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More than once Bud Hannam is mobbed by children during celebrations of the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. At ceremonies, mothers nudge their shy sons and daughters forward to speak with the Canadian war veteran, and he takes them into his arms—and his heart.
But one timid little girl of about eight astonishes him. “May I touch you?” she asks, and when he hugs her, she triumphantly announces how she has “touched a liberator!”
Such living links to history are disappearing as veterans of the Second World War age; most are in their 90s and so there is a poignancy to ceremonies honouring those who survived the 1944 landings and the campaign that followed. Few of them will be able to return for the 75th anniversary. There is urgency too, among witnesses who often appear to be on a quest to speak with veterans and capture their memories—moments that could be shared among succeeding generations.
“How does one maintain peace and freedom and liberty?” asks 100-year-old veteran Ernest Côté during the ceremony at Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery. “That is the challenge of peacetime.”
Christophe Collet, a high-school teacher from Caen who helped arrange 70th anniversary accommodations for Canadian veterans, took up that challenge in 2006. He founded Association Westlake Brothers’ Souvenir, named after three Toronto brothers—George, Tommy and Albert—who died in combat in June 1944. The association promotes remembrance, particularly among youth. This spring Collet discovered that extremists had targeted youth with Internet propaganda that misrepresents history, denigrates Allied forces and denies the Holocaust.
The association lodged a complaint against one writer for denial of crimes against humanity, négationnisme, an offence under French law, and a second complaint for illegal use of its images. Six other plaintiffs joined in, including a rural municipality and village where Canadian troops fought. If they win their case, the writer could face imprisonment.
The attack could be dismissed as an isolated incident by a crackpot, but “It’s a matter of principle,” explained Collet. “We could continue…as if nothing had happened. But then our struggle for memory means nothing. We tell our young people that peace, freedom and democracy are never free. This attack reminds us to accept the fight…70 years after we thought Nazism was vanquished, there is another battle.”
The law is one means to address the problem; preserving history is another. The incident underlines why, even after 70 years, it’s still important to hear the words of people who lived history, said Collet. “Don’t be afraid to teach the children what went on—why we went to war,” agrees Hannam, adding history is the only defence against those who twist the truth.
The Allies liberated the people of Europe from four years of servitude, said Côté. “The people…knew what it was to be incarcerated.” And they are still generous with their gratitude. Aside from official ceremonies attended by royalty and heads of nations, Canadian veterans were feted in small Norman towns and villages. Many veterans who made the trip were hosted by local families and treated as treasured guests.
Hannam was a guest of honour at a ceremony in Basly, about eight kilometres from Juno Beach. A medic with the 23rd Field Ambulance, Hannam arrived on D-Day as Le Régiment de la Chaudière liberated the town. He worked in the casualty clearing station as Canadian troops battled their way inland. Occasionally Hannam found himself treating civilians; the civilians never forgot.
On his latest tour of Normandy, Hannam attended official commemorations and even spoke with the Prince of Wales during a major ceremony at the Juno Beach Centre. But in the village of Basly it’s personal. Hannam was reintroduced to Alfred Leboucher and Yvonne Bazin. Leboucher remembers Hannam helping him after his leg was blown off while Bazin recalls how her little sister, Emilienne, died in Hannam’s arms after she and her sister were strafed by a German plane.
Today, a children’s library sits where the aid station used to be, and it carries Hannam’s name—an honour he accepted on behalf of all the troops who came here. “I don’t think I did anything more than anybody else. We have to have something real to remind the children of the price of freedom and it has to be something solid.”
Champagne is enjoyed at a reception following the ceremony and while Hannam is singled out for his actions during the war, he is one of many veterans sharing memories from the Battle of Normandy which involved major contributions from soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Veterans John Ross of Lethbridge, Alta., and Mervin Jones of Ottawa are members of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. They were among 543 Canadians dropped by parachute or glider behind enemy lines during the very early hours of D-Day. “We were scattered badly,” said Ross. “The first job was to clear the drop zone of any enemy,” a job made difficult when their presence was announced by the bombing of gun emplacements. “We had a fight all night.” After clearing a German strongpoint at Varaville and helping to march prisoners to Le Mesnil crossroads, Ross and other paratroopers spent about two and a half months on duty to prevent the enemy from retaking the ridge. “If the Germans ever got that, they could fire down on incoming troops.”
Jones has often confided his thoughts upon landing. “I said, ‘Mervin, I don’t think you’ll see your 22nd birthday.’” But 70 years later he and Ross were there to watch 50 Canadian Army parachutists, part of an international contingent from France, the United Kingdom and the United States, jump in tribute of the 1st Canadian Parachute Bn., which suffered a casualty rate of more than 20 per cent on D-Day.
Also reminiscing during the anniversary was Bill Opitz of St. Albert, Alta. He was lead stoker on His Majesty’s Canadian Ship Bayfield, one of the Canadian minesweepers whose duty it was to help clear the sea lanes for the invasion forces. The ship used noise-reducing tactics; it was steam-powered and instead of detonating the mines, cut them loose from their cables. They escaped notice despite coming within a kilometre of shore. Kenneth Bough, 18, was on board HMCS Haida, protecting troopships and patrolling for submarines.
But many dangers remained for the 14,500 Canadians who landed on D-Day. Denis Hubber of Penticton, B.C., was in the Royal Navy, aboard a lucky landing craft. “When the tide went out, on both sides of our big landing craft were these railway ties with mines on them. You could lean out and touch them.” Other craft did, and set off explosions.
Then there were the machine guns. Roy Eddy, who served on the frigate HMCS Outremont, crewed a D-Day landing craft from which only nine of 35 men got to shore alive. “There was blood 300 yards off shore,” he said. “I’ve never gotten over it.”
Jack Hadley was in the Queen’s Own Rifles assault wave, which faced murderous machine-gun and mortar fire at Bernières-sur-Mer as tanks meant to provide protective fire were delayed. “There was a ship shooting rockets over our heads, like a barrage. It wasn’t very effective.” Many were killed or wounded within the first few minutes. “There weren’t many left in Baker Company after the first hour. There were only 19 of us at the next roll call.”
Edgar Bedard of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., was with the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa. ‘‘We came in behind the Queen’s Own Rifles. There were so many bodies on the ground we had to stop [until] some were picked up.”
Elsley Foulds of Coquitlam, B.C., was with the 22nd Canadian Field Ambulance, which went in right behind the assault troops. “We were going from one to the other putting dressings on, laying out stretchers. What comes back to me are sad memories. You look out at the beach now and where are all those young boys? They’re gone.” His unit was a moving hospital. “We followed the front lines, maybe half a mile behind. We spent the whole war doing that.”
In the air witnessing the assault was Flying Officer Richard Rohmer, then just 20. He spoke at the official ceremonies of the pall of battle and constant shelling, of an awesome mile-wide column of ships stretching to the horizon, and the awful sight of troops disgorging from landing craft and being mowed down.
Eventually the pillboxes and gun emplacements were silenced. “I was lucky,” explained Jack Hadley. Platoon survivors made it off the beach and through a hole in the wall. “I set up a Bren gun and was giving covering fire.” At one point, “I saw a slit trench about 100 yards inland, with Germans poking their heads up. I fired in a couple of rounds and the whole gun crew came out with their hands up.”
After the beachhead was established, more troops and supplies arrived. Among them was Alan Canavan, now 93. He served with the 17th Duke of York’s Royal Canadian Hussars, (7th Reconnaissance Regiment). “They thought that 85 per cent of us would be knocked out. Fortunately, that was erroneous.” His unit sussed out enemy activities, intelligence used as the Allies battled across Normandy and beyond. Canavan and Eddy were among eight Canadians awarded the French Legion of Honour at a ceremony in Caen this year.
The Queen’s Own Rifles lost 143 killed and wounded on D-Day. ‘‘I lost a lot of friends that day,” said Hadley. He lost more later at Le Mesnil-Patry, where the Rifles met fanatical resistance from SS troops, and more still at Carpiquet Airport, where Hadley himself was wounded by shrapnel. He had to make his way to a medical aid post, jumping from slit trench to slit trench. “I had a feeling those buggers were shooting [only] at me.”
Bedard also had a close call while sheltering in a slit trench during night bombing at Carpiquet. The next morning an anti-personnel mine sat on the lip of his trench. “I could have touched it by accident in the night, and it would have blown up. I was not even 20… I was scared. I was not brave. What a feeling I had.” An engineer was called to cart the deadly thing away.
Before he was wounded, Hadley watched the bombing of Caen. “Hundreds of aircraft. It was an awful noise. All Caen was on fire.”
This was the first mission for gunner Fraser Muir of Wasaga Beach, Ont., part of a trainee flight crew tasked with dropping small bits of foil to confound enemy radar during the bombing of Caen. He went on to complete 35 bombing missions before the war ended.
“We had to go through Caen the next morning and it wasn’t pleasant,” said Art Boon of Stratford, Ont., who was with the 19th Army Field Regt. “The streets were filled with debris, buildings were caved in. The enemy could be behind any corner.” Adds artillery gunner John Commerford of Ottawa: “You could hardly make your way through the rubble.”
By Aug. 10, 1944, German forces began fleeing eastward, but the Allies were intent on stopping them. “They were pouring everything at them in the Falaise Gap, so we were continually hauling up,” recalled Jim Warford of Burlington, Ont., who helped deliver ammunition, fuel and supplies to the front line, wherever it moved. “At one stage we hadn’t had any sleep for well over 24 hours.” Whenever the supply convoy stopped, “we’d have to go along beside the lorries and bang on the doors because the men were falling asleep at the wheel.”
Boon remembers growing exhausted. “I was only 18 and in good physical shape…but I was really tired. We had two days rest out of the 56 days before we broke out. We were short-handed all the time.”
Falaise “was a hard fight,” both on the ground and in the air, said Boon. “We were supporting the Polish and they took an awful beating. We were on the top of a hill near Trun. In the valley the Germans were sitting ducks. We annihilated them.” His memories are of “dead bodies, dead animals; the stench was horrible.” Falaise marked the end of the Battle of Normandy, a 10-week campaign that claimed more than 18,000 Canadian casualties, including more than 5,000 killed.
Hannam was at Falaise in mid-August, trapped under heavy gunfire. “I was on my hands and knees, and said ‘God, get me out of here and I’ll be a better man.’” He was knocked unconscious for about four days, lost most of his hearing and was wounded on the arm. “But He got me out.”
Passing along his memories helps fulfil his part of the bargain. “I’ve learned to tell the truth, even if it hurts. People need to know what happens in war. You see what high explosives do to the human body. Men can just disintegrate and they’re on the missing list, or they lose their arms or their legs…or their minds. It’s terrible.”
On their final night in France, Hannam, Eddy, Muir and Alex Polowin of Ottawa, who served on HMCS Huron, are guests at a barbeque in the home of Francois Fremout. It is an evening of good food, wine, music and stories shared among three dozen guests.
Collet speaks for the group. “We want to thank the liberators,” he said, both for what they did in 1944 and for returning 70 years later. “We wish to meet each other and know each other. The message is: we’re all family.”
Linked By Gratitude
With major First World War and Second World War commemorations underway, locations linked to wartime history in Northwest Europe, especially the beaches of Normandy, are major tourist draws. Legion Magazine is grateful for the assistance it received from Atout France www.rendezvousenfrance.com, the Normandy Regional Tourist Board www.normandie-tourisme.fr, Rail Europe www.raileurope.ca and Air France www.airfrance.ca.
We encourage our readers to check out these other important links to learn more about Canada’s military contributions during the First and Second World Wars: www.cwgc.org for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; www.junobeach.org for the Juno Beach Centre; www.veterans.gc.ca for Veterans Affairs Canada.