Canadians travelling to France to mark the 65th anniversary of the D-Day landings and Normandy Campaign will find many events and locations dedicated to the contributions made by Canadians during the summer of 1944.
Details for some of the planned events were still being worked out by press time in March, but a major ceremony, including the unveiling of a monument in honour of the Royal Canadian Navy, is scheduled for 10 a.m. June 6 at the Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer, France.
The ceremony will also help launch a temporary exhibit titled We Were There which will tell the personal stories of 12 Canadian veterans. “The veterans represent a real cross-section” of the units that took part from across the country, explains Juno Beach Centre President Garth Webb.
Courseulles-sur-Mer was one of the seaside towns liberated by Canadians after they landed on Juno Beach on the morning of June 6, 1944. It is located approximately 20 kilometres north of Caen, a city that holds tremendous significance to veterans of the campaign.
A commemorative ceremony hosted by the municipality of Courseulles-sur-Mer will follow at 2:30 p.m. at the Monument to the Fallen, and a musical parade is planned for 4 p.m. followed by a torchlight procession of military vehicles at around 10:30 p.m.
On June 5, the day before official ceremonies, students from Courseulles-sur-Mer, Graye-sur-Mer and the Collège Quintefeuille are scheduled to take part in a 9 a.m. commemorative ceremony at the beach in front of the Winnipeg Rifles Monument at Courseulles. Other events include an open house and remembrance workshops at Collège Quintefeuille between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m., and a candlelight ceremony in front of the school’s Canadian monument at 10:30 p.m. The day will end with a seafront fireworks display in honour of the liberators, scheduled to begin at 11:15 p.m. It will be one of 25 simultaneous fireworks displays lighting up an 80-kilometre stretch of Normandy coastline. “The French people have been very active in supporting us,” adds Webb, himself a Canadian D-Day veteran.
There were more than 18,000 Canadian casualties—almost a third of them fatal—during the 76 days of the Normandy Campaign. As Canadian forces fought their way south towards Falaise, they liberated some 200 communities. Many of these places, including Buron, Authie and Falaise, have shown their gratitude to returning veterans.
To show its gratitude, the town of Courseulles-sur-Mer made a 1.5-hectare site available for the Juno Beach Centre, designed by Canadian architect Brian K. Chamberlain.
When it opened on June 6, 2003, it was estimated the centre could expect to attract 35,000 visitors annually. The following year it drew 53,500 visitors, and in 2007 the number rose to 58,000. French people account for 30 per cent of the annual visits—on par with Canadians.
One of the centre’s displays focuses on Canadian life and culture, which “contributes to making the museum popular with the French public who would not normally visit a Second World War museum,” explains centre Director, Nathalie Worthington. Its popularity is also due to “what makes it different from the other museums on the D-Day beaches.” It is the only Canadian museum and it offers guided tours of the beach and remains of the Atlantic Wall built by the Germans to fortify their occupation of Northwest Europe. New this year will be tours of a nearby German bunker.
Walking on Juno Beach was a highlight of a November 2008 Veterans Affairs Canada tour commemorating the 90th anniversary of the Armistice as well as Canadian contributions in the Second World War. “To be able to walk on the beach at Normandy, where our regiment went before…to experience first-hand the ground they covered, the hardships they endured…it’s a mind-opening and heart-opening event,” Royal Regiment of Canada Master Warrant Officer Ross Atkinson of Orangeville, Ont., said while visiting Juno Beach.
The cost of the fighting in that part of Normandy can been seen and felt in the Commonwealth war cemeteries, including Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, near the village of Reviers, Ranville War Cemetery near Caen and Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery near Bretteville. Further to the west, Canadians are also remembered at the Bayeux War Cemetery and Bayeux Memorial.
This year, a large VAC delegation led by the minister of Veterans Affairs is expected to travel to France to commemorate D-Day and the long and deadly struggle that preceded Normandy’s liberation. This official Government of Canada pilgrimage will include visits to battlefields and cemeteries.
A permanent exhibit at the Juno Beach Centre tells the story not just of Normandy, but of the wider Canadian war effort overseas and on the home front. Running to Sept. 30 is a special exhibition on Canada and the Italian Campaign. More than 92,700 Canadians served in that theatre and more than a quarter of them became casualties.
Commemorations for the Normandy Campaign will continue on June 7. Starting at 1 p.m. in the Canadian Memorial Garden at Mémorial de Caen, the Canadian Battlefields Foundation will conduct annual commemorative activities which will include a wreath-placing ceremony. The garden, established by the foundation, identifies Canadian units that participated in the liberation of Normandy in 1944. It also commemorates the communities in Normandy liberated by Canadians.
Ceremonies are also scheduled for 2 p.m. at the plaque honouring the Canadian liberation of Caen at Place de L’ancienne Boucherie, and at 3 p.m. at Abbaye d’Ardenne where 20 Canadian soldiers were murdered by the Germans in June 1944. University students on the foundation’s 15th annual Battlefield Study Tour will place maple leaves on the small garden memorial as names of the fallen are read aloud.
Later on in the summer—on July 9—the town of St. Martin-de-Fontenay is expected to unveil a monument to Canadian soldiers at Point 67, on the site where the foundation established a battlefield viewing area south of Caen. On the northern spur of Verrières Ridge, the location overlooks the battlefields where Canadian troops, particularly those of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division, fought in July and August 1944. It was not known at press time whether the new memorial will incorporate the existing Toronto Scottish Regiment memorial and plaque commemorating the Black Watch of Canada.
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