We must jump forward yet again to July 17, 2015 when we are in North of France, staying in the pretty seaside resort village of Honfleur.
We had been eager to see Juno Beach, the place where so many Canadians helped spearhead the victory against Hitler, and where so many Canadians died for freedom. We had another very special reason, to see how a member of MLW’s family was being honoured, because he also landed there … and lived.
It was a cloudy and windy day, but not raining yet, so as our thoughts continued to echo with versions of ‘How dare we complain’ from the visit to Ypres, we found the Juno Beach visitor centre (with some parking consternation that will be discussed at the appropriate juncture in the blog proper) and made or way to the entrance.
MLW’s uncle by marriage, Armand Denicola – now 92,- found himself on June 6, 1944 as a young private in the Canadian Scottish regiment just eight days before his 22nd birthday, in one of the landing craft, speeding towards a beach of an unimaginable Hell.
When asked how he survived, he calmly says, “Luck. You keep your head down and keep going and hope you might be one of the lucky ones who makes it.”
But in reality it is we who are the truly lucky ones.
We as a nation are lucky because we can live free from tyranny in our own country today. Our family are also lucky because had Armand not made it out, we would not have had the benefit of his influence on MLW’s family, with the subsequent cousins who have enriched and continue to enrich our lives, as does Armand himself.
Over the years, the dead have been rightly honoured, and lately as Canadians watched the ranks of the old veterans dwindle each passing Remembrance Day, I think we grew uncomfortable with the fact that the names of those who also fought but lived, had no plaque or engraving in stone to mark their deeds on that day and many others.
These humble veterans did not ask for the honour, it was others who bestowed it.
And so we were very happy to see the diamond-shaped kiosks erected outside the centre …
upon which we found this plaque.
Canadians should feel pride; their centre is extremely well done, with movies and slide shows, presentations of individual stories and narratives of various themes which are added or changed each year. This year one added theme pertained to the lives of the ordinary citizens of Normandy and Canadians, from occupation to liberation. Some stories are told in letters which are read out in audio clips. Others are told in pictures and text.
My father was in the merchant marine and faced many harrowing days aboard ship, not the least of which was the evacuation of British troops after the so-called Phony War, the Battle of Dunkirk, in which 861 vessels including freighters and fishing boats participated and of which 243 were sunk during the operation. The merchant marine played a vital role with little compensation or subsequently bestowed honours.
Many people are not aware of the major role Canada played in early days of the modern Intelligence community.
Opened by Sir William Stephenson, a Canadian from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and a close confidante of Winston Churchill and FDR and dubbed Intrepid, a little place called Camp X in Whitby, Ontario trained not only Canadian but many British agents from the Special Operations Executive,as well as agents from the FBI and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) the forerunner of the CIA. Most notable was Colonel William “Wild Bill” Donovan, war-time head of the OSS, who credited Stephenson with teaching Americans about foreign intelligence gathering.
The man called Intrepid
And there are the pictures that tell it all.
The face of this poor man on the bottom left of this photograph is worth a million words.
As you go into the final presentation room …
You must go and experience it
Outside the centre …
They have guided tours of the beach and a German bunker which was uncovered when they cleared the park for access in 2004.
Guided tours as of 2014 also include the tunnels that lead to the underground Command Post of the 6th Company, 736th Infantry Regiment of Hauptmann Grote, which controlled the site in 1944. The German Command Post was originally connected to the observation bunker by a covered tunnel
According to our guide, the bunker had been known to be there in the 50;’s, but gradually got covered by the sand (the actually placement of the bunker would have been on the edge of the cliff in 1944; that is how far and fast the sands have moved) and so was forgotten, until some young people drinking there uncovered an access hole, and it was re-discovered.
The guide was able to tell us what rooms were which, as the plans for the most part followed the plans laid out for all the coastal bunkers forming part of the Atlantic Wall defense system which consisted of 9,671 Tobruk pits, 5976 bunkers 1, 591 other edifices
10 million four hundred thousand tons of concrete!
In 1944, it contained radio equipment that allowed its occupants to communicate with other bunkers and coordinate the defense of the beach. A machine gun post was positioned on the top of the bunker.
Going down into the command post …
As the guide said “Imagine yourself as a villager being forced or coerced by resultant favours to build these bunkers. They did everything they could think of to sabotage the efforts, such as concreting in the hollow bricks sideways so they would collapse under an assault, or conveniently forgetting iron rebar reinforcements.
Back out and over to the bunker …
The guide supposed that if you were an enemy solider taking the bunker, you would spy these air vents and think a great place to throw your grenade.
She got someone to toss a rock in the top hole and it came right back out the bottom … BOOM!
Back out on the beach, a pill box can be seen blown up and half-collapsed from the assault. This is Cosy’s pill box:
This man in the Tank Corps, Leo Gariepy fought to liberate the beach and the town he would later return to and become an honoured citizen.
It is so hard to imagine what it was like there,
when you see the scene today …
A part of me wishes more could have been left to show the next generations the landing craft, burnt out tanks, the barriers set up by the Germans, but …
After all, this is what they fought for, the ability fo families to live and to enjoy a nice day at a beach without fear…
These were the Canadians, and Armand’s regiment among them.
This was the order of the day.
Armand might add… and be lucky.
If you think it can’t happen again, consider the PM Mackenzie King, the PM of the day’s position
We need to remember
They thought it would be easy
It wasn’t … Victory was not assured.
But we got the job done, horrible and difficult as it was.
And Canada needs to be ready if called again.
* * *
We left Juno and traveled to Canadian War Cemetery at Beny Sur mer. We overheard a man talking to a visitor there. He said the French have great respect for their fallen, and the dead of other countries who helped liberate them. All war cemeteries in their country are immaculately kept. I will let the pictures do the talking.
We Will Remember Them
Part 1: go here Part 3: go here