D Day and Me
by Pat Butler
Walking on the beaches of Normandy finally drove home the importance of D Day to this non-historian. If the invasion had failed, her life would be unrecognizable.
At the age of seven I was learning to read. In my parents’ living room I spied a book: The Sixth of June. As my birthday is June 6th, I thought, “Wow! A book about me.” Dad likely deflected my question about it. It’s not easy to explain the significance of D Day (June 6th, 1944) to a little kid.
Over time I learned that on D Day Allied troops (Canadian, British, and American) landed on the beaches of Normandy to liberate France from German occupation. If this courageous assault had not been successful, the nature of the society into which I was born exactly a year later could have been very different from the freedom I have always enjoyed as a Canadian.
History has always been my least favourite subject but a McGill alumni travel brochure D Day: The Canadian Experience inspired me to sign up.
In early May 2018 we joined our fellow travellers on a bus to Cabourg, on the northern coast of Normandy. Our guide’s overview of the war’s progress prior to D Day touched on crucial decisions: Where to land? Landing on Normandy’s sandy beaches, close to existing French harbours, Britain, and Germany would liberate France. When to land? Everything was ready by mid-May 1944, but they waited for good weather, calm sea, full moon, the right tide so second and third waves of troops could avoid obstacles.
The Canadian army had been training for this day for years. On Tuesday, June 6th, 1944, 156,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy; 17,000 were Canadians, destined for JUNO Beach. On the evening of June 5th, following a day’s postponement due to poor weather conditions, over 7,000 vessels assembled near the Isle of Wight. The sight made it clear to Canadians that this was not a training exercise.
Our first stop was Pegasus Bridge. The British were to secure key bridges and the zone between the Odon River and the Caen Canal. Further east British and Canadian paratroopers secured the high ground. Early morning of June 6th, men from the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion jumped into the night amid the roar of hundreds of aircraft and streams of bright anti-aircraft. Though widely dispersed upon landing, they helped secure the eastern flank of the main landings. Hitler was asleep and nobody dared to wake him.
Our first all-Canadian stop was Juno Beach. The Canadians’ scheduled time of landing was H-Hour (07:40). Learning the term “H-Hour” causes me to speculate that “D-Day” comes from the fact that Day starts with D.
We stood on the actual sandy beach where 17,000 Canadians came ashore. Watching waves breaking gently on the beach and imagining bloody chaos gave me the shivers. The half-timbered house that shows in photos from the site where the Queen’s Own Rifles of Toronto landed is now labelled “Canada House,” and we saw the site where the famous film footage of the landing of the North Shore (NB) Regiment was shot as they went ashore.
Juno Beach Centre both describes the Canadian troops’ landing on June 6th and teaches today’s French citizens about Canada. On a huge floor map of Canada, a movable piece of wood carved in the shape of France built to the same scale as the map, sits on top of Quebec to illustrate the vastness of our country.
We watched a marvellous film about the landing, They Walk With Us. In the final scene a present-day family, with kids aged about 12 and 10, walks along Juno Beach as we had just done. Ghosts of Canadian soldiers in 1940s uniforms begin to appear and walk beside the family members. I wept, having felt the presence of similar ghosts just an hour before.
While standing on Juno Beach I also thought about my parents living in Montreal relying on radio and newspapers for news about the war’s progress – huge contrast to present communications.
At Beny-sur-Mer cemetery, 2,048 Canadians are buried and a large stone tablet reads “THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE.” After placing a floral tribute, our guide recited the Act of Remembrance for the British Commonwealth. Walking among rows of white grave markers carved with maple leaves, we each chose a grave on which to place a white rose.
The entrance at another cemetery is labelled “Place Gerard Dore” to honour the youngest Allied soldier buried in Normandy. Killed when he was only 16 years and 11 months, Gerard was from Quebec.
In the village of Buron’s Place du Canada, we paused on a huge maple leaf design in bricks. Standing in the rain we heard about the June 7th battles there against the 12th SS, a German division made up of highly-trained, elite, Hitler Youth. Canadians fought them throughout the Normandy campaign.
We entered Authie on “Rue de 37 Canadiens” and strolled into a pretty churchyard beside L’Abbaye d’Ardenne. Names of 20 Canadians were carved onto a plaque, and their individual portraits were affixed to a long wall. Standing under our dripping umbrellas, we heard these young men had been taken as POWs by the 12th SS, interrogated, and then shot in the back of their necks. The bodies were hastily buried in this churchyard.
In March 1945, Mme Vico returned to her garden and noticed that her row of snowdrop flowers had been disturbed and replanted in a disorderly fashion. Digging up the garden exposed the bodies. Today, poppies and Canadian flags left by recent visitors are affixed to trees nearby.
Back on the bus, I photographed the pastoral scene across the road. Raindrops on the bus window distort the bright green vegetation and remind me of the tears that stung my eyes as I learned the Canadians’ story.
On August 16th, the German High Command ordered retreat.
D Day had only begun the Battle of Normandy; it ended about 100 days later at the Falaise Pocket where Germans amassed, trying to get home. On August 16th, the German High Command ordered retreat. The Pocket was initially 50 km long and by 20 km wide, containing 150,000 German soldiers. Canadians, British and Poles were on the north side: Americans and French lined the southern half of the Pocket. Germans managed to get 50,000 soldiers through a 3 km wide corridor around Chambois and St Lambert-sur-Dives. This land is now called “the corridor of death.”
We paused at a bridge in St Lambert. At this point the River Dives looks like a 3 m wide creek, but is very deep. It prevented German vehicles from escaping.
After the carnage, the land was littered with thousands of pieces of equipment, 10,000 German bodies, and 12,000 dead horses. Allies captured 40,000 Germans. Due to the extreme August heat the ground became white with maggots; the stench of decomposing bodies could be smelt by pilots flying at 15,000 feet; the water in the area was not drinkable until the 1960s. Hell on earth.
After reaching Paris, I found the juxtaposition of viewing the “the corridor of death” and immediately checking-in to a luxurious, modern hotel most disturbing. I felt disoriented and incredibly spoiled.
Countless aspects of D Day stick with me. Allied soldiers were incredibly brave in the face of overwhelming odds. They innovated on the spot, like using rifle barrels to breathe underwater. Mistakes occurred, like ships uselessly firing too far past the shoreline. Many soldiers were less than 20 years old.
I feel morally obliged to honour the Allies whose actions secured my future and that of my children. Every monument, cemetery, museum is tastefully designed and carefully maintained. An Arromanches shopkeeper stated in French, “June 6th is the most important day of the year. More important than December 25th.”
Being born on the first anniversary of D Day has become even more precious to me.