D-Day, Canada’s moment: ‘We had a job to do – and we did it’

It’s been 75 years since the invasion that marked the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany – and Canadian troops helped to win the day. Here’s how those who were there are trying to make sure we never forget.

ROY MACGREGOR PUBLISHED MAY 30, 2019

Normandy, June 6, 1944: Canadian soldiers leave landing craft and walk toward the coast of Nazi-occupied France. D-Day, as it came to be known, was the biggest seaborne invasion in history and an important turning point in the Allied victory in the Second World War.DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE/THE CANADIAN PRESS

From his fourth-floor apartment, 94-year-old Fred Turnbull looks down on Bedford Basin. It is the same magnificent harbour where, so very long ago, the then-17-year-old stared down from the train carrying him to Halifax and saw navy convoys gathering to cross the Atlantic.

“That’s when it dawned on me that we were at war,” recalls Mr. Turnbull.

It was the summer of 1942. The Montreal youngster had signed up with the navy and was being trained as a bowman for one of the landing crafts ferrying Allied soldiers from ship to shore. It was extremely dangerous work, as his boots were always first in the water, the armed troops following.

He would see action in Sicily and Greece, but the event that would stay with him forever – the incredible noise that affects his hearing to this day – was June 6, 1944: D-Day.

To honour the 75th anniversary, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa is mounting an exhibition on the invasion. The museum has selected seven participants who took part in the historical landing, their stories vividly told through words and pictures. “These are stories of Canadians in times of terrible stress and strain,” says Tim Cook, the museum’s resident historian.

“It’s one of the major events in history,” Mr. Turnbull says. “It saved Britain and possibly the whole Western world.

“I don’t think people know enough about it.”

THE CANADIAN PRESS
Second World War veteran Fred Turnbull.THE CANADIAN PRESS

D-Day is not as well known as, say, the First World War battle of Vimy Ridge, but Dr. Cook argues that it was “a nexus point for Canada as a nation. [France and Poland] aren’t there. Here’s Canada. We’re a junior ally. We’re not colonial. We’re there – and this was the beginning of the end for the Germans.”

It was the greatest seaborne invasion in history. The Germans knew it was coming, but neither where nor when. The natural presumption had been around Pas-de-Calais, the shortest distance over the channel, but the military planners working under the allied command of U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, chose instead the sandy beaches along the coast of Normandy.

The Americans would take Utah and Omaha beaches to the west, the British had Gold Beach in the middle of the 80-kilometre stretch and Sword Beach to the east, with the Canadians assigned to take, and hold, Juno Beach between the two British targets.

A map of the D-Day landing plan shows the Allied forces’ crossing of the English Channel.

The sheer numbers involved are to this day overwhelming to consider: 155,000 soldiers, some 11,000 planes, 50,000 vehicles and 5,000 minesweepers, battleships, carriers and landing craft, one of them carrying 19-year-old Fred Turnbull whose task was to lower the ramp, leap over the bow and steady the craft with rope while the soldiers stormed ashore under fire.

“All the training helped you not to think about how scared you were,” Mr. Turnbull says.

All around him mortars were exploding, machine-gun fire ripping into sand, water and men. Somehow, Mr. Turnbull got in and out unscathed.

“The thing that bothered me most was the noise,” he recalls. “And the confusion. We just wanted to get it over with.”

Some 14,000 Canadians landed that day shortly after dawn. The invasion had actually been in the planning process for many months, the Americans eager to attack but British Prime Minister Winston Churchill arguing for delay so they could plan and practice down to the smallest detail. And they needed a break in the weather.

“Someone said it was the most important weather forecast in human history,” Dr. Cook says.

About 14,000 Canadians either landed at Juno Beach or were dropped behind enemy lines.DEPARTMENT OF NATIONAL DEFENCE/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Six Canadian regiments landed along Juno Beach: the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, the 1st Hussars, the Queen’s Own Rifles, the Fort Garry Horse and the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment.

Another 450 Canadians were dropped behind enemy lines by parachute and gliders. The air force sent Lancaster bombers and Spitfire fighter planes. The extensive naval operations involved around 10,000 Canadian sailors. But it was the ones charging off the landing craft who were in the most and immediate danger.

“The soldiers took quite a beating,” Mr. Turnbull remembers.

They did indeed. The Germans forces, under command of General Erwin Rommel – the infamous “Desert Fox” – were well fortified and prepared. The Allies suffered 10,000 casualties, 4,414 of whom were killed. The Germans, at first with such a protective advantage, had 4,000 to 9,000 casualties.

Fortunately, the Allies’ air power was completely dominating, with more than 10,000 planes versus but a few hundred for the Germans.

“The Luftwaffe,” Dr. Cook says, “has been basically blown out of the sky at this point.”

Landing craft with Canadian troops approach the Normandy beach during the D-Day invasion.GILBERT A. MILNE/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Canadians landed as part of Britain’s Second Army under command of British Lieutenant-General Miles Dempsey. Two hours after the invasion began, the Canadians had established their beachhead.

“At the end of the day,” respected British military historian John Keegan wrote in his book, Six Armies in Normandy, “[Canada’s] forward elements stood deeper into France than those of any other division.”

It came at an enormous cost. The Canadians had suffered more than 1,000 casualties, nearly 400 of whom were dead. Mr. Turnbull was not only left untouched, he would return four times to these beaches carrying supplies. The long-retired banker would eventually be awarded France’s highest decoration, the Legion of Honour.

In 2007, Mr. Turnbull published his memoirs, The Invasion Diaries, and wishes more effort would be made to let today’s young people know what the youth of his day accomplished that June morning in France.

“Something has to be done about it,” he says.

April 30, 2019: A German defence bunker lies in ruins on Juno Beach.DAN KITWOOD/GETTY IMAGES

Dr. Cook thinks that D-Day and other Second World War triumphs were somewhat lost because of what happened in the immediate aftermath. The returning soldiers were, for the most part, treated very well when it came to matters such as housing, education, retraining and loans to buy homes and farms. They immediately got on with life.

“The country was moving along,” Dr. Cook says. “They were not thinking ‘Let’s memorialize this.’”

It was a marked difference from the aftermath of the Great War, which saw the Vimy War Memorial erected in 1936 and, three years later, the National War Memorial unveiled in Ottawa.

“For some reason, we don’t pay a lot of attention to the Second World War,” Dr. Cook says. “We have Vimy, but there is no Second World War equivalent. We have the Juno Beach Centre, but it’s not the same.”

Over time, however, both Dr. Cook and Mr. Turnbull have seen recognition and admiration on the rise. “In the 60s, 70s, 80s,” Mr. Cook says, “we didn’t care much, we didn’t want to talk about war, we didn’t want to commemorate.”

“Remembrance Day nearly died out. But then it came back. I think it goes back to 1995, the 50th anniversary of the Second World War when thousands of veterans went back and we all sort of woke up and said, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re a country of peacekeepers, but who are these warriors? Who are these people who served and liberated? Who are these old men who are standing at the graves of young boys and crying? Who are these French and Dutch civilians weeping in joy? What have we done?’”

Nothing less than what Mr. Turnbull says as, 75 years later, he stares down at the same harbour that once brimmed with convoy ships.

“We had a job to do – and we did it.” https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-d-day-canadas-moment-we-had-a-job-to-do-and-we-did-it/?fbclid=IwAR0ZCqKDtAEyWvEp6-k2owPaxojXSijTs8MIZ667fX2KiGnN0SxmPtnnnFE

Lest they forget: D-Day will fade from memory if we don’t teach the youth

JERRY AMERNIC CONTRIBUTED TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL PUBLISHED MAY 31, 2019 

Jerry Amernic is the author of several books, including the novel The Last Witness.

The other night, I watched Saving Private Ryan. It was Memorial Day in the United States. The opening sequence depicting the landings at Normandy on D-Day – June 6, 1944 – is riveting. Although the film never mentions Canada, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division penetrated further inland at Juno Beach on D-Day than did the Yanks or Brits at the four beaches they tackled.

The biggest military invasion in history, D-Day turned the tide of the Second World War. The 359 Canadian dead and 715 wounded were among 10,000 Allied casualties that day, and next week is the 75th anniversary. It will be the last one with actual veterans, which means there will soon be no more witnesses and that can be a dangerous thing.

We all know the words Lest we forget, but I fear that young people today know little, if anything, about D-Day and the Second World War. This became obvious to me when I taught college. They just don’t know. But when the last combatant is gone, knowing what happened and why it happened will be crucial.

My father served in the war, but was stationed in Newfoundland and never saw combat. I have his dog tag tucked away in a velvet pouch with other things from his youth. While I was born in the 1950s, I learned about Canada’s war effort in school and from my work as a journalist.

I once did a magazine profile on retired major-general Richard Rohmer who showed me his Distinguished Flying Cross, awarded for his service as a reconnaissance pilot. Mr. Rohmer saw the entire Normandy invasion from the skies that day and told me about it.

Another time, I covered the last annual reunion of a group of Belgian citizens and the Canadian soldiers who liberated them in 1945. I still remember the camaraderie, the kinship and the love that existed among them.

A few years ago, I wrote a novel about the last living survivor of the Holocaust. It takes place in 2039 when my protagonist is 100 years old, but knowledge of past history is remote. My agent shopped it around, and one editor turned it down because he didn’t buy the premise about society becoming ignorant about the Holocaust in a generation. The editor said he had to suspend disbelief.

Really?

After my novel was rejected by that publisher, a videographer and I interviewed students at a Toronto university and asked them questions about the Holocaust. We asked them about the Allies. We asked if they knew about Churchill and FDR. We asked about D-Day. With few exceptions, these kids knew practically nothing. The video we made has gone viral around the world.

When I asked if they knew what happened on D-Day, their responses ranged from, “It happened in England,” to “It was a place where a lot of bombs went off,” to them just shaking their heads.

My daughter is a high-school teacher, has taught history and is dedicated to her job. But the problem might be rooted in the fact that the young have so many options today, not just in school but outside as well, and maybe there is no room for knowing about the past.

I have a 576-page document from the Ontario Ministry of Education. It’s supposed to explain what is taught in Grades 10 and 11 in high schools in the area of Canadian and World Studies, and it uses phrases such as “Concepts of Disciplinary Thinking across Subjects.”

Frankly, when it comes to teaching history – or any subject – I don’t care what it says in a document about what is supposed to be covered in the curriculum. The fact is that, for whatever the reason, young people who graduate from Ontario high schools do not know seem to know basic history.

Two weeks ago, I attended the funeral of Milton Berger. He was 94. Milt was a long-time Toronto city councillor and we met when I was a young newspaper reporter covering municipal politics. He was also the father-in-law of a close friend.

Milt was said to be the first Holocaust survivor to serve as a politician in Ontario. When he was 17 he was sent to Auschwitz.

Lest we forget? It’s time for us to wake up and ensure that our young know why we have the freedoms too many take for granted. Having them not know disrespects those who made the sacrifice – such as the men at Juno Beach – and may even foretell a future that we don’t want to imagine. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-lest-they-forget-d-day-will-fade-from-memory-if-we-dont-teach-the/?fbclid=IwAR14V5ACufVRFyVbKq6wYiK92CJmM8YwU5h-J4OCw2gCo44LACRfVAaO0CY