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Russell Craig’s Fateful War Career

On the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the Townsman looks back at the astonishing war career of a Cranbrook man
Russell Craig of Cranbrook

The Royal Canadian Legion, Branch 24 Cranbrook, is marking one of the most momentous events in history with a special ceremony in downtown Cranbrook.

Thursday, June 6, marks the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe by Allied forces in the Second World War.

More than 14,000 Canadian troops were among those who landed on the heavily defended beaches of Normandy, and who fought their way inland against the might of the German armies. On June 6 alone the battles for the beachhead cost 340 Canadian lives and another 574 wounded. Forty-seven Canadian prisoners were taken prisoner.

Several East Kootenay young men lost their lives that day. Some of their names are on the cenotaph in Rotary Park in Cranbrook, the names of others are on marked down in other Kootenay communities.

In the subsequent two and a half months of the Normandy campaign, Allied casualties totaled 210,000. German casualties totaled 450,000. Canadian casualities amounted to 18,000, included 5,000 killed.

The Cranbrook Legion is inviting all to attended the 80th anniversary of D-day, on June 6, 2024, in Rotary Park The ceremony to honour the 14,000 Canadians that were on Juno Beach for the invasion begins at 1 p.m.

The anniversary is an opportunity to reflect on the achievements — and fates — of those young people who went off to war so long ago. Many came back, many did not. The graves of the latter can be found in Northern Europe, like that of Russell Craig of Cranbrook, who had one of the most remarkable, adventurous war careers of any Canadian soldier, before meeting his tragic end in the Battle of Normandy. His story was retold at the time in the pages of the Cranbrook Courier, excerpts of which are reprinted below.

(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 Russel Craig, of the Merchant Navy, 22-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. S.T. Craig, of Cranbrook, who 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 Russel, 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 Russel 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 prison. They were landed at Tunis and placed in a concentration camp in that vicinity. Conditions were appalling. The prisoners were allowed only one pinto 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

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.

(Courier, 1945-06-21)

French Family Tends Grave of Local Soldier

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.