The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada touched down on Juno Beach at 8:12 a.m. on June 6, 1944, almost a half-hour late. The sea was very rough, many of the riflemen seasick, but the men, with two companies in 10 assault boats in the first wave, hit the beach in front of the seaside town of Bernières-sur-Mer running. “Ten boats stretched out over 1,500 yards is not really a whole lot of assault force,” Company Sergeant Charlie Martin wrote later. On the maps, the Queen’s Own was shown as a battalion, almost one thousand strong. But on the beach at the critical moment, the regiment had two companies, with at most, 250 men stretched out over more than a mile and with no communication between each platoon-sized boatload.
Worsening the situation was that the heavy bombers from the Royal Air Force, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the United States Army Air Force had dropped their loads too far inland, almost completely missing the Atlantic Wall’s massive concrete bunkers. The naval gunfire from the hundreds of British, American and Canadian warships offshore initially was almost equally ineffective, and the Typhoons that had been ordered to bomb and strafe Juno Beach had their runs disrupted by the low-hanging clouds. None of the main German positions on the QOR’s beach had been hit.
The Germans were on full alert and manning their heavy weapons. They were not the Wehrmacht’s finest troops: from the 736th Infantry Regiment of the static 716th Infantry Division, they were older men and reluctant conscripts with some Ost-truppen from Nazi-conquered territories. But firing from their almost impregnable bunkers, the enemy posed a serious problem for the Canadians. One deadly 88-mm gun wiped out most of a platoon of riflemen before it was knocked out of action. Another half company of Canadians fell to machine-gun fire from a large concrete bunker before the survivors managed to reach the cover provided by the high seawall 200 metres inland.
The losses were heavy. Jim Wilkins, a rifleman from B Company, remembered that his Landing Craft Assault, “stops and begins to toss in the waves. The ramp goes down and without hesitation my section leader, Corporal John Gibson, jumps out well over his waist in water. He only makes a few yards and is killed. We have landed dead on into a pillbox with a machine-gun blazing away at us. We didn’t hesitate and jumped into the water one after the other—I was last of the first row,” Wilkins said.
“Where was everybody? My section are only half there—some were just floating [dead or wounded] on their Mae Wests. My Bren gun team of Tommy Dalrymple and Kenny Scott are just in front of me when something hit my left magazine pouch and stops me up short for a moment. The round had gone right through two magazines, entered my left side and came out my back. Kenny keeps yelling come on, ‘come on’—’I’m coming, I’m coming,’ I yell to him,” Wilkins recalled. “We are now up to our knees in water and you can hear a kind of buzzing sound all around as well as the sound of the machine-gun itself. All of a sudden something slapped the side of my right leg and then a round caught me dead centre up high on my right leg causing a compound fracture. By this time I was flat on my face in the water—I’ve lost my rifle, my helmet is gone…. The man beside me is dead within minutes. All the while we are looking up at the machine-gun firing just over our heads at the rest of our platoon and company and then our platoon sergeant and friend of mine, who had given up a commission to be with us, was killed right in front of me.”
What made the difference, what led to the ultimate success of the landing on the Queen’s Own portion of Juno Beach, was the courage of Canadian soldiers. The riflemen who survived the initial bursts of fire began to root out and kill the Wehrmacht defenders, and three men put the machine-gun that had wounded Wilkins out of action by pitching hand grenades through the bunker’s firing slits. The Toronto regiment was ashore to stay.
The decision to invade France had been made by American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Quebec Conference in August 1943. The two Allied leaders knew the only way to defeat Nazi Germany was to get large armies into France and drive toward Hitler’s Reich. They placed United States General Dwight D. Eisenhower in overall command with British General Bernard L. Montgomery as ground forces commander.The assault, a huge and extraordinarily complex combined operation called Overlord, had to land five infantry divisions and armoured units from three nations on five separate beaches on the Normandy coast, as well as drop three airborne divisions on the flanks. Thousands of aircraft and some 7,000 vessels had to be co-ordinated, men and supplies properly positioned, and an elaborate deception program maintained. By 1944, the Allies had gained some experience in mounting invasions on a defended shore, and the lessons learned from the Canadian disaster at Dieppe two years before had been digested: heavy air and naval bombardment was a requirement; the assault should proceed over open beaches and not at a defended port; and the employment of specialized landing craft and armoured vehicles was essential.The five invasion beaches—dubbed Gold and Sword for the British, Juno for the 3rd Canadian Div. and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, and Utah and Omaha for the Americans—had been well prepared for defence by the energetic and able German commander, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who had greatly strengthened the Atlantic Wall. Everyone, including Rommel, knew the invasion was coming, but not where and when it would strike. By attacking in bad weather and not at the Pas de Calais, the closest point to England and where the field marshal and the enemy strategists had most expected the invasion to come, Eisenhower’s men secured tactical surprise.The story of courage written by the Queen’s Own was much the same all along Juno Beach and on the invasion beaches to the east and west. The obstacles in the water, mines at the tide mark, landmines, wire entanglements and heavy weapons unscathed by the preliminary bombing and naval fire plan everywhere took their heavy toll. But sheer dash and courage (and probably the desperate urge to get off the pitching and tossing infantry landing craft) had carried the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, the Regina Rifles, the Canadian Scottish, and the Sherman tanks of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade’s 1st Hussars and Fort Garry Horse, the Canadian regiments in the first wave, across Juno’s open beaches. The tanks, equipped with Duplex Drive that gave them power in the water and with flotation gear that was supposed to keep them afloat, mostly swam ashore late, some drowning in the rough seas. Their guns, firing at point-blank range, helped subdue the defenders in the huge steel and concrete bunkers that resisted infantry assaults. Sixty-five years later, the bunkers still sit menacingly on the beaches, but children now climb on them during summer vacations.
The Americans from the 1st and 29th divisions on Omaha Beach had the hardest time and the most casualties, bad luck putting them at the wrong place and in front of a first-class enemy formation, the 352nd Infantry Div., but all the Allied beaches were secure by the end of the day. Wave after wave of men poured ashore into scenes of organized chaos, the soldiers carrying their heavy packs, weapons and ammunition. Some moved smartly off the beach and right into a firefight; others had the opportunity for a smoke and a meal from their ration packs. In all on that first day on the beaches, the Allies landed more than 130,000 men, almost 6,000 vehicles including 900 tanks and armoured vehicles, and some 600 artillery pieces. They had 4,000 tons of stores in France by dark, and the engineers quickly began to construct Mulberry, the brilliantly-designed artificial harbour that would let them unload supplies for the invasion without benefit of a port and its facilities. Mulberry was operational by June 9, and the five D-Day beachheads had been linked by the 12th.
The casualties on June 6 had been heavy, but blessedly about half the 20,000 the Allied planners had calculated. The Canadians on Juno Beach lost 340 killed, 574 wounded and 47 taken prisoner. The Queen’s Own suffered 143 fatal and non-fatal casualties while the dead or wounded for the Royal Winnipeg Rifles and the North Shore Regiment numbered 128 and 125, respectively.
It had been a long, difficult road to Normandy for the Allies. The Nazi blitzkrieg of May and June 1940 had smashed the British and French armies, and the road back had taken years. The first real British victory of the war against Germany had come only in November 1942 in North Africa at El Alamein, at almost the same time that the Red Army had crushed the Wehrmacht in the epic battle at Stalingrad. The Russians pushed slowly westward, their forces facing the bulk of the German armies. The British, now joined by the Americans, liberated North Africa by early 1943, and then invaded Sicily in July and landed on the Italian boot in September. Victory was at last in sight, but the Germans, fighting in an ever more determined way as the war drew closer to the Reich, remained formidable. The British, Americans and Canadians had to get into France and begin the liberation of Western Europe. D-Day put them ashore at last.Some of the men of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Div., the assault formation, had been away from Canada for more than four years. The 2nd Div., not the 3rd, had landed at Dieppe in August 1942, but every soldier knew how the Germans had slaughtered the raiders who attacked that small port. A few of the division’s D-Day invaders had served in Italy where initially the 1st Canadian Inf. Div. and then the 5th Canadian Armoured Div. had been fighting since 1943. But most of the men who landed on Juno Beach were new to battle, well trained but green. They all wanted to return home, but the soldiers understood that the only way to get back to Canada led through Normandy’s fields.
The first heavy enemy counterattacks fell upon the Canadians on June 7. The Nazi panzer divisions, well-equipped and well-trained formations ordinarily employing far superior tanks to the under-gunned Shermans the Allies used, had been stationed well inland. Elaborate Allied deception plans forced the enemy to consider the Normandy assault a diversion designed to attract attention away from the “real” attack on the Pas de Calais. But now the 3rd Canadian Div. was in for it.At Buron and Authie, the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and tanks from the Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regt. ran into the 12th SS Panzer Div., a Hitler Youth formation of teenagers led by experienced and ruthless officers and non-commissioned officers who had learned their way of war against the Soviets. The Canadians were pushed back, many being killed or captured. If the Canadians had not hated the SS before, the wanton, deliberate killing of more than 100 prisoners in the next few days by the teenagers of the Hitler Youth guaranteed that they did thereafter.
By that time the Battle of Normandy had turned into a slugging match, a brutal battle of attacks and counterattacks for the prizes of tiny villages and mere metres of ground. The Canadians, their numbers increasing as the 2nd and 4th divisions arrived and as 2nd Canadian Corps under General Guy Simonds and 1st Canadian Army led by General Harry Crerar took control, gave as good as they got in the next weeks. But the real Allied advantage was quantity—more men, far more aircraft, more tanks and more guns. The Germans had the advantage of the ground. The city of Caen, scheduled for liberation on June 6, was not freed for 33 days, its centre obliterated by heavy bombing. The gentle slope of Verrières Ridge, only 250 feet high, just south of the old Norman city, turned into a bloody killing ground for many of Canada’s regiments. Montreal’s Black Watch was all but wiped out in a gallant, fruitless attack up the ridge on July 25, destroyed by a dozen well-positioned Panther tanks and mechanized infantry. “The men,” one surviving officer ruefully, proudly, wrote later, “were steady as a rock and kept going.”
But by the end of the first week of August, the Americans at last had broken out of their bridgehead in the bocage and were sweeping south and east. The Germans could be caught in a huge pocket if only it could be sewn shut. The 2nd Canadian Corps, its ranks including a Polish armoured division, pressed south toward the critical road junctions of Falaise and St. Lambert-sur-Dives in two huge operations, Totalize and Tractable, launched on Aug. 8 and 14, both devised by Simonds. The attack employed Royal Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force and United States Army Air Force bombers to pound the Germans. It then deployed massed columns of tanks and armoured personnel carriers—a new idea devised by Simonds—to roll over a stunned enemy. The operations succeeded, but less well than the general expected and at a higher cost in Canadian lives.
From Aug. 8 to 21 when the Falaise Gap was closed, 1,470 Canadians were killed in action, some of them dying under badly aimed Allied bombing.
First Canadian Army had firmly and finally closed the Falaise Gap, but not before many thousands of Germans escaped to the east. The carnage inflicted on the enemy, nonetheless, was terrible. The Allied air forces mercilessly pummelled the Germans while Canadian and Polish soldiers eliminated thousands more. Less than 200 men from the 4th Canadian Armoured Division’s South Alberta Regt. and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada killed or captured some 3,000 of the enemy at St. Lambert. The 1st Polish Armoured Div. alone took 6,000 prisoners and destroyed 70 tanks and 500 vehicles while losing 1,400 of its own men in an epic battle a few kilometres to the east.
The German formations that had fought in Normandy were utterly decimated. When the Battle of Normandy ended, the 12th SS Panzer Div., for example, with 20,000 soldiers and 159 tanks on D-Day, had only 100 men standing and 10 tanks that were capable of running. While perhaps 50,000 escaped, total German casualties in the Falaise pocket were estimated at 10,000 dead and 40,000 taken prisoner. In all, the Normandy summer cost the Wehrmacht more than 400,000 casualties while the Allies suffered 206,000.
Canada’s citizen army, every man a volunteer, suffered more than 18,000 casualties in freeing Normandy from Hitler. More than 5,000 lie forever in the two huge Canadian war cemeteries at Beny-sur-Mer and Bretteville-sur-Laize in the lush green Norman countryside. Five thousand men, many of them just boys. Most were tough kids, survivors of the Great Depression’s travails, small and underweight compared to today’s well-off Canadians. The average education level of soldiers was around Grade 5. Still, every single one of them knew that the Second World War mattered to the world, to Canada and to them. If ever a war was a good war, it was this conflict that had to be won to destroy the evil incarnate that was Hitler and the Nazis and to ensure the survival of freedom and democracy.
We might expect that every Canadian would know of the Normandy struggle of 1944. But our schools teach nothing of this, and many of our children have heard almost nothing of the war. And yet, this situation is better than it was a few decades ago. Remembrance Day ceremonies grow larger each year, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa is a constant reminder of sacrifice, the new Canadian War Museum sits proudly in Ottawa and has a large online presence, and efforts by Veterans Affairs Canada and The Royal Canadian Legion to remind Canadians of the wartime struggles continue.
Not every Canadian soldier was a hero and few were saints. But all deserve to be remembered by their countrymen and women and by all who today live in freedom because of their courage. Sixty-five years after D-Day began the liberation of France and Western Europe, their deeds resonate still.
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