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Canadian Battlefields In France Recognized

by Dan Black

From top: A view of St-Lambert-sur-Dives; Canadian Battle of Normandy Foundation President Charles Belzile (third from right) and Jacques Longuet des Digueres open the belvedere.

Up until last June, Canadian tourists could have easily driven through the tiny Normandy village of St-Lambert-sur-Dives without ever realizing its significance to Canada. But the chance of doing that today has been greatly diminished thanks to the Canadian Battle of Normandy Foundation, local residents and a birthday gift presented to Canadian banker John Cleghorn from his family.

Nestled in a rolling valley where narrow farm lanes and secondary roads converge to cross the meandering Dives River, the village–approximately 20 kilometres south of Falaise–was of vital importance to the Allies and to the Germans during World War II. In August 1944 it was where German forces–numbering in the thousands–were trying to escape eastward through a narrow gap in the Falaise Pocket. It was also where Major David Currie of the South Alberta Regiment earned the Victoria Cross.

On June 8, the foundation, which is committed to educating people about Canada’s wartime contributions, established a battlefield viewing area or belvedere on the slope just north of the village. Earlier that day, the foundation unveiled a plaque at another historic, but largely forgotten location south of the Normandy capital of Caen. Referred to as Point 67, the hill overlooking the village of St-André-sur-Orne was the northern spur of Verrières Ridge, which in July 1944 was the key to the German defences south of Caen.

Both events–as well as three wreath-placing ceremonies held in and around Caen on June 7th–drew lots of attention from local residents as well as Canadians, many of whom had travelled to France to visit or revisit places where Canadian soldiers fought during the 10-week Normandy campaign.

John Cleghorn, chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, was not at the ceremony because he had to attend chancellory duties. However, he was represented by his family, including daughter Andrea. “Dad has been a major history buff for a long time,” she explained. “He loves to travel around and follow the routes Canadian soldiers took during the war. He learned a lot from Professor Terry Copp, a director with the foundation.”

And so for his 60th birthday, Andrea’s mother talked to Copp about how the family could make a donation. It was suggested the family help by establishing a belvedere that would improve people’s understanding of what Canadians did at St-Lambert, which was located in the gap between the towns of Trun and Chambois. The cost of the project was approximately $100,000 and one-third of that came from the Cleghorns. “I wish dad could be here right now,” said Andrea. “I know how proud he would have been to see it all come together like this, especially all the people in attendance. Most of all, he would have been proud of the Canadians who fought here.”

Some time ago, the South Alberta Regiment erected a historical marker at the edge of the village, and its text commemorates Currie’s achievement. The location of the belvedere affords an excellent view of the village and surrounding countryside. Visitors can also view a three-dimensional map oriented to the east to conform with the view of the battlefield. It shows the positions of Allied forces as well as the German escape route.Visitors can picture the escape route and gain an appreciation for the Allied position.

On Aug. 18, 1944 the regiment moved through Trun where enemy soldiers were trying to surrender. Shortly after, Currie’s tank squadron arrived at an orchard overlooking the Dives. “In the distance, we could see rising clouds of dust,” Currie noted. “We were witnessing…the remnants of the German forces in France trying to escape the pocket. The columns were about three to four miles from our location and seemed to consist of every type and kind of vehicle…. The column stretched for as far as we could see….”

Currie, who was in command of a small force of tanks, self-propelled anti-tank guns and infantry, was ordered to cut one of the main escape routes from the Falaise Pocket. In the face of fierce opposition from enemy tanks, guns and infantry he and his men succeeded in seizing a position halfway inside the village. “During the next 36 hours the Germans hurled one counter-attack after another against the Canadian force,” states the citation for Currie’s VC, “but so skilfully had Major Currie organized his defensive position that these attacks were repulsed with severe casualties to the enemy….”

The land for the site was donated by Jacques Longuet des Digueres, who as a boy witnessed the battle up close. His father was killed during the fighting.

Foundation President Charles Belzile, a retired lieutenant-general, said the wheelchair-accessible site will be used not only by visiting Canadians, but by any tourist who happens to arrive in the village. “It is very nice to see the activities the foundation is doing over here, and the close working relationships it has with the mayors and other dignitaries,” said Dominion President Allan Parks, moments after the site was unveiled. “I know that the students who come over here through the foundation will be able to take back to Canada what they learn here…. It is also really nice to see a family get together and pass on its generosity–a generosity that will serve to educate people of all ages.”

The plaque at Point 67 also serves to educate as does the impressive memorial to the Toronto Scottish Regiment and an earlier plaque that recognizes the role of the Black Watch (Royal Highland) Regiment of Canada. The location overlooks the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division’s battlefields of July and August 1944. The new plaque commemorates the Régiment de Maisonneuve and the July 22, 1944, liberation of the village of Étavaux. Several dignitaries and a number of visitors attended the ceremony that included the placing of wreaths and the Act of Remembrance read by retired colonel Jacques W. Ostiguy, who earned the Distinguished Service Order at Étavaux while serving with the Régiment de Maisonneuves.

The viewing area, which was a joint project of the Toronto Scottish Regiment and the CBNF, includes an explanatory note describing the service of the Toronto Scottish in WW I and II. In July 1944 the regiment was the support battalion of the 2nd Cdn. Div., and its support consisted of one company of 4.2-inch heavy mortars and three companies of Vickers medium machine-guns.

The Black Watch plaque, erected in 2002, commemorates the regiment’s role during the advance to Fontenay-le-Marmion. Unveiled by veterans and current members of the regiment, it notes that the advance was met by heavy mortar and machine-gun fire from well-concealed positions on the ridge and by a powerful counter-attack from a battle group of 2nd Panzer Div. The Black Watch suffered 307 casualties in this action, including 123 who were killed or later died of their wounds. These sacrifices have not been forgotten here.

David Patterson, a director with the CBNF, said the people of Normandy–especially those living in the areas that were liberated by Canadians–are very conscious of Canada’s wartime role. “I’d wager that you’d see more Canadian flags on houses over here than you would see on houses back in Canada. In the village of Authie, for example, they actually named a school after Canadian veteran Bill Baillie.”

Baillie of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders was credited with saving his company from encirclement by the enemy.

Parks said the three wreath-placing ceremonies were powerful, thought-provoking moments. They were held at the Canadian Memorial Garden outside le Memorial Museum in Caen, in the Place de l’Ancienne Boucherie near Caen city hall and in a garden between two stone walls at the Abbaye d’Ardenne.

Canadian guide Celine Garbay said the memorial garden was a CBNF project that grew out of a decision by the museum to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landings. The museum came up with the idea of an international garden space and offered land to the Americans, British and Canadians. The American garden is traditional, with lots of shrubbery and a waterfall designed by professional architects and horticulturalists. The British space has yet to be developed.

“The CBNF wanted something quite different. It brought 12 university students over here for 12 weeks. These young people were students of landscape design and architecture and so they did not have much of a connection to Canada’s military history.” But during their time in Normandy, the students spent a lot of time visiting and revisiting the landing beaches, battlefields and cemeteries. Eventually they were put into groups where they explored ideas for the garden.

The result is a “garden where nature, renewing itself eternally, mingles with memory,” notes the CBNF. The terrace on the northern side of the garden valley lists the names of all Canadian units in the liberation of Normandy. There is involved a black fissure in the terrace that symbolizes the descent into war. On the south side, trees surround a black slab in a pool of running water, on which have been inscribed Virgil’s words: “No Day Will Ever Erase You From The Memory Of Time.” On the wall behind the pool are the names of 122 Normandy communities liberated by Canadian soldiers.

The ceremony at Place de l’Ancienne Boucherie commemorates the July 9, 1944, liberation of the centre of Caen by Canadian forces. By noon that day elements of 9th Cdn. Inf. Brigade, supported by tanks of the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regt., reached the square where they shook hands with jubilant citizens.

The ceremony at Abbaye d’Ardenne, where 20 Canadian soldiers were murdered by the Germans in June 1944–was packed with emotion. Some people wept while listening to the tragedy as described by Jacques Vico, a former member of the French resistence. “The battle had been raging all afternoon on the 7th of June in Authie and in Buron. The Canadians, despite their enthusiasm and their bravery, sustained heavy losses: death, wounded or prisoners. The 12th SS Panzer were enraged and against all the laws of war. They finished off the wounded and murdered the prisoners.”

An unfortunate part of war, said Belzile, is when the participants forget their sense of humanity. “This was dramatically demonstrated at this site….”

One of the most powerful moments came when Canadian guides Celine Garbay, Mackenzie Brooks-Hein and Stéphane Savard placed maple leaves on the monument that bears the names of the murdered Canadians.

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An informative primer on Canada’s crucial role in the Normandy landing, June 6, 1944.