“In a few hours, the men who crouched waiting tensely in their ships would be facing the most challenging moment of their lives. That moment would be when the ramp of the landing craft splashed down and they would stand unprotected, amid the oncoming hail of German artillery, machine gun, and small arms fire.”~Stewart Mein, Up the johns! : The story of the Royal Regina Rifles
June 5, 1944 en route to Normandy – “The big day has come”
It was the dead of night when Lance Sergeant Edwin Worden, a Canadian soldier serving with the Royal Regina Rifles, set sail for Nazi-occupied France. On this cold and stormy night, L/Sgt Worden wrote one letter home to his British war bride Lily. Waiting for his first taste of combat, did he feel fear, excitement, panic? If he did, he kept it to himself. Instead, he wrote only of his love for his wife–and his belief that he would make it home again:
“We are going in to-morrow morning. as I write this we are out on the water, so the big day has come. I often had wondered how I would feel, but I don’t feel any difference…thanks to you…I know I can truthful say if it was not for you I would feel different, but it is the love and trust I have for you and that will help me over many a rough spot.”
June 6, 1944. D-Day.
It was a misty, grey morning when some 130,000 Allied soldiers, sailers and airmen–including 14,000 Canadians–arrived on the shores of Normandy. In the early morning light, the men on the ships saw the black shapes of other vessels nearby and the French coastline ahead:
“When I woke up in the landing boat at dawn on June the 6th, I could not believe what I was seeing. It was thousands of ships! And there were all different types of them. It was just one long, big roar all morning.” ~ Peter Matwiy, Regina Rifles
LSgt Worden would have landed on Juno Beach with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division at about 8 a.m. They were tasked to take an eight-kilometre (five mile) stretch of the coastline lined with villages, including Courseulles-sur-Mer, occupied by Nazi soldiers.
This first wave of troops suffered the most losses–one in two would die.
They made their way to the beach by landing craft–navigating through choppy waters, mines, explosive devices and submerged obstacles designed to block and damage boats (source: CBC).
They made the final push on foot, wading through dead bodies and under heavy enemy fire, and finally onto French soil.
What did L/Sgt Worden see as he set out for Juno beach? You get some sense of it in this grainy D-Day footage of Canadians soldiers stepping out of their landing craft–one by one–to launch their first assault. It’s silent, but around them is the deafening sound of bullets, tank engines roaring and bombs exploding overhead:
Literally, these soldiers are running for their lives.
“You couldn’t stand still,” wrote Francis Gordon of the Royal Winnipeg, “because if you stand right there the machine guns are going to be after you… So long as you were moving – they were guessing.”
Within hours, the Regina Rifles made it off the beach and were advancing inland. In fierce hand-to-hand combat, the Regina Rifles, and the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, liberated the village of Courseulles-sur-Mer, and several more villages along the coast.
On this one day, the Allied Forces suffered an estimated 10,000 casualties, including 2,500 dead.
Let’s mull that statistic over: That’s 2,500 men. Dead in one day. That’s about 100 men killed every hour. Husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, friends, soldiers.
Amongst the Allied casualties were hundreds of Canadians, including 340 dead, 574 wounded and 47 prisoners of war. The Regina Rifles lost 108 of their own–and 65 of those were within the first few minutes of battle.
“To me, D-Day was the frustration,” wrote Captain Darius Albert of the medical corps. “The moans of the dying, drowning, wounded men. And my helplessness. That’s what I remember of D-Day.”
L/Sgt Worden survived this bloody battle. But the battle for Normandy was not over.
June 7, 1944 and beyond–the Battle for Normandy continues
The following day, German SS Panzer Divisions launched violent counter-attacks to drive back the Canadians. The cost in human life was high, but the Canadians managed to fight off the Germans and achieve a major objective–the capture of the Carpiquet Airfield and the surrounding areas from the 12th SS (the fanatical Nazi youth). The Regina Rifles were specifically responsible for repelling the 12th SS Panzer Division attack on Bretteville and liberating the Ardenne Abbey on July 8, which lead to another key Allied victory–the capture of Caen.
The Battle for Normandy ended with the liberation of France in August 1944. More than 5,000 Canadians who died during this battle are laid to rest here in the Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, France:
It will take another year, and many casualties, before the Allied forces can celebrate Victory in Europe.
L/Sgt Worden is now a seasoned soldier, and he will continue to serve with the Allied Force. In the next post, I attempt to follow his footsteps–and determine his fate–through the last months of the war.
More about D-Day:
A moving article by Canadian Lynne Ayers about her visit to Juno Beach, November 2012: A Deserted Stretch of Sand (lynneayersbeyondthebrush.wordpress.com)
D-Day Museum website
Les villes de 1944 en normandie–La memoire
Juno Beach: The Canadians on D-Day website
D-Day: One Regiment’s Story: CBC Digital Archives (video)
Juno Beach Centre: Canada’s Second World War Museum in Normandy, France