5 November 2015

Remembrance, continued: The Blockbuster

Some years ago, the wife, kids and myself visited Casa Loma. Upstairs in Pellat's castle is a museum dedicated to the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada. The walls were covered in medals donated by veterans of the battalion or their families. Mostly, they were service and campaign stars, with a few awards for bravery here and there. I was explaining to my daughters what the medals meant, when Elder asked me a question: "What's the highest medal you can win?"

"In Canada, it's the Victoria Cross."

"Are there any here?"

"They're very rare. I don't think you'll see any here."

At that exact moment, younger called from the other side of the room. "What medal is this?"

I went and took a closer look. "That would be a Victoria Cross.". It has been truly said: Man does not live on words alone, although he is occasionally forced to eat a few.

That VC remains the only one I have ever seen with my own eyes, and I only saw it once, but, even so, I saw it more often than the man who won it. His name was Aubrey Cosens, and this is how he earned it.

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.

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