The Canadian military and the Victoria Cross

The most famous British military valour decoration was introduced in 1856. Approved by Queen Victoria as the highest British award for gallantry, the Victoria Cross was made available for award to “officers or men who have served Us [the Crown] in the presence of the enemy, and shall have then performed some signal act of valour, or devotion to their country.” This meant all military personnel regardless of rank or social stature, a significant change to previous individual awards policy. It also became possible in 1902, to award the Victoria Cross posthumously, making it one of the very few British valour decorations available to soldiers, sailors or air force personnel killed during the course of their heroic action (the others included the George Cross and the Mention-in-Despatches).

The number of Canadians awarded the Victoria Cross varies significantly on how the total is calculated. Eighty-one Victoria Crosses were awarded to members of the Canadian military (including Newfoundland) from the South African War to the end of the Second World War. Another thirteen awards were made to men born in Canada serving in British military units. More than a dozen others could be added to the list as being associated with Canada through emigration from the United Kingdom, service on garrison duties in Canada, or, in one case, through the heroic deed having taken place in Canada.

Not surprisingly, the first Victoria Crosses associated with Canada were awarded to Canadian-born officers and men of British military units in the years before the Canadian military saw active combat in overseas theatres. Lieutenant Alexander Roberts Dunn earned his Victoria Cross during the Crimean War, while Able Seaman William Hall and Surgeon Herbert Taylor Reade were awarded their crosses for gallantry during the Indian Mutiny, with Hall becoming the only Canadian recipient to hang his Victoria Cross from the dark blue ribbon used by the Royal Navy until 1918. Assistant Surgeon Campbell Mellis Douglas was the last Canadian-born recipient of this period, receiving his for saving lives at sea in 1867.

The South African War

At the outbreak of the South African War, no one serving in a Canadian military uniform had yet been awarded a Victoria Cross. That was about to change. In 1899 the Canadian government committed formed military units to an overseas conflict for the first time. The conflict revolved around major disagreements between the Boers and British colonists but Canada participated to support the motherland. Although Canada would send infantry, cavalry, artillery and medical units to fight in the South African War, as far as the Canadian military recipients of the Victoria Cross were concerned, this was entirely a cavalry endeavour.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

Sergeant Arthur Herbert Lindsay Richardson wearing his Victoria Cross and Queen’s South Africa Medal (without bars).

Sergeant Arthur Herbert Lindsay Richardson was the first member of the Canadian armed forces to be awarded the Victoria Cross. A member of Strathcona’s Horse, Sergeant Richardson was born in Southport, England, in 1873, and later immigrated to Canada. After working on a ranch, he joined the North West Mounted Police, where he was a Corporal at the time of his enlistment. The cavalryman was present with three dozen other members of his unit at Wolve Spruit in South Africa on 5 July 1900 when they came into contact with about eighty Boers. The troops fired at one another. Then the order to pull back was given, and the Strathconas began their withdrawal. Richardson noticed one of his fellow troopers was down on the battlefield, wounded and with his horse shot out from under him. Richardson spurred on his horse, which was also wounded, and rode towards his fellow soldier less than 300 metres from the enemy riflemen. Richardson picked up the injured Canadian and brought him back to safety.

The three remaining Victoria Crosses awarded to the Canadian military during the South African War were granted to members of The Royal Canadian Dragoons. The heroic efforts of Lieutenants Hampden Zane Churchill Cockburn, Richard Ernest William Turner and Sergeant Edward James Gibson Holland marked the only occasion when three Canadians from the same unit were awarded the Victoria Cross for the same battle.

On 7 November 1900, Canadian and British forces found themselves in a full-scale battle with the enemy near Leliefontein. As the withdrawal from the battle began, the Canadian rearguard—those protecting the main body of mounted rifles and artillery— consisted of cavalrymen from The Royal Canadian Dragoons and two field guns from “D” Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery. At one point about 200 mounted Boers charged the rearguard. Sergeant Holland, born in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1878, was ready. Holland, armed with a Colt machine gun on a horse-pulled carriage, set up his weapon to protect the Canadian guns. As the Boers advanced, Holland continued to calmly fire the Colt, seemingly taking no heed of the increasing danger of his position. Then, as the Boers closed in on him, he prepared to withdraw. The horse pulling the gun’s carriage, however, had been shot and was down. Holland simply lifted the gun off the carriage, slid the hot barrel under his arm and rode off to safety.

The First World War

It was during the First World War that Canada’s military involvement overseas reached incredible proportions in terms of the numbers of Canadians serving, the staggering losses suffered and the impact the Canadian Corps had on the campaigns in which it served. The number Victoria Crosses awarded to members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force reflected the intensity of the nation’s contribution, sixty-four being awarded to its soldiers and airmen.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

The memorial plaque erected by The Womens Canadian Club of Winnipeg in 1925 renaming Pine Street “Valour Road” in Winnipeg.

Lance-Corporal Frederick Fisher was the first member of the CEF awarded the Victoria Cross. The 1st Division had arrived on the continent in February 1915 and spent several weeks becoming accustomed to life in a war zone. Lance-Corporal Fisher was a member of the 13th Battalion, CEF, one of the numerous units forming the 1st Division. Born in St. Catharines, Ontario, in 1896, Fisher attended high school and university in Montreal, and joined the 5th Regiment “Royal Highlanders of Canada” when the war broke out. He was in command of a Colt machine gun crew on 23 April 1915 as the 13th Battalion played its part in the Second Battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium. At one point in the battle, Fisher observed a Canadian artillery battery being attacked by German infantry and in danger of being captured. Fisher led his machine gun team forward, and set the Colt up in front of the battery, all the while under heavy fire. As the team cut into the ranks of the attacking Germans, four of its members were killed or wounded. Fisher moved rearward, gathered another four men to replenish his team, but lost contact with them on the way back. He returned to the Colt alone. Nonetheless, Fisher kept firing the machine gun while the artillery battery successfully withdrew. Fisher was killed, his remains never found.

Fisher was not the only Canadian awarded a Victoria Cross for his actions at Second Ypres. He was joined by Captain Francis Alexander Carron Scrimger, Lieutenant Edward Donald Bellew and Company Sergeant-Major Frederick William Hall on 24 and 25 April 1915. Two months later, on 15 June 1915, Lieutenant Frederick William Campbell earned his Victoria Cross, the last awarded to a CEF member for the next 15 months.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

Lieutenant Frederick Maurice Watson Harvey posing with a trooper and mount of The Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), CEF.

In the interim, the Canadian forces in the field continued to grow as more divisions joined the 1st Division in France and Flanders, forming the Canadian Corps. The Corps gained fighting experience in Flanders until, in the fall of 1916, it moved south to join the ongoing battle in the Somme region of France. During the next couple of months, three CEF members earned the Victoria Cross before the Canadian Corps left the Somme for the Arras region – Corporal Leo Clarke on 9 September, Private John Chipman Kerr one week later and Piper James Cleland Richardson on 8 October. Clarke’s Victoria Cross was one of three awarded to residents of Pine Street in Winnipeg, Manitoba, during the First World War (the others were Lieutenant Robert Shankland and Company Sergeant-Major Frederick William Hall). Pine Street was later renamed “Valour Road” in their honour.

Not all members of the CEF fighting in France and Flanders did so as members of the Canadian Corps. Some, like those in the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, fought with British formations elsewhere. In one of those units, a Canadian cavalry officer earned the Victoria Cross on 27 March 1917. Lieutenant Frederick Maurice Watson Harvey, a member of The Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), CEF, was born in Athboy, Ireland, in 1888 and later immigrated to Canada. The Strathconas were advancing on the enemy-held village of Guyencourt, France, when the cavalry started receiving withering machine gun and rifle fire from an enemy trench in front of the village. Casualties quickly began to mount in the leading troops, commanded by Lieutenant Harvey, and the men and their horses moved to a safer position. However, one German machine gun crew could still reach the new location. Harvey jumped down from his horse and began running across the open ground towards the machine gun, firing his pistol as he ran. He jumped the barbed wire strung in front of the trench, shot the machine gunner and captured the gun.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

Soldiers tending the grave of Lance-Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton on the Vimy Ridge battlefield.

The main focus of Canadian attention in this period, nevertheless, lay with the Canadian Corps’ attack on Vimy Ridge on 9 April 1917. For the first time, all four Canadian divisions attacked together. Four Canadians received Victoria Crosses during the battle for Vimy Ridge, Captain Thain Wendell MacDowell and Private William Johnstone Milne earning theirs on 9 April and Private John George Pattison his the following day.

The fourth man, Lance-Sergeant Ellis Wellwood Sifton, a member of the 18th Battalion, CEF, also earned his Victoria Cross on 9 April. A farmer, Sifton was born in Wallacetown, Ontario, in 1891. During the attack on Vimy Ridge, “C” Company of the 18th Battalion was held up during its advance by German machine gunners who had survived the artillery barrage by taking refuge in concrete shelters. As the Canadians moved forward, the enemy’s machine guns swept the battlefield, causing heavy casualties. Sifton saw the enemy’s machine gun nest first. He jumped up, rushed forward and leapt into the trench. He then charged into the enemy gun crew and knocked the gun over before turning on the gunners with his bayonet, killing each man. More Canadians hurried forward, but not before a small German party moved down the trench towards Sifton. He used his bayonet and his rifle as a club to fight them off until help arrived. Despite these efforts, Sifton was killed during the fighting.

During the next few months, two more Victoria Crosses were awarded to members of the CEF. The first went to Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe on 3 May 1917 and the next to Captain William Avery (“Billy”) Bishop on 2 June 1917. Captain Bishop, the leading Canadian air “ace” of the war, was seconded to the Royal Flying Corps and flying with 60 Squadron at the time of his award.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

The engraving for Lieutenant Robert Grierson Combe on the Vimy Memorial, a reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made by several recipients of the Victoria Cross.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

Portrait of Corporal Filip Konowal with his Victoria Cross.

By late summer 1917 the Canadian Corps had begun to push forward again, this time advancing towards the city of Lens and the heights nearby known as Hill 70. Here, six members of the Corps received the Victoria Cross for their conspicuous gallantry between 15 and 24 August – Major Okill Massey Learmonth, Company Sergeant-Major Robert Hill Hanna, Sergeant Frederick Hobson, Corporal Konowal and Privates Harry Brown and Michael James O’Rourke.

From 22 to 24 August 1917 Corporal Filip Konowal, a member of the 47th Battalion, CEF, demonstrated the drive and intensity behind his Victoria Cross award. Konowal was the first member of the CEF not born in the British Empire to be awarded the Victoria Cross, an example of the diverse composition of the Canadian military during the war. Born in Kudkiv, Ukraine, in 1888, Konowal served in the Russian Army before coming to Canada in 1913. He enlisted in the 77th Battalion, CEF, later being transferred to the 47th Battalion. As his battalion fought for Hill 70, Konowal was a one-man army, leading an infantry section tasked with mopping up cellars, emptying craters and flushing out machine gun nests. He repeatedly struck at the enemy single-handedly, bayoneting three German soldiers in one cellar and killing seven others in a crater. He overcame one enemy machine gun nest by rushing forward alone, killing the gun crew and carrying the machine gun back. Konowal attacked another enemy machine gun nest the following day, killing three of its crew and destroying the position with explosives. In three days he single-handedly killed sixteen of the enemy and stopped only when he had been severely wounded.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

Lieutenant Robert Shankland pictured between King George V and Queen Mary in an undated photograph.

As summer turned to fall the Canadian Corps was on the move once again, this time back to the Ypres Salient and the muddy ground of Passchendaele. The Canadian assault on Passchendaele was a success, albeit with a tremendous number of casualties. In total, nine CEF members were awarded the Victoria Cross during the battle—Major George Randolph Pearkes, Captain Christopher Patrick John O’Kelly, Lieutenants Hugh McKenzie and Robert Shankland, Sergeant George Harry Mullin, Corporal Colin Fraser Barron and Privates Thomas William Holmes, Cecil John Kinross and James Peter Robertson.

Heavy clouds darkened the early morning sky, threatening rain. The soldiers, assembled into their platoons, the platoons into companies, the companies into their battalion having recently moved up into position for the attack about to begin, waited. The enemy hadn’t fired on them as they moved forward. However, there was little else for which to be grateful. The darkness made it difficult to see any distance ahead of the front line trenches. There were few discernible landmarks and the battalion hadn’t been at this front long enough for anyone to get to know the ground about to be crossed.

“A” Company of the 4th Battalion, Canadian Mounted Rifles (4th CMR) formed up about seventy metres behind the battalion’s “D” Company on the right side of the planned avenue of attack. Each soldier was kitted out in fighting order. Most carried their Lee-Enfield rifle and more than 200 rounds of ammunition. Other soldiers bore light machine guns. Most carried hand grenades – or bombs, as they liked to call them at the time. Through some mishap behind the front, supplies of drinkable water never made their way forward in time and the soldiers of the battalion went into the fight with empty canteens.

At 5.40 a.m. – Zero hour for the attack at Passchendaele on 26 October 1917 – nearly 400 artillery pieces opened up, laying down a withering fire. As if on cue, a light rain also began to fall, continuing to turn the infamous muddy Passchendaele ground from solid to liquid. Moments later, Canadian machine guns began their supporting barrage. German artillery responded.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

A smiling Private Thomas William Holmes with the Victoria Cross ribbon sewn over his left tunic pocket.

The officers and men of 4th CMR had already begun their advance towards the enemy’s positions, not so much a solid front line but a series of short trench lines and strong points. Among the latter, the greatest fear was caused by the German pillboxes, reinforced concrete “rooms” used for shelter from artillery and as a protected firing position against advancing troops.

The troops of “A” Company soon found themselves intermingled with those of “D” Company as the conditions on the ground worsened. Their combined push continued to move forward fairly well until they encountered fire from a German pillbox containing a couple of dozen riflemen and flanked by two machine gun positions. Canadian casualties quickly began to mount. As the companies closed to within forty-five metres of the pillbox, the troops went to ground, seeking cover wherever they could. Half of 4th CMR was stopped, the entire attack in this part of the front threatened.

Suddenly, one of the soldiers stood up and calmly moved forward, across the open killing field towards the pillbox. He lobbed two grenades into the trench next to the pillbox where the machine guns were located, killing or wounding the gun crews and putting the guns out of action. Incredibly, the soldier then returned to the “D” Company position, grabbed another grenade from a friend, moved back out to the pillbox, worked his way around to the back entrance, and tossed in the grenade. The enemy soldiers not killed or wounded in the blast – nineteen Germans in total – came out with their hands up, surrendering. The Canadian advance could continue.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

Private Thomas William Holmes speaking to two other soldiers, the man on his left eyeing the Victoria Cross ribbon.

Major Harold Archibald Scott – “A” Company’s commander – had sought cover with his company when the troops in the enemy pillbox opened fire. He had just witnessed the incredible heroism of one of his men and wanted to ensure he was decorated, but didn’t know who exactly had carried out the attack. Scott sent Private Herbert Hawley forward to identify the hero. Private Hawley did as ordered, but upon his return discovered that Major Scott had just been killed.

Other men had also witnessed the action and brought the soldier’s name forward for honouring. He was Private Thomas William Holmes. Born in Montreal, Quebec, in August 1898, and raised in Owen Sound, Ontario, Holmes lied about his age when he enlisted in the 147th Battalion, CEF, in December 1915. Like so many other young men eager to get overseas, he had added a year to his age in order to become the minimum eighteen years of age. Later described as “a frail, delicate youth with a contagious smile”, at the time of his enlistment Holmes was 166 centimetres tall, with fair hair and blue eyes, had no military experience, still lived at home and worked on a chicken farm. After sailing overseas with the 147th Battalion, Holmes was sent to a reserve battalion before finding a home with the 4th CMR. He was wounded during the fighting at Vimy Ridge and had only just returned to the battalion before the fighting for Passchendaele began. At the time of the award of his Victoria Cross in January 1918, Holmes was reportedly the youngest Canadian to receive the Empire’s highest military honour. He was nineteen.

Three CEF officers were awarded Victoria Crosses in late 1917 and early 1918 – Lieutenants Gordon Muriel Flowerdew and Harcus Strachan with the cavalry and Lieutenant George Burdon McKean with the infant r y. Meanwhile, the Canadian Corps maintained a relatively quiet existence, particularly when compared to the British army as it attempted to defeat an all-out German assault launched in March 1918.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

Illustration of Corporal Joseph Kaeble standing at a parapet with his Lewis machine gun as drawn by artist Alfred Bastien.

Only the Canadian 2nd Division saw much action during this period, fighting which resulted in one Victoria Cross being awarded. Corporal Joseph Thomas Kaeble, a member of the francophone 22nd Battalion, CEF, had already earned a Military Medal and, on 8-9 June 1918, earned the Empire’s highest award for gallantry. Kaeble, who had been born in St. Moïse, Quebec, in 1893, and was employed as a mechanic before the war, was in charge of a Lewis light machine gun section in his battalion’s front line trenches when the Germans attempted a raid. Despite the intense artillery bombardment, Kaeble stayed at his post, his Lewis gun aimed out over the parapet of the trench. About fifty Germans began moving his way when the enemy guns ceased firing. Unfortunately, the rest of Kaeble’s section had been killed or wounded. Undaunted, Kaeble jumped over the parapet, carrying his Lewis gun at the hip, and then emptied one magazine after another into the ranks of the advancing enemy troops. Despite being wounded several times by shell and grenade fragments, he kept firing. Finally, Kaeble fell backwards into his trench, mortally wounded, but having stopped the enemy advance.

In early August 1918 the Canadian Corps launched itself as part of an overall British offensive in the area of Amiens. Although extremely costly in terms of Canadian dead and wounded, the operation was a complete triumph. Amazingly, ten members of the Canadian Corps earned Victoria Crosses between 8 and 13 August—Lieutenants Jean Brillant and James Edward Tait, Sergeants Robert Spall and Raphael Louis Zengel, Corporals Alexander Picton Brereton, Frederick George Coppins, Herman James Good and Harry Garnet Bedford Miner and Privates John Bernard Croak and Thomas Dinesen.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

A studio photograph of Lieutenant Jean Brillant, 22nd Battalion, CEF.

Although the Amiens offensive ground down after a few days, the Canadian Corps’ forward momentumn ever ceased in the days and weeks that followed. After being repositioned slightly northward, the Corps next attacked in the Arras region, moving eastwards roughly along the Scarpe River. TheHundred Days—the culmination of theBritish advance on the western front— begun at Amiens on 8 August continued.

So too did the earning of Victoria Crosses by members of the CEF. Lieutenant Charles Smith Rutherford earned his on 26 August 1918, followed by Lieutenant- Colonel William Hew Clark-Kennedy during the next two days. As the Canadian Corps moved against the Drocourt-Quéant defensive line from 1 to 4 September, seven more were awarded to Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Wesley Peck, Captain Bellenden Seymour Hutcheson, Sergeant Arthur George Knight, Lance-Corporal William Henry Metcalf and Privates Claude Joseph Patrick Nunney, Walter Leigh Rayfield and John Francis Young.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Wesley Peck wearing his Victoria Cross.

As September 1918 ended and October began, the Canadian Corps continued its push forward, this time targeting the Canal du Nord. Its officers and men earned another six Victoria Crosses, the pace of awards matching the frenetic pace of the fighting. One of the first went to Lieutenant Samuel Lewis Honey, with the 78th Battalion, CEF. Born in Conn, Ontario, in 1894, Honey was a schoolteacher who enlisted in 1915. After joining the 78th Battalion in the field he went onto receive the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Medal before being commissioned. During his battalion’s attack on Bourlon Wood on 27 September, Honey assumed command of his company after all of the other officers had become casualties. He reorganized the company, pushed it forward and gained its objective. The company then began to suffer casualties from an enemy machine gun position. Honey located it and rushed it singlehandedly, capturing the machine gun and ten prisoners. He later organized the defence of company positions against four German counter-attacks. After dark, Honey led a small party to an enemy post he had located, captured it and three machine guns, providing another example of the inspired leadership that he showed during the period. He died of wounds received on 30 September, the last day of the attack.

In this same period, four other officers and one other rank—Captain John MacGregor, Lieutenants Milton Fowler Gregg, George Fraser Kerr and Graham Thomson Lyall and Sergeant William Merrifield—joined Lieutenant Honey in earning a Victoria Cross.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

The British Victoria Cross awarded to Sergeant William Merrifield.

In the second week of October 1918 the Canadian Corps was closing in on the city of Cambrai. The main obstacle here was crossing the Canal de l’Escaut to pursue the rapidly retreating Germans. Captain Coulson Norman Mitchell, with the 4th Battalion, Canadian Engineers, earned his Victoria Cross here. Born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1889, Mitchell was a university-educated engineer who joined the Canadian Engineers in November 1914. On 8-9 October Mitchell, already a recipient of a Military Cross, led some engineers ahead of the infantry to examine the bridges the latter would need to cross. Upon reaching the canal they discovered one bridge had already been blown up. They crossed the collapsed bridge under heavy fire and pushed on to the main bridge over the canal. Mitchell and his men ran across the bridge in the darkness, without knowing how many Germans were on the other side. Mitchell then deployed a lookout while he and his sergeant slid under the bridge and began cutting wires leading to the demolition charges. Unfortunately, the Germans had raised the alarm and rushed the bridge in an attempt to blow the charges. Mitchell ran to his lookout, who had been wounded defending the position. Mitchell killed three Germans, captured another twelve and defended the bridgehead until reinforcements arrived. At that point Mitchell went back under the bridge and continued cutting wires and removing demolition charges until the bridge was secured.

Two days later, on 11 October 1918, Lieutenant Wallace Lloyd Algie earned his Victoria Cross, followed by Private Thomas Ricketts on 14 October 1918.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

Major William George Barker in his most comfortable location, inside an airplane.

Then, two weeks later, a pilot earned the Canadian military’s second Victoria Cross of the air war. Major William George Barker, a member of the CEF seconded to 201 Squadron, Royal Air Force, culminated an amazing flying career one morning in late October 1918. Born in Dauphin, Manitoba, in 1894, Barker was an expert rifle shot and horseman who originally joined the cavalry. He served in the trenches before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps as an observer. He later became a much-decorated pilot, earning the Distinguished Service Order and bar, the Military Cross and two bars, one French and two Italian gallantry awards. On the morning of 27 October Barker attacked an enemy two-seat aircraft, destroying it. He was then attacked and wounded by a German biplane, but shot it down. Barker was attacked again, wounded again, but forced his way out of trouble. Unfortunately, he lost consciousness at this point and his plane started to drop. Barker awoke while being attacked yet again, regained control of his aircraft and shot down one of his attackers. He then passed out once again, again awoke under attack and again shot down another aircraft. Utterly exhausted by this point and severely wounded, Barker escaped, crashing his aircraft. During the mission he had raised his personal total of aircraft destroyed to fifty.

Only one more Victoria Cross was earned by a member of the CEF before the end of the war, that belonging to Sergeant Hugh Cairns, who was awarded the decoration for his heroism on 1 November 1918, just days before the end of the fighting on the Western Front.

The Second World War

Just twenty years later Canada was at war again, a significant participant in the Second World War. The nation’s contribution was just as widespread as in the earlier conflict, witnessing Canadians fighting on sea, land and in the air around the globe. The Canadian military’s involvement in combat would lead to the award of thieteen Victoria Crosses and thousands of other Commonwealth awards for gallantry.

Company Sergeant-Major John Robert Osborn earned his Victoria Cross in the fighting in Hong Kong on 19 December 1941. The next awards to members of the Canadian military came exactly eight months later, on 19 August 1942, during the disastrous raid on Dieppe, France. Honorary Captain John Weir Foote and Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Cecil Ingersoll Merritt heroically stepped into history that fateful day.

The next man in a Canadian uniform to earn the Victoria Cross did so in Italy. Captain Paul Triquet, a company commander with the Royal 22e Régiment, led his men and a handful of Canadian tanks against the hamlet of Casa Berardi on 14 December 1943. Casa Berardi was an enemy strong point protected by firing positions in a gully in front of the hamlet. Born in Cabano, Quebec, in 1910, Triquet was a professional soldier, a member of his regiment since 1927. As his troops moved forward they came under heavy machine gun and mortar fire and half the company was soon killed or wounded. Undaunted, Triquet reorganized the survivors, encouraged them and convinced them that the safest route was forward to the objective. He then led them forward as they broke through the enemy’s positions and destroyed four German tanks and several machine gun nests. Having reached Casa Berardi, Triquet knew the inevitable German counter-attack was coming and organized his men and the remaining tanks in a defensive perimeter. When the Germans attacked he dashed from position to position, encouraging his men and fighting where needed. The defence was successful and Triquet and his men were relieved the next day.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

An unknown artist’s depiction of Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Cecil Ingersoll Merritt’s heroism at Dieppe in August 1942.

Major John Keefer Mahony’s Victoria Cross, also earned in Italy, came on 24 May 1944. Then came the first award earned by a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, that of Pilot Officer Andrew Charles Mynarski on 13 June 1944.

Eleven days later, Flight Lieutenant David Ernest Hornell, a pilot with No. 162 (Bomber Reconnaissance) Squadron, received the RCAF’s second Victoria Cross. Born in Mimico, Ontario, in 1910, Hornell joined the air force at the outbreak of the war. On 24 June 1944 he was the captain and pilot of a twin-engine Canso amphibian aircraft and a veteran of sixty operational missions. He and his crew were carrying out an anti-submarine patrol in the north Atlantic when, several hours into the patrol, they spotted a German submarine on the surface. Hornell turned to attack, but was spotted. The enemy opened up on the Canadians with its anti-aircraft gun, striking the Canso’s starboard wing and setting the engine on fire. The plane continued its attack, firing its machine guns and releasing its depth charges. The submarine was sunk, but the Canso was also fatally wounded. Hornell landed it in the water, the crew bailed out and the aircraft sank out of sight. Tragically, the crew only had one functioning dinghy, so they took turns floating in the water, holding on to the sides. Two of the crew died of exposure, the rest holding on for twenty-one hours until rescued. By then, Hornell was blind and physically exhausted and died shortly after being rescued.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

A step-by-step artistic recreation of the ordeal of Flight Lieutenant David Ernest Hornell and his crew on 24-25 June 1944.

Photo: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

An undated photograph of Pilot Officer Andrew Charles Mynarski and his crew from 419 (Bomber) Squadron, RCAF.

Photo: Ken Reynolds, Department of National Defence

The headstone for Sergeant Aubrey Cosens in Groesbeek Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands. 1

On 6 June 1944 the Canadian Army was fighting on land in North-West Europe, adding a second front to the Italian campaign. The next five Victoria Crosses earned by the Canadian military reflected the expansion of the fighting, all but one coming from the fighting in France, the Netherlands and Germany in 1944-45. These recipients were Major David Vivian Currie on 18-20 August, Sergeant Aubrey Cosens on 25-26 February, Major Frederick Albert Tilston on 1 March and Corporal Frederick George Topham on 24 March in North-West Europe and Private Ernest Alvia (“Smokey”) Smith on 21-22 October in Italy.

The final Victoria Cross awarded to a Canadian was to a member of the Royal Canadian Navy. Born in Trail, British Columbia, in 1917, Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray was attending university when he was commissioned in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1940. Gray was attached as a fighter pilot to the Fleet Air Arm, the aerial branch of the Royal Navy, and had already been awarded a Distinguished Service Cross and Mentioned-in-Despatches by the summer of 1945. On 9 August 1945, Gray, in his Corsair aircraft, led an attack against Japanese warships in Onagawa Wan, off the island of Honshu, Japan. Gray dove to attack after spotting the vessels, his aircraft being struck by enemy anti-aircraft fire as he flew in. But Gray held his plane steady and got to within fifteen metres of the Japanese escort Amakusa before dropping his bombs. At least one scored a direct hit, sinking the escort. Gray’s aircraft, however, was crippled and crashed into the bay. His remains were never recovered.

Photo credits

  • 1 Ken Reynolds, Department of National Defence
  • All other photos: Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence

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