Archived Lot

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Date of Auction: 27th September 2017

Sold for £550,000

Estimate: £300,000 - £360,000

“There is Little to be thankful for in war, but I was thankful for one thing, as a result of the battle for St Lambert, I know that there is much to fear in war, but to me, the greatest fear was the possibility that I might not measure up to that which is asked of me. St Lambert proved to me that I could measure up, and left me with the certain conviction that the war with Germany was in its final stages and that we would be equal to the task ahead of us - The final defeat of Germany.”

(Extract from a report on the action at St Lambert-sur-Dives written by Lieutenant Colonel Currie, VC)
The important and highly significant Second World War ‘Battle of Normandy’ V.C. group of nine awarded to Lieutenant Colonel David Vivian Currie, 29th Canadian Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment (South Alberta Regiment), for exceptional bravery whilst commanding a small mixed force of Canadian tanks, self-propelled anti-tank guns and infantry, during an intense three-day action (in which he only slept for one hour) fought between 18 and 20 August 1944 in ‘the corridor of death’ in and around the Village of St Lambert-sur-Dives, during the crucial Battle of the Falaise Gap, the decisive engagement of the Battle of Normandy in which the German army was finally routed leading to the Liberation of Paris a few days later - The citation for his Victoria Cross stating, that during one 36-hour period ‘the Germans hurled one counter-attack after another against the Canadian force but so skilfully had Major Currie organised his defensive positions that these attacks were repulsed with severe casualties to the enemy’ and crediting his actions with the destruction of seven enemy tanks, twelve 88mm guns and forty vehicles, with 300 Germans killed, 500 wounded and 2,100 captured - A famous photograph of Major Currie with pistol drawn overseeing the surrender of German prisoners was taken at the time of the event, which has been described as being ‘as close as we are ever likely to come to a photograph of a man winning the V.C.’ - Major Currie’s Victoria Cross is unique to the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps and is the only one awarded to a Canadian soldier for the Normandy Campaign

Victoria Cross, reverse of the suspension bar inscribed ‘Major David Vivian Currie, 29 Cdn. Armd. Recce. R. (S. Alta. R.)’, reverse centre of the cross dated ‘18th/20th August 1944’; 1939-45 Star; France and Germany Star; Defence Medal 1939-45; Canadian Volunteer Service Medal, with Overseas Service bar; War Medal 1939-45; Coronation 1953; Canadian Centennial Medal 1967; Jubilee 1977, mounted as worn, the V.C. and Jubilee 1977 good very fine or better, the other campaign and Jubilee medals cleaned and with Canadian style plating, otherwise generally good very fine (9) $500,000-600,000 CAD

Footnote

Provenance: Sold by Lieutenant Colonel Currie’s widow in 1989 to the present owner in Canada.

Of the 181 awards of the Victoria Cross and one bar that were given for gallantry during the Second World War, just 16 were awarded to Canadian recipients. Of these 16 only twelve were given to members of Canadian units, eleven of which are known to be on public display in Canada - Currie being the only exception. Of the other four awards to British units, three are on public display in England.

The medals on offer are the full group as worn by the recipient. Although some sources show Currie with the post-nominal’s V.C., C.D., no trace of a C.D. ever being awarded can be found. His service file does, however, confirm that his widow submitted a claim for the posthumous award of a C.D. and E.D., the latter being posted to her a year after his death.

V.C. London Gazette 27 November 1944.

The published citation states:

‘In Normandy on 18th August, 1944, Major Currie was in command of a small mixed force of Canadian tanks, self-propelled anti-tank guns and infantry which was ordered to cut one of the main escape routes from the Falaise pocket.

This force was held up by strong enemy resistance in the village of St. Lambert sur Dives and two tanks were knocked out by 88 mm guns. Major Currie immediately entered the village alone on foot at last light through the enemy outposts to reconnoitre the German defences and to extricate the crews of the disabled tanks, which he succeeded in doing in spite of heavy mortar fire.

Early the following morning, without any previous artillery bombardment, Major Currie personally led an attack on the village in the face of fierce opposition from enemy tanks, guns and infantry and by noon had succeeded in seizing and consolidating a position half-way inside the village.

During the next 36 hours the Germans hurled one counter-attack after another against the Canadian force but so skilfully had Major Currie organised his defensive position that these attacks were repulsed with severe casualties to the enemy after heavy fighting.

At dusk on 20th August the Germans attempted to mount a final assault on the Canadian positions, but the attacking force was routed before it could even be deployed. Seven enemy tanks, twelve 88 mm. guns and forty vehicles were destroyed, 300 Germans were killed, 500 wounded and 2,100 captured. Major Currie then promptly ordered an attack and completed the capture of the village, thus denying the Chambois-Trun escape route to the remnants of two German armies cut off in the Falaise pocket.

Throughout three days and nights of fierce fighting, Major Currie’s gallant conduct and contempt for danger set a magnificent example to all ranks of the force under his command.

On one occasion he personally directed the fire of his command tank on to a Tiger tank which had been harassing his position and succeeded in knocking it out. During another attack, while the guns of his command tank were taking on other targets of longer ranges, he used a rifle from the turret to deal with individual snipers who had infiltrated to within fifty yards of his headquarters. The only time reinforcements were able to get through to his force, he himself led the forty men forward into their positions and explained the importance of their task as a part of the defence. When, during the next attack, these new reinforcements withdrew under the intense fire brought down by the enemy, he personally collected them and led them forward into position again, where, inspired by his leadership they held for the remainder of the battle. His employment of the artillery support, which became available after his original attack went in, was typical of his cool calculation of the risks involved in every situation. At one time, despite the fact that short rounds were falling within fifteen yards of his own tank, he ordered fire from medium artillery to continue because of its devastating effect upon the attacking enemy in his immediate area.

Throughout the operation the casualties to Major Currie’s force were heavy. However, he never considered the possibility of failure or allowed it to enter the minds of his men. In the words of one of his non-commissioned officers, ‘We knew at one stage that it was going to be a fight to a finish but he was so cool about it, it was impossible for us to get excited’. Since all the officers under his command were either killed or wounded during the action, Major Currie had virtually no respite from his duties and in fact obtained only one hour’s sleep during the entire period. Nevertheless he did not permit his fatigue to become apparent to his troops and throughout the action took every opportunity to visit weapon pits and other defensive posts to talk to his men, to advise them as to the best use of their weapons and to cheer them with words of encouragement. When his force was finally relieved and he was satisfied that the turnover was complete he fell asleep on his feet and collapsed.

There can be no doubt that the success of the attack on and stand against the enemy at St. Lambert sur Dives can largely be attributed to this officer’s coolness, inspired leadership and skilful use of the limited weapons at his disposal.

The courage and devotion to duty shown by Major Currie during a prolonged period of heavy fighting were outstanding and had a far-reaching effect on the successful outcome of the battle.’

David Vivian Currie was born in Sutherland, Saskatchewan in July 1912 and educated at King George Public School, the Central Collegiate and Moose Jaw Technical School, serving in the Moose Jaw Cadet Corps from 1926 to 1928 and working for Patterson Motors as a mechanic and welder from 1930 until the outbreak of the Second World War. In 1939 he joined the militia, subsequently transferring to the Regular Army the following year in the rank of Lieutenant, shortly afterwards being promoted Captain and then Major in 1944 and Lieutenant Colonel in 1945, at which time his confidential report described him as being ‘inclined to be rather shy and retiring.’

The Battle of The Falaise Gap

Major David Currie landed in Normandy on 24 July 1944 in command of ‘C’ Squadron, South Alberta Regiment, tasked with helping to destroy the two German armies, the Fifth Panzer and Seventh Army, who were being pushed into a bottleneck by the tightening circle of Allied forces. This narrow escape route became known as the Falaise Gap and was the scene of the most appalling slaughter and destruction to the extent that it has been described as “the Stalingrad of Normandy".

Saturday 19 August 1944

By Saturday 19 August, the encirclement was almost complete with the only escape route being between Chambois and Trun. Situated between these two villages was the hamlet of St Lambert-sur-Dives through which the Germans were retreating. It fell to Major David Currie and his men of 'C' Squadron, equipped with Sherman tanks, to take St Lambert and thus seal the German's escape route. Currie related what happened over the next three days in his report of the action:

‘In the early hours, just before first light, on Friday 18 August, we (C Squadron) arrived at our designated area, somewhere north of Trun, on high ground overlooking the Dives valley. Our normal strength would be nineteen tanks. On this particular day, we were fifteen tanks strong, which means 75 men (five men per tank)…
As the sun rose, and we were able to reconnoitre our position and carry out our reconnaissance role we found that we had a wonderful panoramic view of the Dives Valley. In the distance, we could see the rising clouds of dust and on closer examination by field glasses, found we were witnessing, what we later found out to be the remnants of the German Forces in France trying to escape the pocket. The columns were about three to four miles from our location and seemed to consist of every kind of vehicle, gun, tank and horse-drawn equipment that the German Army possessed.’


Having reported his observations to HQ, Currie was ordered by the Commanding Officer to move his squadron, together with B Company, the Canadian Highlanders, whose ranks had been reduced to about 55 all ranks, to take and occupy St Lambert-sur-Dives. Furthermore, this small force would be without immediate artillery support.

‘The assignment given us by the Colonel was to take the village of St Lambert-sur-Dives; and from a study of the map, I could see this was placing us squarely in front of the vast array of the German forces that we had been watching for most of the day. The Colonel also stressed the importance of this task in relation to the whole campaign and indicated that the German withdrawal had to be stopped I remember saying to myself, “Well, Dave, up to now this has been a pretty good war, but this is it!"

Rejoining his squadron, he outlined the situation and plan of attack to his officers. Then, over the intercom, he told his men what was expected of them, that they were to stay in position and not retreat and that they were likely to be killed. Unanimously, the reaction was ‘OK, Boss!’

At about 6pm, Currie's force started out of Trun and advanced on St Lambert, just over a mile distant. With No.1 Troop (4 tanks) leading followed by Squadron HQ (3 tanks and a first aid vehicle) and Nos.2 & 3 Troops with the infantry riding on the backs of the Shermans. It had been decided that the tanks would lead the attack and, when the village had been penetrated, send in the infantry. Almost immediately, they ran into fire, and not only that of the enemy, which showed how confused the situation had become. The Polish Armoured Division on the left flank opened fire on the leading tank, until Currie went across to remonstrate. Just as the lead tank entered St Lambert, it was hit by fire from a German 88mm. At the same moment, the tanks of Squadron HQ were attacked by two RAF Spitfires, which set the rear of Currie's tank alight. Four men were wounded and the ambulance was put out of action.

Having organised the evacuation of the wounded and a replacement for the destroyed ambulance, Currie walked to St Lambert to see to the crew of the leading tank and to remove the wounded. Leaving the tanks on the edge of St Lambert, Currie used the cover of dusk to reconnoitre the village and to find the 88mm gun. The River Dive ran through the centre and prevented any flanking movement of this troublesome gun. Although he heard German voices coming from some of the houses, he didn’t run into anyone. Returning to No.1 Troop, he had them pull back two hundred yards and asked permission to use the infantry in a night attack, but this was refused by the Colonel. Instead, a watchful and uneventful night was spent on the outskirts.

Attack

At first light, Currie put in an attack on the village.

‘We lost our lead tank, but this time we located the opposition. We were up against a Tiger tank and a Mk IV tank. We got about one-quarter of the way down the main street. Shortly afterward, my own command tank was able to knock out the Mk IV tank. The boys made sure it was on fire before they stopped firing. The Tiger tank was put out of commission by the supporting infantry, who had worked their way down the street through the houses. They shot two of the crew and put a grenade into the turret, which finished off the rest of the crew. We were then in possession of about two-thirds of the village.

Up to that time, I had lost two officers; one wounded the preceding evening by our own Air Force planes and one who leaned out of his tank to wave in some Germans waving a white flag. One of them shot him through the chest and, though badly wounded, he survived.


During the rest of Saturday, the fighting was bitter and at one point late in the afternoon the tanks were running around in circles firing (machine guns) to keep the Germans from climbing on top of them. At this point, I was able to get some artillery support. They laid down a barrage on our own position. I had warned everybody to get under cover. I had expected that the support would be from 18 pounders, but instead it was from 4.5 in. guns. The fire from 18 pounders has very little effect on tanks but a 4.5 in. gun can easily knock out a tank. We were lucky and suffered no casualties, but it had a very devastating effect on the Germans and gave us a much needed respite, as the tanks were running low on ammunition.

Late in the day, we were able to get ammunition up from our supply column. It was brought up in armoured vehicles. The tanks came in to Headquarters area from their positions one at a time and were refuelled and loaded with ammunition.

Pressure from the Germans mounted again near dark and, as we were pretty well spread out, I was afraid that we might be chopped up piecemeal. I decided to draw the force in tighter for the night, so we gave up part of the village. All weapons were given fixed lines of fire, to cover all approaches, and everyone was warned to stay put for the night and under cover. During the night, there was considerable firing and no one got much sleep. In the morning, we found that we had inflicted a considerable number of casualties on the Germans during the night.’


Sunday 20 August 1944

‘With the coming of daylight, the attacks started to intensify but, on this the second full day, we started to take a few prisoners; we got the feeling that some Germans wanted to give up but that the majority still wanted to fight. We were still under shell fire, which had been pretty steady from the time we arrived in St Lambert.’

Currie lost a further three officers wounded and had a narrow escape himself.

‘Late in the morning, I was talking to the Captain and Lieutenant of the supporting infantry, when one of the crew of my tank called to me that the Colonel wished to speak to me on the radio. I had just climbed into the tank, when in came an 88mm HE shell. When I finished talking to the Colonel and was back on the ground, I found that both officers had been killed by the shell. This meant that, at this stage, all my officers were out of action.’

During the afternoon, there was a lull in the fighting and more Germans surrendered. Amongst them was a doctor, who Currie used to treat the wounded prisoners in a first-aid post that had been established in one of the houses. As soon as they had about fifty prisoners, they picked a captive officer or NCO to take them back to the Canadian lines to a POW area. As he could not spare any escorts for these prisoners, Currie placed one of the tanks in a prominent position to watch that the prisoners did as they were ordered. In this way, the unescorted prisoners marched into captivity.

‘In the evening, we noticed that the Germans were apparently preparing for another major assault on our position. We spotted an 88mm ground gun and a Mk IV tank moving into position about 400 yards from our HQ. We immediately opened fire, using eight tanks firing armoured piercing and HE shells. One of the first shots hit the 88mm gun. It must have hit the ammunition carrier as there was a tremendous explosion. One large piece of white hot metal about 5 inches in diameter came down right in our location.

There were a number of large buildings and apparently the Germans had massed behind them in preparation for this attack. We fired through these buildings using armour-piercing shells. We fired about 100 rounds and stopped We could hear cries and hollering, but there was no attack. We had apparently discouraged any further plans for attack at that moment.’

The third night was relatively quiet and Currie visited the Regimental HQ to report to the Colonel. After his return to St Lambert, Currie was standing outside the Squadron HQ beside the road at about 3 am. A tank was heard approaching from their own lines and passed so close that Currie could have reached out and touched it. ‘We did not know for sure if it was a German tank or one of our own. As it passed down the street, it came between us and a burning building. We could then see that it was a German Mk IV tank. We put a shot into the motor compartment, which set the tank on fire.’

Monday 21 August 1944

Dawn brought a change in the situation and the Canadians could sense that the end was in sight. There was only sporadic firing and more and more prisoners were surrendering.

‘During the day we continued to take prisoners and pass them back to our Headquarters. The fight had apparently gone out of the enemy. When night came, I was able to get some sleep. This was my first sleep for three days.’

The following day, C Squadron was ordered to move on and aid in the pursuit of the Germans.

‘So ended St Lambert. We had arrived early in the morning and three days later left in the morning. We had been sorely tried by the Germans and for many, this was their last fight. The men had been asked to take on incredible odds, and while at times I am sure they were all afraid, I know I was, every last man did the job asked of him, without complaint, even though the situation seemed hopeless. And I know that they all felt it.

When we came to St Lambert, it was a neat small quiet French village, and when we left, it was a fantastic mess. The clutter of equipment, dead horses, wounded, dying and dead Germans had turned it into a hell hole. It seems incredible that such devastation could be wrought in such a short space of time!’

Victoria Cross

Major Currie’s Victoria Cross was announced in the London Gazette of 27 November 1944, by which time the squadron that he was commanding had advanced as far as Holland. He was quickly rushed to London, hitching a ride across the English Channel on a motor torpedo boat, receiving his V.C. from the hands of the King at an investiture at Buckingham Palace on 30 November, still dressed in his battle dress, scuffed shoes and tank overalls. Following the investiture he was given extended leave and returned to Toronto, where he was reunited with his wife and son who he had not seen for three years. The ‘shy and retiring’ Currie was much in demand by the press during this period and compelling newsreel footage of him and radio and interviews fortunately still survive which can be accessed on the internet through the following URLs.

http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/1944-major-david-currie-battles-in-normandy-wins-vc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qd9Oq07eugU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rgGePRUvLcI

Post-War

After the war Currie worked for eight years in Baie Comeau, Quebec as an equipment superintendent at a paper company, before moving to Montreal in 1953 to work for a manufacturing company of which he became vice-president. In 1959 Prime Minister John Diefenbaker appointed him Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons, in which role he remained until 1978 and was also vice-chairman (overseas) of the Victoria Cross and George Cross Association from 1968 until the time of his death. The gallant Currie died in Ottawa on 20 June 1986, aged 73, leaving behind him his wife of more than 50 years, Isabel, a son, David and a daughter, Brenda. He was buried in Owen Sound, Ontario and two years later the Moose Jaw Armoury was named after him in his honour.

Sold with an original typed and signed letter from Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds. Commanding, 2nd Canadian Corps, dated 23 November 1944: ‘I am very pleased to know that the courageous and effective manner in which you led your troops in action at St Lambert Sur Dives has been given the recognition it so well deserves.’ Together with various newspaper cuttings; original program for the dedication of the armoury at Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan on 12 June 1988 in Currie’s honour; typed report by Currie on the action at St Lambert-sur-Dives; copied photographs, detailed service papers, etc.