Part I of the Beaches of Normandy Then and Now Series

Juno Beach

May 29, 2015

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Reproduced from Wikipedia

Canadian troops coming ashore at Bernieres-sur-Mer in the days after D-Day. The famous Canadian House can be seen on the shore. It featured in many photos of Juno Beach taken in 1944, including several in this photo essay.

The Canadians in Normandy in the Summer of 1944

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, thousands of Canadian assault troops anxiously waited aboard their landing craft, straining to launch themselves against Hitler's Fortress Europe. They were taking part in Operation Overlord, the largest amphibious operation in history. The Canadians and their British and American allies would storm the beaches of Normandy and begin the long and arduous task of liberating occupied Europe.

The sector assigned to the Canadians was codenamed Juno. Stretching along five miles of sandy beaches, Juno Beach included the three small resort towns of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Bernieres-sur-Mer and Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer. Waiting for them were men of the German 716th Division. They had erected thousands of obstacles, belts of thick barbed wire and dozens of minefields. Steel-reinforced concrete bunkers brimming with anti-tank guns, machine guns, and riflemen overlooked the beaches. Mortars and artillery were pre-sighted on the landing grounds. They were determined to prevent the Allies gaining a foothold in France.

Victory at Juno would come at a heavy price: by the end of the day 340 Canadians lay dead. Hundreds more were wounded. These were the heaviest casualties on any beach save the near-disastrous American assault on Omaha. Yet the Canadians were also the only units to reach their D-Day objectives, advancing further inland than any other Allied army. As the historian John Keegan remarked, "That was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride."

In this photo essay we'll take a tour of Juno Beach today, learning about the men drawn from across Canada who fought on these beaches and carried the day. I took all the recent photos myself in May 2015, while the historical photos are drawn from a variety of sources.

This is Juno Beach. We'll start by examining the fighting at Courseulles in the West, and move east through Bernieres and then Saint-Aubin, before moving inland towards Caen.

Courseulles-sur-Mer

At Courseulles there is a small harbour for fishing vessels. To the west of the harbour is a long sandy beach backed by a short rise in the ground. On June 6 a dozen machine gun nests and a number of anti-tank guns defended this stretch of beach. The Winnipeg Rifles and a company of the Canadian Scottish (Victoria, B.C.) landed here and were met by a torrent of machine gun and mortar fire, but they were able to claw their way ashore. In front of Courseulles itself the Regina Rifles landed. They took heavy casualties coming to grips with the Germans - one landing craft boatswain reported six men killed before reached the bottom of the ramp. Yet they too were able to work their way into the town and secure a toehold.

Reproduced from Courseulles-sur-Mer Online Postcard Collection

A German 50mm gun position protecting the harbour of Courseulles. You can see from the holes in the gun shield that the gun has taken a direct hit, probably from a Canadian tank. Courseulles was heavily defended with concrete bunkers housing anti-tank guns, machine gun nests and mortar pits but the Canadian troops were able to quickly overcome these defenses and clear the beaches.

Reproduced from the Juno Beach Centre Collection

The Sherman DD tank commanded by Leo Gariepy rumbles through the streets of Courseulles in the first moments after the invasion. Shortly before this photo was taken his tank had knocked out a German anti-tank bunker. In Courseulles a street and a memorial are named after him and he has a rather lengthy entry on the French Wikipedia. Gariepy returned to Courseulles in 1964 to a warm welcome. When the Mayor of Courseulles and local dignitaries were greeting him a young man approached the veteran and said "Je n'etais pas ne en 1944. Permettez-moi de vous serrer la main." "I was not born in 1944. Allow me to shake your hand." It was a moment of high emotion that is remembered by the people in the picturesque town today. Gariepy was made an honourary citizen of Courseulles and lived out the rest of his days there.

Reproduced from the Juno Beach Centre Collection

Troops from the Regina Rifles follow Gariepy's tank through the streets of Courseulles at about 9:00 in the morning. They will shortly be engaged in battle with a German strongpoint located several hundred yards ahead in the fields just behind the town. Gariepy's tank is credited with helping overrun the position, knocking out machine gun nests and forcing the surrender of 50 Germans. These are sometimes claimed to be the first prisoners taken by the seaborne forces during Operation Overlord.

Reproduced from the Juno Beach Centre Collection

Troops from the Regina Rifles follow Gariepy's tank through the streets of Courseulles at about 9:00 in the morning. They will shortly be engaged in battle with a German strongpoint located several hundred yards ahead in the fields just behind the town. Gariepy's tank is credited with helping overrun the position, knocking out machine gun nests and forcing the surrender of 50 Germans. These are sometimes claimed to be the first prisoners taken by the seaborne forces during Operation Overlord.

Reproduced from the Canadian War Museum website

The disembarkation of men and supplies at Courseulles is seen continuing here in August. Today the Juno Beach Centre, a museum commemorating Canada's role on D-Day, is right behind the rise in the ground. It is well worth a visit.

A few more photos of Courseulles today

Bernieres-sur-Mer

Toronto's Queen's Own Rifles of Canada were assigned the central sector of the beach, in front of Bernieres. Their tank support arrived late. The first boat dropped its ramp directly in front of a German resistance point. Only one of the first 11 men off that boat made it more than a few steps before being cut down. A number of the landing craft hit mines on the way in, drowning many men. Facing a bloodbath, for the men of the Queen's Own there was nowhere to go but forward. Though this was their first taste of combat, years of training had prepared them for this day, and they were able to flank the bunkers and kill their crews with grenades and small arms, making the beach secure for the followup waves. Leaving many dead and wounded on the beach, they advanced into Bernieres and cleared the town of German snipers and mortars before pushing resolutely inland. Though taking 143 casualties, the highest of any Canadian regiment, the Queen's Own had advanced a remarkable seven miles inland by nightfall, one of the only Allied units in Normandy to secure their D-Day objective.

Reproduced from Wikipedia

Canadian troops with bicycles disembark from LCIs (Landing Craft Infantry) on the afternoon of June 6. The original photographer was standing on the deck of an LCI when he took this photo and unfortunately I had no LCI to stand on to get the perspective just right.

Sergeant Major Charlie Martin of the Queen's Own describes landing on this stretch of beach in his diary:

The moment the ramp came down, heavy machine-gun fire broke out from somewhere back of the seawall. Mortars were dropping all over the beach. The men rose, starboard line turning right, port turning left. I said to Jack, across from me, and to everyone: "Move! Fast! Don't stop for anything. Go! Go! Go!" We raced down the ramp, Jack and I side by side, the men closely following. We fanned out as fast as we could, heading for that sea wall. None of us really grasped at that point, spread across such a large beach front, just how thin on the ground we were. Each of the ten boatloads had become an independent fighting unit.

Our part of the beach was clear but there were mines buried in the sand. On the dead run you just chose the path that looked best. Bert Shepard, Bill Bettridge and I were running at top speed and firing from the hip. To our left we spotted a small gap in the wall. They had placed a belt-fed machine gun there as part of the defence and only one man was on it. We knew from our training that you cannot be on the move and fire accurately at the same time. If you stop you become a target. In any case, Bill did stop for a split second. He took his aim and that seemed to be the bullet that took the gunner out, although Bert and I were firing too. We got to the wall and over it, then raced across the railway line.

-Reproduced from the website Juno Beach - The Canadians on D-Day

Reproduced from Wikipedia

Canadian troops digging in on the beach while the wounded await evacuation. They are in front of the knocked out antitank gun position previously mentioned. Note the impact mark on the bunker's wall.

Reproduced from World War II Photofinder

The Regiment de la Chaudiere landed hot on the heels of the Queen's Own. Here they are in front of Canada House speaking with French civilians, who were reportedly enthused at the 'earthy' variety of French spoken by the soldiers from Quebec. Soon they would be pressing inland to engage the enemy.

Reproduced from War Chronicle: Canadians in Normandy

A batch of Wehrmacht prisoners is marched to waiting ships to be taken into captivity in England.

A few more photos of Bernieres today

Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer

The North Shore Regiment from New Brunswick landed at Saint-Aubin, supported by tanks of Winnipeg's Fort Garry Horse. The troops leapt from the landing craft only to find themselves up to their necks in water, all the while machine gun bullets ripped through the air around them. The strongpoint ahead of them had been untouched by the naval bombardment and the North Shore men took heavy casualties crossing the wide beach. Many of them stepped on land mines. The German strongpoint was anchored on an anti-tank gun bunker. Photos from the time allow us to retrace what happened next.

Still reproduced from Canada at War

The Then photo is a still taken from this video of men from New Brunswick's North Shore Regiment landing at Saint-Aubin. I walked up and down the entire beach sector and could not find houses matching those in the video, so this is my best guess as to where they landed. The video itself is one of the most famous in Canada's history, and represents the only footage from any army of first wave troops landing on D-Day.

Reproduced from D-Day Overlord: La Bataille de Normandie

Saint-Aubin after the battle. One of the DD Sherman tanks from the Fort Garry House has been knocked out, its gun aiming towards the photographer. What the picture doesn't reveal is that the photographer was standing almost on top of the anti-tank bunker that knocked the tank out at nearly point-blank range. One imagines moments of frantic and gut-wrenching human drama.

Reproduced from D-Day Historian Tours

This is the gun emplacement that knocked out the DD tank from the previous photo. Its cannon was still pointed back at the tank at the time. It also accounted for three more of the Winnipegger tanks. It proved impossible for the tanks on the beach to neutralize this position - the only way to knock out these bunkers was to put a shell directly in the embrasure. It was only when another DD Sherman penetrated the town and attacked the gun from the land side that the gun was put out of action.

Reproduced from World War II Photofinder

This dramatic photo shows that other DD Sherman approaching from the land side. The bunker is just down the street, about 30 metres in front of the tank. This photo was taken within moments of the tank firing on the bunker and putting a shell right in the embrasure, killing the gun crew.

Reproduced from R.A.F. Beach Units

This is the P-47 Thunderbolt from several photos back as seen from a different angle. The American aircraft crash-landed on the beach at Saint-Aubin on June 10, several days after D-Day. This photo was taken a few weeks after that.

A few more photos of Saint-Aubin today

Moving Inland and the Battle for Normandy

D-Day was only the first day of a gruelling and bitter campaign. For most of the summer the Allies would struggle to break out of their beachheads and into the plains of Northern France. Caen was the largest city in the region and only a short distance inland from the British and Canadian beaches. The flat open fields around it made excellent terrain for tank warfare, and it was there that the Allies had banked on a breakout. Knowing this, and knowing that the Americans were easily contained by the difficult bocage terrain in the western sector, the Germans put their best divisions, including a number of SS Panzer Divisions up against the British and Canadians.

As the Summer wore on more Canadian units poured into Normandy, eventually totalling over 125,000 men. Of these 5,000 would die in vicious battles grinding down the German panzerwaffen. Finally in August, after months of stalemate, the Americans were able to break out of the hedgerow country that precipitated the collapse of the German Army in France. Taking stock at the end of the campaign, only 7% of the Canadians who died in the Battle of Normandy fell on June 6. Battles at Carpiquet Airfield, Authie, Caen, Verrieres Ridge and Falaise cost more Canadian blood than Juno Beach, and they also served to ground down the elite panzer spearheads of the German army in France, sacrifices without which victory would have been impossible. It would be more representative of the true scale of the Battle of Normandy to focus more on these fields further inland.

Unfortunately, for my purposes it is quite difficult to find photos of these battles that are easily pinpointed geographically. Instead the beaches are overwhelmingly amenable to the kind of photography I envisioned for this project, and that drove the thrust of this essay. Nevertheless I was able to find a few photos of the Canadians in these later battles and find the correct locations.

Reproduced from Juno Beach Info

Cheerful troops from the Regiment de la Chaudiere begin the march inland from Bernieres on the afternoon of June 6. They could look forward to months of bitter fighting in Normandy against SS Panzer Divisions, the best formations in Hitler's armies. I took the photo from the exact right spot, but unfortunately there is a hedge covering the building at the background left which still stands, though you can see a little bit of the wall.

Reproduced from Wikipedia

A Sherman from the Fort Garry Horse has been knocked out in front of the church at the village of Rots, just west of Caen. Rots was the scene of ferocious fighting on June 11th between the fanatical 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth) and the Regiment de la Chaudiere supported by tanks from the Fort Garry Horse.

A French-Canadian soldier describes the fighting in Rots:

They fought like lions on both sides, so that the dead lay corpse by corpse. We searched every house, every courtyard to avoid ambush. And here is the confirmation of how ferocious last night's battle must have been. The Commandos lie dead in rows beside the dead SS. Grenades are scattered all over the road and in the porches of houses. Here we see a Commando and an SS man, literally dead in each other's arms, having slaughtered each other. There, a German and a Canadian tank have engaged each other to destruction, and are still smouldering, and from each blackened turret hangs the charred corpse of a machine gunner. Over here are a group who ran towards a wall for shelter and were shot down before they got there. And then near the church, as the advance guard of C Company and the carriers turn the corner, there are three Germans. Only three. But one of them instantly draws his pistol and hits one of our men. A Bren gunner kills two of the three SS men, but the survivor gets away. Now we understand with what kind of fanatic we have to deal.

-Regimental History of the Regiment de la Chaudiere

From the Juno Beach Centre Collection

Spitfires of the RCAF at the temporary airfield at Beny-sur-Mer, just behind the beachhead.

The Canadian Army at War - Canada's Battle in Normandy

Tanks of the Sherbrook Fusiliers kick up clouds of dust as they drive into Caen when the city was captured during Operation Charnwood. The original caption claims the Germans were resisting only a couple blocks away at the time this photo was taken.

Imperial War Museum Collection

The ruined skyline of Caen after it fell to the Allies. The city was subjected to heavy Allied bombing and street fighting before it fell in July.

Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery

This is Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery just inland from Juno Beach. 2,000 Canadians who died fighting to free Europe from tyranny are buried here. The land is Canadian soil, a gift from France to Canada. There is another cemetery further inland at Bretteville-sur-Laize where a further 2,800 Canadians killed in Normandy lie. The cemetery is a beautiful and tragic place. Many of the headstones have inscriptions from the families, a reminder that the men here were not just soldiers, but fathers, husbands and sons. Overwhelmingly they were in their early 20s. Some were as young as 18. They are worth taking a moment to read, a stirring reminder of the true cost of freedom.



The inscription reads: We could not hold your hand. We did not see you die. We only know you passed away and could not say goodbye.


We left with a jest, our home in the West, now here with the best, we lie at rest.


Gordon Lodge of Waterloo, Ontario, was only 18.


We miss your smiling face, cheery voice and laughter. We will meet again dear son & enjoy the life hereafter.


Let us not forget: he died that others might live in peace, free from fear.


He gave his life for us. What hast thou given for him.

France Remembers

The people of Normandy have not forgotten the sacrifice of those Canadians in 1944. When I spent a week there this May I met Olivia Auguste, a D-Day Beaches tour guide and member of the Westlake Brothers Souvenir, an association dedicated to honouring the memory of Canadian veterans. The association is named for the Westlake Brothers, who were the tragic Canadian version of the story told in Saving Private Ryan: Three brothers from one Toronto family who fell in battle in Normandy in the space of a couple weeks. The association has hundreds of members - young people from Normandy - who attend remembrance ceremonies, erect plaques and memorials in honour of the Canadians, and work to keep their memory alive.

Personally, I was surprised to see so much genuine interest in honouring the veterans, and the focus on the Canadians. Olivia explained it to me:

The members of the association are young, aged 9 to 26-years-old. The association's seeks to pay tribute to the soldiers of all nations who fought for our freedom during World War II. But we honour especially the Canadians, because Canadian soldiers in World War II were all volunteers, young people who chose to come to France and aid in the liberation of Europe. This decision was taken at a price, the highest one imaginable: their lives. Today members of the WBS association do not forget.

Young members organise themselves commemorative ceremonies that they totally take charge of. Ceremonies like balloon releases, wreath layings, candle lightings, plaque unveilings, etc. Many of the young pupils are very creative and come up with their own texts, poems, or songs to pay homage to our dear Liberators. This summer, the group is going to Canada to meet the veterans who cannot travel to France anymore, and organise a series of commemorative events all around the country. We are very dedicated and committed to the cause of Remembrance because our members know the price of Freedom. We always end our ceremonies with these words: "We will remember them." We mean it.

A couple photos from their Facebook page posted in the last two weeks:





Beaches of Normandy Then and Now Series

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