Our postcard photographer standing on Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer beach at the turn of the century could not have foretold the horrors this pretty seaside town would endure in 1944.
By June 6 1944 the seafront villas are heavily fortified, a 50mm gun emplacement dominates the shoreline and a vicious web of beach defences stand between this town and freedom. Liberating Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer was always going to be a terrible challenge.
Just one small part of Juno Beach
Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer is part of the landing site designated by the Allies as ‘Juno Beach’ for the D-Day landings and was the objective that historic day for the North Shore Regiment of New Brunswick lead assault companies, tanks of the Fort Garry Horse (10th Armoured) Regiment and 48th Royal Marine Commandos. Le Régiment de la Chaudière of Quebec are in reserve.
5000 miles to liberate friends
Independent of the UK since 1931, Canada had been quick to declare war on Germany in 1939 just days after the UK and France. At that time the Canadian army had less than 8000 men and a lot of equipment dated back to WW1.
Soon thousands enlisted and over 1 million men and women would join the Canadian armed forces in WW2. They travelled over 5000 miles to fight for freedom and more than 45,000 Canadians would die in conflict.
For some their first battle would be on Juno Beach.
The best laid plans
Early morning 6 June 1944 and the sea is still choppy after the storms that delayed D-Day by 24hrs. While crossing the channel many troops suffered from sea-sickness while others sing ‘Roll me over, lay me down’ to keep their spirits up.
Ahead of the landings navy bombardments were intense along the Normandy coast but less effective than hoped. The previous night’s air raid was hampered by poor weather and visibility. Frogmen had cleared some routes through to land but the sea still obscured a maze of metal, wood and barbed wire defences leading onto mined beaches.
A muddle of soldiers
Espionage had convinced Hitler any big attack would be towards Calais so the Allies at Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer would be facing a muddle of solders; some older but hardened by fighting on the Russian front, others barely trained youth. Intelligence had suggested morale was not high among the occupying forces. But coastal defences were comprehensive and the 29 companies of the 736th regiment of the 716th German infantry division at Juno were well armed with 500 machine guns, 50 mortars and 90 big guns.
Chaos on the beach
All along the coast still turbulent seas delayed the landings by valuable minutes giving the German army, holed up in bunkers and houses along the sea front time to organise violent resistance.
When the assault begins at 8.10am many landing craft are hit by gunfire or damaged by underwater obstacles.
The rough seas hold up Sherman tank landings so when North Shore troops exit their landing craft into waist high water, before sprinting across 100 yards of beach, they are under heavy fire with nothing but their own bullets to defend themselves.
The North Shore Regiment at Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer was divided into Companies A, B, C and D.
‘B’ company had possibly the toughest task. They were to surround and neutralise the 50mm Gun emplacement above the beach, untouched by the naval bombardment. They were fighting an enemy they could barely see through the smoke, an enemy who made good use of the network of tunnels and bunkers dug around the town. As ‘B’ Company ran across the mined beach snipers began to pick them off one by one.
Those that made it to the sea wall are pinned down unable to advance or withdraw.
Eventually Sherman tanks of the Fort Garry Horse and Armoured Vehicle Royal Engineers tanks of the 80th Assault Squadron, Royal Engineers are able to land.
With incredible bravery Private Harry Wellington Blakely runs back across the minefield, an open area swept with machine gun fire, to explain to Major Forbes their position. He then returned to reassure the lads and help move the wounded to the safest ground. Harry will be awarded the Military Medal as ‘his coolness, initiative and bravery saved the lives of many of his comrades in his platoon’. But he will never know. Harry died with many of his Regiment during Operation Windsor at Carpiquet on Tuesday 4 July 1944, in Normandy.
With tank support ’B’ Company neutralise the Gun emplacement.
By the time ‘B’ Company secured their area of the beach seventeen North Shore men are dead and wounded from sniping and shelling. The gun has also taken out an estimated 6 Canadian tanks.
Tank fire brings out white flags from the German soldiers but as troops move towards them they open fire again. More casualties but nothing could stop North Shore now. Their response when the German army wave white flags again is bombs and gunfire. With the support of Carrier Company they begin to clear the town and thoroughly inspect the tunnels and bunkers of Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer. By the time they have finished four enemy officers and 75 other ranks are taken prisoner. Fifty of the enemy have been killed or wounded.
One platoon stay on to keep Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer secure. The rest of ‘B’ Company move inland.
The French begin to meet their liberators
The town is not just a battlefield it is still home to French families. They are quick to talk to their liberators and amazed to be answered by the Canadians in French with apparently an accent very much like their own.
’A’ Company is tasked with clearing the beaches and capturing the gap and buildings to the west. From the moment they land ‘A’ Company are under machine gun and mortar fire with 88mm air bursts (explosions) shattering them with fragments. Mines and booby traps increase the number of casualties. A bangalore torpedo is used to blast a lane through wires, tragically this sets off mines and more troops are wounded. Others get through the gap and house to house fighting begins.
‘C’ & ‘D’ Company
‘C’ and ‘D’ Company watch ’A’ and ‘B’ Company land but can tell very little about the enemy resistance because of smoke and fire from the town. They take it in turns to race across the beach. There are few casualties. They make their way through the ruins of Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer subduing pockets of enemy resistance, and head out of town.
About 100 yards inshore in a field stood a pillbox. The Germans inside are now frantically throwing stick grenades over the top. One shot from a Support Company anti-tank gun finishes the pillbox.
Juno Beach, end of 6 June 1944
The landings were a success but as we all know, at a huge cost. On Juno beach in a single day 574 men of the 3rd Canadian Division are wounded and 340 were killed. Some say the fiercest battles took place in Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer.
Canadian troops made remarkable progress on D-Day, moving the furthest inland before setting camp. There will be many battles ahead.
Baptism of Fire
During a memorial visit by the North Shore Regiment Veterans Association in 1987, Col. Moar explained the importance to the Regiment of Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer. Col. Moar said:
“The little town of St. Aubin will always remain a special place to the men of the North Shore Regiment, for it was here we received our Baptism of Fire and it was here, on your Beach that the first young Canadian soldiers from New Brunswick died in 1944 fighting for Freedom and Liberty, and it is not far from here, at Beny-Sur Mer that many of our Friends and Comrades lie to rest in the French Countryside.
We ask that you remember them, as we remember you, little village on the Normandy Coast of France, where we return in memory across the years to recall the Blood Brothers of long ago” (Northumberland News November 10, 1987)
There is a rumour that the name “Juno” was chosen because Winston Churchill thought the original code name – Jelly – sounded inappropriate. The code names for the beaches to be taken by British and Commonwealth forces were named after types of fish: Goldfish, Swordfish and Jellyfish, abbreviated to Gold, Sword and Jelly. Churchill disapproved of the name Jelly for a beach “on which so many men might die”. He insisted on a change to the more dignified name Juno.
Today the town proudly displays respect for their liberators and for peace; well tended memorials, brightly coloured flags, information about 6 June 1944 readily on display.
We head for the beach, walk past white beach huts towards a turquoise sea. Families play, historians potter and casual visitors pose next to the defunct gun emplacement. Gusts of warm wind smooth the soft blonde sand.
This is the peace, the freedom, the happiness the D-Day soldiers fought for. Thank you.
More about this piece of Juno history can be found here. Our post today can only touch on the incredible bravery and complexities of Juno Beach 6 June 1944. Find out about Juno on the hugely informative www.junobeach.org website and if you can, visit the Juno Beach Centre to get a real sense of Canada’s incredible WW2 contribution.
Remembrance and Renewal
Outside the Juno Beach centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer is a remarkable statue. Created by a Canadian artist it is called Remembrance and Renewal and is a memorial to the Canadian soldiers of WW2. Colin said of the statue (As quoted on the Junobeach.org website):
“The chiselled lines of the faces show the determination and bravery of the men. Their broad shoulders convey the weight of responsibility that they endured during the struggle.
The forms and features are somewhat obscure reflecting the reality that much time has passed since the war and the living memory of the war is fading as the survivors join their brothers-in-arms.”
But of course we will not forget.