Scrambling down heavy rope netting slung over the side of a ship, the infantry boards a landing craft that will take them the final two or three kilometres to the beach.
Soldiers also descended ramps from ships in heavy seas that beached themselves on the shore. Fully laden with weapons, ammunition, and other supplies, these soldiers, disembarking off the coast of France, are near the end of a journey that will lead to the liberation of Europe. An amphibious assault against a defended beach was one of the most difficult and hazardous operations of war.
During the Second World War, Canadian troops participated in three amphibious assaults against defended beaches: at Dieppe, France on 19 August 1942; on Sicily at the beginning of the Italian Campaign on 10 July 1943; and on D-Day, 6 June 1944.
Monday, June 5th, 1944: near Southampton, England, the men of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade had already boarded the ships that would carry them close to the shores of Normandy, France. Landing Craft Assault (LCA) slung from the davits, the ships sailed off at dawn, followed by the large landing craft for infantry and tanks.
On the way, officers and later troops were briefed. They broke open the seals and took out the maps where the actual targets were shown. This was no exercise; they were embarked as an important element of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe.
While May 1944 had been chosen as the time for the invasion, difficulties in assembling landing craft forced a postponement until June, and June 5 was fixed as the unalterable date by General Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces, on May 17. As the day approached and troops began to embark for the crossing, bad weather set in threatening dangerous landing conditions.
After tense debate, Eisenhower and his subordinates decided on a 24-hour delay, requiring the recall of some ships already at sea. Eventually, on the morning of June 5, Eisenhower, assured of a break in the weather announced, “O.K. We'll go.”
Within hours an armada of 3,000 landing craft, 2,500 other ships, and 500 naval vessels—escorts and bombardment ships—began to leave English ports. That night over 800 aircraft, carrying parachutists or towing gliders, roared overhead to the Normandy landing zones. They were a fraction of the air armada of 13,000 aircraft that would support D-Day.
The Channel was rough. Waves, some two metres high, made sailing difficult even at reduced speed. The ships and landing craft were tossed around and many got seasick. In front of the fleet, minesweepers cleared a route through the mined area protecting the coast. The 31st Canadian Minesweeper Flotilla, as well as other Canadian ships incorporated into British flotillas took part in the operation, clearing ten lanes marked with lighted buoys.
At nightfall, everything was going according to plan. In the distance, the bombings could be heard; at 2331 hours Bomber Command launched an assault against the coastal batteries in the landing zone. Bombs fell until 0515; in all, over 1,100 sorties, with 5,300 tonnes dropped. The Royal Canadian Air Force 6 Group was part of the operation, targeting batteries at Merville, Franceville and Houlgate.
Meanwhile, French resistance fighters warned by BBC coded messages undertook more than a thousand sabotage actions during a single night. At midnight, the 6th British Airborne division, which included the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, dropped off north of Caen to protect the eastern flank of the landing area. On the western side, US paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne were dropped; their mission was to take control of the area inland from Utah Beach.
At dawn, the weather was still bad; a northwesterly wind was blowing at 15 knots. Channel waters were choppy with waves over one metre. And clouds were piling up. At 0530, destroyers started pounding the coastal defence positions. As thousands of engines roared and bombs exploded in the air, the LCAs were launched and the soldiers boarded them. In a few minutes, 130,000 men would be landing on French soil to oust the Nazi invaders.
Operation Overlord was only one step of a global strategic plan for the complete defeat of Nazi Germany. The Normandy landing was designed to establish a bridgehead from which two armies, the First US Army on the west flank and the Second British Army to the east could be supplied by sea. With the bridgehead firmly secured, the armies were to move on to liberate France and the neighbouring countries. Germany, attacked on three separate fronts, in Northwest Europe, in Russia, and in the Mediterranean, would soon be exhausted and defeated.
On June 6th, 1944, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Armoured Brigade were tasked with establishing a bridgehead on the beach codenamed "Juno". This was an eight-kilometre long stretch of beach bordering Saint-Aubin, Bernières, Courseulles-sur-Mer and Graye-sur-Mer. Assault troops were then to move towards the Carpiquet airfield, 18 kilometres inland.
The 3rd Infantry Division, under Major-General R.F.L. Keller, was under command of the Second British Army. It was flanked on the left by the 3rd British Infantry Division that was to land on Sword beach (Lion-sur-Mer, Langrune-sur-Mer). To the right, the 50th British Division had as its target "Gold Beach" which included La Rivière, Le Hamel, and Arromanches.
D-Day, June 6th, 1944
Before the infantry actually set foot on the beach, all artillery launched a saturation barrage against enemy defences. Destroyers pounded the beaches and the large landing crafts approached with their 4.7-inch guns firing. Landing Craft Tanks (LCT) fired rocket rounds.
The four field artillery regiments, in all 96 guns of 105-mm, embarked on 24 LCTs, moved on simultaneously. From its craft the 12th Field Regiment opened fire against a fortified position in Courseulles. At 0655, the 13th Field Regiment attacked another position west of the cliff. At 0744, the 14th Regiment fired on the Bernières fortified position; and at 0739, the 19th Regiment attacked a similar post in Saint-Aubin. For half an hour they fired above the heads of the infantry and above the LCAs that were nearing the shore.
In the west, the first assault troops of the 7th Infantry Brigade landed shortly after 0800 near Courseulles-sur-mer. Somewhat further east, in the sector of the 8th Brigade, the North Shore Regiment set foot on the Saint-Aubin beach at 0810 and the Queen's Own Rifles started to march on Bernières at 0812. As they ran under heavy enemy machine-gun fire, the men were quick to forget their nausea due to choppy waters and rolling ships.
But bad weather still had an impact on the operations: landing the tanks was hindered and the LCTs had to move in closer with the risk of hitting a submerged mine. As they set foot on the beach, men of the "B" Company of the Queen's Own Rifles had to run 200 metres against a German defensive position spared by the saturation fire earlier on. They suffered most from the delayed arrival of the DD tanks, Sherman tanks equipped with floating devices that the height of the waves had rendered useless.
Taking advantage of the surprise, the first assault troops silenced the 75-mm and 88-mm guns and ensured access to the beaches. Around 0830, they were followed by the reserve battalions. At 0910 and 0925, the 19th and 14th Field Regiments landed and positioned their self-propelled guns for combat. The ever-increasing number of troops and vehicles on the beach made circulation more difficult. To solve the problem, Royal Corps of Engineers personnel opened up breaches in the seawall protecting the beach.
In a single day, 340 men of the 3rd Canadian Division were wounded and 574 were killed. Such was the price of victory. Some paid more dearly: The US Army Corps at Omaha Beach fought on the beach till the end of day. The Allies had broken through the Atlantic wall and established a bridgehead in France.
The Germans were caught unprepared as they thought the operation was merely a diversion, the real landing being planned near Calais. Their disorganized troops were not able to withstand the assault; but they would be quick to redress the situation and the following day, SS Panzer Divisions launched violent counter-attacks to drive back the Canadians.
The different landing operations, in Dieppe, in Sicily and in Normandy, required that new types of ships be built, especially designed for carrying troops and material in preparation for an amphibious assault.
Landing Ship Infantry (LSI)
The Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) bought two pre-war steamers from Canadian National Steamships, which were converted for transporting troops: HMCS Prince David and Prince Henry. They could carry 550 infantrymen, as well as six LCA and two LCM. Their role was to get within a few kilometres from the landing beach and to launch the LCA and LCM. The LCA and LCM act as shuttles between the ships and the beach until all men are landed. On June 6, 1944, D-Day, Prince David and Prince Henry were used for landing British troops on Gold Beach.
Landing Craft Assault (LCA)
LCA are small wooden boats, 12 metres in length, equipped with machine-guns. They can take up to 30 men to the beach, having to progress under enemy fire as long as the beaches were not under control.
Landing Craft Mechanized (LCM)
LCM have a 15 metre-long steel hull, with a landing ramp at the bow. They can carry vehicles as well as men, and when they reach the beach, the ramp is lowered to let them out. LCMs are equipped with machine-guns.
Landing Craft Tank (LCT)
Designed in Britain, LCT can take six tanks on board; they come in several types depending on the vehicles they carry or on their armament. Some have a special ramp for launching amphibious tanks (Duplex Drive or DD tanks) at sea. Others can fire rockets against enemy positions and ensure the protection of the landing troops. LCT (SP) can also carry self-propelled guns that are positioned at some distance from the beach and cover the assault troops.
Landing Craft Infantry (LCI)
A LCI is designed for a long crossing with 150 infantrymen on board in addition to her regular crew. Built in the US, LCI are 48 metres-long and can reach a speed of 12 knots. Crossing the whole width of the Channel, in contrast to LCA and LCM, LCI reach the beach only after the first assault has been made. These are the ships most usually seen on D-Day photos, with their two lateral ramps that let soldiers down towards the beach.
On June 6, 1944, the RCN had ten flotillas with three LCI in each. On that day the RCN landed 14,000 Canadian troops on the Normandy beaches.