Friday, June 7, 2024

D+29,220 - Normandy 80 years on

Another D-Day anniversary has come and gone, and some random thoughts in no particular order related to how those in my feed have chosen to mark the day(1):

Operation Code Names

For those interested in the actual historical usage of the operation codenames, these were;

  • Operation OVERLORD - the invasion of Northwest Europe, or more specifically, the first phase which was the clearing of Normandy and reaching the line of the Seine River. As is well known, the phase lines drafted in advance of the landings gave D+90 as a estimate of the time it would take to get there. Some histories have inaccurately reported this as being a deadline, which it wasn't. In the event, the Allies reached the Seine on 30 August 1944, or D+85, five days in advance of this estimate. As a bonus, they didn't have to launch a combat assault across the river, which they anticipated doing and in fact some formations and units actually rehearsed for in the UK. Among these was 2 Canadian Division, for example. The Calgary Highlanders reportedly remembered their storm boat training when they reached the Walcheren Causeway in October 1944, but the terrain there prohibited them from using them.
  • Operation NEPTUNE - the sea landings on the Normandy beaches
  • Operation CHICAGO - the airborne landings in the American sector, behind UTAH Beach.
  • Operation TONGA - the airborne landings in the British sector, east of the Orne River
  • Operation DEADSTICK - the coup de main landing on the bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal, and the securing of what became Pegasus Bridge
  • Operation FORTITUDE - the deception plan, involving fake signal traffic and fictitious units including an army group under General Patton. Canadian historian Marc Milner has highlighted the involvement of Canadian signallers in this plan, and expressed his hope that future researchers would dive deeper into this involvement.(2)
These are the main ones I can think of, which is apparently enough to not be able to keep straight, without adding the many others.

Largest Amphibious Operation

OVERLORD is the largest overall invasion in history in terms of air, sea and land forces. A number of commentators keep calling it the largest amphibious operation in history, but in terms of formations involved, the naval landings on Sicily in July 1943 were larger (not included here are the airborne forces which obviously arrived by parachute and glider):

Normandy 1944 - 
  • US 4th Infantry Division
  • US 1st Infantry Division
  • US 29th Infantry Division
  • British 50th Infantry Division
  • Canadian 3rd Infantry Division
  • British 3rd Infantry Division
  • supporting units of Rangers, Commandos and armoured/tank battalions/regiments

Sicily 1943 -

  • US 3rd Infantry Division
  • US 1st Infantry Division
  • US 45th Infantry Division
  • Canadian 1st Infantry Division
  • British 51st Infantry Division
  • British 50th Infantry Division
  • British 5th Infantry Division
  • supporting units of Commandos and armoured/tank battalions/regiments

Importance of D-Day to the Second World War - Three Calamities

In a piece by Bill Kaufmann in the Calgary newspapers on June 6, Dr. John Ferris of the University of Calgary (whom I had the privilege of studying under, however briefly, as an undergrad) rightly pointed out "(Normandy) is often seen as a war-winning campaign and that wasn't the case." Kaufmann continues "D-Day's significance (Ferris) said, lay in proving the mettle of western armies and their determination to sacrifice alongside their Soviet had longer-term implications related to an impending Cold War schism between those allies...."

There is no doubt much truth to this but if the argument is that Normandy had no military significance, that is probably as much of an exaggeration as saying it was war-winning.

Three cataclysms rocked the Germans in the summer of 1944. In late May the situation in Italy, which had been stalemated for six months, changed dramatically when the Allies busted through the Gustav Line, drove down the Liri Valley, broke the siege at Anzio and captured Rome on June 4th. It should have been a more impressive victory but 5th Army commander General Mark Clark chose the prestige target instead of cutting off the Germans, which regrouped near the Apennines and held out for another winter.  The landings in Normandy began a three month campaign which saw a million German casualties, while on June 22nd the Red Army launched Operation BAGRATION on the Eastern Front, an operation which saw the destruction of Germany's Army Group Centre, and a million more German casualties. 

The areas in tan indicate German withdrawals as a result of the three cataclysms in June 1944.

These three blows, in concert with each other, meant the Germans couldn't shuffle their best divisions from front to front as they had in the past since the pressure was on in three directions. If the campaign in Northwest Europe did not win the war on its own, one has to believe it did shorten it, or put another way, prevented the Germans from prolonging it even more.

Paying Tribute

A number of of the military hobbyists and hobby groups marked the day in various ways, usually via entertainment media (wargames, video games, movies, books). For Canadians, there are slim pickings particularly as far as films.  

  • The Longest Day - still holds up despite its age and aging special effects. And while most people still know who John Wayne is, the all-star cast including Eddie Albert, Robert Wagner, Fabian, Richard Burton, Sean Connery is less likely to impress a dwindling audience that have actually heard of all these people. From the Canadian perspective, JUNO Beach is seen as the target of a German strafing run, and that's it. And the camera overruns the set so it looks like there were beach defences on just half of it.
  • Storming Juno - I'm a big enough history snob to have seen the rusted out post-war tank used for principal photography and turned my nose up at it. I've not seen the whole thing. Some of the veteran interviews I've seen in clips on YouTube look well done.
  • The Valour and the Horror - suffice to say there are still lots of people angry about this one, because of the 1960s style journalism angle on what could have been a straight-forward documentary.  And the focus isn't on D-Day but the whole Normandy campaign. Piece d'resistance is the absurd reenactment of Verrières-Ridge by the 1990s era Black Watch in a Quebec meadow which is supposed to be a hillside wheatfield in Normandy.
Wargamers don't have much for pickings either. There are plenty of strategic and operational games, but my interest has always been at the tactical level (where individual units represent single men, sections, or platoons). Rest assured Advanced Squad Leader has rules for everything from opposed parachute landings and gliders to landing craft, but even without the cumbersome procedures for all these things, the game is most often a tedious slog through the rulebook. It's possible to find custom maps representing the actual landing areas, and then deploy entire battalions in their historical landing zones, but I'm not sure I would find it at all fun.

Combat Mission automates much of this stuff, being a 3-D computer game, but the developers have been averse to introducing engineering aspects - roadblocks, clearing mines, etc. - and completely steered clear of amphibious tanks, landing craft, beach obstacles, the actual German bunker types which proved do deadly on the day, etc. Close Combat was game to try though I don't recall Canadian representation. Medal of Honor had a decent enough recreation of the OMAHA landings (or perhaps, the movie version as it seemed to ape SPR more than real life) but again, no Canadian coverage, and first person shooters aren't really meant to be taken seriously.

Canadians trying to find a medium through which the events of the day of days can be vicariously experienced will have to settle for some of the good books by Ted Barris, Mark Zuehlke and others who have written extensively and captured the words of many veterans who survived the landings.

On the Ground

I was in uniform on Juno Beach on the 75th Anniversary, as part of the national contingent sent specifically for that commemoration. There was apparently an excellent multimedia display behind us, we saw none of it as we were formed up in ranks. The PM did a cursory inspection of the guard, but did not speak to us. The CDS of the day, however, came down to the beach just before we stepped on to parade. He handed out commemorative coins and glad handed the several dozen of us, shaking hands and telling us it was good to meet us. Some might have considered it a crassly political show, but I got the sense he was feeling the same things as us in the guard - the joy and unique experience of being a Canadian soldier on foreign soil, and in a place where the Army's reputation had been enhanced by the sacrifice and accomplishments of those that trod there under fire. The Governor-General had also talked to us before an earlier parade at a military cemetery, and seemed just as sincerely interested in what was happening, and meeting fellow pilgrims on the ground it all happened. The CDS and GG came under some harsh media attention in the months following, which did not change my impression of them, or my own joy at being able to share that experience with fellow Canadians, no matter who they were.

I had been to the Juno Beach Centre on an earlier trip, and found it slightly underwhelming, so there was not much disappointment when we were told the centre was off limits to us. The PM's staff had booked the site for an interview on CBC. I still felt bad for the others for whom the trip may have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

On a personal level it was a memorable event in many ways, drilling and practicing with soldiers (and sailors and "aviators" - the gender neutral word for "airmen" these days despite the fact none of our "aviators" were actually pilots) from across the country, and going deep into the drill manual to learn, or re-learn, such things as About Turn on the March, and the feu-de-joie which we performed well. It was slightly marred after the march off when one of our reservist master-corporals discharged their rifle which still had a blank cartridge in it. It had been a treat to be on parade with several soldiers of the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, who trace their lineage to the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. Their special uniforms drew much positive attention from us, and the fact they were as challenged by the unique foot drill as the rest of us was interesting, but not surprising - these are the guys that 'do war' for a living and train to expert levels in weapons and fieldcraft, so no surprise they didn't spend as much time on drill as perhaps a reservist whose unit calendar involves several ceremonial parades every year. The undisguised disgust shown by the CSOR contingent at the unfortunate master corporal reservist that had lost control of their weapon seems all the more reasonable in that regard. It was a minor blemish on a job well done, and thankfully had occurred outside the public's eye.

DND had seen fit to send some of our best historians to help us interpret the wartime events, with battlefield tours and lectures, and I eagerly listened to Steven Harris and Mike Bechthold share their knowledge with us.

My favourite memory, however, will always be an off-hours adventure, when my sergeant invited me along to visit a Calvados distillery, which had a very good tour and museum set up, along with tasting bar and fully stocked gift shop. The 20 year old vintages can't be described - and were a far cry from the raw, barely fermented stuff our Canadian troops guzzled down in the summer of 1944. I had such a good time I forgot to take any photos. An excuse, perhaps, to go back some day.

My Final Word

None of this really captures the importance of the day, that has been done in all the television and social media coverage of the last 24 hours, to which I can add nothing. D-Day is one of those events that speaks for itself. I am glad, however, that we continue to honour the memory of it though just like Vimy Ridge in the First World War, there were other far more impressive Canadian victories among our battle honours. At the end of the day - in this case, June 6, 1944 - a very well rehearsed but inexperienced division cut through a pretty thin defensive screen made up of war weary conscripts bolstered by "volunteers" from Eastern Europe. No one doubts the bravery of Canadian troops that day, and I wouldn't call it "easy", but compared to some of the very tough fighting in the Scheldt and Rhineland later on, it seems like comparisons can be not unfairly made as to which was harder to do.


  1. I started this blog with the mandate of using it to comment on current news events which would benefit from some clarifying points of a historical nature. I don't know if I've crossed the line into a "personal blog" with this entry, but if so - mea culpa.
  2. Milner's book STOPPING THE PANZERS is a must-read for his research into what exactly the role of 3 Cdn Div was in the overall invasion. When he presented on his book at The Military Museums in Calgary during the book's launch several years ago, he took a few minutes to discuss FORTITUDE and his hope that the Canadian aspect would be fleshed out

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