True North Strong – Meet 12 of Canada’s Most Celebrated War Heroes

Canada may be seen by the world as something of a peaceable kingdom, but it has a surprisingly rich military history. As the country marks its 150th anniversary this weekend, MHN explores some of the Great White North’s most famous (and not-so-famous) war heroes.
(Image source: WikiCommons)

“To write Canada off as a nation of pacifists would be a mistake; its citizens have often been quick to answer the call.”

CANADA IS NOT a nation that was forged in war. Unlike the United States, its independence was won at a conference table, not on a battlefield.

Canadians take pride in their country’s reputation as a peacekeeper. Most of its post-war leaders have pursued a foreign policy that emphasizes conflict resolution through international cooperation rather than the use of force.

Yet, to write Canada off as a nation of pacifists would be a mistake; its citizens have often been quick to answer the call.

Even before Confederation, Canada’s earliest settlers were frequently forced to do battle in bitter frontier conflicts that pitted armies of colonists against European adversaries, as well as hostile natives. After achieving nationhood, the Canada’s sons and daughters acquitted themselves with distinction in both World Wars. Canadian troops were among the first to be gassed in the trenches of the First World War and would go on to achieve international renown at the battles of Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge. A generation later, Canada’s pilots fought in the Battle of Britain, its sailors helped win control of the Atlantic and its soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy.

Not surprisingly, the country won high praise from allies — and even some of its enemies.

“Never has [Britain] held Canada in higher esteem than in the last five years of bitter conflict,” said Winston Churchill in 1945.

Irwin Rommel reportedly had even higher acclaim.

“Give me American supply lines, British planes, German officers and Canadian troops, and I can take over the world,” the Desert Fox supposedly once remarked.

So, with Canada celebrating its 150th anniversary as a nation on July 1, MHN is marking the occasion with this tribute to a dozen outstanding Canadians from military history.

The 1660 Battle of Long Sault was New France’s version of the Alamo. The hero of the story is a 25-year-old militia commander named Adam Dollard des Ormeaux (Image source: WikiCommons)

Adam Dollard des Ormeaux

France’s foothold in what would eventually become Canada was anything but secure in 1660. English and Dutch colonies to the south posed a constant threat and Iroquois raids had terrorized New France for years. Now with reports of a massive war party poised to descend onto the remote outpost of Montreal, a 25-year-old militia officer named Adam Dollard des Ormeaux set out from the settlement by canoe in April with a party of 17 militiamen to disrupt the enemy’s plans. By May, the group had paddled west up the Ottawa River into the heart of Iroquois territory. Joined by about 40 of France’s Huron allies, Dollard and his troops erected a small wooden palisade at a spot known as Long Sault. But before the stockade could be completed, 700 Iroquois attacked the expedition. For the next five days, the French and Huron inflicted crippling casualties on the Iroquois before finally being overrun and slaughtered to a man. Popular legend holds that Dollard’s doomed yet spirited defence took much of the fight out of the Iroquois, thereby saving Montreal from the tomahawk. New France would flourish for the next hundred years, but would eventually fall to the British during the Seven Years War.

Two Canadian icons: British general Isaac Brock and the native chief Tecumseh. (Image source: Library and Archives Canada)

Tecumseh

Sir Isaac Brock is rightly remembered as the saviour of Canada for his actions in the early months of the War of 1812. Yet many would argue that the British major general might not have succeeded in pushing back the first American invasion war without the help of native allies like Tecumseh. The Shawnee chief had longed dreamed of an independent homeland for his people within present day Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. But facing increasing encroachment by American settlers, Tecumseh saw the English as natural allies. When conflict between the United States and Britain broke out on the frontier, the 44-year-old chief volunteered the men of his powerful native confederacy to side with King George. Brock was immediately taken with Tecumseh. “A more sagacious or gallant warrior does not I believe exist,” the general wrote. Together the two defeated a U.S. invasion force and captured the strategically vital fortress of Detroit. Brock died in action at Niagara that autumn; Tecumseh was killed in at the Battle of Thames River in Upper Canada the following year. Although the the vision of an independent native nation was never realized, Tecumseh’s efforts helped protect Canada from American annexation.

Laura Secord walked 20 miles through the Niagara wilderness with news of an American attack. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Laura Secord

Paul Revere saved America’s 13 Colonies with his famous Midnight Ride; Laura Secord did the same for Canada, although she carried her famous warning of an enemy attack on foot. A resident of the border town of Queenston, the 37-year-old mother of five reportedly overheard American officers billeted in her cottage as they planned an assault on British forces camped at the nearby DeCew farm. According to the story, Secord scaled the Niagara escarpment and crossed 20 miles of wilderness to raise the alarm. After learning that the enemy was on the march, the British intercepted the invaders and dealt them a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Beaver Dams. Following the war, Secord lived in destitute obscurity, her exploits largely unknown. But by the 1830s, word of her courage began to spread, thanks in part to written depositions from retired captain James Fitzgibbon, commander of the King’s forces at Beaver Dams. While historians have parsed the details of her account, much of which has been uncorroborated, Secord is celebrated as a national heroine in Canada. For more than 100 years, her name and likeness have been the brand of the country’s leading chocolatier and her homestead in 1813 has been preserved as a popular Niagara Region historic site.

 

How many Canadians know the story of the Torontonian who took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade? (Image source: WikiCommons)

Canada’s first VC

A total of 94 Canadians have won the Victoria Cross, the British Empire’s highest award for bravery. But the first to have one pinned on his chest was Toronto’s Alexander Roberts Dunn. The 21-year old cavalry officer, who fought in the Crimean War, was part of the famous Charge of the Light Brigade during the 1854 Battle of Balaclava. Dunn earned his commendation for riding to the rescue of a comrade who was fending off an attack by three Russian lancers. According to his fellow hussars, young Alexander dispatched the assailants with his sabre and then struck down another enemy soldier moments later. After receiving his VC from Queen Victoria, he transferred to the infantry where he was posted to the Prince of Wales’ Royal Canadian Regiment of Foot and later to the Duke of Wellington’s own 33rd. In fact, he became first Canadian to ever command a regiment of the British army. In 1868, Dunn, now a colonel, deployed to Ethiopia to fight in the Abyssinian campaign. He died in a hunting mishap before he could see action. His grave, in modern day Eritrea, was largely forgotten until 2001 when Canadian soldiers on a UN Peacekeeping mission in the region discovered and restored it.

You’ll never imagine what a trio of Canadian First World War VC recipients all had in common. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The heroes of Pine Street

Amazingly, the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba was home to a trio of soldiers who performed three separate acts of bravery during the First World War, each one earning a Victoria Cross. Remarkably, they all lived on the same city block, known as Pine Street, before enlisting. Sergeant Major Frederick Hall earned his commendation in 1915 when he repeatedly darted out into No Man’s Land to retrieve wounded soldiers during the Second Battle of Ypres. He was shot and killed during one of the forays. Corporal Lionel Clarke won a VC for capturing a German trench during the 1916 Battle of Flers-Courcelette. Despite his own wounds and the loss of his entire section to enemy fire, the 24-year-old railway worker single-handedly stormed and held the position in the face of furious resistance. He was killed in action the following month. Finally, there was Lieutenant Robert Shankland, who during the 1917 Battle of Passchendaele, led an attack on the German lines. When his unit was cut off, Shankland retired to the rear and brought up reinforcements and then pressed the stalled attack deeper into enemy territory. In 1925, the city of Winnipeg renamed Pine Street to Valour Road to honour the avenue’s three heroic former residents.

Billy Bishop. (Image source: Library and Archives of Canada)

The Lone Hawk

Not all of Canada’s First World War heroes fought in the trenches; some, like Billy Bishop, did battle among the clouds. With 72 kills to his name, the Royal Military College graduate and native of Owen Sound, Ontario would become the British Commonwealth’s top flying ace of World War One. Only Germany’s Baron Manfred von Richthofen, with 80 victories, and France’s René Fonck, with 75, scored higher. During his most celebrated mission, a June 2, 1917 solo strike on a German aerodrome, Bishop claimed to have swooped down the enemy airfield at dawn strafing several planes on the ground while destroying at least three aircraft that scrambled to intercept him. The attack earned the 22-year-old flier the VC, despite regulations requiring all recipients have their heroism confirmed by eye witnesses. By May of 1918, Bishop was the leading Allied ace of the war. Amazingly, during the final summer of the conflict, the brass pulled him from frontline service — the high command didn’t want the Lone Hawk to end up dead like Germany’s Red Baron. He left France on June 19, claiming a final five kills during his last patrol that very morning. In the decades following the war, some historians disputed Bishop’s war record, arguing that the majority of his victories were never verified and possibly exaggerated. Worse, some have pointed out that no German reports have ever been found to confirm that his famous single-plane raid on the enemy airfield ever took place. Despite this, Bishop’s exploits electrified the country at a critical phase of the war. Even to this day, the Lone Hawk remains a legend in Canada. His wartime exploits are the focus of a popular musical that’s performed annually on Remembrance Day, while streets, schools and even Toronto’s Island Airport bear his name.

Ernest Smith used a PIAT anti-tank gun to destroy a German panzer at terrifyingly close range, and then crippled another in a fierce firefight in Italy. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Close combat

Of the 16 Canadians who won Victoria Crosses in the Second World War, perhaps none were as colourful as Ernest “Smokey” Smith. Demoted on nine separate occasions for a range of infractions, the British Columbia native would one day be honoured for his bravery while fighting in the Allied campaign in Italy. On the night of Oct. 21, 1944, during an action on the River Savio, Smith single-handedly took out a Panther tank that had closed to within 30 feet of his squad’s position. Then, after repelling an attack by German infantry, he carried a wounded comrade to safety.

Ernest Smith. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Racing back into the fray, he crippled a second Panzer as his comrades knocked out three more tanks, along with a pair of self-propelled guns and a half-track. Smith’s reputation as a rabble-rouser preceded him when he travelled to London to receive his commendation. On the eve of his decoration by King George VI, the brass reportedly locked him in a jail cell to keep him from getting into mischief. But by 1945, Smith’s hell-raising days were over. He settled down after the war, got married and started a family. After leaving the army in 1964, he opened his own travel agency. In later life, Smith became the last living Canadian VC-recipient and a prominent advocate for veterans’ issues. He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1995 and was a special guest in 2000 during the Queen’s unveiling of Canada’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa. He died in 2005 at the age of 91.

The Canadian Peacekeeping Memorial in Ottawa. In 1956, future prime minister Lester B. Pearson was the driving force behind the UN military force. (Image source:

The world’s Peacemaker

Perhaps the greatest achievement of Canada’s 14th prime minister, Lester B. Pearson, came in the decade prior to his five-year stint as the head of government. In 1956, the First World War veteran turned diplomat was instrumental in the establishment of the United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF), the peacekeeping unit that was rushed to Egypt in 1956 to help restore calm in the wake of the Suez Crisis.

Lester B. Pearson. (Image source: WikiCommons)

By early 1957, more than 6,000 troops from 11 countries including Brazil, Canada, India and Norway were in the region to act as a buffer between Israel and Egypt, preventing further bloodshed. Pearson, who won the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, was praised at the time for having “saved the world.” The UNEF became the model for future UN peacekeeping missions. Since 1957, blue helmets have been deployed to nearly 70 global hotspots including Cyprus, Lebanon, Cambodia, Haiti, Angola, and the former Yugoslavia. Incidentally, in 1988 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to all UN Peacekeeping Forces everywhere.

A Canadian sniper, like those pictured here, recently made headlines for a record-breaking shot in the war against ISIS. (Image source: Canadian Department of National Defence)

Canadian Crack Shot

Just this month, headlines around the world told of yet another Canadian feat of arms. On June 21, Ottawa announced that a sniper serving in Iraq with the country’s top secret Joint Task Force 2 (JTF2) reportedly killed an ISIS insurgent from a record-breaking distance of more than 3,500 meters (or just over two miles). While Defence Department officials declined to reveal the name of the sharpshooter, they claimed that the shot, which was taken from atop an apartment building in an undisclosed city, helped break up an Islamic State attack on friendly security forces operating in the area. “Instead of dropping a bomb that could potentially kill civilians,” said a statement from the Canadian military, “it is a very precise application of force.” The bullet reportedly took 10 seconds to reach its target. “Because it was so far way, the bad guys didn’t have a clue what was happening,” the source reported.

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