The 1944 Battle of Normandy — from the D-Day landings on 6 June through to the encirclement of the German army at Falaise on 21 August — was one of the pivotal events of the Second World War and the scene of some of Canada's greatest feats of arms. Canadian sailors, soldiers and airmen played a critical role in the Allied invasion force that swept into France that summer, beginning the bloody campaign to liberate Western Europe from Nazi occupation.

Hitler's Atlantic Wall

Canada had been at war with Germany since 1939, and by 1944 the tide had turned in favour of the Allies. The Battle of the Atlantic was largely won, the Allies were advancing through Italy (see Battle of Ortona), and in the east, the Soviets were rolling back the German war machine in Russia. For years, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had pressured the British and Americans to open another front in the war, by invading occupied France in the west. In the summer of 1943, the Allies agreed they were ready to launch the invasion the following year. American General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed supreme commander of an amphibious invasion of unprecedented size and scope, code-named Operation Overlord.

The Allies needed a French harbour from which to supply and sustain a successful invasion force. However, the disastrous 1942 raid on the French port of Dieppe, in which 3,369 Canadians were killed, wounded or captured, had convinced military planners that a seaborne assault against a well-defended port was folly. In fact, much of the French side of the English Channel had been turned into what was called the "Atlantic Wall" — mile after mile of concrete bunkers, machine gun nests, and other fortifications built by the Germans, overlooking beaches and tidal estuaries strewn with layers of barbed wire, anti-tank ditches, mines and other obstacles designed to obstruct an invading army.

Secrecy and Planning

Faced with such obstacles, as well as battle-hardened German forces led by the legendary General Irwin Rommel, the Allies decided that surprise would be their greatest weapon. The Germans knew an invasion was coming, but not when or where — the most likely place being the Pas de Calais, the French coastline west of the Belgian border, which offered the shortest distance across the Channel, and the quickest route into Germany.

Instead, the Allies set their sights on Normandy, further west. On D-Day, they would attempt to land more than 156,000 soldiers — six infantry divisions, plus armoured units — on five beaches along a 100-kilometre sweep of coastline and also behind enemy lines. American forces would assault two beaches code-named Utah and Omaha, British forces would attack beaches named Gold and Sword, and a Canadian division would assault a beach named Juno. A battalion of Canadian paratroopers would also land behind German lines, along with three divisions of British and US paratroopers, on the flanks of the main invasion force. It was the largest seaborne invasion ever attempted in history.

Secrecy was deemed essential to success: a dummy army of wooden and paper maché tanks, trucks and other equipment was built in southeast England, to convince Germany that the invasion was indeed coming in the Pas de Calais. Meanwhile the real invasion force was assembled in southwest England, and the entire area was sealed off by military authorities.

As soldiers waited in their camps, they pored over maps, photographs and three-dimensional models of the invasion beaches, constructed from information meticulously collected over the previous months. The models and pictures showed the layout of the Normandy coastline and important landmarks — houses, church spires, headlands — so that every officer and soldier would know their objectives and what awaited them.

The vast majority of men with the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, who would go ashore at Juno Beach, had no combat experience. Like Fred Moar, a lieutenant with New Brunswick's North Shore Regiment, they had been training hard in Scotland and England for more than a year: "We had no idea what we were getting into," said Moar. "But we were ready for anything. We considered ourselves the best."

D-Day

Originally scheduled for 5 June, the invasion was postponed for a day by bad weather. Finally, in the early pre-dawn hours of 6 June — D-Day — waves of aircraft and gliders began delivering paratroopers into the Norman countryside, many of them missing their landing zones due to anti-aircraft fire and confusion. Many paratroopers also drowned after landing in fields flooded by the Germans.

Jan de Vries, a member of 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, landed several kilometres from his intended drop zone. "I wondered where the heck I was when I hit the ground," he said. "I spent all night trying to find my way in the dark toward my rendezvous point near the coast, dodging enemy patrols the whole way."

In the English Channel, an armada of more than 6,900 ships, including 110 Canadian warships, approached the coastline towards daybreak. Tom Gunning, an 18-year-old sailor on the frigate HMCS Cape Breton, was overwhelmed by the sight. "It's almost impossible to describe the awesome power of it," he said.

After a naval and aerial bombardment of German shoreline defences, the first waves of landing craft headed for the beaches, packed with anxious, often sea-sick soldiers. The Allied bombardment did little to destroy enemy positions, and soldiers faced resistance as they came ashore on all the beaches, dodging bullets while wading through chest-high seas. But none of the landings were as severe as on Omaha Beach, where US forces were cut down as they struggled first to cross the wide sands and then scale high bluffs overlooking the beach. More than 2,000 Americans were killed or wounded before Omaha was finally secured, the surf turning red with the blood of the dead and dying.

Total Allied casualties on D-Day reached more than 10,000, including 359 Canadians killed in action. Hundreds of Germans were also killed and captured, and French civilians also died as bullets and bombs rained around their seaside villages. Although none of the Allied forces succeeded in reaching their inland D-Day objectives, the Normandy beachhead itself was secured, allowing successive waves of troops, tanks, artillery and other supplies to come ashore. On Gold Beach the British began constructing floating "Mulberry" harbours made out of massive barge pieces towed across the Channel.

"Atlantic Wall Cracked," announced the Toronto Daily Star, by the end of the day.

See also Juno Beach.

Normandy Campaign

If D-Day was a success, initial Allied efforts to break quickly out of Normandy and begin the march toward Germany were not. Eisenhower and British General Bernard Montgomery expected to have their armies advancing east across France within weeks. Instead, it took a whole summer of hard fighting, often against skilled Nazi Panzer armoured units, for the Allies to break out of their narrow Normandy bridgehead.

As the Americans battled on the western end of the front, and struggled to take the prized port city of Cherbourg, the British and Canadians waged war around the Norman capital city of Caen — originally a D-Day objective that had not been captured. The first week after D-Day, Canadian forces were in the vanguard of the push toward Caen. They encountered fierce opposition from the 12th SS Panzer Division, which infamously murdered dozens of Canadian soldiers taken prisoner that week. (See also Normandy Massacres.)

On 4 July, Canadian units, already worn-out from weeks of hard fighting, began an assault on Carpiquet airport, outside Caen. Major Lockie Fulton, who had stormed Juno Beach with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, emerged from the battle for Carpiquet as his company's only surviving officer. He called it his "worst day of the entire war."

Carpiquet and thereafter Caen fell to the Allies in early July, but weeks of intense fighting remained for the weary Canadian veterans of D-Day, and also for newly-arrived, untested soldiers with the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division. Under First Canadian Army commander General Harry Crerar, the Canadians (assisted by British, Polish and other formations) fought battle after battle, assaulting strategic high points or crossroads south of Caen, at Vaucelles, Bourguébus Ridge and Verrières Ridge.

By early August, the Allied armies had launched a huge pincer movement — with British, Canadian and Polish units moving south towards the town of Falaise, and American forces, having finally broken through enemy lines in the west, circling south and east around what remained of the German Army in Normandy. The Falaise "Gap" through which the Germans were retreating was closed on 20 August, with the linking up of American, Canadian and Polish forces. Scenes of desperate and confused fighting unfolded in the final days of the battle, as the Allies tried to trap German forces on the run. Amid the chaos, Major David Currie of the South Alberta Regiment was awarded the Victoria Cross for seizing and holding, with his unit, a critical village in the Gap.

Aftermath and Memory

The Normandy campaign finally ended on 21 August 1944, with Canadians playing an important role in closing the Falaise Gap and assisting in the capture of approximately 150,000 German soldiers. Now the pursuit of the enemy into Holland, Belgium and Germany could begin.

Total German casualties (killed and wounded) in the Normandy campaign were estimated at more than 200,000, while the Allies suffered 209,000 casualties among the more than two million soldiers landed in France since D-Day. Among those were more than 18,700 Canadians killed and wounded.

In the decades following the Second World War, Canadian historians considered the long and tortuous Normandy campaign only a qualified success. The Canadian and British armies were criticized as poorly trained, unaggressive in battle and badly led. C.P. Stacey, Canada's official war historian, argued that better trained and battle-hardened German forces were overcome not by skilled infantry or armoured units but by Allied air power and "numerical and material superiority."

More recently, this conventional wisdom has been questioned by historian Terry Copp, one of Canada's leading experts on the Normandy campaign, who argued in a 2003 book, Fields of Fire: The Canadians in Normandy, that Canadian soldiers deserve credit, not criticism, for their "extraordinary achievement" in France. Copp argues that Canadian and other Allied forces faced not only a formidable enemy with superior tanks and other weapons, but that their assault objectives, from D-Day onward, were exceptionally difficult pieces of ground to capture. Copp also says the much-vaunted Allied air machine did not inflict as much damage on enemy positions through most of the campaign, as originally believed.

"We made mistakes. We weren't all heroes," Copp has argued. "But on balance the achievement was absolutely enormous."

Canada's sacrifices in Normandy are commemorated there today on dozens of memorials, village cenotaphs, and war cemeteries scattered throughout the region, as well as at the principal Canadian military cemeteries of Bény-sur-Mer and Bretteville-sur-Laize. The Juno Beach Centre, a private museum in Courseulles-sur-Mer, also honours Canada's role in Normandy.