Paying tribute to a Cumberland County war hero
Layton Schurman died a day after saving French man and child near Normandy
Carl Schurman still chokes up when he thinks of the price his uncle paid for the freedom he, and other Canadians, enjoy today.
Schurman and several relatives were in France several months ago to visit the place where Sgt. Layton Oliver Schurman of Oxford, N.S. fought and died in the early days of the Normandy campaign in June 1944.
“When I was at his gravesite this unbelievable sense of sorrow came over me, but there was also a lot of pride in that this man was my uncle,” said Schurman from his Georgetown, Ont. home. “It was a very moving experience.
is was something that was on my bucket list and I’m glad I had the privilege to go there and see where he fought, where he died and to see where he’s buried.”
Layton Schurman was born in 1904. When war broke out in September 1939, he was 35 years old and while no longer a young man he chose to join the North Nova Scotia Highlanders.
After training in Canada he was sent to England in 1941 and
nally to the southern part of the country in June 1944 to prepare for the D-Day landings in France.
A ectionately known as Moose by his fellow soldiers, Schurman was looked upon as a natural leader and a father figure to many of the younger soldiers. He was tasked to lead the combat section of a reconnaissance unit equipped with a Bren gun carrier.
He was 40 when he landed on the beach of Bernieres-sur-Mer in the early afternoon of June 6, 1944. From the beachhead his team quickly moved inland and captured Beny without much resistance.
From there the group headed towards its objective of Capriquet, near Caen, where a key Luftwaffe airfield is located. Headed by the Sherbrooke Fusiliers and followed by Schurman’s Bren gun carriers, the Cameron Highlanders, the Royal Canadian Engineers and the North Novies, the group advanced toward its objective and by nightfall they had reached the junction of the Caen-Anisy roads and Villons les Buissons, where they defeated a German platoon and settled in for the night.
Early on June 7, the order was given to move out. It would be Schurman’s last few hours alive.
Schurman’s Bren gun carriers took advantage of the flat country and made good time toward Buron, where a large chateau emerged from the trees in the right centre of the village and stone walls stretched along the left side of the entrance to the village.
The Germans put up strong resistance with a large anti-tank ditch on the open plain requiring tanks to advance one by one. At this time, shells started to fall from St-Contest.
Schurman and his men got out of their Bren gun carriers to protect themselves from the shelling until an anti-tank gun took out the tower at St-Contest and the group once again began to move.
They don’t get far before the shelling resumed and casualties became heavy as tanks from the Sherbrooke Fusiliers turned toward the village and launched successive barrages at the guns in the village.
Buron historian Dominique Buron gave this account of the battle.
“The air is heavy, the cries and orders in England and French intermingle, interrupted by bursts of gunfire and explosions of all kinds. The men are astounded. Blocked before Buron, the Novas see the first real resistance. Col. Petch orders them to take the village and to get rid of the isolated sharpshooters. Capt. Gray orders his officers of the reconnaissance group to clear out the area,” Barbe wrote in his personal tribute to Schurman. “Layton rushes forward to the head of his group, chin thrust out, face blackened like the fighters, wearing pulled over his uniform the sleeveless leather vest like all the boys in his group. With his Bren gun in the bend of his elbow he leads them briskly, ‘Move on, boys!’”
The first house at the entrance to the village seemed to have been overrun and they cleared it with a grenade to be sure. Schurman’s attention was drawn to a trench in the house garden where a German non-commissioned officer sat calmly as if he were awaiting their approach.
The German levelled a pistol at Schurman’s group and Schurman took out a grenade, pulled the pin and was prepared to hurl it at the trench when he heard a French voice and saw a French civilian carrying a child.
It was Barbe’s father and his brother.
Following a few tense moments, the German SS officer surrendered upon the direction of his wounded captain, who was at the bottom of the trench. After learning of German positions from the civilian he just rescued, Schurman gave the man cigarettes and chocolate for the young boy.
From there his ground continued further into Buron and then to Authie, which fell without too much resistance. Little did he, or other Allied soldiers know that they were walking into a trap. It was then the German SS launched the massive counterattack that would claim Schurman’s life.
“All happens very quickly. The Canadians are resting, fraternizing with the people, when suddenly, like the first drops of rain, the first shells whistle down raising big columns of earth. Civilians and Canadians wait. The situation quickly becomes intense; a bren gun carrier explodes in a spray of fire with its occupants seated around it. Each one seizes his weapon, but it’s impossible to fight. The Germans attack in force. They are the SS,” Barbe writes. “The Canadians fight with desperation and despair, but they are crushed in Authie and must fall back to Buron. The men look in vain for protection, the houses fly to pieces, one after the other. Scenes of ghastly slaughter unfold in Authie. The Canadian tanks fight with rage, but explode one after another like a shooting gallery. The struggle is unequal, there is no way out, they are too advanced.”
Schurman no longer has a vehicle and his men are scattered or killed. He fights bravely and fires at the advancing SS.
“To protect himself, he goes into a house. It is the last sight that any of his comrades will have of him,” Barbe wrote. “A tank fires several times into the house, blowing up the stone walls which finally tumble down, burying Sgt. Schurman in an ominous and thick cloud of dust. Finally, the roof falls in. The smoke comes down, all is finished. It is a huge massacre, the survivors are prisoners — and certainly killed in the Ardennes monastery.”
It would be two months before Schurman’s remains are discovered in the ruins of Authie. His body was taken to the Canadian cemetery at Bretteville-sur-Laize, Cintheaux.
Historian Dominique Barbe talks to relatives of Sgt. Layton Schurman including (from left) Julie-Anne Austin, Marc Schurman, Aaron Schurman, Carl. R. Schurman, Anne Marie Schurman, Carl L. Schurman, Marian Leveille and Gilbert Leveille. They visited France and Schurman’s grave earlier this year. †
Sgt. Layton Oliver Schurman of Oxford, N.S., was born in 1904 and went to war in 1939 at age 35. Known affectionately as Moose, he was killed in Buron, France on June 7, 1944.