COURSELLES-SUR-MER, FRANCE —Tributes to Canadian sacrifices can be found across the Normandy countryside, from the Canadian flags that flutter in seaside towns and a wreath laid on a stretch of sand, to the striking beauty of a cemetery and the sad solitude of a garden at a former abbey.
Those sights and many more are testament to the daring assault 75 years ago when Canadian forces joined British and American troops, landing on French beaches to open another front to break Nazi Germany’s hold on Europe.
Jim Parks, a 19-year-old rifleman with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, was among the first Canadians on the beach of this French town on June 6, 1944. But he arrived after a perilous swim with no rifle and none of his equipment.
He was on board a landing craft, which was carrying armoured bulldozers that would clear the beach of obstructions for the troops and tanks that would follow, when it dropped the troops in the water after hitting a mine and taking shellfire.
“It was a long swim. I got side-swiped, swallowed a lot of water,” Parks recalled in an interview.
“I plopped beside one guy,” he recalled. “I looked over and he was actually mortally wounded. Since I had lost everything, I grabbed his Sten gun and some of his equipment.”
He recalls the cacophony of noise during the assault — the rocket barrages from an adjacent landing craft, the roar of shells fired from warships that ripped the air overhead.
Near where the Juno Beach Centre stands today, the beachfront was well-fortified by German machine gun posts, trenches and gun batteries carefully positioned to repel an assault from the sea.
Yet as they approached the shore, Parks wasn’t even thinking about the enemy fire. “I was thinking about how the hell we were going to get off and how we were going to get in to shore,” said Parks, 94, who lives in Mount Albert, Ont. “All you’re thinking about is what you’re doing.”
Once on land, he remembers pulling wounded comrades to cover. “The guys were lying on the beach and you couldn’t tell whether they were wounded or killed. The tanks were coming in and wouldn’t see them. They’d be running over them,” he said.
“We dashed down the beach and pulling men to the sand dunes. We yanked as many we could.”
The Winnipeg native would go on to fight and suffer battle injuries as the Canadians advanced through Normandy, then into the Netherlands and Germany.
Parks will join a delegation of Canadian veterans returning to the fateful stretch of Normandy coast for commemorative events to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Gov. General Julie Payette and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Donald Trump and Prince Charles will be among the representatives of the allied nations taking part in the commemoration.
In hindsight, the allied landings look like a decisive blow that was destined to succeed, yet success was far certain. The largest amphibious assault in history hinged on a multitude of factors, from the weather to the ability to orchestrate the many elements of the assault force — landing craft, aerial bombardments, naval forces — together for the invasion.
It even hinged on the gullibility of the Germans falling for a carefully laid ruse — that the landings in Normandy were a mere diversion, and that the real invasion would happen near Calais, which is closer to the British coast. The Germans fell for the bait and critically delayed moving reinforcements into the Normandy region.
For Canadian soldiers who had been training for years in England, it was a chance to see action and avenge the disastrous landing at Dieppe in 1942, which cost 3,367 dead, wounded and captured but delivered hard-earned lessons that would help ensure the success of the D-Day landings two years later.
The Canadians were assigned to the British sector, where the landing sites were named after fish. The British would land on “Sword” and “Gold,” the Canadians on “Jelly.” That choice of name didn’t sit well with some. “They realized how ridiculous that word was and so they changed it,” military author Ted Barris said.
“Juno” was chosen in its place. Good thing, too, since the name has since become part of Canadian lore.
Some 14,000 Canadian troops landed on an eight-kilometre stretch of coastline, among almost 150,000 allied troops who made up the D-Day assault. In addition, the contributions of the Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force crews proved key.
For Barris, the story of the landings is best told in the individual tales of those who took part in the air, on the ground and at sea to ensure the success of the landings.
There was Flight Lieut. Robert Dale, an Air Force navigator from Toronto, who took part in a weather reconnaissance mission on June 4, the day before the original date for the landings. “They found gale force winds, low ceilings, horrible conditions across the Channel,” Barris said.
That information, together with other observations and forecasts, convinced the allied expeditionary force commander, U.S. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, to delay the landings by a day. “In a way, he changed the lives of a million people,” Barris said of Dale’s flight.
He recalls Pte. Mark Lockyer, of the Township of Whitby, who was one of the Canadian paratroopers dropped at night ahead of the morning invasion to secure the eastern flanks of the landing zones. Lockyer was assigned to blow up a bridge at Robehomme, one of the several targeted by the allies to block Germans reinforcements.
“He presses the plunger and blows up the bridge. Mission accomplished,” Barris said.
“It’s so remarkable that all these tiny stories, had any one of them not succeeded in their work, in what they were trained to do, the thing might have been a very different story,” said Barris, author of the book “Juno.”
“All these guys came through … and got it done,” Barris said in a telephone interview.
But it was not without cost. On that one day, the Canadians suffered 1,074 casualties, including 359 killed. In all, the battle of Normandy would claim more than 5,000 Canadian lives as it stretched through to August.
The Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery is among most poignant tributes to those sacrifices.
Located just a few kilometres inland from Juno Beach, it sits in an area that Canadian troops swept through on June 6 during their advance from the beachhead. For some 2,049 soldiers and 15 airmen who fell that day and in the days and weeks to come, this patch of bucolic Normandy countryside would become their final resting place.
On a recent May day, this hallowed spot was a place of solitude and reflection. A warm breeze stirred the leaves of the majestic maple trees that stand like sentries. Gardeners worked on the immaculately tended flower beds around the graves.
Visitors wandered the cemetery in silence. It’s hard not to read the inscriptions and not be moved to tears. They were young men, some still in their teens, from every corner of the country.
The grave of Lance Cpl. Russel Clarence Woinoski, 23, of Kitchener, reads, “We miss you, dear boy.”
Pte. Stafford Marvel Lake was the son of Roswell and Elsie Lake, of Bramber, N.S. A member of the North Shore New Brunswick Regiment, Lake was killed on July 4, 1944 at the age of 20. “The battle fought, the victory won has taken from us our darling son.”
Pte. John Paul Sebastian, of the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa, died just a day after landing in France. His headstone reads, “He was only one of the many but he was ours. Dearly loved and never forgotten by family.”
At this cemetery and others, the graves of Canadian soldiers — distinguished by a Maple Leaf on the headstone and the Canadian flags often left by visitors — trace the path of their advances through Europe from Juno Beach.
But a quiet garden in the Abbaye d’Ardenne just outside Caen is testament to the atrocities of war.
This collection of buildings built over the centuries served as headquarters for SS commander Kurt Meyer. It was here where some Canadians captured in action in the days after D-Day were brought.
On June 7, 11 Canadians were picked out from among the prisoners and murdered — some bludgeoned to death, others shot. The next day, seven more Canadian prisoners-of-war were shot at the abbey.
Pte. Jan Jesionek, a Polish soldier pressed into service with the Germans, was a witness to the shootings. He said the Canadians seemed to know their fate.
“I think they knew exactly that they were being shot because as they came out individually, they grasped each other’s hand, shook each other by the hand,” Jesionek told a Canadian military court during Meyer’s trial for war crimes.
Jesionek watched as each soldier went through a doorway into the garden, followed by a shot.
Meyer was convicted of being complicit in the murders. Originally sentenced to death, his sentence was commuted to life behind bars, but he was released after less than 10 years.
Today, the abbey garden has become a tribute to the slain Canadians. A Canadian flag wrapped around the tree has been adorned with poppies and smaller flags. A stone monument offers a memorial to the 18 who were killed, as well as two others killed nearby later. Signs in the yard show the pictures of the Canadians and tell their stories.
Their bodies were retrieved and buried at one of the two Canadian war cemeteries in Normandy. One of them, Pte. George Millar, of Renfrew, Ont., lies in Bretteville-Sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery. He was just 19. The inscription on his headstone reads, “I think I see him as he bade good-bye and left us for ever in a distant land to die.”
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier