Mortal enemies in Normandy

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of continental Europe — D-Day.

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion of continental Europe — D-Day. As comes with all anniversaries that end with a zero, there is a greater emphasis than usual on marking the date. And it seems it has become an occasion for politics, with issues of the day being reflected in the anniversary celebrations (read Putin, Obama, Harper, et al). Perhaps this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

But marking such a momentous happening as June 6, 1944, should be an occasion for remembering the soldiers who were there, ever decreasing in numbers. See a related story on Page 11.

As for me, I remain fascinated by what happened in the hours and days after the landings on Juno Beach, when Canadian soldiers met for the first time what would become their most bitter enemy of all in the Second World War. This is a fascinating story, and I think it should be taught in schools — whether that is something that is frowned upon these days, I don’t know. I believe it to be a key moment in Canadian history.

On June 7, the day after the D-Day landings at Juno Beach in Normandy, the 25th regiment of the 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitlerjugend) met a Canadian battlegroup comprised of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and the 27th Tank Regiment (Sherbrooke Fusiliers) northwest of Caen. The Germans forced the Canadians back until the next day, when they themselves were stopped by determined defense by regiments of the 3rd Canadian Division, including the Regina Rifles, the Canadian Highlanders and the Royal Winnipeg Rifles.

Over the next few days, over a broadening front, a series of local attacks by both sides failed to grant any tactical advantage. Over the next two weeks savage close-quarter fighting, both hand-to-hand and tank-to-tank, became the daily condition in the crowded countryside and villages of the area. Casualties were high on both sides (the Highland Light Infantry lost 262 men in a single day of combat with the 25th SS Panzergrenadier Regiment at the village of Buron. But the village was taken, and a formidable counterattack beaten off).

In early July, Anglo-Canadian forces were finally able to drive the Germans out of Caen. Subsequently, Canadian and British forces were rammed into German defenses in a series of operations  (Goodwood and Cobra — the latter of which finally broke the German line, allowing for an American breakout in the west), with varying degrees of success (Totalize and Tractible), in which the Germans were able to stall offensive operations.

Time and again, the Canadians of the 2nd and 3rd Divisions came up against the 12th SS, to their mutual hatred.

The 2nd Canadian Division finally broke the 12th SS Division’s western flank, forcing German withdrawal back towards Falaise, which became a notorious killing ground in its own right, and the turning point of the Normandy campaign.

As many as 156 Canadians taken prisoner were believed to have been executed by the Germans in this campaign — taken aside in scattered groups and summarily shot. Twenty Canadians were executed near Villons-les-Buissons in the Abbaye d’Ardenne, where Kurt Meyer, Commander of the 25th Panzer Grenadier Regiment (of the 12th Panzer Division), had established his headquarters.

Meyer was brought to trial for the Abbaye d’Ardenne executions in December 1945 and denied knowledge of them. He was found guilty and sentenced to death — a sentence later commuted to life imprisonment. He served eight years in a New Brunswick penitentiary and, on September 7, 1954, was released. He died of a heart attack seven years later.

Wars are not fought like this anymore — with such personalized, face-to-face savagery, over such broad fronts. Such a long time ago now.