One of the best days of my life was in the spring of 1990, when my mother and I visited the peaceful, hauntingly beautiful Canadian War Cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer in Normandy. It was especially affecting for my mother, a contemporary of those young Canadians who signed up for the fight against Hitler. She’d seen them off, neighbours’ kids and school chums. Not all came back.
As we walked past the graves of those who perished in the early days of the Normandy invasion, we were both struck again by their youth. It’s one thing to know that obvious fact ahead of time. It’s another to be confronted by headstone after headstone of young men, their lives forever frozen in their late teens and early 20’s. When I was that age, I was just a goofy kid with long hair and a big, floppy hippie hat. They had landed on the beaches of France to take on the Nazis.
The breadth of Canada’s contribution was also writ large in their mostly small hometowns from across the country. I found myself surprised by the number hailing from sparsely-populated Saskatchewan, and Quebec as well, given that province’s resistance to conscription. Often, there was a brief, heartfelt inscription about the young man in the grave below. This was a war these youthful Canadian combatants had hoped to survive. They didn’t want to die. But if there is such a thing as a just war, World War Two was it, and they knew it had to be fought.
It was all incredibly moving, and my mother talked about our visit until the day she died, never failing to miss a D-Day commemoration on television. And now it is 70 years since that stormy June morning, when the heroic land assault against Nazi-held France began, with fewer and fewer survivors left to tell their stories. I was fortunate to be able to interview some of them in 2004 for my book, Rare Courage, a collection of 20 oral histories from World War Two vets. Two took part in D-Day, and here is some of what they remembered from that terrible, wonderful day.
“Leaving the harbor at night is the one thing in my life that I will never forget. As far as you could see in every direction, nothing but boats. Nobody went to sleep. We were all leaning on the rail, watching….We had a huge breakfast at three o’clock in the morning. Bacon and eggs. A real rarity….
“When the ship stopped, we knew were off the coast of France. Watches were synchronized, checked and re-checked, along with the rifles, the Bren guns, the Sten guns, the ammunition pouches….Day was breaking fast and the waves were very high. We were the first ones to go down. Colonel Hutchinson came on the loud hailer and wished us all luck. He said: I want you to repeat after me: ‘It all depends on me.’ So we all repeated that…
“There was a terrible noise all the way in. Navy boats were firing shell after shell. And planes were going over. If there was a sky, we couldn’t see it…I got my men out, and I dashed forward. Then, flat on the sand. There were no other footprints. We were the first. Within 30 seconds of landing, one of my men went down. I heard someone say, ‘Oh God. Billy’s been shot.’ He was dead before he hit the ground. A bullet right in his head….
“I ran straight forward to where this machine-gun post was. My runner was right behind me, carrying the wire cutters. We cut the wire. We’d practiced this. And I crawled up the dunes. I can still feel those little reedy grasses on my face….Because of the model we’d built, I knew exactly where the machine gun was….
“I crawled up on my belly as close as I could, reached back and got a grenade….It exploded right on the parapet, and immediately a white flag came up. Four fellows came out. They were the sorriest excuse for soldiers I’d ever seen….They stood there with their hands behind the back of their heads. Then they sat down, and we left them behind.”
“We boarded the craft, loaded them in the water, and was it ever rough. It was awful. All of a sudden, every battleship, destroyer, every ship that had a gun started to bombard the beach. The smoke and the flames and the roar were overwhelming….
“It was very, very choppy. Fear and seasickness and everything else all accumulated to make them as sick as could be. They were so happy to have the vomit bags. There were 30 soldiers to a craft. Some had machine guns. All had rifles and 60-pound packs. They must have been terrified, but you know, they were trained for this. They were soldiers.
“On the way in, a wonderful thing happened. A young sergeant got up on the deck beside me and started to sing a song. ‘Roll Out the Barrel.’ Everyone joined in. It was one of the most moving experiences I had during my almost five years in the service. There was fear on everyone’s faces, and he tried to brighten up their spirits. I was in the same fix. I was human, too. And it worked. The fear left our faces….
“The craft got stuck on an obstacle under the water. I hesitated to order ‘down doors’, but it had to be done. They jumped into the water. Some were up to the waist. Two of the shorter lads jumped in and didn’t come up. Terrible…and there was not a damn thing we could do….
“They dashed across the beach. Some fell from machine-gun fire. Some were hit before they even made the beach. We could see all this. Imagine training in England for three years and not even being able to get to the beach before being killed. I don’t think people realize what our boys did.”
RIP, boys. Your sacrifice will never be forgotten.