June 6, 1944
06/06/2007, 1:49 PM #
If you go to Bernieres-sur-Mer today you can still see the buildings that were there when the Canadians landed on Juno Beach on June 6, 1944, the first day of the Battle of Normandy. It was a bit eerie for me to stand on that beach, looking at the grainy photographs that were taken that day so long ago. Other than the height of the sea wall, it all looks much the same. Sans Nazis, mercifully. I use a stone from Juno Beach as a paper weight on my desk.
Almost all the combat infantry footage you see from D-Day is actually of the Canadian landings because in a trick of fate most of the footage from the photographers from the other beaches was lost on its way back to England. The Canadian photographer literally missed the boat. So, the soldiers in that famous footage from a landing craft heading into the beach as the bullets fly around them are from the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division.
There is a sequence from that film that haunts me. As the landing craft makes its final approach the soldiers stand waiting for the doors to open and all hell to break loose. One soldier pats the soldier in front of him on the shoulder, and the man turns in response, revealing an expression that contains both fear and determination that I think perhaps only a combat soldier can understand. It is a little moment, but one that brings a moment of humanity to an inhumane venture.
Our boys did well that day. Like the Americans at Omaha, they suffered 50% casualties in their first hour of combat. But they were perhaps luckier than the boys at Omaha, and the Canadians managed to break through the German defenses within another hour. By the end of the day they had penetrated further into France than any of the other allied armies. Canucks have always been good at soldiering, which is sort of odd, given the essentially peaceful nature of our nation.
So much has been written about this day in history. We all know the story: it was the beginning of the end for the Germans on the western front.
But when I think of that day I think of that soldier as he turns. Of the fear he felt. Of the terrible world events that caused that young man to leave his home to fight and quite possibly die in such a far away land. History does not tell us who he was or whether he lived or died on that beach or in the horrific months of almost daily combat that were to follow. I like to think he made it.
But whatever happened in the end, he and the others that fought and died in that war deserve much more than our respect and gratitude. They earned the right to expect something from us, their children. We need to remember what it was they did and why. And, hopefully, to learn something from it all.
May they rest in peace.