In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, thousands of Canadians approached the coast of France intending to attack the occupying German army and bring an end to the Nazi hold on Europe, one of the most hideous regimes in human history. They were part of Operation Overlord, the massive multinational D-Day offensive which hoped to establish a beachhead along the Normandy shore, a hole in Hitler’s Atlantic Wall through which vaster armies would pour on their road to Berlin.
In 110 ships offshore, 10,000 Royal Canadian sailors poured naval gunfire on to German bunkers, swept minefields, or piloted landing craft through the beach defenses. In those landing craft were the first wave of Canadian infantry from five regiments, largely recruited from the western provinces: the Canadian Scottish, a Vancouver Island unit; the Regina Rifles, nicknamed “the Johns” because of the presence of so many “Farmer Johns”; the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, the “Little Black Devils”; the Queen’s Own Rifles from Toronto; and New Brunswick’s North Shore Regiment.
They were headed for a deadly stretch of sand code-named Juno, defended by hardened artillery and machine gun positions manned by veteran German troops. Overhead 15 R.C.A.F. fighter and fighter-bomber squadrons helped provide air-cover. While the Canadian infantry was hitting the beaches, the Canadian Parachute Battalion had already landed miles inland to protect the flanks and to destroy bridges over which German reinforcements could come.
By the end of the first day, other Canadian units had come ashore from Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia, altogether totaling 14,000 men — overwhelmingly green troops, well-trained but without any experience in battle. By the end of the first day, in hand-to-hand fighting through the villages of Bernières, Courseulles, and St. Aubin and into the fields beyond, Canadian soldiers penetrated farther than any other Allied force.
By the end of the first day, 359 Canadians lay dead and 574 were wounded. 5,000 more would die in the months battling out of Normandy and on the way to Paris.
Every June 6 Canadians honour the young men (average age 22) who had volunteered to fight for someone else’s freedom. This is the 75th time we have done that. Since then Canadian soldiers have died doing the same thing in Korea, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia, and peacekeeping missions around the world.
It is worth remembering that Canada was once a martial nation, famed for its war-making ability, for being the ones that our enemies dreaded to see coming toward them. Today, our tiny air force and navy make do with antiquated equipment and our small but superb army is over-stretched and weary; we no longer make a pretense of being interested in contributing significantly to United Nations missions. We do not contribute our fair share toward NATO, and are parasites on the military goodwill of the United States.
We cannot even make a serious claim to being able to defend our own territory, especially along our coasts and the North, at a time when China, Russia and the USA are contemptuous of Canadian territorial claims. We assert that we are masters of 10 million square kilometers, the second largest landmass on the globe, but we propose to defend it with an armed force that is dwarfed by that of Morocco, Sri Lanka, and Albania.
If Canadians wonder why we are suddenly the 98-pound weaklings into whose eyes bullies kick sand, why China feels it can order us about, or why American governments are no longer willing to assume our opinions matter very much, look at our attitude to matters of defense and remember on June 6 that we were not always like this.
Gerry Bowler is a Canadian historian and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.