Canada Remembers: D-Day and the Battle of Normandy

Canadians took part in many hard struggles to help the Allies to victory during the Second World War. D-Day and the Battle of Normandy was one of the best-known chapters of the entire conflict and our service members would play an important role in this pivotal campaign.

Germany invaded much of Western Europe in the spring of 1940, during the opening months of the Second World War. A narrow stretch of sea, the English Channel, was all that separated the surging enemy forces from Great Britain, but the island nation held firm. The conquered countries on the continent would suffer greatly under a harsh occupation in the years that followed.

The Allies would slowly turn the tide against the powerful enemy war machine in North Africa, Italy, on the Eastern Front, in the skies over Europe and on the Atlantic Ocean. To win the war, however, Germany would have to be defeated on the ground in Western Europe and 1944 would be the year the Allies would finally return and powerfully strike back.

The target for the Allied landing forces would be the beaches of Normandy in France. Planning and preparation for this immense undertaking, codenamed Operation Overlord, began more than a year earlier.

Successfully establishing a beachhead in occupied France would be a huge challenge for the Allied forces. The Germans had turned the coast of Europe from the Spanish border to Scandinavia into a daunting series of defensive positions. Dubbed “Fortress Europe” by Adolf Hitler, its shores were studded with land mines, barbed wire, concrete bunkers, artillery batteries, machine-gun nests, antitank walls, and thousands of watchful enemy troops.

The Allied high command made the decision to attack on June 6, 1944—a date that has become known in history as “D-Day.” A massive Allied force would cross the English Channel, heading for an 80-kilometre stretch of the Normandy coast. There were five landing zones assigned to the forces of different nations: Juno Beach (Canada); Gold Beach (United Kingdom); Sword Beach (United Kingdom and France); and Utah Beach and Omaha Beach (United States).

The Canadians successfully captured their shoreline positions at Juno Beach and penetrated the farthest inland of any of the some 155,000 Allied troops who had landed on June 6, 1944, but D-Day was only the beginning of the struggle to liberate France.

Normandy was the beginning of 11 months of hard fighting in Northwest Europe. Canadians would also go on to play an important role in bitter struggles at places like the Scheldt, the Rhineland and the Netherlands during the Allied offensives that would eventually help defeat the Germans and see Victory in Europe (V-E) Day declared on May 8, 1945.

On June 6 at 11am Central European Summer Time (CEST), you can watch the signature commemorative ceremony live from France on Veterans Affairs Canada’s “Canada Remembers” Facebook page or on CBC.

True Patriot Love spoke to Mark Zuehlke, author of Juno Beach and one of Canada’s leading writers of popular military history, about the path to this defining day and his experiences uncovering stories of bravery and sacrifice for new generations.

What was the situation in the German military in 1944 in the lead-up to D-Day?

The blitzkrieg is finished. The German army tried to keep it going in Russia until Stalingrad but Stalingrad is basically the turning point in the war for the Germans. They lose the entire army and you can’t make back those numbers, they’re gone: all those thousands and thousands of men and all that equipment are all gone. From that point on, they’re on the defensive. They’re getting pushed back in Italy and they always have to keep divisions down there. They have so much manpower tied down in Russia and Italy so when the Normandy front opens up, they don’t really have the strength to stop it.

There’s also a critical period where they think the landing at Normandy was a deception. Hitler’s toadies were fixated on the idea that the invasion was going to happen at Pas de Calais. Their intelligence failed them: they had a certain number of hours to get their act together and they don’t. They couldn’t respond fast enough because the Panzer division weren’t concentrated where they needed to be, and it takes time to move them.

But they do try and for the first six days they come damn close. It’s an attack on the Canadian division – we’re the key: if they can destroy the Canadians, then the British are split on two flanks and the Germans can just roll them up. If they can get rid of the British and Canadians they can take their time on the Americans. But we were able to defeat that counter-attack. It’s really June 12 when we know the invasion is ashore and nobody’s going anywhere except forward.

Describe the role of training for the Canadian Division, many of whom were new to the battlefield.

We built the first Canadian army up and established it in England. There were well over 100,000 Canadians in England and, except for Dieppe, we have an army that is not fighting, it is training for this moment. The Canadians were being held to be a major part of the invasion force whenever and wherever it happens. The 3rd Division and 2nd Canadian Armored Brigade are going to be the arrow point. From 1942 onward those two divisions are working constantly: they train for amphibious operations and how to land. They conduct a number of exercises where they go to sea and then land on British beaches. The British forces are doing that, too, and out of that comes a knowledge base that leads to innovations like the Duplex Drive tank.

By the time of the invasion, I think it could be argued that the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division is probably the most sophisticated amphibious landing force that the Allies have built in the north-west theatre. We’ve trained to know how to get ashore and have good plans on what to do when you do get ashore, and to a large extent that plays out as anticipated.

It’s been underplayed that Canadians made it furthest inland, further than the British or Americans, but it is important especially as Juno is a heavily defended beach. We suffered the second heaviest number of casualties and still we almost made our D-Day objective of getting to Carpiquet Airport. Also, it’s not like the Germans weren’t there, too, and the fighting doesn’t lessen when they get off the beach – if anything it remains about the same in its intensity. The Canadians get six miles inland which is an incredible achievement.

In Juno Beach, you paint a strong picture of the physical demands on soldiers – the heaviness of their packs, the seasickness, coping with wounds. How did you discover or uncover such vivid details and reconstruct them so potently?

I was very fortunate with Juno Beach. The Veterans’ memories were still quite sharp when I was writing; my later books had limitations because the Veterans were getting older and they just didn’t remember. I’m also a novelist and trained as a journalist so that’s a skillset that I was able to bring to the project.

For Juno Beach I interviewed about 200 veterans myself, and there was a fellow in Ontario who interviewed veterans on my behalf because he knew people in certain regiments. Also, the University of Victoria has a long-running military oral history program that was run by Reg Roy, a Veteran of World War Two who would send out grad students to interview Veterans every year. Many soldiers retired to Victoria, and not just western Canadian Veterans, so there was a huge number of first-person stories.

What drew you to writing about Canadian military history?

What I grew up reading in the late 60s and early 70s were primarily American and British histories because that’s all that was out there. There was very little Canadian military history beyond the official histories. We all grew up looking at the Canadian experience through an American or British lens and if got mentioned at all, it was usually in a derogatory manner.

In the 1990s, I happened to meet Canadians who had served in the Battle of Ortona; their stories of the battle were incredible but nothing had been written about them. By that time, I had published some books so I developed a book proposal about the battle and my agent shopped it around for two years. One of the typical responses from editors was, “It’s about World War Two. That was a long time ago and nobody cares.”

Then Saving Private Ryan came out and within about five days of the movie being released, an editor calls my agent and says, “Hey, is that book about Ortona still kicking around?” That started the process that eventually led me writing more books which led to the Canadian Battlefield Series.

An interesting sidenote is that many Veterans I interviewed for Juno Beach spoke about how the first few minutes of Saving Private Ryan really accorded with their memories of that time.

This is your 10th year as a battlefield tour leader, and you’ll be at Juno Beach on June 6. You’ve said that the tours are educational but often have an emotional component; can you describe that?

Our battlefield tour is like a university course in two weeks – we give lectures on the ground but we integrate participants’ family histories into the tour as well.

A lot of participants have family who were involved in the war in one way or another, but the Veterans were very modest or were reticent to talk about their experiences. Many people on the tour have a family story but no one’s talking about it. They come along with us and they are able to learn more; it helps them clarify what it all meant and put it into some kind of context.

Because people are sharing family stories it brings the tour group together in a really nice way. There’s a lot of tears and a lot of laughter all mixed together. Some of the tour groups have stayed in contact with each other, sometimes for years.

We find that most of the people who come on tours with us become emotionally invested in the act of remembrance. It is a life changer for a lot of people.

In the course of writing your books, what have you learned from talking to Veterans?

Their courageousness was overwhelming but I was always struck by the incredible modesty of these guys who did so much. They didn’t look like the Audie Murphy vision of heroes. All of the soldiers I interviewed did extraordinary things just by volunteering to be there, because they said, “I’m going to step up and do it.”

In my generation growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, we saw Veterans as the guys who put on their uniform and went to the Legion. They seemed conservative and stuffy to us but that wasn’t their story at all. Before the Second World War Canadians were mostly farmers or industry workers. After the war, they came home and they built Canada.

Join the commemoration

There are different events and ways for you to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day:

  • Attend the commemorative ceremony at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on June 6 at 10am EDT.
  • Find commemorative events in Canada on the Veterans Affairs website.
  • Community events can be found on the Veterans Affairs events calendar. You can also search True Patriot Love’s Veteran Hub for events near you.
  • Add to the archive of memory and meaning. Share your story about the impact a Second World War Veteran has had in your life.


“Canada Remembers: D-Day and the Battle of Normandy” was published by Veterans Affairs Canada as an educational supplement, and has been edited for use in this article.