70th anniversary of D-Day
6th June 2014
Last year the Honorary Colonel of the 48th Highlanders of Canada mentioned to me during one of our inaugurations that he had been invited to attend the 70th Anniversary D-Day Commemorations at Juno Beach. He needed a driver and would I undertake the job.
Despite living only a few hours driving away I have never been out that far, so I said yes, with the proviso that if I was going, that I would have a chance to actually get in to some of the events.
As the anniversary got closer I decided that it might be a good idea to drive over and have a look before John arrived. I am glad that I did because the weekend of the 6th turned out to be so hectic that we didn’t get the chance to actually ‘visit’ any sites.
My first port of call was Pegasus Bridge at Bénouville just to the east of Caen on the canal. Just after midnight on the 6th June 1944, one hundred and eight men from the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry under Major John Howard landed within metres of this bridge (and that across the Orne river at Ranville).
Small monuments mark the location of where their Horsa gliders touched down. Both bridges were taken within ten minutes: the German guards were caught completely by surprise assuring that the bridges were intact.
Reinforced by other soldiers from the 6th Airborne Division the eastern flank of the Allied landing zone was secured.
The bascule bridge was, within weeks, renamed “Pegasus Bridge” in honour of the winged horse emblem carried by the British airborne troops. On the far side are two cafés which vie with each other as to which was the first building to have been liberated by the Allies. They certainly do very good business — and at two Euros for a small cup of coffee, the Pegasus Bridge café is certainly unlikely to go out of business in the near future.
The bridge was removed in 1994 to make way for a new one and the original can now be visited at the excellent Memorial which is on the ‘landing’ side of the canal.
My next stop was the Canadian War Cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer where the first commemoration would take place. A group of military vehicle enthusiasts arrived at the same time and were obviously doing a tour because they seemed to crop up everywhere. I would have to admit to being a wee bit put out by the number of these vehicles carrying the Stars and Stripes as opposed to the Union Flag (not one) or the Canadian Red Ensign (a few).
I know that Hollywood controls the film industry but it would be nice to remember that the Brits and Canadians had three beaches and the Americans two. Of course there is always a better story when things go wrong rather than right.
The Juno Beach Centre does not attempt to tell the story of the landing in enormous detail but rather covers more ground by explaining how the Canadians came to be there and what the war’s impact was back in Canada. Well worth the visit and although I did not have the time, the visit to the German bunkers on the beach looked as though it would be interesting.
What I did find surprising was just how close the town of Courseulles sur Mer was to the beach at high tide (and I do know that we landed at low tide). From the centre you pass through a very low dune and there you are — on the beach. In comparison to my beach at Quend with its high rolling dunes and dense scrubland behind, this was a pretty flat walk and I could appreciate why the preference had been made for the Normandy coastline.
The traffic arrangements for the D-Day commemorations were pretty intense. I had to have an official letter from the Canadian Embassy in order to get through the basic police cordon on the 5th. On the 6th we grouped together and went over in a mini-bus because the entire landing zone had been cordoned off and shut. To get through you needed to have an official sticker (this went for the locals as well if they wanted to go anywhere). That morning I just managed to get into Caen as they closed the road behind me.
The commemorations commenced at Beny sur Mer on the evening of the 5th June when the cemetery was packed with Canadian youth and a large number of veterans. The senior veteran was Major-General Richard Rohmer and in the first of a number of speeches, that he would deliver over the days to come, he commented on the long wait out in the English Channel as the infantry waited on the storms to die down sufficiently enough to make the landing possible.
As a young pilot, not much older than some of the students present, his task was to fly over the landing zone as an observer. Of course none of these young souls ever thought that something would happen to them.
Some 14,000 Canadians landed at Juno Beach on the 6th June 1944, a figure that is not even half that of those who took part in the taking of the Canal du Nord in September 1918. Another major difference between the two wars was that this time the Canadians had received years of training — for many D-Day would be their first taste of combat. Three decades before, everybody had been on a very steep learning curve.
Our D-Day afternoon became immensely hot and things were not made any easier by the fact that the other commemorations had fallen behind schedule, we were forced to hang on a good hour and a bit longer than necessary.
I wandered around and realised that I was going to have to accept the fact that although I was there I wasn’t going to see anything — there was only one big screen and it was on the far side. On the other hand the veterans were supposed to be heading down to the beach following the ceremony and for that I was well placed.
John was up the front with the other officers but even he was lucky to find himself a good vantage point as they were pushed from one place to another by a somewhat less efficient system than the day merited.
But, anyway I got to hear everything that was going on and spent the afternoon with a French policeman who must have been the only peeler in all of France that was not on duty in Normandy that day. It sounds as though the woes of modern policing that we hear about in the UK are also alive and kicking in France.
I would have to admit to being disappointed that at the end of the evening, by which time everything was a good ninety minutes behind schedule, that The Prince of Wales and his entourage simply left us. We had been expecting him to lead the veterans out onto the beach (or perhaps that was just our misunderstanding).
Ultimately we were there to honour the veterans, many of whom are now in their nineties. They filed down, along a red carpet, between the flags of Canada held high by the various cadet corps. I could not help but wonder what was going through their minds. Walking out to the beach might be a pleasant stroll (or push) but what about the return, coming up the beach ? Would they be haunted by seventy-year old visions of falling comrades ?