Sunday, October 13, 2013

"Shall We Carry On?"

Storming Juno Beach
The drawn-out chronicle of the Normandy adventure continues today as we head toward the Canadian sector at Juno Beach.  Above, our Canadian English/French-speaking guide orients our group to the surrounding sites and touring options on March 12.  Unlike Omaha Beach down the coastline, Juno possesses no imposing bluffs overlooking the shore.  However, the terrain gradually slopes upward as it ascends inland.  The 15,000 Canadians and 9,000 British troops who landed here on June 6, 1944 faced an uphill battle in both a literal and figurative sense.  

In the moments before the landings here, Allied destroyers and gunboats inched their way closer to shore and attempted to rake German defenses with shell and rocket fire.  This concerted effort had few affects on the Nazi defenders other than a psychological toll.  As with other areas of the invasion, Allied artillery overshot their intended targets and largely left Hitler's Atlantic Wall intact.  When the Canadians reached the water's edge, they were immediately withered by overwhelming enemy fire at painfully close range.  Sea conditions proved choppy and the beach was soon entangled in a traffic jam of men and vehicles.  Amidst this melee, Lance Corporal Rolph Jackson of the Queen's Own Rifles was struck as he scurried from his Landing Craft Assault (LCA).  The Toronto native later recalled:

"We got fairly close to the beach, the water didn't even come up to our hips.  Slightly on our right was a German pillbox.  The pillbox was manned.  There were about thirty men on our landing craft.  I was the eleventh off.  Eight of those first eleven men were killed and two of us were wounded.  I was hit in the hand.  It must have caught me off stride because it knocked me down.... The front of my pants and battledress blouse were [later] shredded [by fragments].  If I had been two inches farther ahead, I would have been killed."
Jackson was wounded by a German "potato masher" thrown in front of him, a fragment striking his shoulder.  Undaunted by his two injuries, Jackson tossed a hand grenade over the seawall, presumably clearing the way of immediate enemy obstruction.  Not unlike the soldiers of '44, we too faced some (non-lethal) obstructions of our own amid our travels.

Once more, our journey from our base at Caen to the coast was a long one.  Even though the disastrous snowstorm had ceased, its aftermath continued to wreak havoc on our travel agenda.  Only minutes away from Juno, our large purple bus was pulled over by some misinformed French police officers who told us that bus travel was prohibited because of the recent snowfall.  Even though their information was wrong, how we were supposed to know even if they were correct?  We disregarded their warning and pushed on.

Finally reaching the coast, we visited the Juno Beach Centre and learned of the deeply emotional human drama that took place there sixty-eight years prior.  (So many other museums and sites were closed at this time due to the inclement weather.  Luckily, this place was open because Canadians know how to deal with snow!)  Located in Courseulles-sur-Mer, the museum offers the holistic perspective of the Canadian World War II experience.  Built in 2003, the museum was perhaps the best our group had the pleasure to visit during our pilgrimage.  Venues within the building included a dramatic multimedia presentation of the beach landings as well as intimate, personal artifacts conveying the human tragedy and achievements of D-Day.

One would be wrong, however, to assume that the Normandy Invasion is the sole focus of the Juno Beach Centre.  In fact, a significant portion of the museum places the events of D-Day within the broader scope of the Canadian war effort.  One gallery (styled as a household parlor) features vintage civilian radio broadcasts relating the major events of the war.  Visitors have the opportunity to imagine themselves as family members on the home front as they soak in the good and bad news war presents.

The museum's dimensions delved not only into the military, economic, and political spheres of Canada in WWII, but also the roles and views of the country's children in that conflict.  Much like their youthful American neighbors to the south, the younger generations of Canadian society held highly romanticized and mythical perceptions of what the war was.  Tangibles such as wartime jigsaw puzzles, tin cars, cap guns, and cookie cutters relate the patriotic correlation youth had to the global conflict.  As the Canadian War Museum attests, during both World Wars, "Military readers like The Children's Story of the War or Canada in Flanders apprised young Canadians of the fighting overseas, but gave little sense of the horrific nature of the fighting or the magnitude of the war's human cost.  Patriotic teachers sometimes encouraged their students to help convince adult males or older brothers to enlist."  Today, video games such as Call of Duty serve as the 21st century equivalent of these books as society's disconnect and ambivalence toward war and its realities grow increasingly troublesome.

While the museum's narrative offers a diverse story, the main focus of the Centre is rightfully the 1944 invasion.  The above helmet belonged to Sergeant George Richard La Croix of the First Candadian Parachute Battalion.  He was perhaps among the first Canadian troops killed in the landings in the early morning hours of June 6 when an enemy bullet struck his helmet.  He was subsequently buried at Saint-Vaast-en-Auge in Calvados.  George's sister, Marie, remained in the service as a nurse in the Canadian Army.  At war's end, she returned to the cemetery of her brother's burial and retrieved his helmet still resting atop his headstone.  La Croix's helmet and his Canadian Memorial Cross medal were donated to the nearby village in 2000 by his family.  A powerful artifact among many.

This memorial standing outside the Juno Beach Centre may seem unusual to some at first glance.  Upon further investigation, I discovered that the pile of stones is an Inuksuk--a symbol of survival among Canada's Inuit peoples.  The memorial is to stand as a guide denoting that humans have passed through that place.  This particular Inuksuk was erected in 2005 in remembrance of the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit who served Canada in the Second World War.

Down the pathway from the monument emerged a large, tortoise-like shell from the ground--a German beach fortification.  Circling the bunker partially covered in snow, I discovered the semi-concealed opening and trudged my way up the narrow concrete staircase to its top.  The space was confined, damp, and (bitterly) cold.  The structure was an observation post and contained a radio to allow for thorough communication from one defensive point to the next.  Above me would have been a steel dome to offer protection for the machine gun crew in this tight spot.  One can only imagine the intense volume of an MG-42 being fired from within.

Another unique memorial stands vigil at the water's edge, one which bears resemblance to an Allied landing craft.  The simplistic monument almost seemed a portal to a different time in the same place.  Indeed, the invasion was revelatory to soldiers and civilians alike at the time as well.  M. Jean Housel, a resident of Courseulles-sur-Mer, saw the Canadians arriving on shore on June 6.  Judging them by their dress, he believed them to be British troops and bellowed out to them in English, "Here they are, the Tommies!"  The Frenchman was greatly surprised to receive the reply, "Je suis Canadian" from one of the young liberators.

Remnants of the Atlantic Wall remain strewn along the coast, including this half-sunk German gun emplacement.  Naturally, such fortifications were deadly obstacles for those wading ashore.  Those men included Lance Corporal Edward Kendall of the 46th Field Surgical Unit of the Royal Army Medical Corps.  Comprising a mobile medical operating unit, he and his comrades came inland on a large supply truck that soon stalled under fire.  Trying to maintain their cool, Kendall and the others jumped out of the vehicle and successfully pushed it up the beach until it started once more.  Their hardship did not end at that moment, as Kendall recalled: "We had been operating when a lot of fireworks were going on outside.... We ducked more or less under the operating table.  [Major J. M. Leggett would] just turn around and say, 'Gentlemen, shall we carry on?'"

The cement bunker in the background of this original photo stood behind the seawall at the village of Bernieres-sur-Mer and sheltered a 50 mm artillery piece capable of knocking out tanks.  As one can see here, the seawall became a place of refuge both during and after the attack.  Many of the 600 Canadian wounded (as well as German prisoners) awaited evacuation from this point.  But as this photo suggests, not all were as fortunate.  The young individuals draped with blankets were among the 350 Canadians killed on Juno.  Temporary, metal crucifixes dotted the landscape around the beach marking the momentary burial location of these individuals.  One such cross hangs in the Juno Beach Centre, with an excerpt of the Laurence Binyon poem For the Fallen engraved on the wall beside it.  I cannot think of a more appropriate way to conclude this article than to merely reflect on those words:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

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