Tribute to Canadian courage

Canadian landed on Juno Beach to help liberate France 62 years ago. -- Photos by Jim Wilson

Canadian landed on Juno Beach to help liberate France 62 years ago. -- Photos by Jim Wilson

JIM WILSON -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 4:13 PM ET

The sea is calm this morning.

The tide is ebbing and under a steel-grey sky on the sands of Juno Beach, thoughts turn to the courage -- if not carnage -- of nearly 62 years ago:

A 100-metre sprint -- in full battlegear -- to the embankment, the light surf of the English Channel roiling with red.

It is here, and along 75 km of this coast, that more than 100,000 men stormed ashore to wrest France from the Nazis and the world from facism in a complex military operation forever simply known as D-Day.

From Pegasus Bridge in the east, in Ouesterham, to the almost Caribbean-like sands of Utah Beach in the west, stark reminders of June 6, 1944, lie around every bend, moving tributes in every town. The fishing village of Courseulles-sur-Mer, for instance, has been largely rebuilt -- except for the incongruous collapsed German bunker 500 metres from the pier.

It now rests unevenly at the equally incongruous Juno Beach Centre, which represents both a history lesson and Canadian tutorial -- if not a memorial for the 14,000 Canadians who took part in the assault, their names forever engraved on blue plaques.

History tells us that they made it further inland than any other sector of the invasion, at a cost of more than 1,000 casualties, including 359 dead.

For them -- and for the 1,700 others who fell in the days following -- respect comes 5-minutes away, on a small hill surrounded by verdant French pasture, on land granted in perpetuity by a grateful nation.

Visitors to the Canadian War Cemetery in Beny-sur-Mer are greeted by six giant maple trees and stone ramparts overlooking the grave sites, each identically marked and impeccably maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

In a custom as Canadian as hockey sticks, visitors here leave quarters and loonies at the entrance and at a symbolical wreath, a signal to the interred that, no, we will never forget.

Just up the road -- called Overlord (after the code name of the operation) on the signposts, D-514 on the maps -- you are greeted with the stunning vista of Arramanches and the beach that still holds the remnants of the Royal Marines' fabled Mulberry bridges, an artifical harbour for warships unloading supplies. Further on is Omaha Beach, where probably the bloodiest fighting took place.

It is quickly apparent why. A series of calamities sent the Americans into the teeth of the Germans' Atlantic Wall, cliffs adorned with gun casements and machine gun nests, many of which remain, surrounded by greenery still pockmarked from return fire.

Around the bend in Colleville, we come to the American War Cemetery, a vast -- at least compared to the Canadians' intimate preserve -- 70-hectare project containing the white-crossed graves of 9,387 soldiers.

It is a further 20 minutes before we reach Utah Beach, where on many mornings a lone horseman can now be found galloping in low tide.

In between is the less famous, but spectacular in its legend, Pointe-du-hoc.

Here, at a 30-acre park overflowing with enemy tunnels and two-metre-deep shell craters, is where 250 American Rangers climbed the sheer 100-metre cliffs to take out what was supposed to be a mammoth German coastal battery.

The cannon turned out to be a ruse but, lured inland, the Americans discovered that others weren't. Without food, ammunition or reinforcements, they lost nearly two-thirds of their contingent over a period of days.

There are some 20 museums in these parts, all along the coast or at least only a few kilometres from it.

One of the best is the Caen Memorial, which prefers to be known as a peace memorial but greets visitors with an RAF Hawker Typhoon fighter hanging menacingly from the ceiling.

The exhibits at both Utah and Omaha are musts, as is the Airborne Musuem at Ste. Marie Eglise.

It is here that one of the war's most photographed shrines resides: A dummy paratrooper, with his white chute still hanging precariously on the church steeple.

It is in homage to Pte. John Steele, who met a similar fate, hanging unnoticed on D-Day morning until being shot from below by the enemy. Wounded, he played dead for a day before being captured (and later escaping).

Weaving our way through the countryside, past the hedgerows that were the bane of Allied troops and tanks, we stop in battle-ruptured towns such as Longue sur-Mer and Port-en-Bessin, now quiet but for the occasional tour bus.

It is, we have learned, the kind of quiet that only history can teach.

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BOTTOM LINE

GETTING THERE

From Paris, take the train to Caen or Bayeux (about $55) and rent a small car for about $400 for a week.

ACCOMMODATIONS

The best place to stay is in one of the dozens of small B&Bs in quaint manoirs or chateaux dotting the area. We chose Le Manoir de Petit Magny, a charming 17th-century convent that was used by Canadian airmen following the invasion, for under $90 a night.

MORE INFORMATION

For details on travel to the area, visit normandy-tourism.org.


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