The beginning of the end of Nazi-occupied Europe began well before the May 1945 liberation of the Netherlands, when Allied forces stormed the shores of Normandy in June 1944. Thousands of lives were lost and thousands more shattered during the long and difficult battles that brought liberation to France, Belgium and the Netherlands over the next several months.
They were days filled with incredible moments of courage and sacrifice, many of which will remain untold and lost forever to time. Among the more well known and preserved D-Day moments, however, is one found on a grainy black and white film shot by Sergeant Bill Grant of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit (CAFPU). Dubbed the iconic footage of the greatest assault landing in history and lasting only two minutes and 10 seconds, the clip shows Canadian infantry disembarking from an assault craft at Bernières-sur-Mer on June 6, 1944.
According to James O’Regan’s splendid documentary history of the CAFPU, Shooters, this footage was the first seen by Eisenhower and Montgomery, Roosevelt and Churchill, and it remains the only actual film of the assault to survive.
Anyone who has ever seen a documentary on the Normandy landings has seen it, and many Canadians know it well. Don Cherry even featured the footage on Coaches Corner during the NHL playoff game on June 6, 2009. But Canadians have no idea who these men are and where the footage was shot. It is time they knew.
The footage shows men of the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment landing on Nan Red, the codename for one of the beaches in the Canadian assault area.
For Canadians, uncertainty over “who and where” stems from the knowledge that the footage was shot at Bernières-sur-Mer. As anyone who knows a little about the Canadian role in D-Day will tell you, the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, a Toronto unit, landed at Bernières. Western battalions of the 7th Canadian Brigade landed at Courseulles-sur-Mer, and it has been generally assumed that the North Shore (N.B.) Regt. landed at St. Aubin-sur-Mer on the eastern flank. Descriptions of their landing focus on the perils of the seawall, the gun position that caused so much trouble, which sits on the seawall in the heart of the village even today. There has also been the presence of Canadian and French commemorations of the assault on St. Aubin at the location of the gun position. Pilgrims naturally gravitate to the gun position and the memorial, and descriptions of the North Shore (N.B.) Regt. assault along that seawall in front of the village naturally follow—I know, because I did it many times.
But the North Shore (N.B.) Regt. did not land at St. Aubin-sur-Mer: they, too, landed at Bernières-sur-Mer. In fact, they landed in the little seaside community of La Rive Plage which was—and remains—part of the municipality of Bernières. The regiment’s assault came ashore on either side of an open stretch of beach, which is now a park, designed by D-Day planners as gap N-7. On June 6, 1944, the eastern side of N-7 was dominated by a waterfront chateau, protected on three sides by a large seawall. The chateau and its seawall were severely damaged during the assault. Since then, tide and time—and probably military engineers looking for material to build tracks through N-7 and the great storm of June 19-22, 1944—removed all trace. The area where the chateau and its seawall stood is now a broad expanse of beach, and it is where the village of St. Aubin—fittingly—conducts its annual D-Day memorial, because this is where the landing actually happened.
The North Shore (N.B.) Regt. landed on either side of gap N-7. B Company landed on the left, near the chateau, followed by D. The iconic film footage of D-Day shows the assault on the west side, which was led by A Company with C Company following in reserve.
The first to make a definitive connection between the film footage and the North Shore (N.B.) Regt. was British historian Tim Saunders. His book, Juno Beach, published as part of the Battleground Europe: Normandy series issued by Pen and Sword Books in the U.K. in 2004, identified houses in the footage that are still standing on the beach. His book includes a 2004 photograph of the small, rather square two-storey waterfront home that stands in the centre of most of Grant’s incredible footage. Other photos taken by Saunders and passed to this writer also show the elaborate timber-framed house with the attached garage that occasionally slips into the right-hand frame of the D-Day footage: it too, still stands. In 2006, I had a chance to confirm all this on site, and to confirm with survivors of the Royal Marine Commands, who came ashore behind the North Shore (N.B.) Regt., the location of the chateau and its seawall.
The presence of these two houses at La Rive Plage confirms that the footage of the Normandy invasion shows the North Shore (N.B.) Regt. landing on D-Day. But whether it is A or C company, it’s hard to say. Saunders says emphatically that the footage is of A Company. Fred Moar of Miramichi, N.B., the last surviving North Shore (N.B.) Regt. officer who landed on D-Day and a young platoon commander at the time, agrees. He reviewed the footage in 2006 and identified the soldier who turns his face in profile to the camera (after someone places his hand on his shoulder) as Private Baker of A Company. He may be right. But A Company had to fight its way to shore. The footage shows men walking rather casually on the beach, and at least one other Landing Craft Assault already ahead of the one carrying the camera—which strongly suggests C Company.
For the moment it is enough to know who these men are: they deserve that at least. It would be better still if those travelling to Normandy to honour their memory would drift away from the formal site of commemoration and take the time to visit the beaches at Bernières-sur-Mer where they came ashore. They will find no evidence of the landings along those quiet stretches. Sadly, at that place they will find nothing to mark the sacrifice of D-Day and nothing to mark the site of the iconic film footage of the greatest assault landing in the history of the world.
VIDEO: BILL GRANT, CANADIAN ARMY FILM AND PHOTO UNIT, COURTESY THE GREGG CENTRE, UNB
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