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.