6 November 2009

A Week of Remembrance: The Gatekeeper

The above photograph was once described as the closest anyone has ever come to photographing a man winning the Victoria Cross. The man winning the medal is Major David Vivian Currie. He is standing on the left of the photo, holding a pistol. This is his story.

The D-day landings did not quite go as planned for the allies. They gained a foothold in France, but they failed to capture all the objectives of the first day. Ten days later they still hadn't captured all the objectives of the first day. Worse, the individual beachheads had not linked up, leaving a gap between the American and British lines.

The Germans sought to capitalize on the gap by driving two armies into it, and striking out one both sides, rolling up the beachheads like a pair of carpets. The allies saw this move by the Germans as an opportunity of their own, and they began to make a pincer movement that would encircle the Germans, and trap their armies.

The German pocket became a slaughter. Allied planes ruled the day and destroyed German tanks and trucks. The Germans were being attacked on both sides, and fought back desperately. The dead were too numerous to bury, and in the summer sun corpses bloated and stank. An RAF pilot who flew over the battlefield at an altitude of hundreds of feet threw up in his cockpit from the stench.

The Germans reversed and sought to retreat through a small gap in the allied pincers near the town of Falaise. A rush was on to close the gap and prevent more Germans from escaping. The fighting became even more bitter. The gap had to be closed fast, but closing a gap was always dangerous. As the two sides of the same force drew nearer the risk of friendly fire was very high. The British and American command decided to have the Canadians close the gap.

Plans were made and orders were issued. Major Currie, serving with the South Alberta Regiment, was given the task of capturing the main German escape route through the town of St Lambert-sur-Dives. On August 18, 1944, Currie set out into the maelstorm with a small force of tanks, anti-tank guns and infantry to close the door on one hundred and fifty thousand Germans and all their equipment.

They ran into trouble almost immediately. Fearsome German 88's quickly knocked out two of Currie's tanks near the village. When night fell, under heavy mortar fire, Currie entered the village on foot to reconnoitre the German defenses and free the survivors in the two disabled tanks. This action alone should have earned him a medal in recognition of his courage. But he was only getting started.

At dawn the next morning Currie personally lead an attack into the village, without the aid of any previous artillery bombardment. In the face of German tanks, infantry and artillery he successfully pushed his way into the town, and secured about half of it. The Germans began launching counter attacks against Currie in an effort to retake the town, and secure once more their escape route. Against all odds, Currie and his men held. Under his unflagging leadership they held.

The casualties in Currie's unit were heavy. Every officer in the unit was killed or wounded. Currie lead alone, and he lead from the front. For the next two days he slept for only one hour.

From his command tank he personally directed fire upon a German Tiger tank- the most feared armour in the German arsenal- and knocked it out. Later, while his tank was taking on long range targets he used a rifle from the turret to deal with snipers who had infiltrated to within fifty yards of his position. The men grew weary and in need of reinforcements. Currie again took charge: the only reinforcements to come to his position came when he personally went, found forty men, and lead them back. These men fled in the face of the next attack. Currie went and rounded them up again. Inspired by his leadership and calmness under fire, they remained with him for the rest of the battle. Once, when an allied artillery bombardment was falling short and landing within fifteen yards of his position, he ordered it to continue because of the devastating effect it was having on the enemy. Throughout the action he moved through his positions, helping the men and giving them words of encouragement.

At nightfall on the 20th the Germans mounted one last attack on Currie's positions. Currie and his men held, and drove the enemy back with losses of seven enemy tanks, twelve 88mm guns and forty vehicles. 300 Germans were killed, 500 were wounded and 2,100 captured. (it was around now that the top photograph was taken.) Currie ordered a counter attack and his men seized the remainder of the village, shutting the door once and for all on the German retreat.

Finally replacements arrived. When Currie saw that the transfer was complete and the situation was secure, the exhaustion of the last three days came over him, and he fell asleep on his feet.

Currie's and the rest of the Canadians' actions during the Falaise Gap exist under a cloud. even back during the war it was felt too much time passed before the gap was closed. Although 50,000 Germans were finally trapped in the pocket, over 100,000 men escaped, men who the allies would have to face again. Recent writers, using Montgomery's journals, point the blame at the Canadians whom Montgomery felt had poor soldiers and poor leadership. Those writers forget that Montgomery would only claim praise for himself. Anything that went right was due to his genius and leadership. Anything which went wrong was someone else's fault. Just one example from this fight. The Canadians did not have many tanks when engaging the German Panzer divisions. Montgomery had committed the British armour to defending his flanks and Canadians like Currie were left using the weapons at hand and improvising in order to achieve the impossible. They deserve our gratitude, not acrimony from dead glory-hounds and armchair quarter backs.

For his actions at St. Lambert-sur-Dives and in closing the Falaise Gap, for his incredible leadership under constant fire, pulling a victory virtually from thin air, Major David Vivian Currie was awarded the Victoria Cross. A more thoroughly earned Cross you will never see.

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