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Men and women worked side by side in factories in England and in Canada, as they had done during the First World War. Together they designed and built the ammunition, airplanes, vehicles and ships that were going to be needed. Even part of their pay was directed to the Victory Bonds fund. The Bonds were seen as a way for men, women and children on the home front to further contribute to “Victory in Europe” and to support the men in uniform.
Soldiers of all allied armies had been training for years in England since the beginning of the war. In the fall of 1943 they noticed a change. Training was increased and became more difficult. New equipment was issued. They learned how to land on beaches in all sorts of weather. They trained to fight, under live fire, in all possible conditions. The Canadians did most of their training in the harsh, but familiar, winter conditions on the coast of Scotland.
By the end of winter 1944, men, equipment and supplies began gathering on the south coastline of England. Most of the United States Army moved to the southwest. The British and Canadians were in the southeast. The crossing was going to be somewhere south, but would it be the easy crossing to Calais or the longer crossing further west. They would not be told where until they were on their way.
The massive movement to the south and west was impossible to hide from the Germans. Under General George S. Patton, a “dummy” US army was sent to the east coast.
It set up dummy equipment and even dummy landing craft to fool the Germans. The Allies wanted them to think that the landing would take place at the shortest route to the continent at Calais. The Germans even knew, through convenient messages sent from Britain that Patton was in charge of this army. Reichsfuhrer Adolf Hilter was so impressed by Patton that he believed that this must be the invasion army.
By the end of May, men, equipment, supplies and vessels were ready to go. Vehicles, guns and tanks had been serviced and waterproofed. On 2 June, the first loading began. On 4 June, the weather took a turn for the worse. The 5 June D-Day was postponed for one day. Many men were seasick. On 6 June 1944, as ships and landing crafts left their harbours and bombers and fighters their airfields, the invasion location was revealed – Normandy.
In the Spring of 1944, the largest sea, air and land force ever assembled came together on the south and east coasts of England, waiting for the invasion date to arrive only known by its code name “D-Day”.
Photo 1 The Air: In the winter of 1944, railroads, bridges and transportation on the continent were targeted. Air Force Command, which included Canada’s RCAF, then shifted to German airfields in both Normandy and Calais. More bombs were dropped in the Calais area airfields than in Normandy. On 5 June over 23,400 Airborne soldiers (Canada: 1 RM Commando unit of 74?) were dropped by gliders.
The fleet itself was 7000 vessels (Canada: 109), covered by 170 squadrons (Canada: 19 fighters, 14 Bombers). They were to land 5 Army Divisions (Canada: 1) which included Infantry, Artillery, Armoured and other support units such as Engineers and Medical.
The 3rd Division was tasked with the first assaults on three seaside beach towns to be taken the first day. For this operation, the beach was further divided down into two sectors; Mike & Nan, then further divided by Red, White and Green.
Canada 3rd Division was assigned to the 2nd British Army. Its task was to land east of Saint-Aubin to Veux in the west. Their objective was to secure the Carpiquet Airport located 18 km inland, just outside of Caen.
With the artillery firing over their heads, the first troops landed on their designated beaches. Behind them Sherman DD (D) tanks plunged into the stormy waves. Many were swamped by meter high waves despite their collapsible canvas. As the infantry fought to move off the beach, they were fired on by German 88mm and 75mm guns that had not been silenced by artillery. As the morning went on, more equipment was offloaded, including the 105mm SP Guns. The beach was becoming smaller as the tide rose, yet no enemy aircraft or ships appeared to attack the crowded beach.
The Engineers finally blew gaps in the sea wall, allowing the tanks and guns to move forward to support the infantry. The defenders made use of the reinforced villages causing many casualties, particularly around Courseulles, as the Canadian moved against many of seaside towns. On the first day, the Canadians captured more of their objectives further inland than any other Allied division. However, D-Day saw 574 Canadians wounded and 340 killed.
The defending Germans had been taken totally by surprise. The full force of the 716th Infanterie-Division was nearby but Generalleutnant Wilhelm Richter would not move until permission was received from higher command.
On the beach and in the seaside towns, the Canadians were faced by the 12th Panzer Division made up of Hitler Youth (Hitlerjurgend) with some recreant soldiers from Russia and Poland. Most of these had never seen combat before but were toughened by their dedication and training. The Canadian were surprised by their youth, and distrustful of the older hardened German officers. However, when the Germans finally gained permission to move, the Canadians faced full counterattacks from more experienced Panzer units that slowed any further movement into Normandy.
At the end of June, Carpiquet Airport was still in German control.
On 4 July, Keller sent in 4 Canadian Regiments of the 8th Brigade to capture it. A creeping barrage covered their assault and most of the airport was taken that day. Over the next three days, the allied armies moved into position for an assault on Caen that Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt had been told to hold at all costs. On the evening of 7 July, 467 bombers dropped 2,562 bombs over the city. Then it was the 9th Brigade’s task to move into the surrounding villages and then into Caen itself. On 9 July, the Germans ordered the evacuation of Caen to the other side of the Orne River.
A bridgehead was established in Normandy with the use of “mulberry” pontoons to make an artificial harbour. This allowed for more equipment, supplies and men to disembark easily upon reaching France. It also allowed for the rapid care and return of the wounded back to Britain. An underwater pipeline named “Pluto” was laid to supply 1000s of gallons of gasoline per day required by the allied armies. The capture of the Carpiquet Airport allowed bombers and fighter planes to refuel and reload in rapid time.
On 6 July, Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds landed with the 2nd Canadian Division and the rest of the II Canadian Corps. They joined the 3rd Division at Caen the next day. The Corps took most of Caen on 9 July, east of River Orne was still in German hands. Canada’s first 25 pounders went into action on 12 July, fired by the 5th Field Regiment onto the German positions on the other side of the river. On 18 July, a final attack began with heavy bombing, followed by heavy artillery shelling before armoured tanks and infantry went in under a creeping barrage. By the end of 19 July all of Caen and the villages to the east were taken.
On 20 July, the Canadians were fighting south along the Caen-Falaise road to Verrieres Ridge against two Panzer divisions. The Germans, now under Generalfeldmarschall Gunther von Kluge, were instructed to make counterattacks to claim back the Cotentin Pennisula despite their increasing losses and difficulty in communications. The Germans were slowly being drawn into a dangerous pocket with the Canadians to the north, the British 2nd Army to the northwest, the American 1st Army to the west and Patton’s 3rd Army to the south. Although the Canadians failed to take Verrieres Ridge, they drew the German Army further into what became the Falaise Gap.
Around 10 August, the Allied Command decided on a short aggressive swing to the south to close the gap and trap the German army. Von Kluge became aware of the dangerous situation his divisions were in. He sought a fighting withdrawal. Hitler removed Kluge and replaced him with Feldmarschall Walter Model. Model had to use what he had left of the Army divisions to keep the gaps in the northeast open to save as many of his divisions as he could. One of these gaps lay where Canadians were fighting side by side with the Free Polish Army. It is estimated that 10,000 Germans escaped before this gap was closed.
Just at the Falaise Gap, estimates of German losses are 10-15,000 killed and 40-50,000 taken prisoner. Altogether 20-50,000 German soldiers escaped. Much like the British at Dunkirk, the Germans were forced to leave nearly all their equipment behind, equipment that was not easily replaced.
2 million men and women were involved in the Normandy Campaign and the liberation of France. The Allies suffered Over 209,000 Allied casualties including 18,700 Canadians. Over 5,000 Canadians were killed. The German casualties are estimated at 200,000.
The first successful invasion of Europe did not happen on 6 June 1944. It occurred with Operation Husky on 10 July 1943. It was the first time in the war that the 25,000 Canadians of the 1st Canadian Division fought as an independent unit.
On the beaches of Sicily, the British, Americans and Canadians landed during the largest sea operation until that time. Under General Guy Simmonds, the Canadians fought up the eastern side against German and Italian units who commanded the island’s mountaintop towns. The Canadians fought their last Sicilian battle at Assoro as the American and British pushed the last Germans off the island at Messina.
On mainland Italy, the Canadians had to fight through mountainous terrain with the Germans holding and fighting for every key hilltop town. Even when the Italian government surrendered on 8 September 1943, the Canadians continued to fight moving eastward to Ortona. During this fierce battle Canadians experienced urban warfare for the first time. They then defeated the Germans at the fortified Gustav and Hilter lines in May 1944. Just as the 3rd Division was making final preparations for D-Day, the Canadians in Italy were fighting in the Liri Valley near Rome.
Once D-Day happened, Italy became a forgotten part of the war. The 2nd Division still had to fight through to the northern Gothic Line before the Germans were fully defeated on 4 December 1944. This had not been the “soft under-belly” of Europe spoken about by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Among the 300,000 Allied casualties were 408 Canadian officers and 4,991 men killed. Over 19,486 were wounded and 1004 were captured.
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