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Juno Beach: Canada's D-Day Victory June 6, 1944 (Book Review)

Danjanou

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D-Day, the Sixth of June 1944, it is a day well known and celebrated in both historical texts and popular media. The day when the Allied armies stormed ashore in German occupied France and began the long process of liberating Western Europe.

Depending on where one reads or watches accounts of that fateful day on the Normandy coastline, one gets a different opinion on who did the actual storming ashore and subsequent later liberating. Most accounts point out it was a multinational force of soldiers, sailors and airmen that were involved. However aside from the two main western allies The United States and Great Britain, one is generally given the impression that all the other national contingents Free French, Belgian, Norwegian etc. were token ones.

This of course was not correct. One other nation made a major contribution to the Normandy invasion, Canada. The Canadians were given one of the five invasion beaches, Juno, and provided an Infantry Division (the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division)and an Tank Brigade (2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade)as the initial assault force on that beach.

In addition the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was part of the British 6th Airborne Division and was among the first allied forces to land in occupied France.

The massive contribution was not limited to land forces alone. The Royal Canadian Navy was present with 109 major and minor warships and landing craft. In the Air the Royal Canadian Air Force was also present in every capacity, preparatory bombing of the target beaches, disrupting enemy lines of communications and access of reinforcements, providing close ground support to the advancing troops and even contributing to the essential ASW (anti-submarine warfare) efforts to protect the invasion fleet.

Canadians as a society have at times been accused of not being comfortable with their accomplishments and often gloss over their contributions to history. Added to this is the recent trend to deny any military heritage what so ever, the so called “peace keeper myth” that implies that we are not and never were warriors.

Historian and author Mark Zuehlke is one who has attempted to correct this wrong. Juno Beach is his account of the Canadian contribution to Normandy. Zuehlke is no stranger to the Canadian contributions in the Second World War. He has previously written a trilogy of books Ortona, Liri Valley and Gothic Line, covering the Canadian campaign in Italy from 1943-45. Juno Beach is the first in a planed series that will cover the Canadian Army’s advance through North Western Europe.

Zuehlke’s book concentrates solely on the Canadian contribution on June 6, 1944 and that is as it should be. There are numerous other works available that cover the American and British contributions. Most of the book is also concentrated on the actual day itself and on the efforts of the 3rd Canadian Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, the two units that literally stormed ashore on Juno Beach.

Zuehlke was a novelist prior to his writing military history and that shows in the book. There is a nice flow to his prose, with none of the stilted often dry material on comes across in “official histories.” This style suits the research material that he used. Juno Beach is a soldiers (and airmens and sailors too) account of the battle more so than Colonels and generals one. A popular history as one review I’ve seen of it suggests, but also a more informal social history, one of ordinary men caught up in an extraordinary event.

I had heard accounts form other military historians and reviewers earlier that Zuehlke’s works were often full of misinformation and errors. To be honest I did not come across any glaring omissions or incorrect information at all in the book. I’m more than familiar with the Normandy campaign as a whole and the specific Canadian part in it. I’ve read several books and accounts on the battle including Max Hasting’s Overlord just prior to this book. Therefore I could truthfully say that were there any errors that they should have been evident to me.

Zuelke has has made much use of many primary sources aside from the accounts of veterans, including wunit histories and war diearies. The volume I purchases is also fairly well illustrated with some excellent maps and a few black and white photgraphs.

Zuehlke spends some time at the beginning covering the planning and preparation for the Invasion, but only briefly and mainly to introduce us to the “characters” through whose eyes we will experience the actual invasion. The preamble to the book starts with a drop of Canadian paratroopers who like many others that night are dropped in the wrong place and find themselves, lost, alone and surrounded by a hostile enemy.

As noted most of the book details the exploits of the two major Canadian formations present, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division (3CID)and their attached tank support form the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade (2CAB). Zuehlke follows each of the six assault infantry battalions in the 7th Infantry Brigade and 8th Infantry Brigades and their tank supports through each stage of the invasion.

First there is the embarkation in England, the channel crossing, and the approach to the beach under fire. He moves from unit to unit in a logical manner covering each in some personal detail mostly first hand accounts and anecdotes. Once ashore each unit’s progress as they attempt to clear the beach defences in their sectors and try and move inland.

Interspaced with their accounts are those of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion as they attempt to regroup and hold their vital objectives in the face of mounting counter attacks.

As the day wears on the reserve forces are committed to the barely secure beachhead. The 9th (Highland) Canadian infantry Brigade and its support tanks land on beaches still under fire and move through the other forces heading inland. The Canadian objective is the Carpiquet Airfield on the outskirts of Caen. By nightfall an armoured column of Canadians was approaching the airfield when it was ordered to take up defensive positions just shy of it at last light.

The long day did not end there. The first of a series of savage German armoured counterattacks is launched on the evening of June 6th. The newly arrived 21st Panzer Division immediately began a series of attacks against the Canadian positions and those of the British forces that had landed on nearby Sword Beach. These determined attacks almost reached the beachhead itself driving a wedge between the British and Canadians before being halted.

The D-Day invasion was not just fought on land. Interspaced with the accounts of heroism and sacrifice on the beaches and the fields inland Zuehlke’s tells the tales of the sailors and airmen too. There are accounts of the RCAF and Canadians serving in the RAF who took part in all aspects of the invasion, flying escorts and bombing missions including those secret operations that were part of the overall Normandy deception plan to convince the Germans the attack was coming elsewhere .

The RCN’s contributions were not inconsequential either. Canadians manned the landing craft that brought their countrymen into the beach under fire. Others manned a wide variety of ship, escorting the invasion fleet and/or providing off shore bombardments. It was not only at Juno that there was a Canadian naval contribution. A flotilla of Canadian minesweepers opened a path to Omaha beach for the American invasion forces. Zuehlke covers their ordeal including the harrowing passage of the small ships across the Atlantic to join in the join invasion fleet.

Perhaps the most significant part of Zuehlke’s books is putting to rest the myth that the Canadians had the easiest time of all the invasion forces that day and literally walked ashore to minimal opposition. This has been suggested is the reasons that by the end of the day the Canadians were the farthest inland of all the allied forces.

The fact remains that this was not the case. It is true that the 719th Infantry Division of the German Army defending Juno and parts of the adjoining British beaches was an under strength unit and filled with soldiers who were for the most part unfit for service on the Eastern Front. This however was the case for most of the defending infantry divisions covering all five invasion beaches.

Some of these defenders surrendered at the earliest opportunity and others fled, again as was the case on all five beaches. Most however fought back tenaciously and the only way to overcome them was to kill them. The approaches to Juno Beach were well covered with mines, obstacles, barbed wire and assorted machine guns, cannons mounted in pill boxes, bunkers and other strong points. In fact a study after revealed that Juno was the second most defended of the five invasion beaches after Omaha in terms of terms of fortifications, obstacles, and the troops manning them.

The houses of the three major seaside towns Coureulles-s- Mer, Bernieres-s- Mer and St Aubin –s- Mer had all been turned into fortified strong points that had to be assaulted and cleared at heavy costs before the Canadians could move inland and fight further enemy forces including arriving German reinforcements.

The initial naval and air bombardments that were supposed to destroy these fortifications and positions were not as effective as planned. In fact it is estimated that a bare 14% of the fortifications were destroyed or damaged sufficiently to no longer be a factor in the upcoming battle. The majority after the troops manning them overcame the initial shock of the bombardment were still effective.

Added to this was the fact that the landings at Juno initially scheduled to be the last of the day, fifteen minutes after the other assaults began were further delayed another half an hour by weather. This ensured that the defenders had sufficient time to recover from the less than effective bombardment and

The facts speak for them selves as Zuehlke notes. After Omaha Beach the most casualties suffered by the Allied invasion force were those incurred on Juno. Casualties among the six infantry battalions that landed in the initial assault reached as high as 50%. Similar losses were reported in men and materials in the two tank regiments that supported them in the first wave.

All doctrine would suggest that such units were no longer combat effective. However despite these crippling losses all eight units remained in action and even moved inland towards their objectives. Losses amongst the follow on Brigade and the other supporting divisional troops were also high; but they too were far inland by nightfall.

None of the Allied forces that landed that day reached their ultimate objectives, many of which were optimistic at best including the capture of the major city in the region Caen. Many failed to reach their primary objectives often just off the invasion beaches themselves. Only 3rd Canadian Infantry Division reached all of their primary objectives and came closest to securing all their objectives by nightfall on the sixth of June.

Several historians have argued that Canada truly became a nation in the eyes of the world at the Battle of Vimy Ridge in the First World War, the first real Allied success of that conflict. If so then the sons of that battle cemented that idea with their performance on the sands of Normandy a generation later. Mark Zuehlke’s work is an important part of the chronicling of that fact.


 

Duzty

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About half way through reading this book.  I find it to be quite well written.  Can't wait till his other books about Northern France.
 
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