Seventy years ago on Friday, hundreds of thousands of Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, crawling through the surf and sand, braving German fire.
It was the most substantial seaborne invasion known to date and turned the tide for the Second World War: D-Day.
The Canadians especially left their mark, entering at Juno Beach, and despite hundreds of casualties after the first day, they were the ones to push the furthest inland.
Central Albertans were there, part of the 78th Field Battery out of Red Deer with the Royal Canadian Artillery.
“It was a sizable number,” said historian Michael Dawe speaking to the local contribution of D-Day. “There were quite a few people who I knew that landed on D-Day and unfortunately they’re all long gone now. Like Tom Hoskin, Charles Bill, Fred Krause, Ron Scott. They were all part of the 78th battery, part of the 2nd Canadian armored brigade and they all landed at D-Day.”
Gunner Jack Holtzman of the 78th Battery (part of the 13th Field Regiment on June 6, 1944) received the Military Medal for his bravery on D-Day, added Dawe.
According to the book Valour on Juno Beach by T. Robert Fowler, Holtzman carried on under heavy fire after his captain was wounded, knocking out an enemy pillbox.
“The battery was one of the units that landed at Juno Beach, because as they landed they brought in tanks and artillery pieces and the idea was that they would push inland,” Dawe explained. “Sometimes they would shoot the guns right off the barges as they were coming in to provide cover support . . . I can remember talking to people like Tommy and he talked about how they came in. It really was just an outstanding achievement.”
Another local, highly decorated fighter pilot, Don Laubman, 92, had the “bird’s eye view” of D-Day from his spitfire plane above the shores of Normandy.
“The thing I most remember is the vessels off the shore, hundreds and hundreds of vessels. It was just a mass, warships, all kinds. You could see them running to the shoreline with troops aboard and getting them off but you couldn’t see much detail,” said Laubman, who lives in Red Deer.
He flew three times that day (two of which were beach patrols) for a total of about five hours. The fighter pilots’ jobs were to take out any enemy planes that came in to strafe the troops arriving on shore. Laubman flew with 11 others out of his squadron. No German planes ever came.
The night before D-Day, at the base of Tangmere on the south coast of England, General Eisenhower — who would go on to become president of the United States — spoke to everyone, announcing the mission’s go-ahead.
“That was very exciting,” said Laubman. “It was the beginning of the end.”
For Dawe, another remarkable D-Day memory comes from his former summer neighbour in Sylvan Lake: Norm Toseland.
Toseland had been a paratrooper with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion of the British 6th Airborne Division (nicknamed the Pegasus unit due to a winged horse arm patch). They were the first of the Allied troops to hit French ground.
“They were dropped in behind the lines on D-Day. The idea was they came in behind the Germans and blew up bridges and cut telephone wires and things like that so the Germans couldn’t bring reinforcements as the allied forces were landing,” Dawe said.
Toseland, after landing in scattered formation and many of his fellow men taken prisoners, ambushed a German staff car and heard the officer crying for help, Dawe said.
“So Norm and a couple other guys walked over to free him and patch him up and take him prisoner. Well, as Norm got up close to him, the guy pulled out his pistol and shot Norm in the intestine and that was the end of Norm’s active involvement in the war.”
Toseland, who passed away in 1999 at the age of 80, always had “one of those bushy mustaches you’d expect of an old paratrooper,” said Dawe with a laugh. “He used to have a sign on his cabin at Sylvan that said Pegasus . . . He was a really fascinating man . . . They had been so intensely trained.”
The Pegasus unit, combined of British, American and Canadian forces, was unique and one of the more terrifying D-Day roles, said Dawe.
“They went in and had no support. They were dropped and some of them got dropped at the wrong site. They were behind the lines, no backup, no way they could be evacuated out of there if it went wrong.”
The paratroopers managed to secure their targets, securing key bridges and a crossroads and today a special corner of the Pegasus Bridge Museum in Normandy, site of the D-Day drop, is dedicated to the Canadians.
Sylvan Lake’s Allan Cameron of the non-profit Veterans Voices of Canada is in Normandy for D-Day this year.
As part of his personal fundraising initiative, Return to Normandy 2014, Cameron has three veterans travelling with him: Earl Jewers, a Second World War vet with the North Nova Scotia Highlanders; Afghanistan veteran Master Cpl. Paul Franklin, and another Nova Scotia Highlander.
“I’ll also have along several French youth whose towns were liberated by the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. They want to give tribute to these men. Awesome experience it will be,” Cameron said from the Montreal airport earlier this week.
Closer to home, there will be a commemorative jump over Abraham Lake, about 2.5 hours west of Red Deer in honour of the 70-year anniversary..
A number of parachute jumpers from the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, in partnership with some members from the United States Army’s First Special Forces Group (Airborne) will be jumping over the lake at 5:30 p.m. on June 5, weather permitting.
Members of the armed forces are also hiking on June 6 to the airborne memorial on Normandy Peak in the Kootenay Plains, said Cpt. Christine Salt, public affairs officer with the 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group.
“They’re going to have a DC-3 Dakota aircraft, that’s being contracted out for this jump, for the troopers to jump out of. What’s special about this DC-3 is that it actually flew over Normandy on D-Day as part of Operation Overlord,” said Salt. “So it will be a special jump.”
The aircraft belongs to Buffalo Airways out of Hay River, N.W.T.
Anyone interested in watching the jump is welcome to park at the administrative area, approximately 6 km north of the David Thompson Resort along Hwy 11.