In June of 2021, after 14 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, many Canadians think our lives have been unjustly imposed upon.
We’ve been ordered to stay home. Our favourite restaurants are off limits. You can’t get a haircut. We must wear masks to get service. We need to roll up our sleeves and let strangers stick needles in our arms. It’s an imposition.
But 77 years ago, things were a lot tougher.
Canadian husbands, fathers, sons and brothers were being sent to bloody battlefields 7,000 km away from home, where Canada’s enemies were trying to kill them.
Thousands of dreaded telegrams were delivered to their distraught families back in Canada, informing them of their deaths in combat overseas, especially after June 6, 1944 and the great invasion that marked the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
On the home front, women worked around the clock in munitions factories and workshops, turning out tanks and airplanes. One in three aircraft workers were women.
Canadians were rationed to less than five ounces of meat per day, four ounces of butter per week. Alcohol was in short supply. There would be no relief from rationing until 1947, two years after the Second World War ended.
By the spring of 1944, after four-and-a-half years of conflict, Canadians had had a bellyful of war.
But they knew there was no respite until Adolf Hitler was defeated.
And so, with courage and resolve, at home and in battle, Canadians sacrificed everything in a global war where victory was the only option.
Weeks before the D-Day invasion, there were strange goings on along the English Channel.
Roads and laneways through the green fields of England were choked with military personnel and equipment.
Yet somehow, the Allies were able to convince Hitler that the invasion would strike at the Port of Calais a couple of hundred kilometres away from the real target, Normandy.
It was a massive deception that could have easily failed since the enemy was only 240 kilometres away at the widest point of the Channel.
Lt. Clifton James was an Australian actor and a near perfect doppelganger for British General Bernard Montgomery.
So the Allies sent him to Algiers and Gibraltar, leading German intelligence to conclude there would be no invasion as long as Monty was far away from the conflict.
Back in England, an armada of fake wood and canvas landing craft crowded the mouth of the Thames and regiments of inflatable Sherman tanks created the illusion of a massive, military buildup poised to pounce on Calais.
Those legendary days of duplicity paid off in a big way when Operation Overlord finally set sail sometime after 03:00 hours on a wild and windy 6th of June.
For days, 14,000 Canadian infantrymen had been standing ready in the south of England.
Originally scheduled for June 5, Mother Nature’s ferocious weather caused a 24-hour postponement of D-Day.
Our troops remained on their ships in unbearable anticipation until the order came to depart.
They were frightened and seasick, but also courageous and determined, ready to get on with the daunting task ahead.
On D-Day, Canadian airman Lloyd Bentley was flying with the Royal Air Force, dropping paratroopers six or seven kilometres inland from Juno Beach.
It was the most remarkable day in his 23 years of life.
From thousands of metres in the air he had a front row seat to the most amazing military invasion in history.
As he later told The Memory Project:
“I swear you could see about two or three thousand aircrafts — 13,000 aircrafts took part (in all) and there was between 5,000 and 7,000 ships … if I had long legs and stepped down on those ships I could have walked back to England, they were so thick. It was the most amazing sight I’ve ever seen in my life.”
At the age of 30, Halifax native Captain Desmond Piers experienced the invasion from the bridge of HMCS Algonquin.
“Daylight came, and the sky was filled with bombers and fighters, and there before us was France, with all these landing craft streaming towards it,” he later recalled.
With enemy rounds ripping the air all around the Algonquin, Piers manoeuvred his ship, through maritime mine fields to place his men in the best possible position to strike at the enemy on Juno Beach.
He would be awarded France’s highest award, the Legion d’Honneur, for his bravery that day.
An icy fist gripped the guts of every man scrambling aboard their landing craft once they realized, “they’re trying to kill us”, as Charlie Martin with Toronto’s Queen’s Own Rifles, later recalled.
“We can’t stop even if our best friend is hit … We have to run like a bat out of hell straight at (the enemy).”
As they took their objectives in record time, the Queen’s Own caught the worst of it with 143 wounded and 61 riflemen killed.
When darkness fell, Canada counted 1,039 casualties including 359 Canadian warriors dead on the battlefield.
When the sounds of battle finally faded weeks later, 5,000 brave Canadians would rest for eternity in the fields of Normandy.
They sacrificed everything for us and we must never forget.
Col. Gilbert Taylor, (HCol. retired) is the immediate past president of the Royal Canadian Military Institute and Ontario Branch of the Last Post Fund.