Born in the North
Charles “Charlie” Henry Byce was born on March 9, 1916, in Chapleau, Ontario. He was the fifth child born to Louisa Saylors, of the Cree First Nations from Moose Factory, Ontario, and Henry Byce, a non-Indigenous Canadian from Westmeath, Ontario, who joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War (1914-18) and earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) and the French Medaille Militaire.
A Childhood of Adversity
At a young age, Charles Byce was placed in the residential school system at St. John’s Residential School in Chapleau, Ontario. During his childhood years at St. John’s, Byce endured discrimination and the suppression of his Indigenous identity. He was one of the estimated 150,000 First Nation, Inuit, and Métis children to have attended residential schools, where they were victimized and persecuted for their cultural heritage.
The Waging of War and Joining the Lake Superior Regiment
As a teenager, Charles left Chapleau and travelled to Port Arthur, Ontario, which is currently part of Thunder Bay. The Second World War in Europe had begun and, as it intensified, Byce decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. In July, 1944, at the age of 24, he joined the Lake Superior Regiment.
From Normandy to Holland
Corporal Charles Byce landed in Normandy, France with the Lake Superior Regiment in late July, 1944. His unit served as the 4th Canadian Armoured Brigade’s motorized infantry battalion, providing close infantry support for the formation’s armoured regiments. To keep up with the tanks, Byce and his fellow soldiers travelled in trucks and lightly armoured, tracked vehicles known as Universal Carriers. They saw their first fighting on the Caen-Falaise road in August, 1944, and played a role in closing the Falaise Gap, an escape route for encircled German troops in Normandy.
Charles and the Lake Superior Regiment advanced rapidly through north-eastern France and into Belgium and Holland. In January,1945, they found themselves holding a line along the Maas River. It was a relatively quiet sector of the front, but the Canadians had instructions to maintain active and aggressive patrols, which often aimed to capture a German prisoner.
Crossing the Maas and an Act of Heroism
One hour past midnight on January 20th, Corporal Charles Byce and two dozen Canadians crept silently across the Maas River into enemy territory. One group of 15 men took up defensive positions to secure the patrol’s boats and route across the river. Byce joined Lieutenant G.U. Murray and seven other men to probe forward and take a prisoner. The patrol moved up a dike (a raised embankment built to prevent flooding), using it as a shield from German machine gun and rifle fire that threatened the success of the mission.
Corporal Byce attacked a pair of German soldiers along the dike. When his Sten gun misfired, Charles threw a grenade, and the Germans beat a hasty retreat into the fog. The noise attracted the attention of another German in a nearby trench. He fired shots at Byce, missing the corporal, who then crawled forward under covering fire from Lieutenant Murray. Byce threatened the German with a grenade and ordered him to surrender. When he did not immediately comply, Byce tackled and subdued him. The patrol had its prisoner.
Returning to Allied lines was just as dangerous. As Byce and his prisoner exited the trench, Germans in a nearby dugout opened fire, wounding the prisoner. Byce and Lieutenant Murray dragged the wounded man out of the line of fire. While the firefight grew around him, Byce searched the man and found his paybook. With the platoon facing heavy German mortar and machine-gun fire, one of the Canadian soldiers shot the prisoner and the group withdrew without the German.
On the way back to their boats, two German soldiers in a trench threw grenades at the patrol. Under fire, Byce charged the position and killed his assailants with a grenade. His bravery allowed his patrol to return to their boats without further incident. Brigade headquarters later analyzed the paybook, which identified the dead German’s unit and helped build a better picture of the German troops opposing the Canadians across the Maas. Byce received the Military Medal (MM) for his part in the successful patrol.
Operation Churchill and Moment of Truth
Charles Byce’s war was far from over. On March 2, Byce and the Lake Superior Regiment crossed into German territory and attacked an opening through the Hochwald Forest – the infamous ‘Hochwald Gap’. They were now in German territory, facing soldiers who were either desperate to defend their homeland or survive a war that was all but lost.
Stomachs rumbled and muscles ached as Byce and his fellow soldiers mounted their Kangaroo armoured carriers in the early morning darkness. The men had been fighting since February 26 without rest and had consumed their last meal two days later. Reinforcements had yet to arrive and the companies were down to one-third strength. It is little wonder that the Canadians dubbed the advance Operation “Churchill”: “never has so much been done by so few”, referencing the British prime minister’s famous radio address during the Battle of Britain in August, 1940.
With “A” and “B” companies secure in their positions, Byce’s “C” Company advanced with Sherman tanks from the Canadian Grenadier Guards and artillery support from the 23rd Field Regiment (Self-Propelled). Five of the six Kangaroos got lost in the darkness and muddy ground but the tanks and one Kangaroo reached the objective. They captured a German company headquarters and 20 prisoners in the effort.
The remaining five Kangaroos eventually arrived and the infantry and their tanks stopped three counterattacks. All three of the company’s officers were injured during the fighting, leaving experienced soldiers like Byce in command. A fourth counterattack, led by tanks, knocked out the Canadian Shermans. Friendly artillery continued to fire, but the Germans overran “C” Company’s positions.
Byce ordered those who were able to withdraw across a narrow escape route overlooked by enemy marksmen. To support their escape, the corporal took up a German sniper rifle and protected his friends against enemy sniper fire. His actions allowed eight men to return to friendly lines. Only five members of “C” Company returned unscathed. Byce received the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), Canada’s second-highest gallantry award, for his heroism that day.
A Humble Return Home
Following VE Day, Byce arrived in England in June, 1945, and returned to Canada three months later. Upon his arrival home, he moved to Espanola, Ontario, with his wartime bride, Frances De Grasse. They raised seven children together. Byce worked as a rigger, and later a lead pourer, at a pulp-and-paper mill until his retirement in 1975. He rarely spoke about his experiences during the war, and is remembered as a humble and quiet man.
Like thousands of other Indigenous Canadians, Byce was persecuted based on his cultural identity. Unfortunately, even when he returned from Europe as a decorated war hero, the prejudice did not cease. Indigenous Canadian veterans were not always able to access the same level of resources, such as advising, application forms, and programs, as could many other returning soldiers. Byce also faced the unique, although not uncommon, challenge of being half Cree and half non-indigenous, making it difficult for him to feel fully accepted by either community. And yet, despite his childhood experiences in the residential school system, and the discrimination he then faced as an Indigenous person, Byce fought for his nation bravely and with honour.
On November 30, 1994, Charles Henry Byce died at the age of 78. In 2008, he and his father were inducted into the Canadian Veterans Hall of Valour and several monuments and memorials have since been constructed to commemorate their sacrifice and Charles’ Indigenous identity. Byce is one of the most decorated Indigenous soldiers of the Second World War and is undoubtedly a defining Canadian.
- Biography of “Charles Henry Byce” by The Canadian Encyclopedia.
- Article “Decorated by Destiny” from Veterans Affairs Canada.
- A History of Indigenous Canadians in the World Wars from The Government of Canada.
- The Canada Veterans Hall of Honour Official Site.
- The National Métis Veterans’ Memorial Monument from The Gabriel Dumont Institute.
- A history of “Henry and Charles Byce: Canadian Army” from The Canadian War Museum.
- “Canadian Newsreel No. 63” provided by The War Amps (Youtube).
- “Canadian Newsreel No. 64” provided by The War Amps (Youtube).
- Interview with Gordon Byce, Charles Byce’s Brother, by The Ontario Native Education Counselling Association (Youtube).