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Juno: Canadians at D-Day, June 6, 1944 Paperback – 3 May 2009
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All the accounts also mention the arrest, after the war, of Kurt "Panzer" Meyer, the SS commander, his trial and death sentence, followed by commutation and a relatively brief imprisonment and then release, some lamenting the lenient treatment for so heinous a crime perpetrated under his watch by his troops.
But none that I have found have ever mentioned an incident that took place the day before, during the height of the opening engagements, one that Cornelius Ryan related in his epic account of the historic invasion - The Longest Day. Says Ryan "Able Seaman Edward Ashworth, off an LCT which had brought troops and tanks in to the Courselles beach, saw Canadian soldiers march six German prisoners behind a dune some distance away. Ashworth thought that this was his chance to get a German helmet for a souvenir. He ran up the beach and in the dunes discovered the Germans "all lying crunched up." Ashorth bent over one of the bodies, still determined to get a helmet. But he found "the man's throat was cut - every one of them had had his throat cut," and Asworth "turned away, sick as a parrot. I didn't get my tin hat."
Now, if THAT account was blatantly untrue in so famous a book, there would have been denials from every quarter in Canada. But not only have I never seen a denial, I have never seen it even remotely referred to anywhere else. Nor was the episode part of the film that followed the book.
So, assuming it's true then, I have often wondered if word had not somehow reached the German reserves rushing to the front, including the 12th SS, that the Canadians were not taking prisoners. The murder of those six soldiers may have been seen by other German troops, perhaps prisoners themselves who later escaped in the mass confusion of the day [many did - on both sides].
This is certainly not meant to excuse the actions of the SS - they needed little provocation to commit crimes - but with emotions running high in the heat of battle could the murder of the six prisoners have somehow sealed the fate of some of the first Canadians taken prisoner the following day? Unfortunately author Barris, while mentioning the Abbaye d'Ardenne incident and some other similar SS crimes, makes no reference to that opening day Canadian crime.
But what he does do is provide some fascinating insight into the men [and women] who took part in that monumental effort at Juno Beach both directly and indirectly - infantrymen, artillery and anti-tank gunners, tankers, bomber, glider, and fighter pilots, airborne troops, naval personnel, journalists who landed with the troops, and nurses.
Amidst 22 pages of photographs, you discover how Canadian journalists and film makers "scooped the world" - how Canadian troops made the farthest inland advance, and their interactions with French citizens, especially by those from the French-Canadian regiments involved. I just wish Mr. Barris had either refuted the Ryan account mentioned above, or acknowledged it in some way if only to show that atrocities were not confined to the other side.
Barris groups his stories by type - as mentioned by another reviewer, there are interesting chapters on much-neglected members of the war effort - the service corps and the journalists. There are also, of course, ample numbers of stories from paratroopers, naval gunners, and the average grunt thrust onto the beaches and into withering Nazi firepower. No Canadian D-Day commentary would be complete without a chapter devoted to Dieppe, and some of the most interesting (to me) passages are actually about that failed raid. Another impressive aspect of this book is the sheer number of primary interviews that Barris conducted - this is like the primary literature for Canadian D-Day soldiers. Finally, the section on the creation and dedication of the Juno Beach D-Day centre was interesting and informative, and is likely not well-known even to Canadians (unlike the enormous WWI monolithic memorials at Vimy Ridge and Ypres).
Although Barris concetrates on the stories, like any good Canadian author he emphasises the size of the Canadian commitment to D-Day: Juno Beach was attacked almost solely by Canadians, there was a large Canadian naval presence, and Canadian paratroopers attached to the British 6th Airborne. Unfortunately, he completely ignores the Free Polish Brigade and the British Commandoes attached to the Juno Beach task force. While the number of Canadians as a percentage of the Allied effort would fall precipitously is the months that followed, it was because Canada sent ashore numbers of troops well in excess of its proportionate population on D-Day.
Unfortunately, if the author emphasises the efforts of the common soldier, it is to the detriment of a cohesive overall picture of the battle and the war. Unlike the classic book on D-Day, "The Longest Day," there is no detail on the German forces opposing the Canadians at Juno. Similarly, the stories are almost all from enlisted men, non-coms, and very junior officers. Where is the information about the generals? Or even the majors? Granted - Barris would be unlikely to find living D-Day generals, but surely they left behind diaries and dispatches. For a more strategic (and a really good) read about D-Day and Juno Beach, I would recommend John Keegan's "Six Armies in Normandy," which has a large section on the Juno Beach attack, written in a more analytical and coherent way. There is certainly a market for books like Barris's, and I enjoyed this one, but I prefer a more traditional approach rather than the people's history approach.
We were not there, so we cannot imagine the terror or the will to get past that terror as bullets ricochet around us. Ted Barris does the next best thing, however. He talks to the people who were there. Juno: Canadians at D-Day is nothing but remembrances either given to the author by those who were there, or culled from their diaries. Each chapter is divided into sections where the events are told by one man or another, time-stamped to give the reader an idea of when these events took place. This technique does give the book a scattershot feel that isn't always the easiest to follow, as Barris jumps around both in time and space, from 6:00 am that morning to 12:00 am the night before, from the beach to the villages where the paratroopers dropped, and even back to England where we get the air crews' stories. Barris covers everything, from some French villagers to the crew of minesweepers responsible for clearing a path through the minefields and onto the beach. Yes, it is disjointed, but it also adds to the personal feel of reminiscence that the book gives. Normally, I don't like disjointed narratives, but this was an exception. It kept me captivated, and each section was brief enough that it didn't wear out its welcome before moving on to something else. Barris returns periodically to some of the men, so the book does not gloss over their stories. It just tells them in its own way, like veterans passing war stories around the table.
Given the way the Canadian story is often glossed over, the book shares many facts that aren't necessarily common knowledge. The Canadian troops were responsible for the deepest penetration by the end of the first day ashore. A company of Canadian paratroopers dropped with the British and were responsible for destroying every bridge that they had set out to destroy, in order to slow down any German counterattack. And one of the most famous pieces of newsreel footage from the invasion was shot by a Canadian, Sergeant Bill Grant. He had his camera rolling as the landing ramp crashed down and the troops jumped into the water. It was shown in movie houses in Britain, Canada and the United States, though sadly in the US it was never stated that these were Canadian troops being shown. Barris has provided quite a service by highlighting a part of this day that never makes it into the spotlight.
This is not to say that the book doesn't have its faults, however. Barris spends a bit too much time talking about the journalists involved, bringing the story back home. While their role was important, I think Barris gives them more time to the detriment of other stories that could have been told. He even quotes one journalist complaining about how other journalists make too much of the story about themselves, how much hardship they had to go through to get the story, instead of giving the story of the troops on the line. I wish Barris would have taken that a little more to heart.
There are two things included in the book that really make me sing its praises, however. The first is an entire section from the point of view of the "service guys." These are the men who were responsible for logistics, for keeping the army moving as efficiently as possible. While they were never on the front lines (they did occasionally get shelled, however), they did their job with aplomb. It's nice to see some recognition for the little guys.
Secondly, the final chapter tells the story of the Juno memorial, dedicated on June 6, 2003. A lot of time and effort was made by both veterans and their families to get this memorial built on land donated by the village of Courseulles-sur-Mer, which is right behind Juno. Commemorative bricks were sold to raise money as the cost swiftly rose from several hundred thousand dollars to $11 million. They succeeded, and Barris details not only their efforts, but the results of those efforts. The commemoration ceremony on that day was very touching, and I have to admit that I had tears in my eyes as I finally laid the book down. Barris has succeeded in his aim to personalize the Canadian story of D-Day. Even if you think you're familiar with what happened on that fateful day, you owe it to yourself to pick this book up.