Friday, 6 June 2014

Juno Beach: Canada's Pride of World War II

Today, on June 6, 2014, there are people all across the world who are stopping to reflect upon D-Day and the assault on Normandy. Seventy years ago today, a joint British, American, and Canadian force worked to push back the German forces that were posted on the beaches of Normandy, in northwestern France. Their success that day is now remembered as a significant turning point in the War: the opening of a western front from which point the Allies could force the Germans back to their own borders. It's an event that's so well known that it has been immortalized in song and film several times ever since.

John Wayne in the 1962 film The Longest Day
That's a rather older example, and not all that familiar to those in my generation, I daresay. But what about this one?

Screenshot of the Normandy landing from Saving Private Ryan.
The point is that D-Day has become associated with two things, primarily: Allied determination, and extreme bloodshed. Doubtless it was a bloody, hard-fought battle: just the immense scale of the operation should give that away. Five beaches were attacked by the Allies on June 6, 1944. From west to east, these beaches were code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword.

Hollywood, being what it is, has tended to focus on the two beaches that were tasked to the American forces: Utah and Omaha (it is the latter that is shown in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan, for instance). The British were focused on Gold and Sword. That left Juno to the Canadians - and it has been a great source of national pride ever since.

Canada was heavily involved in the fighting during both WWI and WWII. As a nation and military force, Canada does not hold the same level of prestige as Britain, the United States, France, Germany, etc. In both cases, it is because the Canadian efforts have been seen as joint efforts with others. In WWI, Canada was a dominion of the British Empire, and did not even hold sufficient right to declare war on its own: once Britain was in, Canada was in, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. As for WWII, although Canada had attained enough international clout to issue its own declaration of war and handle its own international affairs, it was still popularly conceived as "British".

Lance-Bombardier Walter Cooper, 14th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery (R.C.A.), aboard a Landing Ship Tank counting out 105mm. shells which will be fired on D-Day. Southampton, England, 4 June 1944. (Photograph by Lieut. Frank L. Dubervill)

What this means is that like the other Commonwealth nations (ex. Australia and New Zealand), Canadians have taken particular responsibility in remembering their own achievements from WWI and WWII. For Canadians, then, we then sought out instances where our soldiers have gone above and beyond the call of duty to create something significant not just to our own history, but to the wars' progression overall. In WWI, that lot fell to Vimy Ridge (April 9-12, 2917); and in WWII, although the credit could be more diversely distributed, most of the emphasis has fallen upon Juno Beach.

Infantrymen of The Highland Light Infantry of Canada aboard LCI(L) 306 of the 2nd Canadian (262nd RN) Flotilla en route to France on D-Day, 6 June 1944. (Photograph by Lieut. Gilbert Alexander Milne)
 Why Juno Beach? Because there was, in fact, a Canadian distinction involved. It's something that many Canadian schoolchildren know, and it's reiterated year after year on Remembrance Day (November 11) and also on the anniversary of D-Day itself: the Canadian troops were the first to reach their assigned goal out of all the Allied divisions involved, and - because of that - were able to penetrate further into German-occupied France than any of the others on that day.

Now, I'm not a military historian. I can't tell you the hows of Canada's victory at Juno Beach, or why the Canadians were the first to achieve success. There are plenty of books, websites, etc. addressing that issue, I reckon. All I want to do is give the Canadian troops that took part in D-Day their proper recognition. Hollywood might give us the American story, but D-Day was a joint effort - without each force involved doing its part, the offensive as a whole may not have succeeded.

And I think, for Canada, seventy years later, that's what matters most.

Three "D-Day originals" of the Regina Rifle Regiment who landed in France on 6 June 1944. Ghent, Belgium, 8 November 1944. (Photograph by Lieut. Donald I. Grant)
Private C.L. Jewell of The North Nova Scotia Highlanders, who wears a "D-Day" beard, Normandy, France, 22 June 1944. (Photograph by Lieut. Ken Bell)

Rifleman R.A. Marshall, Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, pointing out a hole in his helmet made by a German sniper's bullet on D-Day. Bretteville-Orgueilleuse, France, 20 June 1944. (Photograph by Lieut. Frank L. Dubervill)
Oh! One more thing. There is, in fact, a film out there focused on the Canadians at Juno Beach: Storming Juno. Based directly off the experiences of three actual soldiers who took part, it does a great job of making the story relatable while keeping the history accurate. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend it. Here's the trailer, just for starters.

Image Credits

Screenshot from The Longest Day (c) 20th Century Fox

Screenshot from Saving Private Ryan (c) Amblin Entertainment

Map of Normandy Beaches (c) HMSO (Her Majesty's Stationary Office) and the National Archives (UK)

All photos of Canadian forces in 1944 (c) Library and Archives Canada


  1. Many thanks to our Canadian friends and allies, and all other Allied veterans for their sacrifice and bravery during this enormous undertaking. You have some wonderful pictures here Kita.

    Thank you also for mentioning Australia and New Zealand in this article. Australians also fought on D-Day, many with the Royal Australian Airforce, the Navy and also some Army under British command.

    Seven of our veterans traveled to France, with our Prime Minister for ceremonies at Bayeux, and six veterans were awarded the French Legion of Honour.

    1. And now I'm learning something new myself. I hadn't known there were Australians there on D-Day (do you know which beach, by any chance?), so that's great to hear :)

      Also, I'm glad you liked the pictures. It seems that we had some photographers among the military at the time, and these pictures were the result. It's great that Library and Archives Canada has A) posted them online and B) put them in the public domain. That way, I can share these without any worries. And, yes, there are some really nice pics out there - my favourite is the "D-Day beard" one, because growing a beard to count up from something is a bit of a Canadian tradition (ex. NHL playoff beards today, where guys grow out a beard for as long as their favourite team is in the playoffs). I'd had no idea it went back as far as WWII, but it seems fitting (and kudos to his COs for allowing it :P)

    2. Sorry K, not ignoring you, been exhausted past two days having birthday celebrations for my little nephew. So tired!

      In the D-Day operation itself our numbers were fairly small (but of course we're only a small country!) - about 3,000 overall. The vast majority were RAAF pilots involved in aerial bombing, some doing recon, some towing gliders for the invasion - I saw some good interviews with a surviving pilot from my home city on TV this week. Navy personnel and merchant seamen were involved and a few Australian officers even commanded landing craft.

      Landing craft commanders landed at both Sword and Juno. Though, I am not sure if they went ashore as they were likely RAN (Navy). As for actual infantry, only a small number were involved on 6th June, I think on Gold.

      We supplied indirect support too, mainly Navy, engaged in destroying German submarines for the invasion. More numbers were involved subsequently in the battle for France than in the actual D-Day initial invasion.

      I did not know about the D-Day beard, so it was great to learn about that, and I really like that the tradition is continued in Canadian culture.

    3. Right now, this is the only instance of a "D-Day beard" I've seen, and I don't know if the 21st century playoff beards share a common origin with that one shown here. But I do think it's rather cute, all things considered :)

      And thanks for the info on the Aussies at D-Day - that's definitely a valuable addition to any discussion on the subject, I think :)