It had been 14 days since family could visit D-Day veteran William “Bill” H. Cameron at his retirement residence in Surrey, British Columbia.
But when Bill’s daughter, Donna Roy, finally arrived she came bearing a special gift: a Canadian flag that flew at the Juno Beach Centre late last year. Mr. Cameron, a Canadian sailor who served aboard HMCS Kitchener between 1944 and 1945, recently celebrated his 97th birthday.
The flag has special meaning for Bill, who has vivid memories of his service aboard HMCS Kitchener (pennant number K 225). The Kitchener was one of 20 of the famous Flower-class corvettes deployed by the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) during Operation Neptune, the naval phase of the Normandy landings, on 6 June 1944. And Bill’s was the only Canadian corvette to escort a wave of troops to their disembarkation point that day.
Bill volunteered for the navy in 1943, joining in Vancouver at HMCS Discovery. He trained on both coasts before joining the Kitchener in January 1944 at Liverpool, Nova Scotia. The corvette had already seen action, especially during Operation Torch, the invasion of Northwest Africa. A new crew and a new commanding officer, Lieutenant John “Jack” Errington Moles RCNVR, began preparing the ship for action following an extensive refit begun in October 1943.
The crew first sailed to Bermuda, preparing for convoy escort duty. Bill’s assignment was as a gunner on one of the corvette’s 20mm anti-aircraft cannons. He recalls rough seas during this first voyage in “this ferocious hurricane area. It was what you call a quick orientation!” The sea was so rough that the Kitchener had to put into port for repairs before beginning convoy escort duties in the North Atlantic.
Next, the corvette sailed for the United Kingdom, and began preparing to support the highly-anticipated “Second Front”. In late April 1944, the Kitchener participated in an anti-submarine exercise in Lough Foyle, off Londonderry, Northern Ireland. After concluding these and other exercises, the corvette arrived off Plymouth, where the American task force was gathering for its part in the D-Day landings. The Kitchener tied up alongside the USS Augusta, a Northampton-class cruiser that served as Lieutenant-General Omar N. Bradley’s (1st US Army) headquarters on D-Day.
The Kitchener was initially tasked with escorting two First World War-vintage battleships across the English Channel. The Allies would sink these vintage warships off the Normandy coast to create breakwaters for the Mulberry artificial harbour at Omaha Beach. Bill remembers, “This did not sit very well with our captain or crew, to be going into this kind of battle with these two old ships. So our captain had our duties changed to join in the US navy escort group, protecting troop landing craft and ships at Omaha Beach.”
The landings at Omaha Beach were tumultuous. The experiences of these assault troops are immortalized in all of their grim details by the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan. Bill recalls observing the situation on the beach through binoculars, “From our vantage point we could see that the soldiers not only had to transit from the barges in questionable water depth along with the Nazi firepower coming from the bluffs above.”
The little Canadian corvette then took up position to defend the USS Augusta from airborne or underwater attack. Bill remembers that although they often saw bodies floating in the water, orders were not to rescue them. He manned his anti-aircraft gun and fired at any enemy aircraft he identified. “We were all very afraid we would be sunk or killed, but at the same time we knew we had a job to do. Our skilled captain managed to maneuver our ship such that we did not lose a single man.”
After a busy day, the Kitchener escorted USS Augusta back to Plymouth and continued to Milford Haven, Wales. From here, Bill and his shipmates protected ships in the English Channel for the balance of the war.
Bill Cameron served aboard HMCS Kitchener until May 1945, when the ship returned to Canada. He married in 1949 and visited Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014 and the 75th in 2019. Bill received the Legion of Honour from the French government in 2016 for his role in the D-Day landings.
The Juno Beach Centre is honoured to gift one of our flags to Mr. Cameron. If you know a veteran we should send a flag to, please contact us about our Flag Sponsorship Program. This program raises funds so that the Centre may continue to tell incredible stories like Bill Cameron’s.
We wish Bill the best of health. We hope to include his profile in our Legacy of Honour video interview series once it is safe.
Dispatches from Juno shares all the news, events, and stories from the Juno Beach Centre in France and Canada. Interested in contributing a story to the blog? Email the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.