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