On the eve of the 68th anniversary of the 1944 D-Day landings, Canadians remember those volunteer soldiers who gave their lives on the beaches of Normandy.
68 years ago today, the largest seaborne invasion force in history set out from the English shores towards the picturesque Normandy coast. Over 150,000 troops landed in one day, by air or sea, in the French countryside to begin the pushback against occupying Nazi forces.
These beaches are famous. Countless movies have been made relating the heroism and the horror of storming the beaches in the confusion and pandemonium of June 6 – only one about the Canadians so far. Americans revere Omaha and Utah Beaches, the British venerate Gold and Sword Beaches, and in between them all Canadians quietly honour Juno Beach.
The smallest force sent by the smallest population to the smallest of the beaches made history that cold, wet morning. Approximately 14,000 Canadian volunteers landed in the first waves with 10,000 reserves deployed before day’s end. Even though losses of some first wave units reached 50% – the second highest on the beaches – the 3rd Canadian Infantry penetrated farther than any other Allied force.
In the days following D-Day the Allies were faced with even more difficult objectives. The Canadians in particular fought at length against elements of the 21st Panzer Division and the 12th SS Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) Panzer Division, two of the toughest, most fanatic groups in the German Army.
While the Canadian 9th Brigade pushed to within 5km of the Caen objective, it took until July 5th for the Canadians to successfully take the nearby Carpiquet aerodrome and July 11th for British and Canadian forces to take Caen itself.
Normandy’s coastline today is peaceful. Only empty shells of the once formidable Atlantic Wall remain, dotting the shores and beaches for 2,500km. Many have become key features of museums, like the Juno Beach Centre where I worked last summer. Hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to the beaches every year from all corners of the globe.
As the 68th anniversary of D-Day approaches this year I remember the people I met in France, be they tourists or locals, who paid their respects to the fallen Allied and German troops. I especially remember those who work at the beaches, as they prepare to welcome countless thousands of tourists, delegates, and veterans themselves.
It is an ever-smaller number of soldiers who return – today old men, frail from the passing of time but whose eyes betray the vivid memories of storming the beaches as if it were yesterday. For the Juno Beach Centre it is an especially sad year as their founder, Garth S. Webb, a Canadian volunteer who received the Meritorious Service Cross as a Lieutenant with the 14th Field Artillery, passed away last month. Fittingly, Mr. Webb passed away peacefully on May 8, 2012 – Victory in Europe Day. He was 93 years old.
340 Canadian volunteers were killed on Juno Beach, all of whom lay buried in Canadian war cemeteries in France. As the rest of the world remember their heroes, humble Canadians proudly honour the non-drafted, regular, everyman, volunteer soldiers who gave their lives on Juno Beach.