COURSEULLES-SUR-MER, NORMANDY – On June 6, 2021, the Juno Beach Centre (JBC) commemorated the 77th anniversary of D-Day with a ceremony and wreath-laying on the very beach where Canadian troops came ashore as part of the largest combined military operation in history.
Due to ongoing COVID-19 safety measures, the ceremony at Juno Beach which is normally open to the public was by invitation only. Canadian and French staff members along with dignitaries including Isabelle Hudon, Canadian Ambassador to France and Colonel Pierre Haché, Canadian Defence Attaché to France (Attaché de Défense du Canada auprès de la France). Reverend Doctor Tom Wilson, a Canadian Anglican Chaplain who lives in France officiated. For the first time, no Canadian Second World War veterans were in attendance, a sharp reminder of the transition occurring now as Canada’s population of Second World War veterans diminishes rapidly.
A very special moment took place when a message from D-Day veteran Jim Parks, of Mt. Albert, ON, was played for the small invited audience. In turn, Lola, 9, a French child from Courseulles-sur-Mer, one of the Norman villages on Juno Beach that was liberated by Canadians on D-Day in 1944, read a poem she had written for Mr. Parks, remembering their meeting back in 2019. Lola represents the new generation who, despite the passage of time and living witnesses, has already begun to honour the legacy of Canadian veterans. She represents the future of remembrance, an important goal for the Juno Beach Centre, whose mandate includes educating younger generations and inspiring them to carry on the torch of remembrance.
“Over one million Canadians (from a country of only 11 million at the time) served in the armed forces during the Second World War,” said Alex Fitzgerald-Black, historian and author as well as Manager of Operations for the Juno Beach Centre Association (JBCA), the charity in Canada that owns the JBC. “They returned home, raised families, and built the Canada we have inherited today. Nearly eight decades later, only about 25,000 of these veterans remain, and their average age approaches 100”.
The staff and Board of Directors of the JBC in Canada and France maintain close relationships with veterans from across the country and their families. In the last six months alone they have mourned the passing of several, including Norm Kirby of Lion’s Bay, BC, who enlisted underage and landed at Juno Beach on D-Day.
Honorary Lt.-Col Don Foster, Director at the JBCA and friend to the late Mr. Kirby said, “The incredible thing about Canadians in the war is that they were all volunteers. It says something about Canada’s values.”
Foster spearheads the JBC’s Legacy of Honour initiative that captures veterans’ recollections of their wartime experiences on video to preserve for the future.
“These men and women have stories to tell that are still relevant and important today,” said Foster. “We make sure they have the ability to share them so the lessons we learned from what they endured are not lost to history. It really is a now or never circumstance, which is why the Legacy of Honour initiative is such an important mission we’re pursuing at the Juno Beach Centre.”
The Juno Beach Centre was founded by veterans to both provide a memorial on the very sand where their fellow soldiers gave their lives in the war, and to provide a centre of education and culture. As more and more veterans pass away every year, the challenge of how to connect with youth today and engage them in carrying on the torch of remembrance into the future has become a focal point for the organization. In the span of the five years leading up to the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019, Canada’s population of Second World War veterans diminished by half. By the 80th anniversary in 2024, there may be almost no living witnesses left to this period in history that directly shaped the world as it is today, making the mission of the JBC all the more urgent.
“We must continue their work, both through remembrance and by continuing to build a better Canada and a better world,” said Fitzgerald-Black of the legacy left by Second World War veterans.
A live stream of this year’s remembrance ceremony was shared online, offering people around the world a way to honour the significant contributions Canada made June 6, 1944 when 14,000 Canadians stormed the beaches of Normandy, France to begin the liberation of Europe. 359 were killed that first day; by the end of the campaign nearly 5,500 more Canadians would die in the effort to liberate Normandy. In all, 45,000 Canadians died serving during the Second World War.
Juno Beach is located in Courseulles-sur-Mer, a seaside village along the 8 km stretch of Norman coast where Canadian forces were assigned to come ashore during D-Day. For people living in France during the war, the 1944 landings signified the end of almost four years of Nazi occupation. The war would continue to rage across the country as well as in neighbouring occupied nations for another 11 months, but D-Day is widely credited with turning the tide of the war in favour of the Allies, who then went on to declare Victory in Europe in May 1945 after the unconditional surrender of Hitler’s Nazi regime.
The museum recently re-opened after a lengthy closure due to COVID-19 restrictions. Anyone who plans to visit the Juno Beach Centre in the coming weeks or months can find updated information and health and safety guidelines at www.junobeach.org.
D-DAY FAST FACTS
The beaches: On June 6, 1944, the Allied assault force landed on a 75 km stretch of heavily- defended beach on the northern coast of France, in the Normandy region. From west to east, the beaches were codenamed Utah (American), Omaha (American), Gold (British), Juno (Canadian), and Sword (British).
D-Day participants by nationality: The Allies landed 156,000 troops on D-Day. By sea, the Americans landed 23,250 at Utah and 34,250 at Omaha, the British landed 24,970 at Gold and 28,845 at Sword, and the Canadians and British landed 14,000 and 7,000 respectively at Juno Beach. Approximately 23,400 paratroopers landed by air on the extreme west and eastern flanks of the assault area.
Canadian objectives on D-Day: The Canadian objective on June 6th was to storm Juno Beach and reach a railway line linking Caen in the east to Bayeux in the west. They would dig in here, link with British troops on their left and right, and create a fortress defence against expected German counter-attacks.
What the Canadians accomplished: While the Canadians did not capture all their objectives on D-Day, they did advance the furthest. Over the following three days, the Canadians fought a series of bloody battles holding off repeated German counter-attacks that threatened the entire Allied front line in France.
What happened next: After 76 days of intense combat in Normandy, the remnants of two defeated German armies retreated across France. The Canadian Army joined in the pursuit and fought through Belgium and the Netherlands before striking into Germany, which surrendered on May 8, 1945.
About the Juno Beach Centre
The Juno Beach Centre is Canada’s Second World War museum and cultural centre located on Juno Beach in Courseulles-sur-Mer, Normandy, France. Founded by veterans and volunteers in 2003, the Centre’s mandate is to preserve the legacy of all Canadians who served during the Second World War. Fifteen years and one million visitors later, the Juno Beach Centre has been designated a site of national historic significance to Canada. It has been the host to official Canadian and International commemorative ceremonies and has also been featured on popular national television programs such as the Amazing Race Canada and War Junk. The Juno Beach Centre Association is a Canadian charitable organization which owns and operates the Juno Beach Centre. To learn more about the Juno Beach Centre, please visit our website: www.junobeach.org.