Importance of the event became clear to most only in ensuing years
MANITOULIN—The sun had yet to rise on June 6, 1944 but the 14,000 men of the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division slated to take Juno Beach were readying their kit in anticipation of joining the largest amphibious invasion in history. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, a Canadian public knew nothing about the impending significance of the moment and even less about the invasion about to take place.
At 6 am, a thunderous barrage was unleashed upon the French coast where the German invaders of Europe and their allies had entrenched behind miles of barbed wire, a complex of steel and concrete bunkers, and a network of trenches unrivalled since the latter days of the First World War.
An hour later, the first landing craft swept toward the shore while 450 Canadian paratroops floated down behind the lines to secure strategic points. Within 24 hours, the Canadians had secured all of their assigned objectives, despite facing an enemy force only exceeded by that at Omaha Beach, thus adding to the martial legend of the Canadian Armed Forces.
Alan Tustian of Mindemoya recalled those days. His ship had only recently returned from a stint on the deadly Murmansk run, escorting supply convoys through the rugged northern Baltic to Russia. “We came back just before D-Day,” he said. “We stayed in Wales, parked by an island for about three days.” He recalled a few moments of bliss following the harrowing run north. “I had a wonderful time, met a girl, but we were only in for a few days.”
Mr. Tustian said that he and his fellow sailors “knew something was up.” The Allies had just launched the first 1,000-plane raid of the war. There were also huge mounds of supplies stockpiled for the invasion and a floating host of vessels. “But nobody told us anything,” he chuckled.
A short time later his idyll ended. “They sent us out to patrol—then we knew the invasion was on,” he said. His ship, a frigate, was assigned a 10-mile stretch of water in the Bay of Biscay to patrol. “We sailed for 10 miles, met our counterpart, then turned around and headed back to the other end of our patrol.” Although his ship did not encounter the submarines they were seeking, other ships did engage in combat and he heard rumours of three tankers being sent to the bottom.
Mr. Tustian’s ship did engage in combat with a submarine during his service, taking 19 prisoners, but that is another story.
Elizabeth Debassige today is M’Chigeeng’s oldest resident, a very sharp lady who doesn’t mind admitting she will be 93 come this October, but in 1944 she was a teenaged girl from Wikwemikong, working “for the ladies in Manitowaning.” She recalled hearing about the invasion, but it was just one more news story in a paper dominated by tales of the war.
[pullquote]“I lost my brother and my cousin,” she said. “I heard later that their boats were shot up crossing the Rhine. They didn’t come back, they drowned.”[/pullquote]
The war holds tragic memories for her and her family. “I lost my brother and my cousin,” she said. “I heard later that their boats were shot up crossing the Rhine. They didn’t come back, they drowned.”
There were many sad telegrams arriving in the community in those days, she recalled. “I think about those things sometimes,” she said. “If there is another war like that, it will probably be nuclear.”
Alma Tustian (who later became Alan Tustian’s wife) was also a teenager when D-Day took place. Like many young people of the day, she does not recall the specific news of D-Day. For a war weary public, the significance of the D-Day invasions were largely unrecognized, it would take the lens of hindsight for most to see the significance of that moment. “I guess I really should (remember D-Day),” said Ms. Tustian. “I would have been about 14 or 15 at the time, just a teenager and my mind was on other things.”
Cam Spec was also on the home front when the invasion took place, but a little older as a young man in his early twenties. Mr. Spec had been turned down by the air force in 1942 due to his eyesight. “They would call me up every now and then and have me come down and to take my clothes off—then they would get around to my eyes,” he laughed. “They told me they would take me when they finished scraping the barrel.” He went on to serve in another capacity, working for the Canadian Pacific Railway helping to direct explosives from the Nobel plant to the munitions factories. “We had heard a lot about the terrible bombing in England,” he said. “But I really don’t recall much about the D-Day landings at the time, specifically.”
The folks on the home front could be forgiven for not knowing much about the invasion at the time it was occurring. Dennis Dockrell of Little Current was quite a bit closer to the action in England at the time, training officers to drive trucks. “I was just a 20-year-old doing my duty,” he said. “It was so very long ago. On D-Day itself, everybody was pretty much in the dark,” he said. “We kind of figured that something was going on, there was the first 1,000-plane raid of the war going on overhead. But we had no inkling of the significance at the time.”
Ed Kift of Little Current was on a laker, one of the huge coaling ships running fuel to the war effort when D-Day took place, but it wasn’t long before he traded the soot-filled holds for the decks of a cruiser. “We were on a lake freighter running between Port Colburn and Lake Erie,” he said. “It was six hours on and six hours off. Some of the worst days of my life.”
When he arrived in Toronto, his father was standing on the dock with letters from the army and the navy. “He told me ‘you have got to reply’,” recalled Mr. Kift. “I ran right down to Fort York and joined the navy. I thought I would get a little shore time.” Being an experienced sailor, that was not to be, he found himself whisked away in very short order.
For others, like Humphrey Beaudin of Little Current, those days are simply too painful to revisit. “A lot of fellows can’t talk about it,” said Mr. Dockrell. “It is too hard. We just let it slip away.”
For a younger generation serving, the day has particular significance. One such individual is French Captain Gregoire Dujean, who is on year three of an exchange with the Royal Canadian Air Force, and who was part of the 8 Wing Search and Rescue Squadron out of the Trenton Canadian Forces Base that made a special visit to the Gore Bay-Manitoulin Airport and Heather Jefkin’s Grade 4/5 class last Friday aboard a Hercules aircraft.
Captain Dujean had this to say about the upcoming anniversary of D-Day: “It’s thanks largely to the North Americans I am able to be here today, and not be German. It’s thanks to those sacrifices we still have a Europe that’s free,” Captain Dujean added. “We owe a lot to North Americans for that.”