As another anniversary of the landing on the beaches of Normandy in 1944 is marked on the calendar, we should pause to remember some of those men who showed remarkable courage on that day but have since been forgotten. Sixty five men received immediate awards for valour under fire on Juno Beach: 53 to men of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, 7 to those in the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, and 3 to the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.
Lance-Sergeant Walter Douglas Armstrong of the Regina Rifles is one of those who showed great determination as he faced his first test of combat. Despite heavy machine gun fire on the beach, he crawled forward until he located the enemy position that was pinning his unit down. Then he led two of his riflemen to clear out the enemy weapon trench, which allowed his company to move forward into one of their objectives, a building on the battalion’s flank. Armstrong was wounded in the leg during this advance, but did not reveal his injury when asked if he had been hit. After taking out a German light machine gun position, he then crawled back to his company under fire, pin-pointed another machine gun position and then crawled to a position when he could support his unit with fire while it did a flanking movement against further enemy opposition. Armstrong remained commanding his men, leading them forward, until later in the day he finally was ordered to go back to the beach dressing section for medical attention by his company commander. It was men like Lance-Sergeant Armstrong that ensured the Canadians captured their objectives on Juno Beach that day and advanced inland
The chapter entitled "The Great War" in Courage Rewarded covers the experiences of Canadian soldiers in the First World War, describing how they found courage to overcome fear in dreadful conditions of combat. The excerpt below deals with the Battle of Vimy Ridge in particular:
The bombardment opened up on March 27 and gradually increased in intensity until the morning of April 9. At 0530, the final bombardment began and, as the troops rose and marched up the slope, it rolled ahead of them, smashing German trenches and artillery positions. The Germans were blinded by a driving wind, with snow and sleet, and by mid-afternoon all objectives had been taken except for two strongpoints on high ground. All the same, it had been a bitter battle, as Donald Ross of the 87th Battalion described it:
"I was shot going across no-man’s land. Despite my wound, I managed to get into the enemy’s trench with the rest. Instead of finding our battalion on our right and left we found the enemy…. A terrific battle followed. My rifle, which held 10 rounds, was soon emptied, and as we were too close-quarter to reload I had to use my bayonet, which broke shortly, and then made a club of my rifle.
While the Canadian soldiers had carried out their task firmly and courageously, they had not done it with the same romantic vision that they had in 1915. Even in victory, the Canadian Corps still lost almost11,000 men killed or wounded in seven days on the Ridge. Lieutenant Claude Williams later wrote that “none of us have lost our nerve, but the novelty has worn off, we have seen too much of the shady side of fighting to love it for the mere sake of adventure. When called upon we are cheerfully ready to do anything we are told but do not feel the same wild enthusiasm as formerly. We are all steadied and sobered up.”
Some, however, felt that they had had enough after Vimy: Donald Ross wrote, “I believe I am beginning to show the white feather. I have finished writing to Captain Troop to see if he can find me a job here in England… When we went over the top at Vimy we had 900 [officers and men]. When counted going out they had 121 officers and men. So you can imagine what it was like.
The men of the Canadian Corps, however, were now battle-hardened veterans after having survived the experiences of 1916, and their fatalistic attitude helped stiffen the resolve of the new replacements. According to Captain John MacGregor of the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion, “most of my section had been with me on the Somme; we were fatalists; if we were going to stop one, so be it."
The completeness and swiftness of the victory was stunning, more so perhaps in comparison with the meagre gains of 1916. The British historian Richard Holmes has written that “the capture of Vimy Ridge remains to this day a remarkable feat of arms. It represents a triumph of co-ordination, preparation and sheer courage.” Among the gallantry decorations later awarded for this battle, four Canadian soldiers would receive the Victoria Cross.
The next day, all the major Canadian newspapers trumpeted the story, in colourful language that would initiate the pattern in which this military accomplishment would be seen for years ahead. The Vancouver Sun wrote, “Historic Achievement of Canada’s Soldiers was in Conformity with Past Record.” The Nottingham Guardian stated that “Canadian valour will stand out as in imperishable addition to the glory of the gallant colonials.” And the New York Times published that the battle would be “in Canada’s history, one of the great days, a day of glory to furnish inspiration to her sons for generations.”
My visit to Pembroke on November 19 to sign copies of Combat Mission Kandahar was great. I sold some books and I had many interesting discussions in the Pembroke Mall with passers-by, not only with local residents but also with members of the military who live in Pembroke or were in town from CFB Petawawa. I was quite pleased that some of the presently-serving soldiers, who I am sure know Afghanistan better than me, wanted to buy the book. I think they felt that, by publishing Combat Mission Kandahar, the mission was not forgotten.
These meetings impressed on me how the small town of Pembroke is really influenced by the base. On later reflection, however, it seemed that something other than the theme of my book was often and surprisingly turning up in the discussions - that is, how the daily lives of many in Petawawa are affected by PTSD. I had avoided writing about PTSD because it is such an enormous and complex subject on its own; but a number of those people stopping at my table readily raised the subject. I now wonder whether the problem is really more prevalent than we are led to believe as we continue to see it on TV or read about it in newspapers. From my unscientific observation from this book signing, I have come to guess that it is more pervasive than acknowledged. It seems that many people around Pembroke/Petawawa clearly have it on their minds, living with it or knowing someone with it.
Right at the start, one woman told me that her husband, who had been in the Special Forces, has PTSD; despite that, her daughter is presently going into boot camp as a new recruit. The person who impressed me the most however was a young woman who came up to my table near the end of the afternoon. Pretty, well-dressed, smiling, she did not come to talk about the book. She calmly talked about her husband and how she had to deal with his PTSD. My part of the conversation was awkward as I was unsure what she expected me to say. But I was sympathetic and tried to reply as best as I could. She was not complaining but just talked for a few minutes. It was only later that I came to think that she did not want any grand statements from me, no sympathy; she just knew I was there and was interested, and she wanted to talk to someone about it. Thinking about it later, I believed I could have been a better listener and asked more questions, but I hope I helped in some small way.
Combat Mission Kandahar has been launched - not into space but geographically across Canada. Although my new book was released in early August, it finally had its official Launch on September 18 at the Black Squirrel Books & Cafe in Ottawa. The Black Squirrel is a small but friendly bookstore in the older part of Ottawa South, a nice place to enjoy a friendly and informal gathering to get things going. A highlight of the night was the attendance of one of the soldiers featured in the book, Franck Dupere, who impressed the audience with his answers to many questions asked of him. It was obvious that the people attending were very eager to better understand what Afghanistan meant to him and how his positive attitude to life still keeps him strong despite his permanent injuries.
Perhaps oversimlifying it, I wrote Combat Mission Kandahar because of curiosity.
I have been curious about military history since I can remember. My sense of history is especially attracted to what is happening now. When Canada was drawn into warfare in Afghanistan, I sensed that this was history in the making. I had to find out everything I could about what was going on there, about what our soldiers were facing, and what they were doing about it.
The mission in Kandahar is today’s reality. But it is unwritten reality, not clearly documented. Parts of the mission have been well described by some journalists in scattered snapshots. A handful of books give a more complete but still limited picture (the best that comes to mind are Contact Charlie, Kandahar Tour, The Patrol, and Fighting for Afghanistan). But all this still reveals only small segments of the whole picture.
What Canadian troops did in Kandahar remains shrouded in the Fog of War – with the “Fog” meaning there is no overall authoritative account describing what happened between 2006 and 2011.
The Department of National Defence (DND) is working on an official history but such histories take a long time to produce and it will still be only the “official” version.
I was lured by the challenger of clearing away part of this cloud, and throwing some light on this missing history. But finding the pieces of the puzzle and putting them tougher was a real task. No official records of any substance are available to the public. I did receive some war diaries through Access to Information from DND; however all but the most trivial entries had been redacted out. Much of my initial understanding came from journalists who provided pieces of the puzzle which explain some events, with Brian Hutchinson and Murray Brewster standing out (although many others also contributed significantly). The source that finally put many pieces of the full picture together was Carl Forsberg of the Institute for the Study of War and his reports, The Taliban’s Campaign for Kandahar and Power and Politics in Kandahar. In these documents, Forsberg explains what was going on in this strategic province better than anyone else in the public sphere.
Of course, the soldiers whom I interviewed provided me with useful information about what happened during their deployment. As part of these interviews, however, two officers stand out because of the special effort they made to help me understand the dynamics of their rotation. One was Dean Tremblay who commanded the RCD’s D Squadron in the Shah Wali Kot in 2008. He went over every word in Chapter 5 with a fine-tooth comb. The other officer, who I am most indebted to, is Alain Gauthier who was commanding officer of the first Van Doos battle group to be deployed to Kandahar. He readily invited me to sit down with him while he explained, with great courtesy and thoroughness, what his unit had done in 2007.
Understanding the combat mission, however, was not the only purpose for writing this book. The other reason was to help Canadians understand and remember what their soldiers did in Afghanistan.The Canadian public and their military’s attention is now focused on other conflicts, where the world seems more threatening than it has been in many decades. A new Canadian mission has committed substantial troops to a battle group in Latvia and this will undoubtedly be the new focus for years to come. It is therefore important to capture memories of Afghanistan before these fade.
I also wrote this book for a personal reason. I was very fortunate to find seven soldiers who were willing to patiently answer my many questions – questions from a civilian whose military experience ended fifty years earlier and was not familiar with the difference between a C7 and C9 weapon, knew little about explosive ordnance removal, and was especially ignorant about the meaning of Psychological Operations. Once these men had agreed to meet with me and lay out their very personal experiences, I felt compelled to complete this book to justify the trust they had shown in talking to me.
Finally, in the end, this book is meant to give credit to all those soldiers who made that long difficult trip from Canada to Kandahar Air Base, where they unhesitatingly carried out their duties under harsh living conditions while facing serious injury or death daily. Above all, I hope this book helps Canadians to continue to remember those of our citizens, military and civilian, who still struggle to live with injuries or who did not come back.
The wooden cross at KAF, which reads “We Remember/Nous Nous Souvenons,” reflects this unwritten dedication.
With no military records about Afghanistan available to the public, the only way to understand what happened there is to interview soldiers who deployed. Writing my book Combat Mission Kandahar was therefore a challenge because not all soldiers want to talk about their experiences By using many different contacts, however, I finally found seven soldiers who were willing to do that.
I was fortunate in finding these seven who agreed to be interviewed and who make up the main chapters of my book. Based on the interviews, I think they had a sense that the public should know about what the Canadians had done there. It’s also likely that answering my questions provided some cathartic relief. At least they knew, from the interest I showed, that someone cared. The experiences of these soldiers were all quite different because they had had completely different roles in Afghanistan. As a result, by the end, I could sense a different tone in each interview that fascinated me and that helped me understand the person I was interviewing a bit better.
Here are three examples.
For Richard Stacey the tone that stood out was that of duty and responsibility. That was as expected since he was a Master Warrant Officer looking after all the men and women under his command. He admitted anxiety when his column had been ambushed on the Arghandab River, but his first priority had always been the care of those under him – regardless of whether they had been Canadian, American, or Afghan. During my interviews with him, I was impressed by the courtesy with which he treated me, and the sharp, decisive mind he seemed to exhibit when recalling every detail about Afghanistan. I believe it would have been a great comfort to serve under him in any dangerous circumstance, with his attitude reflected in his words: “I never once thought about dying. It’s not about me. It’s about my soldiers!”
Franck Dupéré, on the other hand, impressed me with his overall enthusiastic and positive attitude about his tour and indeed life in general. He displayed no regrets, even after being severely wounded by a suicide bomber. Today, his right arm and hand remain weak and I just found out that he recently lost his right eye despite attempts by medical specialists to save it. I could only describe his attitude as that of joie de vivre as he continues to seek new challenges despite all handicaps. Most amazingly, after recovering from his wounds he joined the True Patriot Love expedition to climb a mountain in the Himalayas; that only whetted his appetite and he has just returned from a solo climb of Mount Kilimanjaro. He is the ultimate example of resilience, as shown in his words: “Life is so short. There’s two ways to see it. Either you see the good way or bad – it’s your choice. I still have one arm, one eye, so I can still see my kids growing. I still have one hand; I can touch them, put them to bed.”
Rob Peel seemed to have landed in an ideal job for his aptitudes when he became a mentor to the Afghan National Army after arriving in Afghanistan. During our interviews, he showed a strong natural empathy towards the Afghans, readily accepting the differences between their culture and our Western way of life. This empathy showed up first even before he deployed, as he took the initiative to seek out books on Afghan history and culture. As he explained to me, “There was always going to be issues with the Afghans – as there are issues with the Canadian Forces too. But they are different than we are. And us applying our model to them and expecting results in a mere five years since their army was created is extremely unfair. They have different values and a different culture.”
I could go on in equal detail about what the tone I sensed from the words used by the other interviewees, each unique in their own way. Looking back at all these men and my talks with them, the overall impression I am left with is that they are really representative of the majority of soldiers sent to Afghanistan, who must be considered to have been part of the most professional force ever deployed by Canada on an overseas combat campaign.
I have not thought about Leo for a long time but the request took me back over twenty years ago when I first made contact with him for an article I wanted to write. I had come across the citation for his first award which stated that he had single-handedly liberated the town of Zwolle in the Netherlands. I naturally found this amazing. Leo replied to my requests readily in his characteristic enthusiastic manner, writing “anybody who is interested to talk about the Third Division is a friend of mine.” In the coming weeks, Leo wrote to me several times, elaborating on his remembrances of what he did in the Second World War and in Korea, and passing on to me some press clippings of his visits to Zwolle where he became an honoured visitor many times after 1960. This resulted in my article in Canadian Military History Journal in 1996, http://scholars.wlu.ca/cmh/vol5/iss1/11.
Leo’s story seems to have had some kind of revival in recent years, as shown by a Google search which comes up with a multitude of entries including some YouTube videos. Unfortunately, I found some of these exaggerated and inaccurate: one has called Leo “the real Rambo;” another said he was “the most badass war machine in World War 2;” or a Wikipedia entry which implies he held off two Chinese divisions totally 14,000 men in the Korean War! While I find these claims irritating, I have to admit that Leo’s record was outstanding and he deserves to be remembered.
Some of Leo’s exploits were so unusual that I regret to say that, as a chronic cynic, I had trouble believing him at first. His eyesight had been damaged in Normandy. With that, how was he was able to continue through the rest of the campaign? But even more so, how was he accepted into the Canadian Special Force for the Korean War - while receiving a 20% disability pension? But one of his officers in Korea confirmed this as true – he got through the enlistment medical with the influence of LCol Jacques Dextraze, wore a patch over his bad eye in Korea, and qualified as a sniper with this other eye!
Was he courageous? All his officers gave him credit for that. Platoon leader Charly Forbes described Leo as being “sloppy in his dress, perhaps the typical French Canadian voyageur ...generally very social, certainly not a parade sergeant. Very comfortable in his job - and fearless!” Company commander Armand Ross perhaps said it best by writing that “Leo possessed a high degree of the ideal qualities of a member of the scout platoon, i.e., bravery, initiative and dependable in combat. It would have been preferable if he had a greater sense of discipline outside the battlefield. However, too much discipline may come in conflict with personal initiative.” It is probably no surprise that, after having been promoted to corporal in England, Leo committed some disciplinary indiscretions and was demoted back to private. But on the battlefield, his commanding officers in both wars looked to him when a particularly difficult job had to be done.
Unfortunately, Leo passed away in 2008. I now wish I had dropped writing the article at that time and carried on to interview Leo in depth, to write a full book on his experiences. In any case, I am glad that at least the memory of this courageous Canadian is still alive.
Paul Gross has done a good job in creating a film on the Canadian combat mission in Kandahar. (in my humble opinion). No, I have not been to Afghanistan; but I know enough about the mission that makes me believe Gross captured the essential elements enough to show Canadians what our soldiers were up against in Kandahar. It was a war where we were immersed in a strange culture, where your allies were sometimes your enemies, where we did not always understand the underlying motives, with a heavy responsibility to accomplish a very difficult task; and where “winning” could be hard to define.
You have to keep in mind that this is a dramatic film, not a documentary, so not all the pieces will line up with reality. But that’s the nature of film. However, the script is good – the plot moves ahead at a good pace with several threads that come together at the end. The main overall theme is the differing perceptions between intelligence officer Pete Mitchell (Paul Gross) and sniper team leader Warrant Office Ryan Sanders (Rossif Sutherland). For Sanders, it’s very simple: do your duty, kill the enemy, and get the job done. But Mitchell from his higher perch sees that the political effects of any action are more important than getting rid of the enemy in the gunsight. He tries to pass this message on to Sanders but this does not work out so well at a critical moment.
The tribal conflicts and Pashtun customs become the main dramatic tension in the background throughout as the plot develops. These become apparent at the outset as a Canadian sniper team is cornered by a Taliban force and they try to save themselves by bursting into a village compound for protection. The oldest Afghan in the resident family sees that the Canadians need help and accepts them as guests, despite the gunfire that is peppering the building. We are then introduced to the code of Pashtunwali as this dignified elder talks the Taliban into breaking off their attack and leaving the sniper team alive. Pashtunwali arises however in later incident without such a favourable ending: a farmer from one tribe cannot pay the levy on his property to the warlord owner (does he represent Ahmed Wali Karzai?); children are seized in recompense; this action violates the honour of the farmer’s extended family; and honour must be restored by violence. All reflect reality in Afghanistan.
Besides the script, the casting and photography are also strong. Poor casting often offsets other qualities in a film but, in this case, all the actors look and talk like what you would expect Canadian soldiers are like. Reality is emphasized by the use of realistic sets and equipment, certainly with cooperation from DND in Ottawa and PPCLI and others in Shilo. There are some fascinating shots of LAVs warming up in a FOB, and I really wonder how Gross accomplished one scene where his vehicle join a convoy of military supply trucks heading into Kandahar City. Some scenes were actually shot in Kandahar, but those were just establishing shots; while the more complex scenes with the actors were done in Jordan where the terrain was similar. Gross has to be given credit for managing to put all these pieces together, blending them seamlessly into a flowing story.
The most impressive contribution to reality however must come from one of the actors that Gross somehow managed to obtain. Niamatullah Arghandabi plays the role of a bearded, turbaned former mujahidin who earned a renowned reputation after fighting the Russians during their occupation of the country in the 1990s. The name of this character is unknown to the Canadians and, because he was always hard to corner, he has come to be known simply as “The Ghost.” In the plot, rumours reach Mitchell that the Ghost has returned to Kandahar from Pakistan and Pete seeks to find out why this fabled Afghan fighter has returned. Arghandabi plays this role perfectly, giving a calm, confident manner no matter what crisis is erupting around him, a picture of what one might imagine a proud, dignified Pashtun elder would be.
Sure the film can be criticized. But these are small details and the film overall is really a worthy effort in representing the main themes of what our soldiers experienced in Afghanistan.
Photojournalist Louie Palu has made a film that holds nothing back in showing the shock and horror of combat in Afghanistan. In his tours between 2006 and 2010, Louie made sure he was where the action was and, as a result, was able to capture dramatic footage. This is the source for his film that had its premier showing at the Canadian War Museum on Sept. 24, 2015. The film is really a kind of visual essay made up of both video and still photos designed to show what the war was like for everyone caught up in it. The extended scenes of combat at Pashmul, Nakhonay and one other location do not need narraative to powerfully convey the tension of soldiers moving frantically along a firing line with orders yelled above deafening noise, punctuated by air stirkes on enemy positions causing gigantic clouds of smoke and dust to rise high above. The scenes are both visually and aurally stunning.
Aside from these combat scenes, there are a number of segments which some audienes may find hard to watch. At the begining, Louie shows the results of a Taliban bomb emplanter who made a mistake. His bomb blew up prematurely, killing and dismembering him. The evidence of what this can do to a body is clearly shown in ugly detail. Later in the film, when embedded in a a US m,edical unit, Louise shows scenes of children who have been wounded, with medical technicians trantically tring to give them first aid while a medevac helicoper lands in clouds of dust.
Not all the film is set in Afghanistan. Louie also has visuals from Toronto where he attempts to show his own personal reactions on returning from a war zone to normal life, always difficult for those who have been in conflict.
Louie Palu made this film to help people in Canada and the US understand what the war was like, and to show to some extent why some returning soldiers have trouible leaving their experience behind. I think he has achieved his goal better than most other films dealing with combat that I have see. The fillm will be shown to the general public on October 6, 2015 at 9 p.m. on CBC's Documentary Channel.
The memories of that mission are quickly fading away in the public eye as new dangers arise in the world. My book is meant to preserve some of those memories, as I write about the experiences of seven soldiers who I think give a broad sample of what it was like to be deployed to Afghanistan. These men are a cross-section of the combat arms, including infantry, armour, combat engineers and the new specialty of psychological operations, all of which played important roles in fighting the Taliban. By telling their stories, I hope that their experiences will give readers an appreciation of what the combat mission meant to men and women who went outside the wire. They are
I was particularly pleased that Dundurn decided to publish my book because, ever since it began in 1972, it has had a focus on Canadian history and biography and has continually published books on Canadian military history. while it now publishes a broad range of titles on Canadian fiction and non-fiction, I feel my book falls well within its original purpose - helping to preserve Canadian history.
The book is expected to be published before Remembrance Day, 2016.
T. Robert Fowler, author, Canadian military history