by Bill Fairbairn
“The happy part is remembering that after Normandy we advanced to victory.”
So said Ken Sloggett in June, near the end of a 12-day pilgrimage marking the 55th anniversary of D-Day. The tour organized by Veterans Affairs Canada took 60 Canadian veterans and 10 youth and cadet representatives to France and England. Sloggett should know. The Niagara Falls, Ont., resident was a private with the Lincoln and Welland Regiment in 1944, that August in the thick of Allied forces fighting desperately to close what was known as the Falaise Gap, hoping to snare German troops by then in retreat.
Only 10 weeks after the June 6 invasion by Allied troops storming the northwest shores of France, the Battle of Normandy ended at Chambois-Montormel. At that time, isolated troops of the 1st Polish Armoured Division were being relieved by Canadians. The fleeing Germans were blasted by planes and attacked by Poles, Canadians and by British troops. All had their own bitter reasons to settle the score once and for all. On the other side of the Dives River American and French troops also had reason to hit hard as the jaw tightened around the German positions.
Beneath the impressive monument at Montormel, with its panoramic view of the battleground, Sloggett recalled: “It was a hell’s-a-poppin place to be back then. When we arrived, friendly tanks encircled Polish troops in a defensive stockade and, truth to tell, the Poles were cooking their supper on fires. We had a you-scratch-my-back and I’ll-scratch-yours arrangement.” He added, “We were glad to help them.” Sloggett said he was proud to have been a D-Day soldier. “Once we got in we went all the way to Falaise, but we left a lot of men on the field. If you lived for 24 hours you were a soldier; if not, you were dead.”
At Falaise, near the end of the pilgrimage, 55 pigeons soared over the Canadian monument at yet another 55th anniversary ceremony. Their flight raised the gaze of the Canadian delegation standing fast in the city Canadians fought to liberate from German occupation in WW II. The pigeon flight was appropriate, said Michel Le Baron, mayor of Cintheaux, which is located between Caen and Falaise. “Before D-Day, the British dropped homing pigeons by parachute in containers that also held pigeon food and pencil and paper,” he recalled. “The French resistance retrieved them and sent messages of German military emplacements back to England.” The mayor recalled that as a boy of 11 he was almost caught retrieving a container. “I had been briefed to tell German soldiers I was picking flowers for my mother.
Dick Norris of Summerland, B.C., was an 18-year-old serving in the Royal Canadian Navy on D-Day. Norris called Southampton, England, his home port, and on the morning of June 6 he was an able seaman on a large landing craft. The sea was billowing as his flotilla transported soldiers to Juno Beach in Normandy. He remembers “confusion, panic, the magnitude of the assault,” but says his craft got the soldiers onto the beach under fire. “British ships were using their guns like artillery,” he recalls.
Another of the veterans, Monty Berger of Westmount, Que., was one of the first Royal Canadian Air Force ground intelligence officers to land in France. The loss of personal kit that floated away into a minefield during his 100-yard splash to the beach didn’t do much for his spirits. Berger, who served with No. 126 RCAF Spitfire Wing, and his party set off almost at once for Ste-Croix-sur-Mer, about two miles inland from Vaux. His job there was to help establish an early temporary landing strip, but he soon realized they were in a battle area. “Here we were, minimally trained for combat, in France long before many of the crack army units had arrived. Had we got into a knockdown fight, I don’t know what would have happened.” Berger, who served in Europe until after VE-Day, is a former president of the Legion’s Press, Radio and Television Branch in Montreal. He is co-author of the book Invasions Without Tears.
Stanley Biggs of Toronto remembers inspirational visits by General Bernard Montgomery leading up to D-Day. The former flame warfare and Bren-gun carrier officer was in one of the first waves of 155,715 Alliedtroops–including 15,000 Canadians–who embarked. He landed at Bernières-sur-Mer. Soon his Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada had fought through towns held by the Germans. He survived the Normandy campaign, but was later wounded. He wrote a poem about his regiment’s experience that concludes:
“Sixty-one were now dead and 82 wounded
Winning honour and glory in the regiment’s story.”
From Caen to Falaise, the pace of the pilgrimage was fast, smooth and well led by Veterans Affairs Minister Fred Mifflin. Highlights were everywhere, and the veterans stood tall as French National Assembly deputies and city and town mayors praised their bravery. Stops included the beautiful Bretteville-surLaize Canadian War Cemetery, where 2,872 Canadians are buried, Beny-sur-Mer, where 2,044 Canadians lie, and Ranville War Cemetery, resting place for 76 Canadians.
At Juno Beach in Bernières-sur-Mer, where on the day of the 55th anniversary Canadian Heritage Minister Sheila Copps unveiled a plaque honouring the invaders, the area was declared a National Historic Site. Youth walked alongside veterans on the sandy beach. The famous house that Canadians liberated has been renovated. A photograph from 55 years previous shows it standing stark and alone as Canadian soldiers carrying bicycles came ashore. Today, half the house is a holiday home for a Parisian couple; Catherine Hentgen said she did not at all mind the historic interest in her home.
Copps said that in 1944 the soldiers had come to Normandy as Canadian children, but served as Canadian men. Dr. Roger Sarty, Canadian War Museum director of’historical research, provided context to the landings but added: “I’m not so foolish as to think that by reading books someone from my generation can really comprehend the intensity of the fighting you endured. Indeed, I’m here to learn from you.”
At Bretteville-sur-Laize, a monument was unveiled honouring Pte. Gerard Doré of Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal, FMR, at 16 the youngest Canadian in WW II to die in the Normandy Campaign. Mayor Le Baron told veterans: “Today, like yesterday, you are dear Canadians standing alongside France…. Dear veterans, dear Canadians, you are a most generous country. Your heart is as big as your nation…. Long live Canadian veterans.”
At Verrières Ridge, Colin Gibson of Ancaster, Ont., told fellow veterans how his regiment lost 53 men defending the German stronghold it had taken that August. He was a lieutenant in the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. At nearby St-André-sur-Orne, wreaths were dedicated to the Régiment de Maisonneuve and the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada (Black Watch), whose advance over open space proved devastatingly costly.
An Allied ceremony at Graye-sur-Mer beach featured the flags of Belgium, Britain, Canada, France, Netherlands, Norway, Poland and the United States, with soldiers parading below. Addressing the crowd from a beach hilltop, Mifflin said Canadians were not alone in displaying gallantry, skill and daring on D-Day. “I look today at the sailboats and children playing on the sand with grandparents smiling, secure and happy to see Canadians. Fifty-five years ago there were thousands of ships, a quarter of a million young men, tremendous obstacles and fear in people’s eyes. We are proud to say to veterans it is because you were there 55 years ago.”
As members of the delegation read in Museum records at Caen and Bayeux in France, and at Portsmouth in England, the Normandy invasion plans were first developed in 1943, following up on lessons learned during the thwarted 1942 Dieppe raid. Through 1943, the Germans strengthened coastal formations known as the Atlantic Wall and by June 1944 ships of all kinds were ready in English ports. Not all of German General Rommel’s enemies would come from the sea, however. The French resistance–in contrast to Vichy collaborators–were sending the messages to London.
Some Canadian veterans on the pilgrimage recalled that June 5 was originally chosen for the D-Day attack, but a bad weather forecast delayed it by one day. Then, early on June 6 convoys of landing ships and craft set out, protected by fighter aircraft squadrons. Destroyers watched for enemy submarines and warships. Lancasters bombed the German coastal batteries. Twelve flotillas of minesweepers swept channels for the massive assault forces. Airborne forces had already captured a few vital bridges and gun batteries. A British midget submarine surfaced off Normandy to show a green light. The Germans only then realized a deception had persuaded them of an imminent invasion in the Pas de Calais rather than Normandy.
Before dawn the invasion fleet assembled off the beaches. Despite rough weather there had been no serious loss, though tanks had gone down and seasickness was rampant.
Records show that at Utah Beach, the 4th U.S. Infantry Div. joined airborne troops in a beachhead. At Omaha Beach, the 1st U.S. Inf. Div. met determined German opposition. Landing craft were swamped and 27 amphibious tanks sunk. At a cost of more than 5,000 casualties over five days, a six-mile beachhead was secured. At, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches three assault divisions of British and:Canadian troops progressed, although final objectives had been obstructed by obstacles hidden by the high tide.
Tanks of the 7th Armoured Div. were successfully floated onto the beach to support infantry of the 50th British Infantry Div. on Gold Beach, the 3rd Canadian Inf. Div. on Juno and the 3rd British Inf Div. on Sword. An artificial harbour was built at Arromanches to supply the Allied troops in the weeks to come.
The Canadians fought on through Normandy’s wood and pasture land, not knowing what might lurk round the next hill. On one of those June days in 1944, German General Kurt Meyer observed Canadian soldiers advancing beyond protection of their artillery. The commander of the 25th Panzer Grenadier Regt. of the 12th SS Panzer Div.–the Hitler Youth–was headquartered at the Abbaye d’Ardenne, northwest of Caen. The Germans captured 18 men, and, apparently angered because they would give only number, rank, name and regiment, shot them. (Two more were killed later.) Frenchman Jacques Vico, a child at the time living across from the abbey, told the story to the visiting veterans on the spot where the murders had taken place. Wreaths were placed, and rain fell like tears from an overhead chestnut tree.
Fernand Mousseau of Ottawa, a former FMR major, said the bitter fighting to liberate Caen was tough, much like what was depicted in the movie Saving Private Ryan. During the pilgrimage, wreaths honoured both veterans and Caen citizens. Veterans wore commemorative medals earlier presented by Charles Belzile of the Canadian Battle of Normandy Foundation and by Mifflin at the Caen Memorial For Peace. .
When Falaise was finally seized by the Allies in August 1944, Orval Hanna of Burnt River, Ont., was a military policeman there and his photograph was taken at a local fountain. It was later placed in the Canadian public archives. On this visit, Hanna was overcome when local police escorted him to what is left of the fountain. One French policeman undid his uniform to reveal Hanna’s wartime photo on the shirt he was wearing. Another took off his badge and gave it to Hanna. “I never expected all this,” said the astonished veteran.
At Urville Polish Military Cemetery, where rows of aggregate crosses contrast the polished white headstone tablets of Canadian war cemeteries, a prayer was offered by Mitch Lutczyk of Oshawa, Ont., a member of the 1st Polish that fought alongside the Canadians. Marcelina Styczynska of Calgary, one of 10 youth representatives, and Lutczyk recited a prayer in Polish after wreaths were placed.
“The sad part of this pilgrimage is that a week ago I had never seen those comrades (met on the tour), and next week I will never see them again,” noted Sloggett.
Cliff Chadderton, chairman of the National Council of Veteran Associations in Canada, who was twice wounded in the war, said during a closing dinner that the media presence on the tour was important to keep the message alive. Legion Vice-President Frank Bilotta, a WW II veteran wounded at Utrecht, Belgium, said Canadian history should be taught in our schools. “They say it’s a provincial problem, but I ask, why can’t they teach our history under a federal Act (of Parliament)?”
Mifflin praised the youth delegates and cadets: “All in all, I think we did our jobs and truly honoured the Canadians who fell on the beaches and in the towns and helped set the stage for victory in Belgium, Holland and Germany.”