“Any invasion news?” is heard on all sides from those whose daily duties do not allow them to listen to broadcasting stations.”—Cowichan Leader.
The first week of June 1944: half a world away from the Cowichan Valley, the Allies are at last in the final stages of launching the long-awaited invasion of mainland Europe.
Unlike the previous landings in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, Normandy was the BIG one, the final march to Berlin — in effect, the beginning of the end of the Second World War. “Only” 11 more months to go.
The timing and the actual landing places on the French coast were among the best kept secrets of the war so it’s no surprise that the folks at home had no clue of its actual happening until the first, breathless radio reports.
What were Cowichan Valley residents doing, what were they thinking about in those first days of June while unaware that tens of thousands of Canadian military personnel, including members of local families, were taking their places in landing craft, strafing and bombing enemy defences from the air and sweeping the English Channel of enemy shipping?
They were concerned with road repairs in Lake Cowichan and Youbou, with the Duncan Carnival beauty contest and revised game regulations, to name just three. A provocative front-page headline in the Cowichan Leader lumped other local issues of the day thus: “Dams and Dynamiters, Discord, Delegations, Dogs and Drainage.”
The first and most intriguing issue was that of a Crofton farmer who’d complained to North Cowichan council that someone had dynamited his irrigation dam, emptying his pond and depriving wild fowl of their habitat. Although no names were mentioned council was informed that the vandalism was thought to be the work of a neighbour who objected to the backing up of a creek onto his property. Reeve Chapman urged Richards Trail residents to work it out among themselves.
The Chemainus Parent-Teacher Association was lobbying for a new playground, the Good Neighbours Club of Deerholme held a garden party, plans were going ahead for the fall fair at Cobble Hill, Mrs. E. Kershaw of Glenora was off to Nevada to spend a month on her daughter’s ranch, and an orphaned fawn was being cared for at Skutz Falls.
Such was everyday life in the Cowichan Valley in those first innocent days of June 1944 — all so, so far removed from the war zone. But all that changed dramatically thanks to radio, and by June 8, two days after the landings at Normandy, the news of invasion had become world-known.
That issue of the Leader hit home with news of local casualties — four killed, two missing and two wounded: “Sorrow and anxiety came to eight homes in the Cowichan district…through notifications of casualties in the theatre of war.”
But, because of the inescapable time lag and military censorship, these men weren’t, in fact, casualties of the invasion. Cpl. Basil Maurice Halhed had been killed in Italy as had Crofton’s Pte. John Hutchinson, PPCLI, and Pte. Patrick Murphy, Seaforth Highlanders. Capt. E.T.Y. Barkley of Westholme, who’d gone missing in the battle of Shanghai two years before, has now been posted as having been killed in action.
Also missing are F/Sgt. A.B. Dunlop, RCAF, of Crofton, and Cpl. Frank S. Wilkin, Seaforth Highlanders. Wounded are Cpl. Walter B. Sked, another Highlander, and Trooper Thomas Brooks, 8th Armoured Regiment.
It’s too early for any news of any local men involved in the actual D-Day fighting but residents greeted word of the long awaited invasion with “intense interest” and “quiet enthusiasm,” according to the Leader. The newspaper, which went to press on Wednesday, June 7, reported that some residents who’d first heard of the invasion through radio announcements on Monday evening, informed family and friends by telephone then had remained glued to their sets through the night.
Downtown next day, “Were it not for animated conversations on streets and in business premises, there was little to indicate in Duncan that activities of world-shaking import were underway on the European war front. A few flags appeared on homes, in front of stores and on cars. It was evident that the serious implications of the invasion were uppermost in most minds.
“One thought was constantly voiced and that was that the cost, in casualties, of landing, the invasion forces had been exceptionally light when the magnitude of the undertaking was taken into consideration. There were indications of tenseness and anxiety in the cases of some citizens, members of whose families might be in the great battle.
“Radio news of the progress of the invasion is eagerly awaited. The query, ‘Any invasion news?’ is heard on all sides from those whose daily duties do not allow them to listen to broadcasting stations.”
June 15: On the Italian front, Pte William James Van Norman, Duncan, is missing, former Shawnigan Lake school student, Gnr. S.V. (Jock) Martin, RCA, has been killed, and Lt.-Col. F.J. Thorne, MC, MBE, Westholme, is hospitalized. But this issue includes the first casualties directly related to the great invasion. Killed: Lt. Francis Gordon Radcliff, Chemainus (whose brother Sgt. Pilot Kenneth Radcliff has already been killed in action), and, wounded, Capt. James Else, 62nd Field Battery. No details are available.
June 22: The tempo begins to pick up with reports of three more casualties in Italy: Maj. J.T. MacEwan, Sgt. David Yates, both of Mill Bay, and Pte. G. Weyman, Cowichan Station. Killed in France: former Shawnigan Lake School student Maj. Kenneth Osler. Still missing “over Europe:” F/Sgt. Alan Dunlop, RCAF, Crofton.
On a happier note, Mrs. Else has received a letter from an army chaplain who informed her that, although wounded in the head and arm, Capt. Else “was the life and soul of the wounded party”.
June 29: Four more casualties, all of them in France: F/Sgt. Francis Rey, 19, a former clerk at Cowichan Merchants’ whose brother F/O Joseph Rey is a POW, went missing June 25th. Rifleman C.D. Craig of Chemainus has been wounded as has been S/Maj. Leslie Chown (in the left leg and left arm) of Koksilah; WO Rod McMillan, formerly of Westholme and a well known football player, is missing in action “over France”. (He’s on the Duncan Cenotaph.)
Further word was anxiously awaited about the status of BQMS Ashley (Bob) Gilman, 13th Field Regt., and Cpl. Hugh MacMillan, 1st Bn., Canadian Scottish. Both fathers had receive cables from their sons who said they were “doing well,” but the cables had been sent from London before they departed for France; it was feared that they’d been wounded.
July 6. A month has passed since Allied forces stormed the French beaches. Still families wait for word of their loved ones and the casualty reports continue to trickle in. This week, missing in Italy, is Sgt. Stewart Irving, Seaforth Highlanders, who’d worked in the Youbou sawmill before joining the army; he has two brothers also serving, one in the navy the other in the Royal Canadian Service Corps.
Missing over enemy territory is F/Officer Malcolm Gerrard Gillespie, 24, of Lake Cowichan; a bank clerk, he enlisted in 1941 and went overseas in November 1943 and two brothers are in the navy and air force. F/O Harold Rae, RCAF, Chemainus, is missing as of June 25th; it’s reported that his relations and friends are anxiously awaiting news of his safety. He, too, has two brothers serving in the air force and navy.
On the home front, a fund started in Victoria to provide cigarettes by cable for distribution to men of the Canadian Scottish Regiment in hospitals has already reached $1,226 and the Leader has volunteered its office as a collection centre; to date $12 has been contributed locally.
The 1st Bn. Canadian Scottish, it should be noted, are in the thick of fighting in Normandy and its commanding officer, second-in-command and adjutant, all Victoria men, have been wounded.
As a grim reminder that tragedy happens at home, too, four people were killed and three injured in a deadly car crash in Mill Bay, and a shingle mill worker died from injuries sustained from a fall from a waste conveyor.
July 13. It’s reported that C.S.M. Roland Knight, a former St. Ann’s School for Boys, Tzouhalem, student, was wounded by a mortar shell on the Normandy beach on D-Day. Incredibly, his wounds were tended to by his brother, first-aid man Pte. Donald Knight. Neither of them had known that the other was on the beach.
Former Duncan Island Coach Lines manager R.H. Tye, now a captain in the Canadian Scottish, has been cited for “a brilliant piece of work” in his capture, armed only with a revolver and with the help of First Nations runner Solomon Jack, of 17 Germans early in the invasion. In a letter to his wife he told how he and Jack were scouting when they heard voices in a grain field. He issued a challenge then fired a shot and, to his surprise, “German heads appeared above the grain in all directions”. To the Canadians’ relief, the Germans — a major, two NCOs and 14 privates — threw up their hands.
Capt. Tye also told of a close call while in command of an anti-tank gun section; while riding in a Bren gun carrier it was hit by seven bullets, one of which passed through his trouser leg without striking him.
Another letter home, this one from Lt. Stewart Ross, Canadian Scottish, to his parents in Duncan, tells of the months of preparation before hitting the French beaches: “As you know we have been on dozens of schemes during the last eight or nine months. They were terrible things, gradually growing bigger and involving new equipment and more troops of every description. The last scheme the end of April, was the dress rehearsal and then we were confined just like prisoners by guards and barbed wire; no one had a pass except the colonel.
“Then came the briefing, all done on a grand scale on bogus maps, models, etc. This was very thorough — air pictures, good intelligence, reports, etc. Every single man knew every inch of ground and most of the administration he needed to know. Then we were marshalled in another camp in shiploads; we went on board two days before D-Day and waited.
“Everything was exactly per scheme and most of us could have done that part of it blindfolded. The planning was a marvel, everything provided for, from making priority shipping space for tanks to issuing us with seasick pills. Knowing that the planning was so excellent we had great confidence in its success.
“During the last few weeks we were inspected by the King one day and by Gen Eisenhower another day. The latter spoke only a few words to us, but they were in the way men understand and like best. Just looking at the man made us feel confident that he was a wonderful leader.
“Morale is wonderful and I’m as happy as they make them, this has training and more training beaten from every angle.
“We live in slit trenches, a hole about five feet deep, six or seven feet long, width according to time allowed to dig and energy left to expend. We never have any lack of the latter when Jerry pins us with his mortar. These trenches are our only protection.”
He then described his passage to the battle field aboard the converted passenger liner Prince Henry: “We rose at 4 a.m., had a good breakfast, said goodbye to our super-excellent hosts and wished our army comrades good luck, etc. Then we were lowered away into a very rough sea about seven miles off shore. Then something that still brings a lump in my throat happened. As our eight LCA [landing craft] tossed around in the sea near our ship, someone over the loudhailer called three cheers for the Scottish, and I can still see and hear those naval officers and ratings cheering. We replied, but by boatloads, as to co-ordinate tossing would have been a feat. Then we hit for shore. Jack [L/Cdr. Jack Davie who became a well known Duncan lawyer] has certainly got a marvellous crew on his LCAs. They handled those craft expertly; the best we have ever seen.”
Another Shawnigan Lake School alumni, Lt. Cornelius Burke, now commanding a motor gunboat in the English Channel, has been mentioned in dispatches for his “good service in action against German light forces in the Adriatic”.
The great invasion has had another tangible impact on the home front — it means tighter rationing of gasoline because of the need to fuel the thousands of ships, aircraft, tanks and trucks overseas. As a large display ad posted by the Department of Munitions and Supply explains, in the first eight days of the invasion Allied forces flew 56,000 sorties: “Many thousands of oil-burning warships and landing barges are shuttling endlessly across the Channel. Tanks, trucks, jeeps, mobile artillery, ambulances, by the thousands are in action.”
Canada’s navy alone, grown from 15 ships to 650(!), consumed as much as 548,000 gallons in a single day.
“The driving power behind all this mobility is petroleum — gasoline and fuels drawn from a dwindling crude oil supply.”
Canada produced only 15 per cent of its needs in 1944 — and to make existing supplies suffice “the most stringent economy of gasoline and fuel oil must be practised here at home”. Not only was petroleum in critically short supply but its ever-increasing consumption necessitated the use of more production manpower — something else in critically short supply in wartime — to produce and transport it, and its transport by tankers across the Atlantic was subject to enemy attacks with inevitable loss of life and cargoes..
In short, gasoline is “ammunition — ammunition of which we have all too little. To waste a gallon of it is a crime against our fighting men.”
(Meanwhile, at the Capitol Theatre, Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon are starring in Madame Curie and, more topically, Anne Sothern and James Craig are in Swing-Shift Maisie. The provincial government, looking ahead to the return of peacetime and the return of thousands of servicemen and women, advertises an appeal to prevent forest fires so as to ensure “our fighting men of the right to work and live in their own homeland!”)
July 20. The invasion of Europe is now in its eighth week. Two more local men have been killed, two wounded. L/Cpl. William John Henry Knight, Chemainus, Canadian Scottish, originally posted as missing, is now declared killed in action. Unlike most Canadian combatants, he was a career soldier having enlisted in 1934. Besides his parents, he leaves a wife and daughter.
Also KIA is Rifleman F.P.J. Giroux, Winnipeg Rifles, nephew of James Hammond of Duncan. Severely wounded by shell fragments in the left chest and left hand is Maj. Arthur Howard Plows, Canadian Scottish, Duncan. Also wounded is Lt. Stewart Ross, our letter writer, who enlisted in Duncan in 1942. (There’s an S.R. Ross on the Duncan Cenotaph.)
On a happier note, the parents of Sgt. T.J. (Tommy) Brewer have been informed that their son, reported missing in February, is a prisoner of war in Germany. The letter, from an army chaplain, gives no further details.
Interestingly, Duncan is facing periodic black-out conditions, the result of restricted electrical energy use and a shortage of gasoline. And B.C. Telephone apologizes to its customers for having to forego domestic consumer demands in favour of wartime priorities.
July 27. Will there be no end to the casualties? Cpl. James Mitchell Mutter, only son of Mr. and Mrs. J. Islay Mutter, formerly of Duncan but now in Victoria, was KIA on July 18th. He landed in France on D-Day.
WO Rod McMillan, RCAF, formerly of Westholme and reported missing on June 13th, is now listed as killed, his parents having been informed not by the RCAF but by the Red Cross. Also reported missing is Sgt. D.A. Grant, RCAF, of Lake Cowichan. His first operational flight had been on D-Day, June 6, and he vanished over enemy territory just a week later.
For Duncan’s Hoey family it’s a double tragedy. Having already lost their elder son Charles, Cowichan’s only Victoria Cross winner of the Second World War, they’ve now been informed that their younger son, Lt. Trevor Hoey, has been seriously wounded in the fighting at Caen.
It’s much better news for the Maple Bay parents of Lt. Robin Hayward, RCN, who was reported missing after the destroyer HMCS Athabaskan was lost with great loss of life in the English Channel; he’s a prisoner in Germany but “alive and well”.
For F/Officer Max Strange, it’s the RCAF’s 13th DSO (Distinguished Service Order) for his having piloted his battered and burning Halifax bomber back from France despite its being pursued by German fighters. At the time of his enlistment he’d been working as a stationary engineer for the Hillcrest Lumber Co.
August 3. It’s reported that Lt. Trevor Hoey, 1st Bn. Canadian Scottish, died of his wounds July 21st. Older brother Maj. Charles Hoey, VC, MC, was killed in action in Burma five months earlier.
Pte. Ralph Lewis Brownlee, Koksilah, has been wounded while serving with a Calgary regiment but the nature and extent of his wounds haven’t been released. For the first time since D-Day, the Leader displays photos of some of the casualties, two of them courtesy of the Victoria Colonist: Lt. Hoey and Cpl. James Mutter; that of L/Cpl. William J Knight shows him on his wedding day.
A letter from Pte. Jack La Fortune, Cobble Hill, to his parents tells how his company commander won the VC and the Duncan Rotary Club is treated to a talk on German prisoners of war confined at a camp at Medicine Hat, AB. W.P. Fance notes that, although POWs are well cared for and Canada honours the Hague Convention, attempted escapes are an ongoing problem.
August 10. Word is received that five more Cowichan men are casualties: KIA is Gnr. Harold Thomas Kemp, RCA and former Fairbridge Farm student who’d shown a natural affinity for dairy farm work, and Capt. Stewart MacLeod, 4th Field Regt., RCA, Cobble Hill, who died of wounds received in Normandy, July 30th. Missing in action over enemy territory is F/O Michael Oliver, a former student of Shawnigan Lake School, and former resident Pte. John W Hankins has been wounded. PO Keith Joyce, RCAF, who with his father and brothers operated a tie mill until he enlisted, has been killed in a plane crash in Ontario.
Two months after Canadians stormed Juno Beach, the Leader editorializes on Cowichan’s bloody contribution to the liberation of Occupied France and in the years of fighting, on land, at sea and in the air, preceding: “The war deals many hard blows. For the people in Britain and Europe they are sometimes staggering.
“In Canada it is not often that a family is called upon to make a supreme sacrifice twice, but there are now three Cowichan homes upon which this blow has fallen. Last week the Hoey family lost the second of their two sons. Previously the Leighton family had lost two of their four sons and the Radcliff family of Chemainus two of their three sons.
“The district sincerely sympathizes with all those who have given loved ones in the war. In particular do our sympathies and prayer encircle those whose burdens are greatest, with the hope that fortitude and comfort will come to them.”
The Second World War had nine bloody months to go. Cowichan’s contribution in terms of supreme human sacrifice is graphically shown on the Duncan cenotaph. Seventy-five years — three-quarters of a century — after D-Day we remember and honour all those who took part in that most epic military operation of all time.