On the sleepy Normandy coast of France stretches white, sandy beaches where tourists lounge in the summer and romantic couples vacation in the winter. It is hard to believe that 70 years ago, on June 6 1944, these peaceful beaches were torn apart by one of the iconic battles of the Second World War.
D-Day was the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France and the beginning of the end for Hitler’s genocidal Third Reich. British, American and Canadian troops poured ashore under heavy machine gun, rifle and artillery fire to start the liberation of the millions of people in France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark, who had been occupied since the German invasions of 1940. On D-Day Canada was given a beach, codenamed “Juno Beach”, as part of the Allied offensive. 10,000 Canadian troops, supported by specialized tanks and heavy air cover, landed in 4 waves throughout the morning amidst heavy German resistance. After 6 hours of heavy fighting the Canadians had secured Juno Beach and were moving inland, but left 1,100 of their number behind, casualties of that fateful morning.
For four long years the people of France had endured Nazi occupation. From the very beginning their new German masters treated the occupied population with a brutality the French had never seen before. Jews were immediately ordered to register and wear a visible Star of David. All firearms were confiscated. Most military-aged men were rounded up and dragged off for slave labor in German concentration camps. Food, gasoline, metals and silks were strictly rationed and all radios were outlawed. As the German secret police, the Gestapo, moved in, the brutality only increased. Curfews were put in place and the merest suspicion could result in arbitrary arrest, torture and execution with no justification and no warning.
As the war progressed the brutality only increased. Jews were actively rounded up and shipped off to “somewhere in the East”, their possessions and property confiscated. Anyone hiding a Jew, something that tens of thousands of French citizens did, could result in a firing squad if caught. The Allied air offensive against Germany saw more and more bombing of strategic targets in France, like rail yards, ports and factories, and giant air battles in the skies above resulted in thousands of downed airmen parachuting into France. The French people organized themselves into resistance groups and began to aid these airmen in escaping back to England. In addition, the French Resistance provided military intelligence on German troop concentrations, sabotaged German communication and rail lines, and helped to hide Jews. The Gestapo stepped up its operations to the point where, in 1943, as a reprisal against a resistance ambush of a German patrol, they executed the entire population of Oradour-Sur-Glane and burned the town to the ground.
By 1944 the bulk of the German armed forces were fighting on the Russian front, but a large German army was stationed in France. Moreover, German units that had been exhausted in the brutal battles of the Eastern Front were sent to the peaceful Normandy countryside to rest and refit.
Across the English Channel, plans for the invasion of France were coming to a close. Operation Overlord, as it was codenamed, planned for a massive Allied army of American, British, Canadian and Free French (soldiers who had escaped the invasion in 1940 and were under the command of exiled General Charles DeGaul) to land on the beaches of Normandy and push inland, creating a large bridgehead in which the entire might of Allied armies could be brought ashore and the liberation of western Europe begun. To kick off the invasion, airborne paratroopers would be dropped the night before to secure key bridges and stop any Germany reinforcements from rushing to the beaches during the most vulnerable phase of the landings. To keep the Germans guessing, a massive fake army, complete with inflatable dummy tanks and trucks (to fool German air reconnaissance) was created in northern England, giving the impression that the invasion would come at the narrowest point of the English Channel around the Pas De Calais. The ruse worked and the bulk of the German panzer (tank) forces were stationed in northern France.
German beach defences along the entire coast of western Europe were thick. Hitler dubbed it “The Atlantic Wall”, although by 1944 parts of it were still being constructed. Normandy was chosen because here the “Wall” was not yet complete.
Nevertheless, there were formidable defences ready to greet any invader wading ashore. Large stakes with mines on the top were planted just below the surface of the water to stop any approaching landing craft, and huge steel girders were thrown across the beach to stop tanks. Atop the beach bluffs were sited dozens of reinforced concrete pillboxes, manned by machine guns and anti-tank guns. Mortars and artillery were sited along the length of the coast and trenchlines offered German riflemen good firing positions to sweep the open beaches. German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the famed “Desert Fox” of the North Africa battles the year before, was put in command of the entire Atlantic Wall. His plan was to tie up any invaders on the beaches long enough for German tanks to be mobilized, and then throw the invaders back into the sea.
It was into this setting that the young men of the Allied armies were setting out for. For the Canadian army, it couldn’t come sooner.
The Canadians had been stationed in England since the fall of France in 1940. An entire Canadian army, the 2nd Army, had taken part in the invasion of Sicily and the epic battles of Italy the year before, but for the men and officers of the 1st Canadian Army life had become nearly unbearable. For four years they had drilled and practised landings on beaches and drilled some more. Life was nothing more than living in muddy tents in the English rain and marching around on parade squares for newspaper photographs. These men were aged from 17 to 55 years old, with most being in the 20s and 30s. Every single one of them were volunteers, who signed up with the sole purpose of liberating the people of Europe from the Nazis. They came from places like Kamloops, Edmonton, Moose Jaw, Thunder Bay, Kitchener, Ottawa, Rivieres-De-Loop, Gaspe, Moncton, Halifax and Truro. They were students and carpenters and mechanics and school teachers and shop owners. They had loving families back home, and, as a popular joke went, they had “wives back home and girlfriends over here”.
There were 100,000 Canadian women serving in the armed forces in England, as well. Drivers, nurses, transport pilots, engineers and payroll clerks provided the massive support that a huge army required. Most of these women were in their twenties and came from the same towns as did their brothers, uncles, fathers and lovers serving in the army. These women also volunteered, wanting to do something to help the people of Europe, instead of just sitting at home and knitting socks. These were the young women of a new generation and they felt the same obligation to serve that the men did.
By June 1944, this army of Canadians was straining at the leash to be let loose at the Germans. On June 6, they would get their chance, and for many it would be one chance too many.
On the evening of June 5, 1944, General Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the entire Allied military machine in Europe, gave the go-ahead to begin Operation Overlord. At 10 pm Canada’s 1st Parachute Battalion was geared up and boarding DC-1o transports, part of the Allied airborne drops in Normandy that would kick-off the invasion. The soldiers slated to land on the beaches had already boarded their ships days ago, awaiting the order to “Go! Go! Go!”. As the sun set these tens of thousands of soldiers crowded into ships stared up in the sky as a vast armada of transport planes and bombers flew overhead, filling the sky with their thunderous engines.
At 1 am on June 6, Canada’s first soldiers to land in France leapt from their airplanes and parachuted down, landing in thick brush and flooded fields in disorganized ones and twos. Small bands of disoriented Canadian paratroopers prowled around the night, running into patrols of confused German soldiers. Quick, fierce firefights would break out and then subside magically again as both invaders and defenders lost their orientation in the dark night. Eventually, small bands of Canadians would find each other and form into platoons, and then into whole companies, and then would set off for their objectives.
As the sun rose over Normandy on June 6, the largest naval armada ever assembled appeared off the coast. The German defenders on the Canadian sector, Juno Beach, were stunned to suddenly thousands of ships floating on the horizon. Alarms were rung and sleepy German soldiers were rushed to their defensive positions just as one of the largest bombardments in history opened up on them.
Offshore, the Canadians of the 3rd Division climbed down rope ladders into landing craft bobbing in a stormy sea below. As they boarded their craft, the massive guns of thousands of warships opened up in a deafening barrage. More than a million tonnes of high explosive shells were hurled at the beach defenses all along the Normandy coast. Battleships, cruisers, destroyers and specialized rocket-ships all fired at once in a twenty-minute long barrage. Overhead wave after wave of bombers swooped down on the beaches and dumped their deadly payloads onto the deafened and stunned Germans below. As one Canadian infantryman, waiting in his landing craft, observed: “The entire French coast just seemed to explode. I don’t know how anybody could have survived that.”
With thousands of shells arcing overhead, the hundreds of landing craft circling the troop transports straightened out into lines and zoomed in towards the beaches. Stretched out over more than 2 kilometers, and composed of 4 waves of landing craft, the first assault troops clung to the sides of their barges as waves buffetted the flat-bottomed craft. Sea sickness brought many men to their knees, and the boys from the prairies and Ontario were particularly hard hit.
Despite the tremendous bombardment from sea and air, most of the German defenders along the length of the Normandy coastline survived, thanks to prepared positions and bomb-proof bunkers. It was no different at Juno Beach. In fact, awaiting the Canadians were the battle-hardened troops of the 352nd Infantry Division, resting after a long year of fighting on the Russian Front. This division had been involved in the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, and its officers and men were experienced, tough and brave. The men of the 3rd Canadian Division, approaching the beaches in their landing craft, had never been in battle before. What was about to unfold was both tragic and dramatic.
Unlike American landing craft, Canadians had learned from their experience at Dieppe and had installed a wall with a door in front of the ramp on the landing craft. This way German machine guns couldn’t mow down entire companies in their landing craft, as had happened at Dieppe and on the American D-Day beaches of Utah and Omaha. As the Canadian craft neared the beaches, German artillery began firing. Most shells missed and sent giant plumes of water up alongside the craft, although some of the shells did find targets and landing craft filled with terrified soldiers exploded into balls of fire and flesh.
Those craft who made it through the artillery reached the beach. Engines were throttled back and the fronts of the flat-bottomed craft scraped over French sand. The sound of heavy machine gun and rifle fire filled the air, with millions of metal “pings” as bullets thudded along the front of the landing craft. Whistles were blown and the ramps came crashing down. The extra door system the Canucks had installed saved the lives of hundreds of men, as German bullets were unable to sweep along the length of the craft. Nevertheless, the men had to get onto the beach. The moment the ramps came down, the Canadians began to stream out of their protected landing craft and onto the beaches. They were met by a hail of bullets and mortar shells.
The first wave of infantry were almost completely cut down in the surf. 11,000 German soldiers were firing at the exposed beaches as the Canadian soldiers struggled out of the water and onto the hellish beach. Bullets seemed to indiscriminately kill while mortar shells exploded, sending shrapnel and blast forces through the air. Of the 1,100 Canadians cut down that morning, more than half were in the first ten minutes of the landings.
Despite the murderous fire from the Germans, the Canadians continued to unload landing craft and individual soldiers struggled under their equipment to reach the protection of a sea wall that ran the length of the beach. Eventually enough made it for their numbers to begin to be felt. Returning fire from the Canadians began to knock off German positions, one by one. Small mortar squads who had survived the landing begin to set up their equipment and lob shells at the beach defenses. A few DDT Tanks, specialized Sherman tanks designed to “swim” ashore, survived the choppy waters and lumbered up the beach, impervious to German bullets. Their shells began to knock out German pillboxes and opened gaps in the German lines.
Groups of Canadian survivors, assembled together by enterprising officers, poured through the gaps knocked in the German lines. After the first two hours of slaughter on the beach, Canadian soldiers were beginning to battle the Germans in their own trench lines. Canadian grenades and flamethrowers began to clear out the pillboxes that had provided so much deadly machine gun fire. Canadians and Germans grappled in hand-to-hand fighting in the houses and beachfront hotels of Berniers-Sur-Mer, using bayonets and shovels to maim and kill each other. Slowly, inch by inch, the Canucks pushed the Germans back from the beaches.
As the third and fourth waves came in, and more tanks landed on the beaches, the German lines began to crack and then collapsed completely. Too many platoons and companies of Canadian soldiers had broke through the beach defences and were now shooting at the Germans from the rear. Squads of German soldiers began to surrender, and entire platoons abandoned their guns and ran for the rear. Overhead, Allied warplanes dove down on retreating German columns and the paratroopers who had landed the night before ambushed the Germans as they fled for the rear.
By noon Juno Beach was clear. German artillery, a few kilometers away, continued to rain down shells on the beaches, and a few German warplanes made it through the Allied air screen and dove down to strafe Juno Beach, but the battle was pretty much over. The Canadians had won Juno Beach, and were beginning to push inland.
Over the rest of the day the entire 3rd Division and elements of the 1st Armored Division were landed ashore. As pockets of German resistance were cleared up, gunfire and explosions continued to erupt around the beachhead. Casualties and German POWs were loaded aboard landing craft and taken back out to the ships, still waiting offshore. By evening of June 6, the Canadians were firmly dug in in a perimeter nearly 2 km wide around the beach, and Juno Beach itself was filled with hundreds of trucks, ships, tanks, men, crates of ammunition and food and all the other detritus of a modern war machine.
1,100 Canadians fell on Juno Beach, the second largest casualties of D-Day after the Americans on Omaha Beach. The beginning of the end of the war had started, and the first small patch of French soil had been liberated from Nazi oppression. The Canadian soldiers of the 1st Army had met their first challenge and overcome. Juno Beach will forever be one of Canada’s great victories.