By Bob Gordon
Most Canadians can recall the shooting rampage in and around Parliament Hill on October 22, 2014: Michael Zehaf-Bibeau fatally shot Corporal Nathan Cirillo as he stood as the ceremonial guard at the National War Memorial, then, still armed, entered the Centre Block of the Canadian Parliament where he was eventually killed.
Far fewer Canadians recall that this was not the first instance of violence within the precincts of Parliament Hill. Almost 50 years earlier, on the afternoon of May 18, 1966, 45-year-old Paul Joseph Chartier died when a bomb he was arming in a second floor washroom exploded prematurely. Parliament’s Sergeant-at-Arms, LCol (ret’d) David Vivian Currie, was one of the first men on the scene. He later told his son simply, “The poor bugger was all over the walls.”
The CBC hastily produced a 30-minute news special that aired that evening, only hours after the shooting. The program concluded with an interview with the Sergeant-at-Arms. With otherworldly calm, Currie dismissed the day’s events as small potatoes, concerning, of course, but no need for panic. “Apart from stopping everybody and searching everybody, and asking for an ID card, the sort of thing you might expect from a police state, I don’t know what more we can do really.”
Unexpected though his calm might seem, it was hardly out of character for Currie. Twenty-two years earlier that attitude had carried him through one of the fiercest and most important small-unit actions the Canadian Army fought in Normandy. Then a 32-year-old Major commanding “C” Squadron, 29th Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (The South Alberta Regiment), in August 1944, troops under his command were assigned the task of putting the plug in the jug that was the Falaise Pocket. They closed the Falaise Gap. Currie’s “coolness, inspired leadership and skilful use of the limited weapons at his disposal,” as the citation reads, earned him the only Canadian Victoria Cross of the Normandy campaign and the only one awarded to a member of the Canadian Armoured Corps in the Second World War.
David Vivian Currie was born on July 8, 1912 in Sutherland, Saskatchewan, a few kilometres north of Saskatoon, where he attended King George Public School. He travelled south to Moose Jaw to attend Central Collegiate and then Technical School to learn his trade as an automobile mechanic and welder. In 1939 he joined the militia and in January 1940 he enlisted in the regular army with the rank of lieutenant. He was promoted to captain in 1941 and to major in 1944.
The South Alberta Regiment (SAR) did not arrive in Normandy until seven weeks after the invasion. On July 29, passing through Caen, the unit war diary innocently reported, “The destruction and stench of the city finally brought home to all ranks that they were nearing a battlefield.” Currie’s first experience under fire was Friday, August 4. The SAR War Diary notes, “Major CURRIE found it necessary to dismount and lead his tanks into position while mortar bombs were landing all round the area.” A mere two weeks later, the SAR were leading the 4th Armoured Division as it attempted to close the Falaise Gap and “C” Squadron found itself at the sharp end.
The day the SAR arrived in Normandy was also the day the German front cracked. Since D-Day the Germans had held a line across the base of the Cotentin Peninsula running west 90 kilometres from Caen at the mouth of the Orne to Coustance. Operation COBRA, launched west of St Lo on July 23, was designed to press the German defences back out of the bocage and their anchor on the western coast of the Cotentin Peninsula. The objective was the capture of Avranches, at the southern end of the peninsula, on high ground overlooking the bay forming the corner between the peninsulas of the Cotentin and Brittany, and its bridge over the See River. It fell on July 31 and the next day Patton’s Third Army exploded west into Brittany, east towards Le Mans then Paris beyond and north turning the German flank. This last pincer created the Falaise Pocket.
When their left flank collapsed and armoured forces raced north behind their defences while the Canadians and British drove east from Caen, the Germans were threatened with the loss of the Seventh Army and the Fifth Panzer Army. Hitler, demanding a counterattack on Avranches, exacerbated the threat by pushing forces, particularly armour, deeper into the pocket, rather than preparing for an orderly withdrawal. When the Canadian Army captured Falaise and the Americans pushed north from Argentan, the only German escape route was the Falaise Gap, a seven-kilometre stretch running along the Dives River from Trun south to Chambois.
The only bridge that could support armoured vehicles over the Dives between Trun and Chambois was at St Lambert. On the afternoon of August 18, General Guy Simonds ordered the 4th Canadian Armoured Division to push on from Trun through St Lambert-sur-Dives one kilometre to Moissy. At 1500 hours Currie was summoned to regimental headquarters and given his task. In what can only be described as a backhanded compliment, his regimental CO, LCol Gordon “Swatty” Wotherspoon, later noted that Currie “wasn’t a brilliant tactician, but he was very stubborn, and if you gave him an order to do something within his capabilities, he would do it — period.” Three months later Currie told the CBC, “I remember thinking at the time that it was the toughest job the regiment had ever been given.”
Currie had only very limited forces at his disposal. “B” Company of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada (Major Ivan Martin) was placed under Currie’s command and accompanied his “C” Squadron of the South Alberta Regiment. His “C” Squadron was down to 15 tanks and the accompanying Highlanders mustered only 55 effectives. It has been erroneously reported that a troop of M10 tank destroyers accompanied Currie’s force. In fact, they remained laagered with the HQ Company, actively participating in its defence when it risked being overrun. In total Currie’s small force numbered approximately 130. Additionally, as supporting artillery had not kept up with the advance and flying conditions were temporarily abysmal with rain and cloud blanketing the area, the small force had to attack ‘naked’ without supporting arms.
They set out at 1800 hours on Friday, August 18. Having covered four kilometres with neither casualties nor contact as they were approaching the north edge of St Lambert, flares lit up the Norman night, an 88mm antitank gun barked, and Currie’s small force was down to 13 tanks. Both crews survived, but half a dozen were wounded. Currie proposed deploying his tank crews as combat infantry and to immediately start fighting into the village. However, his regimental CO, “Swatty” Wotherspoon ordered Currie to retreat 1,000 metres to Pt 117 and renew the attack in the morning. Demonstrating the courage that would carry him through the next two days, Currie, alone and on foot, reconnoitred the German positions locating armour, antitank guns and weapons pits.
At first light on August 19, Currie’s small band attacked St Lambert again. Almost immediately a Sherman was hit and brewed up. According to the Highlanders War Diary, “C.S.M. Mitchell, together with Pte. M. R. Holmes ran forward out of cover, and under the direct fire of the enemy, climbed upon the tank. After a full five minutes, during which they ran the added and imminent risk of death or injury from exploding ammunition, they managed to pull the driver out alive.”
Subsequently, Captain John Redden located a Panzerkampfwagen (PzKpfw) IV and rushed to Currie’s tank and pointed it out. Currie’s gunner destroyed the Panzer, earning the SAR’s first confirmed kill (and a bottle of rum from “Swatty”). The advance slowed and a PIAT team from the Highlanders 10 Platoon set off to stalk a second German tank, a Panther. Team leader, Lt Gil Armour, was able to disable it. The War Diary reports: “Lt. Armour climbed on top of the tank with a 36” grenade in his hand. Just as he was about to drop the grenade in the turret, a Jerry officer looked out. Lt. Armour was the first to recover from their common shock. He forced the Jerry to come out. But the Jerry was armed with an automatic pistol and closed with him.” The officer was quickly shot by another Highlander. A second crewman was Sten gunned when he opened his hatch and finally the patrol was able to get a grenade in an open hatch. Individual battles like this typified the day’s combat. After six hours of fierce fighting they were only halfway through the village.
Early that evening Currie was reinforced by “C” Company of the Argyll’s and “C” Company of The Lincoln and Welland Regiment (with a platoon of “D” Company under command) at 1800 hours. But in the face of the bitterest opposition from superior numbers, his force could make no further progress. Currie’s force now amounted to only a dozen tanks and 60 infantrymen. It dug itself in and was soon battling furiously against one counterattack after another, refusing to give ground and accounting for hundreds of the enemy. The Argyle’s commanding officer, Major Ivan Martin, was fatally wounded that day; while conferring with a German medical officer about handling wounded German prisoners, an artillery shell struck nearby killing both.
The close combat and absolute confusion was captured by Highlander Arthur Bridge in a post-war memoir: “Our section moved into a house and took positions in the ground floor windows covering the main street. During the night one of our boys went upstairs and found five fully armed but very weary Germans having a sleep.” Throughout the night German infiltration efforts persisted.
August 20th was the fiercest day of the Falaise Gap battle. From the other side of the hill a German daily SitRep [Situation Report] stated, “At St. Lambert-sur-Dives the battle for a breach lasted for five hours.” An order issued that day by Montgomery made clear that the key to the battle was the Canadian blocking force at St. Lambert-sur-Dives. Headed, “General Instructions for completing the destruction of the enemy in the Normandy ‘bottle’ Point Seven” stated, “The bottleneck is the area Trun―Chambois. Canadian Army will be responsible for keeping this tightly corked; the cork will not be withdrawn without authority from me.”
At one point a Canadian tank, overrun by German infantry, was compelled to swivel its turret to wipe them off the hull. Currie himself used a rifle from the tank turret to fire at snipers while the main gun engaged German armour at a greater distance. The SAR’s War Diary reported the confused situation: “At about 0800 hrs waves of German Infantry began moving against the positions. It could hardly be called an attack as there was no covering fire plan, simply a mass movement of infantry.” It went on to note, “From a PW it was ascertained that the idea behind the attack was a mass recce to find any holes in our lines to enable the large forces trapped in the pocket to find a way through.”
Interestingly, the War Diary also notes a dozen reinforcements arrived from an unusual source: “C Sqn freed 12 American PW from the Jerries and put them to work with ground weapons.” Bridge reports that at one point his platoon encountered a Universal Carrier whose driver was being held hostage by two Germans and who were forcing him to drive them through the Canadian lines to their own lines. As night approached on the 20th the disorganized but desperate German assaults began to taper off.
Calmly the Argyll’s War Diary for August 21 notes simply, “The heavy fighting in St. Lambert ended today.” In total Currie’s troops destroyed seven tanks and 40 vehicles. A total of 300 Germans were killed, another 500 were wounded and 2,100 others were taken prisoner. Currie’s force of less than 150 personnel had caused almost 3,000 German casualties. By plugging the last escape route from the pocket, they played a key role in the capture of thousands of other troops and prevented the withdrawal of innumerable more tanks and vehicles.
Three months after the battle, upon the announcement of his Victoria Cross, Currie was interviewed by the CBC where he revealed his preternatural calm and understatement. Asked by the interviewer about his immediate reaction, Currie said simply, “Well, I was staggered. I sat down and had a cigarette and thought it over.”
On the morning of August 20, despite the desperate struggle Major David Currie’s troops were waging in St Lambert-sur-Dives, all eyes were focused on Chambois, a few kilometres south. It was expected that the Polish Armoured Division would link up there with the American and French forces driving north from Argentan, completing the encirclement. Anticipating this moment and wanting to capture it for posterity, a Canadian Film and Photography Unit (CFPU) team headed south from Trun towards Chambois.
Lieutenant Don Grant, MC, a still photographer, led the small group that also included Sergeant Jack Stollery, MM, a motion picture cameraman, Sergeant Lloyd Millon and their driver. Arriving in St Lambert-sur-Dives during a brief lull in the fighting, they quickly realized that advancing further south was impossible and, also, unnecessary. Surrounded by brewed up Shermans and shattered houses, they had found the heart of the action already. Dutifully they set to shooting the scene.
Moments later a German officer riding in a sidecar and a halftrack full of troops were captured by Highlanders as they tried to flee. ‘The photo’ preserves the moment these prisoners were marched into St Lambert-sur-Dives. Grant, facing south towards Chambois, snapped the photo. In the words of official historian C. P. Stacey, “This is as close as we are ever likely to come to a photograph of a man winning the Victoria Cross.” Currie, in the left middle ground, holds a pistol. On the left of the frame Stollery can be seen capturing the scene on his motion picture camera. (That footage can be seen in Canadian Army Newsreel No. 40 and is available online.)
Confusion surrounds the identity of the man speaking to Currie. In South Albertas: A Canadian Regiment at War (1998), author and historian Donald E. Graves identifies him as Highlander Corporal G. L. “Pete” Woolf. This is mistaken. The distinctive metal holster riding low on his right hip clearly identifies him as an armoured trooper not a Highlander. A year later, on the basis of careful physiological examination of the photo, Canadian Military History identified him as Trooper R. J. Lowe. He is in only an undershirt because his shirt and tunic were burned off him the day before when the hull machine gun in his Sherman jammed and exploded.