Memorable Manitobans: Coulson Norman Mitchell (1889-1978)
Engineer, war hero.
Born at Winnipeg on 11 December 1889, son of Captain Norman Mitchell (1854-?), who served in the 90th Winnipeg Rifles during the 1885 Rebellion, and Mary Jane Ptolemy (1858-?), a descendant of Admiral W. H. Hall who commanded of the HMS Nemesis. He grew up at the family’s 310 Furby Street residence and attended Mulvey School and the Winnipeg Collegiate Institute, where he served as an Officer in the Cadet Corps, before graduating from the University of Manitoba (1912, Engineering). The year after completing secondary education, he and his father toured Scotland and England on bicycle before returning to Winnipeg. He was a member of the engineering team that righted the heavily listing CPR grain elevator near the Canadian Pacific Railway North Transcona Yard, shortly after which he enlisted with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces.
He and with his two brothers, Lieutenant Stanley Hall Mitchell (1886-1915) and Captain Isau Gladstone “Ivan” Mitchell (1892-?), served in the First World War, with Coulson enlisting at Ottawa, Ontario on 21 January 1915. He served in France with the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps, at first as a Private, attaining the rank of Lieutenant on 28 April 1919 and Captain on 24 May 1918. His engineering skills were called upon often for sapping and tunneling work, as well as counter-efforts in the same field, and he became a member of the 1st Tunneling Company, Canadian Engineers. While posted in the Ypres area, he was involved in anti-tunneling work. On 11 December 1917, he was a member of a unit which set off a massive charge within 10 feet of the German trenches. Following the detonation, he and his comrades were cut off from friendly lines for 12 hours, during which time he lead the defence of his gallery with this automatic pistol and electric torch, after which they made it back to friendly lines safely. Hostile tunneling in the area ended following this mission, for which his gallantry, skill, and courage behind enemy lines was awarded with the Military Cross. Further decoration would follow within a year while with with the 4th Canadian Engineers Battalion.
During an overnight mission from 8-9 October 1918, at the Escaut Canal northeast of Cambrai, he lead a party of three on a reconnaissance mission of a nearby canal bridge. Upon arrival, they found that the structure had already been demolished. Under fire, he led his team further along the canal to the next bridge, where they found it intact, yet extensively rigged for detonation. He along with his non-commissioned officer, Sergeant Jackson, severed a number of lead wires. Then, in the face of uncertain enemy strength, they rushed over the bridge in the dark, making it across the canal. During their continued defusing efforts, Jackson was wounded by enemy fire. Setting aside disarming work, he rushed to his colleague and held the bridge against the charging assault. Upon realizing their counter-sabotage activities, the Germans assaulted their position. He and his team held, killing three attackers, captured 12, and maintained safe the bridgehead until being reinforced. Still under heavy fire, he resumed disarming and removing the explosives. Canadian troops then used this crossing, among others, to secure Cambrai. For this display of bravery, he was awarded the Victoria Cross and personally decorated at Buckingham Palace by King George on 4 April 1919.
Following the Armistice, he sailed for Canada on 14 April 1919. Following demobilization, he returned to Winnipeg and married Gertrude Hazel Bishop at the Fort Rouge Methodist Church on 8 November 1922. The couple later moved to Montreal, Quebec where he worked for several years at the Power Corporation of Canada and led an unassuming life. His colleagues were wholly unaware of his military exploits until his request for leave to accept a Prince of Wales dinner invitation. He served with the Royal Canadian Engineers in the Second World War, during which he commanded the 1st Canadian Engineer Reinforcement Unit including an A-6 Canadian Engineer Training Centre at Vedder Crossing, British Columbia, where he was Camp Commander. He was posted at Camp Chilliwack, BC from 1944 to 1948, where a plaque in his honour was unveiled on 12 October 1973. He retired from the Canadian Forces with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, the only Canadian Military Engineer to win the Victoria Cross.
He died at Montreal on 17 November 1978. He is commemorated in Manitoba with Norman Mitchell Lake (formerly Coulson Mitchell Lake, renamed upon request of his next-of-kin). He is also commemorated by the main building at Canadian Forces School of Military Engineering (CFB Gagetown), Mitchell Gardens (the former Married Quarters at CFB Chilliwack), and a panel noting his leadership establishing the All Sappers’ Memorial Park and Cenotaph at Vedder Crossing.
Birth and marriage registrations, Manitoba Vital Statistics.
1911 Canada census, Automated Genealogy.
Attestation Papers and First World War Service File, Canadian Expeditionary Force, Library and Archives Canada.
“2 more deaths are announced,” Winnipeg Tribune, 12 April 1915, page 9.
“Lieut. Norman Mitchell wins Military Cross,” Winnipeg Tribune, 24 January 1917, page 1.
“Capt. Norman Mitchell, Winnipeg engineer, wins Victoria Cross,” Winnipeg Tribune, 1 February 1919, page 1.
“Capt. Mitchell, engineer, wins Victoria Cross,” Winnipeg Tribune, 1 February 1919, page 2.
“Christie lauds V.C. winner in sermon,” Winnipeg Tribune, 3 February 1919, page 8.
“Canada’s V.C. heroes: No. 19 - Capt. C. Norman Mitchell, V.C., M.C” Winnipeg Tribune, 29 March 1919, page 48.
“Urges civic welcome to Capt. Mitchell, V.C.” Manitoba Free Press, 23 April 1919, page 2.
“Mitchel - Bishop,” Winnipeg Tribune, 9 November 1922, page 9.
“V.C. modesty,” Manitoba Free Press, 2 November 1929, page 15.
“V.C. winners from Manitoba,” by Norton Anderson, Winnipeg Free Press, 13 July 1940, page 38.
“Manitoba names lakes for Victoria Cross recipients,” Winnipeg Free Press, 9 November 2013, page A8.
“Captain Coulson Norman Mitchell, VC, MC Among Canada’s WWI Victoria Cross Recipients Honoured,” Chimo!, 14 November 2014. [Canadian Military Engineers Association.]
“Naming of Manitoba Lake honours Lt-Col. Coulson Norman Mitchell, VC, MC, RCE,” Chimo!, 26 November 2013. [Canadian Military Engineers Association.]
This page was prepared by Nathan Kramer.
Page revised: 11 January 2016