D-Day Memories

First-hand accounts from those who were there.

By Mike Bechthold

Posted May 22, 2019

“Suddenly the ramp went down and the men jumped into water up to their armpits. I was the seventh man out. Bullets whizzed around us and smacked into the boat and into the men. Being the centre craft, we were in the zone of concentrated crossfire.

Men were being hit and disappearing into the water. [When] the chap in front of me … jumped, he went under at once…. I leaned over to haul him to the surface. At that moment, I felt as though someone had struck me with all their power with a baseball bat and I was knocked flat into the water. My left arm would not work.”

MENACING MINEFIELDS

At last the town of Bernières-sur-Mer, our objective, loomed on the horizon, and all that was to be seen were fires, and out of the fires the odd church steeple. About one mile from the beach, the signal was given for a deploy, and the flotillas moved in abreast. We had been told of the minefields guarding the beaches, and as we moved in at half speed ahead the mines could be seen spread out for a distance of about five hundred yards, all very close, making it seemingly impossible for an LCA to get through.

As I looked over the bow and saw the dead bodies of marine commandos floating in the water, I realized what we were facing. The marines were supposed to have cleared the way for us, and their being dead meant that we had to make our own way through these perilous stakes in the water. I was ready at any minute to be blown sky-high.

To make matters worse, mortars were screaming over the craft, and the odd Nazi sniper onshore was trying to find a good target. As we managed to skim through three rows of mines and were ready to sneak through the fourth, the craft on our starboard side broke literally in two as she hit a mine. Then, as I glanced around, I could see the craft in our flotilla, only a matter of feet away, being blown in two, holes in their bows, holes in their sterns, and sinking rapidly, but not before the soldiers were on their way ashore in waist-deep water.

SHATTERING SALVOS

As our group steamed slowly ... towards the gate, this was the opportunity to brief the ship’s company. All the sailors knew we had come south to take part in the invasion, but the important details had not been divulged.

“Clear Lower Deck” was piped, all hands mustered around the torpedo tubes. It was my turn. Even before I commenced, I could sense the high spirits of the men; confidence beamed from their smiling faces. Their good humour could not be subdued by the serious possibilities I present to them of being mined, dive bombed, shelled, and other hazards. I felt more like Bob Hope at a navy concert without a script. When I finished, the sailors all clapped…. It was still dark, about 0400 on D-Day, when things began to happen. Our force was about 35 miles from the coast of Normandy. Flares, rockets and gunfire began to light up the sky from inshore....

First thing we knew there was the coast of Normandy right in front of us, about 10 miles away. To our surprise, all was now quiet ashore. Shortly after this, the cruisers opened up on the big shore batteries.... With guns trained, loaded, and ready to fire on our prearranged target of the two 75-mm guns west of St. Aubinsur-Mer, the destroyers moved in as the spearhead of the assault to a distance of three miles.... Then we let loose. Our own target was between some houses right on the beach. First, we plastered the area with salvo after salvo of accurate broadsides. When there was no further reply from the 75-mm guns, we set about demolishing any houses along the waterfront which looked likely places for sniper nests…. At H Hour, 0745, we ceased fire, and the first flight of landing craft touched down on schedule….

TAKING THE HIGH GROUND

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Major Lockhart R. Fulton, Royal Winnipeg Rifles, in 1944.

The Royal Winnipeg Rifles were designated an assault battalion for the D-Day landings, and Companies “B” and “D” were chosen to lead the assault …. We boarded the LSI [Landing Ship Infantry], the Canterbury, on June 3, but it was not until the evening of June 5 that we weighed anchor, moved out into the Channel, and headed for Normandy.

Only the ship’s captain, the landing craft commander, and I knew the exact destination. Once past the point of no return, I issued true maps to all detachment commanders, who, for security reasons, had been briefed on false ones. I went over the battle plans with “D” Company’s platoon commanders, then tried to get some sleep. Tension was mounting, however, and I went up on the bridge and spent the remainder of the night with the ship’s captain.

The LCAs took us as far as they could, but we still went into waist-deep water. The Germans were now alert ... and mortars began shelling the beach. It is hard to describe the difficulty of getting through sea water and across the beach to the relative safety of the sand dunes, with your battledress full of water and carrying a heavy load of ammunition and equipment….

On top of the sand dunes the Germans had laid minefields, stretching right across the company’s front. Lacking time and equipment to lift them, we would have to make our way through them and trust to luck …. Lieutenant Jack Mitchell, who won the Military Cross, led his platoon through the minefields and with tank support was able to overcome the weapon pits and capture the Germans manning them. Our other two platoons moved through the minefields meeting little resistance and attained our objective, the high ground behind Graye-sur-Mer overlooking the beach…. June 6, 1944, is a day that will remain forever in the memories of those who survived.

FIERCE GERMAN COUNTER-ATTACKS

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Lieutenant Garth Webb, right, with a colleague in June 1944.

We proceeded up the road to a gun position ... and pulled into this field. We did not know, but we were right in the vision of a [German] 88-mm gun. From the rear on the right were two Able Troop guns and then our two Charlie Troop guns. We were lying in the field when the 88 started firing.

They blew up the first Able Troop gun, which was the most distant from us. And it was a dreadful explosion. The 105 mm SP [Self-Propelled] guns were on a Sherman tank chassis with the turret removed, and the encased part was loaded with ammunition plus a big supply of infantry ammo that we were bringing ashore. Needless to say, when the gun got hit, the explosion was tremendous.

They then hit the second “A” Troop gun. Next they hit one of my “C” Troop guns.… The fourth gun, also one of our “C” Troop guns, we were able to manoeuvre out of the field and back onto the laneway, which was protected by a hedge and no longer visible…

After the enemy shot up our guns we went back and regrouped in a church courtyard with our remaining two guns.

CAPTURING THE BEACH

The beach was pretty nasty [when] we came in about 7:30 a.m. The water was very, very rough, and on our LCA coming in we’d sit on the top of a high wave crest and then plunge straight down into a huge hole in the trough. Quite an experience for a boy from the midwest.

When we landed and hit the beach, another chap and I were running along the beach side by side. The Germans were in pillboxes and they had loaded their machine guns with tracer bullets.… It looked like yellow popcorn, popcorn floating upwards, and those were just the ones we could see. There were hundreds of bullets we didn’t see.

The man beside me got hit in the face. He was on my right side, and the fire was coming in from ten o’clock on the left, so [it] missed me and hit Kelly McTier from the MO’s office in the Rifles. I remember saying, “Well, Kelly, you’ll be back to Blighty” and then had to leave him as we were to “keep moving….”

On thinking back, the Luftwaffe did come in and start strafing some of the ships on a couple of occasions at night, and that’s why the ships were flying barrage balloons. Then it became just a rule for us: Just don’t fly near a ship. You knew you’d get shot at by them as much as anybody else…. There were some four thousand ships, and when all of them start firing together you got a fireworks display.”

PROTECTING THE GROUND TROOPS

[My squadron’s] objective on D-Day, while the beachhead was being established and consolidated, was to provide fighter cover over the beaches in the eastern assault: Sword, Gold, and Juno…. I led my 441 Squadron in four times that day. I was Deputy Wing Leader; that meant secondin- command to [Johnnie] Johnson [the famous British ace], and it was up to me to take over the wing if he was absent. I took out our first June 6 patrol at 0625. If your preparations hadn’t been adequate at that point there was nothing you could do about it. You were either ready or you weren’t. We were ready. There was an incredible armada along those beaches.

On thinking back, the Luftwaffe did come in and start strafing some of the ships on a couple of occasions at night, and that’s why the ships were flying barrage balloons. Then it became just a rule for us: Just don’t fly near a ship. You knew you’d get shot at by them as much as anybody else…. There were some four thousand ships, and when all of them start firing together you got a fireworks display.”

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These interviews have been excerpted with permission from Jean Portugal’s We Were There: A Record for Canada, a seven-volume series on Canadians and the Second World War available at BatteredBox.com.

This article originally appeared in the June-July 2019 issue of Canada’s History.

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