D-Day and the Battle of Normandy: The importance of Memory; and the Fateful War Career Of Russell Craig

Seventy-five years is a length of time when memory starts to shift; when history starts transforming into mythology.

The events of the summer of 1944 are among the most momentous of modern history — but as fewer and fewer of those who participated in that history are with us to share the stories of that time, we see the risk unfolding of that history fading into legend.

It is important to keep that story fresh and alive, through the words and memories of those who were there, from the records and letters of the time, and from the analyses of historians looking back and sifting the truth and the patterns out of the awful confusions of war. So that future generations will not forget the sacrifices, and the consquences, of those who went and took part in those epochal events.

We at the Townsman and Bulletin have tried to do just that, commemorating the 75th anniversary of D-day and the Battle of Normandy, in our special 20-page feature published in Thursday’s Townsman. Or read it online at https://www.cranbrooktownsman.com/e-editions/.

We used memories and recollections of veterans, the detailed coverage of the local newspapers of the time, and recent works of history, to paint a picture of that violent, bitter summer so long ago, and how it affected us, here in the East Kootenay.

See below for an except — the fateful, and ultimately tragic story of Russell Craig of Cranbrook (pictured above) — the most adventurous story of any warrior from our region who went to fight in the Second World War.

Dozens of young people enlisted and went to war. Many came back, many did not. Their names are on memorials in communities all over the region, and as a community we have been keeping their names alive — lest we forget.

The invasion of Normandy — D-Day, and the subsequent campaign in northern France — saw warfare as violent and apocalyptic as any theatre of battle during the Second World War. Canadians, and many soldiers from the Cranbrook and Kimberley area were right in the thick of it.

On June 6, 1944, 14,000 Canadians landed during the D-Day invasion (see Page X3). 450 landed by parachute. More than 10,000 sailors of the Royal Canadian Navy took part, along with 15 Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons.

Canadian casualties for June 6 were 359 killed, 574 wounded and 47 taken prisoner.

In the two and a half months of the Normandy campaign (Pages X6 and X14), Allied casualties totalled 210,000, including 18,000 Canadians. More than 5,000 Canadians were killed in that summer of 1944. German casualties were 450,000.

The Townsman and Bulletin wish to thank David Humphrey of the Cranbrook History Centre and Archives, Larry Miller of the Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 24 Cranbrook, Marie Stang at the Kimberley Heritage Museum and Cindy Postnikoff of Military Ames, for invaluable assistance in producing this feature.

We also wish to thank all veterans for their service and sacrifice in conflicts throughout history and in current deployments around the world.

Russell Craig’s Fateful War Career

From the Cranbrook Courier,

1944, 1945

Cranbrook sailor has many thrilling adventures

Some people may travel their allowed span of three score years and ten without experiencing any untoward incident to disturb the even tenor of their way. There are others, however, engaged in more hazardous occupations who meeting with many thrilling encounters after close brushes with death, without losing their mental composure and with little outward evidence of ill-harm.

Falling within the latter category is Stoker Russell Craig, of the Merchant Navy, 22-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. S.T. Craig, of Cranbrook, who has been spending a well-earned leave here with his parents — his first visit home in three years of strenuous service and land and sea.

During those three years Craig has experienced several aerial bombings, during one of which he was buried under debris for several hours, had three ships torpedoed under him in the U-boat infested Atlantic, and for good measure spent several weeks in an Italian prison camp in Tunisia, later effecting his escape in company with a group of fellow prisoners.

When interviewed at his home this week by a Courier representative, this quiet spoken young man was loath to speak of his exploits, but persistent questioning regarding his experiences elicited sufficient material for several thrilling novels.

Injured in Coventry Blitz

It was about three years ago that Russell, then in the Royal Canadian Artillery, went overseas, and it was not long before he saw action in the form of aerial bombing. He was caught in the big air blitz on Coventry, suffering a broken leg in that encounter.

Buried Twelve Hours

Later, while stationed in southern England, he suffered another bombing attack, and with two others had the harrowing experience of being buried alive for some twelve hours until extricated by a rescue squad.

No doubt thinking that a sea voyage would be beneficial to his health, young Craig transferred to the Merchant Navy, being signed on as a stoker.

Fickle fate pursued him, however, and while in a convoy Gibraltar-bound his ship was picked off by an Axis torpedo. So far as Russell knew, there were only about six survivors, and they spent some three days in their life-boat before being picked up by a rescue ship.

More Torpedoes

In the spring of 1942, Craig experienced his second torpedoing, this time just off Iceland, but he and his companions were picked up by another merchantman after a few hours in their lifeboat.

The third sinking also occurred off Iceland, the torpedo striking shortly after 1 a.m. just after Craig had come off watch. He managed to effect his escape on a life-raft, and was picked up about four hours later by a rescue ship.

Taken Prisoner

It was September of 1942 that Craig’s ship has halted by an Italian submarine and he, with other members of the crew, were taken prisoner. They were landed at Tunis and placed in a concentration camp in that vicinity. Conditions were appalling. The prisoners were allowed only one pint of water a day, and subsisted on starvation rations. They were not maltreated physically, but once when Craig attempted to take a little more than his ration of water from the bucket as it was being passed around he received a sharp reminder with a blow from the flat of a bayonet.

In this camp they were under the charge of a Vichy French officer, and after several weeks this officer, evidently fed up with conditions, suggested escape to Allied occupied territory. He warned them of the consequences in the event of recapture, however. A group of prisoners decided to make the attempt, as it seemed to be a question of of either being shot or slowly starving to death. One night, accompanied by the French officer, twenty-six of them slipped away and headed in the direction of Algiers.

Made Good Their Escape

They were seven days of the trip across the desert, subsisting on food obtained at villages along the way in exchange for articles of their clothing, etc, the Frenchman acting as interpreter. They were trailed by their Italian captors for some distance, but made good their escape, arriving in Algiers with nothing more on them than their pants.

At Algiers, they secured passage on an Oriental ship bound for England and upon reporting at the Merchant Navy headquarters there learned that the authorities were on the point of notifying their relatives of their being listed as prisoners of war.

Russell returned to Canada recently and was given leave while awaiting completion of arrangements for a new ship.

Mr. and Mrs. Craig, who moved to Cranbrook about a year ago from Arrow Creek in West Kootenay, have three other sons serving in the armed forces. Harry and Archie are now training with the Canadian Army, and a fourth son, Weldon, is serving with the Canadian Navy.

Weldon Craig has also had the experience, a minesweeper, torpedoed under him in the Atlantic, only recently, and a week ago Saturday Mr. and Mrs Craig received world of his safe arrival in an Eastern Canadian port.

Russell completes his furlough hits weekend and will leave to report for sea duty again, to face whatever fate has in store for him.

(Courier 1944-08-24)

Rfn. Russell Craig Killed In Normandy

Mr. and Mrs. S. T. Craig, who reside on French avenue, recently received the distressing news from Ottawa advising them that their son Rifleman Russell Sidney Craig, had been killed in action in Normandy. First notification was to the effect that their son was missing on July 5th. Several days later a second wire advised of his death in action.

Born at Arcola, Sask., on February 21st, 1921, Russell was Mr. and Mrs. Craig’s second eldest son. The family moved to Cranbrook from Creston about two years ago.

Russell went overseas about four years ago, then serving with the Heavy Artillery. He was in Coventry at the time of the air blitz on that city and suffered a broken leg. Later in another raid in southern England he had the experience of being buried for twelve hours under the debris of a bombed building.

After about 18 months service with the artillery Craig entered the Merchant Navy, with which he served for a year and nine months. During this period the U-boats were taking a heavy toll of Allied shipping, and Russell saw much action. Several of his ships were sunk by torpedo and he and his shipmates spent many hours in ope lifeboats.

In September 1942 the ship on which he was serving was halted by an Italian U-boat, members of the crew being taken prisoners of war and placed in a camp in Tunisia. After about three weeks a group of prisoners, including Russell, made good their escape, arriving at Algiers seven days later. During this trek they subsisted on food secured at villages along the way in exchange for articles of clothing, etc. At Algiers they secured passage on an Oriental ship bound for England. Later, after further months of sea duty, Craig again entered the Canadian Army, and serving with the Manitoba Regiment went into Normandy on D-Day.

Mr. and Mrs. Craig and family have the deep sympathy of the community in the loss of a fine son, one who has served his country well — and given his all.

A memorial service in honour of the young man was held recently in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, of which Mr. and Mrs. Craig are adherents, at Canyon.

French Family Tends Grave of Local Soldier (1945-06-21)

Some weeks ago, Mr. and Mrs. S. T. Craig of this city received a most welcome and interesting letter from a French family concerning their son, Pte. Russell S. Craig, who was killed in action in the battle of Carpiquet, near Caen, shortly after the D-Day invasion of Normandy.

The letter narrates how this refugee family — father, mother, two sons and two daughters — living in the cellar of a house in the battle area, struck up a friendship with the liberating Canadian troops camped there, among them being Pte. Craig

An excerpt from the letter follows:

“…We used to go out, in the day during the quiet moments, to speak to the soldiers cantoning in the garden and in the house of which we occupied the cellar. During their moments of rest, our Canadian friends used to come and see us and, the night, some or other went to take their guard we comforted them before their departure. One of our best friends was your son, Russell Sydney, whom we liked very much.

After the battle of Carpiquet, we heard by his comrades that he had been killed by a bullet in the forehead. We had a very great pain. If I write to you, dear Mrs. Craig, it is for saying to you that the sacrifice of your son has been at most profound of our hearts.

The French people will never forget that their Canadian Friends fallen for the liberation their country. The cemetery where is your son’s grave is a mile from our home and each time we can, we go and pray on his grave and we flower it.

I hope that my letter will bring a little softening of your immense sorrow, thinking that some French who knew your son, Russell, will never forget him.

The next 5th of July, there will be a solemn office in our church in Remembrance of your son and his comrades killed during the fight of Carpiquet and Caen. And often the mass is celebrated in our church for the rest of our friend Russell’s soul.

If I have your address, it is Russell who gave it to me. I hope this letter will arrive to you, bringing to you all the best regards from my family and from myself.

Mlle. Maggie le Ricque

Chateau de Rosel

par Bretteville l’Orgneilleuse

Calvados, France

Added to the letter was a note from the other sister, Mlle. Francoise le Ricque, saying: “Last week I went with a little girl whom Russell knew to put on his grave four bunches of flowers and we said a prayer for him…”

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