JBPDT 2010* – Day Four: Juno Beach (& Centre), Courseulles/Berieres/St. Aubin-sur-Mer & Beny Canadian Cemetery (WWII)

*Juno Beach Professional Development Tour 2010

Today, we visit the tour’s namesake: Juno Beach. Unlike other museums, at other D-day beaches, the Juno Beach Centre is right on the beach, and a short walk from the front doors has your feet in the sand. Yes, unlike the deadly Dieppe ‘chert’ beach, this beach is sandy. Not too far away from the Centre, are many remaining fortifications put in place by the Nazis, often built during the war using locals as slave labour. Also unlike Dieppe, there are no tall chalk cliffs to be seen. Between the sand, and the absence of cliffs,  I suspect the commanding Canadian officer excitedly called ‘dibs’ on this beach after the Dieppe experience.

The Juno Beach Centre

Today we are also to visit the towns of Courseulles-sur-Mer (where the Juno Beach Centre is) as well as Berieres-sur-mer and St. Aubin-sue-Mer, and make one of two visits to the Centre itself. Juno Beach was the code name given to the wide beachhead (about 8 km wide) that extended from Courseulles-sur-Mer in the west to St. Aubin-sur-Mer in the east, with Berieres-sur-Mer in between, hence the reason for visiting these three towns.

The Centre is very impressive from an architectural standpoint, the first thing you notice is the bird droppings. The Centre is SHINY, and for some reason birds find shiny things –like your newly cleaned car– absolutely irresistible. The outer skin of the Centre looks like scales of a fish, in this case a titanium fish, as other typical materials (particularly aluminum) degrade very quickly in salty air. In front of the Centre is a large statue and the beginnings of a static display. Our visit was not long after the placement of a recently dedicated 25-pound gun (or as Garth would say, ‘the gun that won the war’) and I understand from the Juno Beach Centre’s website a Bofor gun was added only a month ago. There are also many commemorative plaques with the names of the many donors that made the Centre possible.

The centre, like other Canadian memorial sites we visited, has a great guide program that allows Canadian students to serve as guides over the summer. All of our guides were fantastic, and were a great credit to the Centre.

German Bunker & Humour

We were given a guided tour, down to the beach, to visit a German bunker that was still in very good condition. This is where we discovered that the German soldiers had a very sick sense of humour. From watching many war movies, I know that one of the best ways to take out a bunker is to get close (this is usually the hard part) and then toss a grenade into any available opening. Right in front of the rear entrance to the bunker are what look to be two ventilation holes, one about eye level, and one by your feet, which would be an appealing target for a grenade. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, the Germans have a sick sense of humour, and these holes are actually connected in one long U-shape. The live grenade gets tossed in the top hole, and drops out at your feet just in time to explode. While it was likely some Canadian soldier that ended up the brunt of this joke, we couldn’t help but chuckle at this.

When most people think of D-day, they think of the American narrative of Omaha beach, where they suffered over 3,000 casualties. In the first hour of the attack on Juno, the Canadians saw a similar casualty rate (~50%) to that at Omaha, but the resistance waned as they cleared the sea wall; they sustained about 1,000 casualties (dead, injured, captured). Each landing was quite different, for example Utah Beach (another US objective) only saw about 200 casualties.

After spending some time on the beach, we returned to the Centre for the Director’s introduction on the Centre’s mandate. We were also informed about the different ways the Centre can help educators –either on site or remotely– provide education on the Canadian war experience. Since we spent much more time in the museum the following day, I will leave comments to the next post.

Mike B on the DD Tank

A short bus ride east took us to some static displays, including a duplex drive tank, defensive guns, and many plaques and memorials that mention the Canadian landings June 6th 1944. There is one plaque that marks where Charles-de-Gaulle made his victorious return to liberate French soil, a little over a week after the Allied landings (there is apparently still debate between the coastal villages as to where he actually made the landings, but that is as prone to historial revisionism as de-Gaulle’s value in the war effort).

Mike B. gave us another one of his great talks at the DD tank, in fact he was so passionate about this amphibious vehicle, I would put him high on the list of suspects if it were to ever go missing. He spoke of the surprise of the Germans when strange canvas boxes approached the beach, then dropped their surrounding skirts –used to increase buoyancy– and revealed a battle-ready tank. He also mentioned that they could have had a greater impact, had not many of them been launched too far out at sea, in choppy water, that resulted in many (including this well-preserved specimen) sinking with their crews before they reached shore. Nearby was a memorial to the First Canadian Scottish Regiment, and another to the Royal Winnipeg Rifles (a 15+ foot high wooden sword). There was also a British red phone booth, which was just odd.

First House Liberated by Canadians

A short drive a little farther east to Berniêres-sur-Mer, we visited a house that has become a shrine of sorts to the Queens’s Own Rifles of Canada, as they made this the first house liberated by Canadian troops on D-day. There is much interesting museum-quality memorabilia on the walls, and several pictures of the house itself as it looked on D-day. The house is still privately owned and the owner’s son kindly welcomed us into their home.

After lots of time at the beach, we took a bus ride to a very unassuming looking field. Near the field was a memorial to the 14th Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery. In the day 3 post, I had mentioned Garth Web, President and Director of the Juno Beach Centre. It was in this field that he watched 10 of his comrades get blown to smithereens by a German 88mm gun, that lay undetected in a nearby forest thought cleared by advancing troops. The artillery team, heavily laden with high explosives, made for an easy target for the hidden 88. This was yet another example, how by having a knowledgeable historian along (Mike B.), an otherwise unassuming site was turned into a rich historical experience.

After visiting more beach defences, we made a final WWII-related stop for the day at The Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, about 3.5km south of the beach at Courseulles-sur-Mer. In this cemetery lie about 2,000 Canadians, mostly killed on D-Day, and the battle for Caen. This is also where the remains of 27 Canadian POW’s, illegally executed by the SS at l’Abbeye d’Ardenne, are now interred. I will expand on this last story in the next post, as we visited the Abbey the following day.

We ended they day back in Bayeux, with some unscheduled time to tour around the city. Unlike Caen, Bayeux was taken with little resistance or damage, and and is stunning in its beauty and history; you can peruse some of my pictures to get an idea.

And sleep…

Advertisements

JBPDT 2010* – Day Three: Dieppe, Pegasus Bridge (WWII)

*Juno Beach Professional Development Tour 2010

No travel was required to get to our first stop of the day, as we spent the night right on the beach at Dieppe. Mike B. took us up the beach to discuss the events of the Jubilee raid and the Canadian regiments involved that each have memorials along the beach. I found one such memorial, to the Canadian Essex Scottish Regiment to be particularly striking.

Essex Scottish Regiment Memorial - Dieppe

Essex Scottish Regiment Memorial - Dieppe

The memorial is a black obelisk (see picture) that has a maple leaf cut through it that shines sunlight on to a silver target on the ground every anniversary of the raid. “Red Beach” is indicated on the memorial, as this one one of several beaches (others in Puys and Pourville) that were a target of the Dieppe Raid.

This raid still causes heated debate amongst historians, as to whether Canadian lives were just thrown away to satiate Russian desires for a second front, or if the lessons learned were actually worth the lives lost. What is clear, is what was always intended to be a raid (attack, then retreat, without holding ground gained) turned into a major disaster with almost 60% casualties.

The beach itself posed serious problems to the landing. With one of the largest tides in the world, the decision to land is either with the perils of high- or low-tide. They chose low-tide which created the challenge of running up a long open pebble beach with heavy packs. I tried running up the steep incline of the beach without any heavy load (or anyone shooting at me) and I was winded! The large ‘chert’ pebbles of the beach also act to magnify the effect of the enemy artillery fire. Sand does a good job of absorbing the energy and shrapnel of artillery shells, while this chert beach just takes the energy and transfers it to the rocks, which become deadly projectiles.

The Beach in 1942 and 2010

Another big challenge to the Canadians when they landed, was the great observation posts the cliffs offered to the German defenders. We were taken to a observation point on the south end of the beach, which offered a commanding view of the entire length of the beach. Our guide indicated that ‘if you can see it, the Germans could shoot it’, which was all of the beach.

It was two years later that Canadians were able to avenge the raid when they liberated Dieppe after the D-day landings. How thankful the local French citizens are to Canadians is apparent everywhere. Canadian flags can be seen more often than the Tricolour in many places. Many street names have been changed to make reference to the liberating Canadians. This was very apparent at our next stop in the town of Pourville, where we visited Lieutenant-Colonel Merritt Bridge. This bridge was named after a Canadian soldier of the South Saskatchewan Regiment who won a Victoria Cross for leading groups of his men over the bridge under heavy enemy fire, and then covered their retreat resulting in him being taken as a POW.

Unusual Arrangement

The next stop was at the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery, a cemetery originally created by the Germans, which accounts for it’s unusual (for Commonwealth cemeteries) arrangement of the graves head-to-head. Like all the other Commonwealth cemeteries we visited, it was immaculately kept, and a fitting memorial to those who gave their lives.

With jetlag still lingering, the two hours drive to the Pegasus Bridge site near Caen was a welcome chance to have a rest. During the drive we watched a video of  Garth Webb, D-Day veteran and President/Director/Founder of the Juno Beach Centre, discuss his experiences in the Canadian artillery. It was largely his efforts that gave us the opportunity to have to this trip, and to visit the excellent Juno Beach Centre which I will discuss more later.

Pegasus Bridge was the site of early operations of the D-day landing. Once the beaches were taken, the allied forces needed to make sure they could control access to key bridges. British troops used gliders to land near the bridge and take it and the adjacent Ranville bridge from defending forces. Many similar operations were being undertaken at different key sites, but this operation has the distinction of having the first allied casualty of D-day. One of the gliders landed in the water, resulting in the drowning of one soldier (the ‘first casualty’); another was lost in the battle for the bridge. The operation was successful, and the bridges were taken intact. The neighbouring café was the first building liberated on D-day.

Glider Landings near Pegasus (highlighted)

The site has an excellent indoor museum with many large static displays outside, including the original bridge (which was replaced by an identical –but wider– bridge), artillery field pieces, vehicles and a replica Horsa Glider. The original gliders, made almost entirely of wood and fabric, didn’t survive very long after the landings, as raw materials for building were in short supply. The museum collected what little was left and put it on display.

In the museum itself, they have an exhibit, using a lighted map and live narrator, that does a great job of illustrating the Pegasus Bridge operation (Operation Deadstick) and other parts of Operation Tonga.

We finished our day in Bayeux, a beautiful city which would be our base of operations for the next five days.

Book Review: “God is Not Great” by Christopher Hitchens

The only way I can get through books anymore is to buy audiobooks which I can listen to on my iPhone when I am driving around or on the treadmill.

One of my more recent purchases was “God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens.

My first impression of the book was tainted by the voice of the author, who chose to narrate the audiobook. He has the “pompous british professor” voice down to a ‘T’, which made me feel like I was going to get preached to for the next 8.5 hours (the approximate length of the audiobook). After about 1/2 hour of listening, I became convinced that the life experience and background research that the author put into the book was worth putting up with the pomposity!

One of the things I liked best about the book was the even hand that the author took with the world’s major religions. He did not choose to deride any one in particular, but rather picked examples from many faiths to prove his points about how religions have a negative impact on society. He doesn’t even spare Buddhism, with several negative points made at the expense of the Dalai Lama.

Counting Salman Rushdie as one of his friends, and occasional house guest, I am sure Christopher Hitchens had no expectations of making new friends with such a book, in fact, I respect him greatly for the guts it took to provide such rational argument considering the potential personal repercussions (he has already received several death threats).

Some interesting topics that ‘God is Not Great’ touches on include:

  • Many examples of how organized religion impeded the progress of science
  • How the worldwide cure for Polio was stopped in its tracks by religion
  • Why martyrs really get 72 golden raisins and not the 72 virgins they thought they were getting (doh!)
  • The many many contradictions in all religions that make it hard to understand what guidance is intended by god
  • The true nature of religions texts, with their various editions, omission, mis-translations and additions
  • How the separation of church and state is blurring in the world’s most powerful country, and how this is negatively impacting world politics
  • Discussions on the ‘morality’ of atheists as compared with the devout
  • Why people should not be exposed to religion until adulthood
Whatever your religious leanings, I think this book is a must have in your collection if you spend any time contemplating religion!
%d bloggers like this: