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Friday January 7, 2011

General was first Canadian to lead NATO forces in Europe

Second World War veteran was in charge of the Quebec military during the FLQ crisis

Special to The Globe and Mail

Gilles Turcot was expelled from the Séminaire de Québec in 1935 at the age of 17 because, without his superior's permission, he had enlisted with Les Voltigeurs de Québec, a French-Canadian reserve infantry regiment. Ten years later, the priest who expelled him received him as a war hero at the Citadel in Quebec.

Lieutenant-General Turcot, who died in Magog, Que., on Dec. 15 at the age of 93, served with the Royal 22e Régiment during the Second World War. He was wounded during the invasion of Sicily in 1943, returned to command the Van Doos during the liberation of Holland, then went on to a long and distinguished military career. Turcot became the first Canadian to command NATO forces in Europe and was the commander in charge of the Quebec military when the War Measures Act was declared in 1970.

"He was an uncommon leader in war and in peace, a great man who devoted his life to the country, to the army and to the regiment," Regimental Colonel, General Alain Forand, told mourners at his military funeral at St. Patrice Church in Magog.

Gilles-Antoine Turcot, the son of a Quebec City doctor, was born on Dec. 9, 1917. He had hoped to put himself through school by enlisting in the Officer's Training Corps, but his superiors suggested his grades weren't good enough. So he joined the reserves and finished his schooling at Laval University. When war was declared, he shipped overseas with the Van Doos.

During the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943, Turcot, who was only 25, was given command of The Van Doos B Company, which led the assault on German positions atop Monte Scalpello.

As author Mark Zuehlke's tells the story in his book, Operation Husky, "The company slipped forward by way of various gullies and dense thickets to a little hill called Nicolella northwest of Scalpello.

There they encountered a Sicilian woman who spoke fluent French and gave them good information on the nature of the ground and numbers of German troops ahead. July 27, 1943, found the Van Doos B Company sitting solid atop Monte Scalpello. When "C" Company joined the latter, the two companies were able to clear the entire mountain in a bout of heavy fighting. Major Turcot was wounded in the right foot but continued to command the two companies until the battle ended later in the day."

Promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, Turcot returned to Canada to recuperate and to instruct volunteers for combat. But in 1945 he agreed to drop rank and go to Northern Europe "to finish the war" with the Van Doos, part of the 1st Canadian Army, which by then had the Germans in retreat. "A lot of the SS were fanatics and they thought they could still win the war. But on the whole, we were stronger than they were by then, and we were pushing them back, pushing them back, until we pushed them back in the hook against the sea," he recalled.

Turcot took part in the bloody battle for the Apeldoorn Canal, part of a long line of defence the Germans had nicknamed the Grebbe.

For the rest of his life he was haunted by his failure to save one of his young officers who was killed during the battle just two weeks before hostilities ended.

"I remember him and his name every day: Sergeant Leo Caissy. I remember his agony and mine as he lay there dying," Turcot recalled in an interview earlier this year. "I don't know how many times I called for stretcher bearers during the night, but the fighting was too intense, and by morning Caissy was dead. This is something you never forget." Traumatized by the young officer's death, Turcot went on leave and was replaced by Major Henri Tellier.

After the war, Turcot held several high-ranking positions at Army Headquarters in Ottawa. He served briefly in Japan, was put in charge of the Quebec Command, then became Commanding Officer of the Canadian Infantry Brigade in Calgary. He spent three years in London, as a Canadian Army liaison officer with the Western European Union Defence Organisation until 1964, when he was named commanding officer of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (NATO).

He returned to the Citadel of Québec to take command of the Royal 22e Régiment for a second time. He was named a three-star general in 1969 and the following year was head of Quebec's Mobile Command when FLQ terrorists kidnapped British trade commissioner James Cross and Quebec labour minister Pierre Laporte.

When premier Robert Bourassa called in the army to deal with the crisis, Turcot was the officer in charge of Operation Essay, designed to be a "symbolic show of force against the FLQ without antagonizing the rest of Quebec." After Turcot retired from the Armed Forces in 1973 he was appointed Colonel of the Royal 22e Régiment, a position he held until 1978. He then worked as director of general services for the Montreal Olympic Games and did volunteer work with disabled veterans.

In the 1980s, he joined those opposed to sending women into combat. "Women have not got the strength to handle heavy shells for hours on end. Although warfare has changed in many ways, in the end, I don't think you will find a war where the infantry don't have to dig a hole to protect themselves."

He was named to the Order of Canada in 2001. In May of this year, Princess Margriet of the Netherlands presented Turcot with her country's first medal of gratitude when he was in Holland for ceremonies marking the 65th anniversary of the end of the war.

His wife, Hélène Mitchell, whom he married in 1949, died 10 years ago. He leaves two daughters, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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