Fighting Normandy’s Terrain: Army, Part 90

Canadian officers visit the Queen’s Own Rifles House during training last June. [PHOTO:  NICK LACHANCE]

Canadian officers visit the Queen’s Own Rifles House during training last June.
PHOTO: NICK LACHANCE

This story marks the start of a new series on the Canadian Army’s experience during the campaign in Normandy and Northwest Europe, 1944-45. Having just returned from another battlefield study tour with eight students from my university, Wilfrid Laurier, and an equal number from the Université de Montréal, I have been reflecting on the enormous changes that have occurred since my first visit to these battlefields in the early 1980s.

The late Robert Vogel and I were then beginning work on what became the five-volume Maple Leaf Route series, and I wanted to see the ground the Canadians fought over. I came away with two strong impressions. First, it was evident that something really needed to be done to commemorate the Canadian achievement on the actual battlefields where soldiers fought. Thirty years later, the Juno Beach Centre, the Canadian Memorial Garden in Caen, the recently opened memorial park at Point 67/Verrières Ridge and the battlefield viewing area at St. Lambert-sur-Dives along with many new regimental plaques offer a far more complete picture of the Canadian achievement in Normandy. Much remains to be done in Northern France, but in Belgium the excellent Canada Museum in Adagem is a model of what the vision of one man, Gilbert van Landschoot, can achieve. Surprisingly, no similar project has been undertaken in the Netherlands, perhaps because memories of the Canadians there are still so strong.

My second conclusion was that historians needed to pay far more attention to the natural and man-made obstacles that the German soldiers had defended and the Canadians had overcome.  The ground over which the battles had been fought is an important basic source at both the operational and tactical level. After our research centre at Wilfrid Laurier acquired an extensive collection of air photographs, originally used by First Canadian Army’s Air Photo Interpretation Section to update maps with information on German defences and gun positions, it became possible to compare the landscape of 1944-45 with what the visitor could see on the ground years later. The importance of terrain features, rivers, woods, hills and ridges with protected reverse slopes needs to be emphasized in all accounts of battles. The students on our tour had spent a day at Dieppe before arriving in lower Normandy and the contrast of the wide beaches, low sand dunes and open country between villages in the Juno sector seemed to offer a simple explanation for the success of 3rd Division on D-Day. A visit to Omaha Beach, which struck many as an even stronger defensive position than Dieppe, confirmed the view that you had to actually see the ground before you could understand what happened. Man-made features, especially villages and fortified strongpoints also need to be considered and the air photos allowed us to distinguish between the human footprint of 1944 and the contemporary landscape.

German prisoners captured at Bernières-sur-Mer embark for England. [PHOTO:  KEN BELL, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA132474]

German prisoners captured at Bernières-sur-Mer embark for England.
PHOTO: KEN BELL, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA132474

Walking the beaches provides an object lesson in the importance of the ground. From the water’s edge at the Juno Beach Centre, where the Royal Winnipeg Rifles landed, you can begin to understand the varying fortunes of the assault forces on D-Day. C Company of the Canadian Scottish Regiment had been tasked to extend and protect the Winnipeg’s right flank, securing a gun position that might interfere with the landings. The beach, now labelled with a sign that reads “Camping Canadian Scottish,” was wide and undefended and the gun a “dummy.” The company got off the beach with few casualties and waited for the rest of the battalion to land before moving inland. Twenty-three Canadian Scottish soldiers were killed in action on June 6—most during the advance that occurred well after the beach was secured.

The right flank company of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles (RWR), landing at Mike Green beach was able to cross the beach quickly and begin clearing Graye-sur-Mer. Lieutenant-Colonel John Meldram, the Winnipeg commanding officer, credited the “gallantry, dash and determination” of the First Hussars for much of the day’s success. The Hussars, by “neutralizing enemy machine guns” and using their firepower with complete disregard for their own safety, assisted in the capture of the beachhead and exploitation beyond.

The fate of the RWR’s B Company landing at Mike Red, directly in front of the strongpoint protecting the port of Courseulles-sur-Mer, was very different. “The bombardment having failed to kill a single German or silence one weapon these companies had to storm their positions cold and did so without hesitation.” The bunkers and pillboxes were finally cleared with the aid of Hussar tanks and since the enemy had failed to destroy the bridge over the River Seulles, the remains of B Company and a few tanks crossed the flooded river and cleared the “island” formed by the long meander in the river. By the afternoon, B Company was reduced to one officer and 26 men. The combat engineers of 6th Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, suffered similar losses.

A similar pattern emerged on the east bank of the Seulles where the Regina Rifles came ashore.  B Company landing at the strongpoint was savaged by direct fire. A Company hit the beach a few hundred yards to the east and raced across the sand to begin clearing the village in a well co-ordinated infantry-armour sweep. The decision to commit two companies to a frontal attack was taken with full knowledge of the difficulties and likely costs but the presence of 88-mm and 75-mm gun emplacements able to fire on successive waves of landing craft forced the planners to gamble on a direct assault.

The Queen’s Own Rifles at Nan White Beach had planned to land well away from the resistance nest and take the position from the flanks. Company Sergeant-Major Charlie Martin’s haunting description of the run in to the beaches captures the drama of the assault: “As we moved further from the mother ship and closer to the shore it came as a shock to realize the assault fleet just behind us had disappeared from view. Suddenly there was just us and an awful lot of ocean….Ten boats stretched out over fifteen hundred yards is not really a whole lot of assault force. The boats began to look even tinier as the gaps widened, with more than the length of a football field between them.”

Canadian troops on the outskirts of St. Aubin-sur-Mer on D-Day. [PHOTO:  FRANK L. DUBERVILL, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA128789]

Canadian troops on the outskirts of St. Aubin-sur-Mer on D-Day.
PHOTO: FRANK L. DUBERVILL, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA128789

Unfortunately, the Landing Craft Assault or LCA’s were pushed to the east by the force of the winds and B Company hit the beach directly in front of the resistance nest. The QOR war diary records: “B Company immediately catches a packet of trouble as they are landed in front of a heavily defended position….The support all around has been very disappointing—none of the beach defences have been touched and this caused very heavy casualties among the assault companies.”

With 61 killed and 84 wounded, the QOR’s lost more men than any other Canadian battalion on D-Day. Visitors today focus on Queen’s Own Rifles House, which was liberated by A Company in the first rush across the beach. A plaque in front of the house reads: “This house was liberated at first light on D-Day 6 June 1944 by the men of the Queen’s Own Rifles who were the first Canadians to land on the beach. It may well have been the first house liberated by seaborne Allied forces. Within sight of the house, over 100 men of the Queen’s Own Rifles were killed or wounded, in the first few minutes of the landings.”

The Régiment de la Chaudière, 8th Brigade’s reserve battalion, landed on the crowded bridge at Bernières waiting behind the seawall while the Queen’s Own dealt with the last diehards among the beach defences. The village of Bernières-sur-Mer sits well back from the sea and once the defensive crust was overcome, the Chaudières moved through the streets, amazing the villagers by addressing them in French. By 11:50 a.m. the Fort Garry tanks, self-propelled artillery of 14th Field Regt. and the Chaudières were ready to set off for Beny-sur-Mer and beyond. The defenders were not quite done and a German artillery battery struck hard. Three self-propelled M8 “Priest” guns, towing ammunition sledges, were hit and a series of explosions killed and wounded a number of gunners and Chaudières. The advance to Beny-sur-Mer did not begin until mid-afternoon.

The North Shore (New Brunswick) Regt. landed to the west of the formidable resistance nest at St. Aubin-sur-Mer. Minefields, pillboxes, 50-mm anti-tank guns, two 75-mm field guns, bunkers and tunnels awaited the assault companies after they fought their way across the beach to the coastal road. Marc Milner, the University of New Brunswick historian and fellow Legion Magazine contributor, has written a detailed account of the North Shores from D-Day to Carpiquet. He argues, convincingly, that the New Brunswickers faced the “toughest task of any single battalion on D-Day….” The fortified village of Tailleville with “elaborate trenches and underground shelters” and the strongly defended radar complex of Douvres-la-Déliverande were both North Shore objectives. No other Canadian D-Day beach had such strong inland obstacles blocking the advance.

While the North Shore’s assault companies, supported by tanks of the Fort Garry Horse and several Royal Marine Centaur tanks with 95-mm concrete busting guns, subdued the resistance nest, the reserve companies began a day-long battle for Tailleville. Today’s visitor can follow their route, reliving part of the experience of 1944 by observing the abrupt transition from the narrow streets of a stone-walled Norman village to the open countryside beyond. From Tailleville the D 35 highway runs along a slight rise paralleling the landing beaches and leading to Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery near the village of Reviers. One of just two Canadian cemeteries in Normandy, it contains the graves of 2,049 men killed in the fighting for the beaches and battlefields north of Caen. On our study tours each student presents a carefully researched soldier biography at the gravesite establishing a personal connection with a young man usually of similar age. Everyone walks the rows of markers reading the inscriptions that help us to understand that these men were individuals, sons, brothers, fathers, much loved and much missed.

The 9th Canadian Infantry Bde. was to lead the advance to the high ground at Carpiquet on D-Day, but when it came, ashore late on the morning of June 6 the beaches were packed with troops of the 8th Bde. No one who was at Bernières that day could ever forget the confusion as vehicles and men milled about on the beaches and narrow village streets. Drivers took the opportunity to de-waterproof their trucks and tanks. Ross Munro, the Canadian Press correspondent who had been present at Dieppe and on the shores of Sicily, took one look at the chaos and got as far away as he could. Fortunately, the Germans did not shell or bomb the village.

The extraordinary achievements of the Allied soldiers, who won the battles for the beachhead despite the failure of the preparatory bombardment, have failed to impress most military historians. C.P. Stacey extended this critique to the Canadians when he wrote: “Reviewing the day as a whole…one may be permitted to enquire whether we could have accomplished even more on the 6th of June. Was it really impossible to reach the inland objectives? Could not a more sustained effort in the later phases have produced deeper penetration…? It is worth noting that more than one reserve brigade did not come into full action on D-Day. We shall see in this volume that the British and Canadian forces—and the same is probably true of those of the United States—were usually better at deceiving the enemy and achieving initial success in the assault than they were at exploiting surprise and success once achieved. Perhaps they were too easily satisfied.”

For most Allied soldiers, seasick and deprived of sleep, D-Day passed in a blur. The men interviewed in the following days could rarely recall even approximate timings. All of them had studied the air photos and rehearsed their actions, but no training could have prepared them for the noise and confusion of combat. During the advance inland the British and Canadians fought the way they had been trained, moving forward to objectives in controlled bounds and digging in at the first sign of a counterattack. Given the uncertainties surrounding the whole invasion project, this was a sensible, if cautious, approach to battle. One Canadian officer, Lt.-Col. F.N. Cabeldu, commenting on the rumours that swept through the ranks that day recalled that “we were green soldiers in a strange land” and that “everything was new.” The sight of comrades lying face down in the water or sprawled lifeless on the sands registered, but in the rush of events there was no time to mourn. Gordon Brown, who landed with the Reginas as the transport officer, helped some of his wounded comrades and then got on with the job of landing the battalion’s vehicles. Later in the day he learned that his best friend, Lieut. Glen Dickin, who had survived the beach assault, had been killed by mortar fire at Fontaine-Henry. Brown was stunned by the news but carried on with his duties, just the way thousands of other young men did.

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