Byce, Charles Henry

Charles Henry Byce at age 24. Source

Charles Henry (Charlie) Byce is one of the few Canadians and the only member of his Regiment to be awarded the Military Medal (MM) for gallantry and valour together with the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), an award for bravery second only to the Victoria Cross. His father, Henry (Harry) Byce, was a veteran of the First World War and he also earned the DCM and the Médaille Militaire, the French equivalent to the MM and that country’s second highest valour award. This feat earned them a unique place in Canadian history as the only father and son duo to receive both these honours during two world wars. Today, both father and son’s medals are on display in Ottawa’s National War Museum.

Charlie Byce was born in Chapleau, northeastern Ontario, on March 8, 1916. He was the son of Louisa Saylors, a Cree from Moose Factory, Ontario, and Henry Byce, a non-Indigenous man from Westmeath. After overcoming the injustices and abuses experienced in the residential school system of his area, he struggled to be enlisted in the Canadian military because he was considered small at 5-foot-6 and 125 pounds. Charlie finally joined the Lake Superior Regiment (LSR) or "Lake Sups"– now known as the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment – sometime around 1940 and embarked on a remarkable journey.

This regiment had been mobilized as the Lake Superior Regiment, CASF, on May 24, 1940, and trained in Camp Borden. Then, for a time, the LSR secured the defence of Saint John, New Brunswick. A special group of LSRs, called the “Q Force” even trained for an attack on the French Islands of Saint Pierre and Miquelon. On January 26, 1942, the Regiment was redesignated the Lake Superior Regiment (Motor) and given a fleet of Universal Carriers. Subsequent training delayed their departure for Europe, but when the Regiment finally embarked for Britain on August 22, 1942, it had more fighting vehicles and a greater assembly of hard-hitting weapons than any other Canadian infantry unit in history. On July 20, 1944, the LSR (Motor) landed in Normandy, France, as part of the 4th Armoured Brigade. It immediately assisted in the difficult task of pushing back and surrounding the German armies in France. For the next ten months, the LSR (M) fought through France, Belgium, Holland and into Germany. In total the Regiment suffered 775 casualties with 199 dead. For their bravery, the men of the LSR (Motor) were awarded 71 decorations, 2 of which were awarded to Charlie Bryce.

Byce earned his first decoration for valour, the MM, in the Netherlands in January 1945. By that time, the Allies had established themselves in France and Belgium and, in another month, would launch an offensive for a final push over the Rhine into Germany. Before dawn on January 21, Acting Corporal Byce and 23 other Lake Sups set off in row-boats to cross the Maas River. Their mission was to sneak behind enemy lines and bring back German prisoners in order to gather information on enemy units. Byce headed a five-man team charged with providing cover for the reconnaissance group. Soon after it had landed on enemy territory, the reconnaissance group was fired upon from three German positions. Byce personally located two of them and silenced them with grenades. He also managed to obtain information from a German prisoner before the group started back. The official history of the regiment describes the events that followed:

By this time the sky was filled with baleful red and yellow flares, and enemy machine-guns and light mortars were spurting into action… As the patrol hurried along the dyke several grenades hurtled through the air. Fortunately they exploded harmlessly... but they did serve to reveal the location of two more enemy soldiers. Again Corporal Byce took the initiative. He charged the German dugout and into it hurled a 36 [calibre] grenade.

The patrol escaped safely and, afterward, Byce became one of more than 1,200 Canadians to receive the MM. His citation commended the corporal for his "coolness" and "devotion to duty" and credited him with the mission's success.

Some six weeks later, Byce became one of only 162 Canadians to earn the DCM during the Second World War. The Rhineland Campaign was well under way, but enemy defences still blocked the Allied path into Germany. This was the enemy's last major line of defence and it would not be broken easily. Counter-attacks were fierce and numerous. On March 2, 1945, the Lake Sups engaged in the most difficult fighting the regiment had known. At 4 a.m., Acting Sergeant Byce and the rest of C Company set out to occupy a group of buildings south of the Hochwald Forest. By 6 a.m., they had accomplished their goal, but the day's first light revealed their location to the enemy. C Company was bombarded with shells and mortar. All of its tanks were destroyed and casualties mounted quickly. The victims included every officer, even the company commander. So at this point, Charlie Byce was in charge. Meanwhile, four enemy tanks were approaching. Byce personally destroyed a Tiger tank with an anti-tank gun and directed fire that routed German infantry following the tank. But he had no anti-tank ammunition left when more Tigers moved in. The regimental history explains what happened next:

In the confusion and general disorder the enemy closed in upon C Company's position. Grimly the Lake Sups held on, the perimeter of their defences becoming smaller and smaller, and their escape corridor to the rear, narrower and narrower… With ferocity and courage [Sergeant] Byce, now commanding the remnants of C Company, fought as long as he could; then gathering what few men he was able to find about him he made his way back through the bullet-strewn escape alley.

It was 3 p.m. when Byce ordered the retreat of his men. He stayed behind his group, sniping at enemy infantry so they could not trace the company's withdrawal and evacuation of their wounded. He managed to pick off 18 Germans and save more than a dozen of his company comrades, including his best friend, Francis “Popeye” Richard. Following his actions, he soon became something of a legend in his Regiment. Again, his citation was impressive:

The magnificent courage and fighting spirit displayed by this NCO [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.

Charlie Byce and the Lake Sups had advanced into Germany by the time the war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945. The following month, he was sent to England, before returning home to Canada in September 1945.

Charlie had married Frances Antoinette DeGrasse in 1941 in Saint John, New Brunswick. The couple had at least 7 children: Maureen (b. in Saint John, 1942), Charles Francis (b. 1946), Katherine Ann (b. 1948), Richard Gerald (b. 1949), Janice Marie (b. 1951), David Henry (b. 1953) and Neil Gordon (b. 1957). Except for Maureen, all of his children were born in Espanola, Ontario, where Charlie worked at a paper mill after the war. It is said that Charlie never talked about his overseas heroic actions at war. He passed away on November 30, 1994, in Newmarket, Ontario, and is buried in Pefferlaw, Ontario. His wartime exploits were largely left unknown before 2016 except to by those few surviving men who served alongside him in combat.

Further reading

Photos

In Germany, in April 1945, a group from the Lake Superior Regiment display the enemy flag they had captured. (Alexander Stirton / Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-137250) Source

A bronze and granite monument unveiled at Chapleau's Royal Canadian Legion on September 17, 2016 commemorates Charles Henry Byce as the most decorated Indigenous soldier in the Second World War. The monument was created by Sudbury sculptor Tyler Fauvelle. Roger Chum, President of the Ontario Native Education Counselling Association, was deeply involved in the project, along with the Chapleau Cree First Nation, the Royal Canadian Legion, and the Township of Chapleau. Source

Biographical Record
Full Name Byce, Charles Henry
Heritage Cree
Band Location Moose Factory - James Bay, ON
Birth Date 1917-01-01
Birthplace Chapleau, ON
Biographical Notes Byce was the son of Henry Byce and Louisa Byce (nee Saylors) Henry Byce had fought in WWI and earned two medals: The DCM plus France's Medaille militaire. Henry was non-native, while Louisa was a Cree from Moose Factory, ON. Cf. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/public/pages/remembrance/those-who-served/aboriginal-veterans/native-soldiers/natives_e.pdf
Conflict WWII
CEF Unit Lake Superior (Motor) Regiment
Rank Sergeant
Medal awarded (MM) (DCM)
Medal notes Byce was one of only 162 Canadians to earn the DCM. Cf. https://www.veterans.gc.ca/public/pages/remembrance/those-who-served/aboriginal-veterans/native-soldiers/natives_e.pdf
Other links https://www.veterans.gc.ca/public/pages/remembrance/those-who-served/aboriginal-veterans/native-soldiers/natives_e.pdf
Photo https://www.veterans.gc.ca/public/pages/remembrance/those-who-served/aboriginal-veterans/native-soldiers/natives_e.pdf
Identifier 2256