June 6, 1944 ~ the day the Allied powers crossed the English Channel and landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, beginning the liberation of Western Europe from Nazi control during World War II. Within three months, the northern part of France would be freed and the invasion force would be preparing to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet forces moving in from the east.
An Allied raid on the French coast at Dieppe in August 1942 had resulted in heavy losses, particularly for Canada, but by 1944 the Allies had made strong gains…
The Allies knew that they would have to defeat Germany in Western Europe to win the war and decided to mount a major campaign for 1944. Planning lasted more than a year, taking great effort and many elements. Ground, sea and air forces rehearsed endlessly to make sure their timing and coordination was perfect. Great numbers of troops, boats, tanks, supplies and equipment were gathered in total secrecy in southern England. Portable docking facilities were built for the supply ships to off-load their cargoes in the days after the Allies had landed. A long flexible pipe, called ‘Pluto’, (‘Pipe Lines Under The Ocean’) was even built to carry fuel under the sea from England to Normandy, the region of northwestern France where the Allies would come ashore.
Even with all these preparations, the Normandy Campaign would be very difficult. The shores of Northwest Europe were littered with German land mines, barbed wire, heavy artillery batteries and machine-gun nests. There were also anti-tank walls, shelters constructed of thick concrete, anti-aircraft guns and many other types of defensive positions. For these reasons, the coastline from Denmark to the south of France was known as ‘Fortress Europe’.
For the Allied offensive to be successful, harbours along the continent’s coastline would have to be secured for the many transport ships that would be needed to ferry food, medical supplies, weapons and fresh troops after the initial landings. As well, Allied armies would continue to need ‘Pluto’ to help transport the fuel needed to liberate occupied Europe.
An Allied defeat on the beaches of Normandy would have meant certain disaster as there would be no way to remove troops to safety. But if the landings succeeded, the Allied forces would finally gain that all-important foothold in Western Europe and a chance to liberate France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Denmark from German occupation.
Allied aircraft paved the way for the landings, bombing coastal defences in the months leading up to the attack. On June 6, 1944 ~ D-Day ~ a massive Allied force crossed the English Channel to engage in Operation Overlord. Their destination? An 80 kilometre stretch of the heavily defended coast of Normandy. There were five specific landing zones, each given a codename: Juno Beach ( Canada ), Gold Beach ( United Kingdom ), Sword Beach ( United Kingdom and France ), Utah Beach and Omaha Beach ( United States ).
Seven thousand vessels of all types, including 284 major combat vessels, took part in Operation Neptune, the assault phase of the D-Day offensive. Destroyers and supporting craft of the Royal Canadian Navy did their part and shelled German targets while many Royal Canadian Air Force planes (including Lancaster bombers and Spitfires) were among the 4000 Allied bombers ( plus some 3700 fighters and fighter bombers ) which attacked German beach defences and inland targets.
More than 450 Canadian soldiers parachuted inland before dawn on June 6th and engaged the enemy. A few hours later, some 14,000 Canadian troops began coming ashore at Juno Beach in the face of enemy fire. Their mission was to establish a beachhead along an eight kilometre stretch fronting the villages of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Bernieres-sur-Mer, and Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer. Once secure, the troops would push inland to help capture the city of Caen an important communications centre for the Germans.”
The bombardment of the beaches began at 6 a.m. Within an hour, the lead landing craft were away from the ships. Two hours later, the German defences at Juno Beach had been shattered and Canada had established the beachhead.
Through the summer of 1944, the fighting continued through terrible conditions, but the troops moved forward. Canadians played an important role in closing the ‘Falaise Gap’ in mid-August as the Germans finally retreated in the face of the Allied offensive.
On August 25, 1944, Paris was liberated by the allies, bringing the Normandy Campaign officially to a close.
Victory came at a terrible cost, though. 340 Canadians were killed on D-Day alone and the Canadians would suffer the most casualties of any division in the British Army Group during the Battle of Normandy. More than 5000 made the ultimate sacrifice, losing their lives, and lie buried in a place far from their homes and loved ones.
Lest we forget…