The success of the
D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944 — an immense operation and
the largest seaborne assault in history — was made possible only by
weeks of intensive operations in which Canadians played crucial
Much has been written about the significant role the Canadian Army
played in the D-Day invasion, and rightly so. But there was much
more to Operation Neptune — the crossing of the English Channel and
the landing on the beaches — and to Operation Overlord — the plan
for the liberation of Normandy — as the two key parts of the
invasion were codenamed.
Canadian sailors and airmen had very substantial roles in the
prelude to and the weeks after D-Day, roles that have usually been
Five American, British, and Canadian divisions landed from the sea,
and three airborne divisions dropped inland. The 3rd Canadian
Infantry Division and the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade made up the
Canadian part of the assault, touching down on Juno Beach and
successfully establishing themselves ashore.
Meanwhile, the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, part of the 6th
British Airborne Division, landed inland to seize bridges. The aims
of the air force were to establish and maintain air supremacy over
Normandy and to find and attack enemy formations at the same time as
road and rail communications were disrupted and the bombing of
At sea, the objective was to protect the D-Day landings and the
subsequent supply and reinforcement shipping from surface and U-boat
Of prime importance in making the D-Day landing possible were the
minesweepers, which had the critical task of clearing German
minefields off the French coast. The mines posed the biggest threat
to the success of Operation Neptune, and the Allies had 247
minesweepers to clear ten lanes for the invasion fleet.
The Royal Canadian Navy’s 31st Minesweeping Flotilla provided ten
Bangor-class minesweepers under Canadian command, with six more
ships serving under the Royal Navy in three other flotillas. The
RCN’s Bangor minesweepers had until then played a role in protecting
convoys, rather than minesweeping, and their crews had to be trained
by the Royal Navy for their primary task.
Under the leadership of Lieutenant-Commander A.H.G. Storrs, the
Canadians practised hard from mid-March of 1944. Storrs remembered
the British “sucking their teeth wondering if these Canadians are
really up to it.”
They were, though they suffered one major disappointment: The RCN
crews had hoped to clear the way for the 3rd Canadian Division’s
landing on Juno Beach; instead they were assigned to clear a lane
for the Americans to land on Omaha Beach.
The minesweepers’ first task was to prepare a safe path through the
Their second task was to clear ten lanes, each a kilometre wide,
through the dense minefield that stretched a dozen kilometres wide,
fifty kilometres from shore across the Baie de Seine. Between that
minefield and the French shore were thousands of randomly placed
mines, and the third task was to clear these.
One officer of HMCS Georgian said, “We were to hold our course, no
matter what was ahead — there must be no holes in our sweeping as
ships loaded with troops would be following on us, and would be
depending on us.”
The minesweeping flotilla entered the enemy minefield at 7:00 p.m.
on June 5, 1944. Preceded by shallow-draft British launches that
cleared a narrow belt of mines, the Bangors swept in what has been
described as a snowplow formation to cut loose more than a hundred
mines that were allowed to drift away.
If they had been destroyed as in the usual practice, the Germans
ashore would have heard the explosions and learned of the planned
invasion. Following the minesweepers, small boats laid buoys to mark
the swept channel. Once through the minefield, the flotilla
proceeded to clear lanes to the invasion fleet’s anchorage and then
cleared the anchorage itself.
The final job, beginning at 1:05 a.m. the next morning, was to sweep
lanes for the assault boats to within 2.5 kilometres of the landing
beach. Astonishingly, as Canadian Sub-Lieutenant William G. Morrow
reflected, the lack of German reaction “was almost unbelievable.”
He credited the German failure to respond to “the enemy assuming it
was just a feint, another one of the routine sweeps that they had
become accustomed to.” The minesweeping operation was a great
success, and the RCN had played an important part.
Canada’s navy also played a significant support role after the
landing was established ashore. RCN destroyers close to shore
remained in radio contact with the troops ashore.
When Le Régiment de la Chaudière, the reserve battalion in the 3rd
Division’s 8th Brigade, moved inland on Juno Beach, the infantrymen
found themselves held up by a battery of three deadly 88-mm guns. A
radio message quickly whistled up support from HMCS Algonquin, one
of some 110 Canadian ships involved in D-Day.
The Tribal-class destroyer fired fifteen shells from its 12-cm guns,
of which a remarkable thirteen landed right on target, and the
infantry moved ahead unmolested. Naval gunfire continued to be
enormously effective so long as the front lines remained in range —
as they did for the following month.
If there were great successes, there were failures, too.
The Allies’ air forces and the naval bombardment signally failed to
destroy the Germans’ Normandy beach defences. The Royal Winnipeg
Rifles, tasked with landing on Juno Beach on D-Day, found that the
defences had not been knocked out by air or naval bombardment.
“As the landing craft approached the beach,” the regimental history
tartly observed, “it was increasingly clear that the bombardment had
failed to destroy any of the enemy strongpoints.”
The Little Black Devils (as the regiment was nicknamed) hit the
beach and suffered heavy casualties, but they nevertheless
eliminated the resistance. It was the same story for the Queen’s Own
Rifles. One company landed in front of a deadly 88-mm gun that had
survived the bombardment untouched; another QOR company found itself
facing an intact and heavily manned concrete bunker and lost half
its men before knocking out the machine guns and gunners.
Only their courage and training saved the day.
The air role was nonetheless hugely important.
Royal Canadian Air Force crews, flying from No. 6 Group, and their
comrades in Bomber Command had been raiding German industrial cities
Along with United States Army Air Force raids, these
around-the-clock efforts forced the Germans to concentrate their
interceptors and anti-aircraft artillery to protect their homeland.
This dramatically reduced the aircraft and flak guns available to
the German Luftwaffe in northern France: There, the Germans had a
mere 319 planes against the Allies’ 11,000 or so, ensuring the
Allies’ total air superiority.
The Luftwaffe only rarely engaged in combat before or after D-Day —
and when it did it suffered heavy losses against the better-trained
On May 22, for example, Canadians shot down five German aircraft.
The bombers also hit at rail and road targets in France in what was
called the Transportation Plan.
Attacks intensified beginning on May 21, and every effort was made
to spread out the attacks so as to confuse the enemy about the
intended landing sites.
The Germans expected the inevitable invasion to come in
Pas-de-Calais, so targets there were heavily attacked — sometimes
more often than in Normandy.
Railway traffic was disrupted across all of northern France, and
marshalling areas were regularly hammered. On June 6, RCAF bombers
struck at the marshalling yards at Coutances on the Cherbourg
That day, a bomb that had been dropped from above passed through one
of the wings of Flight Lieutenant Tony Selfe’s big four-engine
Halifax bomber. Selfe turned for home, desperately struggling for
some hours to stay in the air.
His aircraft was on the verge of crashing into the sea — “I guess
we’ve had it,” he told his crew — until he regained control and some
altitude. “Maybe we haven’t,” he reconsidered.
At 180 metres, the crew bailed out over England. Selfe landed hard
near a stone wall and gravel pit, and all his mates survived. As he
recalled of the near miss, “I was somewhat terrified myself but
fortunately was too busy to do my brooding.”
While Selfe survived, Pilot Officer Andrew Mynarski did not.
A mid-upper gunner, Mynarski was aboard a Canadian-built Lancaster
bomber from the RCAF’s No. 419 Squadron that was on a Transportation
Plan mission over northern France just after midnight on June 13.
Over Cambrai, a Luftwaffe Ju-88 night fighter raked it from below
and behind with machine gun fire and set the Lancaster on fire.
The pilot ordered the crew to parachute to safety, but one of
Mynarski’s comrades was trapped in the tail gun turret. Mynarski
went through flames to try to free him but failed. The tail gunner
finally told him to get away while he still could, and Mynarski,
with his flight suit and parachute on fire, turned, saluted his
comrade, and jumped.
Astonishingly, the tail gunner survived the crash of the aircraft,
but Mynarski, badly burned and gravely wounded, died in a German
The twenty-seven-year-old Winnipeg native received the Victoria
Cross posthumously for his valiant efforts to save his fellow crew
The Allies’ overwhelming air power resulted in devastating
consequences for the enemy.
In the first place, the German air force proved completely unable to
interfere with the invasion and its aftermath. From June 6 through
to the end of the month, the Luftwaffe sank only five vessels, the
largest a destroyer, and damaged another seven.
Over five thousand ships had been crowded into the narrow confines
of the English Channel and the Normandy beachhead, but so
overpowering was Allied air superiority that the Luftwaffe had
almost no effect.
The Transportation Plan attacks, such as those by Selfe’s and
Mynarski’s aircraft, reduced French rail traffic to twenty per cent
of what it had been in January 1944, and the RCAF’s No. 6 Group
delivered one third of the destructive attacks that forced Berlin to
admit that “large-scale strategic movement of German troops by rail
is practically impossible.”
On August 1944, both Bomber Command and United States Army Air Force
bombers struck at German positions between Caen and Falaise as the
First Canadian Army’s II Canadian Corps moved south in a major drive
to trap large enemy forces.
Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds’ operations Totalize and Tractable
relied on heavy bombing “to force the survivors to keep their heads
down,” or so the Bomber Command crews — including many Canadians in
No. 6 Group — were told.
Operation Totalize utilized both American and Bomber Command
aircraft, and some 24 USAAF bombers accidentally dropped their
payloads on Canadian and Polish troops, causing heavy casualties.
Six days later, more than 800 bombers, including 227 from the RCAF,
took part in support of Operation Tractable.
Of those, 126 aircraft, including 44 from the RCAF, bombed Canadian
troops, again killing and wounding many. The ground attacks went
ahead despite the casualties, but more German troops escaped the
Falaise Pocket than had been hoped by the Canadian and British
Bomber support was essential, and it terrified the enemy; but it was
too often a blunt weapon in tactical situations, and there was
always the risk of friendly fire casualties. The Allied air forces’
tactical aircraft, especially Typhoons and P-47s, had a greater
impact as the invasion progressed.
On D-Day, Germany’s powerful Panzer Lehr Division received orders to
move from the Chartres area in France to block a British thrust
towards Villers-Bocage. But air attacks on June 7 caught the
division on the way and destroyed more than 130 trucks and fuel
tankers, five tanks, and eighty-four self-propelled guns and
A few days later, Allied intelligence pinpointed the headquarters of
Panzer Group West sitting unprotected in an orchard south of Caen.
This headquarters, under the command of General Leo Geyr von
Schweppenburg, was being watched closely by Allied intelligence, as
it had moved forward to assume command of all available panzer
forces for a decisive counterattack against the Allied landing.
With many of its squadrons and air crew from the RCAF, the Second
Tactical Air Force of the British Royal Air Force quickly mounted a
On June 10, forty Typhoons and sixty-one Mitchell bombers attacked
the target, devastating the headquarters. Eighteen officers,
including the chief of staff, were killed outright, and von
Schweppenburg was badly wounded. The headquarters was withdrawn to
Paris, and the massive German armoured counterattack never took
Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, commanding the German efforts to contain
the invasion, tersely summed up the situation his forces faced:
“Our own operations are rendered extraordinarily difficult and in
part impossible to carry out [because of] the exceptionally strong
and, in some respects overwhelming, superiority of the enemy air
force. The enemy has complete command of the air over the battle
zone and up to about 100 kilometres behind the front and cuts off by
day almost all traffic on roads,” Rommel complained.
“Neither our flak nor the Luftwaffe seem capable of putting a stop
to this crippling and destructive operation of the enemy’s
The field marshal was himself severely wounded when his staff car
was shot up by Canadian and British fighter bombers in August.
The Germans greatly feared the RCAF, RAF, and USAAF fighter bombers
that attacked their road traffic, and Allied claims that the
Jagdbombers — or Jabos, as the enemy called them — had destroyed
countless armoured vehicles were loudly shouted.
Certainly, the Normandy battlefields were cluttered with destroyed
panzers and assault guns. However, later close examination by
operational research teams revealed that the wreckage was most often
caused by ground fire, mechanical defects, destruction by the tank
crews, or a lack of fuel (the shortage of which was substantially
caused by air attacks on German and French targets).
This conclusion was almost certainly correct; yet the Jabo attacks
severely weakened enemy morale, forced tank crews and other troops
constantly to seek shelter when the aircraft were overhead, and
caused much destruction among trucks and horse-drawn transport.
The RCAF and RCN also played important roles in the war against the
Kriegsmarine, the German navy. Again, the aim was to prevent surface
vessels ranging from destroyers to motor torpedo boats and
submarines from interfering with the invasion and its resupply. Here
as well, Allied superiority was manifest.
One weapon was the Royal Air Force’s Coastal Command, which hunted
German surface ships and U-boats. The enemy had thirty-six U-boats
in ports on the Bay of Biscay on June 6, and Coastal Command’s
priority was to block these vessels from attacking the invasion
The enemy submarines carried heavy flak guns, and in the first
twenty-four hours after sailing on D-Day they shot down a number of
low-flying anti-submarine aircraft. Those included a Wellington of
the RCAF’s No. 407 Squadron, the loss of which resulted in the
deaths of six Canadians, and two Liberator bombers, also with the
loss of RCAF personnel.
But there were also great successes at sea. In the early morning
hours of D-Day, a Liberator bomber flown by Flying Officer Kenneth
Moore of the RCAF spotted a U-boat on the surface at the western
edge of the English Channel, its target apparently the invasion
The Liberator, its crew of ten including seven Canadians, attacked
at a height of fifteen metres, engaged the submarine with machine
gun fire, and dropped six depth charges.
As Moore reported, the “U-boat was observed to lift out of the sea
and disintegrate and was then hidden from view as plumes rose up to
full height.” That was one kill.
Thirty minutes later, Moore’s aircraft spotted a second U-boat and
attacked it with depth charges and machine guns. The submarine
listed heavily, its bow reared out of the sea, and it slipped
beneath the waves. When the Liberator circled back, it spotted the
surviving U-boat crew in dinghies.
Moore’s aircraft had sunk two German submarines in a single sortie,
an apparently unique feat. Moore received the Distinguished Service
Order, an extremely rare distinction for a junior officer, and
others in his crew were also decorated.
Submarines were not the only menace to be attacked from the air. The
enemy’s E-boats, or motor torpedo boats, were fast and agile, and
they had some success after D-Day, sinking a few small freighters
and landing craft. But on June 14 Bomber Command struck at the
harbour at Le Havre, on the Channel, destroying fourteen boats.
Another raid the very next day, on Boulogne, destroyed more of the
fast craft and effectively ended the threat for the month of June.
Both bombing raids unfortunately also killed French civilians.
The battle against German surface craft had begun before D-Day and
was also fought by the Royal Canadian Navy’s Tribal-class destroyers
HMCS Haida, Athabaskan, and Huron, which were operating in French
waters under Royal Navy command.
On April 25, Canadian and British ships spotted three German Elbing-class
small destroyers returning to Saint- Malo from a mine-laying
mission. The Germans scattered, but the Haida’s and the Athabaskan’s
guns sank one enemy ship.
Two nights later, the surviving German vessels bumped into Haida and
One of the German ships launched torpedoes, hitting Athabaskan and
sinking it. Haida in turn sank one of the German ships, then turned
to rescue as many of the crew members of its sister ship as
possible. The Athabaskan’s captain, Lieutenant-Commander John
Stubbs, was in the water and waved Haida off, shouting, “Get away
Haida! Get clear!” He feared that it would be attacked.
The navy’s official history notes, “This selfless gesture has become
one of the few heroic traditions that the Canadian navy, noted more
for understatement than bravado, has preserved.” Stubbs and 128 of
his crew died, but the Haida (along with the Germans) saved 91
The Haida and the Huron continued operations, and on June 8, two
days after D-Day, they encountered the Kriegsmarine’s last major
effort to attack the invasion fleet.
Their Royal Navy comrades dealt with one German destroyer, and the
two RCN ships opened fire on another. One shell hit the enemy vessel
in its turbine room, and three more hits put its forward turret out
The German destroyer continued to resist, using its one remaining
turret and firing torpedoes that missed the Canadian ships, before
grounding itself on the French shore. This sea battle ended the
post-D-Day threat to the invasion fleet, and in August two of the
few surviving German surface vessels were destroyed in air attacks
by Beaufighters from the RCAF’s No. 404 Squadron and from an RAF
Operations Neptune and Overlord were combined operations making use
of every method to defeat a strong enemy. The American and British
forces provided the bulk of Allied strength, but Canada — its
population only 11 million during the Second World War, with 1.1
million men and women in uniform — contributed heavily.
The Canadian Army, the Royal Canadian Air Force, and the Royal
Canadian Navy all played substantial and distinguished roles, with
the Dominion’s soldiers, sailors, and airmen sharing in the victory