Juno Beach and D-Day: a generation’s legacy

[June 6, 2003]     For a few moments the sky over Normandy seemed to bleed. A helicopter, camouflaged to match the blue horizon, hovers over the beach at Courseulles-sur-Mer, dropping poppies. Poppies drop and drop and drop, first in bursts of red clouds, then spread out on the breeze, like blood drops dispersed in water. Each blood-red flower represents a Canadian killed in World War II. In all, 48,000 poppies flutter onto the beach, building and crowd below.

It is a day to look skyward. Earlier a fleet of helicopters delivered the official

The Canadian and French Prime Ministers at the opening of the Juno Beach Centre, June 2003.

The Canadian and French Prime Ministers at the opening of the Juno Beach Centre, June 2003.

party including two Prime Ministers, Jean Chretien of Canada and France’s Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Paratroops dropped from transport planes, carrying Canadian flags to the opening of our newest National Historic Site.

Later, a lone Spitfire fighter plane roared across the English Channel. For many this was the first time they had seen this famous little military workhorse in action. For others it was a remembrance of times past, when Courseulles-sur-Mer, like communities on both sides of the English Channel, regularly heard this fighter’s roar.

The poppy drop, the Spitfire, the officials, the crowds are part of the opening of the Juno Beach Centre. The Centre is the culmination of a six-year project by a group of volunteers and veterans “to tell the story of Canada in WWII. WWI is told at Vimy Ridge, but there was no place that told the WWII story in Europe. We got the idea when we were over on the 50th anniversary of D-Day,” says Garth Webb, who spearheaded the Juno Beach Centre project. A retired real estate appraiser from Etobicoke, Webb was a lieutenant with 14th field regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery and one of the 14,000 Canadians who landed here on June 6th, 1944.

Juno Beach.

Juno Beach.

Juno Beach was the code-name for the eight-kilometre-long stretch where Canadians landed on D-Day. The British landed to the right and left at Sword and Gold Beaches. The Americans came ashore at Utah and Omaha Beaches. In all, 135,000 Allied soldiers landed in Normandy on the first day of the 80-day campaign. They were supported by an invasion armada of 7,000 vessels – 110 of which were Canadian. Overhead Allied air crews flew 10,743 missions in support of the first hours of the invasion.

Webb says Courseulles-sur-Mer was chosen to host the Centre because  “the people who started it (the centre) were people who landed on Juno on D-Day. And a very significant point is the proximity to London and Paris,” which makes it more convenient for Canadians and Europeans to visit.

The town of Courseulles-sur-Mer is a fishing port and resort community along the sandy shores of the English Channel. The town’s outer harbour is home to a fishing fleet. The inner harbour is a forest of masts of pleasure craft. What is perhaps most noticeable about Courseulles-sur-Mer, and the other coastal towns along this stretch of the Normandy Coast, is how new – by European standards – the buildings are. That’s because most buildings were levelled by the naval bombardment, aerial raids that dropped 24 million pounds of bombs, and artillery fire during the invasion.

France has not forgotten its liberators. Every flag staff along this stretch of the Norman coast flies the French Tricolour with the flags of the liberators: the Union Jack, Stars and Stripes, and the Maple Leaf. Signs read, “Welcome to our liberators”and  “Normandy will never forget.” So when the idea of building the Juno Beach Centre was launched the French were the first to embrace it. Courseulles-sur-Mer donated a 99-year-lease on the land and the French government donated nine million Francs (1.3 million Euro) to the construction. The Canadian government also contributed as did all ten provinces plus Canadian corporations and donations from 13,000 individuals and Royal Canadian Legion branches.

France’ s Prime Minister Raffarin told the 1300 Canadian veterans and their 3000 family members attending the opening, “the French people thank you for freedom; freedom for Normandy, freedom for France, freedom from tyranny, freedom from fear. Thank you very much, merci.” Prime Minister Chretien said veterans, “brought peace and prosperity and strengthened our shared values; values like democracy, freedom and human rights. Thanks to the Juno Beach Centre our grandchildren and theirs will have a chance to learn about what their forebears did for the sake of freedom; they will learn about the sacrifices and bravery of Canadian soldiers during WWII.”

The Juno Beach story is of the significant contribution Canada made to the war effort. The Centre tour begins in a metal-lined hall. When the doors close, visitors experience a type of multi-media time travel which converts the space into a landing craft, giving visitors a soldier’s invasion eye view of Courseulles-sur-Mer. There are seven exhibition spaces at the Juno Beach Centre. After the time travel of the landing craft, the tour begins with a snapshot of 1930s Canada. In a way, this is a flashback to the country that soldiers facing the unknown might think of before dashing from their landing craft into battle. In the 1930s, Canada was still a country greatly affected by the depression.

The second space, Canada Goes to War, details the country’s mobilization for war.  In the spring of 1939, the Canadian military had less than 8,000 men in the army, navy and air force. The navy consisted of 13 ships. By war’s end, the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) was the fourth largest navy in the world with 450 combat ships. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), with 86 squadrons, was the world’s fourth largest air force. During WWII, ten per cent of Canada’s 11 million citizens were in uniform. Equally important was Canada’s support for the war effort with everything from secret oil supplies at Imperial Oil’s East Coast facilities, to food, clothing, munitions, and equipment. Canadian shipyards built 400 vessels to carry these supplies to the UK, and 12,000 Canadian sailors signed on with the Merchant Navy.

Terry Copp, a history professor at Wilfred Laurier University, Waterloo who is contributing content to the Centre, says, “Canada produced substantial amounts (of war supplies), particularly trucks at the branch plants of the American companies. We produced tanks at the Montreal Locomotive Works, and we produced a lot of aircraft. The largest single employer in Montreal by 1942 was the aircraft industry and it would be very close to the same in Toronto. Some of the Lancaster bombers used in the last stages in war were build in Canada.”

The Juno Beach Centre, just steps from where our troops landed on D-Day.

The Juno Beach Centre, just steps from where our troops landed on D-Day.

Juno’s Roads to Victory display details Canada’s participation in the various European campaigns: the 1942 Dieppe Raid, Italian Campaign, D-Day, liberation of the Netherlands, the Scheldt and Rhineland campaigns, as well as the roles of First Nation people, and auxiliary corps. The Some Came Back, Others Did Not exhibit is a sober remembrance projecting the names of every Canadian killed in WWII over a display of soldiers’ personal artifacts.

Battles, campaigns and invasions come at a large cost. Of the 20,000 Canadians who participated in the D-Day Invasion, one quarter – 5007 men – lay buried in two Canadian war cemeteries at Beny-sur-Mer and Cintheaux, not far from the Juno Beach Centre. Toronto military historian and scholar Jack Granatstein says, “This was a young man’s war. By 1944 most officers were in their early 40s, late 30s.”

Warren Quigley, a 19-year-old air force gunner from Halifax, agrees. “Promotions (in the air force) came fairly fast, if you stayed healthy.”

Wandering the war cemeteries illustrates this point. Grave after grave gives ages of: 18, 19, 20, 21. The oldest man buried at the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery was 34.

The Canadian war cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer.

The Canadian war cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer.

Canadian airmen also suffered high mortality rates. During WWII, Canada lost 17,000 airmen. Russell Hubley was a 20-year-old from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a Lancaster mid-gunner with the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 405 Squadron who beat the odds. Hubley completed 60 missions and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. Hubley says, “In my squadron, there are seven men to a plane, they renewed the air crew on that squadron eight times, that’s how many we lost.”

The sixth room is a resource centre where visitors can research war information on-line. The final room, Faces of Canada Today, is a light-filled hall in direct contrast to how the tour began, showcasing the people, accomplishments and lifestyles of present-day Canada. Outside, among the Prime Ministers, military pipe bands, colour guards and municipal officials wearing the tricoloured sash of the French Republic, are the real stars of this ceremony: the veterans.

Some of those stars are Mark Lockyer from  Whitby (ON), Bill Ross of Montreal, Orville Cook of Owen Sound (ON), Gil Coutts, Dryden (ON), and Harry Masters, Ingersoll (ON). Lockyer, a paratrooper with the First Canadian Parachute Battalion, parachuted behind enemy lines on the night of June 5th to blow up bridges, keeping the German 15th Army from reinforcing the invasion beaches. Ross was a rifleman wounded in action on July 4th. Coutts was a prisoner of war, forced to work in a German coal mine, and Masters drove supply convoys to the front.

Canada’s contribution went beyond the men in uniform. Master’s wife, Maisie, was one of the 21,624-members of the Canadian Women’s Army. She learned to repair and drive trucks and jeeps. Marg Ackroyd, dressed in her old uniform, was a small town girl from Ardrossan, Alberta who wasn’t content to work as an military stenographer. Instead, Ackroyd joined the Canadian Army Show, working with the likes of Wayne and Shuster to entertain troops in Canada and Europe. She sang and danced on the backs of trucks by battlefields, in military camps and hospitals. In total, 45,923 women joined army, navy and air force auxiliary forces. They operated switchboards and radar installations, clerked in offices, entertained troops, drove vehicles, helped as medical assistants and communications and deciphered secret codes. Other women contributed by working in factories or on farms.

The high level of patriotism presented a labour problem for the government. With so many able-bodied men in uniform, the government needed some men to return to civilian life. In 1940 Captain Matthew Mitchell of Lunenburg, who once crewed on the Bluenose, was asked to leave the army and return to fishing.

A map of ship sunk by U-boats in our home waters.

A map of ship sunk by U-boats in our home waters.

Matthews recalls, “It was nerve-wracking. In the first world war, submarines sank a lot of vessels over here, but in the last world war they didn’t sink any, but we didn’t know that. So everytime you went out you were in a war zone. U-boats were everywheres. You would hear and see the U-boats in the nighttime. These U-Boats would come up among us charge their batteries or whatever they had to do because the navy couldn’t get in there to sink ‘em” while the fishing fleet provided unwilling cover.

Mitchell’s concerns were valid. Packs of German U-Boats operated along Canada’s Atlantic Coast trying to stop the supply convoys which left, on average, every six days from Halifax and Sydney. The U-Boats sank merchant ships and naval destroyers off the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and even in the St. Lawrence River. The ferry Caribou, which operated between Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, lost 137 passengers when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat off Sydney on Oct. 13, 1942.

Beyond military support and war supplies, Canada participated to the war effort in several unique ways. Ottawa became the wartime home for the exiled Dutch Royal Family.  In 1941, when a German invasion of England seemed imminent, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered all British assets secretly moved to Canada for safe keeping. Sunlife Insurance’s Montreal offices became the repository for all of Britain’s paper securities, while the Bank of England’s entire gold bullion supply were secreted in the Bank of Canada’s Ottawa vaults. Much of the Polish Treasury’s assets were also stored there.

Canada also hosted two war conferences between Churchill and US President Franklin Roosevelt. The first was the 1941 meeting in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, which was then not yet a Canadian province. At this meeting the two leaders laid out the Atlantic Charter which would eventually lead to the formation of the United Nations. The second meeting, was the 1943 Quebec City Conference, where the two leaders agreed to the final D-Day Invasion plans.

One of Imperial Oil’s unique contributions came from the company’s top asphalt scientist Charles M. Baskin. Baskin developed a prefabricated airstrip, which enabled military engineers to lay down a full, working runway in 24 hours versus several weeks using traditional construction methods. Baskin’s innovative runway was used around the world.

Copp says the story told by the Juno Beach Centre is one of  “extraordinary achievement. We were a nation of 11 million people, emerging from severe depression, that put slightly over one million men and women in uniform and contributed significantly to all of the major Allied operations in the European war. One quarter of all the air crew in Bomber Command were Canadian. In the tactical airforces that flew over Normandy in the early part of the Normandy Campaign, half the squadrons were Canadian. Royal Canadian Navy flotillas helped to bring troops to the Normandy beaches, and Canadian frigates and Corvettes protected the armada. The Canadian 31st Minesweeping Flotilla brought the American troops into Omaha Beach. Canada has a story worth telling.”

He continues, “Two of the most important chapters in Canadian history occurred on the battlefields of Europe. Whatever your attitude towards war is, for the second and fifth decades of the 20th century, we, as a country were dominated, totally absorbed by, totally committed to supporting Britain and France and the other Allies in victory over what the people at the time perceived to be a dangerous threat. And the scale of our participation was so enormous that it transformed Canada in the First World War into what you would call a nation for the first time, instead of a colony. And the Second World War transformed us into a nation that played a major role on the international stage. At the end of the war we were the fourth largest military power in the world. Our position in NATO and in the development of our role at the United Nations is a consequence of the roll we played in the Second World War. So it’s important stuff.”

The Juno Beach Centre is described as “a place to remember, a place to learn, a place of culture”. In short it is also an homage to a generation who left a very large legacy.

Photos and content copyright.

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3 responses to “Juno Beach and D-Day: a generation’s legacy

  1. Antoinette Scinocca

    Re: “Marg Ackroyd joined the Canadian Army Show…the article above says she performed with Wayne and Shuster. There was a Unit 12 in which Marg Ackroyd performed the “Sow Song”.

    My father, Mike Scinocca whistled at the appropriate time during this song while his mic stood behind a CURTAIN in front of which Marg was standing, singing the song.

    I would like to hear from performers from that Unit that entertained troops in England, Holland, Belgium and Germany. I have the original letters dad wrote to my mother. She never threw one of them out. After the War, Marg and her husband Bill would travel and stop to visit war time friends along the way.

    My father’s accordion studio in Brandon was where he kept photos of the tours when he performed as an accordionist to entertain the troops.

    • What a wonderful story. Thank you so much for sharing. I hope to write more in another month or two, so perhaps we can be in touch. I do appreciate you reading the blog and writing.

  2. The stories of Canadian soldiers and the liberation of France are incredibly moving. We didn’t know about the massacre of Canadian soldiers at the Abbey Ardenne after D-Day in Normandy until recently. It is not a dramatic place to visit but an emotional experience to see the memorial in the tiny garden where they died.
    Our blog about the tragedy with photos here: http://www.normandythenandnow.com/the-lost-canadian-soldiers-of-the-abbey-ardenne

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