Michael Dawe: Red Deer greeted D-Day with mix of joy and apprehension

Poor weather delayed invasion by a day

June 6 marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most important events in modern world history.

On that day, in 1944, the largest seaborne invasion in history took place when the Allied forces successfully landed 155,000 men onto the coast of Normandy.

Initially, it meant the opening of a second front in the war against Germany. However, to most, it also meant the beginning of the end of the Second World War.

The invasion had been expected for some time. After the very dark days of 1940-41, when the sudden success of the German Blitzkrieg made it appear that Hitler and the Nazis might indeed conquer the world, the tide of battle had turned.

The United States had entered the war in December 1941 after the unexpected attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1943, the Allied forces had successfully invaded Sicily and Italy, with Canadians having a significant role in the fighting.

Now, attention turned to what was often referred to as Fortress Europe. The challenge to successfully invade the Atlantic Wall in France was enormous.

Huge numbers of men and weaponry would have to be ferried across the English Channel.

This massive movement would have to include an element of surprise to succeed. Careful planning and preparation was essential. Allied troops were intensively trained for nearly a year in amphibious assaults, combined operations, embarkations and disembarkations.

The Allied Command also looked to the experience of the Dieppe raid of August 1942 for guidance. That terrible disaster showed what needed to be done and what must be avoided.

Tragically, it was a lesson that had been gained with a huge loss of Canadian lives.

By early 1944, the Allied forces were thought to be ready for the big invasion. The Canadian troops were widely regarded as being among the best trained and best prepared troops under the Allied Command.

Under the master plan for the invasion, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade were assigned the job of landing at Juno Beach, between the French villages of Vaux and St. Aubin Sur Mer.

The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was to join in aerial landings beyond the beaches.

The invasion was set for Monday, June 5. However, due to bad weather, the invasion had to be postponed, even though that increased the chances of detection.

Despite continuing rough seas, the unprecedented armada set out for France the next day. Hundreds of bombers and fighter aircraft swarmed overhead.

Heavy bombing of the German defences was carried out from midnight until dawn, followed by naval shelling. Meanwhile, Canadian paratroopers landed before dawn behind the enemy lines and helped to make any attempt by the Germans to repel the invasion more difficult.

By 8 a.m., the seaborne landings began. Despite the large numbers of mines and the heavy fire from the German defenders, the Canadians successfully made their way ashore at Juno Beach. After consolidating their positions, several units began to fight their way inland.

There was great success, but at a great cost. On D-Day, the Canadians suffered nearly 1,000 casualties, including more than 340 men killed in action.

Meanwhile, back in Red Deer, the news of the great invasion was greeted with joy, but also a great deal of worry and concern.

In the morning, there was a brief ceremony at the A-20 Army Camp. The troops in training gathered on the parade square for a special religious service. Then there was a ceremonial parade with the salute taken by the camp commandant, Col. Burton-Willison.

In the afternoon, 1,000 people gathered at the City Square in a public service of prayer. The service was led by the Red Deer Ministerial Association.

The mayor and city council were present on the platform, as were various military officers from the A-20 Army camp. The camp band played hymns.

The Nazarene College choir led the singing, along with the students from local schools and the local sea cadets.

Over the following days and weeks, there was more news of victory, but again with an ongoing loss of lives. Nevertheless, the long-hoped-for end to the terrible war finally seemed in sight. Moreover, Canadian troops had once again proven their great courage and skill in battle.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.

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