Letter from France #4 – The Canadians

LCA (Landing Craft Assault) containing Winnipe...

LCA (Landing Craft Assault) containing Winnipeg Rifles head for the Normandy Juno beach – June 6, 1944. Most are wearing Mk III helmets. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s difficult to know where to begin. My head is full and my heart is heavy.

Today’s travels in France took a serious turn. I will hold our driving adventures for another time. Today we visited the D-Day landing beaches.

***

I have been to Normandy before. It’s hard to believe it was more than twenty years ago when my sister and I made the trip. Back then, there was almost nothing at Juno Beach, the 8 kilometres of beach where thousands of young Canadians landed on June 6, 1944 to battle their way through France into Germany. They were a major contributor to Operation Overlord which led to the end of World War II in Europe. In order to visit the spot where Canadian troops landed, my sister talked a guide into dropping off a group of American tourists who had been to the American cemetery near Omaha Beach (we were with them) and driving the two of us to Juno. We had to promise not to tell about this unauthorized trip. It wasn’t surprising it was not part of the tourist agenda. All that existed at Juno then was a single monument. In the early ’90’s, a former D-Day soldier  decided that Canadians deserved better. Garth Webb raised enough money to build a small museum in Courseulles-sur-Mer on the edge of Juno. Ten years later the Centre Juno Beach opened. As we walk towards it in this pleasant seaside town, seagulls soaring overhead, a few families playing in the water, I am hit with the first waves of emotion. I don’t know where they are coming from but they are difficult to control.

***

The tour inside the Centre begins with a short film projected on three walls. We stand in the middle with low walls on either side to symbolize the D-Day landing craft. We are quickly surrounded with the sights and sounds, the waves crashing, the thunder of artillery. We land with the soldiers, run up the beach while all around us, men are falling. Explosions send bodies into the air. It’s difficult to comprehend. It’s an emotional assault. The film ends, the lights come up, the sound fades, the doors of the landing craft open and we enter the museum. I realize I have been holding my breath. We follow Canada’s history of the early 20th century leading up to the entry into the war and through it. There are artefacts, film clips, hand-written ,letters home. It’s the letters that make it real for me. So many fought, so many lost. So young.

***

As I move through the exhibits, I carry the image of my father and my uncle with me. My mother has a photo of them, smooth-faced, smiling, proud in their military uniforms. My dad had just got his wings. Every year on Remembrance Day, my mother places a poppy on the photo frame. One of the exhibits focuses on the training camps of Canada’s aircraft personnel… it hits home. My dad was lucky. He was waiting to be called up when the war ended. He was disappointed back then. I am grateful.

***

English: Canadian Part of Juno Beach and (back...

English: Canadian Part of Juno Beach and (background) Juno Beach Centre, Courseulles-sur-Mer, France. Deutsch: Kanadischer Teil des Juno Beach und im Hintergrund das Juno Beach Centre (Museum der kanadischen Juno Beach Centre Association), Courseulles-sur-Mer, Frankreich. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We tour the beach with a young francophone guide from New Brunswick. She is full of energy and enthusiasm as she explains the German bunkers, the underground tunnels, the statistics, the strategy. She knows her stuff and yet…. and yet it seems unseemly.

***

We leave Juno and continue along the Normandy coast to Omaha Beach and the American cemetery. I was prepared for the many rows of white crosses. More than 9000 graves. But as we come around the corner and I catch my first glimpse, the emotional punch comes again. There are a lot of visitors, despite this being low season for tourists in France. And yet it’s quiet. Here and there throughout the field of markers, people stand in front of crosses to pay their respects. Many have roses laid on the ground in front of them. There are too many that are unidentified, their names “known only to God”. Dan whispers to me, “There aren’t enough roses. There aren’t enough roses.”

***

For the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day, I wrote and produced a radio documentary called, “The Canadians: Remembering Normandy”, tracking the role of Canadian troops through the 24 hours of June 6, 1944. The veterans of that day who shared their stories with me – their memories still sharp, their emotions hovering on the edge – are gone now. Today I remembered them. They walk with us still.

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About saxbergonstuff

I'm a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a daughter, an auntie. When I'm not focusing on that, I'm an educator, facilitator and content designer. When I feel like it.
Gallery | This entry was posted in Life and Family Stories, Miscellany, Peace & Conflict, Travel and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Letter from France #4 – The Canadians

  1. davidhawkins says:

    Roses red, crosses white – your voice and Dan’s ringing in my mind’s ear from that timeless setting on a far shore – moves me to tears, my friends.

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