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Tuesday, May 28, 2024
NOTL Legion plans ceremonies to mark 80th anniversary of D-Day
Al Howse, president of the NOTL Legion, with the encased Canadian flag that was sponsored by the legion and flown over the Juno Beach Centre in France last September. RICHARD WRIGHT

Almost 80 years have passed since Canadians took part in the Allied D-Day invasion of occupied France on June 6, 1944.

Though the decades have come and gone, leaving those who were there as a smaller group with each passing year, the rest of us must never forget the past, says the head of the NOTL branch of the Royal Canadian Legion.

“We have noticed that subsequent generations have become less and less informed about these important events to the extent that some people in their 30s and 40s don’t realize what D-Day was,” says president Al Howse. 

“We (the NOTL Legion) have taken a stance of education and the importance of it.”

Over a few days next month, beginning June 6, Howse and his team of volunteers will attempt to keep the memory fresh by either hosting or participating in a small series of 80th anniversary events that will educate and commemorate.

“We have a Canadian flag that was flown at Juno Beach Centre (in Normandy, France) from Sept. 4 to 17 last year,” he said.

“We donated money to the centre to get that flag and also donated to the centre’s interpretation work. WIth the town’s (NOTL) permission, we will fly that flag over the town’s cenotaph on June 6.”

On Friday, June 7, the Legion will then support a free public concert at St. Mark’s Church, where 1944-era music will be played.

‘Canada has always punched above its weight’

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, five sections of an 80-kilometre stretch of coastal France in Normandy were stormed by the Allied forces of Great Britain, the United States and Canada.

The opposition was an occupying German army, led by the tyrannical and maniacal Adolph Hitler.

Each beach was given a code name: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Sword and Juno.

Canada, not even 80 years old as a country and with a standing army of less than 5,000 men when war broke out, was given the arduous task of clearing Juno Beach. 

The beach, like the others at Normandy, was part of a German defence line known as the Atlantic Wall. 

It featured incredibly strong reinforced steel and concrete defences with massive artillery emplacements that housed the biggest guns of the time.

It ran from southern France all the way through coastal Europe to Scandavia. By 1944, the Germans believed the wall was impregnable and more than enough to throw any invaders back into the sea.

Just five years earlier, armies of the Third Reich had indeed proven to the world that they were no slouches. Behind its strength and military ingenuity, it set aside France’s armies with a form of warfare that broke all the rules of then-known tactics. 

Called Blitzkrieg, or Lightning War, it was made possible due to the mechanization of the modern war machine. 

Where horse drawn artillery, primarily land-based offences and trench warfare defences were still on the minds of France’s First World War veterans, the German attack was led by tanks, mobile personnel vehicles and a massive offensive-minded air force known as the Luftwaffe, which could rain hell from above.

It took just six weeks for the French to capitulate and fall under German rule.

Alone in its fight against Hitler’s hell-bent mission of German redemption and world domination, a counter invasion of France by England to liberate its ally simply was not possible. 

Germany was too strong, and England — after four years of fending off Luftwaffe attacks on its own soil and losing thousands of airmen and inventory thanks to a suicide-like bombing campaign over Europe — was stretched to its limits in soldiers, equipment and sweat.

Then Japan attacked the United States at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7, 1941.

This catapulted the Americans into a fighting stance. They had previously provided machines, guns and other supplies to England for its fight, but staunchly remained neutral to the war “over there.”

Backed by their industrial and manufacturing might, the Americans entered the war. The plans for an invasion of Europe — D-day — began almost immediately.

However, with the need to open up a two-front war — Japan in the Pacific as the other front — it would take some time and proper planning for an invasion of France.

That time came on D-Day.

Canada, as one of the Commonwealth or imperial servants of England, was thrust into the front lines and now, with a standing army of over 700,000 men, braced itself for the largest amphibious invasion in the history of warfare.

More than 14,000 Canadians took part in the invasion, in one form or another. The country suffered more than 1,000 casualties at Juno Beach with 340 killed in action.

People like Howse, whose father arrived in England after D-Day as a member of the Canadian military but still saw action in Belgium and Holland, and who himself was a member of the Canadian military for almost 30 years, feel the proverbial call to action every year on June 6.

His pride in the Canadian contribution — which would help liberate France, the rest of Europe and defeat the Nazis — is palpable. For him, it’s like it happened yesterday and that’s a kind of remembrance he wants everyone in this community and country to heed.

“The importance of the (Juno Beach) flag being raised over downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake is big,” he said.

“It was there, on French territory, where Canadians took on the Germans to liberate Europe. That was the start of it all.”

“When you consider that of all the countries allied with Britian … we took on the oversized role and the Canadians throughout the Second World War really punched above their weight through France and into Belgium and Holland, and then into Germany.”

Germany officially surrendered to the Allied forces, ending the war on May, 7, 1945.

A call for veterans to attend

Veterans Affairs Canada has sent out a call for veterans to join the official D-Day ceremonies in Moncton, N.B., from June 4 to 7.

Any Second World War veterans from the Niagara-on-the-Lake area who are interested in travelling to Moncton to mark the anniversary can have the NOTL Legion send their contact information to Veterans Affairs to ensure they receive an official invitation.

The NOTL Legion has no remaining members who fought in the Second World War, Howse said.

Few veterans from that era remain alive today. As of Remembrance Day 2023, Veterans Affairs estimated only about 9,200 veterans of the Second World War and Korean War were still alive.

Howse also is looking for Second World War veterans to take part in the June 6 Juno Beach flag raising.

Veterans can contact Howse at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Legion at 905-468-2353.

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