From his fourth-floor apartment, 94-year-old Fred Turnbull looks down on Bedford Basin. It is the same magnificent harbour where, so very long ago, the then-17-year-old stared down from the train carrying him to Halifax and saw navy convoys gathering to cross the Atlantic.
“That’s when it dawned on me that we were at war,” Mr. Turnbull recalls.
It was the summer of 1942. The Montreal youngster had signed up with the navy and was being trained as a bowman for one of the landing crafts ferrying Allied soldiers from ship to shore. It was extremely dangerous work, as his boots were always first in the water, the armed troops following.
He would see action in Sicily and Greece, but the event that would stay with him forever – the incredible noise that affects his hearing to this day – took place on June 6, 1944: D-Day.
To honour the 75th anniversary, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa is mounting an exhibition on the invasion. The museum has selected seven participants who took part in the historical landing, their stories vividly told through words and pictures. “These are stories of Canadians in times of terrible stress and strain,” says Tim Cook, the museum’s resident historian.
“It’s one of the major events in history,” Mr. Turnbull says. “It saved Britain and possibly the whole Western world.
“I don’t think people know enough about it.”
D-Day is not as well known as, say, the First World War battle of Vimy Ridge, but Dr. Cook argues that it was “a nexus point for Canada as a country. [France and Poland] aren’t there. Here’s Canada. We’re a junior ally. We’re not colonial. We’re there – and this was the beginning of the end for the Germans.”
It was the greatest seaborne invasion in history. The Germans knew it was coming, but neither where nor when. The natural presumption had been around Pas-de-Calais, the shortest distance over the Channel, but the military planners working under the Allied command of U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower, chose instead the sandy beaches along the coast of Normandy.
The Americans would take Utah and Omaha beaches to the west, the British had Gold Beach in the middle of the 80-kilometre stretch and Sword Beach to the east, with the Canadians assigned to take, and hold, Juno Beach between the two British targets.
The sheer numbers involved are, to this day, overwhelming to consider: 155,000 soldiers, some 11,000 planes, 50,000 vehicles and 5,000 minesweepers, battleships, carriers and landing craft, one of them carrying 19-year-old Fred Turnbull, whose task was to lower the ramp, leap over the bow and steady the craft with rope while the soldiers stormed ashore under fire.
“All the training helped you not to think about how scared you were,” Mr. Turnbull says.
All around him mortars were exploding, machine-gun fire ripping into sand, water and men. Somehow, Mr. Turnbull got in and out unscathed.
“The thing that bothered me most was the noise,” he recalls. “And the confusion. We just wanted to get it over with.”
Some 14,000 Canadians landed that day shortly after dawn. The invasion had actually been in the planning process for many months, the Americans eager to attack but British Prime Minister Winston Churchill arguing for delay so they could plan and practise down to the smallest detail. And they needed a break in the weather.
“Someone said it was the most important weather forecast in human history,” Dr. Cook says.
Among the various Canadian regiments involved in the landing along Juno Beach were the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, the 1st Hussars, the Queen’s Own Rifles, the Fort Garry Horse, the Royal Regina Rifles and the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment.
Another 450 Canadians were dropped behind enemy lines by parachute and gliders. The air force sent Lancaster bombers and Spitfire fighter planes. The extensive naval operations involved around 10,000 Canadian sailors. But it was the ones charging off the landing craft who were in the most and immediate danger.
“The soldiers took quite a beating,” Mr. Turnbull remembers.
They did indeed. The Germans forces, under command of General Erwin Rommel – the infamous “Desert Fox” – were well fortified and prepared. The Allies suffered 10,000 casualties, 4,414 of whom were killed. The Germans, at first with such a protective advantage, had 4,000 to 9,000 casualties.
Fortunately, the Allies’ air power was completely dominating, with more than 10,000 planes compared with but a few hundred for the Germans.
“The Luftwaffe,” Dr. Cook says, “has been basically blown out of the sky at this point.”
The Canadians landed as part of Britain’s Second Army under command of British Lieutenant-General Miles Dempsey. Two hours after the invasion began, the Canadians had established their beachhead.
“At the end of the day,” respected British military historian John Keegan wrote in his book, Six Armies in Normandy, “[Canada’s] forward elements stood deeper into France than those of any other division.”
It came at an enormous cost. The Canadians had suffered more than 1,000 casualties, nearly 400 of whom were dead. Mr. Turnbull was not only left untouched, he would return four times to the beaches carrying supplies. The long-retired banker would eventually be awarded France’s highest decoration, the Legion of Honour.
In 2007, Mr. Turnbull published his memoirs, The Invasion Diaries, and says he wishes more effort would be made to let today’s young people know what the youth of his day accomplished that June morning in France.
“Something has to be done about it,” he says.
Dr. Cook thinks that D-Day and other Second World War triumphs were somewhat lost because of what happened in the immediate aftermath. The returning soldiers were, for the most part, treated very well when it came to matters such as housing, education, retraining and loans to buy homes and farms. They immediately got on with life.
“The country was moving along,” Dr. Cook says. “They were not thinking ‘Let’s memorialize this.’ ”
It was a marked difference from the aftermath of the Great War, which saw the Vimy War Memorial erected in 1936 and, three years later, the National War Memorial unveiled in Ottawa.
“For some reason, we don’t pay a lot of attention to the Second World War,” Dr. Cook says. “We have Vimy, but there is no Second World War equivalent. We have the Juno Beach Centre, but it’s not the same.”
Over time, however, both Dr. Cook and Mr. Turnbull have seen recognition and admiration on the rise. “In the sixties, seventies, eighties,” Mr. Cook says, “we didn’t care much, we didn’t want to talk about war, we didn’t want to commemorate.”
“Remembrance Day nearly died out. But then it came back. I think it goes back to 1995, the 50th anniversary of the Second World War, when thousands of veterans went back and we all sort of woke up and said, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re a country of peacekeepers, but who are these warriors? Who are these people who served and liberated? Who are these old men who are standing at the graves of young boys and crying? Who are these French and Dutch civilians weeping in joy? What have we done?’ ”
Nothing less than what Mr. Turnbull says as, 75 years later, he stares down at the same harbour that once brimmed with convoy ships.
“We had a job to do – and we did it.”
A veteran’s tale
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