History where it happened

A Queen’s student on exchange spends a day of remembrance at Juno Beach

The Canadian monument on Juno Beach is a permanent reminder of Canada’s role in the Second World War.
The Canadian monument on Juno Beach is a permanent reminder of Canada’s role in the Second World War.
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Every French town, village and city has a monument listing the names of the men and women who left for war and never came back. The collective memory is palpable.

Thanksgiving weekend, I traveled to Bayeux, a town on France’s northwest coast, with Mandy Doering, another Canadian I met during the first week of my exchange. Our plan was to tour the D-Day beaches; however, because we neglected to plan ahead, all the tours were either full or too expensive.

So our plan changed. We rented bicycles from our hostel and headed to Juno Beach, where the Canadians landed on June 6, 1944.

The Normandy coast is a beautiful part of France, consisting of mostly farms, old stone houses and little villages, all with a view of the Atlantic.

The countryside looks so peaceful, it’s hard to believe that major war operations took place here only 62 years ago. But just when you think the land has completely healed, you pass the shell of an old building or look out on the water and see the hulk of an old war fortification, still menacing in the waves.

D-Day began two large military operations intended to liberate France from German occupation: “Operation Overlord,” the Allied invasion of Western Europe that lasted until Aug. 19, 1944, when the Allied Forces crossed the River Seine; and “Operation Neptune,” the assault phase of Operation Overlord that lasted until June 30, 1944.

D-Day is the largest seaborne invasion in history, with three million troops crossing the English channel from England to France. Historically, the day is considered the turning point of the Second World War.

Our first stop on the way to Juno Beach was the harbour town Arromanches-les-Bains, 10 kilometres northwest of Bayeux.

Today, Arromanches is a beautiful seaside village, nestled in a bay framed by two prominent cliffs. During the war, it was this strategic location along the stretch of coast, code-named Gold Beach, that had Arromanches designated one of two “Mulberry Harbours.” Code-named “Port Winston,” Arromanches was used as an unloading dock for soldiers, supplies, equipment and vehicles during the three months of Operation Overlord that followed the D-Day landings.

Although most of the harbour fortifications have been destroyed either during the war or in subsequent storms, remains still dot the bay at Arromanches. The fortifications were originally a series of semicircles that opened into each other; from above, the shape is still visible. The design was intended to help keep enemy boats and submarines out of the port while allowing the Allies’ ships to enter with the help of a map.

From Arromanches, it was another 12.5 kilometres to Juno Beach, and we almost missed it when we got there. All that marks the beach from the road is a little wooden sign pointing down a sandy track, which is strangely appropriate—the beach itself isn’t glitzy, nor does it wreak of tourism.

Instead, it’s quiet and surprisingly picturesque.

It was a brilliantly sunny day but in some ways, you feel as though it’s a place the sun should never shine so strongly. And maybe this changed our perspective of the beach. If we’d arrived on an overcast or rainy day, the weather may have reflected the sense of solemnity that pervades a place of great importance, but on such a beautiful day the somber feeling caught us off guard.

This is not a beach you visit to go swimming; this is a beach you visit to remember. To remember and be thankful. And as cliché as it sounds, that’s how I felt looking out over the waves, imagining the landing crafts approaching, filled with young men who had no idea what they were in for upon arrival.

The Canadian monument is nestled between two sand dunes, and reads very simply: “Here on June 6th 1944 Europe was liberated by the heroism of the Allied Forces.” Beyond that, there’s nothing but beach, which is maybe more powerful than any big monuments or old war relics could ever be.

Here, there was almost nothing to protect the soldiers from the enemy gun fire. Here, during the first hour of battle, the casualty rate was almost 50 per cent.

And before you know it, you’re crying a little bit.

Although both my mother’s parents were soldiers during the Second World War, neither of them fought at Juno Beach. For my friend Mandy however, the experience of walking on Juno Beach was much more personal. Both her grandfathers fought and survived at Juno Beach—one on the Canadian side, the other on the German.

It’s a beach of mixed emotions and confused thoughts.

The beach itself is all white sand, blanketed by black kelp when the tide is out. Large sand dunes rise up at the back, and the remains of an old fortification wall run along them.

On one of the dunes, above the monument, sits the Cross of Lorraine and a pole waving the flag of Free France.

The Cross itself was constructed after Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill and King George VI, all landed at Juno Beach from June 12 to June 16, 1944. Juno Beach was chosen as their landing point because, at the time, it was the safest part of the Normandy coast.

Farther down the beach, toward the town of Courseulles-sur-Mer, is Cosy’s Pillbox, one of the only pillboxes (large concrete box-like fortifications) on the beach, and beyond that is the Juno Beach Centre, the only Canadian museum in Normandy.

Opened on June 6, 2003, the 59th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the Juno Beach Centre chronicles Canada’s efforts on D-Day and the rest of the war. It was paid for entirely by donations from legions, schools, veterans, businesses and the French and Canadian governments.

At Juno Beach, our Canadian remembrance collides with that of the French, who, in Normandy, remember every day how much their lives changed with the D-day invasion. Theirs is a memory filled with gratitude, which makes you feel not only proud to be a Canadian, but thankful to have the opportunity to remember the soldiers that made such a difference—not only for our country, but for theirs as well.

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