In June 1940, the 1st Canadian Division started to move from England to Brittany in France as part of the effort to re-establish a second British Expeditionary Force (2 BEF) in Europe following the Dunkirk Evacuation. The main body of the 1st Field Company landed in Brest on 14 June with most of their vehicles having arrived a few days earlier with the advance party on 8 June. The company quickly moved out of Brittany inland to assemble in the area of Laval-La Mans. 2nd Field Park Company landed without their equipment and stayed in Brest with Division Engineer HQ. 3rd and 4th Field Companies, while having assembled in English ports, were not embarked.
Things were moving faster than the planners had anticipated. The French Army was near collapse and unable to support the new Allied force. Without support and with the capitulation of France only days away, the newly landed troops were withdrawn little more than a week after the initial units had landed. The 1st Field Company left most of their equipment, destroying as much as possible. The Canadians also left behind six soldiers, including Sappers C. Julien and Fraser Peter Hutchinson who were quickly taken prisoner by the Germans. Four of the six managed to escape including the two sappers.
Sapper Hutchinson Reports for Duty
On 4 March 1942, almost two years later, Sapper Fraser Peter Hutchinson turned up at the Headquarters of the 1st Canadian Field Company wearing the first Military Medal awarded to a Canadian in the Second World War. While he was under strict instructions not to divulge any details relative to either the award or his escapes, we do know that his adventure began when he was left behind wounded and unconscious in hospital. When he recovered, the Germans put him into a labour camp. He escaped with the assistance of French civilians and reached Paris and later managed to cross into Vichy France, only to be arrested in Marseilles. He escaped once again and this time went to Geneva. He quickly discovered Switzerland was not the best jumping-off place for getting back to Britain and risked recapture to return to Marseilles. There he obtained forged papers and made his way to Spain where he was imprisoned once again. Luckily, his release was secured by the British Consul at Madrid and he was escorted to Gibraltar, the then back to England.
Sapper Hutchinson was a plasterer before the war and served in the Non-Permanent Active Militia from 1933 to 1939 in the 88th Battery, RCA. He enlisted in the Active Force at Halifax, 17 November 1939 and was assigned to the Royal Canadian Engineers. His wife was living in Port Wallis, NS at the time. After returning to the 1st Field Company, he went on to participate in the invasion of Sicily where he apparently became the first Canadian to capture an Italian prisoner. Although he returned home in 1943, he continued to serve Canada until 1951. He died in Vancouver in 1988.
Interestingly, there are no details in Sapper Hutchinson’s citation other than, “in recognition of distinguished services in the field.” This may be because any knowledge of his exploits after being captured were hidden for security reasons to protect the French Resistance operatives who assisted in his escapes and helped him in and out of France more than once. His family was also not made aware of the details. His award was Gazetted on 12 February 1942 and on 2 September 1943. His medal was presented by King George VI.
Note: While Sapper Hutchinson was the first Canadian soldier to receive an award for gallantry in the Second World War, Sergeant George Hickson of the 7th Field Company, RCE was the first Canadian soldier to receive two awards for gallantry in the Second World War. He was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal at Medal at Dieppe and a Military Medal in North Africa.