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Sergeant (Ret’d) Norman Kirby

Norman Harold Kirby was raised listening to stories of war – both those told by his grandfather and his school teacher. His grandfather was a Veteran of the Boer War and the First World War. His schoolteacher lost an eye, an arm and a leg to trench warfare. He understood what it meant to go to war. He understood the fear. He understood the loss of life. Still, when his generation’s war came, Kirby answered the call. And he’s never been sorry that he did.

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Norman Kirby

Norman Harold Kirby enlisted for the Second World War in 1943 as an underage recruit – he was only 17 years old. He was issued the standard British bolt-action rifle, the Lee-Enfield .303. It was the same weapon his grandfather had used in the First World War. “When firing one of those relics, it blew back in my face. From then on, I flinched when shooting and never hit the target.” He believes his Training Sergeant may have taken pity on him because he was then trained on the Bren light machine gun and later introduced to the PIAT (Projectile, Infantry, Anti-Tank Weapon). He quickly became qualified to use both weapons. “This may seem like a minor event, but I think it later helped save my life.”

In May 1944, Kirby was assigned to a reinforcement group on the English channel that needed a qualified Bren gunner. This is how he came to join 2 Platoon, A Company, of the North Shore (New Brunswick) Infantry Regiment – with whom he served until the end of the war. It is also where his war began. On 6 June 1944, he stormed Juno Beach as part of the D-Day assault.

After an infamously rough landing on D-Day, Kirby went on to serve in the Battle of Normandy. From his time in France, his regiment’s attack on the cross-channel gun in St-Aubin-sur-Mer has always particularly stood out. He was trapped in a bomb crater next to a large German bunker with cross-channel guns that were firing into England. The mission was to take the guns out. But his company pulled back under heavy fire, leaving him and two others behind about 50 to 70 yards from the gun emplacement.

“We set up the Bren gun on the lip of [the crater] and as the Germans came out of the fortresses to man the anti-aircraft guns, I was able to pick them off, one after the other. Then finally, two or three of them got to the anti aircraft-gun and turned it on us. The Bren gun was shot all to pieces and the loader was killed.”

The next day, Kirby returned to the gun emplacement and captured the German bunker. In the weeks that followed, he was promoted to Corporal and later to Sergeant with A/Platoon Commander duties.

In April 1945, after months of intense fighting in France, Belgium and parts of Germany, Kirby experienced one of the most heartwarming moments of his war. He and his platoon liberated the city of Groningen, which had been under German occupation for five years. Minutes after liberating the city, Dutch children began surrounding them in celebration. They were wearing paper hats with their national colours, which they must have kept hidden during the occupation. “After the horrors of Normandy and Belgium, this was a real treat”, Kirby remembers.

Kirby and his comrades moments after liberating the city of Groningen. They are joined by Dutch children, gleaming with excitement.

“I found the Dutch people would help us in many ways, even if they put their lives in danger.”

Often with the help of the Dutch people, Kirby and the North Shore (New Brunswick) Infantry Regiment liberated many towns and cities in the Netherlands. One story of Dutch resistance and courage particularly stands out to Kirby. He and a Corporal went on a reconnaissance patrol to gather intelligence on German troop and tank movements. On that patrol, a Dutch canal barge captain, his wife and two daughters volunteered to take them up through the canals and behind enemy lines. The barge was their home and helping Allied forces meant certain death, if caught. “I found the Dutch people would help us in many ways, even if they put their lives in danger. They were so brave”, Kirby recalls. “They were willing to take the risk, so I made sure to give them rations and filled their fuel tanks before I left, plus about twenty jerricans of diesel fuel.” For three days, Kirby and his comrade hid in the cargo hold of the barge during daytime and gathered intelligence at night.

“There was no celebration when we heard the news. There was a lot of relief, but soldiers went about their business.”

On 8 May 1945, the day that marked Victory in Europe Day, Kirby was in Germany. By that time, the fighting had stopped as the German High Command had signed an unconditional surrender the previous day. Still, when the news came, he remembers the mood as being serene. “There was no celebration when we heard the news. There was a lot of relief, but soldiers went about their business. For me especially, as a-Non Commissioned Officer, I was certainly not in a position to celebrate.”

He was discharged in September 1945 and returned home to North Vancouver. “I was only 19 years old when I got home. Not even old enough to vote or have a beer with my father.” Despite not being of age, Kirby was no longer the youngster that left for war in 1943. He had seen and experienced so much. “I grew up fast”, he says. “When I got back from the war, I was a man”.

Kirby had a distinguished military career. He was awarded the Field-Marshal Montgomery Award for Gallantry for his leadership and bravery as well as the Ordre National de la Légion d’honneur and a knighthood from the French Republic (the Légion d’honneur is the highest distinction awarded by the French Republic). For his attack on the German town of Keppeln in February 1945, he was nominated for the Military Medal for acts of bravery “over and above his line of duty and as a lance corporal, showing no regard for his personal safety.” Sadly, Kirby never did attend the ceremony where he would have received the Military Medal. He had volunteered for the Pacific Campaign and, at the time of the ceremony, he was busy preparing in Aldershot, England.

In February 1945, Kirby and his men were acting as a reinforcement group just outside of Keppeln, Germany. Not knowing they would momentarily be called into action, they posed for a photo and cooked the leg of a wounded cow. Two hours later, Kirby was the only survivor from this photo.

Kirby lived a peaceful life in Lions Bay, British Columbia. He was married to his wife Victoria for over 50 years. Together, they devoted themselves to remembrance. Sadly, Norman Kirby passed away at age 95, in March 2021.

“It is so gratifying to see how appreciative people are at these commemorative ceremonies. It makes it all worthwhile. I am proud of what I did.”

In honor of the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, Sergeant (Ret’d) Norman Kirby was featured on the official Veterans Affairs Canada poster. This poster was proudly displayed throughout Canada and Europe to highlight this important moment in our history.

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