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At the going down of the sun, Part II.

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In October 2008 (Volume 15 Issue 9), I recounted a tour of World War One battlefield sites and the evocative power they had on me and on my fellow travellers--battlefield tours being pilgrimages in their own right. On this 65th anniversary of the Canadian army's historic march from Normandy to Belgium, Holland and the Rhineland, I recall another such pilgrimage and offer a brief glimpse of the sacred memorials we visited which bear solemn witness to the great sacrifice of our soldiers, sailors and airmen in World War II.

Day One: There are a number of tour entry points to the D-Day landing sites in Normandy. Our group of six military history buffs chose Charles de Gaulle airport outside Paris. Within only a few hours of arrival we were visiting Robehomme Bridge on the east flank of the battlefield, where B Company, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion saw action in the very early hours of D-Day by blowing this bridge up, thus helping to secure the beaches for the assault troops to follow.

Next stop was the Pegasus Bridge (not a Canadian action but still not a site to be missed) and the adjacent Airborne Museum (Memorial Pegasus), which is highly recommended. Opened in June 2000, the museum tells the story of the 6th (Airborne) Division's operation on June 6, 1944. Inside are many artefacts, uniforms, weapons and vehicles connected with the fighting, as well as an excellent film show. The highlight of the visit is being able to walk across the original Pegasus Bridge, which is preserved on the grounds of the museum.

From there we travelled to Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer, where the North Shore Regiment (New Brunswick) led the initial assault on the left flank of Juno Beach along with 48 Royal Marine Commando. Next we visited the placid beaches of Bernieres-sur-Mer, observed the still menacing-looking "Tobruk" gun emplacement, and paused to pay tribute at the historic Maison du Queen's Own Rifles of Canada. Our itinerary then took us to Courseulles-sur-Mer (where the Regina Rifle Regiment and Royal Winnipeg Rifles landed), followed by a visit to the adjacent and very popular Juno Beach Centre. Here, tourists from around the world now get a glimpse of all of Canada's efforts in World War II, not just the Normandy landings, and it is a fitting overview indeed.

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Our tour then continued with a short visit to Gold Beach at Arromanches to see the remains of the Mulberry harbours, then back along the coast to where the Canadian Scottish Regiment came ashore. We then headed south about six kilometers to the Canadian War Cemetery near Beny-sur-Mer. Today, just 65 years after the battle was joined, in a simple but magnificent and solemn setting are the well-tended graves of over 2,000 Canadians, mostly soldiers from the 3rd Canadian Division who died on D-Day. One cannot help but be deeply moved by such a sight. To think that each of these young lads gave us his all, so that we could enjoy the freedoms we have today, is brought to harsh reality when one stands amidst this field of weathered headstones.

Some 10 kilometres south, on the outskirts of Caen, is Authie. Here and in the surrounding countryside during the days ira mediately following D-Day, Canadians attempted to expand the bridgehead and fought some very fierce battles against elements of the 12th SS Panzer Division and, in particular, Colonel Kurt Mever's 25th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment. Just a kilometre and a half to the east is the Abbaye d'Ardenne, where members of the 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitler Youth) murdered 20 Canadian prisoners. Today, in a tranquil garden, large poster photos of the slain Canadian soldiers line the outside walls of the abbey, mute testament to the violence and the horrors of war.

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In the evening we were joined at dinner by Doctor Jean-Pierre Benamou, president of the D-Day Academy in Normandy and an ardent supporter of all efforts to preserve the memories of those brave men who liberated his country. For his extraordinary efforts in this regard he is the recipient of both the Canadian Meritorious Service Medal and the Order of the British Empire. Not surprisingly, he knows more about Canadian soldiers and airmen in World War II than most Canadians.

On Day Two we visited Verrieres Ridge south of Caen, scene of another epic struggle. At "Point 67" the Canadian Battlefields Foundation has built a welcome viewing area on the belvedere overlooking the Orne River valley. Here, in addition to spectacular panoramic views of the battlefield, visitors will also find memorials to both the Black Watch and the Toronto Scottish Regiments and to the Regiment de Maisonneuve. Later, in Verrieres itself, we visited a chapel and memorial that honour the sacrifice of the soldiers who liberated this village: the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. Tending the grounds on this day was Guy Lefevre, who at 77 years of age, still vividly recalled the generosity of his Canadian liberators.

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Theirs was a bitter struggle though, and our next stop at the Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery near Cintheaux graphically reminded us again of the high cost in human lives. Here, in Canada's largest World War II cemetery, are nearly 3,000 graves including that of Major Philip Griffin, acting commanding officer (CO) of the Black Watch Regiment, who was killed in action on July 25, 1944, and Lieutenant-Colonel D.G. Worthington, CO of the British Columbia Regiment (BCR), killed in action on the 9th of August, along with many comrades from the Algonquin Regiment. Poignantly, right beside him lies his brother, Major J.R. Worthington, who fell in action only nine days later. Later we walked to an unmarked field only a half kilometre to the north where the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment helped stop a counterattack by German Panzers and where, in that obscure action, they also claim to have killed the famed German tank ace Major Michael Wittmann.

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Collecting our thoughts a bit, we then moved on to the Polish Military Cemetery near Bretteville-le-Rebet, final resting place for some 650 soldiers of the 1st Polish Armoured Division--a major contributor to the success of II Canadian Corps in Normandy. It is less than two kilometres northeast of here, at Point 140, where Worthington's Task Force of BCR tanks and Algonquin infantry were annihilated by a superior force of German Panther and Tiger tanks. In the adjacent woods there remain large pieces of one-inch thick armour--grim evidence of this fierce one-day struggle that saw Canada lose 47 Sherman tanks and 240 men. Fortunately the courage and sacrifice of these brave men is not forgotten. Visitors may pay their respects at a small but moving memorial just to the north of Point 140. It is not to be missed. And about five kilometres to the southwest, another commemorative plaque honours the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. It tells a different story--one of hard-won success for this famed regiment at Point 195 (Worthington's original objective) in its first battle in Normandy.

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Next we visited Trun, 25 kilometres farther south, which was captured by the 4th Canadian Armoured Division and became its HQ for the closing of the Falaise Gap. Just southeast of here, at Saint-Lambert-sur-Dives, is where Major David Currie won his Victoria Cross--the only VC awarded to a member of the Canadian Armoured Corps in World War II. Again, visitors will benefit greatly from historical information found at the Canadian Battlefields Foundation belvedere just north of the village.

From here we travelled a short distance south to Chambois and the memorial that commemorates the meeting of Polish and American forces to symbolically close the Falaise Gap. This was followed by a worthwhile visit to the Polish memorial at Mount Ormel-Coudehard, where the Poles effectively cut off the remnants of the German VIIth Army, thus bringing to a close the Normandy campaign.

Returning to Caen that evening, we pulled in just as a group of 92 vets from British No. 3 Commando were checking into the hotel. They arrived in style--in London taxis. When asked how they found the channel crossing, one vet, with a glint in his eye, answered, "It was rough coming over, but it was a lot 'fokking' rougher the first time!" Indeed.

On Day Three we drove to Dieppe, which was liberated by the Canadian Army on September 1, 1944, and made our first stop at the Canadian cemetery. There we found the graves of 955 soldiers and airmen--707 of them Canadian, most of whom were killed during the infamous raid on August 19, 1942, arguably Canada's worst battlefield defeat of World War II and one that resulted in 3,367 casualties out of a force of some 5,000 men. Next, visiting the assault beaches, we all wondered aloud how any soldier made it off these fateful shores alive.

First at Puys, where the Royal Regiment of Canada and three platoons of the Black Watch were mistakenly landed in broad daylight, sheer cliffs overlook their small landing area, itself blocked by a 12-foot seawall that, on that tragic day, was completely covered by machine-gun nests. It takes little imagination to visualize the slaughter of over 200 Canadian soldiers that inevitably followed.

Second, at Pourville, less than three kilometres to the west, we visited Merritt Bridge, immortalized from that moment when the CO of the South Saskatchewan Regiment (SSR), Lieutenant-Colonel Cecil Merritt, VC rallied his troops to cross the bridge in the face of deadly German fire by shouting, "Come on over! There's nothing to worry about here." The bridge is still there today, virtually unchanged in appearance, and appropriately named after the soldier whose heroic actions have forever marked this simple crossing as a unique Canadian war memorial. We lingered for an extra few moments, contemplating the great courage of the SSR and of the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders who, on that day, would make the deepest penetration inland of any unit--five kilometres.

Last, we visited the infamous esplanade of Dieppe--Red Beach to the Essex Scottish Regiment and Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal (FMR), and White Beach to the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. Our visit occurred during a French holiday and thousands strolled the adjacent boardwalks, oblivious it seems to the sacred ground upon which they trod. Several memorials dot the shore here, principally for the RHLIs, the Essex Scottish, the FMR and the 14th Canadian Army Tanks (of the Calgary Regiment).

In our party was Jim Stanton, an ex-Canadian paratrooper and the son of Captain Austin G. Stanton (Calgary Tanks) who was captured at Dieppe after his Churchill tank was damaged and he and his mates had been left stranded near the beach. Jim had visited here with his father on the 25th anniversary of the raid. Now, over 40 years later, he shared with us a poignant memory.

Finally, we made a last stop at the newest Canadian memorial on Red Beach, a striking eight-foot black obelisk honouring the Essex Scottish Regiment. Every August 19th at precisely 1 p.m. local time, the hour when the raid formally ended, this unique monument and its maple leaf cutaway are aligned perfectly with the sun, thus allowing for a few brief moments the rays of the sun to pass through it and to illuminate a bronze maple leaf on the ground. On this beautiful spring day, we could only imagine such a splendid event and thought of the courageous men who fought and fell here.

STAY TUNED: The conclusion of the battlefield tour will appear in the next issue of Esprit de Corps.

text and photos by Colonel (ret'd) Patrick Dennis
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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES
Author:Dennis, Patrick
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Aug 1, 2009
Words:1942
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