CHARLIE MARTIN'S WAR
A decorated Canadian walks the beaches of Normandy 50 years after D-Day, and relives the terror, death and heroism of June 6, 1944
ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH IN BERNIERES-SUR-MER
Through the clearing mist, the French village atop the sable beach looked so unreal that Sgt. Maj. Charlie Martin kept thinking, “It’s like a picture postcard.” As his Allied assault craft punched through heaving seas, not all the 28 men on board felt so benign about the tranquil scene one kilometre before them. For one thing, alongside the sturdy, three-century-old spired buildings were more recent, ominous additions: concrete pillboxes, machine-gun emplacements and gleaming, pitchblack 88-mm cannons. And in the water, Martin and his men saw a succession of round, rolling mines that could blow them and their landing craft to pieces.
Within the landing craft, the only sound was the undulating whir of the engine. Some men, like Martin, prayed. Others chewed gum and stared fixedly into space. Sea spray and waves washed over the
bucking boat so that the troops wearing heavy woollen khaki uniforms and weighed down further by 22-kg backpacks, were sometimes too sick and exhausted to think about how frightened they were.
It was shortly after 8 o’clock on the morning of June 6, 1944, a day that would become known in history as D-Day. For Martin and the other members of Toronto’s Queen’s Own Rifles, it was only minutes until the front ramp of their landing craft would drop, and they would be dispatched to the killing ground that lay ahead.
Fifty years later, Charlie Martin would remember virtually every sensation of those moments, including the wordless glances he exchanged with his second-in-command, Sgt. Jack Simpson. These two would lead the charge to the beach—and Simpson would be one of the first of the Queen’s Own to die, cut down by a machine-gun burst just as he hit the sand.
Charlie Martin, three metres away when Simpson died, kept running with scarcely a backward glance at his fallen mate. There was no time to mourn that day. But the tears and the sorrow would last a lifetime.
No matter the time or season, a chill wind always seems to blow along the beach at Bemières-sur-mer. It whips up the sand and drives a constant spray of water from the English Channel, so that anyone walking across the flats is left half-blinded by grit and shivering in the damp cold.
It is not much different today than it was 50 years ago, when it was a most uncomfortable place for a young man to die. In the early morning hours of D-Day, that was only one of the considerations facing each of the more than 150,000 mostly Canadian, British and American troops as their landing craft approached the beaches of Normandy. Other facts of life were how frightened and alone many of them felt, despite their numbers. While they would land together on the beaches, the prospect of imminent death was a solitary concern. Behind them, anchored eight kilometres from shore, the armada of more than 7,000 Allied ships that ferried the troops across the Channel receded into nothingness. Although there were more than 4,000 of the much smaller landing craft, the four-metre waves, grey skies and limited visibility meant the soldiers could see little on either side as they careered towards shore.
The vessels were such clumsy and uncomfortable contraptions that
some of the men longed for the battle ahead because it promised relief from nausea and helplessness. The Queen’s Own were used to being in close conditions, although nothing in their previous four years’ service could compare with this. Most of the Queen’s Own that day, members of Canada’s oldest continuously serving regiment, founded in Toronto in 1860, enlisted in 1940. They stayed together through training stints in Newfoundland and England and knew one another almost as well as they knew their own families. Few had ever left Canada; many had never been outside Ontario until the war began. They included Martin, then 25, the company leader; Rifleman Herman (Chief) Stock, an affable Iroquois from the Gibson reserve on Georgian Bay; Henry (Buck) Hawkins, a 37-year-old rifleman with a wife and two children, who was also A Company’s much-admired, undeclared father figure; Jim Catling, Bill Bettridge, Cpl. Jamie McKenzie and the feisty, always argumentative Bert Shepherd. Most were inspired to volunteer for the same reason Martin would express 50 years later: “Our country was at war, so we never thought twice about fighting for it.”
A Company was among the first to hit the beaches that bloody day, just past 8 a.m. on the launch of Operation Overlord, the battle for the liberation of Europe and the biggest military operation in history. June 6 marked the beginning of the end of Nazi domination of Western Europe. Against an estimated 210,000 German troops spread along the coast, the Allies amassed eight infantry divisions and 14 armored regiments—156,000 men in all—to invade an 80-km front. Of the five code-named landing beaches, the Americans landed on two—Utah and Omaha—the British on two others—Gold and Sword— and the Canadians, part of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, on Juno, an unspectacular eight-kilometre stretch of sand sandwiched between the two British sectors. But for the men, the size of the operation and the enormity of its place in history were secondary to more personal concerns. ‘We never felt so alone in our lives,” recalled Martin earlier this year, as he stood on the beach at Bernières-sur-mer and remembered the day his war began.
Charlie Martin is 75 years old now, with a limp and a cane and a heart that requires regular medication. He is a grandfather with a smooth, unlined face; a gentle, churchgoing man who never curses, seldom raises his voice and responds to compliments by immediately deflecting the praise to others. He has been married to his British-born wife, Vi, for 51 years and they move hand-in-hand through life with the quiet comfort of two people who have many memories and few regrets. “Charlie,” says Vi, echoing words she first wrote as a war bride in England 50 years earlier, “was the love of my life when we married, and that has only grown since then.”
They went back to Bernières-sur-mer earlier this spring, returning to the place where so many memories and fallen friends lie. Even now, there are reminders of war in the chilly peace of springtime Normandy. A German pillbox and rusting cannon—the same one that raked the beach with gunfire as the Queen’s Own landed—remain as a memorial. A Canadian Sherman tank, decorated with the badges of the 14 “Normandy Landing” units that landed on D-Day, is permanently parked in the village square of nearby Courseulles-sur-mer.
When Martin stands on the beach, he still sees “two sights in my head: the way it was that day, and the way it is now.” Among those French residents old enough to remember, the images are equally clear. “We must never forget,” says Michel Chrétien, who has written a book honoring Canada’s D-Day efforts, “and we must ensure that our children never forget.” But that is not easy to ensure. Now, says a waitress in her mid-40s in Courseulles, another of the beach towns that the Canadians recaptured from the Germans, “the kids growing up know little of the war, and care even less.”
There is nothing on the Normandy beaches to mark where each of the men died. There were too many deaths for that: 375 Canadians, alone; another 628 were wounded. Total Allied casualties on June 6 were about 10,000, including more than 3,000 dead. Of the 124 men in A Company under Martin’s command, Stock and Catling were among the first to wade through the water and among the first to die, killed by the same burst of machine-gun fire. Where they fell, there now stands a row of peeling, windbeaten wooden changing rooms.
As he prepared to take to the beach in 1944, Charlie Martin had a prayer in his head and a letter in his breast pocket from his wife of less than a year that said that whatever happened, “you will always be the love of my life.” He also, he insists, held no particular worries about dying. “I guess the only thing we really fretted about,” he says now, “was being wounded and severely disabled.”
Looking at Martin today, it is difficult to see the traces of the tough young man whose D-Day commanding officer calls him, half a century later, “the finest fighting soldier I have ever known.” But it is clear why then-Maj. J. Neal Gordon holds that opinion. By the time of the invasion, Martin—four years removed from clearing fields on a southwestern Ontario farm near Dixie—was a barrel-chested judo expert who also was a certified marksman and skilled knife-fighter. He appeared without fear and so instilled great confidence in the men who followed him. “Every soldier who served with him just felt, instinctively, that Charlie was a person you could trust with anything, including your life,” says then-Capt. Dick Medland, another of his former commanding officers and the holder of a combat medal.
The wake-up call came at 3:15 a.m., but few of the sleepstarved men on the Normandy-bound ships needed it. Outside, a violent storm filled the night; even if it had been calm, the fear of German mines laced at intervals across the Channel would have been enough to keep many men awake—and watchful. By 5 o’clock, they began leaving their transport ships for the smaller assault craft attached by ropes alongside. In practice, in calm waters in England, boarding had been easy. Now, they were burdened by heavy gear and a roiling sea. Anyone who fell was almost certain to perish quickly in the icy depths.
Martin was the last to board. As he was lowered onto the deck by a rope, the pilot of the assault craft, impatient to be under way, gunned the motor. Martin almost lost his grip, but was hauled to safety by Hawkins and McKenzie.
Few Allied troops faced a more difficult landing than the Canadians. In The Struggle for Europe, Australian war correspondent Chester Wilmot wrote that Canadian troops landed “on the most exposed beaches, with the farthest to go, against what was potentially the greatest opposition.” From the Queen’s Own, two companies—A and B—landed in the first wave; C and D, each with up to 200 men, followed shortly after. When the first flat-bottomed landing craft ran aground, the Germans opened fire with cannons and machine-guns as the men jumped into the jarringly cold water and tried to sprint through the heavy waves. One hundred metres ahead, at the edge of the beach, Martin saw a small gap between two manmade sand dunes. In the middle, a German soldier behind a submachine-gun shouted warnings to his mates. The sound of enemy gunfire, says Martin, was “like a constant cracking noise, and you could hear a snapping sound
whenever a bullet passed near you.” Alongside Martin, who was firing his rifle while on the run, Bill Bettridge ignored the heavy enemy fire, stopped, and took careful aim. The shots from one of the two guns—Martin is not sure whose—hit the German soldier and created an opening for the Canadians. That might have been the first time Martin killed another human being. “It may sound terrible,” he says now, “but the fact I had to kill does not bother me. We were in a war.”
Ever conscious of the time, Martin noted the landing time as 8:21 a.m. Later, he estimated the sprint across the beach had taken less than 30 seconds—and cost the lives of a dozen A Company men. The fight for the beach was just the beginning. Martin, leading Bettridge, Shepherd and a dozen other men, raced across a railway line to a grassy field fenced in by barbed wire. Martin cut the wire, crawled under and advanced about 10 steps until he stopped abruptly. He had stepped on a hard object that he recognized from training as a “jumping mine”—a nasty mix of explosives, nails, buckshot and scrap metal that could, once detonated, shower debris with deadly effect over more than 60 metres. There was only one way to stop the mine from detonating. Martin—still under enemy fire—had to stand statue-like and maintain pressure on the mine with his foot. He did so until all his men were out of range. Then, to avoid the mine’s upward spray, he dropped down quickly alongside it. At about the same time, a bullet hit the inside of his helmet and rattled around without harming him. Miraculously, this time, he received no wounds but experienced “one heck of a headache.”
The rest of Charlie Martin’s D-Day was less remarkable—but no less dangerous. He and four other men advanced, in extended single file, through Bernières-surmer. The winding streets and old homes, with their tiny windows and thick, brick construction, provided ideal cover for snipers. “You looked at every window,” recalls Martin, “and wondered what might be behind it.” Despite frequent fire, the group of four reached their first objective, the outskirts of town, without any casualties. By 8:45 a.m., 24 minutes after landing, the regiment had secured control of most of the town. By 9 o’clock, another member of the regiment later noted in his diary, “A café 100 yards off the beach [was] open and selling wine.” The battle had been swift, but deadly. A and B companies lost 138 of 240 men—63 dead and 75 wounded—more than 50 per cent of their manpower.
But Martin’s group of four men still faced seven more kilometres of travel before their day was over. Much of it was through farmland and light underbrush, in which they and other Canadian troops took turns trying to draw out enemy guns by alternately jumping up, running erratically and then flopping for cover. The process saved them from ambush and injury, and helped them learn the location of enemy gun emplacements.
Meanwhile, C and D companies, which had landed 15 minutes after Martin, began a drive towards the regiment’s first-day objective, the town of Anguemy. The survivors of the four companies met there late in the afternoon: of all the Canadian forces, the Queen’s Own was the only one to meet and hold its ultimate D-Day objective. That was cause for pride and satisfaction, but it was also time to recognize the pain. As dusk fell, Martin had time to collect his thoughts. He wandered away from his fellow soldiers to a solitary place behind a waist-high stone wall. There, he knelt and remembered all the men killed that day whom he had known so long, and so well.
Then, Charlie Martin wept.
Martin did not cry again until after the war. He fought with extraordinary bravery for another 10 months through the Allied liberation of France and Holland, and sorties into Germany.
Many times, Martin led three-man patrols into enemy lines, with the objective of capturing a prisoner to get information on German troop movements.
Once, under heavy enemy fire, the fivefoot, seven-inch, 128-lb. Martin half-carried, half-pulled a six-foot, 200-lb. wounded comrade back to his own lines. At the same time, the wounded mate was himself dragging along a German prisoner.
On another occasion, Martin and a partner went out overnight and dug a concealed trench in a cabbage patch less than 150 m from a German gun emplacement holding down the company’s advance. The two laid there for more than 18 hours until dusk fell again. Then, they emerged from their hole, shot and killed the two German gunners and spent another three hours huddling under a bombardment from an enraged enemy. Martin survived countless other close brushes with death, including one incident in Germany where a gestapo officer who had just been taken prisoner suddenly produced a hidden pistol and opened fire at him from five metres away. One shot drew blood on Martin’s right ear; the other went through the mesh of his
helmet. Martin drew his own pistol and disabled the Nazi by shooting him in both shoulders. On another occasion, Germans encircled and ambushed his platoon. Martin decided the route to escape lay in leading a bayonet attack against the ambushers. In the ensuing battle, he was stabbed over the left eye and broke a finger fending off an attacker—but led his men to safety.
Charlie Martin’s luck ran out on April 16, 1945, when he was trying to cross a bridge near the village of Sneek, Holland. Midway, he sensed a movement—and turned as a German soldier opened fire at close range. Bullets hit Martin in the right leg, chest and left arm even as he fired back, killing the German. He passed out
from loss of blood and remembers nothing again until May 8, 1945, when he came to in a military hospital in Ghent, Belgium, in time to hear Winston Churchill on the radio, announcing the end of the war.
At the time he was wounded, Martin was the last man still serving in active combat from the original group who came together five years earlier in Toronto. The figures tell the horrific tale of the losses suffered by the Queen’s Own. In a regiment that had an official strength of 800 men, from D-Day until the end of the war 11 months later, each man was replaced because of death or wounds an average of 3V2 half times. By the war’s end, 453 had died and more than 1,000 were wounded—and the average time experienced in combat before either happened was less than six weeks.
In short, by the time Charlie Martin’s war ended, he had outlasted the average Queen’s Own combat service span by more than seven times. For his efforts, Martin now wears proudly on his jacket lapel a Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal, among Canada’s highest awards for bravery in combat.
The bodies of 2,049 Canadians lie in the immaculately kept Canadian War Cemetery at Bény-sur-mer, five kilometres inland from Bernièressur-mer. The graves are almost all marked by identical white stone
More than 2,000 Canadians are buried in the immaculate cemetery
crosses. Elderly local French residents sometimes come and leave flowers in memory of the young men they never met. Occasionally, there are wreaths and bouquets accompanied by personal messages—reminders that some of the sons and daughters of the dead still come to visit.
Even for those bom long after the war, it is a wrenching place to visit. Some of the dead were in their teens: had there not been a war, they could still be working, enjoying grandchildren, pondering retirement and the future. The worst thing about those deaths, says Martin—who wrote to all the families of the A Company dead—was dealing with the parents. “I knew that the widows were young and could start life again,” he says. “But for a parent who lost a child, a large part of themselves died with them.”
Other losses were painful for different reasons—
such as the enlisted men in their late 30s and early 40s who left behind half-grown families when they went to war.
One of them was Martin’s 37-year-old friend Buck Hawkins. He was an easygoing but decisive character whose size, age and maturity made him a natural leader—but who always rejected pro-
motion from his rifleman’s rank because it would have taken him away from his friends in A Company. He was killed on July 18, 1944, while providing covering fire that allowed wounded members of his platoon to retreat from a heavy German attack. His gravestone at Bény-sur-mer says that Rifleman H. H. Hawkins “gave his life for his friends.”
Tears still fill Martin’s eyes when he looks at Hawkins’s grave or talks about him. “I can see him today just as he was,” says Martin. “A big, handsome so-and-so with a devilish grin, so quick with a joke and a smile.”
On June 6, Charlie and Vi Martin will return to Normandy for official ceremonies. This, the veterans agree, is likely to be the last large commemoration. Age and disease are gradually achieving what war could not, and it may be a final chance for many to formally honor the memory of those they left behind. “We had the chance to live our full lives, and they did not,” says Martin. “It falls to us to remember who they were, and what they did.”
History, it is often said, is written by the victors, but memories belong to those who lived the event. In the memories they share in their autumn years, the veterans of the Second World War learned a more fundamental lesson: there is never a comfortable place for a young man to die. □
Battle Diary, a one-hour-long documentary based on Charlie Martin’s recently published war memoirs of the same name, will be broadcast on CBC TV on June 5 at 9 p.m. (page 56).