For several years, my wife Jan and I had wanted to visit Juno Beach — the code name for the long stretch of coastline in Normandy where Canadian troops landed on D-Day in World War II. Last weekend, as part of our stay in Paris, we finally made it happen, with a day trip by train from Gare St. Lazare to Caen.
That landing in 1944 was of course both a triumph and a tragedy. Eventually the Allies fought their way off the beaches of Normandy, and started inland to defeat the Nazi forces. But the cost in human lives was staggering. (At the end of this post, I’ll have some brief historical refreshers, if you’re interested.)
To begin our recent visit, the train journey from Paris was pleasant and relatively quick, about two hours. As we disembarked at the station in Caen, we came face to face with images of World War II, the D-Day invasion, and its aftermath.
All along the platform were large posters featuring photos from that time — including this look at Canadian soldiers inspecting a train at the Caen station itself. You can sense, and fully appreciate, the soldier’s apprehension as his partner checks out the rail car.
Before we left Daglan on our trip to Paris, I had tried to join an organized tour of the Juno Beach area, but the timing didn’t work for us, and so we tried a do-it-yourself approach to our excursion.
In front of the Caen station, we simply asked a taxi driver to take us to Courseulles-sur-Mer, the village which was the centre for the Canadians’ landing on June 6, 1944. The ride took just 25 minutes or so (for about 45 euros), and then we were at the Juno Beach Centre.
We began our visit by walking along the beach itself. Among the sights was this plaque, installed by the Comité Juno Canada Normandie, for the Voie du Souvenir or Remembrance Way. The walk stretches along the whole length of the beaches assigned to Canadian troops.
On either side of the plaque are the flags of France and of Canada. Here they are, with Jan in the foreground:
Also on the windswept beach is a German bunker. When we visited, a group of Scouts from England were sitting on it, before riding their bikes off along Remembrance Way. Here they are:
The Juno Beach Centre itself is an impressive modern structure, designed by Brian K. Chamberlain. The Visitor’s Guide we bought says that its “building lines reflect the pentagon shape of the Order of Canada and the outline of the maple leaf, the national symbol.” Here it is:
Just outside the Centre building is the statue “Remembrance and Renewal,” created by Colin Gibson, featuring five soldiers joined together. Here it is:
Inside the centre, visitors walk in a large circle through several rooms full of exhibits — posters, flags, uniforms and countless other items, along with well-written descriptions in both English and French. The tour starts with a short, impressionistic film that you watch while standing in a simulated landing craft. Later, you learn about the political climate in Canada; the beginnings of the war in Europe; and the military operations throughout the war, culminating in the Normandy invasion by the Allied forces.
Outside the centre is this breath-taking construction. It consists of wooden posts, each of which is topped by a plaque providing the name and other details of a Canadian soldier killed on the very first day of the landing. In total, there are 359 posts, representing each of the Canadians killed on Juno Beach on that first day alone.
Probably the greatest emotional impact came at the end of our tour inside the centre, with a 12-minute film called “They Walk with You.” Using archival film as well as recreations, the film does a brilliant job of describing the roles, and the sacrifices, made by Canadian soldiers in helping to free France, and ultimately all of Europe. At the film’s end, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the studio.
A few historical highlights: These are just some of the key facts, from a Canadian perspective, about the Normandy invasion, as a refresher for you.
The beaches. The Normandy coast was divided by the Allies into five sectors. Running from west to east, they were Utah (American troops), Omaha (also American), Gold (British), Juno (Canadian) and Sword (also British).
The landing. The June 6th landing of troops on the five Normandy beaches was called Operation Neptune, although it may be better known as D-Day. The overall battle for Normandy was code-named Operation Overlord.
The troops. Some 150,000 Allied troops were involved in Operation Overlord, the Normandy invasion. Of them, 14,000 were Canadian.
The campaign. The battle for Normandy lasted 10 weeks, and more than 5,000 Canadian soldiers were killed in that campaign.