The Military Museums

Storming the Pillbox

When the Canadian infantry stormed Juno Beach on D-Day, they encountered fortified positions bristling with machine guns, barbed wire and artillery.

Storming the Pillbox

When the Canadian infantry stormed Juno Beach on D-Day, they encountered fortified positions bristling with machine guns, barbed wire and artillery.

The Pillbox

Once ashore, soldiers were confronted by a series of pillboxes and gun emplacements designed to fire straight down the beach. Hundreds of soldiers were shot down before they got to safety since so many of the bunkers had survived the initial aerial bombardment.

The fighting was intense as the Canadian infantry and their specialized tanks silenced the German positions one by one, and ultimately the German defences along the Atlantic Wall collapsed. The battle wasn't over, but the way inland was now open.

The Atlantic Wall

Hitler’s Atlantic Wall was one of the most extensive series of fortifications ever constructed. From Norway to the Franco-Spanish border, it was designed to smash any Allied assault before it could get off the beaches. It consisted of thousands of pillboxes, bunkers, mines, trenches, gun emplacements and beach obstacles and took millions of man-hours and tons of concrete and steel to construct. Waiting behind this wall on the Normandy beaches were four German divisions with orders to fight to the death.

The construction of the German coastal defences in France and the Low Countries began in March of 1942. Hitler had placed the fate of his empire in the strength of this wall. On June 6th 1944 it was put to the test and at Juno Beach it held against the 3rd Canadian Division for less than 90 minutes. By the evening of June 6th, the supposedly impenetrable barrier had fallen across the entire Allied front.

The Atlantic wall was built using a wide array of workers, from military and civilian contractors to prisoners of war and slave labourers. It consumed an enormous amount of time, energy and resources, but for Hitler and the German High Command, if it could prevent an Allied invasion, it would be worth it.

With the fall of France and the Low Countries in 1940, Germany found itself in complete control of Europe’s Atlantic coastline, stretching from Norway all the way to Spain. Hitler's hopes that Great Britain would surrender proved illusory and, with British and American planners working on a return to the continent, the need to fortify the coast became urgent.

Since Germany had to keep the bulk of its forces on the Russian Front, Hitler decided that the French Coast should be heavily fortified to allow a smaller force to hold off or defeat any Allied attack. So, by the end of 1942 orders had been given for the construction of 15,000 permanent fortifications, mostly around the ports of Holland, Belgium and France.

The Canadian raid on the port of Dieppe on August 19th 1942 further confirmed the German theory that the Allied invasion was coming and would be directed at a port. The successful defence of Dieppe also gave the Germans a false sense of confidence in the ability of their defences to repulse an amphibious assault.

As a result, the Germans concentrated their defences around the major ports and relied almost entirely on the belief or hope that the Allies could again be stopped on the beaches. By December 1943 Erwin Rommel, Germany’s most famous general, was given command of Army Group B and responsibility for the fortifications in the West.

Convinced that an Allied assault could be stopped in the first 48 hours, Rommel went to work laying mines, strengthening bunkers, and setting up obstacles of all sorts. Under Rommel’s command the Atlantic Wall was strengthened dramatically. And by June 1944 the defensive works were well established across Northern France.

The Normandy Landings

However the Germans had focused most of their attention in northern France. Misled by the lessons of Dieppe but also by an intricate Allied deception plan called Operation Fortitude, the German High Command had been tricked into thinking that D-day would take place in the Pas de Calais area rather than on the Normandy beaches farther south. Yet, even with the German Command’s focus elsewhere, the Normandy beach defences were still formidable.

As the Canadian infantry stormed Juno Beach on D-day they encountered a strongly fortified position, bristling with machine guns, mines, barbed wire and artillery. But it was not the impenetrable barrier that Hitler had envisioned.

The first obstacles the assault troops encountered were concrete or wooden stakes about 6 feet high, coupled with pyramid shaped concrete obstacles and iron bars welded together at right angles designed to tear open the bottoms of landing craft at high tide. Closer to the beach were steel anti-tank obstacles and mines.

Once ashore, soldiers were confronted by a series of pillboxes and gun emplacements designed to fire down the beach rather than out to sea – giving the Germans a better angle to fire at the attacking Canadians and more protection from naval bombardment. Many of these German strong points were camouflaged to look like seaside cottages, but underneath some boasted up to 7 feet of reinforced concrete protection.

This protection was very effective. Some bunkers were even able to resist being hit by mammoth British and American 14 inch battleship shells. Supporting these bunkers were anti-tank guns, a maze of trenches, vast mine fields and miles of barbed wire. The Canadian troops had been told that most of these defences would be destroyed by the naval and air bombardment.

In fact the Allied bombardments, while heavy, were highly inaccurate. On Juno Beach only a small number of German bunkers were destroyed. As a result the fighting was intense as the Canadian infantry and their tanks were forced to subdue German positions one by one.

Waiting at Juno Beach behind their fortifications were three battalions of the 716th German Infantry Division. These men had orders to fight to the death; in fact many of their positions were surrounded with mines, hindering Canadian movement but also preventing the defenders from retreating.

If these defences could hold the Canadians long enough, the German plan was to use the 12th and 21st Panzer Divisions, stationed inland near Caen to counter attack and drive the Allies back into the sea. However it would only take the 3rd Canadian division about an hour to pierce the German defences and push inland to establish a six miles deep beachhead – the greatest gain of any Allied division on D-day.

The Invasion Succeeds

The panzer divisions that were supposed to counter attack the Allied beachheads were slow to arrive. When Field Marshal von Rundstedt decided to commit them around 4:00 am, he was ordered to halt and wait for approval from Hitler. Because Hitler's staff was too frightened of their leader to wake him, the German tanks sat idle while the Allies smashed through the Atlantic Wall.

All across the front the Allied invasion was a success. Once the Atlantic Wall was pierced the Allies found that there was next to nothing behind it. The Germans had effectively locked hundreds of thousands of troops into bunkers along the French coast with no means of massing and counter attacking. The only strong mobile reserves the Germans possessed, the Panzer divisions, could not respond until it was too late.

Ultimately, the Atlantic Wall proved an utter failure. It was designed to halt the Allied invasion, or at least slow it down enough to be counter attacked. But at the end of D-day there were 175,000 British, Americans and Canadians ashore across a 90-mile front.

Today, a visitor to Normandy can still see the hulking remains of the German bunkers lining large sections of the beach. Around the towns of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Bernières and St.Aubin, there are still stray bullet holes in walls and pillboxes.

These remnants of the 6th of June are a lasting reminder of the sacrifice and the achievement of the 3rd Canadian Division, which helped crack Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.

Sponsored by Jack and Joan Donald in honour of all veterans who came from Red Deer and Central Alberta

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