Canadians at D-Day

 

Juno Beach where the Canadians landed on D-Day.

Juno Beach where the Canadians landed on D-Day.

Dressed in the wine-coloured jacket of the Canadian Paratroop Association which he founded, Mark Lockyer stands in front of the Pegasus Bridge in Ranville, Normandy. Now part of the Pegasus Bridge Museum, Lockyer is quick to state this isn’t “his bridge”. His bridge spanned – until he blew it up – the River Dives at Robehomme, three kilometers to the east.

Blowing up a bridge wasn’t an act of teenage vandalism, but part of Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day or the Invasion of Normandy. On the evening of June 5th, 1944, Lockyer, an 18-year-old newly-minted member of the First Canadian Parachute Battalion’s 6th Airborne Division, and his comrades, boarded a fleet of Dakota airplanes near their training base at Carter Barracks, two miles from Stonehenge in Southern England to begin the liberation of Europe. Part of the first wave of the invasion, Lockyer says, “It was our job to blow three bridges on the River Dives and then make certain that they were not rebuilt or refurbished.” This kept the German 15th Army from advancing on the invasion beaches.

“We started at 9 pm. It was still light when we took off. It was the most

A sandy path from Juno Beach to a German bunker. Beyond is the June Beach Centre.

A sandy path from Juno Beach to a German bunker. Beyond is the June Beach Centre.

beautiful sight going across the English channel,” he says. A break in the clouds let Lockyer see the invasion fleet below. “The English channel, from about half way out back to the English coast, was boats, upon boats, upon boats. It looked like you could almost jump from ship-to-ship to get back to England. What a wonderful sight. It made you feel good that you were part of a tremendous effort.”

However, there wasn’t a lot of time to reflect on a tremendous effort which was about to take place, says Lockyer. “We dropped around 12:45. I landed in water.” The Germans had built dykes and flooded vast areas of Normandy to hinder attack on bridges and confuse bombers.

The flooded plains also hindered the Canadian paratroopers from meeting up with the Royal Engineers who were to assist in blowing up the bridges. Fortunately, each paratrooper wore a vest containing 12 sticks of plastic high explosives (PHE). When his captain asked if anyone knew how to blow up the PHE, Lockyer, who learned about explosives working in an underground mine in Wainright, Alberta, stepped forward.

The Juno Beach Centre, Canada’s Museum to the Second World War.

The Juno Beach Centre, Canada’s Museum to the Second World War.

After destroying the bridge at 3 am, three hours ahead of schedule, (a plaque on the bridge is incorrect: Canadians, not British Royal Engineers, blew the bridge at 3, not 6 am) his group which had gradually grown to a force of 50 men as they drifted in, spent the next two days dug in behind enemy lines, keeping their heads down and the Germans from retaking their bridge.

While Lockyer’s mission was a success, many film makers and writers focused their story-telling on the activities of American and British forces. Pop culture’s abridged history has also ignored the fact that the only force to meet its D-Day invasion targets were The Queen’s Own Rifles from Canada.

Although the name, D-Day, suggests this was a one-day event, the Invasion of OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANormandy was a 11-week campaign which began on June 6th and continued into August. Preparation for the invasion began after an ill-fated raid on Dieppe by 6,000 Canadian troops in 1942. According to Toronto military historian and scholar Jack Granatstein, the Dieppe raid, “was intended to see if a fortified port could be captured, on the assumption that if you were going to do an invasion, a port facilitated the landing of troops and supplies. If you couldn’t get a port, then you had to go in over the beaches, which had different complications. Dieppe seemed to settle the argument that you couldn’t take a fortified port.”

Dieppe also highlighted a problem of rocky landing areas. The “shingle”, as the baseball-sized rock covering the beach approaches to Dieppe is called, got into tank caterpillar tracks and immobilized them. Granatstein adds, “It did cause problems for a lot of the tanks. Obviously a sandy beach was better and Normandy had that.”

The plans for the invasion were accepted by US President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the 1943 Quebec Conference in the Chateau Frontenac, hosted by Canada’s wartime Prime Minister, Mackenzie King.

Using lessons learned from Dieppe, military planners developed an inventory of specialized equipment worthy of James Bond. To counter the elaborate German shore defenses (which included the 3,000-mile-long Atlantic Wall running from Norway to Spain, 12,000 blockhouses, 1.9 million land mines, and 517,000 tank obstacles and troop traps) Allied planners developed barges capable of firing 1048 rockets at a time to clear beaches of traps, obstacles and mines. Another device made Sherman tanks amphibious. But the largest invention was the Mulberry Harbour. This was a portable harbour, comprising piers floated from England to form a harbour, 3.5 miles by 1.5 miles. The “Mulberry” allowed large amounts of supplies, vehicles and troops to be unloaded in Normandy.

One of Canada’s wartime inventions was a prefabricated runway developed by

A portion of the Canadian war cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer.

A portion of the Canadian war cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer.

Imperial Oil’s top asphalt technologist, Charles M. Baskin. Baskin developed a way to coat asphalt on a cloth base, which could be rolled up, then pieced together on-site, without the need for costly or elaborate equipment which wasn’t practical under war conditions. Baskin’s innovation allowed military engineers to set up a working airfield in one day versus the several weeks required by conventional construction practices and materials.

While invasion planning was the purview of the British and Americans, Canada’s contribution to the actual invasion was significant. The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) supplied 110 vessels and 10,000 sailors to the armada. The Royal Canadian Army (RCA) landed 14,000 men on the beaches on June 6th and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) put 15 fighter-bomber squadrons in the air. Granatstein says, “Of the five divisions that attacked France on June 6th, one was Canadian. In other words, we provided, effectively one fifth of the landing force, plus a very large number of ships and a huge number of aircraft. It was a three-country invasion. The Americans and the British had two beaches, each. We had one. We were playing in the big leagues.”

This was a significant contribution for Canada. An exhibit at the newly opened Juno Beach Centre, which is now a National Historic Site, in Courseulles-sur-Mer, Normandy – Juno Beach was the operational name for the eight-kilometer-long stretch of beaches where Canadians landed – details Canada’s mobilization. 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 RCN had grown to 450 combat ships, the fourth largest navy in the world, to compliment the RCAF, which, with 86 squadrons, had become the world’s fourth largest air force. Almost 10 per cent of the country’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.

While we could play in the big leagues during the invasion, those on the beaches and in the trenches couldn’t take the time to look at the big picture. “When you were in there, your view was so small. You’re concentrating on some particular thing and what was happening around you was, at times, very vague,” says Orville Cook.

Cook, a 23-year-old rifleman from Toronto with the Queen’s Own Rifles says, the crossing was very subdued. “Nobody slept that much. Around 3 o’clock they gave us a good breakfast.” Then the troops reviewed their battle plans on mockups of the Normandy coast.

Just before boarding the landing craft, 24-year-old Gilbert (Gib) Coutts with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles recalls a discouraging experience. “The padre gave us the last rites.”

As the landing craft approached the beaches he says, “Shells were hitting the side of the boat. You could hear them ricocheting off the sides. We hit the beaches about 7 o’clock. When the ramp went down I was in waist-deep water, and we ran like little rabbits across that beach. There was a hole in the (accordion) wire and we went tearing through there, and across this field. We got to the other side and found out it was a mine field.” In spite of this predicament, Coutts said being off the beach it was a little easier going because there wasn’t quite as much being fired at you.

During Operation Overlord, Canada put 20,000 men into heavy action. A June 9th, 1944 dispatch from a front-line correspondent with the Canadian forces read, “A single Allied Division was credited by Headquarters with having taken more than 1,000 Nazi prisoners since the European fortress was breached Tuesday. While it was disclosed that the Canadian Infantry and Armour had taken 600 prisoners and freed a dozen towns as they advanced rapidly southward through woodlands and farms between Caen and the captured town of Bayeux, often in house-to-house combat, a fierce tank battle has been ranging for 24 hours near Bayeux.”

As a result of such combat, one quarter of Canada’s invasion force, 5007 men, lay buried in two Canadian war cemeteries in Normandy at Beny-sur-Mer and Cintheaux. 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.

Invasions and wars are often discussed in terms of military strategy and victory or defeat. However, the other part of the story is the effect on the men who fought in these campaigns. A typical 18-year-old Canadian in June should be sitting for his last high school examinations, not crouched in a landing craft as artillery shells splash in the waters surrounding him. But in war, young men – and now young women – put their lives on hold, postponing their education, careers, marriage and dreams.

On June 6th, 1944, 19-year-old Bill Ross of Montreal wasn’t waiting for an admission letter from McGill, he was a Rifleman in the Queen’s Own Rifles. His workday began dashing across the wide sandy stretch of beach at Bernieres-sur-Mer, feeling lucky that by the time he hit the beach, in the second wave of landings “we were just faced with snipers, and the minefields.” Luckier still because another soldier stopped Ross from stepping on a land mine.

Beyond the beaches Ross survived three other skirmishes that day. However, his officer was wounded by shrapnel and a comrade died of a heart attack from shock. Ross’ luck changed July 4th when he was wounded at Carpiquet and he became a statistic. Of the eight men who joined the regiment with Ross, five were wounded, one was killed, one taken prisoner and one suffered shellshock.

William ‘Boots’ Bettridge, a 23-year-old from Brampton, Ontario, was relatively old compared to the men around him when he landed in Normandy. A sniper with the Queens Own Rifles, Bettridge says while he was prepared for battle and felt confident with the plans, “they never ever taught us how you are going to handle yourself when the guy next to you is suddenly missing a limb or is killed. It’s hard. It took a long time after the war to trying to get back to normal.”

Gilbert ‘Gib’ Coutts was another D-Day old timer. At 24, this member of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles from Dryden on the Ontario-Manitoba border, became a Prisoner of War on June 7th. After a forced march, he was held for 30 days in box car, interned in a POW Camp, then transported to Germany where he was forced to spend 11 months working in a strip mine until freed by US General George Patton’s Third Army.

It was an equally tough time for fliers. “There were 10,000 young Canadians, with an average age of 19-21 lost in the air crews. (In total, Canada lost 17,000 airmen during WWII.) In my 405 Squadron, there are seven men to a plane, they renewed the air crew on that squadron eight times, that’s how many we lost,” says Russell Hubley. Hubley was a 20-year-old from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a Lancaster mid-gunner with the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 405 Squadron based near Cambridge, England. He explains that to keep their focus, fliers only made friends with their crew and ground crew. “You never made friends with anyone who sat across from you at breakfast because he probably wasn’t going to be there tomorrow morning at breakfast.”

In spite of the odds, Hubley managed to complete 60 missions, and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. It was Hubley’s plane which started the invasion, bombing German shore batteries. “When we came back and went into the briefing room, the briefing officer said, ‘You fellas just opened the invasion. You bombed five minutes after D-Day opened.’’ He laughs, “That’s how we found out about it.” His crew continued their missions, including the bombing of Caen and the Falaise Gap, which concluded the Normandy Campaign.

Another Nova Scotian Lancaster gunner was Warren Quigley. A 19-year-old from Lunenburg County, seconded to the Royal Airforce, Quigley was wounded returning from his second D-Day mission – a raid on rail yards behind enemy lines. “We were attacked by two Faulk Wolf 190s. They were excellent aircraft. They made about four attacks on us and it was in that battle that I got wounded. That was the end of it (for me). Luckily, we got back to England, and managed to land in a coastal area near Maidstone, Kent. The aircraft was in pretty bad shape.” There had been fires on-board, and their brakes had been shot away. The aircraft crashed through several rows of fences before coming to a stop in a farmer’s field.

Surprisingly, these men were able to return from such herculean efforts and adventures to lead normal productive lives in Canada. Hubley studied drafting and became dockyard development officer at the Halifax Dockyards. Quigley became an electrical engineer. Lockyer ran an insurance agency in Whitby Township, Ontario. Coutts worked at a Dryden paper mill. Bettridge founded a family business, Brampton Sheet Metal Ltd., and passed on to his three sons. Cook worked for Canada Post and Brinks. And Ross became an air conditioning specialist and managed the Canadian operations for Aerofin Corporation.

As the 60th anniversary approached, Cook says, “I say today how proud I am that I was part of it. I was very fortunate, but the sad part was what you lost. Some fine people were killed, it’s very unfortunate. When I go back and I look out across that beach, I think, ‘Oh boy, was it worth it?’ I guess it was.”

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6 responses to “Canadians at D-Day

  1. Thank you, Allan, for this moving article. The biggest gratitude to a generation who gave up so much more than we will ever know. What price freedom? I have a better answer now.

  2. An update regarding my father, Gib Coutts, mentioned in this piece. He passed away peacefully this month on July 13, 2015, at the age of 96. He and I attended the opening of the Juno Beach Centre together in 2003. Great article! He always mentioned to me that he fought for three days, not one, before being captured by the Germans. Approximately 50 others from the Royal Winnipeg Rifles were executed after capture by Colonel Kurt Meyer. My father spoke about how he was very lucky he was not one of them.

    • I am sorry for your loss. You were lucky to have him for so many years. In spite of what he endured, I remember your father as a cheerful, positive person.

  3. My father went in on D-day with the RWR as part of the RCE 6th field coy. Trying to confirm exactly where, if possible. Any assist as to where more information can be obtained that could be more specific would be appreciated Allan. Fathers Name was Patrick Alexander Trainor. Ty’s Mike

    • My father wasn’t at D-Day. He was part of the Italian Campaign and fought his way through France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. I am in the process of finding out where he served.

      Start with http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca

      They have a Personnel Records Unit, ATIP and Personal Records Section, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, where you can request information.

      You will need to have his service number, unit and, if applicable, proof of death (so they can deal with you, it’s a privacy thing). A copy of an obituary is acceptable.

      They provide some basic records. More detailed records of particular military operations, I am told, might be found in Unit War Diaries for individual units. These contain day-to-day descriptions of unit activities.

      I was also directed to read the appropriate volumes of The Canadian Army in the Second World War. If your local library doesn’t have them, they are available through inter-library loans or from a military library (if you are near a base). I am currently reading three volumes related to my father’s service. This is a series of histories produced by The Queen’s Printer in Ottawa.

      Good luck with your quest.

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