It was a horrendous night of weather on the Channel, but in France the Resistance had been bombing and otherwise wreaking havoc, while Canadian Air Force 6 Group bombed the batteries at Merville, Franceville and Houlgate as part of the air barrage. At dawn, destroyers began blasting the area, providing cover for the 130,000 men in landing craft who would take the beaches and begin the move inland.
On the morning of June 6, 1944, starting at 08:00, the Canadians began their landing at D-Day.
On Sword Beach were the 3rd British Division, with the 48th Marine Commandos coming ashore directly to the east of the Canadians at Langrune-sur-Mer. To the west, on Gold Beach, the 50th British Division landed not far from La Riviere.
The Canadian 3rd Division ran through the waves from the landing craft. On Nan Beach came the 8th Infantry, including the North Shore New Brunswick Regiment and Régiment de la Chaudière at St. Aubin, and the Queen’s Own Rifles out of Toronto at Bernières. Backing them were the 9th Infantry, including the North Nova Scotia Highlanders, Highland Light Infantry of Canada and the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders. To the west, on Mike Beach came the 7th Infantry, including the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, the Regina Rifle Regiment and the 1st Battalion of the Canadian Scottish Regiment.
Behind them were the 2nd Armoured Brigade, including the Fort Garry Tanks on Nan and the 1st Hussar Tanks on Mike.
They would establish a beach head that would allow the 9th Brigade (Reserve) and the Sherbrooke Fusiliers Tanks to land about 20 minutes later and then the 19th and 14th Field Regiments.
“Stop the car! We’ve got to stop the car!” cried out one of my travelling companions, interrupting the history lesson from my other companion. “I know this place. I recognise this house from when we were here in 1953!”
When he was very young his father had been stationed in France. They had driven this road to get to the new posting. Of course we had to stop, so we quickly found parking and speed-walked to the monument at that spot. Apparently, my friend and his family had stopped here when he was little. This was a famous house.
We were at Bernières-sur-Mer and the house was the first building liberated from the Nazis. It is known as the Canadian House. It is known, officially, as “Maison de Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada” according to the plaque under the window.
As I looked at the photographic history of the spot on the wall by the monument and house, a sense of exactly what had happened on a human level that day washed over me. For years, the people of France had lived in oppression and fear. Betrayed by their own government they had existed with the Germans, the Resistance always working in the background receiving instructions via illegal radios and the BBC. Some were more courageous than others; some, well, collaborated; most just tried to get through the day; all were prisoners. Canadian House is the embodiment of the liberation to the people and they treat it with respect, as they do all the memorials and graves to this day.
I stood gazing at the house and the row of flags beside it for a few moments, calming my mind, feeling the wind on my face. Then I began to read the plaque in front of the house. To my surprise, my throat clenched and my eyes filled with tears that welled over before I could stop them.
The Queen’s Own had been badly hit by the one pillbox that hadn’t been destroyed in the saturation fire. The thought of those men, most of them still quite young, fighting to free this house, this village, this stretch of the 8km beach that was Juno, was stirring.
I turned my head to allow the wind to take the hair out of my eyes and saw the pillbox down the beach. There were flags around it and I was drawn there. I wanted to see what it was like to be in it, to look in it, to try to imagine the guns and the young Germans who had been ordered to fire them.
“Hey!” my other companion called from the other side of the pillbox, excitement evident in every syllable. “It’s the North Nova Scotia Highlanders! That was my grandfather’s Regiment!”
His grandfather was one of the most decorated Canadian soldiers of WWII, with medals from Canada, the States, England and France. He escaped from the Nazis twice, including after he was captured right after D-Day, and survived to testify at the Nuremberg trials and come home. Here is where the history lesson had been inspired.
The wind tasted of salt, cleansing, clear. I wandered away, scanning the beach, trying to get a feel for all the men landing. I could hear the flags above me as they were blown about and I looked up.
Above them was a kite, a small white kite that was incongruous to the thoughts I had been nursing. A second quickly joined it and that’s when I noticed the family enjoying the day, spending time together in love and joy.
The tide was out and it looked like half the village was out clamming and finding other treasures and edibles.
Where once there were soldiers.
Laughter drew me back to the family and their kite.
This was what it was all about, you see. Families flying kites without fear for what would come at them. The people of the village foraging as they had done for centuries. Life being lived fully and without fear. Life being lived in joy.
This is what the men who landed on Juno Beach were fighting for. People loving. People living.
There is more to come in the story of my visit to the beaches of Normandy. As June and the 70th Anniversary of D-Day approach, I’ll share more.