“Free people everywhere should remember them”: the Canadians’ role in D-Day

Of the nearly 150,000 Allied troops who landed or parachuted into Normandy on 6 June 1944 as part of Operation Overlord, 14,000 were from Canadian forces. As the 75th anniversary of D-Day is commemorated, Dr John Maker considers the contribution of Canada’s army, air force and navy to one of the Allies’ most pivotal wartime operations…

Canadian troops go ashore on D-Day

The D-Day assault on Normandy, codenamed Operation Overlord, was the largest seaborne invasion in history. On Tuesday 6 June, American, British and Canadian troops landed on five different beaches across the Normandy coastline, marking the beginning of the campaign to liberate north-west Europe from German occupation. Writing for History Extra, Dr John Maker examines the role of Canadian forces in the Allies’ assault and how 14,000 Canadian troops secured Juno beach and beyond…

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Those who could sleep through the seasickness and nerves were awoken around 3am. Countless others were already up, manning battle stations aboard ship. Back on shore in England, thousands of Canadian nurses hadreadied their wards to receive the wounded whom, it was feared, would arrive in a few short hours. Such was the beginning of D-Day, 6 June 1944, when Canadian forces attacked Juno Beach in Normandy, one of the five invasion beaches assaulted during Operation Overlord.

For these young Canadian men and women, D-Day had been a long time coming. The first Canadians arrived on British soil in December 1939. Over the next four and half years, their number swelled such that some 500,000 Canadians were stationed in England at one time or another.

These forces had stood ready in an anti-invasion role after the British Army returned from Dunkirk in June 1940 minus its equipment. On 19 August 1942, soldiers of the Second Canadian Infantry Division had participated in a bloody tragedy: the unsuccessful Allied raid on the German-occupied port of Dieppe, which yielded a few valuable, hard-won lessons for D-Day planners. And on 10 July 1943, the First Canadian Infantry Division and First Canadian Armoured Brigade had invaded Sicily’s south coast, with US and British forces.

On 6 June 1944, the Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) participated in the largest combined operation in the history of warfare. They, along with their British and American brethren, were to land, seize a beachhead, and from there advance to secure intermediate and final objectives some 15km inland by nightfall. In preparation, Canadian minesweepers joined their British counterparts clearing the way for the invasion fleet, while destroyers and corvettes fired at German targets on the Normandy coast. The naval guns opened fire around 5.30am. As the operation began, Lieutenant-Commander DW Piers, commander of the destroyer HMCS Algonquin, ordered his men to stay at their guns no matter what happened: “If our ship gets hit near the shore, we will run the ship right up on the shore and keep firing our guns, until the last shell is gone.” Desperate times called for desperate measures.

A gun crew of the destroyer HMCS Algonquin piling shell cases and sponging out the gun after bombarding German shore defences in the Normandy beachhead. (Credit: Lt Richard G. Arless / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-157805)
A gun crew of the destroyer HMCS Algonquin piling shell cases and sponging out the gun after bombarding German shore defences in the Normandy beachhead. (Credit: Lt Richard G. Arless / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-157805)

The first Canadian troops on French soil were men of the First Canadian Parachute Battalion. The paratroopers landed between 1am and 1.30am on 6 June, one hour ahead of the rest of the brigade, although many were scattered around the French countryside. “We were in the process of hooking up when the plane took violent evasive action,” Major Dick Hilborn explained. “Five of us ended up in the back of the plane.

“We got out okay and after wandering about for a bit I picked up three others of my stick [drop group]. It took us three hours and the assistance of a local French farmer to find out where we were… one and a half miles north of the drop zone.”

Despite these challenges, by midday the paratroopers secured the drop zone, captured an enemy HQ, and destroyed river crossings, which denied the enemy access to the beaches in their sector. They also helped capture a battery at Merville, whose guns might otherwise have jeopardised Canadian landings at Juno Beach and British landings at Sword Beach.

Meanwhile, in one of its heaviest assaults of the war (in terms of the weight of bombs), RAF Bomber Command dropped over five thousand tons of bombs on the Atlantic Wall’s coastal defence batteries from 11.30pm on the night of 5/6 June until 5.15am. Among the squadrons was No. 6 (RCAF) Bomber Group, which made 230 sorties and dropped 859 tons.

While the paratroopers and bombers were engaged, the infantry began their voyage into the beach. As the assault craft advanced, the artillery regiments fired over the infantrymen’s heads from seaborne landing craft, themselves also closing in on the shore. (Once the troops landed, most complained that this drenching of enemy defences had been largely ineffective – but the artillery, navy, and air force continued to attack infantry-identified targets of opportunity throughout the day.)

Yet as they made their one-and-a-half-hour run into shore, an eerie silence greeted infantrymen who had expected the cacophony of battle. The fire brought down upon the leading craft was less than had been feared. The big inland guns offered little resistance and neither did any enemy aircraft attack the landing craft. Likewise, German artillery in the beach defences was situated to fire along the beaches and could not come to bear upon craft any distance offshore. Therefore, the enemy fired mainly small arms and mortars at the approaching infantry. One senior commander reported that opposition began to manifest itself only when the leading craft were about 3,000 yards from the beach; and even then the fire was “only desultory and inaccurate”. It was after the soldiers landed that really fierce opposition began.

Infantrymen of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles in Landing Craft Assault (LCAs) en route to land at Courseulles-sur-Mer, France. (Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-132651)
Infantrymen of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles in Landing Craft Assault (LCAs) en route to land at Courseulles-sur-Mer, France. (Credit: Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-132651)

Still, the run-in was nerve-wracking in the extreme. The little boats pitched heavily up and down, tossed by the seas. Charlie Martin of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada remembered as he approached Bernières-sur-Mer that he saw no sign of any friendly bombardment: “As we moved further from the mother ship and closer to the shore, it came as a shock to realise that the assault fleet just behind us had disappeared from view. Suddenly there was just us and an awful lot of ocean… ten boats stretched out over 1,500 yards is not really a whole lot of assault force. The boats began to look even tinier as the gaps widened, with more than the length of a football field between each.”

Another QOR of C rifleman recalled: “You’re a phoney if you’re not afraid.”

Video by junobeach.info

The invasion of Juno beach

Juno beach itself was 9.7 kilometres wide. It encompassed three beachfront villages: the small port of Courseulles-sur-Mer, as well as Bernières and St Aubin-sur-Mer. A fortified defence network of guns, concrete emplacements, pillboxes, barbed wire entanglements and mines awaited the infantry. Combat engineers and armoured regiments supported the advancing riflemen and field artillery. Some tanks came in on tank landing craft; others, famously, were fitted with the Duplex Drive, which permitted them to float and “swim” to shore. Some of these foundered, while others were launched late due to rough seas.

The first Canadian infantry set foot into this defence network between 7.45am and 8.15am. As the boat ramp came down, many men raced to the sea wall. In some sectors, such as the Canadian Scottish, the preparatory bombardment had been quite effective. In others, including the Royal Winnipeg Rifles’ left flank, men landed in front of bristling concrete strongpoints. Most rushed these defences and cleared them, at heavy cost, using Sten machine guns, hand grenades, rifles, and side arms. This work was not easy. In some sectors, men were shot before exiting landing craft, while others barely made it ashore. But for most, their training kicked in and they proceeded up the beach.

Kenneth Byron, who landed with the Canadian Scottish Regiment on the Canadians’ extreme right flank, remembered mortar bombs exploding as soon as he touched down. Immediately, he suffered a wound to his face.

“I put my hand up and I got a handful of blood,” he recounted. “The first aid man came along and he said ‘hold the pressure point’, which I did, and Captain Young came along and he said ‘I’ll fix that’ – and he sutured it. My company commander… said: ‘Are you ready to go?’ And I said ‘yes’. And he said: ‘Well, get your platoon organised and get off the beach… you’re now the platoon commander because your officer’s been knocked out, he’s badly wounded.’”

Byron continued: “We knew where the objective was and the aim of the game was not to fight. If you ran into enemy pockets, you contain it by fire and bypassed it. I eventually got up to my company that night about 9pm, just after they had arrived at the objective. My company commander took a look at me. I said: ‘Now I can stay, I’m not in all that much pain.’ But I looked bad, I was covered with blood that had dried on my uniform and face, and caked with blood and dust. I looked bad and he said: ‘No Sergeant, you’d better go back because your appearance is bad for morale. Better to go back and get patched up and come back again.’ I went back and I spent a night on the beach… the gunboats were shelling inland with big heavy 12 and 16 inch guns, the battleships out in the bay – and then there were dogfights and everything else, and small arms fire and the whole thing. And it was a rough night.”

Meanwhile HMCS Algonquin had opened fire, destroying a pair of 75mm guns near St Aubin-sur-Mer. As troops of New Brunswick’s North Shore Regiment began landing at the other end of Juno beach from Ken Byron, they met fierce resistance. Forward Observation Officers called on Algonquin. The destroyer turned its guns against houses harbouring German snipers lining the beach. Along with Algonquin, HMCS Sioux, nine British destroyers, and two British cruisers fired on the beach defences that day.

In some sectors the tanks landed around the same time as the infantry, while in others they were delayed. Some tanks touched down first, as the Regina Rifles reported tanks on the ground at 7.58am. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles touched down at 7.49am but found the tanks were delayed. The practice for most tanks after touching down was to stop in the water on the seaward side of the beach obstacles, deflate their floatation devices, and open fire on the nearest pillbox.

After the brutal initial assault, the regiments began exiting the beaches by about 10.30am. The reserves that had landed on the heels of the first waves joined the push inland to further objectives. After securing the beachhead objective, the Canadians were to cut the road between the Norman cities Caen and Bayeux and seize the Carpiquet airfield, on the western outskirts of Caen. They were also to link up with British forces on both flanks that had landed at Gold and Sword beaches. By nightfall, although short of their final objectives, Canadian units were firmly dug in on their intermediate objectives, and had penetrated further inland than any other assaulting force that day.

Wounded Canadian soldiers awaiting transfer to a casualty clearing station of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, Courseulles-sur-Mer. (Credit: Lieut. Frank L. Dubervill / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-132384)
Wounded Canadian soldiers awaiting transfer to a casualty clearing station of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, Courseulles-sur-Mer. (Credit: Lieut. Frank L. Dubervill / Canada. Dept. of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada / PA-132384)

The Canadian contribution to D-Day

Some 14,000 Canadian troops assaulted the beach that morning, 3,000 of whom were in the first wave. By all standards, D-Day was an outstanding achievement for the assaulting Canadian and Allied armies. In most sectors along the assault front, the formidable Atlantic Wall had been shattered. From then on, a constant stream of personnel, armoured equipment, and supplies streamed ashore. The way had been opened for a sustained and merciless assault on the main body of the German army. From that day forward, the result of the war was in little doubt, although Canada would still suffer the bulk of its 42,042 killed over the next 11 months. The army specifically lost 22,917 killed during the war.

CP Stacey, the official historian of the Canadian Army, noted that the men who stormed the Atlantic Wall “surmounted, not only a terrible physical hazard, but a most formidable moral hazard as well”.

Today, when we think of this harrowing and terrifying operation, imagine that these men too had wondered how terrible it might be. But they lacked the knowledge that the operation would be successful, and they too worried and wondered whether they might ever return to their civilian lives in Canada. For months prior, the operation had been the constant topic of discussion and speculation. Every man who took part had wrestled with his own private fears.

As Stacey noted: “These private terrors were, perhaps, even more formidable antagonists than Hitler’s infantrymen. The soldiers who defeated both made the liberation of Europe possible. Free [people] everywhere should remember them.”

Dr John Maker formerly worked at the Canadian War Museum as Second World War Historian. He is now Museum Administrator at the City of Ottawa.

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Note: Some quotations and certain details were drawn from: Tim Cook, Fight to the Finish – Canadians in the Second World War, 1944–1945 (Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2016); Terry Copp, Fields of Fire – The Canadians in Normandy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003); and CP Stacey, The Victory Campaign: The Operations in North-West Europe 1944–1945 – Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume 3 (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1960). The author has edited Kenneth Byron’s quote, adding punctuation to make it more readable. The original can be found here.