The Landings in Normandy

Large infantry landing craft off the stern of HMCS Prince David, D-Day.

Large infantry landing craft off the stern of HMCS Prince David, D-Day.

On June 6, 1944, now known to history as D-Day, Operation Overlord, the long-awaited invasion of Northwest Europe, began with Allied landings on the coast of Normandy. The task was formidable for the Germans had turned the coastline into a continuous fortress with guns, pillboxes, wire, mines and beach obstacles—and on it depended the outcome of the war.

In preparation for the invasion, Americans, British and Canadians underwent months of special training: supplies were amassed in southern England; engineers planned an under-water pipeline to France; and prefabricated harbours were assembled. Ground, sea and air forces rehearsed endlessly to ensure perfect timing and co-operation.

Following an all-night bombardment of the assault areas, the Allies attacked "Fortress Europe" on a five-division front, and troops from three airborne divisions descended by parachute and glider on the flanks of the invasion area. All three Canadian services shared in the assault. One of the seaborne formations was the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, supported by the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and troops attached from other arms and services of the Canadian Army. Forming part of the British 6th Airborne Division, which dropped on the eastern flank of the bridgehead was the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. The crossing of the English Channel was made through lanes that minesweepers of the Royal Canadian Navy helped to clear; Canadian naval guns joined in hammering the enemy's beach defences; and some of the 3rd Division's units were carried in Canadian landing ships and put ashore by Canadian assault landing craft. In the skies the Royal Canadian Air Force made its important contribution as bombers attacked German batteries, and Canadian fighter squadrons assailed targets further inland.

Two armies carried out the operation. On the right, or western half, extending from the base of the Cotentin Peninsula to a point northwest of Bayeux, the First United States Army attacked on the beaches "Utah" and "Omaha." On the left, in a sector reaching eastward to the mouth of the River Orne, the Second British Army assaulted the beaches of "Gold", "Juno" and "Sword."

The Canadians, under Major-General R.F.L, Keller, were responsible for Juno in the centre of the British front. Their task was to establish a beachhead along the five miles between Courseulles and St-Aubin-sur-Mer, then push through the gap between Bayeux and Caen, and penetrate to Carpiquet airfield some eleven miles inland. It was hoped that by nightfall the two British divisions to their left and right would have taken Caen and Bayeux and the Canadians would be astride the road and railway linking the two towns.

Delayed by bad weather and rough seas the men of the 7th Brigade stormed ashore in the face of fierce opposition from enemy strongholds which had survived the bombardment, and from mined beach obstacles hidden by the rising tide. Casualties were high and the fighting intense as they captured Courseulles-sur-Mer and the inland villages of Ste-Croix-sur-Mer and Banville. By evening the brigade was consolidated on its intermediate objective near Creully.

On the 8th Brigade front, the assault engineers arrived in good time and were able to engage the enemy strongpoints. The beachhead objective was taken, and the Canadians moved inland to seize Bernières. Beyond Bernières progress was slower and Bény-sur-Mer on the main road to Caen was not taken until later.

The 9th Brigade units landed shortly before noon, and moved from Bernières through Bény to the vicinity of Villons-les-Buissons, less than four miles from Caen. Here machine-gun fire held up the advance and they halted just short of Carpiquet airfield, the final divisional objective.

By the end of the day the 3rd Canadian Division was well established on its intermediate objectives, though short of the planned final D-day objectives. On either flank, Allied progress had been similar. The 3rd British Division was within three miles of Caen, and on the right the 50th Division was only two miles from Bayeux. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had dropped with the 6th Airborne Division on the left flank of the bridgehead. Although badly scattered and suffering severe losses, the Canadian red berets destroyed their assigned targets and caused havoc behind the lines. In the American zone, the assault forces at Omaha beach had met fierce resistance, but here, too, beachheads had been established.

It was a magnificent accomplishment, the strong Atlantic Wall had been breached, and supplies and men were pouring ashore to resume the advance on D-Day-plus-one. The Allies were back in Europe.

Approximately 14,000 Canadians landed in Normandy on D-Day. Inevitably the cost was considerable, but not nearly as high as had been feared. The Canadian assault force suffered 1,074 casualties, of which 359 were fatal.

Ahead lay more fighting—very bitter fighting in which Canadian forces would play their full part. The day of victory in Europe was still 11 months away.

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