Wednesday, October 19, 2005


D-DAY: Canada's part in the 24 hours that changed
the course of world history.

by Sidney Allinson.

Each year, June 6th is honored as marking the 60th anniversary of the Allied American, British, and Canadian armies' landing in Normandy, France, to begin the liberation of German-occupied Europe, on June 6, 1944. But when I mentioned this recently to a roomful of would-be writers, there was a collective shrug and one asked, "What's the big deal?"

Contrast this attitude now often held in North America with the small communities along the Normandy coast, where schoolchildren are still gratefully taught what happened on that momentous day long ago to free their country from four years of Nazi tyranny.

Today, when the United States and other nations are divided over whether to support Coalition forces in Iraq, the close co-operation of Western Allies during World War Two seems a miracle of teamwork.

Back in 1944, the United States, Britain, Canada, and a score of countries were strongly united in one common goal – to destroy the German war machine that supported a racist Nazi regime.
After five years of war, Hitler's armies still occupied most of Europe and intended to keep oppressive control of it for "a Thousand-Year Empire." To do so, they had built the Atlantic Wall, an enormous line of fortifications along the entire coast of France; concrete bunkers, heavy artillery, barbed wire, mines, and underwater obstacles believed impregnable to any Allied landing.

Breaching this bastion was the purpose of the Allied Expeditionary Force, under the supreme command of American General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his British deputy General Bernard L. Montgomery.

Within 13 months, their team of planners devised and equipped the most ambitious seaborne invasion ever launched, code-named Operation OVERLORD on a designated "D-Day." (The "D" just signified the day when an invasion would start.) Some Canadian officers had serious doubts about OVERLORD's success, fearing a repeat of the disastrous raid on Dieppe in 1942 that cost the mainly Canadian raiders 900 dead and 2300 prisoners-of-war.

When US President Theodore Roosevelt, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Canada's Prime Minister Mackenzie King met at the Quebec Conference in August, 1943, an expedition target-date was set for the summer of 1944.

Though America and Britain would supply the bulk of manpower, Canada also could field a substantial fighting force. By mid-1944, Canada had close to half a million troops in Britain, a remarkable feat by our country whose population then totaled just 12 million.

Commanded by Lt. General Harry Crerar, the Canucks had been stationed impatiently in Britain for over four years, endlessly training for the invasion showdown that everybody knew was coming.

OVERLORD called for landings to be made on five Normandy beaches by each of the three main participants. UTAH and OMAHA were to be taken by the Americans, while GOLD and SWORD were British objectives. The JUNO Beach sector allocated to Canadians was a five-mile wide stretch of Norman coast between Courseulles and St. Auban-sur-Mer.

Strong winds and heavy rain forced postponement of the intended attack date of June 5th, but meteorologists forecast a possible break in the weather the following day. The awesome responsibility whether or not to risk a sudden storm wrecking the invasion fleet rested solely with General Eisenhower. After conferring pro-and-con with his senior advisors, 'Ike' sat silently for several minutes than spoke his famous decision, "Okay, we'll go!"

So at dawn on June 6, 1944, the biggest naval invasion force in history set forth from English ports. It was an incredible sight, the English Channel crowded with more than 7,000 Allied vessels of every size and shape and type, from huge battleships and converted ocean liners, to minesweepers and flat-bottomed landing barges.

The fleet was crewed by 285,000 sailors of a dozen nationalities, including 109 Royal Canadian Navy ships and 10,000 sailors. Above, flew thousands of fighter and bomber aircraft, among which were many members of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

The fleet carried 6000 vehicles, 600 heavy guns, and more than 156,000 young Allied soldiers -- Americans, British, and the 3rd. Canadian Infantry Division under command of Major General Rod Keller from Kelowna.

During the initial 24 hours, more than 155,000 Allied soldiers were landed from ships and 23,400 from 2,300 aircraft. About 450 men of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion were among the earliest to land on French soil shortly after midnight with the British 5th Airborne Division, and destroyed key bridges in heroic actions. Large contingents of the US 82nd and 101st Airborne landed in the area of Ste. Mere Eglise, wreaking havoc on the surprised German garrisons.

The Allied armada of ships approached a smoke-shrouded shore that was bombarded by aircraft and naval cannon which however did not crush all German resistance. At OMAHA, the Americans were pinned down on the beach under heavy enemy fire before scaling the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc at a cost 2000 casualties.

The British who stormed ashore at SWORD and GOLD also had to fight hard for their eventual triumph despite 1600 casualties.

On JUNO Beach, the first assault wave included troops of the Victoria-raised Canadian Scottish Regiment, plus the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Regina Rifles Regiment, North Shore Regiment, and Queen's Own Rifles.

Their landing was delayed a crucial 20 minutes, until 8 a.m., when the rising tide had obscured an offshore reef and beach obstacles which sank or damaged most of the 24 craft, drowning many men. Then heavy enemy gunfire began raking the Canadian infantry and tanks, but they fought their way ashore anyway.

A company of the Canadian Scottish served alongside the Royal Winnipeg Rifles during heavy street-fighting in Courseulles that lasted into late afternoon. At nightfall, the CanScots reorganized to consolidate their gains and tend 87 casualties.

At Bernieres, the Canadian assault landing lost 50 per cent of its strength in 100 yards, and the enemy resisted strongly until eventually outflanked. But according to plan, follow-up units passed through the assault troops clearing the beaches of snipers, and pressed on to their objectives ahead. Their courage exacted a high price: a total of 340 Canadians had been killed, 570 wounded, and 47 taken prisoner.

Throughout D-Day, Canadian troops were magnificent, having fought further inland than either the British or Americans. Still, the Allies had captured all five major beach-heads, crucial first steps towards the final victory 11 months later when Nazi Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945.

By then, Canadians had fought their way across France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany, and buried 11,336 comrades who sacrificed their lives in the cause of freedom along the way.
So it was that Canada's participation on D-Day helped change the course of the Second World War and shaped our modern world as we know it. You could say that's a pretty big deal.

Sidney Allinson is a past Director of
the Royal Canadian Military Institute.