Fear and Fortitude in Normandy

Seventy years ago this month, on 6 June 1944, Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen helped launch the Battle of Normandy — one of the pivotal events of the Second World War. Canadians played a critical role in the Allied invasion force that swept into France that summer, beginning the bloody campaign to liberate Western Europe from Nazi occupation.

Canada had been at war with Germany since 1939, and by 1944 the tide had turned in favour of the Allies. The Battle of the Atlantic was largely won, the Allies were advancing through Italy, and in the east, the Soviets were rolling back the German war machine in Russia. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had long wanted Britain and the United States to open another front in the war, by invading occupied France in the west. In the spring of 1944, an amphibious invasion of unprecedented size and scope was planned, code-named Operation Overlord.

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Image: Canadians make for the Normandy coast on the landing craft HMCS Prince Henry, on D-Day. (Photo by PO Dennis Sullivan / Canadian Department of National Defense / Library and Archives Canada / PA-132790).



Careful Planning

The Germans knew an invasion was coming, but not when or where — the most likely place being the Pas de Calais, the French coast near the Belgian border, which offered the shortest distance across the English Channel, and the quickest route into Germany. Instead, in search of surprise, the Allies set their sights further west along the coast, on the broad sands of Normandy.

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The Allies needed a French harbour from which to supply and sustain a successful invasion force. However, the disastrous 1942 raid on the French port of Dieppe, in which 3,369 Canadians were killed, wounded or captured, had convinced military planners that a seaborne assault against a well-defended port was folly.

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Still, much of the French coast, even in Normandy, had been turned into the "Atlantic Wall" — mile after mile of concrete bunkers, machine gun nests, and other fortifications built by the Germans, overlooking beaches and tidal estuaries strewn with layers of barbed wire, anti-tank ditches, mines and other obstacles designed to obstruct an invading army.

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The vast majority of men with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, who would go ashore on D-Day, the first day of the invasion, had no combat experience. Like Fred Moar, a lieutenant with New Brunswick's North Shore Regiment, they had been training hard for more than a year: "We had no idea what we were getting into," said Moar. "But we were ready for anything. We considered ourselves the best."

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Image: Normandy coastline © Richard Foot.

Air, Sea and Land

On D-Day, the Allies would attempt to land more than 156,000 soldiers on five beaches, one of which, code-named Juno, was assigned to the Canadians. British, US and Canadian paratroopers would also land behind German lines to secure bridges and protect the flanks of the main invasion force...

Jan de Vries, a member of 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, landed several kilometres from his intended drop zone. "I wondered where the heck I was when I hit the ground," he said. "I spent all night trying to find my way in the dark toward my rendezvous point near the coast, dodging enemy patrols the whole way."

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Image: Map of the Normandy invasion with allied forces. Originally published in Time magazine.

Juno Beach

One of the first men to come ashore at Juno Beach was Lockie Fulton, who commanded a company of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles. The Channel "was terribly rough," he said. "A lot of the fellas were seasick. As we got closer, small-arms fire began hitting the front of our (landing) craft. Then we hit bottom, the ramp went down, and I jumped into the water up to my waist, loaded with well over 45 kilograms of equipment.

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"We had to go at least 50 yards before we got out of the sea. It wasn't a pleasant experience, but we simply struggled through it. You'd see a guy fall next to you. You couldn't help him, but you'd try to drag him along anyway. It was something to see those bullets skipping at you like stones across the water. I thought if I jumped high enough, I might not get hit."

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Fulton lost 15 men in his company's dash up the beach. But after several hours of hard fighting, Fulton and the rest of the 3rd Canadian Division had secured Juno Beach and begun liberating its seaside villages – as had British and American forces on their beaches, together establishing a narrow Normandy bridgehead.

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Image: Members of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade come ashore on D-Day at the village of Bernières-sur-Mer. (photo by G. Milne, courtesy Library and Archives Canada, PA-137013).photo by G. Milne, courtesy Library and Archives Canada, PA-137013).

Normandy Campaign

It took a whole summer of hard fighting, often against skilled Nazi Panzer armoured units, for the Allies to break out of their coastal bridgehead.

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As the Americans battled on the western end of the front, the British and Canadians waged war around the Norman capital city of Caen. Canadian units, already worn-out from weeks of combat, began an assault on Carpiquet airport, outside Caen. Lockie Fulton emerged from the battle for Carpiquet as his company's only surviving officer. He called it his "worst day of the entire war."

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Carpiquet and Caen fell to the Allies in early July, but weeks of intense fighting remained. By early August, the Allied armies had launched a pincer movement to encircle what remained of the German Army in Normandy. The gap through which the Germans were retreating near the town of Falaise was closed on 20 August, with the linking up of American, Canadian and Polish forces. Scenes of desperate and confused fighting unfolded in the final days of the battle, as the Allies trapped German forces on the run.

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Image: Lance Corporal W.J. Curtis, Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, fixes the burned leg of a French boy in Normandy. (Photo by Ken Bell. Department of National Defence/National Archives of Canada, PA-141703)

Infamy

Dozens of Canadian troops who survived D-Day became the victims of German war crimes in the week that followed. Starting on 7 June, large numbers of Canadians were taken prisoner during heavy fighting south of Juno Beach, against a regiment of the 12th SS Panzer Division, commanded by Colonel Kurt Meyer.

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Eighteen Canadian POWs were later shot in the head in the garden of the Abbaye d'Ardenne, a stone church where Meyer had his headquarters. Forty-five more Canadians were executed, in batches, in the grounds of the Château d'Audrieu, a Normandy estate commandeered by the 12th SS.

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After the war Meyer – himself taken prisoner in 1944 – was put on trial, convicted of inciting his troops to execute Canadians, and sentenced to death. However, he only served five years at Dorchester penitentiary in New Brunswick before being transferred to a West German jail. In 1954, with Canada's blessing, he was set free.

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Precisely how many Canadian POWs were executed by the Germans in Normandy has never been clearly established. The Department of Veterans Affairs says up to 156 Canadian soldiers were illegally murdered "in scattered groups, in various pockets of the Normandy countryside."

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At the Abbaye d'Ardenne, a sombre memorial in the garden where 18 executions took place declares: "They are gone but not forgotten."

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Image: The Abbaye Ardenne, in the Normandy countryside south of Juno Beach, 2012. © Richard Foot.

La Maison des Canadiens

“Within sight of this house over 100 men of the Queen’s Own Rifles were killed or wounded, in the first few minutes of the landings.”

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That stark inscription welcomes visitors at the entrance of a house overlooking Juno Beach, in the village of Bernières-sur-Mer, France. “La Maison des Canadiens," or Canada House, was one of the first houses liberated by Canadians on D-Day, and has since become a familiar historic landmark.

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The house is, and has always been, two semi-detached homes in a single building. The left side is owned by Hervé Hoffer, whose family owned the home during the war but was evicted by the Germans.

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For decades Hoffer has lovingly maintained the spirit of his home's wartime history, and the memory of Canada's sacrifice. Visitors are almost always welcome, and inside they will find a living shrine to remembrance — a summer home festooned with maple leaf flags, regimental insignia and a large collection of wartime maps, photographs, uniforms and other artifacts.

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Every year on 1 June, Hoffer lights and hangs a paraffin lantern on the balcony of his house. After sunset on 6 June, serenaded by a bagpiper, he carries the lantern down to the water, where he wades to his waist in the English Channel. He calls it “a symbolic gesture to the Canadians who came that day from the sea to give us back our freedom.”

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Image : Hervé Hoffer and his wife outside La Maison des Canadiens. © Richard Foot.

Peace

More than 200,000 Germans were killed and wounded during the Battle of Normandy, while the Allies lost 209,000 casualties – out of the more than two million soldiers that were landed in France since D-Day. Among those were more than 18,700 Canadians killed and wounded.

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Canada's dead are commemorated on dozens of memorials, village cenotaphs, and war cemeteries scattered throughout the region, as well as at the principal Canadian military cemeteries of Bény-sur-Mer and Bretteville-sur-Laize.

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The people of Normandy also remember. Every year on 6 June they hoist Canadian, British and American flags, hold vigils, and parade through their villages in memory of the Allied sacrifice.

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Image: The Canadian war cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer, near Juno Beach. © Richard Foot.