Cover

‘KEEP FIRING OUR GUNS'

Canada’s navy played a vital role in making the invasion a success

NATHAN GREENFIELD June 7 2004
Cover

‘KEEP FIRING OUR GUNS'

Canada’s navy played a vital role in making the invasion a success

NATHAN GREENFIELD June 7 2004

‘KEEP FIRING OUR GUNS'

Canada’s navy played a vital role in making the invasion a success

NATHAN GREENFIELD

LATE IN THE afternoon of June 5, 1944, Able Seaman Andy Irwin, 19, joined his HMCS Algonquin destroyer shipmates on deck to hear the news from their captain, Lt.Cmdr. Desmond “Debby” Piers. Just a few hours earlier, Algonquin and hundreds of other vessels had left scores of English ports. “Debby came down from the bridge, hopped up on the torpedo tubes and told us that the following day was D-Day, the invasion of Normandy,” remembers Irwin, now living in Mississauga, Ont. Piers’s mission was to lead 10 other destroyers, two troop ships and more than a score of infantry and tank landing craft to the edge of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall. The captain ended his dramatic announcement with a Nelsonian flourish: “If our ship gets hit near the shore, we will run the ship right up on the beach and keep firing our guns until the last shell is gone.”

Irwin remembers the sky being ‘obliterated by a huge mass of bombers’

Irwin and Piers are among the more than 100,000 sailors who participated in the largest and most successful naval operation in history. The D-Day armada across the English Channel consisted of nearly 7,000 ships, including 109 Royal Canadian Navy vessels manned by 10,000 sailors. All told, the invasion fleet carried 130,000 Allied troops along with hundreds of tanks and artillery pieces to the Normandy beaches through lanes swept clear of mines—mostly by Canadian minesweepers.

By 6:30 a.m., when Algonquin reached its position seven kilometers offshore, its crew was enveloped by the sound of the bombardment. “The noise was tremendous,” recalls Irwin. “And the sky was obliterated by a huge mass of bombers blasting shore positions.” Algonquin joined the shelling, opening fire on a pair of 75-mm guns between two houses not far from the shore. “Soon, we were too busy to see the explosions,” recalls Irwin. “Our fire destroyed their guns and then we turned our sights to nearby houses that could have contained snipers.”

After the guns turned silent before the landing, Irwin and his mates, now just a kilometre from Juno Beach, had a clear view of the unfolding invasion. Among the first in was HMCS Landing Craft Infantry (Large)262, commanded by the navy’s Lieut. Peter Hinton, carrying some 190 members of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. “The waters were still strewn with mines, but we were lucky,” recalls Hinton, now 83 and living in Victoria. “We ran straight in at 12 knots, dropped our ramps and the Highlanders hit the beach and made their way unopposed.”

From Algonquin’s bridge, Piers watched as the landing craft disgorged platoon after platoon and the bulldozer-equipped tanks raced the incoming tide to clear the shore of defensive obstacles. “Incessant fire,” reads his war diary entry for June 6. Algonquin and its crew were untouched, but towards 9 p.m. death visited the destroyer when a beach craft with wounded British Royal Marine Commandos came alongside.“There were six, or rather five, as one died as soon as he hit the deck. A mortar had landed right in their landing craft just as it hit the beach.”

For the RCN, June 6 went even better than the admirals expected. At the cost of only seven wounded, Canada’s naval contingent had “screened” the invasion force from U-boat attack, swept several channels and launched 47 landing craft carrying thousands of infantry. It also silenced guns that could have stymied the 3rd Canadian Division’s advance—which by nightfall, says historian John Keegan, “stood deeper into France than those of any other [Allied] division.” Piers, now a 90-year-old retired rear admiral living in Chester, N.S., has a simple explanation for the historic day’s success: “We were superbly trained and knew the job we had to do.” A day of heroes, both land and sea.