We Shall Never Forget!

As I’ve mentioned in my first Remembrance Day post, November 11th is an important day to observe as it marks the anniversary of the official ending of World War I. That war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month thus explaining why Remembrance day is November 11th.  When in France recently, my wife and I visited the Normandy D-Day beaches. In case you don’t know the significance of those beaches, here is a history lesson.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, “Operation Overlord”, the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe started at 06:30. The target was an 80 kilometre (50-mile) stretch of the Normandy coast, which was divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beach. The Utah and Omaha sectors would be assaulted by the American Army, Gold and Sword beaches by the British troops and Juno beach by the Canadians. We visited the British, Canadian and American beaches. The success of Operation Overlord was a turning point in World War II and led to the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany.

IMG_3091In regards to the Canadian mission, fourteen thousand young Canadians stormed Juno Beach on D-Day. The landings initially encountered heavy resistance from the German Division as well as Canadian soldiers faced mined beach obstacles. They also discovered upon their landing on the beach that the preliminary bombardment proved less effective than had been hoped, and rough weather forced the first wave to be delayed until 07:35. The Canadians took heavy casualties in the opening minutes of the first wave. Since they had strength of numbers, as well as fire support from artillery and armoured squadrons, the Canadian forces cleared most of the coastal defenses within two hours of landing.

IMG_3155The fighting they endured was fierce and frightening. The price the Canadians paid was high. The battles to take control of the beachhead cost 340 lives and another 574 wounded. John Keegan, distinguished British historian who wrote Six Armies in Normandy, stated the following concerning the Canadian 3rd Division on D-Day: “The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha. That was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride.”

It was very surreal to stand on Juno beach, knowing what happened on that beach 71 years ago. I knelt on the sand, ran the sand through my fingers as I thought about the D-Day invasion and what our troops endured that day. I toured the Nazi bunkers that are still there and envisioned how the Nazis would have operated. One of the most emotional moments at Juno Beach was during the video the museum showed at the end; a video titled, “They walk with us”.  It consisted of newsreel footage of the D-Day assault and ends with a father and mother walking down present day Juno beach discussing what happened there with their two children. I’ll say no more other than it affected both my wife and I deeply.

My wife and I also visited Pointe du Hoc located in between the two American beaches of Utah and Omaha. To understand the significance of this place, here is a history lesson.

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Pointe du Hoc lies 6.4 kilometres (4 miles) west of the center of Omaha Beach. As part of the Atlantic Wall fortifications, the prominent cliff top location was the most fortified part of the beaches by the Germans.

The American assault force was carried in ten landing craft with another two carrying supplies. One landing craft carrying troops sank and all but one of its occupants drowned, another was swamped. One supply craft sank and the other put the stores overboard to stay afloat. Once within  1.6 kilometres (a mile) of the shore, German mortars and machine guns fired on the craft. These initial setbacks resulted in a 40-minute delay in landing at the base of the cliffs, but British landing craft carrying the Rangers finally reached the base of the cliffs at 7:10 am with approximately half the force it started out with. The landing craft were fitted with rocket launchers to fire grapnels (a device with hooks) so ladders and ropes could be attached to the cliffs. The cliffs proved to be higher than the ladders could reach. As the Rangers (a U.S. WWII soldier specially trained for making surprise raids and attacks in small groups) scaled the cliffs, the Allied destroyers provided them with fire support and ensured that the German defenders above could not fire down on the assaulting troops.

IMG_3298The Rangers successfully scaled the 30 metre (100 foot) cliff only to find that their radios were ineffective. Those Rangers that reached the fortifications learned for the first time that the main objective of the assault, the artillery battery, had been removed. The Rangers regrouped at the top of the cliffs, and a small patrol went off in search of the guns. Two different patrols found five of the six guns nearby (the sixth was being fixed elsewhere) and destroyed their firing mechanisms. At the end of the two-day action, the initial Ranger landing force of over 225 was reduced to about 90 fighting men.

As it was in Juno beach, it was very surreal to be there, knowing what happened on that point 71 years ago. There are still some bunkers intact but the most noticeable markings of the event were the numerous craters caused by the air and naval bombardments. Some of the bunkers were in pieces. Some of the circular gun pits, which housed the 155mm guns, are still there. As we walked about the site I tried to envision what the American Rangers had to endure to succeed at their mission.

2015-10-08 17.16.25We also made a brief stop at Arromanches, located on the British Gold beach, where one of the two portable temporary Mulberry harbours is located that were built and operational within three days of the invasion. Mulberry A was for the Americans at Omaha Beach and Mulberry B was serving the British and Canadians at Arromanches. A heavy storm destroyed the American harbor on June 19, but Mulberry B remained in use for eight months. Block ships were sunk off the Normandy coast to create protection from the open sea. These ships are still there and my wife and I marveled at the ingenuity of the Allied planners. In the first 100 days following D-Day, the harbor landed over 2.5 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of supplies for the Battle of Normandy; successfully contributing to the liberation of Europe and the defeat of Nazi Germany.

2015-10-08 16.16.41We also visited two of WWII cemeteries; the Canadian cemetery and the German cemetery. Again we were in admiration at how well-kept these cemeteries were, regardless of nationality. We were also saddened when looking at the various head stones when we learned many, many of these soldiers who died ranged between ages of 17 to 23. It was especially heart retching for my wife and I since our son is presently aged 21. Another very stirring moment for us was when we read the sign at the entrance of the German cemetery. The sign read, “Until 1947, this was an American cemetery. The remains were exhumed and shipped to the United States. It has been German since 1948, and contains over 21 000 graves. With its melancholy rigour, it is a graveyard for soldiers not all who had chosen either the cause or the fight. They too have found rest in our soil of France.” As I’ve stated IMG_3333before, this speaks of the nature of the French nation. They have a great respect for the dignity of all fallen soldiers. The French value and honor all soldiers, no matter what side of the war they fought for.

As we did for the WWI soldiers, my wife and I now have a whole new appreciation for the WWII soldiers and the sacrifice they made to liberate France and other European countries from Nazi oppression. I will attend the Remembrance Day ceremonies this year with much more gratitude and appreciation of all soldiers, especially knowing what the soldiers of WWII had to sacrifice to  achieve their assigned goals.

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Author: Sommer season all year

I am a retired school teacher. I taught high school for 35 years.