the morning, Canadian infantrymen stormed ashore at Juno Beach. Fighting through beach obstacles, machine gun and artillery fire, the Canadians routed the defenders and by noon Juno Beach was clear, with the fight carrying inland. By nightfall of 6 June 1944, the Canadians had advanced the furthest inland of all invading forces that day.
The Vimy Foundation commemorates the sacrifices made 73 years ago today. For more information on the Normandy landings, we suggest visiting the Juno Beach Centre, either in-person or online!
Starting in 1918, while occupying defensive lines around Vimy, the Canadian Corps carried out perhaps the most unaggressive, yet official, military order on the Western Front – farming.
Faced with ever increasing challenges of maintaining food supplies, the British Government ordered that the “English Armies undertake the growing of certain foodstuffs in the way of green vegetables and potatoes” using the land they currently occupied as a fighting force (NAC RG 9, Vol.4044, Radnor, “Statement of the policy to be adopted by Army, Corps, Area and Divisional Officers under the Directorate of Agricultural Production,” 7 February 1918).
Surprisingly, many of the Canadian Battalions took great interest in the project and its positive effects were two-fold; alleviating the strain on food supplies and providing an outlet for the burdened men. Farmers-turned-soldiers proved their worth providing expertise in planting and harvesting. As one unit rotated back into the frontline, those being relieved were expected to take over the farming plot. By the summer of 1918, the farming scheme was such a success that the addition of pig farms was considered, albeit briefly.