|Clockwise from top: Canadian soldiers advance to consolidate a Normandy beachhead; a Canadian soldier prepares to land—with his bicycle—on D-Day; German prisoners of war await transportation on Juno Beach; soldiers use the scramble nets of HMCS Prince David during D-Day operations.|
D-Day, June 6, 1944. The longest day. The breaching of the Atlantic Wall. The striking of a major blow against Nazi Germany, forcing it to defend itself on a third front, besides Italy and eastern Europe. The landings in Normandy that day by Canadian, British and American troops, supported by thousands of Allied aircraft and ships, opened a new chapter in the story of World War II, one that was key to ending the war in Europe a year later.
D-Day was also a momentous date in the lives of thousands of Canadians who took part in the invasion and millions who followed events from elsewhere. When Legion Magazine asked readers for their memories of D-Day on this, the 60th anniversary of the landings, responses poured in from coast to coast. The respondents had a variety of wartime backgrounds and 60 years ago had been in vantage points sometimes in or near the action, sometimes far away from it. The clarity and emotion of their replies show what a hold D-Day still has on their thoughts. Not all the stories submitted could be included because of space limitations, but here is a representative sampling of the contributions.
Crossing the Channel
The first task was to cross from England to France, and getting there was definitely not half the fun. Hough Nordlund of Prince Albert, Sask., was a lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve. “The LC-3 was a small personnel-carrying barge that could carry 30-40 men from the mother ship to the beach. Visibility was limited due to the smoke. Flashing lights on shore guided us to the beach. You’d drive in until the barge scraped, lower the end-gate and unload. We started at daybreak and continued till nightfall, picking up troops, taking them to the beach, backing out, turning around and returning as quickly as possible. The noise was terrific—it was continuous. It’s a terrible thing to watch the men going ashore, seasick, frightened, wet and cold, while their buddies were dying right and left.”
T.H. Howlett of Red Willow, Alta., served as a telephone lineman with the Royal Cdn. Corps of Signals. “We were all set for landing when two German planes dropped bombs on our ship, one going through the side, the other landing on a truck, but neither exploded. The captain went full steam into shore and dropped the ramp, so we had a dry landing.”
On the beach
If the trip across the Channel was full of danger and apprehension, the reception on the French beaches was murderous. John Angus McDonald of Cornwall, Ont., served with the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders. “In training, we had landing practices with live fire. On the way over to the beach, with all the fire and ships, it could have been another exercise. However, just as we were going through the gap in the sea wall, I spotted off to my right six bodies covered with blankets. It immediately hit me that this was no exercise. This was it. We were at war. I had two brothers in the Glens, the youngest killed in Caen. My older brother, in D-Company with me, was wounded at Boulogne.”
A.W. Fairhurst of Englehart, Ont., served with the 14th Field Regiment., Royal Cdn. Artillery. He remembers the approach to the beach. He saw a tank equipped with a floating device go under and I saw an Landing Craft Tank on our right that was sunk and there were several soldiers and sailors struggling in the water, which was red. “(While on shore), our crew was called away from the gun (in order to help with something else). On our way back (to the gun)…our gun blew up right before my eyes. All that was left was a huge hole in the ground.”
A member of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, Wilfred J. Pound of Brighton, Ont., was on the beach in a truck with a jammed booster brake. As he lay under the truck trying to release the brake, German fire whizzed overhead. Comrades fell dead or wounded around him. “After what seemed like hours, we were able to move away from the beach toward Beny-sur-Mer. Having been left behind, we attempted to find the Maple Leaf UP sign, without results…. We were hailed by a paratrooper…. We hadn’t realized we had been driving through enemy territory. I was 84 on Christmas Day 2003 and hope that in June I am able to return to Normandy and stand tall with my comrades as we commemorate D-Day.”
The view from the sea
While the army struggled to establish a foothold on land, the senior service supported them from offshore. John Gorsline of Toronto served on His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Prince David, one of more than 100 Royal Canadian Navy ships there on D-Day. “Our first wave of troops boarded the landing craft and were lowered away at daybreak. We began to receive casualties around noon for treatment…. We headed north when a terrific concussion was felt just astern…. I could see a minesweeper sinking bow first with its propeller still rotating slowly…. We heard later that three of the crew had been blown clear and rescued.
“When we arrived in Southampton there were hundreds of American soldiers waiting for their transport and one came up to me and said, ‘What’s it like over there?’ All I could think to say was, ‘It’s noisy.’ ”
Jack Hall of Dartmouth, N.S., was an acting petty officer on HMS Warspite. His group was ordered to steam past a long line of landing craft carrying men, tanks, vehicles and guns, some flying the old colours of Canada. All of the guns’ crews and upper deck personnel gave three cheers to those soldiers preparing for the day to follow. “The responding cheers were quite emotional. In those moments there was no doubt in our minds who would incur the most danger, as indeed D-Day proved. I do believe that the officers and men of our ships that day hoped and prayed that the cheers and our shells in the following day would and did contribute to a successful landing,” said Hall.
On the same ship, Anthony F. Balch of Grand Valley, Ont., was a telegraphist. The Warspite arrived just before dawn at its station off Sword Beach and opened fire with the first of many hundred rounds. A number of German E-boats attacked and between them fired 17 torpedoes. One struck the destroyer Svenner, sinking her. Balch said, “I have often been asked if I felt fear at this time and I always reply that because I was so busy and the environment so new and exciting, fear never really entered my mind.”
“Our day started June 5,” said André Rousseau of La Minerve, Que., who was attached to the 29th Cdn. Motor Torpedo Boat Flotilla. “During the night and the whole day June 6, our task was to protect our ships, landing craft, etc. and to engage the enemy at all costs. This lasted for me up until July 1, when our boat struck a mine off Le Havre. Only six of us survived.”
Thoughts from abroad
Repercussions of the invasion were obvious, even from a distance. Royal Air force member Barry Collins of Mississauga, Ont., was under canvas on Salisbury Plain (England) near a small airfield. “During the night, we had been kept awake by the sound of a very large number of aircraft flying fairly low. By dawn, we saw the aircraft returning, some of which crash-landed at the airfield and most of which were so badly shot up we wondered how they could fly at all. I vividly recall one transport that had such an enormous hole clear through just behind its wing.”
Far from Normandy but still in the thick of things was J.B. Waugh of Dorval, Que., then of 2nd Field Regt., Royal Canadian Artillery. “On the sixth of June, 1944, our division were in the Liri Valley midway up Italy, licking our wounds after three weeks of tough German resistance in which we suffered stiff casualties. This was a pattern that had been going on since our landings in Sicily. We stood up to the toughest in the world and prevailed over evil, but were soon to be forgotten. Once the 1944 landing in France occurred, we were no longer in the news.”
H. Clive Chalkley of Calgary was an English schoolboy in 1944. He remembers his teacher, Mrs. Jamieson, leading her class up from the North London school air raid shelter on the morning of June 6. “She pointed to the sky, where flight after flight of Allied aircraft of all types were heading toward Europe. She told us never to forget this. I for one never did. I was finally able to follow those planes to Juno Beach on June 6, 2003,” said Chalkley.
Also a student was Karel Teddy Smits of Belleville, Ont. He lived with his family in Holland. “With my brother, almost four years younger, we tried hard not to be grabbed by special agents who gathered guys like us for work in Germany. If we had to go out, we often would dress like a woman. (One day) my dad came in to search for me. ‘Ted, Allied troops have landed in France!’ Although we officially had no radio, each neighbourhood had its ‘listener’ who hung on the BBC News from London. And news spread fast. Many Nazis quickly fled the community. We waited for almost a year until Canadian army vehicles ran through our city. But the June landing brought hope to millions!”
And back home in Canada, many had to fill in for those who had gone to war. One was Irene Kludash of Surrey, B.C. “My father joined the Royal Canadian Engineers and went overseas, which left my brother and me to help our mother operate our farm, and I was a young teenager. I learned to operate our tractor during harvest, did the haying, caring for the animals, all the farm work and had to go to school. I remember taking the train to Edmonton with friends to watch the celebration of D-Day. It was a gala event, marching bands, toilet paper streamers dangling from apartment windows, lots of noise.”
Mary L. Nieman of Saskatoon joined the Royal Canadian Air Force’s Women’s Division in Winnipeg in 1943. She left Halifax at the beginning of June 1944 on board the troopship Andes. “We zigged and zagged to avoid the enemy, and were on the ocean for 10 days. It wasn’t until we landed at Liverpool that we learned what happened on June 6, 1944. My group of WDs was posted to Linton-on-Ouse in Yorkshire.”
For many, the events of June 6 and the Battle of Normandy left specific, vivid impressions that still loom large in their minds. J.D. McFadden of Brampton, Ont., was with the 3rd Anti-Tank Regt. “When the ships started to move, the major instructed everyone to take everything off their uniforms as the unit was going ashore as privates. Snipers don’t shoot privates.”
J. Hal Roach of Renfrew, Ont., 23rd Fld. Ambulance, landed at Bernières-sur-Mer on June 6. “Late in the day, after many trips back to the beach with casualties, we finally established a casualty collecting post. Two of our wounded were Germans…. About 23:00 hours, I heard a vehicle…. In the front seat was a Cameron Highlander officer I recognized as Captain Courtright. I told him we had two Jerry prisoners and asked if he would take them to the PoW compound. He laughed and said ‘what about a trade?’ He pointed a flashlight into the back of the jeep. Sitting there was the biggest and meanest-looking German I had ever seen. A Cameron private was sitting beside him with a fixed bayonet pressed against his chest. I couldn’t say ‘no thank you, sir’ fast enough.”
D.J. Ward of Brampton, Ont., Special Assault Group, 9th Brigade drove his truck through about four or five feet of water to the Normandy beach. “My first recollection was a Messerschmitt coming in hedge hopping and strafing us. It was so low you could see the pilot and the bugger waved at us as he passed…. Later, a Spitfire was hit and on fire…. The pilot climbed out to straddle the fuselage, pull his ripcord, and the force opened his chute. I watched him glide down and his plane crash, just like in the movies.”
A curious sidelight is what sticks in the mind of Joe Fox of Guelph, Ont., a member then of the Highland Light Infantry. Near the end of May, all ranks below sergeant were issued with folding bikes to be carried into France and ridden on D-Day. During a prolonged stop near Southampton a boy and his mother began chatting with Fox and asked for a bike, so he gave them his. “On June 7, our vehicles drove up Juno Beach to a crossroad…. Piled up in a field were about 300 of these folding bikes which the forward troops discarded—we did not see a single soldier riding on a bike. Two days later…the French civilians were having a great time grabbing up parts and bikes as fast as they could! I often wonder if anyone rode them. I have never seen a picture or article about these bikes.”
Mark H. Lockyer of Oshawa, Ont., served with the 1st Cdn. Parachute Battalion, whose mission was to demolish the bridges over the Dives River east of the assault beaches. Approaching the French coast there was some anti-aircraft fire and the Dakota was trying to do evasive action, which is like teaching an elephant to dance. Soon the order came to prepare to jump.
“I see water under me…. I hit the water and find solid earth…. I meet up with two of my platoon and within a mile we come to the bridge, our objective…(others arrived). There was supposed to be a Royal Engineer to place the explosive, but he didn’t show up so I said I would try…. With someone holding my legs I could reach under (the bridge)…. I didn’t have enough (explosive) to completely destroy the bridge…. The centre of the bridge was cut and dipped into the water, no machine could have got across.”
With the same unit was Henry L. Churchill of Yarmouth, N.S. “When I landed I couldn’t judge the distance from the ground so I landed swinging backward and hit the back of my head and was knocked out. I don’t know how long I was unconscious but it could have been two hours…. I began to wonder where all of the boys were…. I heard voices and recognized they were speaking English…. We came to a chateau (and joined others from their unit)…. Our battalion jumped with 550 men and only 120 got together in Normandy. But we still held the lines of a battalion until reinforcements came…. I haven’t got anything to brag about but a lot to be thankful for.”
The memories of J.L. Wagar of Red Deer, Alta., Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, include one particularly visceral vision. “By early evening, we had secured Anisy. I found 15 Platoon settled in along the edge of an orchard. Out in the field about five yards in front of where the sergeant was still digging in, a German soldier was staggering back and forth, eyes wild, breathing hard, tripping on his turns. The sergeant’s Sten gun was lying at the end of his trench. If the German slowed, the sergeant aimed a burst in the ground near his feet.
“In response to my question, his answer was like rock. ‘This bastard came in with his hands up, then threw a grenade that killed one of my kids! The son of a bitch was a dead man the minute he did it, but this platoon isn’t going to make it that easy!’
“I went on my way, and on my way back stopped for a moment. The German was still on his feet. His path back and forth was worn bare. His pants and his boots were off, his jacket open. He was flailing with every step, his long underwear stained brown to his ankles. He slobbered, grey as death, no longer a man.
“I was told later that he had been shot where he fell. The shock that ended the days of my youth and innocence forever was seeing how easily the civilized pretense of humanity slips off.”
And from another time and place
Memories of the historic invasion of Normandy were passed on and made food for thought for those who were too young to be there. Tom Pilgrim of Kelowna, B.C.: “I was the new kid on the block at Canada Post in Brandon, Man., and so it came to be that I got to know Bill Henson. Bill would tell of how the Winnipeg Rifles trained for a landing in France. He was sergeant of a platoon of demolition troops. He related how the battle broke down and became cases of individual men and units doing what they were trained to do.
“Years came and went. I moved and lost track of Bill. I took it upon myself to phone across Canada to Bill on June 6, 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day. We spoke at length and Bill’s voice started to quiver when he again related the part of his D-Day story when he first realized that 18 of his 27 men were still on the beach.
“Each of us has a thought in our mind when we observe our moment of remembrance,” Pilgrim observes. “Mine is of the old post office building in Brandon, and of the misty, far-away look in the eyes of Bill Henson.”