D-Day 75th, Lest we forget

On the beaches in Normandy, France, you can see children and dogs playing in the ocean and families soaking up the sun. Juno Beach is an eight-kilometre strip of summer resorts and villages scattered over flat land behind low beaches and a sea wall. This area is a popular place to visit for a quiet vacation by the sea. But it was a different scene 75 years ago. June 6th, 1944 on Juno Beach, hundreds of young Canadian men bravely fought to help the people of France who were being oppressed by another country.

I try to imagine what it must have been like, what horrors they must have faced. But I can’t. What happened on Juno Beach 75 years ago is almost unimaginable, even though in a few short years we will have no choice but to imagine it.

It is important to remember for all too soon there will be no more witnesses.

Of the nearly 150,000 Allied troops who landed or parachuted into the invasion area, 14,000 were Canadians. The assault beaches were code named, from west to east: Utah (U.S.); Omaha (U.S.); Gold (Britain); Juno (Canada); Sword (Britain). Juno Beach was the second deadliest of the five beaches the Allies would invade that morning. Only the Americans, on Omaha Beach, would pay a higher price.

During the 2-plus months of the Normandy campaign (June 6-Aug. 21) Germans would lose 450,000 soldiers, Allies 210,000 and of those Canadian casualties would total more than 18,000, including more than 5,000 dead.

All those that fought for freedom in Normandy were heroes; the following is a brief account of one of the valiant Paladins.

Major David Currie, from Saskatchewan, was in command of a small mixed force of tanks, self-propelled anti-tank guns, and infantry which had been ordered to cut off one of the Germans’ main escape routes.

After Currie led the attack on the village of St. Lambert-sur-Dives and consolidated a position halfway inside it, his force repulsed repeated enemy attacks over the next day and a half. Despite heavy casualties, Major Currie’s small force destroyed seven enemy tanks, twelve 88 mm guns, and 40 vehicles, which led to the deaths of 300 German soldiers, 500 wounded, and 2,100 captured. The remnants of two German armies were denied an escape route.

For his bravery, he received the Victoria Cross medal (also known as the VC), which is the highest award for bravery in the face of the enemy he could earn! He was the only Canadian awarded the VC during the brutal fighting in Normandy during the summer of 1944.

His medal, along with other medals that he received, is now on display in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, our nation’s capital.

Did you know that animals also served on Juno Beach? Before the days of smart phones and tweets, pigeons actually delivered messages. Soldiers would place important messages inside tiny containers attached to the pigeons’ legs and the pigeons would fly away and deliver the messages.

The first news of the soldiers landing successfully at Juno Beach was carried by Gustav, a homing pigeon with the Royal Armed Forces. He flew nearly 250 kilometers from the beach in France, right across the English Channel in 5 hours and 16 minutes to his loft at the soldiers’ headquarters!

Dogs were trained as “paradogs” to jump out of airplanes and parachute onto the beach to help the soldiers.

One such canine named Bing, a paradog trained to conduct a variety of missions, such as serving as the eyes and ears for those on the ground, sniffing out enemy positions, and locating mines, also served at Juno Beach on D-Day. Bing was one of the first dogs to be dropped behind enemy lines and from the moment the two-year-old Alsatian-collie cross put his paws on Normandy soil (albeit after a tangle with a tree) he was ready for action.

Anywhere there was trouble, even after he was wounded by mortar fire, he was there to sniff it out and when something didn’t seem quite right, he would freeze and point towards the danger with his nose. During rest breaks, he kept watch over sleeping British troops; on the move, he pioneered the advance through potential danger zones.

His fearless excursions through perilous terrain and behind enemy lines were credited with saving hundreds of servicemen from ambush, later earning him the PDSA’s Dickin Medal, the animal equivalent of the Victoria Cross.

Let us remember all of the courageous men, women and animals of the military willing to make the ultimate sacrifice so that we might live in freedom and peace.