“Okay. We’ll go.”
With these words, Allied Supreme Commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 70 years ago launched the largest amphibious invasion in history. It had been a difficult decision for Eisenhower — the English Channel was still being buffeted by a storm. But meteorologists assured him there would be a break in the weather. With men and equipment already aboard the massive armada, this assurance finally convinced Eisenhower the invasion couldn’t be delayed any longer.
Nearly 90 Manitobans, including five veterans who fought on Juno Beach on June 6, 1944, have travelled to France to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
“It is an honour to have the opportunity to attend the D-Day commemoration with Manitobans who were there fighting for the freedoms we enjoy today,” said Premier Greg Selinger, who went with the Manitoba contingent. “Seventy years later it is as important as ever to remember those who lost their lives and those who fought so bravely. It is an important part of our identity as Manitobans and as Canadians.”
Also attending the commemoration ceremonies were Queen Elizabeth, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama.
“On June 6, seventy years ago, Canadian soldiers, sailors and airmen together with other members of the Allied Expeditionary Force participated in D-Day, one of the most ambitious amphibious assaults of all time along an 80 kilometre stretch of beach in Northern France,” said Harper in advance of his participation at the ceremonies in Normandy. “They did so to bring about the destruction of the German war machine, to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny and to protect Canadian rights and freedoms.”
“It is a privilege to go to France and honour those valiant Canadians who, through their blood, sweat and sacrifices, succeeded in invading Normandy and ultimately liberating Europe and the world from the Nazi scourge. We owe them our freedom. Lest we forget,” added the prime minister.
The Canadian troops taking part in Operation Overlord, the code name for the invasion, were unique among the Allies — they were the only all-volunteer fighting force. About 3,500 of these volunteers assaulted Juno Beach in the initial landing with a total of 14,500 scheduled to land as the invasion progressed. Another 9,700 Canadian sailors serving in the Royal Canadian Navy and the British Navy, as well as 20,000 Canadian aircrew serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force took part in D-Day. The first Canadians to land were 543 paratroops scheduled to secure a key bridge near Cabourg and crossroads in the British sector.
The Canadians landing on D-Day remembered the earlier sacrifice in August 1942 during the Raid on Dieppe, France, where 993 of their comrades were killed, 586 wounded and another 1,874 taken prisoner. The only solace was that the lessons learned were adopted for D-Day. The greatest lesson was the folly of attacking a heavily-fortified port, which led to the selection of the beaches of Normandy.
Upon the successful landings on D-Day, Lieutenant-General Crest, commander of the 1st Canadian Army, said in his message to the troops: “The plans, preparations, methods and techniques are based on the knowledge and experience bought and paid for by the 2nd Canadian Division at Dieppe.”
On D-Day, the Allies were mostly facing a motley collection of older troops and conscripts from Nazi-occupied countries, though some elite units would be thrown into the fray, especially on the Canadian inland front where they were to meet the infamous 25th SS Panzer-Grenadier Regiment, commanded by Col. Kurt Meyer. Meyer was tried as a war criminal for the murder of captured Canadian troops following the D-Day invasion. In total, the 12th SS Panzer Division, composed of fanatical Hitler Youth, which Meyer would be promoted to command on June 14, killed 150 Canadian Prisoners of War, 54 of them from the Royal Winnipeg Rifles.
Meyer contemptuously said, when informed of the Allied invasion, that he would throw the “little fish” (Canadians) back into the sea by the morning.
The fact that the Canadian volunteers proved to be relentless in their attacks and drove the Germans inland, made Meyer rethink his initial assessment of the “little fish.”
“The Canadian invasion forces ... had tried very hard not to think of what lay ahead. It was difficult to realize the enormity of what we would be attempting,” wrote Cliff Chadderton, Royal Winnipeg Rifles, in his documentary, Juno Beach to Caen, “...when we started our assault training on the south of England and in Scotland, we began to realize what loomed before us. Untried troops would dare to set foot in Hitler’s Europe.”
Chadderton said: “The men of the infantry and tank regiments chosen for the invasion simply had to disregard what lay ahead of them across the channel ... determined to do what some were saying would be impossible.”
The difficulty of the task seemed so daunting to Eisenhower that the American general wrote a message which said: “Our landings ... have failed ... the troops, the Air and Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If there is any blame or fault in the attempt, it is my own alone.”
“Bloody fighting raged all along the beaches,” reported Ross Munro of the Canadian Press, who landed with the troops. “On the right, the Winnipegs had to battle their way past five major concrete casements and 15 machine gun positions set in the dunes commanding a long sweep of beach. From dune to dune, along the German trench systems, and through the tunnels, these Manitoba troops fought every yard of the way ... After a struggle that was ... bitter and savage ... the Winnipegs broke through into the open country behind the beach.”
Chadderton said the men of the Winnipeg Rifles “saw friends with whom they had lived in barracks for years cut to pieces by vicious enemy gun fire. Still they found the strength to carry on ... By six o’clock on the evening of D-Day, the Winnipegs had gone further inland than most planners had thought possible.”
By the end of the first day of the invasion, the Canadians had lost 359 men, 131 captured and 584 wounded. Anti-aircraft fire killed another 28 Canadian fighter pilots and crews in gliders. Total Allied casualties for D-Day were estimated at about 9,000 killed, wounded or captured.
Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King wrote in his diary that he went to bed in the evening “grateful in my heart to God for what had been accomplished this day.”
“At the end of the day, its (Canada’s) forward elements stood deeper into France than those of any other division (among the Allies),” wrote British historian John Keegan in Six Armies in Normandy. “The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha (American). That was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride.”