Did you know that around 1.1 million Canadians served in WWII, including 106,000 in the Royal Canadian Navy and 200,000 in the Royal Canadian Air Force? That’s more than 40 per cent of the male population between the ages of 18 and 45, and virtually all of them volunteers, who enlisted.
No? It’s not something that’s touted in a UK history book. Oh sure, we’re all told about how much we owe the brave Americans, know lots about Pearl Harbor etc. but what about these Canadians? Guess how much $ they spent helping out…?
More facts? OK…Britain entered the war with 80,000 military vehicles of all types; however, 75,000 of these British vehicles were left behind in the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940. Virtually defenceless on the ground, Britain turned to Canada – and particularly the Canadian auto industry – to replace what had been lost. Canada not only replaced these losses, it did much more: Canadian industry produced over 800,000 military transport vehicles, 50,000 tanks, 40,000 field, naval, and anti-aircraft guns, and 1,700,000 small arms. Of the 800,000 military vehicles of all types built in Canada, 168,000 were issued to Canadian forces. Thirty-eight percent of the total Canadian production went to the British. The remainder of the vehicles went to the other Allies. This meant that the Canadian Army ‘in the field’ had a ratio of one vehicle for every three soldiers, making it the most mechanized field force in the war.
I just learned all this on a trip to Juno Beach, Bayeux, France. Juno Beach is probably the least famous in European circles of the five D-Day Landing sites on June 6 1944. The Americans landed at Omaha and Utah Beaches, the British at Sword and Gold Beaches, the Canadians at Juno Beach. Just over 70 years later our little party from Bangkok was standing on the same beach watching its idyllic Channel waters under blue skies as a Canadian flag fluttered proudly in the breeze.
Now all my kids were born in a world post-911; that event will be the measuring stick for my generation, just like the Kennedy assassination is for my parents’ generation. WWII, D-Day – this was something my grandparents’ generation spoke about and, for all our intellectualizing and theorizing and learning, and reading and chat…we are generations that (on the whole) haven’t fought through a global conflict over six years. That generation tell tales of battle and fighting where the enemy wasn’t a faceless, nameless blob on a radar screen five thousand miles away. They fully understood the horrors of war when it got down the actual fighting. It is one of the many reasons we respect them all every November 11th, why we will continue to do so for many years to come.
But…we were at Juno Beach, Courseulles-sur-Mer and I wanted to understand a little more about the Canadian participation. My only real brush with the Canuck side of my family had come at an RAF memorial that sits on a hill above the Magna Carta memorial in Runnymede, England. I wanted to learn more about the 3rd Canadian Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Division and their participation in Operation OVERLORD. I was keen to hear the stories of the Canadian 31st Minesweeping Flotilla who cleared the assault lanes for the American forces at Omaha Beach. Inside the Juno Beach Centre which opened June 6 2003 the family learned about the Canadian brigades landing and fighting their way up the beach assisted by British Sherman DD tanks. Fierce German counter attacks by the 716th Infantry Division delayed the advance as they headed for the first objective of St Aubin-sur-Mer on their eastern flank. 90 minutes after the first landing, follow on forces arrived; the logistics of getting so many men and so much equipment to shore was only realised by the Allies total air superiority.
15 men from B Company, Royal Winnipeg Rifles attacked “Cosy’s Pillbox” with rifles and grenades. The bunker is named after a Canadian sergeant who was killed in the fight. 150 support engineers assisted in the assault. Of these 165 men only 27 survived. By the end of D-Day itself, the Canadian forces were in a hap-hazard line between Creully and Villon-les-Buissons, a few miles north east of Caen. In fact one troop of hardy Canadian tanks had penetrated the furthest inland of any Allied force that day, but returned to the mass of Canadian forces by nightfall.
I could go on but there are thousands of books, films, pictures about D-Day, let alone WW2. We’d spent the day at Bayeux and decided to come here and see our Canadian heritage. We left understanding so much more about what the brave Canucks had done for the Allies. Canada is often remarked upon as a nation that under-represents itself in the global jostling for recognition. It is sorely so because Canada does far more than our history lessons would teach us and it is worth both finding out that and understanding it.
We went out of the Centre and walked on that beach, saw the remnants of the fighting places, saw the memorial tanks and guns, read the plaques; the weight of history is something everyone experiences in moments like this and it is difficult to emote understanding on the pages of a small blog. For all that, if you are in the area go to Omaha and Gold Beaches certainly. But don’t forget Juno Beach because this is where Canada’s finest contributed so much to the freedom of so many.Is this what diplomacy is all about?