Remembering the Longest Day

Book cover
This coming 6th of June will mark the 75th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy in 1944. Though originally a generic military term, this is now the date universally known as “D-Day.” It will be observed throughout the world because of how it helped save the world from fascist dictatorship, and helped shape the world we live in today. The Allied operation, code-named Overlord, saw 160,000 soldiers cross the English Channel and begin the hard fight to liberate Europe from Nazi occupation.  Of these, 14,000 were Canadians who landed on Juno Beach, including two Manitoban units: The Royal Winnipeg Rifles Regiment (amongst the first Allied units to land) and the Fort Garry Horse. The 402 City of Winnipeg Squadron provided air cover.

There are quite a few books and films about the battle of Normandy available at Winnipeg Public Library, but here are a few recommendations.  

D-Day Minute by Minute by Jonathan Mayo is narrated with a fresh approach, like a radio broadcast, describing events minute by minute as if they were happening in real time, and motivates the reader to keep going. The book is full of first-hand eye witness accounts, both civilian and military, who lived through the day.  

Soldier, Sailor, Frogman, Spy, Airman, Gangster, Kill or Die : How the Allies won on D-Day by Giles Milton has a similar narrative that uses the stories of survivors from both sides but is a denser read than Mayo’s book. It alternates between the large strategic picture as seen in war rooms and individual one of those who fought or simply lived through the event.

Did you know? The beach where Canadians were to land was almost codenamed Jelly (as in Jellyfish, Goldfish and Swordfish). Canadian Wing Commander Dawnay then made a counter-proposal: Juno, his wife’s first name, which was deemed more appropriate.

For those of you interested in Canadian military history and who like delving in detailed description of military tactics and strategy, Terry Copp’s Fields of Fire: The Canadians in Normandy is an excellent read. This thoroughly researched book gives the role of Canadians in the Normandy campaign a long overdue recognition, challenging past assessments from historians. The initial landings were the beginning two months of intense and brutal battle with Canadian soldiers fighting a skilled and well-armed enemy that little pause or quarter. Despite this, Allied troops fought with tenacity, and growing skill and power until they managed to break out of Normandy and chased the Nazi armies out of France by the end of August. Copp is also the author of The Canadian Battlefields of Normandy: A visitor’s guide, essential reading for any Canadian who is contemplating a trip to France or wants a virtual trip thanks to its great colour photography and maps.

In addition to books, there are many films, both fictional and documentary that are available for watching, but usually not from a Canadian perspective. Storming Juno is a docudrama effectively mixing Canadian veterans’ accounts of their experiences in interviews with re-enactment scenes depicting the true stories of paratroopers, tank crews and regular soldiers who took part in the invasion. Though most of us have seen films like the Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan, this is a worthy addition to the list since this the only one ever made about the Canadian experience that wasn’t a straight documentary.

Did you know? James Doohan, who would later become a famous actor as Chief Engineer Scotty in the original Star Trek series, landed on Juno Beach along with the 14th Field Artillery Regiment and was severely wounded, losing a finger on his right hand while leading his 30 men to safety across the beach.

It’s important to remember that the Normandy Landings were the results of years of planning, building of war materials (including two artificial harbours!), intelligence gathering, and finally a complex campaign of deception as to when and where D-Day would occur. The final victory would not have been possible without these elements, and the men and women who were involved. Double Cross: The true story of the D-day spies by Ben Macintyre takes us in the shadow war that occurred before D-Day: complex deceptions, like Operation Fortitude, which protected and enabled the invasion thanks to fictional armies made rubber, canvas and bogus radio chatter, and the Double Cross system, which specialized in turning German spies into double agents. These double agents then deceived the Nazis into believing that the Allies would attack at Calais and Norway rather than Normandy.

Did you know? To deceive the Germans as to the location and timing of the invasion, a Lieutenant from Royal Army Pay Corps with an uncanny resemblance to British General Bernard Montgomery was paraded in Cairo for weeks before the invasion. At Montgomery’s insistence, he was paid the full salary of a general during the ruse.

It is estimated that less than 3% of veterans of the Second World War are still alive to tell their stories. The upcoming anniversary may well be one of the last where they will be present, making sure that the memory of their sacrifices for our freedoms be remembered that much more important.  

– Louis-Philippe

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