Knights of D-Day

This multimedia project was rolled out June 6, 2016, on the 72nd anniversary of D-Day. It is comprised of a longform essay and a series of mini documentaries featuring the stories of five Westman veterans who served in the Second World War.

I wrote the article, edited the videos, which were shot by Colin Corneau, and helped promote the project website, which was created by Andrew Nguyen. You can view the project here: bdnsun.ca/veteransdoc

Photo by Colin Corneau

Photo by Colin Corneau

The French government launched an initiative in 2013 to recognize Allied soldiers who took part in D-Day and the subsequent Normandy Campaign ahead of the 70th anniversary of D-Day.

The Legion of Honour campaign suffered poor promotion in Canada and hundreds of deserving veterans were missed during the initial intake. Still, the medal — France’s highest honour — is an important symbol that acknowledges the sacrifices made by millions of young soldiers so many years ago. In honour of the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, The Brandon Sun has compiled the wartime stories of five local veterans who, earlier this year, joined more than 1,000 other Canadian veterans as Knights of the French Legion of Honour.

Grey skies blanketed the French coastline and high winds whipped the English Channel into dark waves, as the first Canadian soldiers set sights on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944. While not ideal conditions, the dreary weather offered a slight reprieve from an otherwise stormy forecast — giving the Allied forces a narrow window of opportunity to carry out an invasion plan that had been months in the making.

Approximately 14,000 Canadians, alongside British and American troops, stormed the beaches of Normandy in an attempt to recapture several coastal French villages held by German forces. What would later be known as D-Day was a pivotal battle that allowed the Allies to crack Fortress Europe and change the course of the Second World War.

On June 6, Canadian troops were charged with delivering “Juno” — one of the five beaches that would create a continuous beachhead along the Normandy coast.

“All that sounds good and easy when you look at a map — a lot was involved in getting the troops there,” said Andrew Burtch, Canadian War Museum historian, post-1945. “A lot of work and training in the months previous, (and) an enormous amount of secrecy went into it.”

In reaction to the Dieppe Raid in 1942, the Germans dedicated a large amount of resources to shoring up defences along the French coastline. Tonnes of concrete were poured and guns and ammunition were moved closer to the Atlantic, creating a formidable seaside barrier.

“Any fleet that dared enter within range would be subject to a very severe and withering fire,” Burtch said. “That indeed proved to be the case at Juno Beach.”

Prior to the landings, the low-slung concrete barricades dug into the sand were targeted by heavy air and naval bombardment. However, the day’s poor weather meant that none of the emplacements were knocked out.

“If it was a clear and bright sunny day, perhaps it would be a different story,” Burtch said. “The Germans had their heads down and were no doubt shaken by the bombardment, as were the seasick Canadians pouring out of the landing craft, but they were nonetheless unaffected.”

According to Burtch, who stood on the Normandy beaches during a research trip in the 1990s, those soldiers spilling out of the landing craft had quite a slog ahead of them. With the tide out, the run up to the emplacements was significant and the beach was covered with obstacles such as steel crossbeams and mines. Not to mention the near constant small arms and machine-gun fire coming from the German soldiers on the other side of the barriers.

“That first wave really had to fan out on the beach and advance slowly,” Burtch said. “All the time suffering killed and injured.”

At the end of D-Day, 359 Canadians were dead and 574 more were wounded. Yet, the battle was deemed a success because the number of casualties was actually half of what had been envisioned, Burtch said.

In the days that followed, optimism about the speedy liberation of Europe was “turned to dust.” Ambitiously, the Allies thought they would be able to capture the city of Caen, an important German intelligence hub located 20 kilometres inland, within the first day. That target wouldn’t be acquired for another month.

“When you look to the sources and the first-hand accounts, you really get a sense of the momentous nature of the landing itself and just the slugfest that followed as they pushed south into France,” Burtch said.

The summer ahead was marked by fierce German counterattacks and substantial casualties. “In some cases, every day was like D-Day — you had that same level of losses,” Burtch said. Still, the success of the Normandy invasion gave the Allies an important foothold that allowed them to eventually push Germany back inside its own borders — signalling the end of the Second World War on Sept. 2, 1945.

“Without D-Day, the war wouldn’t have ended when it did,” he said.

Dieppe — The precursor to D-Day

The second youngest of five boys, Elmer Cole grew up on a farm six miles south of Roche Percee, Sask. On a whim, he and two friends decided to enlist in the war effort in 1939 when he was 20 years old.

“I don’t know why I enlisted, I was farming at the time,” Cole said. “I think we thought we could go over there and win the war right away.”

He was sent to Brandon where he trained as a mechanic and met his late wife Isabel, before shipping off to England in July 1941.

One year later, Cole was taken prisoner — along with 800 other men in his South Saskatchewan Regiment, Royal Canadian Infantry Corps — during the disastrous Dieppe Raid on Aug. 19, 1942.

Of the nearly 5,000 Canadian soldiers who landed in the coastal French town, 505 were injured, 916 died and 1,946 were taken prisoner by the Germans. The raid was, in essence, a costly trial run of the amphibious warfare tactic that would later be used by the Allies on D-Day.

“They knew we was coming,” Cole said, adding that many of the tanks that landed broke tracks on the large rocks that covered the shoreline before they could make it to Dieppe.

Cole says that while he and his crew made it to town, it became obvious they weren’t making it back to England.

“All the streets were blocked off and they wouldn’t evacuate us because we had to stay and keep the Germans off the beach,” he said. “So we knew we was gonna get taken prisoner.”

Some might expect a prisoner of war to become emotional when talking about his experiences, but Cole is very matter-of-fact about the whole thing. This pragmatism was even present on the day he was captured.

“My co-driver … he said to me, ‘You know, I don’t think we’ll make it back to the pub tonight.’ And I said, ‘I don’t care — I haven’t got any money anyhow.’ Yeah, so that’s how casual we were,” Cole said. “Afterwards it kind of struck us and we were a little jumpy.”

The biggest ordeal seemed to be the 10-day ride in a boxcar with 50 other men en route to a German PoW camp.

“We couldn’t all lay down at once — there was that many of us in there,” Cole said. “It was pretty degrading living in there.”

Once at the camp, Cole and his comrades wore shackles around their wrists and ankles for 13 months, but were otherwise treated well.

“It wasn’t as bad as it sounds … we could still play cards,” he said. “We lived on mint tea — it was wonderful, I don’t ever remember being thirsty. “We were never mistreated … We were just plain lucky.”

Burtch says Cole’s treatment in a European PoW camp wasn’t unusual.

“Germans had a vested interest in treating PoWs, if not comfortably, at least humanely,” Burtch said. “They didn’t want their own troops to be mistreated.”

Cole’s camp was liberated nearly three years later.

“Two years, eight months, nine days and so many minutes and so many seconds, we had it all figured out,” he said. “There was a little firing overtop of us and the Germans just disappeared and the Red Cross was right there.

“We always kind of joked about it — the first thing they gave us was a toothbrush. In three years, we hadn’t used a toothbrush and in all my life I hadn’t used a toothbrush. You’d rather have something to eat than a toothbrush.”

D-Day plus seven

Les Downing volunteered to be in the first wave of soldiers crashing onto the beaches of Normandy on June 6 — but the offensive only had room for one gun crew.

“They took the one gun crew and those boys never made it. So, I’m just lucky I didn’t go in the first gun crew, I guess,” Downing said. “It bothered me — I still think of the boys that are gone.”

Downing grew up on a farm in Lenore with five other siblings and reluctantly joined up in October 1942 at the age of 21.

“I didn’t kind of want to go to the service to start with. But I got a call and took my medical and they wanted soldiers so they kept me in there,” he said.

Downing split his basic training between Brandon and Petawawa, Ont., and says his quiet nature proved to be a bit of a hindrance early on.

“I wasn’t much for chumming with anybody. I was alone more or less,” he said. “This one boy come up to see me and he says, ‘You’re gonna have to snap out of it and get out of the corner and join the boys and go for a beer or something or you’re not going to make it’ … he helped me out. I finally got mixing with the boys.”

By the summer of ’43, Downing was in England to continue his training as a gunner with the 19th Royal Canadian Army Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery. He and his comrades landed in Normandy one week after D-Day.

“We were getting along all right until we got into the English Channel going across to the fighting range,” Downing said. “The boys were all pretty quiet.”

Downing and his gun crew spent much of the war on the front lines providing support wherever it was needed. Daily life meant sleeping in dugouts and steel helmets for protection and few opportunities for bathing. It also meant a number of close calls.

“Every once in a while, we could see the enemy planes coming across and we thought, ‘Well, is this it or what?’” Downing said. “I didn’t think I’d ever get out of it, it was pretty scary — maybe it didn’t bother some of the boys, but it bothered me.”

The 95-year-old veteran still tears up when he talks about the friends he lost during the war.

“It brings you closer to people when you go through something like that,” Downing said.

Marc George, former director of the RCA Museum at CFB Shilo, can attest to that sentiment based on his own experiences in the military.

“You eat with them, you sleep with them, you laugh with them, you cry with them, you bury them,” George said. “Some of the best memories of your life with some of your closest friends are also tied up into that little package, along with all the horrid bits.”

Luck of the draw

Like many Canadian soldiers, Kenton veteran Jack Houston was “right in the action” during most of his time overseas. He also says luck played a big factor in him returning home from the battlefields.

Born in Winnipeg, Houston was the youngest of five siblings, all of whom joined the army. He enlisted in January 1943 and ended up as a driver with the 12th Manitoba Dragoons, Royal Canadian Armoured Corps, when he arrived in England.

His troop landed in France eight days after D-Day, and instead of fighting in armoured vehicles as they had been trained to do, they were handed rifles and made to work as infantrymen for two weeks.

“We had no infantry training at all … It was nerve-racking — that’s when we lost our first casualty,” Houston said of the troop’s first battle, which took place across a river.

The enemy was firing “Moaning Minnies” — so called because of the rocket’s distinctive wail — at the soldiers from across the water.

“One (of the Moaning Minnies) happened to hit a branch and the fellow right beside me got killed and I didn’t — by the grace of God,” Houston said. “We grew from boys to men in a matter of minutes.”

Another close call happened after the battle at Falaise, France, when a group of Allied regiments were accidentally fired on by their own air force.

“We saw these planes coming, you know, and we saw the green light where they were supposed to drop their bombs,” Houston said, who assumed the planes would fly past without an issue. “That didn’t happen. We lost 14 men that day.”

Houston found safety crouching in between his vehicle and a curb.

“It couldn’t have been any closer because I was down in behind the curb … and it was hitting the top of the curb and it was coming up through my uniform,” he said.

While the war afforded a lot of hardship, Houston says there were good times as well.

“When we would go into the town … the people were very, very friendly — especially in Holland,” he said, adding that the soldiers would often share their rations with hungry children in towns.

Houston is open and rather nonchalant when talking about his wartime experiences — mostly because he believes storytelling is a way to foster remembrance.

“It’s 70 years ago now, it’s not going to hurt me anymore … but there are still men who won’t talk about it,” he said. “But if you’ve got to tell the younger ones what it was like, you’ve got to talk about it.”

Dangerous work

Geoffrey Casson grew up just outside Pipestone and joined the military in Brandon in 1942 when he was 20 years old. During the Second World War, two of Canada’s four artillery training centres were located in Westman.

“About half of the people who joined the Canadian artillery during the war were trained in Brandon and Shilo,” Marc George said. “It was certainly much more common to see people in uniform on the streets of Brandon at the time.”

Casson trained as a gunner and landed on Juno Beach with the 3rd Medium Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, more than a month after D-Day.

Of the five veterans interviewed by The Sun, Casson seems to have suffered the most injuries during his posting — including an injured leg and bits of shrapnel still lodged in parts of his body.

“The shell was 100 pounds, the first ones we had, and you put a little bag of powder in it and screw the fuse on and then you took the cap off before you put it in the chamber,” he said. “We had a couple blow up.”

In one instance, Casson was standing 15 feet behind a gun when one of the shells blew up.

“I got a burned here and a piece stuck in my arm,” he said, first motioning to his chest and then to his left bicep. “Another guy had his face full of shrapnel.”

The work of a gunner was exponentially dangerous because the Allied army was advancing so quickly — moving from France into Belgium, the Netherlands and finally into Germany.

“You didn’t have time hardly to defuse the ammunition,” Casson said, adding that there were times when they had to pack up and move live shells in truck beds. “Pretty dangerous when you’re out there — you don’t know what the hell is going to happen.”

After the war was over, Casson was stationed in Holland where he was hanging around with a number of other Manitoba soldiers — one of whom happened to be Les Downing. Realizing the two were from the same part of Manitoba, they kept in touch when they returned home and Casson ended up marrying Downing’s sister Francis.

“The wife always says to me, ‘Why didn’t you bring anyone back?’ Well, I met a girl in England I was going with for a while, but she had a boyfriend when I got back from Europe, so I didn’t bother trying to fight over her,” Casson said, laughing.

A fateful return

Like many of the veterans featured in this piece, John Carl Roseveare has poignant memories of his time in the Netherlands.

The second oldest of 11 children, Roseveare grew up in Sperling before enlisting in the artillery in 1942 when he was 21. He arrived in England in 1943 and landed in France with the 23rd Field Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, nearly two months after D-Day.

“They kept five armoured brigades in England until they had room to deploy us,” Roseveare said, adding that his troop quickly became known as the “Suicide Squad” because they were often ahead of the front lines doing reconnaissance work.

While on duty in the Netherlands, his crew got a message to move to a city called Breda where they lodged with a local family. The next morning was New Year’s Day 1945 and the men were outside preparing to shave and get ready for the day.

“There was two little boys in the house. One was about a year and a half and the other was about two and a half or something like that,” Roseveare said.

The two boys were outside watching the men clean up when they heard a strange plane coming.

“He’s coming straight down that fence line, just clipping the treetops,” Roseveare said. “Of course, the first thing I thought of was these two children. So, I grabbed one under each arm and I got around the other side of my half-track and I was trying to get underneath of it.”

Their mother came running outside calling for her “kinder” — which means children in Dutch.

“I told her, “Kinder OK — you get in the house,” so away she goes,” Roseveare said. “(The pilot) got out past a big bush and here’s a whole tank brigade in there and all our artillery. What he must’ve done is he thought to himself, ‘I better get the hell out of here.’”

Roseveare returned to the Netherlands in 1995 to attend a 50th anniversary celebration of the country’s liberation when an amazing chance meeting occurred. There was no seating left at the outdoor venue so Roseveare was watching the event from behind the crowd when a man approached him yelling, “Welcome back, Canadians” in Dutch. Roseveare asked if the man lived nearby.

“He said, ‘No, I come from Breda. Do you know where Breda is?’ I said, ‘I sure do.’ … He says, ‘My mother told me a wonderful story about Breda. How this Canadian soldier grabbed me and my brother,” Roseveare said, tearing up. “To think of all the men that should come and speak to me, it was (one of those boys).”

While the end of the Second World War in 1945 was cause for celebration, Roseveare says the monumental day brought about mixed emotions.

“It’s an awful feeling having nothing to do when you’ve been in battle for 10 and a half months and then all of a sudden, bingo, she stopped — the job’s not here anymore,” he said.

Worthy of honour

To mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the French government made a big push to recognize the Allied veterans who took part in the liberation of France.

The National Order of the Legion of Honour is the country’s highest civilian and military distinction awarded to those who have aided in the defence or prosperity of France. It was created by Napoléon Bonaparte in 1802 and is divided into five degrees of increasing nobility: Knight, Officer, Commander, Grand Officer and Grand Cross.

In 2013, the French government, aided by Veterans Affairs Canada, invited veterans who participated in the Normandy landings and the campaign that followed, to apply for the award before Dec. 31, 2013. Any Canadian, American, British and Australian veteran, still living, who fought in France between June 6 and Aug. 31, 1944, was eligible for nomination.

The Grand Chancery of the Legion of Honour is the official institution in France responsible for processing the medal nominations.

“To award an (Allied) soldier, the institution needs the official proof he took part in the Landings and the Campaign of France,” Grand Chancery communications director Alice Bouteille wrote in an email. “These documents have to be collected by each country before transmission to the French embassies and assessment by the institution.”

According to Bouteille, the French government originally decided to honour Allied veterans in 2004 for the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Since then, foreign veterans have been honoured annually, but the bulk of the medals were awarded in 2004 and 2014.

Marc George said even getting in touch with those who served so many years later can be difficult — something he endeavoured to do while working at CFB Shilo during the 2004 nominations.

“It’s tough to track them down,” the former RCA Museum director said. “Their records stop when they’re released — so their military files stopped in 1945 or ’46, it’s put into the national archives and unless the regiments have kept track of them … there’s no way to contact these people.”

To date, approximately 10,000 Allied veterans around the world have received the Legion of Honour. In Canada, the application process garnered criticism for the way it was rolled out.

The National Post reported in April 2015 that as many as 400 eligible Second World War veterans missed out on the medal because their applications to Veterans Affairs had not been passed on to the French Embassy in Canada.

One month later, the federal government announced the deadline for nominations would be extended to July 10, 2015. The Honorary Consul of France in Winnipeg says the number of veterans recognized more than doubled following the new deadline.

“At the beginning, we had 600 and some and at the end of this year (2016), there will be over 1,200 that will receive this great honour,” Bruno Burnichon said. “To the best of our knowledge, there are more D-Day veterans still living in Canada.”

Several of the Westman recipients who spoke with The Brandon Sun wondered why the French government waited so long to award the Legion of Honour — especially since it is not awarded posthumously.

“I was back in France in the 1940s,” Brandon veteran Geoffrey Casson said. “When we got our other medals, we should have got it … it’s a bit late.”

As of March 2015, there were an estimated 75,900 Second World War veterans still living in Canada according to statistics from Veterans Affairs — their average age being 91.

Stéphane Schoroderet, press counsellor with the French Embassy in Ottawa, says the government of France realized time was running out and decided to incorporate the campaign with a milestone anniversary.

“Most of them are very old people … so, it’s probably the last chance to congratulate, to thank them,” Schoroderet said during an interview. “It’s a symbolic number, a symbolic date — the 70th anniversary.”

Earlier this year, the Legion of Honour continued to make headlines as veterans finally received their medals and were recognized at local ceremonies. Thirty-seven Manitoba veterans have received the honour.

On Jan. 19, five Westman veterans officially became Knights of the Legion of Honour at a well-attended ceremony at the Virden Legion. The event was officiated by Burnichon.

“Through you, France remembers the sacrifice of all of your compatriots who came to help and liberate my country — often losing their lives during the fierce battle,” Burnichon said during his address. “The French people have never, and will never, forget the act of your bravery.”

Burnichon, whose father was a Second World War veteran, said being able to pin the five-armed white and silver cross onto veterans’ lapels is a personal honour.

“It’s actually emotional for me, and I think it’s OK to be emotional when you do this because having the honour … to say thank you in person to these people is the best thing that I can do,” he said. “It should have been done before.”

The Brandon Sun endeavoured to publish the names of all the Manitoba veterans who have received the Legion of Honour, but the French Embassy cited privacy concerns and for that reason did not release the information to the paper.

Marc George says that despite the controversy surrounding how the medals were doled out, the sentiment behind them is an important act of remembrance.

“The really brilliant thing about giving out these medals … is that it recalls to mind in the present what all those men and women did so long ago now,” George said. “So, you effectively are honouring each and every one of them because you are giving these last remaining veterans a voice and public prominence again — it does directly honour them all by doing this.”

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