By Todd Lemieux
The photograph above was taken in August 1944 at St-Lambert-sur-Dives, France. It shows Major David Currie, South Alberta Regiment, with pistol in hand, accepting the surrender of a German officer. Tanks are smouldering in the streets behind him. The noted Canadian military historian, C.P. Stacey, described the scene, “as close as we are likely to come to a photograph of a man winning the Victoria Cross.” The occasion was the final entrapment of the Germans in the Falaise pocket.
My grandfather, Trooper John Barnett, fought at this and other battles with Currie during the harrowing days of World War II. As a kid he told me once, “You never, ever quit… not when it’s for real.\” I’ll never know what that means as much as he did. John Barnett lived into his 90’s and still had nightmares about the war, right up until he died. His experience in World War II, as a teenager, forged his life forever more.
On Aug. 18,1944, Currie, a major with the South Alberta Regiment, was in charge of a small mixed force of Canadian tanks, self-propelled anti-tank guns and infantry. He was given the task of blocking the German escape route through the village of St-Lambert-sur-Dives. Stiff enemy resistance in the village held up his unit when two tanks were badly hit by German fire. The citation for his Victoria Cross states that he, “Immediately entered the village alone on foot at last light through the enemy outposts to reconnoitre the German defences and extricate the crews of the disabled tanks, which he succeeded in doing in spite of heavy mortar fire.”
Early the next day, Currie led an attack on the village in the face of vicious resistance from enemy tanks, guns and infantry. By midday, Currie’s small, but determined force had succeeded–without any previous artillery support–in seizing and consolidating a position halfway inside the village. For the next 36 hours, the Germans hurled one counter-attack after another at the Canadians. In Currie’s own words, “They threw everything but the kitchen sink at us.”
Inspired by western movies, Currie broke his small force up into fire teams and dispersed them in such a fashion, to lend the appearance of a bigger force. Currie had arranged his defences so effectively that the counter-attacks were repulsed with heavy losses to the enemy. During the onslaught, Currie not only displayed a contemptuous defiance for the enemy as he led his men against repeated assaults, but also, took part in the battle himself. On one occasion he personally directed the fire of his command tank onto a German Tiger tank and succeeded in knocking it out.
During another attack he used a rifle from the turret to kill enemy snipers who had infiltrated to within 50 yards of his headquarters. Another time, even though his unit’s artillery fire was falling within 15 yards of his tank, he ordered it continued because it was having a devastating effect on the enemy. At dusk on Aug. 20, the enemy tried to mount a decisive attack to break their way out but failed miserably. The attack force was routed before it could be deployed. Currie promptly ordered an attack and completed the capture of the village, effectively blocking that part of the Chambois-Trun escape route and denying it to the Germans trapped in the Falaise pocket.
Throughout the engagement Currie had no respite from the battle. In fact, he managed only one hour’s sleep during the entire period. When relief finally arrived he was so exhausted he fell asleep on his feet and collapsed.
The yield to his depleted Canadian force was enormous for a single unit: seven enemy tanks, 12 88-mm guns and 40 vehicles destroyed; hundreds of Germans killed or wounded; and an amazing 2,100 captured.
Born in Sutherland, Sask., on July 8, 1912, Currie moved to Moose Jaw and attended King George Public School and Central Collegiate. Later he attended the Moose Jaw Technical School where he studied auto mechanics and welding. Before WW II broke out he joined the militia in Moose Jaw and in January 1940 enlisted in the regular army with the rank of lieutenant.
Following the war Currie held several executive positions in Baie Comeau, Que., and Montreal. In 1959, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker appointed him sergeant-at-arms of the House of Commons. In later years he served as vice-chairman of the Victoria Cross and George Cross associations and every two or three years led a delegation to England.
Currie died June 20, 1986, in hospital at Ottawa after suffering a heart attack. He is buried in Owen Sound, Ont.
John Barnett passed away peacefully, in Moose Jaw, September 9th, 2010, age 90.
“Lest We Forget”