With the Juno Beach Bombardment Force, already at sea, HMS Hilary, Commodore Oliver’s Force J Flagship, weighed anchor in the Solent and led the Force, with its cargo of assault troops out into the Channel towards Assembly Area Z. Located off the Isle of Wight, the Allied flotillas met in accordance with the carefully coordinated Operation NEPTUNE naval instructions, before heading south to Normandy.
Seaman Francis Hynes aboard Landing Craft Flack (LCF) 36 recorded:
‘The fleet moved out into the very choppy sea. Thousands of vessels of varying size and shapes, some sporting barrage balloons as protection against low-flying attacking air forces. It was a bad long cold night; attempts were made to supply drinks to the men on very small assault craft; for the most part, it was merely a sympathetic gesture. The sea was covered in ships just as a leopard with measles is covered in spots.’
Aboard their by now familiar transports, the Anglo-Canadian assault troops destined for Juno Beach, settled down to sleep as best as they could. Seasickness (despite the issue pills) for some and nervous anticipation for many, made it an unrestful night. While the assault troops tried to sleep, the British, Canadian and US ships’ companies of Force J were very much awake and alert. At his Battle Headquarters at Southwick House, Admiral Ramsey waited impatiently. He wrote:
HMS Hilary riding at anchor prior to the attack on the Normandy coast.
The D Day air cover plan.
‘There was an air of unreality during the passage of the assault forces across the Channel The achievement of strategic surprise was always hoped for in NEPTUNE but was by no means certain, whereas that of tactical surprise had always seemed extremely unlikely. As our forces approached the French coast without a murmur from the enemy or from our own radio, the realization that almost complete surprise had been achieved.’
Below decks, after an uncomfortable night in his American LCT, Royal Engineer Lance Corporal Stuart Stear recalled:
‘The crossing wasn’t too rough but breakfast was a bit strange for our taste – porridge with bacon and sausage stuck in it! There was nothing else so we ate it.’
For the Infantry of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, as recorded in their war diary:
‘D Day begins with very early reveille – spirits are very high but naturally one can feel the nervous tension in the air. Unfortunately, the water is still quite rough. Breakfast is served and all men who wish it are given a good shot of good old Navy rum.’
As the force closed in on the Normandy coast, a sleepless reporter, Ross Munro, went up on HMS Hilary’s deck:
‘… the wind howled through the wireless masts which sprouted profusely from the upper deck. The sky was black as the inside of a gun barrel and spray and rain lashed the deck. It was a terrible night for the crossing. The sea seemed worse than ever and the ship creaked and groaned as she ploughed her way through it.
‘The Algonquin just astern of us was a blob in the night and you could barely pick out the silhouettes of other ships near us in this curtain of darkness… The night was ominously quiet, apart from the elements…
‘Occasionally there was a great flash over the Trench coast as RAF heavy bombers struck at gun positions in the le Havre area. A number of those big guns had a range of twenty miles. Some star shells arched into the sky.’
At 0558 hours, HMS Hilary came to anchor some seven to eight miles from Juno Beach. Major General Keller had joined the Commodore on the bridge before dawn and scanned the coastline ahead with the watchkeeper’s binoculars. The only evidence of action was the flicker of shellfire and the ricochets of tracer rounds well to the east and off to the west. Clearly, the Allied airborne divisions were in action. As time passed, across their front, the commanders could see the flash of exploding bombs and naval shells as the principal batteries were engaged.
Major General Keller
At this point, it became evident that four of Force J groups, including the LCTs of Force J1 carrying 7 Cdn Brigade’s AVREs, had during the night entered a swept channel further to the west than the ones intended. This took some time to correct and bring errant LCT back to their proper place behind the craft carrying the DD tanks. They were not the only offenders. The official historian recorded that,
‘… the tardiness of certain groups caused both Assault Group Captains to defer H Hour for a further ten minutes. It was thus decided that the times for H Hour should be 0745 hours for 7 Cdn Brigade (Mike and Nan Green Sectors) and 0755 hours for 8 Cdn Brigade (Nan White and Red Sectors)’.
He concluded that,
‘It was not a happy situation for it meant that the swiftly rising tide, aggravated by heavy seas, would render the [enemy’s beach] obstacles inaccessible all the sooner’.
This decision was circulated around Force J shortly after 0634 hours when radio silence was broken by a periodic call by HQ ships.
A variety of converted coasters, now categorized as Landing Ship Infantry (LSI), had anchored around HMS Hilary. Landing Craft Assault (LCAs) were lowered from the LSIs’ davits, while some unlucky assault troops had to climb down scramble nets into the diminutive craft. The wind was estimated as being force five to six and the wave height three to four feet. The LCAs pitched and tossed alongside their mother ships as the force assembled. This weather, at the very edge of practicality for amphibious operations in 1944, made for an uncomfortable run in to the beach.
Force J heading for the French coast.
Captain ‘Nobby’ Clarke recounted how he watched his soldiers sitting in the landing craft:
‘I was very interested in the expressions on their faces. Some looked like ‘wounded spaniels’, some were quite nonchalant, others made a feeble show of gaiety. What amused me most was a fat boy trying to whistle, but the best he could do was blow air with a squeak now and then. … I was pretty scared.’
Private Hamilton and his platoon of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles had other things to distract them along with the misery of sea sickness:
‘We were fortunate because from [LSI] Langleby Castle, we were directly lowered by davits from the ship. The water was much more choppy than we had ever encountered in any of our schemes, and coming off the mother ship a large wave hit our landing craft and as we swung back, we came in at an angle and were slightly damaged at the back. One of the twin engines was knocked out, and when we did hit the water, we were short of power. We were some six miles out from the beach at that time, and our sailors had quite a job getting us in to the shore.
German gunners manning a 50mm anti-tank gun inside a casemate.
‘Because of lack of power, we were being swamped by heavy waves. The waves were so high, they were washing over our landing craft, and our first casualty was Rifleman Munch, who was, as we all were, very, very seasick. He was lying on the gunwale and as we came in to about two miles offshore, a large wave washed him off, and he went down. We never saw him again.’
Meanwhile, the Germans defenders had been called to their battle positions before dawn and it was not long before the soldiers of 716th Division realized that they were directly in the path of the Allied invasion. Grenadier Christian Hubbne in his post in Wiederstandnest 28 on Nan Beach wrote:
‘We slept in a bunker not far from the shore and went to bed as usual that night. But soon after five o’clock we were roused by our Sergeant-Major who yelled that an enemy fleet was off shore and we must get to our battle stations at once. We rushed about in great confusion and fear, trying to eat something and drink coffee while pulling on our equipment. It took us almost fifteen minutes to reach our position in a fortified bunker, which included machine-gun posts overlooking the beach.
‘I will never forget our first sight of that invasion fleet. The horizon was filled with ships of all kinds and of course huge battleships all lined up in the grey light of dawn. We were amazed and frightened; we had never seen anything like it and wondered how we could possibly repel such an armada. Of course, there was no sign of our own navy or Luftwaffe and we felt betrayed! Our Sergeant tried to steady our nerves, but I could see he was as amazed as we were. Then our Lieutenant came to remind us of all the drills we had done and not to fire until the enemy was in the water and at their most vulnerable. We knew all that, but wondered if we would still be alive to act at all.’
Grenadier Hubbne and his fellow soldiers of 736 Grenadier Regiment did not have long to wait before the great guns of the Fleet swung towards Juno Beach.
RAF Bomber Command and the USAAF 8th Airforce had begun the bombardment of the Normandy coast some weeks before D Day. The focus of their attacks had to be concealed from the Germans, by spreading the bombing effort along the entire coastline, with only one in three raids being directed against targets in Normandy. The attackers included Number 6 Group, which consisted entirely of Royal Canadian Air Force Halifax and Lancaster bomber squadrons.
Bomb damage was inflicted on the Wiederstandneste and German records indicate that it slowed construction and that they had to regularly repair the field defences and trenches that connected the concrete casemates. This took manpower that could otherwise have been used in thickening up minefields or placing additional beach obstacles. British naval officer, Lieutenant Wiliamson, questioned a German prisoner of war aboard an LCI on the evening of D Day:
‘He told me that “We were accustomed to attacks by your bombers but we were always warned and were in shelter”. Looking around at our fleet he shook his head and added, “but for this fire, we were totally unprepared. No man could stand up to it”.’
On the night of 5 June, the RAF and their Canadian counterparts, concentrated on bombing the main German naval and artillery batteries along the invasion coast. In the Juno area, bombing priority was given to the strong points at Courseulles (WN 29 and WN 31) and Bernières (WN 28), while those at St Aubin (WN 27) and Lagrune (WN 26) were afforded second priority.
The main D Day fire plan began at 0552 hours, when the cruisers HMS Belfast (twelve 6-inch guns) and HMS Diadem (eight 5.2-inch guns) opened fire. While scoring few direct hits with map predicted fire at their inland targets, the 223 rounds fired by Diadem neutralized the four 105mm guns in the Beny-sur-Mer battery during engagements at 0552, 0725 and 0905 hours The guns of eleven destroyers, including those of the Canadian ships Algonquin and Souix, joined the bombardment, as Force J approached the enemy coastline. Although they did not know it at the time, the Navy scored an early success, when they successfully engaged, via an air observation post aircraft, 8 Kompanie 736 Grenadier Regiment. These troops, who should have been sheltering in their field defences of the second line, inland from Juno Beach, had been seen searching for nonexistent paratroopers and suffered heavy casualties. Consequently, 8/736 Grenadiers were dispersed and did not play a significant part until late in the afternoon of D Day.
When the main naval bombardment checked fire for fifteen minutes, before resuming to cover the assault force’s final run-in, the German defenders were struck again by the Allied airmen. This time it was the medium and fighter-bombers. Their job, while avoiding cratering the beach and creating additional underwater obstacles for both infantry and armour, was to attack the strong points. The weather made the task of the medium bombers difficult and, as a result, some of their bomb load fell amongst the fields and villages behind the beach. However, the rocket firing Typhoons were able to strike with accuracy right up to the last minute, with one aircraft even being unluckily struck by a pattern of rockets that had just been fired by a Royal Navy LCT(R) during the final run-in to the beach.
An A20 Havoc of the USAAF 8th Air Force passing over the invasion fleet after a raid on the German defences.
At 0715 hours, the Royal Canadian Artillery’s amphibious guns, which they had done so much to develop, opened fire from the LCTs. Royal Canadian Signals officer, Major Patterson described the action of the four artillery regiments, each equipped with twenty-four 105mm guns:
‘Range[ing fire], with smoke began at 10,000 yards and fire for effect at 9,000 yards, timed so as to commence at H minus 30 minutes. From then until … a range of 2,000 yards each gun fired 3 rounds every 200 yards. The total HE expenditure at H plus 5 minutes was thus 105 rounds per gun.
‘At this point, the LCTs did not continue on their course in order to touch down and off load the guns, for the beach was not yet ready to receive them. Instead, they turned off to a flank to a waiting position… On landing they deployed and went into action as quickly as possible.
‘To complete this picture, it is necessary to envisage 24 LCT approaching shore, each craft carrying four guns (one troop). The total volume of fire from these 96 guns would equal 10,080 rounds. The fall of shot was to be observed and controlled by Forward Observation Officers travelling in advance of the assault waves…
‘Each regiment was to bring down a concentration on one of the four principal strongpoints in ‘Juno’ sector, i.e., those at Courseulles (on either side of the breakwater), at Bernières and St. Aubin, ending just as the leading infantry touched down. These four regimental concentrations were thus designed to complement the fire delivered against the same targets by LCT (R.). But it must be emphasized that their effect was to be neutralizing, not destructive. Neither sufficient weight nor accuracy to achieve penetration of concrete defences could be expected of field artillery afloat.’
As planned, the eight Landing Craft Tank (Rocket), split between Mike and Nan Sectors, fired their salvo of rockets as the leading flights of landing craft approached the beaches, deluging the four main German Wiederstandneste with fire. Finally, the ‘Hedgerow’ craft engaged the beaches and its immediate defences with high explosive, while the ‘concrete busters’ targeted the enemy casemates. This brought the noise of howling shells, the throb of marine and aero-engines, exploding rockets and the crack of small arms fire to a mind-shattering crescendo.
Grenadier Christian Hubbne, who had been called from his shelter at dawn to man his position, was on the receiving end of the bombardment:
‘Sure enough not long after that the terrible bombardment began and it went on and on. We had not expected anything like it and cowered in our holes waiting to be buried alive or blown to bits. The great shells from the battleships made a fantastic noise and the ground shook when they detonated. We guessed that all the seafront houses and our defences were being smashed. The bombardment seemed to go on for a very long time and all the while the air was also filled with the sound of bombers hammering away at us.
A schematic example of a brigade landing based on one brigade’s landing on NAN Beach.
‘Then, at last the noise seemed to lessen and our Sergeant told us to stand-to as the enemy were about to land, so we jumped to our weapons, trembling with fear and from the effects of the bombardment. One of the units on our left was composed of Eastern ‘volunteers’ from Russia, I believe, who looked very Asiatic in appearance; I wondered if they had survived and would surrender at once.
‘Then we could see the enemy landing craft coming in to the shore and the warships still firing. We forced ourselves to get ready.’
8 Canadian Brigade Group – Nan White and Red Sectors
Having formed up, the LCAs of Force J2, with 8 Cdn Brigade aboard, headed for Nan Sector. However, Commodore Oliver wrote in his post-operational report: ‘The final approaches of the Assault Force to the beaches was far from the orderly sequence of groups and timing which had been the rule during exercises.’ In the worst case, one company of infantry had not received the order delaying H Hour, continued shoreward and were only recalled when they were a few hundreds of yards from the beach. However, the fire plan went well and the escort destroyers headed for the flanks of the flotilla of landing craft. From these positions, as close in as 3,000 yards, the destroyers engaged targets on and to the flanks of the landing beaches. BBC correspondent Colin Wills was watching. Perhaps he was unaware of the landing craft flotilla’s co-ordination difficulties but it was not the job of a reporter of the day to highlight negative points.
‘Hello BBC! This is Colin Wills recording on board an infantry landing craft on June 6th 1944. …we are moving towards the shore, the battleships and other bombardment ships over on the flank are pouring in their fire and now other warships, moving up front in our path, are laying a smoke screen and now there is a signal from the flagship: “All hands to beaching stations.” … We have started our run-in to shore – we are still some distance out but I may be able to report a little bit more of the landing.
‘This is the day and this is the hour! The sky is lightening, lightening over the coast of Europe, as we go in. … along the shore there is a dense smoke screen as the battleships and the smaller warships sweep along there, firing all the time against the shore. The sun is blazing down brightly now; it is almost like an omen the way it has suddenly come out just as we were going in.
‘There go the other landing craft past us. Some are left behind, the slower ones, each taking their part and going in at the right time for their right job.… There is an enormous cloud of smoke along the shore, not only from the smoke screen but from the terrific bombardment. All the shins are blazing away now. All around this great grey-green circle of water there are shins, shins moving in, shins on patrol, ships circling, ships standing-to and firing. We are passing close by a cruiser, a cruiser that has been taking part in the bombardment but is now, I imagine, on some sort of general patrol.
‘…I can’t record any more now because the time has come for me to get my kit on my back and step off on that shore and it’s a great day.’
Well ahead of Colin Wills were the AVREs and other specialist assault armour of 79th Armoured Division. The state of the sea was such that the DD tanks of the Fort Garry Horse, which should have swum ashore five minutes ahead of them, were ordered to be landed direct from the LCTs with the infantry. However, in the event, the DD tanks touched down on parts of Nan Sector, behind the leading wave of infantry, at about 0815.
According to Commander Eastern Task Force, Admiral Vivian, enemy fire at the leading flight of landing craft ‘began to manifest itself at 3,000 yards from the beach and even then fire was only desultory and inaccurate’. Clearly, the fire plan had at this point neutralized the defender’s capability to respond effectively. As the landing craft approached the beach they could see that the belt of obstacles was almost covered by the tide and consequently they represented a highly dangerous and ‘unpleasant prospect for the landing craft crews’. Admiral Vivian wrote of his J2 Group landing craft crews of, many of whom struck mines:
‘Their spirit and seamanship alike rose to meet the greatness of the hour and they pressed forward, over or through mined obstacles in high heart and resolution; there was no faltering and many of the smaller Landing Craft were driven on until they foundered.’
Despite the severe losses amongst Royal Navy and Royal Marines crewmen manning bow stations, casualties amongst the assault troops were relatively light.
LCTs carrying the assault teams of 79th Division, Centaur tanks of the Royal Marine Assault Regiment and Canadian field engineers were leading. They started to land on Nan Sector at 0805 hours, or twenty minutes later than their deferred H Hour. The first flight of LCTs included the flail tanks of B Squadron 22 Dragoons and the AVREs and armoured bulldozers of 80 Assault Squadron RE. They were divided into four breaching teams, each equipped with a mix of six vehicles organized to deal with the particular obstacles and defences that faced them at their landing point. Once ashore, they were to blast their way through the obstacles creating an exit or lane off the beach for the DD tanks, infantry and their support vehicles. Meanwhile, the Royal Canadian Engineers were to remain on the beach attempting to clear the rapidly sumerging obstacles. However, the delay in landing meant that they were not able to achieve a great deal, despite their valiant efforts.
Holding the coastal defences that ‘Hobart’s Funnies’ and the Canadians attacked where approximately two German infantry companies deployed on a front of almost three miles. Wiederstandnest 28 at Bernières and smaller defended localities in the surrounding area were held by 5 Kompanie 736 Grenadier Regiment (5/736 Gr Regt), while the strong point at St Aubin (WN 27) was held by 9/736 Grenadier Regiment. The defences were known to be centred on 50mm anti-tank guns, machine guns and mortars, all in concrete casemates, which were linked up by a network of revetted trenches. The positions were surrounded by barbed wire entanglements and minefields extended into the surrounding fields and dunes. Some of the villas and houses behind the beach had been strengthened and fortified as additional defensive positions.
Bernières – Nan White Sector
The 79th Division’s history describes the landing and what, for most of the armoured vehicle crews, was their first battle:
‘Number I Team touched down exactly as planned but late, and the leading Crab flailed up to the sea wall followed by an AVRE which laid its bridge. The first AVRE across hit a mine and blocked the gap: it was later bulldozed aside and the lane cleared by hand. The bulldozer driver was killed by a mine. The two Crabs in the team then cleared another path up to a place where the sea wall was half broken – this they mounted and continued flailing as far as the first lateral. Here they turned and joined the two exits, then cleared a lateral lane as far as No. 2 gap. First one fascine and later a second was dropped into the ditch across the road – this was later bulldozed into a good crossing place. The late touch-down had meant that the beach was already crowded with infantry who severely limited Petard operations: fortunately neither strong opposition nor a heavily mined beach were encountered although between the top of the beach and the road, mines were found in plenty and included Teller and anti-personnel types…
‘Number 2 Team was driven off its course by other craft and beached about 300 yards east of their target. They were at once engaged by 50-mm fire from the right: the Bridge AVRE was hit and another AVRE commander killed: one of these guns later fell to a ‘Dustbin’. The 12 foot sea wall was only about 50 yards away and Crabs flailed up to it. Petards, of which two were out of action, failed to make sufficient gap and the crater caused was soft and steep. Meanwhile the infantry led the way to a beach ramp blocked by Element C. These were demolished by Petard fire, the Crabs flailed up the ramp; one was caught in wire but was freed under cover of smoke, the ditch was filled by a fascine and the lane, at last, through to the road. A second gap was later made to by-pass Bernières.’
An officer with the 22 Dragoons, Lieutenant Ian Hammerton, was the flail troop commander landing with Number 2 Team. He wrote:
‘… the LCT grounded on the shore, a sailor in the bows sounded the depth and the ramp went down.
‘When the first Flail went out, the lightened craft surged forward a few feet. The second Flail followed and again it surged forward but there was a crump’ and the craft lurched as the ramp struck a mine on a submerged beach obstacle. Now it’s my turn.
‘“Driver Advance!” I order and as we pass over the ramp, a damaged hinge breaks and we lurch, my tank’s rotor jib striking another tetrahedra and exploding a shell attached to it. But we are moving onto the wide sandy beach where Jock Stirling and the second flail are already beating up to the wall. I can see the Bridge AVRE moving through the beach obstacles behind them, when there is an explosion on the turret and the bridge falls uselessly. The AVRE tries petarding the sea wall for some time but without success.’
All this took precious time. The infantry of A and B Companies of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada (QOR of C), who had started landing between 0805 and 0815 hours and were now in cover amongst the beach obstacles and behind the knocked out Tunnies’. The tide was still rising and the Anglo-Canadian landing force needed to get off the narrowing stretch of beach. Battering an eighteenth century style breach in the sea wall would take too long, so as Lieutenant Hammerton, continued:
‘That meant Plan Two, so I move up to the foot of a concrete ramp leading to the top of the wall and blow my Cordtex [to clear the turret ring of waterproofing]. Paddy Addis, my gunner clears the barrel and I sight through it just as we did at Orford, and we fire high explosive at one corner of a railway-steel gate called ‘Element C’ which is blocking the top of the ramp. I carry on aiming and firing until Element C is a wreck. We then back off to let another AVRE climb the ramp to push the wrecked gate away, but the AVRE tips over on its side, one track off the ramp. Another AVRE goes up the narrow ramp and pushes the wreckage to one side – and sets off a mine, which halts it on top of the wall.
‘I move up to the foot of the ramp, dismount to attach the towrope to the wreckage which we drag backwards to the sea out of the way. The tide is coming in fast now… I signal to Jock and the second Flail to go up the ramp to start flailing inland. It takes a few minutes to line up on the ramp the foot of which is already under water, but they are up. Just as we are about to follow, my driver says; ‘Sir, the water’s coming in up to my knees’. Then the engine dies, we are flooded because of having cleared the turret ring. “Bale out!” I yell.’
A route off the beach had been established to the east of WN 28 at the cost of four armoured vehicles.
QOR of C, as already recorded, lost several LCAs on the run-in and, in addition, the tide had set them east by about 200 yards. Consequently, B Company landed directly in front of WN 28 ‘and immediately caught a packet’. The company group was pinned down on the beach and ‘Within the first few minutes there were sixty-five casualties’. Initial attempts to break into the Wiederstandneste failed. Ross Munro reported that the impasse was broken when:
A drowned DD. Canadian and Beach Group Workshops repaired over a hundred drowned vehicles recovered from Juno Beach.
‘… the Toronto troops somehow reached the sea-wall which extends along the back of the beach at Bernières, got over it, and worked their way through the dunes towards the casemate. Meanwhile, some of their troops, including Bren gunners, got into the buildings near the casemate and gave covering fire.’
According to the battalion’s war diary, under the covering fire described above, a small, determined attack with grenades and Stens broke into the enemy position and dealt with a pill box that was holding them up:
‘Lt Herbert, Cpl Tessier and Riflemen Chicoski do a damm fine job in outflanking the enemy position and finally the remnants of the enemy surrender’.
Ross Munro continued:
‘The Queen’s Own then captured one line of trenches after another…’ and they were through the vaunted Atlantic Wall but B Company was badly written down and had lost its company commander, its sergeant major, two officers and two senior NCOs. Consequently, junior NCOs such as ‘Corporals Red Suddes and Scott carry on with the job of clearing up around the beach exit although many of them are wounded to some extent’.
Meanwhile, A Company QOR of C, landing amongst the dunes to the west of Bernières, was quickly off the beach but having reached the railway line, the company was hit by heavy mortar fire. Pinned down for some time, they suffered significant casualties before they managed to move inland.
While the QOR of C was fighting through the Bernières strong points, the 79th Armoured Division’s assault armour was still, as described earlier, establishing their gaps off the beach. A Canadian diarist commented that:
German command post shelter for WN 28.
‘By now the DD tanks and AVREs are on the beach but dont seem to be getting any place. The support all around has been very disappointing as far as we are concerned, for none of the beach defences have been touched and this has caused very high casualties amongst the assaulting companies.’
The disruption of the landing programme gives this complaint some justification but the Canadian Official History concludes ‘that the effect of the drenching fire was moral rather than material … and its effect on the morale of the defenders considerably eased the task of the assaulting infantry’. Colonel Stacey goes on to say, ‘that a degree of neutralization was achieved, as there were several instances of weapons which had ample ammunition had not been fired’. Analysis of the generally more accurate artillery battle logs and the ships’ logs of the landing craft flotillas indicates that, in most cases, the funnies landed just ahead of the infantry but not necessarily in the same places. However, the important fact is that at this stage, the two arms were per force fighting their own battle, not a concentrated combined arms battle, as was planned. The Fort Garry Horse concede this point in their war diary. Nonetheless, support improved when the Shermans of B Squadron joined the QOR of C in fighting towards Objective Yew.
The QOR of C’s second wave approached the beach at 0830 hours. The battalion’s war diary recorded that:
‘C and D Coys and Alternate Battalion HQ touch down. The casualties amongst the LCAs are quite heavy, with almost half of them being blown up by under water mines [fixed to the now submerged obstacles]. However, the personnel get ashore without too much trouble and pass through the assault coys’ on their way to their positions.’
The phrase ‘without too much trouble’, would be disputed by some QOR soldiers of D Company:
‘All our assault engineers were killed in action. We were still in the water when a section was cut down … The sea was red. One lad was hit in the smoke bomb he was carrying. Another a human torch had the presence of mind to head back into the water. Our flame thrower man was hit and exploded…’
The next entry timed 0900 hours indicates that German resistance was mainly in the ‘crust’ of defences, rather than in the town of Bernières:
‘Battalion HQ arrives on shore, linked up with Alt Bn HQ and proceed through the town where a temporary HQ is set up at MR 992848. Alt B HQ detach themselves and set up in a house at MR 994854 where they earn all rights to the house by putting out a fire and gaining the everlasting thanks of the owner. At this time it is noticed that a café just a hundred yards off the beach is opened and selling wine to all and sundry!’
The Bernières railway station on the edge of WN28, then and now. The building shows signs of Petard damage and the anti-tank ditch has been partly filled.
However, by 0940 the battalion’s diarist was reporting considerable confusion as the battalion attempted to regroup. As already noted, B Company was severely written down and was reorganizing into little more than a platoon sized group, while A Company had to extricate themselves from an exposed position west of the town.
St Aubin – Nan Red Sector
On 8 Cdn Brigade’s left, the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment was the second battalion of the leading assault wave. They had suffered the same problems of delay as the QOR of C, during the run-in to Nan Red. However, as recorded in the N Shore R’s war diary, A Company landed at 0810 hours on the battalion’s right flank. The battalion’s historian recorded that their task:
‘… was to clear the beaches, swing right, capture the gap and buildings to the west. On landing the company immediately came under machine gun and mortar fire accompanied by 88mm air burst and in clearing their position of the beachhead sustained fairly heavy casualties from mines and booby traps, but obtained their objective on time and joined up with the Queen’s Own Rifles on the right. Lieutenant Keith led his men across the beach to the seawall but a mine exploded killing Sgt Hugh McCormick, L/Sgt Pal Walsh and Cpl Albert Savoy. So Lt Keith rose to his feet and had Pte Elles fetch a Bangalore to blast a lane though the wire. The explosion set off a hidden mine and Lt Keith was terribly wounded while Pte Elles was killed. However, the others got though the gap created by the explosion and house-to-house fighting began.’
A Company reached the line of objective Yew at 0948 hours and their casualties numbered some twenty-five all ranks.
If A Company is regarded as having a hard but relatively straightforward fight, the North Shore’s B Company, landing on the battalion’s left, faced far sterner opposition at WN 27, on the western edge of St Aubin. The company’s briefing had factually described the defences but had painted what proved to be an optimistic picture of the ‘German’ defenders:
‘The strong point was at the highest point of land, and intelligence reports stated it had an estimated garrison of forty all ranks, consisting mainly of low category men evacuated from the Russian front with some Russians and Poles. They are classified as poor troops with morale only fair.’
The battalion’s historian outlined B Company’s plan for capturing WN 27, which was based on the assumption that the New Brunswickers would have been preceded ashore by both the DDs and the assault armour:
‘After reaching the beach, B Company was to reorganize and move immediately to south of the strong point via the beach exit and main lateral road to take up a position preparatory to assaulting the strong point from the rear. Number 4 Platoon would be to the right and Number 5 Platoon to the left for the attack. Number 6 platoon would contain the enemy from the beach until the assault was ready.’
Number 4 Platoon’s commander was Lieutenant Richardson who described the run-in to the beach and the devil may care attitude of his soldiers:
‘Tracer bullets from a German 20mm anti-aircraft gun seemed to fill the air as we came in but everyone in our boat seemed to take it as just another scheme. In fact the morale was never higher and the platoon was merrily singing ‘Roll Me Over, Lay Me Down’ as we approached the shore. The Germans held fire until we were fairly close in. Our first casualty was when an armour-piercing bullet came through the LCA and struck Private White a stunning blow in the forehead.’
Assault armour and beach obstacles photographed from a landing craft during the run-in to Nan Red.
A sequence taken from the film covering A Company's landing on Nan Red, between the German strongpoints WN 27 and WN 28.
Once they were out of the boat, ‘everyone acted mechanically, heading for the beach and the cover of the beach wall’. 4 Platoon were fortunate and did not suffer a single casualty as they made for the sea wall and its rolls of barbed wire. Captain Bill Harvey, second in command of B Company, advancing across the beach, watched the platoon use their Bangalore torpedo ‘Then we saw a low wire entanglement and the lads swung into action. The fuse was set, there was an explosion and as the smoke cleared the men rushed through…’ the resulting gap in the wire and across ‘what we later discovered was a minefield’. However, the advance on WN27 slowed as ‘The men could see the way in which the enemy had arranged his field of fire and had all approaches covered with machine gun fire. Snipers were cleverly located and could move underground from one point to another.’ Lieutenant Richardson pointed out that,
‘attacking them was difficult as the Germans were behind concrete and we were without armoured support. Soon the sniping became the most demoralizing aspect of the day, as we began to lose one man after another’.
B Company’s platoons were ‘having a difficult time’, with some sections in exposed positions and other sections ‘lost’ in the confusion of battle.
To make matters worse, the defences ‘appeared not to have been touched’ by the naval, air and amphibious bombardment. However, afteraction analysis concluded that the position had been hit but during the extended delay between the lifting of the fire plan and the delayed landing of the assault troops, the German defenders had recovered to some extent. The full neutralizing effect of artillery is of short duration and in this case, the delays prevented the Canadian infantry from benefiting from its full effect during their assault on WN 27.
The area just west of St Aubin where A Company North Shore Regiment landed.
A well camouflaged casemate and a villa damaged by the bombardment on Juno Beach.
The German crew of a 50mm anti-tank gun were amongst those who recovered quickly. They initially dominated the eastern portion of Nan Red with their anti-tank fire, knocking out one of the first DD tanks ashore and led to the Allied armour landing further to the west. This left B Company pinned down by machine gun fire on the beach with little support.
79th Armoured Division’s history gives an account of the first stage of the action against WN 27.
‘Number 4 Team touched down 150 yards east of the target – one craft in 7 feet of water. A collision occurred between one landing craft and a bridge AVRE, causing the crew of the latter to dismount. They were at once sniped and attacked with grenades; three were killed and one wounded. Flails on touching down turned west and flailed a lane through the same gap in the dunes as used by Number 3 Team.’
The North Shore Regiment’s adjutant described in the battalion war diary how, a little later, they were able to make effective use of armoured support:
Another view of Nan Red and the half submerged beach obstacles.
‘B Coy called on the tanks to assist in the reduction of the strong point. Later when the AVREs became available, the Petards mounted on them were used to bombard the defences. The cooperation of infantry and tanks was excellent and the strong point was gradually reduced.’
An ad hoc force of Royal Marine Centaur tanks with their 95mm guns, AVRE’s with Petard guns and eventually DD tanks all engaged WN 27’s pillboxes and machine gun positions. The 79th Division describes how,
While fighting continued in St Aubin, further west a taped gap used by a Royal Marine Centaur as engineers clear mines.
‘A pillbox on the cliff fell to Petard fire and houses belching forth streams of mortar bombs and small arms fire were silenced by 75 mm [flail’s main armament] and Petards.’
The official historian recorded that the 50mm gun’s crew fought on for about forty-five minutes but ‘was put out of action by tank fire’. He continued, ‘that about 70 empty shell cases around the emplacement, attested the resolution with which its crew had fought it’.
With WN 27 neutralized by the armour, the infantry of the North Shore Regiment assaulted. The battalion’s historian wrote:
The AVREs Petard gun fired a 40 lb demolition round nicknamed the ‘flying dustbin’.
‘Sergeant Major Murray, Lieutenants McCann and Richardson moved in with B Company for the attack on the strong point. The enemy began to fly white flags but as the assault moved in, opened fire again, which caused more casualties. But the boys drove in and the tanks did their stuff. White flags went up again but the North Shore had had enough of that trickery and went in with bombs, cold steel and shooting. They inflicted many times the casualties the enemy had inflicted on them and cleaned out the place.
‘Lt McCann was into the stronghold with his men. It took two hours to thoroughly inspect the main gun positions and their underground connections, and no one knew whether or not we had all the enemy. Four officers and Seventy-five other ranks were taken prisoner, and another fifty were killed or wounded.
Major Forbes realized that the strength of the strong point was much greater than had been anticipated. ‘He was further puzzled by the fact that men kept appearing as thought the garrison were being supplied from somewhere.’ The mystery was solved when tunnels and covered ways were found and cleared.
The North Shore’s war diary recorded that,
‘At 11.15 hrs, four hours and five minutes after landing the assault area was cleared, thus one of the Atlantic Wall’s bastions that had taken four years to build was completely reduced’.
Nonetheless, Lieutenant Colonel Stacey wrote that ‘it was not until evening [1800 hours] did the last defenders of WN 27 finally give in’ having been winkled out of the concrete casemates. The North Shore Regiment’s capture of St Aubin and the clearance of the coastal villages eastwards by 48 Commando, whose objective was to link up with 3rd British Division on Sword Beach, will be continued in Chapter 6.
Meanwhile, in the gap between St Aubin and Bernières, opposition was relatively light. As already recorded, Major Forbes and the North Shore’s A Company had been quickly across the beach and over the sea wall. However, they ‘suffered some casualties in booby-trapped houses but in general made good the beachhead objective without great difficulty’. Landing behind the infantry, 79th Armoured Division’s history records that their:
‘Number 3 Team had an easier time, one craft was hit and just made the beach, the other two landed east of the planned gap. Crabs flailed up to the 10 feet sea wall and a bridge was successfully, if steeply, laid. Another Crab flailed a lane through the dunes to the lateral and the reserve Crab widened this.’
The sea sick soldiers of the North Shore’s second wave, C and D Companies, circled off the beach as they waited for their turn to touch down. They had,
‘watched A and B Companies land, as well as three or four tanks of the engineer assault crews, but could tell very little about enemy resistance due to smoke and fire from the town but they were also quickly across the beach’.
D Company moved on to fight in the southern part of St Aubin. At about the same time, Gunner Roland Johnston a driver of an M10 Tank Destroyer landed on Nan Red with 247 Anti-tank Battery attached to the North Shore Regiment. He recounted an unpleasant part of his move off the beach.
‘…as we came in up closer, you could see bodies all over the beaches. When we got to the beach we drove straight off and we had to run right over a lot of casualties to get up the beach. It was a big worry but you had to put it out of your mind, just forget about it. There was only one way up and you got to realize that the tracks cut down so much in the sand that I wondered at one point if we were going to make it.
‘Our orders were to go straight up the beach as far as you could. The machine gun fire [from St Aubin] was wild, all over the place. A lot of the infantry were still in the water. They were pinned down and they couldn’t get in. The infantry took cover behind every tank that went up the beach.’
The North Shore’s Support Company Commander, Captain Gammon, landed behind C and D Companies to the west of St Aubin and recorded that:
‘Lieutenant Colonel Buell asked me for an anti-tank gun to clear out a pillbox. The pillbox was in the middle of afield 100 yards inshore and the Germans must have been quite frantic as they were throwing stick grenades over the top and none of our fellows were within 100 yards of them. One shot from an anti-tank gun finished that pillbox. Later, I made contact with D Company under Major Anderson, who had gone though to the far edge of the village and had captured the station and vicinity, and C Company under Major Daughney, who was occupying a farm commanding the road to Tailleville. By that time we were well in possession of the village and the only fighting going on was Major Forbes’s company attacking the strong point. All the time the Germans were mortaring the town.
Meanwhile, C Company headed inland towards Tailleville. The battle for Tailleville will be continued in Chapter 5 as a part of the advance inland.
7 Canadian Brigade Group – Mike and Nan Green Sectors
7 Cdn Brigade, as already recorded, had a difficult task in assaulting the Atlantic Wall astride the small fishing port of Courseulles-sur-Mer. This area was the strongest point along the Second Army’s front that was to be directly attacked from the sea. Mike Beach and Nan Green Sector were dominated by a pair of strong Wiederstandneste and flanking casemates that covered the beach with interlocking arcs of fire. These enemy positions had received the special attention of both bombers and naval gunfire. Even so, it was with some dismay that Brigadier Foster received the message that, despite the ten minute delay already announced, the 79th Armoured Division’s assault vehicles were going to be late. He could not delay further and had to order his brigade to attack without the planned support of ‘Hobbart’s Funnies’. In contrast with 8 Cdn Brigade’s experience on Nan Red, support for the infantry of 7 Cdn Brigade and suppression of the enemy’s defences would, initially, fall entirely on the shoulders of the DD tanks of the 1 Hussars.
Waiting for Force J’s landing craft, was one of a pair of Royal Navy miniature submarines that had been in position for some days, ready to accurately guide the assault force to the beaches. By dawn on 6 June 1944, Lieutenant Hudspeth and his crew of X20 had spent sixty-four out of the previous seventy-six hours, submerged, waiting on the bottom off Juno Beach. X20 was now surfaced, exactly 9,000 yards from the coastline. Their role was to mark the centre of Canadian’s assault area and the intended disembarkation point for the DD tanks. X20’s radar reflectors and lights shaded so they shone out to sea, acted as confirmation to the ships’ navigators who were confronted by a coastline ahead which was, confusingly, littered with church spires. One British LCT captain commented: ‘My landmark was a church at Bernières but with all the smoke, I couldn’t tell which bloody spire was which!’
The sea around X20 was rough and under cover of the bombardment, LCTs were preparing to launch the DD tanks. Tank commander Sergeant Leo Gariepy, of B Squadron, 1 Hussars, was in a LCT at the front of Force J1, heading towards Nan Green Sector in support of 7 Cdn Brigade. He recalled:
‘… the minesweepers leading us in slowed down and began making a semicircle. The flotilla of LCTs began manoeuvring for launching our DD tanks. This meant it was necessary for them to head into the wind, showing a broadside to the enemy supposedly alert on the coast. It seemed incredible that we had not been seen.
‘Our LCT was having great difficulty trying to maintain its position for launching.… Finally the launching officer called us together and said that High Command had vetoed launching in such a rough sea.
‘The LCT began manoeuvring again to bring us right into the beaches. We were then approximately 9,000 yards out, and the spirit had gone out of everyone. We were discouraged and disheartened to realize that all our training had been in vain and we would now be dropped on the beaches like ‘gravel crushers’ [nickname for the infantry]… Suddenly, at 7,000 yards, our squadron commander, Major Duncan, asked us if we would prefer to risk it. Cheers went up, we were all for it and we prepared to launch. The LCT once again took its launching position in the wind, the ramp was lowered and we each, in turn, rolled off. The manoeuvre was difficult owing to the wind and waves. [2 Cdn Armoured Brigade’s report states that the distance from the shore was 2,500 rather than 7,000 yards]
‘All our five tanks were successfully launched and we ploughed into the water, trying to adopt a pre-determined attack formation. (We couldn’t fire our guns in the water, because they were hidden behind the huge canvas screen that kept us afloat.) Standing on the command deck at the back of my turret, trying to steer and navigate, that 7,000 yards to the beach was the longest journey of my life.
‘Enemy fire was discernible now. Machine-gun bullets were ripping the water all around me and an occasional mortar shell fell among us. I looked behind to see how the others were faring and noticed that many of the tanks had sunk and the crews were desperately trying to board bright-yellow salvage dinghies.
A drowning DD tank with the crew safe in their life raft.
The X Craft photographed off Juno Beach.
‘A midget submarine [X20] appeared just a few yards in front of me. His duty was to lead me to my primary target on the beach a blockhouse sheltering a naval gun. High wind was forcing me to drift and the man in the submarine was trying to wave me back into line. It was impossible; the wind was too strong. The struts which kept the rubberized skirt around the tank were groaning and I had visions of them giving out at any moment.
‘I called on my crew to bring up fire extinguishers and tools to try and brace the struts. I could hear the pinging of enemy bullets ripping through the canvas and hitting the hull of my tank.
‘… when we were a few hundred yards from the beach the destroyer started firing salvo after salvo with a deafening roar. As the water became shallower, the submarine stopped, its occupant [Lieutenant Hudspeth] stood up and wished me luck with his hands clasped over his mouth.
‘Of the nineteen tanks we should have launched I could now only see nine [fourteen B Squadron DDs eventually landed]. I was a few yards off my target, but not too bad, and at exactly 0745, I touched the sand and drove out of the water. [Naval logs record the DD beaching times as 0759 on Mike and 0815 on Nan Green] On the beach, I gave orders to deflate the canvas skirt and what happened next will always remain vivid in my memory. The German machine gunners in the dunes were absolutely stupefied to see a tank emerging from the sea. Some of them ran away, some just stood up in their nests and stared, unable to believe their eyes. We mowed them down like they were corn on the cobs. The element of surprise was a total success.’
Launching and deployment of DD tanks as they swam into the beach. A schematic landing diagram taken from 2 Canadian Armoured Brigade Operations Order.
It would be wrong to assume that the thirty of the thirty-eight Sherman DD tanks that 1 Hussar’s leading squadrons had been launched, landed in a coherent wave. Some landed in front of the infantry – B Company of the Reginas issued the code word ‘Popcorn’ (DD tanks have ‘touched down’) at 0758 hours and reported their own landing at 0815. Elsewhere, the DDs touched down more or less at the same time as the infantry but on the right. A Squadron’s Shermans carried out a deep wade and landed up to six minutes behind the vulnerable khaki clad figures. However, no matter when they landed, the DD tanks were able to provide valuable support to help the infantry cross the beach. Of the approximately sixteen tanks lost to enemy mortar fire or from being swamped, only one crewman was killed. Most of the men successfully used their escape breathing apparatus and were rescued from their yellow life rafts by passing landing craft.
7 Cdn Infantry Brigade planned to land with two battalions leading the assault on the Courseulles area. The Regina Rifles on Nan Green Beach, to the east of the mouth of the River Seulles, were supported by B Squadron 1 Hussars. Landing on Mike Sector, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, with C Company 1 Canadian Scottish and A Squadron 1 Hussars under command, were to clear Graye-sur-Mer and the area to the west of the river mouth.
The German Defences
6 Kompanie 736 Grenadier Regiment held the coastal defences in the Courseulles area. The total of eighty prisoners in addition to those who were killed or escaped indicate that the company was reinforced by at least a platoon. Judging by the photographs and reports that ‘some Russians held out in a casemate until 1800 hours’, there was at least a platoon of former Soviet troops, probably from 642 Ost Battalion attached to 6 Kompanie. As already recorded, there were two main strong points in the Courseulles area, astride the mouth of the Seulles River. WN 29 to the east of and WN31 to the west. These two Wiederstandnests protected in large M677 concrete casemates, had the only two 88mm guns on 716th Division’s entire front between le Hamel and Ouisterham. The guns were mounted to cover the beaches either side of Courseulles. WN 29 was a relatively compact strong point but the houses along the seafront and just inland of the position had been well fortified. Amongst the sand dunes, WN 31 was more extensive, with no fewer than thirteen major concrete structures, and the bend of the River Seulles behind it. Both small bridges into Courseulles were well guarded. Mines and wire were extensively used especially amongst the sand dunes. The town itself while not extensively prepared for defence, did offer the German defenders the opportunity of a fighting withdrawal that could halt or at least slow the Canadian advance inland.
A German coastal infantryman lies dead amongst the dunes.
The Regina Rifles – Nan Green
Possibly the most demanding mission had been allocated to the Regina Rifles, who not only had to break through the coastal defences of WN 29 to the east of the river mouth but also to clear the town of Courseulles. The absence of the 79th Division’s assault armour, until approximately twelve minutes after they landed, was a serious blow but they did have the DDs of B Squadron 1 Hussars in support. Amongst the first tanks ashore was Sergeant Leo Gariepy:
‘Making my way up the long expanse of sand, destroying obstacles as we moved on, I approached the blockhouse that was my target. It was camouflaged with a superstructure to make it look like a beach house, but seeing that the roof had been demolished I assumed it was out of commission and stopped as close to the walls as possible.
‘… Several tanks were still wallowing in the water, although many had foundered. Heavy shelling from at sea was still going on, landing craft and infantry assault boats were coming in. It was like a scene out of Dante’s Inferno.
‘While I was observing all this, our tank was suddenly lifted off the ground by a tremendous blast. I was sure we had copped one, but looking out I saw a huge gun recoiling into the blockhouse by which we were sheltering. It was far from out of action. I realized we were too close for him to get a bead on us and that we were safe for the moment. We withdrew a few yards obliquely from his line of sight and from that position, at almost point-blank range, I ordered several rounds of armour piercing shells to be fired into the embrasure. Then I went round behind the blockhouse and pumped eight or ten high explosive rounds through the steel doors of the entrance.’
Private Heinrich Siebel, attached to 6 Kompanie from the 716th Division’s Panzerjagerkompanie was crewing a 88mm gun in the Courseulles area and might have been amongst Sergeant Gariepy’s victims. Siebel wrote:
‘… we shot and shot, especially at the strange tanks that came up the beach. It was hard for us to see much because of the smoke but I believe we destroyed two tanks before our gun received a direct hit. There was a flash and a great bang and I was blown backwards onto the concrete floor and knew nothing else for a time. When I woke up I found two of our men dead and more wounded. Our gun was destroyed and all I could think of was escape. I tried to get out through the rear exit, pulling one of my wounded friends with me, but debris made this difficult. There was a lot of shooting, then some British soldiers came and with their help I was able to escape. My comrade was treated, but he died.’
Landing behind the DD tanks, were the leading companies of the Regina Rifles. A Company, on touching down, issued the code word ‘Brandy’, at 0809 hours, which was duly recorded in the battalion war diary. At 0815 hours they were joined on the beach by B Company.
Despite the presence of the DD tanks on the beach, the Regina’s leading waves were engaged by concentrated machine gun fire from WN 29 and flanking concrete Tobrukstands. These positions, held by the infantrymen of 6 Kompanie, had survived the air and naval bombardment. According to the Regina’s war diarist, the ‘… pillboxes and other emplacements were still open for business when our troops touched down’. Once again the delay in landing had allowed the defenders time to recover. The report of 505th LCA Flotilla describes A Company’s landing on Mike Beach in front of an active enemy:
‘No. 1 Craft: all troops got clear of the water and then three were seen to fall when running up the beach. No. 2 Craft: Two were hit as soon as they attempted to leave the craft. The remainder of the troops sustained a few casualties when running up the beach. No.3 Craft: Six seen to fall whilst running up the beach. No. 5 craft: A few casualties among the troops once they were clear of the water.’
The Regina’s A Company suffered the heaviest casualties, losing about a fifth of their strength in the surf and on the sands in front of WN 29; before they had even started clearing their objective.
B Company, landing six minutes after A Company, waded ashore on the Regina’s left flank, to the east of WN29, against lesser opposition, and pushed on over the sea wall and started clearing its designated areas in Courseulles. Meanwhile, A Company was breaking into WN 29 with a left flanking attack supported by the 1st Hussar’s DD tanks. They were firing from positions on the beach as the waves and the rapidly rising tide washed around them. The Reginas had the usual heavy concrete casemates and trenches to subdue but also had had to deal with a line of fortified houses, which clustered around the Courseulles railway station. The fighting lasted for over two hours. Once off the beach, and through the mines, wire and into the enemy defences, A Company advanced from trench to trench, efficiently clearing positions with grenade and bayonet. The DD tanks continued to provide close support and fired shells into embrasures of the enemy’s casemates, and defended houses until the arrival of 79th Armoured Division’s assault teams.
Landing at 0821 hours, the assault armour of Number 3 and 4 Teams belatedly began its tasks of clearing obstacles from the fifty yards of beach that was still yet to be covered by the tide. The two teams played their part in breaching the sea wall for following troops and supported the Reginas by helping subdue enemy positions that had been impervious to the DD’s 75mm gun. However, a Combined Operations operational analysts confirmed that the majority of the enemy positions in the beach area had fallen victim to B Squadron 1 Hussars. The analysist wrote:
‘The 75 mm gun position at the east end of the strongpoint had fired many rounds (estimated 200 empties) and was put out of action by a direct hit which penetrated the gun shield making a hole 3 inch × 6 inch it is probable that the gun was put out by a direct shot from a DD tank.
Sergeant Gariepy’s tank in Courseulles on D Day.
Similarly, the 88-mm. position by the riverside was probably silenced by direct hits with guns from DD tanks, although the concrete and gun shield were marked by shells probably fired by destroyers and LCGs. The nearby 50-mm. gun’s shield had been pierced by holes ‘probably caused by aimed fire from tank at short range’. Of the strongpoint generally, the guns had fired a considerable quantity of ammunition and were put out of action by accurately placed fire from close range by tanks.’
Sadly, the process of clearing W 29 had to be repeated by A Company. Once the Canadians had moved on into Courseulles, Germans who had either gone to ground in the casemates or had been missed in the maze of trenches or had infiltrated back into the strong point and were again in action. Individual German riflemen made WN 29 an unhealthy place to linger until late in the day.
Meanwhile, the flail tanks and the AVREs, despite their late arrival, speeded progress off on Nan Green for both the assault and following companies. 79th Armoured Division’s historian recorded that, having landed too far east, Number Three Team’s:
‘Crabs flailed along to the proposed lane over the dunes and up to the anti-tank ditch where an AVRE laid a fascine. This ramp was then improved by an armoured bulldozer and the lane declared open… ‘Number 4 Team, after a similar landing, despatched their Crabs over the dunes to flail a second route to the fascine already placed across the ditch on their gap by the AVRE Squadron Commander. A Second fascine was laid and both gaps improved by DDs: routes to the lateral road [were also] declared open at 0900 hours.’
Unusually, no mines were reported as the minefield was at this point narrow and most of the mines had been set off by the bombardment. Having created the gaps for the following waves to leave the beach, as described in 26 Assault Company’s report, the Petard guns played a useful part in reducing or blasting entry points for the Canadian infantry into the defended houses along the Courseulles seafront.
Fighting in Courseulles
During the planning process, the Regina Rifles’ Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Matheson, divided Courseulles into twelve blocks and briefings were so thorough that ‘nearly every foot of the town was known long before it was ever entered’. WN 29 was Block One, which as described above, was cleared by A Company, while the remainder of the blocks were divided up amongst the other companies. Ross Munro, filed a report describing the general nature of the fighting:
‘With the sea behind them and the Norman fields ahead, they broke through the first line of defences and took on the next string of pillboxes and line of trenches. They went for the fortified houses, blew their way through them and worked into the town of Courseulles, fighting up the streets leading from the inlet to the Market Square. By now, the Germans were in confusion, but they stood to fight in small groups at every corner. Off the Market Square was the German headquarters for this coastal sector. It was in a big château with an orchard behind it, in which were located sturdy air raid shelters with steel and concrete roofs and walls. The officers had fled when the fighting Reginas broke into the building. They found a few snipers; wiped them out; cleaned up obvious opposition in the town and passed though to the farmland south of Courseulles.’
German barges in the harbour at Couseulles.
An account by Sergeant Leo Gariepy, of B Squadron, 1 Hussars describes the clearance of Courseulles, as the companies moved through the small town, block by block.
Sand table model being examined in the former German headquarters in Courseulles Chȃteau.
‘We then started to head into the town of Courseulles. Fearing a mine pattern on the unused street leading away from the beach, I ploughed through the back gardens of the houses. My rendezvous was at the town graveyard, on the Rue Emile Heroult.
‘A frantic Frenchman appeared in front of my tank, gesticulating wildly. I stuck my head out of the turret and asked him what he wanted and he shouted ‘Boche, Boche’ in an excited voice and pointed up the street. When he tried to explain in extremely bad English, I cut him short in French and asked him what was the matter. He was flabbergasted that I could speak French but I finally cooled him long enough for him to tell me that there was a group of enemy hidden inside a large park behind an eight-foot-high wall. A naval shell had made a large hole in the wall and every time the infantry tried to advance past the hole, the enemy sprayed them with machine gunfire.
‘An officer in the Regina Rifles asked me if I would block the hole with my tank so his platoon could get by, but not being too fond of being a ‘stopper’, I suggested that I should go inside the park with my tank and try and dislodge the machine gunners.
‘I took a position directly in front of the wall, butted through it with my tank and fired a smoke shell into a large enclosure, following it up with machine-gun fire. Then we fired two HE shells into a sentry box in the far corner of the area. This had the desired effect and some thirty-two German prisoners gave themselves up. I believe this was the first large group of the enemy taken on the beach area.’
Meanwhile, according to his division’s history, Major Younger, commander of 26 Assault Squadron had an important task to complete in the town:
‘…he personally recced the route into Courseulles, removed the mines and charges from one bridge, swung back another with French assistance, and declared the route from Mike to Nan sectors open at 12.00 hours.’
While the remainder of the Regina Rifles, supported by the DD tanks of B Squadron, were fighting through Courseulles, the final element of the battalion was coming in at 0855 hours. D Company, one of the Regina’s reserve companies, had been badly delayed and, with the tide almost fully up on the beach, two of that company’s craft struck and detonated mines on now submerged obstacles. Over half the company was lost including the Company Commander, Major Love, who was killed. On reaching the shore the forty-nine survivors nonetheless, assembled and advanced towards the enemy in Reviers as originally planned.
The Royal Winnipeg Rifles – Mike Red
‘The Little Black Devil’s’ mission was to take WN 31 to the west of Courseulles, clear the sand dunes and the sinuous banks of the River Seulles, before pushing forward to Graye-sur-Mer. Major Fulton described WN 31, which was to be attacked by B Company,
‘Three large concrete fortifications were their objective. The bunkers were attached to tunnels that ran back behind the sand dunes so they could be easily reinforced’.
Altogether, there were fifteen smaller concrete machine gun positions, along with mortar and anti-aircraft pits, which were connected by a network of trenches. The whole site was surrounded by barbed wire entanglements and mines on the landward side. Major Fulton goes on to record that:
‘Just before D Day another cement bunker appeared on the air photos. It was difficult to tell whether it was complete or not and in use, but to make sure, a platoon from C Company was added to B Company’s assault. As it turned out the fortification was not completed and the platoon had very little trouble.’
In another change to the battalion’s plan the number of assault companies was increased. ‘The planners felt that there was too big a gap between 3rd Canadian Division and the 50th Division on our right, so a company from 1 Canadian Scottish Regiment was nominated as assault company to fill the gap.’
In the event, the job of the Winnipegs was made harder by the indifferent results of the bombardment, and the fact that both the DD tanks and the assault armour were to land behind them. This was exactly what the Canadians had planned and trained to avoid. As at Dieppe, unsupported Canadian infantry were destined to attack an alert enemy, secure in concrete positions, dominating the beach.
The battalion started suffering casualties while still some 700 yards from the beach with B Company receiving enemy machine gun and mortar fire. Private Hamilton, whose craft had limped to the beach on a single engine, wrote:
‘… we were somewhat separated from our wave, and there was quite a bit of enemy fire on the coast, and we were being heavily fired upon as we approached. I was the second man in our section, and the lad in front of me was Rifleman Gianelli, and as the ramp went down, he took a burst of machine gunfire in his stomach, ahead of me, while I wasn’t touched by that burst. There was a tracer in the burst, and you could see it coming to us, and Gianelli was killed instantly.
Two of the larger casemates at WN 31 – casemates then and now.
Mike Green Beach. Photographed in the early afternoon, with vehicles about to move inland.
‘I got off the landing craft and crossed the narrow sandy beach to the edge of the beach sand dune. I got some protection, but still, I suffered a piece of shrapnel lodged in my right nostril. I was unconscious for some time…’
Wading ashore in chest high water, the Royal Winnipeg Rifles were attacking with two companies in the first wave. B Company, with two engineer platoons of 6th Field Company, touching down at 0749 hours, landed directly in front of WN 31 and, receiving heavy fire, were forced into the scant cover provided by beach obstacles, shallow shell holes and the sea wall. Teenage grenadier Hans Weiner had held his fire until the Canadians were wading ashore:
‘The first Tommies jumped into the sea, which was quite shallow. The bullets hit them and their boats to good effect and I was a little surprised to see them falling – I don’t know why. Never having been in a battle before it did shake me to be hurting those men, although they were enemies. Even then in my naivety, I thought that I was only hurting them.
‘But we were under fire; bits and pieces were flying all around our embrasures as the Tommies who survived tried to rush behind us. But they seemed to move so slowly as they carried a lot of material, and some more fell. There was so much fire going at them I was surprised to see any survive, and once these reached the upper part of the beach they found some cover and were no longer in our sights.’
On Mike Red, in a manner similar to the US infantry’s experience on Omaha, the Winnipegs suffered a steady stream of casualties. Lieutenant Rod Beattie, one of B Company’s platoon commanders, was hit in the spine and, unable to pull himself out of the surf, was in danger of drowning. Meanwhile, one of his men, Rifleman Jake Miller, had reached the beach in front of WN 31.
‘I was firing into a bunker when a sniper returned fire. Being in the prone position, the sniper’s bullet grazed my lower left side. Seconds later a mortar bomb landed on my right side and I got sprayed with shrapnel. A big piece hit my right knee area. I started to crawl forward when Rod Beattie hollered, “Jake don’t leave me”. I crawled back and tried to pull him away from the incoming tide.’
Lieutenant Beattie was eventually carried to safety by his platoon sergeant.
Ahead, the Winnipegs faced ‘four concrete casemates [including the one under construction] and fifteen machine gun positions’. The immediate problem was, however, the belt of wire at the back of the beach. Rifleman, John McLean, having got across the fireswept beach, recalled that,
‘The next obstacle was rolls of concertina wire. It was about twenty to thirty feet across this wire and it was about two feet high. Just beyond the wire were the sand dunes and at least temporary safety… However, our Bangalore Torpedo man never made it out of the water so we had to make our way through the wire as best we could.’
McLean was wounded in the legs by splinters from a mortar bomb, while tackling the wire but he regarded himself as lucky, as ‘a few feet behind me, one of my comrades was minus his legs and dead’. Some men did get through the wire when,
‘One of the pioneers section attached to us [B Company] threw himself on the barbed wire so the men could walk over his back and reach the safety of the dunes.’
The 88mm gun covering the mouth at Suelles and the port entrance.
Despite a few of the leading infantry getting through the enemy’s wire, the Winnipegs needed support and looked anxiously out to sea, searching the waves for their supporting tanks and assault armour.
Major Brooks, Commander of A Squadron 1 Hussars, wrote that his DD tanks were launched about 1,500 yards from the beach:
‘The launching took too long, and the LCTs drifted down [east] on the tide. All craft were not in the proper formation for launching and were being subjected to mortar and other enemy fire.’
The official historian states that one LCT had the chains holding its ramp shot off and another craft, with five tanks aboard off-loaded them directly onto the beach. ‘Only ten of A Squadron swam off the LCTs and of these, only seven reached the beach’, landing six minutes after the assault infantry companies. The tanks, initially, remained seaward of the obstacles and fired from this position and the squadron commander was told of one enemy group surrendering in their fortifications because of their dismay at seeing tanks already in action.
With belated tank support, as Sergeant Major Belton recorded in B Company’s report, ‘The sand dunes were reached, and the pill boxes taken by sheer guts and initiative of the individual’. Reporter Ross Munro watched the battle through binoculars and witnessed the bitter infantry fight for WN 31. He recorded that the ‘Little Black Devils’ fought:
‘From dune to dune, along the German trench systems and through the tunnels, these Manitoba troops fought every yard of the way. They broke into the big casemates, ferreted out the gun crews with machine guns, grenades, bayonets and knives. The Canadians ran into crossfire. They were shelled and mortared mercilessly even in the German positions but kept slugging away at the enemy. The 1st Hussar’s tanks churned through the dunes in close support and after a struggle which was as bitter and savage as any … the Winnipegs broke through into the open country behind the beach.’
The fighting, which had been hand to hand had cost B Company ninety casualties. The company’s after action report provides a stark insight into the nature of the battle:
‘Rifleman Kimmnel, a signaller attached to the Company, showed outstanding courage in silencing one pillbox. Corporal Slatter, after being hit in the stomach, was seen on his hands and knees still trying to get up to the pillbox, at the same time trying to direct his remaining section by shouting orders. It is reported that Corporal Klos was badly wounded in the stomach and legs while leaving the craft but made his way to the enemy position and was found there, apparently having killed two of the Hun and was sitting on one, with his hands still gripped on his throat. … Captain Gower, without thought of safety for himself, encouraged his men and controlled the situation, in full view of the enemy, bareheaded as he had lost his helmet after an incident in the water. It is the opinion of the remaining few that his courage and amazing coolness, was one of the outstanding factors in our success in pushing through the first objective.’
Grenadier Hans Weiner, inside one of the casemates, describes the latter stage of the battle, after he and his fellow soldiers were surrounded by the Canadians and being engaged by all available weapons.
‘Tanks began shooting at us with cannon and machine gun and we were forced to get down. Part of our blockhouse collapsed and we thought we would be buried alive. By some miracle we were not and our Gefreiter reached us to say that all the other men were dead or wounded – hut we would not give up. Then some of the Tommies came very close as they fired and we knew it was hopeless. The enemy were shouting and firing and then we ran out of ammunition, so it seemed the sensible thing to surrender, if we could do so without being shot.
Tobrukstand – concrete position for one machine gun.
American intelligence sketches of a Tobrukstand – German concrete machine gun post.
A Tobrukstand at WN 31. This example is almost certainly for a medium mortar.
‘We threw our helmets out of the hole at the back and they called us out. Ten Tommies were all pointing their guns at us. After being searched we were told to go and lie on the beach, which was still under fire. It seemed hours before we were taken down to a landing craft for England.’
At the end of the two hour battle for WN 31 only Captain Gower and twenty-six men were still on their feet. It had been one of D Day’s most savage fights. Against all odds, B Company had succeeded despite dangerous delays that allowed the enemy to recover his balance after the fine plan and the lack of armoured support during the initial stages. However, the seventy-five percent casualties suffered by B Company, the Winnipeg Rifle’s heroic battle proves that the D Day invasion only succeeded because of the generally effective assault armour and integrated fire plan. Similar casualties spread along the entire front would have been totally unsustainable.
With WN 31 subdued, Number 15 Platoon, who were under command of B Company, ‘forced a crossing of the R Seulles [as indicated on the map] and cleared out the four enemy positions on the ‘Island’.
When asked who in B Company Group should be recommended for bravery, Sergeant Major Belton replied:
‘No individual that he knew of could be recommended more than any other … and there was not a man who went to ground until he was hit.’
However, Captain Gower, whose ‘powerful leadership and courage’ in the fighting in WN 31 was recognized and awarded one of the most well deserved Military Crosses ever issued to a Canadian soldier.
A little further to the right, ‘D Company met lesser opposition while landing, as it was clear of the actual strong point area’. With the enemy infantry in WN 31 fighting for their lives against an immediate threat, D Company was across the beach, through the shredded barbed wire and into the dunes relatively quickly with few casualties. However, without their flail tanks, a minefield in the pasture beyond the dunes halted them. A platoon of 6th Field Company Royal Canadian Engineers, who should have been clearing the beach, were redirected to assist the infantry by hand breaching the minefield, as their beach obstacles were now under water. D Company were soon on their way to la Valette and Graye-sur-Mer encountering further minefields, ‘some of which proved to be dummies, at every turn’. The Germans had marked minefields with the Achtung Minen signs stencilled in either yellow or white paint. It was only later in the day that word circulated that the signs in yellow paint were dummy minefields and could be ignored.
The WN31 command post casemate survived intact. However, the steel OP cupola was cut off after the war.
Coming in approximately twenty minutes after their initial assault wave, the Winnipeg’s reserve companies, A and C, were quickly into the sand dunes. However, the Winnipeg’s Battalion Headquarters had a hard time getting across the beach.
‘The Bn Comd Gp, landing at 0820 hrs came under mortar and MG fire and were sniped from the left [area of WN 31] but managed to get inland by crawling over bogged AVREs and slithering along a low bank’.
Just seven out of fifteen men from ‘Battalion Main’ survived the beach. Alternate Battalion HQ, under the Second in Command and the Adjutant, ‘…with the No. 22 W/T set as a target, were pinned down for two hours’.
Landing with the Winnipeg’s Mortar Platoon some time after 0900 hours, Jim Parks recorded how he landed from an LCT along with an armoured bulldozer. Contrary to the plan that had him driving his carrier across the secured beach and dunes into a baseplate position, the beach was still under fire at a relatively late stage of the landing.
A posed photo taken inside a German artillery command post.
‘Our touch down was delayed because we hit a mine tied to a barrier and it threw the craft slightly off course. Then a 75 mm shell hit the left front of the craft where a sailor was winding down the door. He continued to wind it down despite being seriously wounded. The armour piercing shell came through the ramp, and luckily for us it hit the large bulldozer blade at an angle and ricocheted up and away leaving only a large gouge in the blade. The bulldozers left the craft but we were about 250 yards from shore and Sergeant Tommy Plumb, on orders from the Boat Commander, said lets get going. I took one look at the bulldozer and it had water lapping near the top of the cockpit. That meant it was 12 feet deep and our mortar carriers were waterproofed to travel in water only four feet deep. In any event the carrier drove off and into the water. It seemed to float awhile and started to sink. Some of the crew swam for Compo boxes and hung onto them (all this with the tracers flying about). Stringbean White hung on to his food box until picked up by the Navy later. … We were next to go and into the deep we went. As we sank we started throwing off our heavy equipment, fortunately we had left our buckles undone and we did not want to be weighed down.
‘…an LCA just missed me by a whisker and I swallowed about a quart of water and nearly bought it. About 25 – 30 yards ahead of me the LCA started disembarking and I still couldn’t touch bottom with my boots. I was able to scramble in just behind the last section wading in. By the time I reached the shoreline I had passed two or three wounded lying face down and grabbed them by the collar and dragged them to dry ground. That started something. I spent a few frantic moments dragging a few more in. I remember Rod Beattie who moaned and said he was numb. I dragged him further in so he wouldn’t drown. All hell had been breaking loose. I had only my vest and helmet. Another platoon had gotten through the embankment further to the left. When I had a chance to look around I could see that quite a few of the gang had been caught in the crossfire, some on the barbed wire, some in the water, and on the shore. L/Cpl. Martin was right beside me and had been mortally wounded. I dragged him to the cover of the pillbox near by and went out to an Armoured Bulldozer and I pointed out that Bales and one or two others were hanging on to barriers in the water and the driver drove back out to the barrier In about 6–7 feet of water plus waves and picked them up.’
Rare photo of a Royal Engineer D7 armoured bulldozer clearing the rubble on D Day.
The Canadian Scottish
According to their war diary D Day started for the battalion when:
“Wakey, Wakey’ was heard over the LCI’s PA system and the officers, NCOs and men of the 1st Bn. Canadian Scottish Regiment arose to face the greatest day in their military career. “Now is the time” said one of the lads, “when we can tell whether our instructors knew what it was all about”. There was no fuss, no sign of the “jitters”, the troops ate their breakfast and then prepared to embark on the LCAs.’
1 Canadian Scottish were 7 Cdn Brigade’s reserve during the landing phase. However, C Company was under command of the Winnipeg Rifles and attacked objectives in Mike Green Sector in the first assault wave. They left their LCAs:
‘… in about three feet of water, just short of the beach obstacles. At first there was no fire but as we moved forward, the odd mortar bomb landed amongst us and MG fire started to come from our left flank and Pte Ashley was hit with shrapnel in the leg. Several others were hit but more or less unnoticed at the time. Stretcher-bearers started the good job that they were continued to do all day.
The double anti tank gun casemate on Mike Green had been built in an obvious position and had been well hit by the bombardment.
‘13 Pl and Coy HQ moved west along the beach to their objective only to find – thanks to the Royal Navy – the pillbox was no more. Finding this they moved inland up the road towards the Chateau and cleared out various snipers in the positions further inland. Pl HQ and another section moved to the west and took out an MG and a 105mm gun, which was unmanned. An attempt to turn this prize on the enemy was unsuccessful. It was at this stage that the first two prisoners were taken’
Along Juno Beach, it had taken about two hours to subdue the German defenders of three of the four main Wederstandneste and sundry intermediate positions. The Canadians can claim to have broken one of the strongest parts of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall on the invasion coast. However, some Germans still fighting amongst the ruins of their positions sniped at troops attempting to move inland for most of the day. On the eastern flank, WN 27 on the outskirts of St Aubin continued to resist behind Juno Beach. The villages held numerous German troops who would have to be cleared before a viable beachhead could be declared.
The view from the casemate above looking down Mike and across the river to Nan Green Beach.