Column: Putting a face to the invasion of Normandy
June 6 1944.
It would be the day when nearly 160,000 Allied troops, 14,000 of whom were Canadian, would invade an 80-kilometre beachfront in Normandy, France. It would be the day when those soldiers, sailors and airmen would turn the tide to defeat Germany and bring an end to World War ll.
“All of a sudden something slapped the side of my right leg and then a round caught me dead centre up high on my right leg causing a compound fracture,” wrote Jim Wilkins with the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, B Company in his D-Day recollections posted on the Canadian War Museum’s website. “By this time I was flat on my face in the water – I’ve lost my rifle, my helmet is gone and Kenny is still yelling at me to come on. I yell back, I can’t, my leg is broken – get the hell out of here – away he goes and catches up to Tommy. Poor Tom, I’ve got 10 of his bren gun magazines and they’re pulling me under. I soon get rid of them and flop over onto my back and start to float to shore where I meet five other riflemen all in very bad shape. The man beside me is dead within minutes. All the while we are looking up at the machine gun firing just over our heads at the rest of our platoon and company. Then our platoon Sargent and friend of mine, who had given up a commission to be with us, was killed right in front of me.”
The Battle of Normandy. Brutal. Deadly. Victorious.
The meticulous planning for the massive assault known by its code name Operation Overlord under the command of General Dwight Eisenhower, went operational in 1943 with intensive training of soldiers, sailors, airmen and paratroopers across England. A 1,200 plane airborne assault would precede the biggest ever amphibious assault involving over 5,000 vessels. Troops would simultaneously land on five beaches code named Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah, and Sword.
“The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division was picked to take part and began a period of intensive commando-type assault training,” wrote Wilkins.
According to the Canadian War Museum, the Royal Canadian Navy contributed 110 ships and 10,000 sailors to the assault effort while the Royal Canadian Air Force bombed targets as fighter-bomber squadrons helped control the skies over Normandy.
D-Day was originally scheduled to go on June 5 but terrible weather forced a 24-hour delay. By June 6, the worst of the weather had passed although the English Channel from Portsmouth and Southampton, where the Allied forces had been waiting, to the Normandy beaches was still rough.
“OK, let’s go,” Gen. Eisenhower famously said.
At 6:30 am the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade landed on the five-mile wide Juno Beach while Canadian paratroopers landed further east. But once over the seawall, the unit advanced inland quickly, seized bridges, and by 6 p.m. had captured the town of Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer.
The Normandy campaign lasted from D-Day to August 21. On D-Day alone there were some 9,000 Allied casualties with the 3rd Canadian Division sustaining 1,074 casualties.
“In front of me I can see bodies washing back and forth in the surf,” wrote Wilkins. “A medic put a bandage on my leg. Two soldiers came along carrying a five-gallon pot of tea. “Cup of tea Canada?” They gave me tea in a tin mug. It was mixed 50/50 with rum. It was really good..”
Seventy years ago, D-Day changed the face of the war. But it was the courage of soldiers like Jim Wilkins who put a face on an invasion that allowed the world to hope again.