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.