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Charlie Byce DCM, MM - Canada's Most Decorated Native Soldier?

December 19 2006 at 7:20 AM
Terry Hunter 

Article by Peter Worthington. Would Canada still believe Tommy Prince is our most decorated native soldier or would Charlie Byce now be considered?

Terry Hunter
Oromocto (CFB Gagetown) NB

Toronto Sun, December 3, 2006

In the footsteps of the father


Charlie Byce, a Metis who died in 1994 at age 74, is largely unknown in Canada.

It’s a pity, for he was quite a man.

His mother was a Cree from Moose Factory and he was Canada’s most highly decorated Aboriginal soldier in World War II, winning the Military Medal (MM) for bravery and the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), second only to the Victoria Cross. Only nine Canadians, out of nearly a million in uniform in WWII, were awarded both a DCM and MM.

In the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree category, Byce’s father (also Charles) — a trapper/guide as a young man — also won the DCM, in World War I.

Not only that, his father also had an MM from WWI — not the British MM, but the Medaille Militaire — France’s second-highest bravery award, more respected than even the Croix de Guerre. Only 55 Canadians were awarded the French MM in WWI.

That the military record of the Byce father and son is barely known, even by military historians and the National War Museum — not to mention Aboriginal historians — is an unfortunate oversight.

When Charlie Byce returned to civilian life after WWII to work until retirement at the pulp and paper mill at Espanola, he put the war behind him.

His brother, Gordon, and Charlie’s six adult children want that rectified.

They feel the wartime heroism of the two Byces — unprecedented in military annals, as reflected in their medals — is something all Canadian should share.

Especially as a tribute to Aboriginal and Anglo heritage blending in a common cause.

Canada’s most famous Aboriginal soldier is Sgt. Tommy Prince, who died in 1977, and whom I ostensibly commanded in the latter days of the Korean war. Prince won the MM in Italy in WWII and a U.S. Silver Star while serving with the Americans in France. A Silver Star doesn’t approach the status of a DCM.

Francis Peghamagabow, an Objibwa from Parry Sound, won an MM and two bars as a sniper in World War I with 378 “kills” on his record and 300 prisoners — one of the most remarkable stories of World War I.

Another Aboriginal sniper, Henry Norwest, a free-spirited former rodeo rider, won the MM and bar in WWI and knocked off 115 Germans.

The above are all honoured in the War Museum — where, if there’s any justice and pride of country, the Byce father and son deserve a special alcove or presentation.

“Yes, we’d like to see my dad and granddad remembered,” says son Rick who served in the army, while his two brothers were air force and navy.

This sentiment is shared by Rick’s uncle Gordon, a retired Anglican minister and son of the WWI Byce, who died in 1957.

“My dad talked about the war more than my brother did,” says Gordon. “Charlie mostly talked about it when he was with those who’d served with him. He put the war behind him.”

I’ve mentioned the Byce medals to War Museum CEO Joe Geurts, who seemed surprised that a father and son had both won the DCM and MM. No other Canadian family holds this distinction. Likely no one in the world.

The National Aboriginal Veterans Association (NAVA) would also be interested in preserving the Byce medals, as would The Lake Superior Regiment museum in Thunder Bay. But the Byces’ wartime story is larger than a regimental museum and belongs to all Canadians.

The elder Byce earned his DCM at Amiens in 1918 when a company attack on German trenches was pinned down.

Although seriously wounded, Byce led a bayonet attack on a German machine gun post, killed those who resisted, and took 31 prisoners.

His son Charlie’s MM citation in WWII is testimony to leadership and courage.

On the night of Jan. 20, 1945, in Holland, Cpl. Byce’s section of five men was to cover the flank of a 24-man fighting patrol behind enemy lines.

The section came under fire from three sides, and “acting on his own initiative,” Byce located the source of the fire and attacked head-on using grenades and dispersed them.

He then came under fire from a camouflaged dugout, and again attacked and took a prisoner. Again, he came under fire that killed the prisoner whom Byce dragged out of the line of fire to obtain his unit identification.

While the main fighting patrol was attacked, Byce put in a flanking attack that killed or wounded all the Germans, and allowed the patrol to escape with few casualties.

The citation reads: “Due to his magnificent efforts, the patrol was able to reach its objective and withdraw safely with valuable information ... his aggressive initiative and unselfish gallantry has been an inspiration to all ranks.”

That’s Byce’s MM.

Six weeks later, at the Hochwald forest, “C” Company of the Lake Sups was ordered to take a group of buildings.

For those interested in what a recommendation for a VC looks like, despite being slightly downgraded to a DCM, here’s what Acting Sgt. Charlie Byce did that March 2, 1945.

“C” Company attacked at 4:30 a.m. and was on the position at first light when intense enemy artillery and mortar fire knocked out their supporting tanks.

The company commander and all officers became casualties, so Sgt. Byce assumed command.

With the enemy entrenched 75 metres away, directing heavy fire on his platoon, Byce personally led an attack on the position and drove the enemy out, while suffering some 20 casualties. Byce moved from post to post, directing fire, reassuring the troops, maintaining contact.

When German Tiger tanks, with their deadly 88 mm guns, prepared to attack, Byce took the only remaining PIAT anti-tank gun and stalked them. His first two shots missed and, as machine-gun fire rained on him, he calmly took aim and knocked out the leading Tiger. The crew were shot as they scrambled out.

As four other tanks moved forward, Byce sought to get in position but was held up by fire from a farmhouse — which he immediately attacked and cleared with hand grenades. Having no anti-tank ammunition, he ordered his men to let the tanks pass through, then opened fire on the infantry coming behind and forced them to retreat.

With tanks in a commanding position, Byce realized he and his men were sitting ducks, so he ordered the remnants of “C” company to withdraw and join up with what was left of “A” company. The Germans called upon the Canadians to surrender, which Byce refused.

It was now mid-afternoon, and as his citation reads:

“Despite the fact that he had accomplished so much and had fought steadily under the most trying circumstances, Byce refused to stop fighting.”

While his troops withdrew, he took up a sniper’s position and for the rest of the afternoon fired on the Germans and was seen to shoot 18 enemy, which enabled the Canadians to withdraw safely. Then he withdrew.

The citation concludes: “The magnificent courage and fighting spirit displayed by this non-commissioned officer when faced with almost insuperable odds are beyond all praise. His gallant stand, without adequate weapons and with a bare handful of men against hopeless odds will remain, for all time, an outstanding example to all ranks of the regiment.”

Francis Richard of Thunder Bay and S.F. Hogue who served with Byce feel he deserved the VC. Richard told the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal that he felt Byce’s “Indian blood” denied him a VC. “Anyone that’s alive from the Hochwald, it’s because of him,” Richard said. “He was the best soldier that ever left the Lakehead.”

The Byce family, as well as those who served with him, wonder if his Indian blood didn’t rob him of a VC in those more prejudiced times. Byce’s daughter, Janice Phillips, thinks her father’s medals on display in the war museum would be a tribute both to his bravery and native heritage: “My father endured a lot of prejudice in his life, but never spoke about it and never complained ... my brothers and sisters have always been very proud of him and his extraordinary bravery.”

The late George Hees, a former Conservative cabinet minister and WWII veteran had speculated on whether Byce’s DCM could be reviewed with an eye to upgrading it to a VC — an unlikely gesture without precedence.

Another veteran who served with Byce is 86-year-old Hap Oldale in Thunder Bay: “The Victoria Cross for Charlie? Of course he won it that day. I can’t understand why he didn’t get it. A hell of a soldier in a regiment of wonderful soldiers. Charlie couldn’t have weighed 125 pounds, and was the wildest SOB going. As a fighting soldier, he was something else again. Good fun, honest and tough as they come. In a class by himself. Charlie gave new meaning to the word ‘hero.’”

Byce’s DCM citation is so detailed and precise that it seems he was clearly recommended for a Victoria Cross. The citation itself is an historic document, initialled by the commanding officer of the Lake Superior Regiment, Lt.Col. Bob Keane; then approved by the acting brigade commander, Lt.Col. G.D. (Swatty) Wotherspoon; endorsed by acting 4th Division Commander Brig. R.E. Moncel; approved by Corps Commander Lt.Gen. Guy Simonds; okayed by First Canadian Army Commander Gen. Harry Crerar; and finally approved by Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery.

It’s an amazing and unusual set of autographs, marking the progress of the citation up the chain of command to the very top. Both the MM and DCM were bestowed on Byce by King George VI at a Buckingham Palace investiture on July 13, 1945.

Charlie Byce’s actions that day are mindful of a combination of two Canadian VC winners: Sgt Aubrey Cosens of the Queen’s Own Rifles, and Maj. Fred Tilston of the Essex Scottish. In an attack, Cosen, like Byce, personally cleared several houses of enemy, and took charge of the attack before being killed by a sniper. Tilston, like Byce, was all over his company area during an attack and inspired his men with his cool courage. He was repeatedly wounded and lost both legs.

Of course, the Byce father and son medals, and their respective stories, deserve a permanent display in the National War Museum, both as Canadians with Aboriginal blood, and as peaceful men who were formidable in war, like many who follow today in their footsteps.

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Michael Dorosh

VC, DCM and MM

December 19 2006, 8:55 AM 

Was he actually nominated for the VC or his Worthington only surmising? If so, it is a good addition to the list I am assembling of VC nominees.

Who were the others to get the DCM and MM in the Second World War? We had one in the Calgary Highlanders, but I did not realize only 9 men were so recognized in the entire course of the war.

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Michael Dorosh


December 19 2006, 12:14 PM 

There was nothing unusual about the autographs on the award nomination -weren't they all vetted in the same way? I've seen similar nominations from the Calgary Highlanders and assumed they were standard - the whole CoC signed them, from battalion/regiment to bde, div, corps, army and then Army Group. One of our sergeants had his VC Nomination downgraded to DCM only after it reached 21 Army Group HQ.

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Clive M. Law - Service Publications

Courage & Service CD

December 19 2006, 2:53 PM 

BYCE, Charles Henry, Private (Acting Sergeant), MM (H.45944) -Distinguished Conduct Medal - Infantry (Lake Superior Regiment [Motor]) - awarded as per Canada Gazette and CARO/5740, both dated 2 June 1945. Originated on 5 March 1945; approved by 4 Canadian Armoured Brigade on 6 March 1945 and passed forward on 7 March 1945; approved by 4 Canadian Armoured Division on 8 March 1945 and passed forward on 19 March 1945; endorsed by Headquarters, 2 Canadian Corps on 19 March 1945 and passed forward on 22 March 1945; endorsed by Headquarters, First Canadian Army on 23 March 1945 and passed for action on 24 March 1945.

On the morning of 2 March 1945, "C" Company, Lake Superior Regiment (Motor) was ordered to pass through positions held by "A" and "B" Companies in the gap south of the Hochwald Forest. Their objective was a group of buildings at Map Reference 053408. The attack was launched at 0430 hours and by 0600 hours, "C" Company was on it's objective. At first light their position became apparent to the enemy and they were immediately subjected to heavy shelling and mortaring. Their three supporting tanks were knocked out and the Company Commander and all the other officers became casualties. Acting Sergeant Byce immediately assumed command of his platoon, whose task was to consolidate the left flank. The enemy were entrenched not more than seventy-five yards away and subjected his platoon to continuous machine gun fire. Sergeant Byce realized that his position was untenable as long as the enemy retained possession of their dugouts. He at once organized and personally led an assault on the position and the enemy were driven out after suffering some twenty casualties. By this time the small arms and mortar fire had become most intense. Nevertheless Sergeant Byce continued to move about from post to post directing the fire of his men and maintaining contact with the other platoons. At this time enemy tanks were seen to be manoeuvring into position for an attack. Sergeant Byce appreciated that a counter-attack was imminent and, taking the only remaining PIAT, he proceeded to stalk the tanks. His first and second shots at the leading tank missed, thus giving away his position, and the tanks directed their machine gun fire onto him. However, Sergeant Byce calmly took aim again and knocked out the tank. As the crew evacuated they were killed to a man by machine gun fire from Sergeant Byce's platoon. An enemy tank then appeared at a railway under-pass at Map Reference 055406 and Sergeant Byce realized that if he could destroy it in the under-pass, it would block the others from attacking his position. He then went forward to a house which was a point of vantage but found it occupied by the enemy. Sergeant Byce and his single companion cleared the building with hand grenades, but by this time the tank was through and moving onto his position. He issued orders to his platoon to let the tanks, 4 in number, go through them and then to open up on the infantry which was following behind. This they did and the attack was broken up, the enemy infantry withdrawing. The tanks, however, remained commanding the position and, with no further anti-tank weapons available, Sergeant Byce realized that his platoon was no longer effective. He then proceeded to extricate what remained of "C" Company. At this phase the enemy called upon Sergeant Byce to surrender but he refused and ordered his men back across the bullet swept ground, returning to "A" Company lines at 1500 hours. Despite the fact that he had accomplished so much and had fought steadily under the most trying circumstances, Sergeant Byce refused to cease fighting. He took up a sniper's position and for the remainder of the afternoon fired at enemy infantry on the railway embankment. He was seen to kill seven and wound eleven. By this action he prevented the infiltration of the enemy into the company area over ground which was visible only to him in his commanding position. The magnificent courage and fighting spirit displayed by this Non-Commissioned Officer when faced with almost insuperable odds are beyond all praise. His gallant stand, without adequate weapons and with a bare handful of men against hopeless odds will remain, for all time, an outstanding example to all ranks of the regiment.

Statement of D.141257, Private S.F. Hogue, "C" Company, Lake Superior Regiment (Motor):

At about 0600 hours on 2 March 1945, our platoon had taken up a position to the left of a house on the left flank of "C" Company's objective. At that time it was still quite dark and the 4 supporting tanks were still with us. We started to dig in and improve the enemy trenches where we were. There was not much time before daylight however, and as the visibility became better, the supporting tanks had been knocked out by the enemy in going into the position and all the company officers had become casualties.

Our position was now being engaged by enemy artillery and mortar fire. Enemy infantry were directing small arms fire at our trenches from positions on our left and right and from our front. Some of these positions were less than 75 yards away.

About 0730 hours, Sergeant Byce came to our position across open ground in full view of the enemy from Platoon Headquarters which was in the vicinity of a house about 25 yards to our right and said that he was going to put in a counter-attack with the men from Platoon Headquarters area at 0800 hours. This attack went in as scheduled and the enemy were cleared from their dug-in positions to our right. Sergeant Byce's attacking party then consolidated these positions. About half an hour later I saw Sergeant Byce and Private Carrier make their way across the open ground to our front to take on a Mark IV with a PIAT. After three shots the tank was knocked out and the crew were killed or wounded by small arms fire from my position while attempting to bail out. During the time that the tank was being engaged by the PIAT it was directing heavy machine gun fire at Sergeant Byce and Sergeant Anderson who were in the open. Sergeant Byce Then went back to Platoon Headquarters.

About half an hour later Sergeant Byce came round to our position and said that he expected a counter-attack by the enemy. He told us where the enemy tanks were located by the house and in the mouth of the tunnel and that there would be infantry with the tanks. He told us we were to allow the tanks to go through our position and only open up when the infantry following behind were in full view. Sergeant Byce then returned to Platoon Headquarters.

A few minutes after that the enemy counter-attack came in and from our position on the left we could only hear what was going on.

After the noise of the counter-attack had died down, my position was under heavy shell and mortar fire for a couple of hours. During this heavy shelling, some of the positions became impossible to hold and some of the men had to make their way back from the forward slit trenches. Three or four of these men were killed or wounded by observed enemy small arms fire as they moved from slit trench to slit trench.

About noon Sergeant Byce came over to our position and said that he was going to try to get some help if possible from some tanks which we thought were just behind us in the woods about two or three hundred yards back.

In the afternoon we were again under heavy shell and mortar fire and our ammunition was getting very low. What men were left gradually worked back to "A" Company lines.

BYCE, Charles Henry, Private (Acting Corporal) (H.49544) - Military Medal - Infantry (Lake Superior Regiment [Motor]) - awarded as per Canada Gazette and CARO/5512, both dated 31 March 1945. Originated on 22 January 1945; supported by Headquarters, 4 Canadian Armoured Brigade on 23 January 1945 and passed forward on 23 January 1945; supported by Headquarters, 4 Canadian Armoured Division on 24 January 1945 and passed forward on 28 January 1945; endorsed by Headuarters, 2 Canadian Corps on 28 January 1945 and passed forward on 30 January 1945; endorsed by Headquarters, First Canadian Army on 31 January 1945 and passed for action on 1 February 1945.

On the night of 20 January 1945, a fighting patrol of twenty-four all ranks was sent across the River Maas to the area Map Reference 276524 (Sheet Ione Heusden 1:25,000) to take prisoners. Corporal Byce [of the Lake Superior Regiment (Motor)] was in charge of a five man section whose job it was to cover the advance of the recce group. During the advance the recce group came under heavy fire from three sides and the success of the patrol was threatened. Corporal Byce, acting on his own initiative, took command of the situation, located the source of the fire as an enemy patrol and dashing forward in the face of point blank fire he dispersed them with a grenade. He then came under fire from a camouflaged dugout ten yards to his right and crawling to within a few feet of this position, he threatened the occupant with a grenade and ordered him to surrender. The German fired at him twice, missing him, and Corporal Byce leaped in on top of him and took him prisoner. As Corporal Byce was bringing the prisoner out of the trench, he was fired on from another position nearby and the prisoner was killed. Assisted by his Platoon Commander, Corporal Byce dragged the body out of the line of fire in order to obtain identification from him. At this point several flares went up from the German main position and the party came under heavy fire from Spandaus and mortars. Corporal Byce remained in the face of this fire until he had obtained the necessary identifications. As the patrol was withdrawing to their boats, and they were attacked by an enemy patrol from the flank with grenades but Corporal Byce advanced on this position, disregarding personal danger, and ordered them to surrender. They continued to fire and Corporal Byce charged them and silenced their fire with a grenade, killing the occupants of the trench, thus allowing the patrol to effect it's withdrawal without further casualties. During the whole action Corporal Byce displayed extreme coolness, courage and devotion to duty. Due to his magnificent efforts the patrol was able to reach it's objective and withdraw safely with valuable information. This Non-Commissioned Officer's aggressive initiative and unselfish gallantry has been an inspiration to all ranks of the unit.

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Michael Peters

Courage and Service CD two thumbs up!

December 23 2006, 6:11 PM 

Courage and Service has so much detail and depth for the historian that I cannot rave enough about this CD published by Service Pub. It is such an excellent resource and everyone with an intrest in Canadian armed forces during WW2 should add it to their bookshelf.

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