Then the order rang out “Down ramp!” The moment the ramp hit the ground heavy machine gun fire broke out over the seawall.

On June 6, 1944 Canadian forces took part in the greatest amphibious operation in military history. Over 10,000 Canadian seamen in 110 warships and 21,400 soldiers took part in D-Day. One of five assault beaches, codenamed Juno, was assigned to the 3rd Canadian Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade.

The invasion had been years in the planning. The Canadian disaster at Dieppe proved what an extreme challenge laid ahead. Finally a target date was set and the planners settled on the coast of Normandy. It would be decidedly risky. Though weakened by the conflict in the East, the Wehrmacht remained the best fighting force anywhere. The brilliant General Erwin Rommel busied himself strengthening the Atlantic Wall with millions of mines and obstacles.

Who were those soldiers? “You have to remember that we were young, irresponsible and slowly growing up – but not normal growing up,” wrote Rolph Jackson of the Queen’s Own Rifles, “because we joined the army as kids and four years later we were at the beach.”

The flotilla of some 7000 ships crossed the English Channel in churning seas and lashing winds. “Everybody was sick,” wrote Jack Martin of the Queen’s Own Rifles, “our platoon commander had to run to the side, and he puked and lost all his false teeth and everything there.”

“Daylight. We had never felt so alone in our lives,” wrote Charles Martin. “There was mist and rain. Bernières-sur-Mer became visible. Fifteen hundred yards of beach stretched from the far left to the far right. Everything was dead quiet. It could have been a picture postcard of any one of a hundred tiny French beaches with a village behind – not the real thing.”

Then the order rang out “Down ramp!” The moment the ramp hit the ground heavy machine gun fire broke out over the seawall. “Move! Fast! Don’t stop for anything. Go! Go!” Martin barked. They raced down the ramp, side by side, and fanned out as fast as they could, heading for that seawall.

Despite the massive bombardment from the Allied battleships, the German bunkers and pillboxes, built of thick concrete reinforced with steel, proved resistant to anything but a direct hit. The soldiers would have to take them out one by one.

Landing Craft 299 delivers troops of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division to the beaches just west of Bernières-sur-Mer (National Archives of Canada/PA-137013).

The first to hit the shore were the engineers, whose mission was to clear the beaches of mines and obstacles. The Germans responded with intense fire against both men and landing craft. At 0745 hours the tanks of the 1st Hussars landed on the beach facing Courselles-sur-Mer, followed minutes later by the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. Many died before reaching shore. Others drowned.

“You couldn’t stand still,” wrote Francis Gordon of the Royal Winnipeg, “because if you stand right there the machine guns are going to be after you… So long as you were moving – they were guessing.”

By 0800 hours the Canadians had secured their first beachhead. The Royal Regina Rifles seized most of the German strongpoints. They had trained endlessly for house-to-house combat and now put that training to use.

Further west, the Canadian Scottish landed and immediately captured a German emplacement. The pressed inland towards Graye-sur-Mer, where they hooked up with the Royal Winnipeg. The North Shore (NB) Regiment came under intense fire at St Aubin-sur-Mer. This stretch of beach was particularly nasty because of a very high seawall that was lined with German fortifications. The men took the whole morning to move along the wall and outflank the defences.

“I was scared to death, there’s no doubt about that,” wrote Frank Ryan of the North Shore Regiment, “Anybody that says they weren’t scared, they’re lying.”

At 0812 the Queen’s Own Rifles landed at Bernières-sur-Mer. Many of the landing craft could not get all the way to shore and the men were forced to disembark in deep water. Some of these men had been training for almost five years, without hearing a shot. Now they waded in under fire, raced across an open beach trapped with mines, and strafed with machine guns and mortars. They fought their way, house to house, all the way through the town.

While in the rear the Royal Engineers worked feverishly to open gaps in the seawall, the men moved inland, picking their way through the nests of snipers.

By 1000 hours the Canadians had succeeded in capturing all their primary objectives along the coast of Juno Beach, from St Aubin to Courseulles. By noon every unit of the 3rd Canadian Division was on shore and the Royal Winnipeg were engaged in a ferocious battle with the last great obstacle, a German fortification at Courseulles.

It turned out that despite the great success of the invasion, the planners had been overly ambitious. Only one Allied unit actually achieved all of its overall objectives that day. This was Canada’s 1st Hussars, who captured the Caen-Bayeux highway intersection.

As the adrenaline of combat wore off, the men began to feel hunger pangs. They did not exactly enjoy a feast. “Most of the time it was just eating these biscuits and sardines,” wrote one soldier, “Got sort of sick of eating biscuits and sardines.”

At the last light of the day the Canadian units began digging in for the night. The North Nova Scotia Highlanders and the Sherbrooke Fusiliers battled their way into Villons les Buissons and Ainsy. As darkness fell on Normandy, a wide stretch of land, 10 to 15 kilometres deep, was controlled by Canadian forces. Operation Overlord was a success. The Atlantic Wall had been breached and the fate of Nazi Germany was sealed on that day. Canadians figured prominently in the victory and had paid a dear price as 340 had been killed, 574 wounded and 47 taken prisoner.

“To me, D-Day was the frustration,” wrote Capt Darius Albert of the medical corps. “The moans of the dying, drowning, wounded men. And my helplessness. That’s what I remember of D-Day.”

“Time has been as remorseless an enemy as the Hitlerjugend snipers in the hedgerows of Normandy,” write Granatstein and Morton in their history of D-Day, “and far more enduring.” Remembering those who fought in that distant battle is the least of the obligations we owe them.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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