In 1942, with Canada in the grip of the Second World War, Captain Sydney Radley-Walters was a young infantry officer who had never seen combat and never seen a tank. But by 1945 he had become the best Canadian front-line tank ace of the war, having destroyed 18 German tanks and been decorated for his gallantry and leadership.
Military historian Terry Copp said Mr. Radley-Walters, who died this week at the age of 95, emerged from the Normandy battlefields as "the best-known and most respected battlefield commander in the [Royal] Canadian Armoured Corps."
Years later, Mr. Radley-Walters recalled that in 1942 his Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment was an infantry unit that was suddenly ordered to switch to tanks. "Not one of us knew anything about armour or even what a tank looked like," he said. "We hadn't a clue."
On June 6, 1944, he rode his Sherman tank, called "Caribou," ashore on D-Day and a day later he recorded his first success, destroying a Panzer IV. Mr. Radley-Walters – then known to his troopers as "Captain Rad" – admitted that Canadians in Normandy suffered from a lack of combat experience. He said, "We hit the beach on D-Day but we were no flaming hell until about the third or fourth week. Then we began to understand if you don't do it right, you get killed."
The young officer's survival during the vicious battles around Biron, Caen and Falaise was near miraculous. He had three tanks shot out from under him and was wounded twice. He was knocked unconscious when his scout car hit a mine and was in a jeep that had its wheels blown off. "You've got to be lucky but you've got to lead from the front. You've got to see what the hell's going on if you're going to make any impact on the battle," he said.
The fighting included facing Kurt Meyer's fanatical 12th SS, composed mostly of Hitler Youth. Someone else in his squadron likely killed the legendary German tank ace Michael Wittmann, known as "the Black Baron."
By the war's end, newly promoted Lieutenant-Colonel Radley-Walters's score of destroying 18 German tanks made him the leading Canadian "tank ace" of the war, but his final total included many additional armoured vehicles of other kinds.
Mr. Radley-Walters was a major at 24 and a lieutenant-colonel at 25, just after the war ended. He was awarded a clutch of medals including the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross and later became a Commander of the Order of Military Merit. All his original medals, however, were lost in a house fire after the war.
A long-time friend and former commanding officer of the 8th Canadian Hussars, Colonel Robert Billings says Mr. Radley-Walters's success as a leader was based on a simple idea: "First, look after the soldiers."
He was a much-respected but tough commander. Col. Billings called him a "rough gem" who did not suffer fools gladly. Mr. Radley-Walters's son Grant, now a judge in Pembroke, Ont., described him as a superb leader and physically "strong as a bull." However, he said about his father, "you wouldn't want to anger him in a bar."
Sydney Valpy Radley-Walters, the son and grandson of Anglican ministers, was born Jan. 11, 1920, at his family home in Malbay, on Quebec's Gaspé Peninsula. The area at the time was entirely rural.
In school and college, he ex-celled at sports, especially football.
He enlisted in the Canadian Officers Training Corps while attending Bishop's University in Lennoxville, Que., and became a second-lieutenant in the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment in October, 1940. He described the Fusiliers in those years as perhaps the most unusual regiment in the army. While it later became entirely English-speaking, at that time it had French-speaking Catholics in two companies and English-speaking Protestants in the other two. The adjutant was Jewish. The commander couldn't speak French while at least one of the senior officers couldn't speak English.
In 1946, he married Mary Patricia (née Holbrook), the daughter of a prominent Hamilton doctor and the widow of a fellow Fusiliers officer. She was a decorated Red Cross worker in her own right. They had four boys: Gary, Grant, Christopher and Greg, whom Mr. Radley-Walters referred to as "the tank crew."
The renowned tank commander remained in the army after the war and in 1957, he was appointed commanding officer of the 8th Canadian Hussars (Princess Louise's). He later commanded the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade Group in Petawawa, Ont., and the Combat Training Centre in Gagetown, N.B. He was promoted to brigadier-general in 1968 and retired in 1974.
He served many years afterward in honorary positions as Colonel of the Hussars and Colonel-Commandant of the Royal Canadian Armoured Corps. "General Rad" remained a legendary figure among veterans and the Canadian forces.
He believed strongly in the army reserve, saying it was the nucleus of Canada's Second World War army, adding that of all the people in his regiment only two were from the regular forces. He was also dedicated to educating younger Canadians and a new generation of soldiers, as he returned to European battlefields more than two dozen times on educational and veterans' tours.
He was a great outdoorsman, in later life enjoying hunting and fishing at his Whiskey Jack Farm, near Algonquin Park, in Ontario. His last years were spent in retirement in Kingston, where he suffered vision problems, becoming legally blind. His son Grant said the cause may have been the combined effects of combat and witnessing two atomic bomb blasts in the 1950s.
Mr. Radley-Walters said one of his generation's greatest achievements was "the business of Canadians just believing in each other." He died of pneumonia in Kingston, Ont., on April 21.
To submit an I Remember: firstname.lastname@example.org
Send us a memory of someone we have recently profiled on the Obituaries page. Please include I Remember in the subject field.