Assault on Juno: Canadians storm ashore in Normandy

The following in an excerpt from Canadian historian Mark Zuehlke's book Assault on Juno.

ON JUNE 6, 1944, THE LARGEST amphibious invasion in history took place on the coast of Normandy in France. The previous night 5,000 ships carrying 131,000 Allied soldiers had sailed into position. Also during the night, 23,000 more troops had landed by parachute or glider. With the dawn, the soldiers at sea would begin to land on five beaches. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade would land on Juno Beach. On either side of the Canadians, British troops would set down on Gold and Sword beaches. To the west of Gold Beach, Americans would storm ashore at Omaha and Utah beaches.

Code-named Operation OVERLORD, the Allied invasion had been in the planning for almost four years. Really from almost the moment that Germany had seized all of continental Europe and driven the British off. War had broken out in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. It had only taken nine months from then for Germany and its allies — Italy and Hungary — to conquer the rest of mainland Europe.

But Britain had held out. For almost two long years it fought on alone. Alone, except for the support of its Commonwealth nations — chiefly Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India. Then, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and destroyed most of the battleships of the powerful American Pacific Fleet. This drew the United States into the war on the side of Britain while Japan allied with Germany.

A Royal Canadian Navy landing craft heads toward Juno Beach as part of the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. (lac/pa-132790)

A Royal Canadian Navy landing craft heads toward Juno Beach as part of the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy on
June 6, 1944. (lac/pa-132790)

Within weeks of America entering the war, its military planners joined the British discussions on how to launch an invasion of continental Europe. In August 1942, a small raid was attempted at Dieppe. Most of the troops involved were Canadian. This raid on the small French resort town was a disaster. Hardly any soldiers got beyond the beaches. Total casualties were 3,367. This included 901 killed and 1,946 taken prisoner. These losses were all suffered in just nine hours.

Dieppe proved to the Allied plan­ners that they were a long way from ready to invade France by crossing the English Channel. Yet they also knew that this was the best path of approach. But before an invasion could take place, they needed to build up a huge army in England. They also needed a vast armada of ships and much special equipment.

In the meantime the war went on. The Allies landed American and British troops in French North Africa on November 8, 1942. This led to the eventual defeat of the German Afrika Korps on May 12, 1943. The struggle in North Africa had raged for 32 months.

Soldiers of the Highland Light Infantry wade through heavy surf towards the beach in front of Bernières-sur-Mer at 1140 hours on June 6, 1944. (lac, pa-137013)

Soldiers of the Highland Light Infantry wade through heavy surf towards the beach in front of Bernières-sur-Mer at 1140 hours on June 6, 1944. (lac, pa-137013)

The Allies kept the pressure on Germany by invading Sicily on July 10, 1943. Included in this invasion force was 1st Canadian Infantry Division and 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade. Sicily fell after hard fighting on August 17. Less than three weeks later, the Allies jumped from Sicily onto the Italian mainland. Canadian, Brit­ish and American troops started marching north into boot-shaped Italy. They faced bitter resistance from German troops, who had hurriedly occupied the country when the Italian government sur­rendered to the Allies days after the Allies landed on the mainland.

For a short time the Allies had hoped it might be possible to de­feat Germany by advancing through Italy into the heart of Europe.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called this an attack on Europe’s “soft underbelly.” It was soon clear that the underbelly was anything but soft. And that it would take years of slogging to get from Italy to Germany.

* * * *

The date of June 6 was selected because of the way the moon af­fected the levels of incoming tides. At this point in the monthly moon cycle the tide was considered perfect for putting soldiers, tanks, artillery and vehicles ashore. If the invasion did not proceed on that day, it would have to be delayed for months. Despite a storm, the weather was deemed acceptable. And so, in the predawn hours of June 6, 1944, about 14,500 Canadians were aboard ships off Juno Beach. With the dawn, they would storm ashore. This is the story of what happened on the day forever to be known as D-Day.

* * * *

Charles and Elliott Dalton stood together. They looked toward the Normandy coast. There was nothing much to see. Well inland, a predawn glow indicated that the sun would soon rise. But it would be hidden behind thick clouds. Stormy weather had made for an uncomfortable night as the invasion ships had closed on the French coast. The seas remained rough. Larger ships rolled heavily in the waves. Smaller craft tossed about like corks.

Ashore, flames rose from where shells or bombs had started fires. More than 5,000 ships stood off the coast. Many were destroy­ers, cruisers, monitors, gunboats that fired explosive rockets, and battleships with huge guns. All had started firing toward the coast at 0500 hours. Bombers had also swooped overhead and dropped tons of explosives. The intention was to destroy the German fortifi­cations guarding the five beaches.

Just before noon on D-Day, MGen. Rod Keller (wearing beret) and his staff landed at Bernières-sur-Mer. Pictured with the general (from left to right) are Capt. Charles Turton, Capt. W.H. Seamark and Brigadier Bob Wyman. (lac, pa-115534)

Just before noon on D-Day, MGen. Rod Keller (wearing beret) and his staff landed at Bernières-sur-Mer. Pictured with the general (from left to right) are Capt. Charles Turton, Capt. W.H. Seamark and Brigadier Bob Wyman. (lac, pa-115534)

At dawn, thousands of Allied soldiers would begin storming ashore. Americans would land on two beaches — Omaha and Utah. The British aimed at beaches code-named Sword and Gold. These were on opposite sides of the Canadian beach. Juno was a long stretch of sand running from Courseulles-sur-Mer, east past Bernières-sur-Mer, and on to St. Aubin-sur-Mer. Three summer resort towns being torn apart by shells and bombs.

Charles tried to say something meaningful. Elliott also searched for right words. Suddenly Charles groped about in his mouth and pulled out a stubby denture. He chucked it overboard.

“What did you do that for?” Elliott asked.

“If I’m going to die, I don’t want to have that damned thing hurting me,” Charles snapped. He was so tense that his teeth were grating, and the denture had rubbed the gum raw. Charles hated the denture anyway. Maybe when it was over, the army could replace it with one that fit properly.

Suddenly a megaphone sounded, and a voice warned that the assault craft were to be lowered.

“I’ll see you tonight,” Charles told Elliott.

“Yes,” Elliott replied. “See you.”

The two men shook hands. Then they parted and headed for their place in history.


An excerpt from the book Assault on Juno © 2012, written by Mark Zuehlke and published by Raven Books, an imprint of Orca Book Publishers Inc. as part of its Rapid Reads series available
from www.rapid-reads.com. It originally ran in Esprit de Corps' June 2012 issue. To the right is the original ad that ran alongside the story.

Firefight

By Rick Kurelo

In 2008, Master Corporal Rick Kurelo, CD, PSYOPS, (third from left) participated in a shura with local district leaders and an interpreter, Maywand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. (MPCL JAY MCGIBBON)

In 2008, Master Corporal Rick Kurelo, CD, PSYOPS, (third from left) participated in a shura with local district leaders and an interpreter, Maywand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. (MPCL JAY MCGIBBON)

As Canada’s mission in Afghanistan has come to a close, Rick Kurelo’s new memoir, Firefight, sheds light on his experiences as a Canadian PSYOPS specialist in Kandahar in 2008 and 2009.

Like many who served, Kurelo was injured by an IED while on patrol. Following his recovery, he finished his tour before returning home to Canada, where he was awarded the Sacrifice Medal.

After struggling to reintegrate into civilian life, Kurelo was diagnosed with PTSD. Thanks to prescribed medical care, he has been progressing well and is a strong advocate of mental health services for those suffering operational stress injuries.

Firefight also includes stories of Kurelo’s tour to Bosnia with SFOR in 2001; his early career with the Canadian Airborne Regiment; experiences as a reservist with the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada; and twenty-three years service as a professional firefighter with Oshawa Fire Services.

Excerpt from Firefight:

A different kind of warfare (Bosnia)

In the army, they say that you should never be first, never be last, and never volunteer. I went against that last piece of advice and volunteered to run an armed services radio program in Bosnia. It changed the direction of my military career in unpredictable ways.

I went to Banja Luka, in the northern part of the country, to attend a radio broadcasting course run by retired British Army Captain David Bailey. Capt. Bailey had previous experience running radio stations in England and combined this with his military expertise to establish Oksigen FM. Oksigen was a multi-cultural, youth-focused station that allowed us to communicate directly with local residents.

Following this training, three of us - including Duska, our Serbo-Croat interpreter, a radio operator and I - ran the station for four months. We played Canadian and Bosnian music as well as other content, and the idea was to establish rapport and a level of trust with the local population. With control over even a small portion of the airwaves, we could begin to influence public perceptions of our role there.

Corporal Rick Kurelo with two children in a village near Kupres, 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment Parachute Company, SFOR, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2001.

Corporal Rick Kurelo with two children in a village near Kupres, 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment Parachute Company, SFOR, Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2001.

The radio station was housed in an old, bombed-out building in Kupres. We had just enough power and equipment to get on the air. Although headquarters dictated some of the content, we had a lot of autonomy in deciding what to play in both English and Serbo-Croat. I enjoyed it, and felt we were doing interesting and important work.

Little did I know then that this would affect my life six years later when the new Canadian Forces Psychological Warfare Operations (PSYOPS) unit was being formed. Thanks to this previous experience, I was asked to consider applying and was accepted.


During the months that we operated our shoestring radio station, Duska, and I had lots of time to get to know one another.

Duska was in her twenties and was trilingual, speaking English, Serbo-Croat and German. She had become a NATO interpreter, was a valuable asset, and was paid very well.

She told me stories of what it was like during the war as a teenager – stories of such brutality and inhumanity that would horrify even the most hardened of us. She had experienced things that no child, or adult, ever should.

Fortunately she had family in Germany and had been able to go there to attend university.

Duska asked me about life in Canada. Based on all the positive things she had heard, from me as well as from others, she said emigrating was something she might consider down the road.

One night we were sitting together in the bombed-out “station,” accompanied by a stray dog we had rescued. Sitting in the dark and eating our limited army rations, I asked her, “Duska, what on earth are you doing here? With your skills and education, you could go anywhere to live. Why stay, especially after what you’ve experienced?”

I expected to hear that she had no other options, or that NATO paid so well for translators that she couldn’t refuse.

Rick Kurelo, Acting Captain, Oshawa Fire Services, Oshawa, Ontario, October 2013. 

Rick Kurelo, Acting Captain, Oshawa Fire Services, Oshawa, Ontario, October 2013. 

What she said was, “Rick, it’s my duty to stay. I love my country and I want to do what I can to help rebuild it.”

She told me that despite the horrors she had endured, she was willing to risk her life to help save her homeland. I could not help but be inspired by such devotion to a cause that was much bigger than her.

The people you meet (Afghanistan)

 I was part of a small, unique group of PSYOPS specialists in Afghanistan, which was not attached to a specific unit or base. During my tour I would receive individual orders geared to support specific operational needs in our area of responsibility. I often found myself arriving by helicopter at different forward operating bases (FOB) throughout Kandahar province. Due to this variety of roles and locations, I met a lot of different people, both military and civilian.

At one FOB, there was quite a mixed group that included soldiers, medics, nurses, aid workers and journalists. With so many of us living under one roof, it was inevitable that the stories – whether from the front lines or from back home – would start to fly.

It was the middle of the night and I had long since given up the idea of a solid night’s sleep. Due to the frequent attacks, or the threat of them, two hours of sleep was about all I could get.

A bunch of us were gathered at the back of the base. Some American aid workers had just arrived and were going to be with us for a while, so we struck up a conversation. About twelve of us sat around in a circle of plastic chairs and went through the basics: why the area was so dangerous; what to do in case of attack; medical procedures and protocol; and other information vital to survival in the desert warzone.

Even in the dead of night, the heat was oppressive. I spent half of the conversation just trying to stay comfortable, wiping sweat from my face and neck. I didn’t turn in when the others began plodding off as the evening wore on.

One young aid worker also remained and we started talking about his life in the United States. He told me about his mom and dad, and how much he missed them. He choked a little on the word “family,” and even though I couldn’t see his eyes in the dark, I knew he was fighting back tears.

He took a deep breath. “At least I can see them on Skype,” he said.

Skype had become important overseas. The technology enabled us to see, and not just hear, our loved ones back home. The signal wasn’t always the best and homesickness and heartbreak were common side effects, but being able to communicate with loved ones was an indispensable lifeline.

He nodded as if agreeing with himself. He was trying to put a positive spin on things, but it was obvious that even Skype was a poor substitute for seeing his family in person.

I told him more about life in country and we smoked and talked until the sun came up.

At last, he stood up and stretched. We both walked inside and stood next to each other to shave. He was visibly becoming excited about going out into the field and making a difference in people’s lives.

“There have been soldiers in my family,” he said, “but I’ve never been one myself. It’s a rush to be heading out to the front.”

I wondered if I had ever sounded that enthusiastic to people who had been in a warzone before me. He told me he was looking forward to doing the work he had come here to do and was anxious to get to his 8:00 security briefing.

Master Corporal Rick Kurelo, CD, PSYOPS, inside FOB Hutal following an unmounted patrol, Maywand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, 2008.

Master Corporal Rick Kurelo, CD, PSYOPS, inside FOB Hutal following an unmounted patrol, Maywand District, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, 2008.

 “It’s a great thing we’re doing, isn’t it?” he asked as he rinsed his razor in a bucket of water. “I mean for the people here and for the people back home. We have a chance to make a real difference in the world.” He smiled. “I’m doing this for my family, you know.”

I splashed some water on my face and grabbed a towel from the rack. “Hey, that’s probably about the best reason to do anything.”

He laughed. We shook hands and I wished him luck.

“Keep your head up,” I said.

Three hours later, we were notified that a convoy carrying some of the aid workers had hit an IED and there were multiple casualties. The convoy was speeding back to the base for medical assistance. When they arrived, we set up a triage unit where we stabilized the injured and transported the more seriously wounded by Medevac to the nearest hospital.

By the time we had sorted through the chaos, there were three dead. Sadly, one of the deceased was the young man I had stayed up with the previous night.

Just a few hours earlier he’d been laughing, smoking and opening up about how he wanted to make a difference in Afghanistan. The sad and brutal truth out there was that IEDs struck indiscriminately - no matter who you were or what role you played.

Girl in the desert (Afghanistan)

We were patrolling beyond our remote FOB when we rolled into a small village to follow up on reports of Taliban activity.

As I climbed down from our RG-31 mine vehicle, a little girl hobbled over to me and stretched up her hand to offer me a small blue flower. I knelt down, accepted the flower and offered her some candy in return. She took it with both hands, smiled and limped ahead of me into the village where her father scooped her up in his arms.

I approached the man and asked why his daughter was limping. In Pashto, he told me that she had stepped on a buried explosive, which had destroyed her leg. He lifted the bottom of the girl’s dress to show me her crude wooden prosthetic limb. It was little more than a short shaft of untreated wood with two leather straps and a small buckle to secure it to the girl’s leg.

“I made it myself,” he said proudly.

I explained that we might be able to find a prosthesis that would fit her better. After I provided a bit more information, he agreed and so I told him we would do everything in our power to get his daughter a prosthetic leg. I stopped short of making a promise because, in Afghanistan, if you promise and don’t follow through, you lose all credibility.

Back at Kandahar Airfield, I went through the necessary chain of command looking for a way to get a prosthesis sent over from Canada. The amount of required paperwork was astounding. Fortunately, I’d hit a window of time where I was needed there for briefings, so I was also able to fill out the requisition forms and make the necessary phone calls.

Four weeks later, a helicopter arrived with medical supplies. Among the boxes were a wheelchair and a child-sized prosthetic leg. We transported the chair and the artificial limb to our FOB by helicopter then drove them to the village. As we presented them to him, the father hugged us, cried, and said we had saved his daughter’s life. The little girl peeked out from behind his robes.

I dropped to one knee. “They’re for you,” I said in Pashto.

With her father’s encouragement, she limped toward me and ran her small hand along the smooth curves of the shiny chair and the new leg. I showed them how the leg would fit and then she tried it out. Their smiles said it all.

A few days later, we were back in the village on patrol so I made a point to stop in to see how the little girl was doing. As I approached their home, her father came outside and clapped his hands with delight.

“She is such a happy little girl now,” he said. “She can get water in the morning and she moves around without pain.”

Corporal Rick Kurelo, patrol commander on mounted patrol, near Kupres, 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment Parachute Company, SFOR, Bosnia and Herzogovina, 2001.

Corporal Rick Kurelo, patrol commander on mounted patrol, near Kupres, 3rd Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment Parachute Company, SFOR, Bosnia and Herzogovina, 2001.

I told him that we were glad to help. It was our job to make life there better, not worse, like it must seem sometimes.

The grateful man thanked us a dozen times. When I turned to leave, at last, he grabbed my arm and turned me back around. He looked into my eyes for a long time, like he was searching for just the right words. I thought he was going to thank me again and I put up my hands to indicate he had already thanked us enough.

Instead, he took a deep breath, then whispered, “Do not take the left path today, sir.”

At first, I thought I had not heard him correctly, but he squeezed my arm, and repeated, “Do not take the left path.” I confirmed my understanding with a nod.

There were two paths that we normally travelled to get to and from the village. More often than not, we took the shorter left path to get back to the FOB. When I returned to our convoy, I told the driver what the man had said. We took the right path and it turned out to be the right path in more ways than one. We later learned that the Taliban had been in the village days earlier, systematically burying mines along the other route.

As we had experienced many times before, by showing our compassion and helping the little girl, we had likely saved our own lives. There is no question in my mind that the kindness that human beings show one another is by far more powerful, and with longer lasting effects, than all the weapons in the world will ever be.


Firefight, is a compilation of ninety-seven stories and forty-five photos that span Rick Kurelo’s experiences with the Canadian Forces and Oshawa Fire Services. Published by FriesenPress, Firefight is available at FriesenPress.com, Amazon, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and other booksellers. Contact Rick Kurelo at firefight2014.com or @firefight2014.

 

At war with the elite WWII Devil's Brigade

Review by Bob Gordon

Of Courage and Determination, by Colonel Bernd Horn and Michel Wyczynski tells a tragic tale of a weapon that never really found a battlefield. The weapon was ground down irreparably when its combat effectiveness was misapplied. The "Devil's Brigade," formally known as the First Special Service Force (FSSF), was made famous by the eponymous film. The film was highly fictionalized; this account is not.

Brilliant and eccentric, British scientist Geoffrey Nathaniel Pyke proposed that dominion over the fourth element, “mastery of the snows” - could defeat Hitler's European empire in its hinterland. A small commando force, suitably trained and equipped, would destroy everything from hydro-electricity in Italy, to heavy water plants, nickel refineries, and naval bases in Norway, and Romanian oil refining capacity. Iconoclasts themselves, both Lord Louis Mountbatten, chief of combined operations, and Churchill, the Prime Minister, fervently advanced the idea.

They acted with such single-mindedness that when the British Army and the Norwegian government-in-exile refused to participate, Churchill pressed Lieutenant-General Andy McNaughton, and DND pressed Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, for Canada and the U.S. to proceed as the only partners. Thus was created a unique combined Canadian-American unit for operations in arctic and alpine conditions.

The FSSF’s first operation - the invasion of Kiska in the Aleutian chain off Alaska - was portending of things to come. The unit charged ashore to discover that the Japanese had evacuated a week earlier. Next, it was deployed to Italy, fighting in alpine conditions and a cold climate. In the battles of Mounts le Difensa and Majo, it fought well but suffered heavy casualties.

When desperation saw it shifted to the stalemated Anzio beachhead, the unit was assigned Herculean and inappropriate defensive tasks. The 1,200 men strong unit was assigned 10 kilometers of frontage. The 2nd Battalion of the 1st Regiment, with 69 effectives, was expected to defend 1,100 meters. The more than three months in the line bled the unit white. Although it participated in the invasion of southern France, the unit was a spent force and it was eventually disbanded in December 1944. Initially amazingly well-trained and equipped, the FSSF was, ultimately, a weapon that never really found a target.

A well-researched book that chronicles this unit's short yet unique and legendary experience, "a story of courage and determination."


Of Courage and Determination: The First Special Service Force, ‘Devil’s Brigade,’ 1942-44 by Colonel Bernd Horn and Michel Wyczyniski, published by Dundurn Press in 2013. Includes 405 pages, black and white photographs, notes, glossary, and an index. Softcover $35.00. ISBN: 978-1-4597-0964-5. To purchase a copy, please go to the publisher’s website.


ON REVIEW - The Patricias: A Century of Service

Review by Bob Gordon

Created during the paroxysms of exuberant, patriotic imperialism that followed the outbreak of war in August 1914, the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) celebrate their centenary this summer. In recognition of a century of military service, historian David J Bercusson has penned The Patricias. The story is supplemented by lucullan illustrations from a variety of sources. It traces the century from the PPCLI’s place as first in the field during WWI, to its ongoing presence training Afghan forces in Kabul.

In 1914, the Princess Pats were first in the field for two good reasons, one social and one martial. On August 3, the day the Germans invaded Belgium, A Hamilton Gault, Esq. businessman and bon vivant, militiaman and South African war veteran, met with Minister of Militia Sam Hughes to discuss raising a regiment.

The key to the unit's existence was recorded on a Chateau Laurier memo pad, “To be composed of picked men, those having had active service being given preference.” Only one in three of the volunteers were accepted. For this reason they would be ready for service in the field faster than the disorganized mob Hughes was shoehorning into Camp Valcartier. And they were. Arriving on the front line in January 1915, they even conducted a trench raid in February that some historians regard as the first by a Canadian unit. This strangely goes unmentioned in The Patricias.

Socially, the Patricias were the cream of Ottawa society. Gault, wealthy and widely known was to be second-in-command of the unit. The commanding officer was none other than, Lieutenant-Colonel Francis D. Farquhar, DSO. LtCol Farquhar was a Boer War hero, and, significantly, military secretary to HRH The Duke of Connaught, Governor General of Canada. Their patron, his daughter Princess Patricia, handmade their Colour, the famed Ric-A-Dam-Doo.

Over the past century, the Patricias have regularly found themselves in the thick of Canada's military history and lived up to their origins. From the final days of Second Ypres, on the Morrow River and in the Liri Valley, at Kap'yong, in Nicosi, to the current lingering commitment to Afghanistan the Patricia's have repeatedly affirmed their reputation as one of the most storied regiments in the Canadian Army. The Patricia's tells that tale, lavishly complimented with telling photographs, documents and works of art.


"The Patricias: A Century of Service" by David J. Bercuson, co-published by Goose Lane Editions and Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) in 2013. Includes 144 pages, hundreds of historic and contemporary photographs, a companion DVD, and an index. Hardcover $35.00. ISBN 978-0-86492-675-3. If you're interested in a copy, click here for the publisher's website.