It was a very early start to the day today as we headed out to walk most of the length of Juno Beach, from Bernieres to Courseulles. Despite the early hour and their level of fatigue at this point in the trip, the group walked very quickly and we made it to the Juno Beach Centre in record time!
There is something about walking this beach that always gets to me and every group I’ve ever walked it with, and I don’t think this year was any exception. Actually, this year it may have been even more meaningful since the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings just took place in June, and there are still signs of that celebration and commemoration all over the place. The newest addition to the walk are the pictures of the veterans take on June 06 this year. As I look at their faces I can’t help but think about what those faces would have looked like 70 years ago, and when I look at the faces of the youth with me on the trip I know that those veterans would have looked like these youth. It is a sobering thought: the old men we honour today were exactly like these youth were 70 years ago, making plans for the future, not knowing what it would hold. I can only hope that the kind of war that changed those veterans’ lives will not wreak havoc on the lives of the youth walking that beach today, and that is why programs like this are so important, so the next generation can see the horrors of war and not want to repeat them.
Once we arrived at the Juno Beach Centre, we stopped at the new display they have out. There is a post with the name and home town of all of the soldiers who died on Juno Beach on June 06, 1944. As we walked amongst the names, we were all struck by the realization that we recognized a lot of the town names from home, and it was not just big cities represented, but small towns as well. I asked all of the kids to find a soldier from their home town or near where they lived, and they were all able to find one, proving that the soldiers who stormed that beach 70 years ago came from across Canada, as did the youth in this delegation today. I come from Manitoba, and I was struck by how many boys from Manitoba were represented in that display, coming not just from Winnipeg but small towns all over the province … and some of those towns are so small I am going to have to look them up on a map because I have never heard of them. If we learned nothing else about the war today, it would have been that soldiers came from everywhere, and communities large and small would have felt the devastation of loss in the fight to bring democracy to the world.
We had an excellent tour of the bunkers and battlements on the beach, including the new German bunker that was just excavated and opened in April. Despite being buried for 70 years it was in remarkably good condition, attesting to the fact that Hitler definitely built the Atlantic Wall fortifications to last. We also had a tour inside the Centre, which is also extremely well done. Unlike Beaumont-Hamel and Vimy Ridge, which are supported and maintained by the Government of Canada, the Juno Beach Centre is run on private funding and donations. I don’t know how much it costs to run and maintain the programs there, but the quality of the buildings, staff and programming is impressive.
After a tour of the museum, we watched the film, They Walk With You as a group. The 12 minute video talks about Canada’s contributions on Juno Beach and during the weeks after as they pushed to take Caen, using archival video and radio footage. Some of the scenes are hard to watch, and their descriptions can leave you in tears. The final scene is a family walking along the beach, the ghosts of the soldiers who died on the beach walking along behind. It was a pretty emotional movie for a lot of the group, and after watching it, anyone who had a relative storm the beach had a much greater appreciation for what they were up against and what they were able accomplish in those circumstances.
Daniel did is presentation of the Mulberry Bridges overlooking Gold Beach above the town of Arromanches, and we then spent an hour looking in the shops. A large portion of the group also got ice cream or gelato in spite of the cool temperatures and rain. (It’s supposedly summer, and summer means ice cream even if it feels more like late September!)
The Abbaye d’Ardenne was our next stop. It was here that 20 Canadian soldiers – mainly from the Stormont Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, and the North Nova Scotia Highlanders regiments – were killed by Kurt Meyer and his 12th Panzer Division from June 07-08, 1944. It is impossible to be in that garden where they were assassinated and not feel anger, sorrow, and confusion, so it was a pretty quiet group that then headed to Beny-sur-Mer, the largest Canadian war cemetery from WWII. Brandon was able to do his soldier presentation on his great-great uncle here, which concludes the soldier assignment portion of the trip. There is something special about the epitaphs on the graves in Beny … many of them are personalized, indicating the soldier left behind parents, siblings, a wife, or children. Many others speak about serving their country with pride. These are very different from the WWI graves, and perhaps because they are more personalized, this cemetery is often the one where people tend to get more emotional. I am anxious to read the journals tonight to get the group’s thoughts on the day.
We were going to head to the beach again after supper, but it started to rain. (I confess that I was not disappointed by this … it was cold and everyone is tired, so I think a night in is probably not a bad thing).
Tomorrow we’re off to see some German battlements overlooking Omaha beach, then we’ll get to Omaha beach itself before heading off to Dieppe to take part in the ceremonies commemorating the battle there. Tomorrow and the morning after really mark the end of our tour, and I cannot believe it has come to this point so quickly. This group has been so much fun to be with, and I think that along with learning some valuable lessons, they have all made some lifelong friends along the way.
Education Coordinator, The Vimy Foundation