In depth • Read our annotated map of how D-Day unfolded
Half an hour after they had set foot on French soil on D-Day, Sapper John Schaupmeyer and his fellow combat engineers remained stranded on the beach, pinned down by German machine guns, mortars and artillery.
From the cover of a seawall, they saw an LCI, one of the larger models of landing craft, touch ground. Soldiers aboard tried to disembark but the rough waves tangled up their gangway. Trapped on the LCI deck, the men came under enemy fire. At that moment, one of the combat engineers, Sapper Walter Coveyduck, left the seawall’s protection to go save the men of the LCI.
This was Juno Beach’s Nan Red sector, the morning of June 6, 1944, a pivotal day in the Second World War. The Allied invasion of occupied France had begun, opening a new front against Nazi Germany.
The 14,000 Canadians who landed that day, 75 years ago, included a Nova Scotia fisherman, a Quebec labourer, an Ottawa civil servant and an Alberta farmer. For decades, their eyewitness accounts sat in a U.S. archive, unseen even by their relatives.
Four years ago, a Toronto resident, Geoff Osborne, started documenting his grandfather Earl Olmsted’s journey through the war. This led him to The Longest Day, the 1959 best-seller about the landing written by former war correspondent Cornelius Ryan. Mr. Ryan had collected the testimonials of more than 1,000 survivors but only quoted a portion in his book. Those files, including submissions from about 120 Canadians, are stored at the Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections, Ohio University Libraries.
From those papers, here are the stories of four Canadians.
To sign up, Private Henry Churchill sold his lobster fishing licence and twice walked 19 kilometres from his hometown, Port Maitland, N.S., to the nearest recruiting office in Yarmouth. A paratrooper, he would drop into Normandy with 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, ahead of the seaborne assault.
Sapper Schaupmeyer was the third of the seven children of German immigrants farming near Edmonton. He and two brothers enlisted, despite the animosity of some who distrusted their ancestry. He would land with 5th Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, to blow up defensive obstacles on Juno Beach.
A labourer from Hudson, near Montreal, Sergeant Morris Magee wound up with his brother Bill in the 14th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery. They supported foot soldiers with M7 Priest self-propelled guns, essentially field artillery cannons mounted on tank frames.
Ottawa-born Capt. Olmsted couldn’t afford his dream to attend Queen’s University so he became an accountant for the department of public works. He was a liaison officer for Major-General Rod Keller, commander of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division. As the invasion neared, he also waited to hear from his pregnant wife, Marjorie. Their first child was due June 6.
Sgt. Magee realized the invasion was imminent when his unit received French currency at the end of May. A rumour spread that the Germans would execute any captured sergeants. “So all of the sergeants, except myself, removed their stripes, only to be ordered later to put them back on,” he wrote.
Some of Pte. Churchill’s comrades asked him to write to their spouses should they be killed. He wouldn’t make the same request, however. “I wasn’t going to let myself think I might not make it.”
Flying into Normandy, one man on the private’s plane thought he saw sparks outside. Pte. Churchill took a look. They were tracer bullets. Then came the signal to jump out of the plane. It was just after 1 a.m.
The second man ahead of him – who liked to say during training that they needed to have fun since “we haven’t got much longer to live” – was fatally shot in the head while still in his parachute harness.
The next man took a bullet in the back. Then came Pte. Churchill’s turn to leap into the darkness. He escaped the German gunfire but hit the ground so hard he knocked himself out.
When he regained consciousness, he found himself in an irrigation ditch, with a massive headache. Flares and tracers lit the sky but he was alone.
He noticed that the stock of his rifle had shattered. He left the ditch, in case some Germans might use it for cover. He moved along but had to pause because of his aching head.
Hearing voices, he ducked behind a bush, then saw a British paratrooper, with only a revolver, and a Canadian, with machine-gun ammunition but no machine gun. They later ran into a larger group of armed men. A voice challenged them with the word “Punch.” Pte. Churchill had to reply with the password – “Judy” – but froze. He managed to utter “Don’t shoot.”
While the paratroopers roamed the Norman countryside at night, troops taking part in the amphibious assault sailed for France despite rough waters.
“My most vivid recollection of crossing Channel was how seasick I was,” Sgt. Magee wrote. Sapper Schaupmeyer recalled that few slept properly and that he lost his French money playing dice.
At dawn came an unforgettable sight. “In a distance the coast of France,” he wrote. “Looking right and left, one could not believe your own eyes. As far as the eye could see on either side, landing crafts, mother ships, rocket ships and, in the rear, Old Rodney.”
Old Rodney – the battleship HMS Rodney – and other vessels began the naval bombardment. Aboard their landing craft, the self-propelled guns of Sgt. Magee’s battery joined the fire.
Sapper Schaupmeyer’s company had to hit the beach at low tide to blow up hedgehogs, defensive obstacles made of metal rails welded into tripod shapes.
However, the rough sea had delayed their landing. “We are coming in now but the tide waits for no man. Our hedgehogs are half underwater as we touched down to do our job. Our barges hit bottom and we had to hit the water. Boy! Did it feel cold.”
The sea rose as they fastened explosive charges to the metal beams. They only managed to breach a small gap before the tide covered the remaining hedgehogs.
They ran to the beach with the infantry and took cover behind the seawall. He rued that they had left their rifles behind, in their bulldozer, while they dealt with the hedgehogs.
Sapper Schaupmeyer saw shrapnel from a German landmine tear into one soldier, “a terrible sight.” Another man “was shot straight through. What made him carry on, I don’t know … someone with that much spunk is too tough to die.”
He then noticed the approaching LCI. “Every second man was shot coming down the gangplank,” he wrote. “The big waves of water pushed the gangplank aside and all the soldiers were huddled together on the deck. Easy picking for a German.”
That was the moment when Sapper Coveyduck intervened. “Coveyduck saw this situation, waded in the water, up to his waist, and put this gangplank into place, holding it while the remaining soldiers scrambled down, away from that deadly spray of bullets.”
Sapper Coveyduck, who survived the war and became a miner in Sudbury, would earn the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his action.
By 9 a.m., Sgt. Magee and the artillery came ashore. His landing craft bogged down 10 metres from the beach but the waterproofed Priest guns were able to roll to dry land.
They, too, halted at the seawall because of enemy fire. Sgt. Magee saw infantrymen shooting back. Others lit up and smoked. The wounded moaned and there was a stench of blood. “People were dropping like flies all over the place and there was a great deal happening.”
Eventually, the wall was breached in a spot where the Priests could climb up into a town street. A sapper from the British Royal Engineers directed the traffic.
Several vehicles made it through but when Sgt. Magee’s turn came, his Priest hit a landmine. “In a second, this soldier who was directing me was a mass of blood and dropped right before me. He was practically cut to pieces.”
His vehicle wasn’t damaged and he spent the day firing in support of the infantry. He saw a Canadian soldier returning with an arm hanging down, nearly severed off. With his remaining arm, the man jabbed a bayonet at a group of about 20 prisoners he marched to the rear. “And he really jabbed them.”
Meanwhile, Capt. Olmsted and officers from divisional headquarters jumped out of their craft into armpit-deep water and made it to the beach, where dead and injured Canadians lay on stretchers. “A few sorry-looking German prisoners of war were herded under the bluffs," he recalled.
Marching inland, he saw dead cattle, nervous civilians and a little girl who came out of a farmhouse and handed him a flower. He reported for duty at the headquarters’ tents. The staff had trouble with radio communications so Gen. Keller ordered him to find out in person what was holding up 7th Brigade, on the west of the beachhead.
Capt. Olmsted hopped on a motorcycle and rode through deserted country roads, passing by dead Canadians and Germans. He found the commander of 7th Brigade, who showed him zones still held by the enemy. “I realized,” Capt. Olmsted wrote, “that this was the area I had just ridden through!”
At day’s end, Sgt. Magee and his battery stopped at a hilltop five kilometres inland. They dug foxholes. Sgt. Magee’s hole was the deepest and everyone mocked him until the Germans shelled them that night and he soon had company.
Sapper Schaupmeyer’s unit had taken position near a castle. Two men approached in the dark and didn’t answer the challenge for a password. Luckily, a German flare lit up at that moment, revealing the pair to be Canadians.
Later, another straggler appeared and also didn’t reply when challenged. There were no flares this time. Sapper Schaupmeyer heard the rattle of a Sten gun. It was actually a stray British soldier. “Sorry … Such is war."
At headquarters, Capt. Olmsted fretted that night about a non-military matter. “Wondering whether or not I was a poppa,” he wrote in a letter meant for his wife. She delivered a son, Eric, on June 7.