5 November 2009

A Week of Remembrance: The Blockbuster

In early 1945 the Canadian First Army began a push to drive the Germans out of Holland and back into the Rhineland. Operation Veritable called for the Canadians to drive out of the Nijmegan sector and take the land between the Rhine and Maas rivers. Fighting was now to take place on German soil, and the resistance was expected to be fierce. The Germans prepared for the coming battle blasting dikes and bridges and constructing defensive lines. By late February the advance had slowed down.

A new operation, named Blockbuster, was called for to capture Xanten and the Hochwald.

On February 25th, the first day of Blockbuster, Aubrey Cosens was with the 1st battalion, the Queen's Own Rifles, which was to attack the hamlet of Mooshof and capture ground considered essential for the future operations.

Cosens and his platoon, with two tanks in support, were to attack enemy strong points in three farm buildings. The first two attacks failed, and while the men were regrouping the Germans launched a counterattack. The platoon suffered heavy casualties including the commanding officer was killed. Aubrey was left in charge of just four men and one remaining tank.

Aubrey immediately took control of the situation. He positioned the men to give him covering fire while he ran across open ground, under heavy mortar and machine gun fire, to the remaining tank. He climbed aboard the turret of the tank and from there, despite his exposed position, directed the tank's fire against the enemy positions. From there he helped turn back yet another enemy counter attack.

While still exposed on board the tank, he ordered the tank to ram one of the walls of the farmhouse, with the four men of his platoon in close support. Aubrey leapt through the hole in the wall alone and single handedly killed or took prisoner the German defenders within. Brave though this was, he was just getting warmed up. He pressed the attack on the second of the farm buildings despite heavy mortar, machine gun and small arms fire. He forced an entry into the building, and killed or took prisoners those defenders. And then, just to round out the action, he attacked the third building, alone, and killed or took prisoner its defenders.

Virtually alone he had secured a vital enemy strong point, and because of this the operation could proceed. Operation Blockbuster as a whole was carefully planned, and yet it would have failed but for the wild untamed courage of one man. No amount of planning could have taken Aubrey Cosens' actions into account, yet all their planning would have failed without him.

The echo of the guns from the capture of the farm buildings barely had time to fade when another shot rang out. Aubrey Cosens, who was unstoppable seconds earlier, fell to the ground dead, a sniper's bullet in his head. He was 23.

For the attack on the farm Cosens was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. It is on display at the Queen's Own Rifles museum, located at Casa Loma Toronto. It is the only VC I have ever personally seen. I only saw it once, but I felt profound sadness that I saw it one time more than did its owner. At the same time, I saw it as a reminder of how the courage of one person can overcome almost anything, and turn a desperate situation into victory.

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