It’s a windy day on the north coast of France.
I am facing the sea and I have goose bumps. But it’s not because I am cold. “Ladies and Gentlemen, you are about to walk Juno Beach.”
It’s not the first day of my battlefields tour in France, but it has all been leading up to this. Just before we take to the beach, the historian from the Juno Beach Centre reminds us of the complexities of the D-Day landings. It was the largest amphibious assault of all time—an attack on all fronts: land, sea, and air.
Roughly 80 km of beach along the coastline of Normandy, France was chosen as the point of entry to attack Hitler’s Fortress Europe.
There is no deep-water port at this location. The shoreline rises gradually. By 1944, the Nazi’s have had four years to fortify the coastline with bunkers, and numerous gun placements. In addition, a variety of barriers and mines have been placed in the water.
For the first wave of soldiers landing at low tide, this means that they will be able to see the mines placed on shore, but it also means that they have more ground to cover, and they are in plain sight of the enemy’s guns.
The beach is broken into five areas of assault. The Americans will attack at two points on the western edge, while the British will attack in the middle and on the far eastern edge. In between the two British beaches is Canada’s objective: Juno.
Juno Beach is roughly 8 km long. On June 6, 1944, the beach belonged to Canada as it was stormed by regiments from all across our nation.
On the eastern edge of the beach, came the North New Brunswick’s and the Queen’s Own Rifles from Toronto; in the middle, the Regina Rifles and Royal Winnipeg Rifles; and on the western edge of the beach, the Canadian Scottish Highlanders of Victoria, BC.
All 5000 km of Canada, represented on 8 km of beach.
Thousands of Canadian soldiers would follow those first wave assault teams into the heart of Normandy, and thousands would die there. Over five hundred Canadian boys would die on that first morning alone.
I say “boys” because I walked through the cemetery at Beny-Sur-Mer where many of them are buried. Most of them were in their early twenties. But their efforts would help to secure the Allied objectives. In fact, Canada would advance the furthest of any of the armies on that first day. But Juno was just the beginning.
Many people forget that D-Day was just that—one day. A monumental day, yes, but it marked only the beginning of a fierce and bloody battle for Normandy, a battle that would continue into the hot summer of 1944.
Seventy-one years later, I am crisscrossing the region to learn more about those tragic and triumphant days. But my tour is not so much about places, as it is about people, from the past, and from the present.
Today, I am following in the footsteps of the Canadian Fourteenth Field Regiment. From the beach at Bernieres-Sur-Mer, I make my way passed a grand vacation home that was built in the 1930s. On D-Day, it was liberated by the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada.
The house is still occupied and still owned by the same family that owned it in 1944, and to show their gratitude to Canadian soldiers, the family has made the house into a shrine to Canada. Originally dedicated to the queen’s Own Rifles, today it is simply known as “Canada House”. I am honoured to meet them, but to my surprise they treat me like an honoured guest. “Our liberators”, our hostess calls us.
While the village may have been damaged during the war, it is not very much different than it was during the war. I walk through winding, narrow streets. Along the curb, you can still see the indentations left by passing army tanks.
I pass the thirteenth century church, with the high bell tower. That’s where the Nazi snipers would have been.
I make my way to the edge of town and find myself at the corner of a wheat field. I turn right and follow a narrow dirt road that parallels the hedgerow that borders the field. I come to an opening in the field.
On June 6, 1944, Lt. Garth Webb was a young gun-positioning officer with the Fourteenth Field Regiment. He was ordered to set up a position in this field, at this very spot. He and the other soldiers begin setting up the self-propelled artillery units, nicknamed “priests”, with 105 mm guns.
The land rises gradually as you move south, inland from the sea and in the distance, across the expanse of wheat fields, I see a bluff of trees roughly 3km away, on slightly higher ground. What Garth Webb and his men don’t know, is that hidden behind those trees is a German 88 gun, and their sights are on the Canadians.
Within minutes three of the four Canadian guns are destroyed and two entire crews are dead. Garth and his remaining troop manage to escape. As I listen to the story, I imagine the panic and scrambling that must have occurred. I imagine men taking cover behind an ancient stone fence behind me. But there was no time to mourn.
Garth Webb would later say that none of the remaining artillery crew could stop, even for a second. The order was to keep moving and gain as much ground as possible.
Lt. Webb would not forget his fallen comrades though. In 1994, he, along with many other veterans, returned to France to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day landings. Many of them wanted to bring their families back the following year.
But in 1994, there was nowhere to gather. Besides a beach, the cemeteries, and the small cenotaphs spread throughout small towns across Normandy, there was no official site, or museum to mark the place where Canadians participated in one of the most significant events of the twentieth century.
Garth Webb and his comrades could meet at the corner of that wheat field, but that was not good enough for Garth. It was then a dream was born. Garth Webb made it his mission to have a permanent museum built, one that would be dedicated to all Canadians.
An immense fundraising campaign was undertaken in Canada to secure funds to build the Juno Beach Centre. Thanks to donations from thousands of private Canadian citizens, many of them veterans; and corporations such as Walmart Canada; and many levels of government, the Juno Beach Centre was underway.
After years of fundraising, construction began on 1.5 hectares made available by the town of Courseulles-sur-Mer, France. On June 6, 2003, the Juno Beach Centre became a reality. And Garth Webb was there to officially open it.
Besides following in the footsteps of so many Canadians, my favorite part of the trip, by far, was meeting the people of Normandy.
Usually, when one tours a foreign country as a tour group, one’s interactions with inhabitants of said country are somewhat superficial. You are a tourist. You can visit sites of interest, and listen to guides talk about history, but nothing can compare to getting to know the locals.
And in this case, I was given the opportunity to interact in a very genuine way with the people of Normandy. You see, I was in the land of living history—a place where people still remember D-Day, where they remember the occupation, and maybe most important, they remember the Canadians who liberated them.
Did you know that hundreds of towns and villages in Normandy were liberated by Canadian soldiers? Did you know that these people love Canadians and that to this day, many organizations in these small towns are devoted to commemorating Canadians?
I did not know this before I went. I expected to see cenotaphs and visit cemeteries on my trip, but I saw something else that I wasn’t expecting.
I saw the maple leaf everywhere. As I travelled the region, it was not uncommon to see the Canadian flag—not just on official buildings and in town squares, but in the windows of private homes, and on the farms. I saw that those soldiers were not forgotten.
Much is made in the media about the special affection the Dutch have for Canadians, and rightly so, but I had no idea that the Normand’s felt this way also. I attended luncheons and ceremonies where I was treated as an honored guest, simply because I was a Canadian. I was so touched by their gratitude and affection, that even now I tear up thinking about it.
It is one thing to feel patriotic when you are singing “O Canada”, but let me tell you, nothing makes you feel more proud than hearing your own anthem sung by strangers on foreign soil. They knew all the words. They have made it their duty to know all the words and they have devoted much of their time to telling the story of so many Canadians.
Part of the reason I write this article is because of these people—if so many strangers can exalt the actions of Canadians, then the least I can do, is the same. I want to help write our story. If we don’t write our history, who will?
Most history books still lump us in with the British. And the Americans certainly aren’t going to write us into the script. The Juno Beach Centre, along with every monument and cenotaph in France, marks our place, but more importantly, ensures that our story will continue to be told.
I encourage you to visit the Juno Beach Centre. It is truly a piece of Canada. But if you can’t go to France, then visit the Centre through its website: junobeach.org. If you would like to commemorate a veteran or simply donate to this beautiful museum, check out their brick program.