Every once in a while everyone has an experience which changes their perspective on life. I don’t mean something which sends a shiver down your spine and quickly fades, but something more substantial that will remain with you for years to come. For me, the first such experience was a visit I made to Auschwitz several years ago. The second was a trip I made to Normandy this September. Given that last Friday was Remembrance Day in Canada, this seems like an opportune time to post about my experience and begin my posts about our trip to France.
Normandy was a trip that evolved. I had scheduled for my parents and I to spend a week in Paris. My father, ever a war buff, inquired whether it would be possible to take a day-trip to the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, an important World War I battle in which Canada played a significant role. A quick check of train schedules confirmed that this was not really feasible but planted the initial seed of expanding our trip to include a 3-day stay in Normandy.
Three months and hours of planning later, we found ourselves driving through the picturesque Normandy countryside enroute to Caen, the primary jumping-off point for visits to “Les Plages du Debarquement”, or the D-Day Landing Beaches.
The invasion of Normandy was and remains the largest ever military land invasion. On June 6, 1944, some 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops, supported by 11,500 aircraft and almost seven thousand vessels fought their way ashore for what would be a decisive turning point of the course of the Second World War. Although the invasion was a clear success, it came at a high price with 4,400 killed and countless more wounded. Over the next two posts, I will give an overview of the Beaches then elaborate on our visits to several of the Beaches.
Several general comments about the Landing Beaches. First, the region is strikingly beautiful, sanitizing what was a literal hell on earth for two months during the summer of 1944. I almost wished that we had experienced typical Normandy weather to give a more authentic impression of what it would have been like on that fateful day our entire visit was full of sunshine and pleasant temperatures.
Secondly, contrary to most people’s imagination, the Beaches are not geographically confined but rather spread over a distance of some 75 kilometers. From west to east, they are Utah and Omaha (American), Gold (British), Juno (Canadian) and Sword (British).
Geographically, the terrain is much flatter to the east while to the west, the beaches are faced with high bluffs and cliffs, explaining the greater difficulties faced by American and British troops forces faced in achieving their objectives. Over the course of our visit, we were to visit Juno, Gold and Omaha. Although Britain, Canada, and the US provided the bulk of the soldiers for the invasion (61,700, 21,400 and 73,000, respectively), it is important to point out that there was also substantial support from other countries as well, including the French Resistance, Norway, Poland and Australia.
Juno Beach was a sobering reminder of the sacrifice of Canadian men and women during the invasion. We took a guided tour offered by the Canadian Visitors Center in the picturesque town of Courseulles-sur-Mer. Although the majority of tourists were Canadian, numerous other nationalities were represented as well. A British tourist summed up his reason for visiting succinctly; “to pay my respects”. Of the 21,000 Canadians who landed at Juno, there were approximately 1,000 casualties on D-Day.
Over the course of the subsequent two month Battle for Caen, over 5,000 Canadian soldiers were killed, not to mention those wounded, captured or missing in action. 2,044 are buried in the Canadian War Cemetery in neighboring Beny-sur-Mer, including 9 sets of brothers.
Lest we forget…