Canadians on D-Day

Few events (military or otherwise) are as deeply etched in the Western consciousness as D-Day. The Normandy landings stand as the ultimate measure of honour, self-sacrifice, and courage in the face of near certain annihilation.

For French civilians, D-Day marked the 1,453rd day of German occupation. For some, it would mark their last.

Wild, violent weather rocked the Allied armada in the English Channel. Seasickness, along with anxiety, plagued the stomachs of tens of thousands of young men, all of whom awaited the ship’s alarm calling them to arms.

Unbeknownst to the infantry, Allied planners had been weighing on whether or not to launch the invasion. The storm had left many wondering whether or not the landing craft would make it to the shore, or be sent to a dark grave below the English Channel. Ultimately, Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower made the difficult decision to proceed, pushing the invasion back to the early hours of the 6th.

Normandy had been selected as the landing point due to the wide beaches and sloping hills, allowing easier exits for the thousands of infantrymen expected to make the landing.

Major General Rod Keller’s 3rd Canadian Division was tasked with spearheading the assault on Juno Beach..

Around 3 AM, the infantrymen were roused from their sleep and rushed to the top deck. Padres gave final services as men clambered down the sides of their ships into the small LCA’s (Landing Craft: Assaults) waiting for them below. 25-35 men slipped into over 2000 craft, and the slow journey towards French soil began.

Canadian LCI(L)s going ashore on D-Day.   Credit: Gilbert Alexander Milne / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-145349

Canadian LCI(L)s going ashore on D-Day.
Credit: Gilbert Alexander Milne / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-145349

The Canadian sector was split into two halves: on the right, the 7th Canadian Infantry Brigade. On the left, the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade. The 9th waited in reserve, ready to reinforce or mop up any remaining resistance.

Three small villages lay atop the sandy rises on Juno Beach: Courselles-sur-Mer on the right, Bernières-sur-Mer in the centre, and Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer hugging the leftmost side.

Two lead companies of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles were first to land on Juno, hitting the beach outside of Courselles-sur-Mer at 7:50 AM. Many didn’t even exit their landing craft: the Germans had fortified the town with at least 15 machine guns, all of which could be turned upon the beaches. Movement meant survival, and the men of the RWR pushed forward amidst the ribbon of bullets cutting their mates to pieces.

Soon, reinforcements and Hussar tanks arrived behind the Winnipeggers, providing both cover and supplementary firepower. They overcame the German beach defences at around 10:30 AM, and pushed forward into the interior villages of Banville and Colombiers later in the morning. One section was secure.

Bernières-Sur-Mer lay in the centre of Juno Beach. The 8th Brigade’s Queen’s Own Rifles steamed toward shore, landing at 8:12 AM. Machine gun fire rained down upon their landing craft even before they opened the doors. Sergeant John Missions of the Queen’s Own Rifles believes 85% of their casualties occurred within the first 15 minutes of landing.

The QOR rushed from their landing craft, alternating between taking cover behind sand dunes and pushing forwards up the beach. Movement was survival; staying put in one spot nearly guaranteed a man’s death. The men clambered towards the small sea-wall at the end of the beach, tossing grenades into enemy pillboxes and keeping the enemy concealed with covering machine gun fire. It worked, and soon the four companies of the 8th Infantry Brigade had pushed into Bernières-Sur-Mer.

Infantrymen of the Highland Light Infantry of Canada aboard LCI(L) 306 of the 2nd Canadian (262nd RN) Flotilla on D-Day. The photographer standing in bows of landing craft is Lieutenant Gilbert A. Milne  Credit: LS Wallace McQuade / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-137016

Infantrymen of the Highland Light Infantry of Canada aboard LCI(L) 306 of the 2nd Canadian (262nd RN) Flotilla on D-Day. The photographer standing in bows of landing craft is Lieutenant Gilbert A. Milne
Credit: LS Wallace McQuade / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-137016

On the far left flank, the New Brunswick based North Shore Regiment lead the charge against Saint-Aubin-Sur-Mer. Mortars, heavy guns, and machine gun fire fell upon their landing craft even before they had hit the beach. Once again, men found their courage as they rushed forward into the fray, finding cover and slowly snaking up the beach towards the town. The New Brunswickers overran German positions atop the beaches, but soon were fell upon by rampant German sniping. A search party of North Shore men soon stumbled upon a vast underground German tunnel network, allowing their snipers to move between posts undetected. Gritty subterranean fighting soon cleared out the network, netting the North Shores a respectable 75 prisoners.

At the end of the day, the Canadians had advanced the furthest out of any participating Allied corps in Normandy, securing an 11km gain. By then, they settled in, lest any German counterattacks threaten to throw them from the French shore.

By 10:30 AM, Juno had been taken. Both flanks were secure. Yet, an even greater, even more unforgiving task lay before the Allies. All of Western Europe still remained in the hands of Nazi Germany. Millions remained subjugated. To secure peace, city by city, town by town, and cellar by cellar, the Canadians would have to fight.

June 6th, 1944 saw 359 Canadians killed in action, and 715 wounded. Today, we remember those who so selflessly fought and died to liberate Europe.

HAYDEN LOVE  NSLA Research Project Specialist

HAYDEN LOVE
NSLA Research Project Specialist