Gerding: First-hand impact of D-Day fading with time

“June 6, 1944, was a crucial turning point in the Second World War.”

Canadian soldiers fighting against German resistance in France in the days following the D-Day invasion. (Contributed)

Canadian soldiers fighting against German resistance in France in the days following the D-Day invasion. (Contributed)

June 6 remains a hallowed day for Canada’s military and a turning point in creating political consequences that impact our world still today.

D-Day, the invasion along the coast of France on June 6, 1944, was a crucial turning point in the Second World War.

We know this because military historians always remind us of that assertion and many movies have glamorized the event, from the all-star epic The Longest Day released in 1962 to the 1998 Steven Spielberg-directed Saving Private Ryan.

The numbers tell one side of the story. Nearly 150,000 Allied troops landed or parachuted into the invasion area on D-Day, including 14,000 Canadians at Juno Beach.

The Royal Canadian Navy contributed 110 ships and 10,000 sailors and the RCAF contributed 15 fighter and fighter-bomber squadrons to the assault.

Total Allied casualties on D-Day reached more than 10,000, including 1,074 Canadians, of whom 359 were killed.

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In celebrating the 75th anniversary this year, it is a reminder that very few D-Day survivors are still alive to educate people today about the repercussions of war, the horror and the savagery that left many dead and others to survive and live with those memories for the rest of their lives.

My own thoughts about D-Day were shaped by my high school history teacher, who shared his experience in the Canadian infantry as a participant in the D-Day landing.

He dedicated one of his classes to describing what happened to him on that day, of how his experience was representative of why the Allied Forces persevered against a steely battle-tested opponent, and in particular why Canadian troops were feared by the Germans.

His story recounted how his regiment landed on the beach, and advancing inland into France’s hedgerow country where they fought against well dug-in German forces.

While the beach landing gets all the attention, the hedgerow fighting was a nasty piece of business which my teacher wanted to illustrate to all of us, including our school principal who was sitting in the back row of the class to hear his presentation.

My teacher’s story concerned an incident in which his squad had captured a group of German soldiers and lined then up for interrogation. As the questioning began, one of the German soldiers pulled out a pistol he was hiding and shot him in the head.

That resulted in his fellow soldiers opening fire and killing all those German soldiers where they stood, the ultimate administering of battlefield justice.

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Today, such an action would result in media scrutiny, military trials perhaps like we see today with U.S. troops carrying out atrocities in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Back then, no such thing. Those wartime horrors were absorbed by those men, often never talked about again, and yet they carried on to be tagged as ‘the greatest generation’ in a book by journalist Tom Brokaw, a title for those who grew up in the Depression, fought in the Second World War.

It was a title for a book, but became a moniker that has stuck and taken on a life of its own in subsequent years.

As for my teacher’s story, he was taken back to a beachhead to await medical care.

He recounted how while laying on a stretcher on the beach awaiting transfer to a hospital ship, a fellow Canadian soldier walking by him, noticed the good condition of his army boots compared to his own, and pulled a switch.

“The son of a bitch stole my boots while I was lying there helpless having been shot,” he recalled.

But he harped on that ‘son of a bitch’ theme, how Canadian soldiers were hardened from a decade of living in the depression, tired of being beaten down by difficult economic realities upon which the Nazis were seen as piling on to make things potentially worse.

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How we look upon D-Day in 25 years when the 100th anniversary rolls around, and beyond that, may alter with time but the sacrifice of those who landed on the Normandy beaches and fought their way across Western Europe should never be forgotten.

Barry Gerding is the regional desk editor for Black Press Media in Kelowna.

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