COVER

TALES OF WAR

In the air, on the water or on the ground, Canadians ensured the success of the invasion

June 6 1994
COVER

TALES OF WAR

In the air, on the water or on the ground, Canadians ensured the success of the invasion

June 6 1994

TALES OF WAR

In the air, on the water or on the ground, Canadians ensured the success of the invasion

Modesty is a hallmark of the D-Day veterans interviewed by Maclean’s. They tended to downplay the danger and their heroics, perhaps because memories are so hellish and the past 50 years have dulled some of their pain. But their acts of individual bravery are a proud legacy. Reporters Luke Fisher, D’Arcy Jenish and Barbara Wickens recorded their personal stories from a day that changed history:

‘A lot of the men had been killed or were just gone'

Retired advertising salesman John Finn, now 73 and living in his home town of St. John’s, Nfld., joined the 59th Newfoundland Heavy Artillery Regiment in 1940. On D-Day, he was a forward observation operator with the 6th Airborne Division of the British army. (Newfoundland was, at the time, administered by Britain and did not join Canada until 1949). Finn flew into France aboard a huge glider under cover of darkness several hours before the landing:

I had been in England for four years when I was sent to the 6th Airborne, which required people to train as paratroopers. We only got a couple of jumps in before they started making preparations for DDay. We couldn’t complete our training, so they conned some of us into going over in these gliders. There were about 10 troops and two

officers in each glider, along with a jeep that carried our radio equipment.

We were towed across the Channel by aircraft in

squadrons of 10 or 15 gliders, and then we were released just as we hit the coast. I remember that it was very noisy when they were towing us. We knew when they had let us go because it was suddenly so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Then, the Germans were shooting at us because they knew something was happening. We landed in a field about nine miles in from the coast.

The first thing we had to do was haul the tail off the glider so we could get the jeep out. You didn’t stay where you landed. You got out of there as fast as you could. It was dark, but we could hear gunfire and cars revving up and tanks moving. We drove, maybe a couple of miles, to a small village called Ranville and hauled our radio equipment up a church steeple, which was our first observation post.

When daylight came, there was firepower everywhere. It was one big gathering of men and materials and planes and guns. We got the wireless out and started to send stuff about the range and location of German troops to the warships out in the Channel. We called for a few shots and they were socking them down. We were right in the middle of the battle.

When I finally had a look around, I realized how fortunate we were to have had a good landing. A lot of the men in our section had been killed or were just gone. There were gliders buckled up and burned all over, some with bodies besides them. Those first few hours of the invasion were what I call the confusion hours. You look back on it and you wonder how it all happened. You were in England one minute and France the next.

'We had a job to do and we did it the best we could’

J. A. L. Robichaud of Buctouche, N.B., was a 30-year-old captain with the North Shore (N.B.) Regiment when he hit the beach at St-Aubin-surmer on D-Day. Now a retired lawyer, Robichaud has been a paraplegic since Aug. 10,1944, when a German rifle round hit him in the chest, narrowly missing his heart, and striking his spine.

On D-Day, I went in at 7:30 in the morning; I was one of the first on the beach. I was the unit landing officer, which meant that once the troops had moved off the beach, I had to stay there and guide the reinforcements.

It was an exciting time. I was armed with a Sten [sub-machine] gun. The first few moments were more or less like an exercise—we had practised it so much—until the firing started to come. The enemy fire was mostly rifle and machine-guns. We were caught in a bit of a cross fire. When we got to the seawall, it was a matter of crossing the wall and then getting the troops to spread out. The enemy fire continued for only about an hour because our troops were very, very fast over the wall and we started to spread along the roads and into the fields.

I remained next to the seawall. I saw quite a few soldiers who had been hit. I saw the padre administering the last sacraments right on the beach between 7:30 and 8:00 in the morning. I imagine the higher command had made some estimates [about casualties], but as far as we were concerned we didn’t expect or have any idea of the number we would lose. I remember that afternoon walking along the beach and there must have been about 50 wounded at the foot of the wall in our little section.

I was on the beach for part of the day and then I moved out to battalion headquarters to speak to the colonel. He was worrying about the steeple of the church in St-Aubin and whether or not there were snipers in there. It seemed that the enemy could detect all movement of the troops. But the colonel was wrong. I went back along the street and the people were already beginning to clean things up. I asked for the parish priest. We went to the church together. There was no enemy there and no observation post.

I have no regrets. We had a job to do and we did it the best we could. As a matter of fact, I shouldn’t have been there at all. When I first tried to enlist, they told me I was too small.

'I guess I needed a little excitement’

Raymond Daoust was a 23-year-old radio operator aboard a landing craft infantry (LCD. During a two-week period starting on D-Day, he made 11 round trips across the English Channel, transporting troops to Normandy.

Daoust now lives in his home town ofWilliamstown, Ont., near Cornwall, after working for Northern Telecom in Montreal for 38 years.

There were three LCI flotillas based in Southampton, with 10 craft per flotilla. To get into the flotilla, you had to volunteer. I guess I needed a little excitement. I was in charge of radio communications for the commander of the 260th flotilla, and I went with him on whichever craft he was on. The LCI crews spent one year on manoeuvres, preparing for the DDay landings.

Finally, word came through that we were to land at St-Aubin-sur-mer. According to the plans, the Germans were supposed to have an eightor

16-inch gun there. Our soldiers were supposed to capture that gun. We left the evening of June 5 about 7 p.m. There were two LCAs [landing craft artillery] about 100 feet ahead of us. When we got near the coast of France, the battleships were firing inland. You could smell the gunpowder. The sky was just lit. I didn’t see much aircraft in the air. I only saw one German airplane.

About 100 feet offshore, we rammed into a sand bar. Two ramps then had to be lowered, and a rope taken to shore to get the soldiers through the deep water. Each soldier had a really big pack, including a little folding bicycle, and we had learned in manoeuvres that they would sink under all that weight. But they could hold the rope and follow it into shore.

Although the LCIs were equipped with guns, they were at first not returning the German fire. Finally, one of the soldiers shouted to his commanding officer: “Nobody gave us the order to fire, sir!” They got their order.

'That bullet was meant for me instead of him’

Now 72 and living in New Westminster, B.C., Mervin Wolfe joined the Canadian Army at age 19 in his home town of Brandon, Man. Wolfe was a forward operating observer with the 19th Army Field Regiment, an artillery unit:

I had to transfer from one landing craft to another out in the Channel because ours became disabled. There were three of us, myself, an officer and another guy, and we came in with a British commando unit. We landed just at the edge of Juno beach, at St-Aubin-sur-mer. It was just after daybreak.

There were snipers firing at us from this big, old house right at the edge of the beach. There must have been half a dozen guys dead on the beach when I went in. As I ran up the beach, I was loaded up pretty heavily with my packsack, wireless set, a Sten gun, six rounds of ammunition and six hand grenades. One of the British commandos was running faster than me, probably because I was weighed down. He crossed in front of me and the moment he did he got hit. He went down and I tripped over him. I always said that bullet was meant for me instead of him.

I got up to the seawall and set up my equipment and made contact with my regiment. I was told to stay there. We were to direct the artillery fire if we met strong resistance from German troops or guns. But they were so close to us that if we had called for artillery fire, it would have come down practically on top of us. Within an hour or two, our guys had cleared out the snipers on our section of the beach and we were pretty well free to move around.

There was all kinds of stuff going on. The vehicles started coming in,

then the tanks and guns. Our soldiers were bringing in prisoners. It was hectic, a real old-fashioned traffic jam. About 2 o’clock in the afternoon, I was reunited with my regiment. We only got a couple of hundred yards inland the first day, then they counterattacked. It was pretty hot around there for a few days.

I spent the day lying between two dead men'

Retired postal worker Gustave Goulet, 71, ofBeauport, Que., a suburb of Quebec City, joined Le Régiment de la Chaudière in September, 1939, at age 17. A decorated veteran, who remains “very, very proud’’ of his military service, Goulet remembers D-Day well:

We were part of the 8th Infantry Brigade with the Queen’s Own Rifles and the North Shore (N.B.) Regiment. The Queen’s Own landed first at Bemières-sur-mer just after sunrise and we went in second to reinforce them. Just before we hit the shore, the chaplain who had accompanied us gave us all a blessing. The landing craft to the left of us hit a land mine or got hit by an artillery shell. I saw a man decapitated. His head was in the air for a second and the rest of his body had been mutilated by shrapnel. Others were wounded and were screaming and pleading for help.

By the time we got ashore, the Queen’s Own had already reached a church in the town. But they had lost a lot of lives and we lost a lot of men, too. We had to clear German pillboxes and bunkers with flamethrowers and grenades. There were Allied fighters flying over all day and the Germans shelled us with artillery. That night, the Germans launched a counterattack with tanks while we tried to sleep in our trenches.

I was wounded around 8:30 a.m. on July 18 near Caen. A sniper hit me in the right shoulder and the bullet travelled all the way to my spine. I spent the rest of the day lying on the ground between two dead men. Some time during the day, somebody gave me some Carnation milk mixed with hot water. They finally put me in a jeep around 9:30 or 10:00 that night and took me out. I woke up in a hospital the next morning in London. I spent three months recovering and rejoined the regiment in Belgium in the fall.

'When we hit the beach, there was no opening7

On D-Day, Michel Gauvin of Quebec City commanded a Bren gun carrier platoon with Le Régiment de la Chaudière. Now 75 years old and living in Ottawa,

Gauvin continued to serve Canada in a distinguished postwar diplomatic career. A former ambassador to half a dozen countries, including China, Gauvin is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

We left England in darkness. There was a little rain, and the sea wasn’t bad at this point. The air force put down a smoke screen, so that when the morning came it was just as if there was a heavy fog. Suddenly, we could see buildings outlined in the distance, including a church. That’s when we realized it was a smoke screen we had gone through and not fog.

When we hit the beach at Bernières-sur-mer, a concrete defending wall hadn’t been blown up yet; there was no opening. I was preoccupied with the water coming up closer and closer. If we didn’t get past the wall soon, the vehicles would drown because they were not fit to remain in sea water for long. It took about 45 minutes before engineers made an opening in the wall sufficient for us to go through.

The Chaudière was to go inland because we spoke

French and it would make it easier for us to get information from the local people. We went forward until we were three or four kilometres inland. A Frenchman told us that the Germans were not in the way between where we were and our ultimate objective. So we jumped on our vehicles and made a dash for our objective, which we reached without the need of further fighting.

We settled for the night, but at about midnight, a column of panzer division half-tracks came through. After a moment of hesitation, they realized they were behind our lines and we realized they were not our friends, so our antitank guns engaged the half-tracks. The Germans could not turn around because it was a narrow road. Being good soldiers, they disembarked quickly and attacked our two antitank guns. They neutralized one of our companies of approximately 100 men and wiped out the two antitank guns. I think we hit 17 of their vehicles. When daylight came, we found all the wounded and the bodies of those killed, and the vehicles in flame. This was my baptism of fire.

1 didn’t have any fear’

Kelvin Mactier, now 73, a retired electrician living in Winnipeg, grew up on a farm near the ManitobaSaskatchewan border. He enlisted with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles in 1940, and was among the first Canadians to land in Normandy on D-Day:

We landed around 7 or 7:30 in the morning near Courseulles-sur-mer. There was all kinds of gunfire coming towards us and everyone was shooting as they were running. I only got in about 20 or 30 feet when I got hit on the left side of the face by a bullet. There must have been a sniper in a church steeple to the left of us.

It was just like getting hit on the head with a sledgehammer. It knocked me right down and I did a couple of somersaults. The bullet knocked out four teeth, went through my tongue and broke my jaw. I lay on the beach all day and kept passing out and coming to. What I remember most was men running by me the rest of the day. A lot of troops came in behind us. I didn’t have any fear of the Canadian Army being overrun or that we were going to lose. I knew we were in and that was it.

Late in the afternoon, some medical personnel came along and said they were going to set up a tent hospital, but I didn’t think that was going to happen. Somewhere around 7 or 8 o’clock I was still lying there when someone with a loudspeaker announced that a ship would take the walking wounded back to England. I crawled out to a landing craft on my hands and knees and a couple of sailors helped me up a staircase once we reached the ship.

I had trouble breathing that night because my blood had congealed and my tongue was so swollen. We reached England the next morning, and I was sent to a hospital in Basingstoke that specialized in plastic surgery. I fully recovered and was back with my regiment by September. I stayed right through to VE Day. □