June 6th, 1944 is widely remembered as one of the most significant dates in world history. That was the day when the greatest seaborne invasion ever known was successfully launched by the Allied Forces on the beaches of Normandy, France. In many respects, D-Day was the beginning of the end of the Second World War.
The invasion had been expected for some time. After the very dark days of 1940 and 1941 when it appeared that Hitler and the Nazis might conquer the world, the tide of battle had slowly turned. There was the seemingly impossible victory in the Battle of Britain. Then there was the entry of the United States into the war in December 1941. This was followed by the successful invasion of Sicily and Italy in 1943. Canadians troops distinguished themselves with their courage and skill in those battles.
Now attention turned to what was often referred to as ‘Fortress Europe’. The challenge was enormous. Huge numbers of men and vast quantities of materiel would have to be ferried across the English Channel. This massive movement would have to include an element of surprise in order to ensure success.
Careful planning and preparation was essential. Canadian and Allied troops were intensively trained for more than a year in amphibious assaults, combined operations, embarkations and disembarkations. There were also the painful lessons of the Dieppe Raid of Aug. 19, 1942 to be studied; knowledge gained with a bitter loss of Canadian lives.
By early 1944, the Allied Forces were ready for the challenge. The Canadians were amongst the best-trained and best-prepared troops under Allied Command. Under the master plan for the invasion, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade were assigned the job of landing at Juno Beach, an 8 km-long beachhead including the French villages of Courseulles, Bernieres and St. Aubin-sur-Mer. The 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was to join in aerial landings beyond the beaches.
The date of the invasion was set for June 5th. However, bad weather on the Channel caused a delay. Despite continuing rough seas, the unprecedented armada set out for France the next day. Hundreds of bombers and fighter aircraft swarmed overhead.
Heavy bombing of the German defenses was carried out from midnight until dawn, followed by naval shelling. By 8 a.m. the seaborne landings had begun. Despite the large numbers of mines and the heavy fire from the German defenders, the Canadians successfully made their way ashore at Juno Beach.
After consolidating their positions, several units began to fight their way inland. By the end of the day, some of those Canadian units had pushed farther inland than any other components of the Allied landing forces.
There was great success, but also at a great cost. On D-Day, the Canadians suffered nearly 1,000 casualties, including 340 men killed in action.
Meanwhile, back in Red Deer, the news of the great invasion was greeted with joy but also a great deal of worry and concern. In the morning, there was a brief ceremony at the A-20 Army Camp on the northeastern edge of the City. There was a Psalm reading by the Red Deer Ministerial Association and a brief sermon by the camp chaplain. Then there was a ceremonial parade with the salute taken by the camp commandant, Colonel Burton-Willison.
In the afternoon, one thousand people gathered at the City Square (City Hall Park) in a public service of prayer. The service was led by the Red Deer Ministerial Association. The mayor and city council were present on the platform, as were various military officers from the A-20 Army Camp. The camp band played hymns. The Nazarene College choir led the singing, along with students from the local schools and the local sea cadets.
Over the following days and weeks, there was more news of victory in battle, but at an ongoing cost of many lives. The hope of ultimate victory in the long and bloody war was finally being fulfilled. Moreover, through the skill and courage of its troops, Canada won a new and respected status on the international stage.