Welcome to the Maple Leaf Route Cycling Tour!
The Canadians landed at Juno Beach in Normandy on June 6, 1944. The Maple Leaf Route Cycling Tour follows their path. Cycle the first part of the The Maple Leaf Route—the legendary route of the First Canadian Army in Europe 1944-45—and gain an unforgettable first-hand look at Canada’s contribution to the 1944 liberation of France.
From the Normandy beaches, the Tour reaches deep into the interior of Normandy and then northward to the English Channel port of Dieppe. It also has side visits to the American and British landing beaches, as well the Canadian First World War Memorial at Vimy Ridge.
The Maple Leaf Route Cycling Tour Guidebook
The Maple Leaf Route Cycling Tour Guidebook contains essential information aimed at making your biking trip as memorable as possible. It includes route maps, historical background, and detailed information regarding each tour and circuit.
The Maple Leaf Route Cycling Tour Guidebook is a 130 page printed guide in colour which provides all the elements needed to make your trip a success. It includes detailed Michelin maps for each of the 15 tours and circuits, and historical background linked to each zone crossed by the Tour. It provides extensive route photography of key points. Each tour and circuit is summarized with regard to length, difficulty, and what to see.
It gives advice on route challenges, weather and when to go, topography, training and fitness, bicycles, other equipment, renting, getting there, accommodation, eating, safety, cultural information, and many other topics.
The Guide is available for purchase at the Juno Beach Centre in Normandy and through the Centre’s online boutique.
The Maple Leaf Route Cycling Tour visits the key Canadian battle sites in Normandy and attempts to provide a first-hand view of the challenges facing the Canadians as they made their way from the landing beaches into the Normandy interior in the summer of 1944. It attempts to make linkages between the geography over which the Tour travels and the Canadian battlefield movements in order to provide a clearer insight into historical developments during those months.
THE D-DAY ARMADA
On June 5, 1944, over 7,000 Allied vessels lay at anchor in ports on the English coast and waiting for the command to depart. This was the largest fleet ever assembled in history. Stormy weather had earlier that morning forced a postponement of departure. But meteorologists had predicted a possible window of opportunity opening for June 6.
FIVE LANDING BEACHES
Five beaches in the landing zone were designated and assigned to American, Canadian, and British forces . The landings would take place on a 5 division front—roughly one army division for each beach. The beaches are still known today by their code names.
SWORD BEACH, the most easterly of the five beaches, stretches from Ouistreham to Luc-sur-Mer. This beach was assigned to British forces. On the eastern flank of Sword Beach, the 6th British Airborne Division (which included the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion) were to seize the bridges over the Orne River and Caen Canal to secure the eastern flank
JUNO BEACH stretches from Saint Aubin-sur-Mer to Grey-sur-Mer and Vaux. This beach was assigned to Canada on D-Day. This area was particularly heavily fortified.
GOLD BEACH, assigned to Britain, includes the towns of La Rivière, Le Hamel, and Arromanches. This latter village became the site of the immense artificial port created after D-Day which supplied the Allies during the Battle of Normandy and beyond.
OMAHA BEACH, to the west, was assigned to the American forces. Overlooked by towering bluffs, this beach was estimated to be the most difficult as German troops were able to occupy naturally strong defensive positions.
UTAH BEACH, the most westerly of the landing beaches, was also assigned to American forces. As in the case of Sword Beach, airborne forces were deployed on June 5 to secure the western flank of the invasion force, and cut the bridges on the Douve and Vire Rivers.
D-DAY AT JUNO BEACH
On June 6th, 1944, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division and the 2nd Armoured Brigade were tasked with establishing a bridgehead at Juno Beach. This was an eight-kilometre long stretch of beach between Sword and Gold landing beaches. The landing was preceded by a saturation barrage from destroyers offshore and from the artillery regiments embarked in landing craft.
At the western end of Juno Beach, the first wave of troops of the 7th Infantry Brigade landed shortly before 0800 near Courseulles-sur-mer. Further east, in the sector of the 8th Brigade, the North Shore Regiment landed on the Saint-Aubin beach at 0810 and the Queen’s Own Rifles at Bernières at 0812.
JUNO BEACH TIMELINE JUNE 6,1944
07:45 – Landing craft reach the beach; first landings begin.
08:00: 08:20 – The first Canadian beachhead is established in Courseulles, but the first waves of Canadians are landing in a killing zone. The Royal Winnipeg Rifles come under particularly heavy fire. A large number of members of the RWR were killed in the water in front of an undestroyed German strong point. The Regina Rifles land to the east of the mouth of the River Seulles under a hail of machinegun fire. The Queen’s Own Rifles land at Bernières. Hidden German cannon and machine gun positions rake the beach. The QOR makes a 300 yard charge from the shore to the seawall under fire. Only a few men of the first company survive. Reinforcements from Le Regiment de la Chaudière finally overwhelm the German defences. At Saint-Aubin, the North Shore Regiment lands under heavy fire and is pinned down at the seawall with many casualties. The tanks of the Fort Garry Horse followed by Le Regiment de la Chaudière finally enable this stretch of beach to be taken.
10:00 – Canadian soldiers are on the beach in all sectors and moving inland. Reserve troops begin to reach the beach
12:00 – All units of the 3rd Canadian Division are on shore at Juno Beach.
By midnight June 6, it was clear that the Canadians and other Allies had carried out successful landings. A beachhead had been established on the French coast, but at a huge cost.
The next day (June 7), the 9th Infantry Brigade moved in the direction of Carpiquet airfield just a few kilometres from Caen. The North Nova Scotia Highlanders and the Sherbrooke Fusiliers ran into a strong German counter-offensive led by the 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitlerjugend) near the historic Abbaye d’Ardenne.
Fierce fighting also took place between June 7-11 around the villages of Putot-en-Bessin , Norrey, Bretteville-l’Orgueilleuse, and Mesnil-Patry involving the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, the Regina Rifles, the Canadian Scottish, and the Queen’s Own Rifles as well as elements of several other Canadian regiments. But In the last two weeks of June, the Anglo-Canadian front hardly moved. Nonetheless, by mid- June over 330,000 men, 45,000 vehicles had been landed at the Allied landing beaches and at the artificial harbours built at St Laurent(Omaha) and at Arromanches(Gold) Beaches. Airfields behind the beaches had been hastily constructed allowing even greater domination of the road networks vital to German reinforcements
THE CAPTURE OF CAEN
The offensive began on July 8 after almost a month of little movement, closing in on Caen from 3 directions. To the north of Carpiquet, the villages of Buron and Authie (near the Abbaye d`Ardenne) were assaulted by the Highland Light Infantry and the North Novas, and liberated after violent conflicts. The Canadian Scottish Regiment forced its way into Cussy, with considerable losses. The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders took Gruchy. The Regina Rifles attacked and captured the next morning the Abbaye d`Ardenne, the crown jewel in the German western defense of Caen. The Canadians and the British to the east were now in a position to move on the city itself. Seeing the writing on the wall, on the evening of July 8, General Rommel ordered the withdrawal of all German tanks and artillery to a line south of Caen across the Orne River. The Canadians moved into Caen on July 9, the first Allied troops to enter the city, encountering pockets of German resistance in a city which had been devastated by Allied bombing and was being sporadically shelled by German artillery from across the Orne River
THE PUSH TO FALAISE
After the capture of Caen, the Canadians pushed across the Orne river on June 18 in an attempt to capture the high ground lying between Caen and Falaise.. The Canadian push towards Falaise was to be completed in several phases after securing the east bank of the Orne River. The most immediate obstacle was the German Panzer divisions holding dug-in positions on the strategic Verrières Ridge.
The first of these operations –Operation Spring- began an important assault against Verrières Ridge on July 25, with disastrous results. On that day 362 men were killed, more than 840 injured. The Canadian Black Watch Regiment had 307 casualties among officers and men, including 118 killed. The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry was later to capture the village of Verrières and hold it for three days
Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds planned a second push (Operation Totalize) towards Falaise,The Canadians and British were also to benefit from the fact that a number of Panzer units had been withdrawn from the area north of Falaise in order to participate in Hitler’s ill-fated thrust west to try to head off the fast-moving USA Third Army commanded by General Patton. Operation totalize gained ground but did not manage to break through the German defences, and stopped before reaching Falaise.
There was increasing pressure on the Canadians to quickly take Falaise and carry out a pincer movement catching retreating German troops by linking up with the US Army under General Patton to the south. On August 15th, Lieutenant-General Simonds was ordered to capture Falaise as fast as possible and also to move south- eastwards to in order to prevent the German Seventh Army and the 5th Panzer division from escaping the pursuing American and British forces.. The 2nd Canadian Division, entered Falaise August 16th.
THE FALAISE GAP
The 3rd and 4th Canadian Divisions operating north-east of Falaise that were called upon to close what became known as the “Falaise Gap” at Trun and Chambois. The Polish 1st Armoured Division arrived close to Trun, and swung east towards the higher ground to form a blocking position. The Canadians arrived at Trun on August 18 and were ordered to proceed towards Chambois, into the heart of the desperately retreating German forces. Elements of the South Alberta Regiment (SAR), the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada and the Lincoln and Welland Regiment were halted by intense German fire and formed a blocking position at Saint -Lambert-sur-Dives, fighting the German troops trying to escape the closing pincer. On the evening of August 19, elements of the Polish 1st Armoured Division made contact with the American forces near Chambois. The Allies had linked up, but the Falaise Gap had not been closed. It would take 2 more days of bitter fighting. The two major Allied blocking positions in the heart of the Gap were two isolated, unreinforced islands : 200 Canadians at Saint- Lambert-sur-Dives and elements of the 1st Polish Armoured Division on a spur of nearby Mont- Ormel (nicknamed “Maczuga”) (“The Mace”). They wreaked havoc on the retreating Germans but at a huge cost in terms of their own casualties
AFTER THE FALAISE GAP WAS CLOSED
After the Falaise Gap was definitively closed ,the Allies adopted a strategy having the British, Canadian, and American armies advance in parallel across a broad front, with the British and Canadian armies heading northward to Belgium and Holland. But there was a problem of supplying this huge effort. This meant seizing as soon as possible the seaports along the English Channel. Otherwise, the Allies would have to depend on supplying their forces through increasingly stretched D-Day beaches landing areas. Huge amounts of precious fuel were needed to transport supplies from Normandy to the ever more distant front lines. The First Canadian Army after Falaise was given the task of clearing the English Channel ports in order to open up new supply lines and to eliminate the V-1 rocket sites that threatened London and other British cities.
Once the Falaise Gap was closed, Canadian General Crerar received the order to move the Canadian First Army speedily towards the Seine River and the Channel ports.
THE PURSUIT TO THE SEINE
The Seine River lies 150km north of the Falaise Gap. The dramatic breakout by General Patton’s 3rd Army on the Allied western flank allowed the Seine to be crossed by forward elements of the American 79th Infantry Division on August 20 at Mantes (partway between the cities of Rouen and Paris) at the same time as the Battle of the Falaise Gap was raging). This caused havoc in German retreat planning, and reinforced the desperate scramble to cross the Seine by the retreating German Army after the Falaise Gap, fearing encirclement by Patton. The Canadian First Army was hard on the heels of the remnants of the German 7th Army after Falaise. Mobility had now come to the fore, and Canadian progress forward increased by leaps and bounds in pursuit of the retreating German forces towards the city of Rouen on the Seine River
LA FORÊT de LA LONDE
The 2nd Division Canadian Division was to cross the Seine via the Forêt de La Londe and enter Rouen from the west. It was expected that few enemy would be encountered on the route. In fact, the core of the German defense of Rouen was concentrated in the Forêt de la Londe above Rouen. This included tanks, artillery, and a fresh German infantry division transferred to the front from further north.The Cameron Highlanders and the South Saskatchewan Regiment ran into fierce resistance as they entered the forest. the Germans in the woods above poured fire into the advancing Canadians, including the Essex Scottish and the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry. Three days of fierce fighting produced little movement and over 600 casualties. It was only when the German withdrawal across the Seine and beyond was completely assured that the German rear guard in the Forêt withdrew.
The need to capture major ports in Northwestern Europe had become acute. The supply route from the Normandy beaches had become increasingly stretched. The Germans were well aware of this, and would defend the larger channel ports – Le Havre, Boulogne, Antwerp, and Rotterdam- with particular tenacity. The month of September 1944 would see the Canadians focusing on clearing these ports. After Rouen, the 3rd Canadian Division was tasked with liberating Boulogne, the 1st British Corps ( under command of the First Canadian Army) was to take Le Havre, and the 2nd Canadian Division was handed the objective of liberating Dieppe ( where the same 2nd Division had suffered in the disastrous raid of 1942). The tour follows the path taken by the 2nd Canadian Division towards Dieppe.
THE CANADIAN LIBERATION OF DIEPPE SEPTEMBER 1, 1944
The reconnaissance elements of the 2nd Canadian Division entered the main square of Dieppe on September 1, 1944. They entered without any resistance as the Germans had deserted the town the day before. The German 245th Division had simply packed their bags. Were they aware that it was the 2nd Canadian Division that was advancing towards them, and that hundreds of soldiers of this Division had been killed at Dieppe in the raid of 1942? Not a single German soldier was left in Dieppe by the time 2 motorcycle outriders of the 8th Canadian Reconnaissance Regiment wheeled into Dieppe. But before departing, the German forces took care to destroy most of the port. The huge Allied naval bombardment which had been planned in advance of the arrival of the bulk of the Canadian 2nd Division was called off in time, thanks to the reports sent back by the reconnaissance elements. The inhabitants of Dieppe streamed out of their basements and shelters to welcome the Canadians.
Getting to the Maple Leaf Route…
The closest major city to the starting point for the Maple Leaf Route Cycling Tour is Caen, which lies 234km west of Paris. The official start point for the Tour is the Juno Beach Centre at Juno Beach, close to Caen
Most flights from Canada to France arrive at Charles de Gaulle Airport, which is 25km north of Paris. Some charter flights from Canada and many European flights land at Orly Airport, 15km south of Paris. From Paris, there are direct trains to Caen (the transit point) which have bike carrying compartments (as pictured). For those with less time or for air ticket price reasons and who want to limit their trip to the D-Day Beaches and Normandy Interior Tours, a flight to London Heathrow and travel to Portsmouth followed by a ferry crossing from Portsmouth to Ouistreham (then 45 minute bus ride to Caen) will be of interest. Bikes can then be rented and returned in Caen before you make your way back to Heathrow.
Before making your airline reservations, check with different airlines about their policy on transporting bicycles. Most but not all airlines will carry your boxed bicycle as a piece of checked luggage. Some airlines will carry unboxed bikes.
Starting Point: The Juno Beach Centre
The Juno Beach Centre is the departure point for the Maple Leaf Route Cycling Tour. The Juno Beach Centre tells the story of Canadians on D-Day, but also Canada’s entire role in the Second World War, as well as giving the visitor historical background regarding Canadian society in the pre-war. The Centre has become the point of reference for Canadians visiting Normandy. Check out the Plan Your Visit section for more information about visiting the Centre and surrounding area.
Tours and Circuits
The Maple Leaf Route Cycling Tour starts at Juno Beach in Normandy. Apart from side-visits to the American and British landing beaches, and the Dieppe-Vimy Ridge Tour, the Maple Leaf Route follows the geographical progress of the 1944 Canadian Normandy Campaign from Juno Beach to Dieppe. The routes taken are divided into 15 Tours and Circuits. Each Tour or Circuit is not intended to necessarily correspond to a daily itinerary. Some cyclists will want to do more than one Tour or Circuit in a day, some less, depending on individual interests and constraints.
Some cyclists may only wish to concentrate on the first stage of the Maple Leaf Route Cycling Tour: the D-Day Landing Beaches and the country immediately behind the Normandy coast. The D-Day Beaches Tours cover some 229km and can be accomplished by cyclists in moderately good physical condition in 4- 5 days. This includes sufficient time to visit the principle sites. The coastal terrain is generally easy cycling.
Other cyclists with more time available will want to visit the D-Day Beaches and then trace the 1944 route of the Canadian Army inland and follow the Normandy Interior Stage which includes the battle zones beyond the cities of Caen and Falaise. The Normandy Interior stage ends at the Falaise Gap, the site of the bottleneck through which the disastrous retreat of the German 7th Army took place and where Allied victory in the Normandy Campaign was assured. Plan 7 to 8 days for the D-Day Beaches and Normandy Interior Stages (Normandy Interior is an additional 174km).
The Full Maple Leaf Route Tour: Those able to dedicate 11 to 14 days and in good physical condition may want to undertake the D-Day Beaches stage, the Normandy Interior stage and then continue to follow the route of the Canadian Army moving northward to the cities Rouen and Dieppe (207km). At Dieppe, the Vimy Ridge visit option leaves the path of the Canadian Army north of Dieppe and crosses into the battlefield zones where Canada was active in the First World War. It ends at the imposing Vimy Ridge Memorial (186km beyond Dieppe). The full Route including the Vimy Ridge option represents a serious commitment – 706km.
A souvenir Maple Leaf Route Passport is available with the purchase of the Guidebook at the Juno Beach Centre boutique and online orders. Passports can then be stamped at Juno Beach, the Polish Memorial at the Falaise Gap, the Dieppe Raid Memorial at Dieppe, and the Visitor Centre at the Vimy Ridge Memorial. Below is a sample of the souvenir stamps will look like in your Maple Leaf Route passport.
Training and Equipment
You don’t have to be an expert cyclist to go on this cycling trip, but a level of training and bicycle knowledge is required. A cycling program beginning 3 months before your trip is essential, gradually increasing in the distance cycled and the weight carried. It may or may not be the first time you’ve done something like this – but whatever your level of fitness or ability, you need to be doing the same thing and that’s training – there’s no escaping it! The more you can cycle with full equipment, the better you will be to judge your ability to cycle longer distances and get a sense of the balance of your fully loaded bicycle. Cycling with fully loaded panniers is the best way for you to judge your progress.
For those undertaking the full 706km Maple Leaf Route, you should assure yourself that you are in excellent physical condition before launching yourself on this adventure. Fatigue tends to be cumulative—the longer you are on the road, the more likely you are to suffer from exhaustion if you have not made a considerable investment in a training program.
What kind of bike is best?
Some bicycles are designed specifically for touring, but a purpose built touring bike is not the only possibility for this trip. A mountain bike is an acceptable substitute. What works less well for this trip is a thin-tired racing bike. For a group with a utility vehicle accompanying and carrying baggage, a thin- tired bike works well.
If you are carrying panniers, the bike chosen should have: strength of frame, reasonably wide tires, ability to carry a touring load, and a low gearing ratio.
To rent or not to rent?
It is recommended to bring your own bike on this trip. It is the bike you know and have trained on. However, rental bikes and equipment are available in both Caen and Paris, including electrically assisted bikes. Even if you rent a bike, it is advisable to bring your own pannier bags.
About the Author
Ian McLean is a Canadian who has cycled extensively in Europe. With a strong interest in Canada’s involvement in the 1944 liberation of France, he developed, mapped, and cycled the Maple Leaf Route Cycling Tour route and authored this guidebook. Proceeds of this guidebook are donated to the Juno Beach Centre and used to support its commemorative and educational mandate.