Monday, September 26, 2016

Filip Konowal - Victoria Cross

Excerpt on “Acting Corporal Filip Konowal - For Valour”, from the Hill 70 sponsored book “The Lads in Their Hundreds”

At 4:35 am on August 21, 1917, the soldiers of three infantry battalions of the 10th Canadian Brigade moved out of their trenches beneath a tremendous barrage fired by the artillery, and headed into the western outskirts of Lens. The battle for Lens was underway. The battalions in the 10th Brigade drew their manpower from the western provinces. At least one soldier, however, had come from much further.

Acting Corporal Filip Konowal of the 47th Battalion was in command of an infantry section of about a dozen men. Konowal was of Ukrainian descent. He wasn’t a large man – only five and a half feet tall – but he was fit and very strong. Like so many other men in eastern Ukraine, he had been drafted into the Imperial Russian Army in 1908. Konowal was an instructor in bayonet fighting and hand-to-hand combat in the Russian Army. After five years of service, he was honourably discharged and, in 1913, travelled all the way across Russia to the Pacific Coast. From there, he immigrated to Canada, landing in Vancouver and putting his immense strength to use as a lumberjack.

A huge number of Ukrainians immigrated to Canada during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and close to 95 percent of them came from western Ukraine in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the outbreak of war, Ukrainians in Canada were treated with suspicion because so many came from Austria, one of the Central Powers against whom Canada was fighting. Close to 70,000 Ukrainians were forced to register as “enemy aliens” in Canada, and several thousand were interned across the country. If he had been born a few kilometers to the west of his home in Kutkivtsi, Konowal might have been interned as well, but he was a citizen of Russia, one of Canada’s allies.

Konowal was quiet and fierce. He was quickly made lance corporal and then, just prior to the attack on Vimy Ridge, an acting corporal. He spoke little, as his English was still not strong, and he preferred to lead by example.

On August 21, Konowal led his section into the fight of their lives in the streets of western Lens, so pock-marked by artillery bombardment that it was hardly recognizable as a place where people once lived. The objective for the 47th Battalion was so blasted by Canadian artillery and so saturated with Canadian chemical weapons that nothing could remain alive on the surface. However, the German networks of tunnels ran through their outposts in Lens, and a great deal of fighting in tight spaces would be required before they could be dislodged.

Things started off badly for the 47th. A number of casualties were inflicted on the Canadians from an artillery barrage before the battle even began. When the advance started, it was still dark and the soldiers became disoriented in the ruins of Lens, particularly with German artillery raining down on them. The junior officers, leading from the front and trying to direct their troops, were among the first to become casualties. Fortunately the Canadian engineers fired a heavy barrage of smoke and burning oil onto the Green Crassier, obscuring the view of the Germans who otherwise might have called down even more fire on the 47th.

As the German positions were approached, Konowal led his section in vicious house-to-house fighting. The Canadians checked every cellar and crater, many of which were connected by tunnels dug by the Germans. The combat became close-range, with a lot of frenzied, terrifying moments when the Canadians came face-to-face with the Germans and had to fight with grenades, bombs, bayonets, and other hand-to-hand implements like the shovels they carried. Working their way forward and fighting yard by yard, the 47th managed to get beyond Aconite trench. Casualties piled up. German snipers gunned down Canadians and then scurried to new positions. Booby-traps and improvised explosives were scattered throughout the ruins.

In one cellar, Konowal, leading a few of his men, came face-to-face with Germans just piling into the underground chamber through a hidden tunnel. He cut into them as though he were bayoneting straw dummies. His section followed the tunnel back to its origin, a deep crater near Aconite trench. More Germans were assembling there, and Konowal descended upon them like a man possessed. He killed several with his bayonet and the club end of his rifle before the startled eyes of his men, who had never seen the intense corporal fly into such frenzy. By the time he was done, seven Germans lay dead at his feet.

The fighting raged all day, with savage German counter-attacks and artillery bombardments, but the 47th held the ground gained. On the far right of the advance, at a point located just on the far side of the torn-up highway running from Lens down towards the city of Arras, was an enemy machine gun emplacement. These gunners were well-positioned and kept the Canadians pinned down all along Aconite trench.

Konowal and his men were nearby in a shell-hole. Still fired up from his earlier fighting, and tired of being soaked and immobile, Konowal shed his heavy pack, grabbed his rifle, and climbed out of the trench, intent on taking out the machine gun. His captain, thinking that he was trying to desert and run away, screamed at him to return and even took a shot at him with his pistol, fortunately missing. Konowal kept going, stormed the machine gun emplacement, killed its crew, and, to the astonishment of his men and his captain, brought back the German machine-gun as a prize. Instead of court-martialing him, the officer helped nominate him for the Victoria Cross.

The fighting lasted into the next day, when the 47th launched another small, diversionary attack to help out the 44th Battalion, who were then making their fateful advance on the Green Crassier to the southeast. Konowal raided another machine gun nest and killed the Germans there. Part of the tunnel was destroyed and Konowal helped to establish a defensive post, but the Germans swarmed the position like hornets whose nest has been disturbed. The Canadians could not hold, and Konowal himself was shot on the left side of the head. His men dragged him away from the battle, unconscious, and the post was abandoned.

The 47th had reached their objectives but their losses were severe. The ground had been captured only after hard fighting, and the Germans still gave no indication of retreating from Lens. Although the Canadians did not lose any ground, they could not turn Lens into the same killing-ground that they had created on Hill 70. There were simply too many places for the Germans to hide.

No comments:

Post a Comment