Over 76 years ago, on the morning of June 6, 1944, Lieutenant Garth Webb landed on Juno Beach in Normandy with the Canadian 14th Field Regiment, leading his men into battle as part of the Allied forces’ Operation Overlord. Despite experiencing significant losses on D-Day, his unit continued their advance over the months that followed, fighting through and helping to liberate Northwestern Europe from the clutches of Hitler’s Nazi regime.
Known as the founder of the Juno Beach Centre, today the legacy of Garth S. Webb represents each of the Canadian Second World War veterans and their families who were the driving force behind the creation of the Juno Beach Centre. Before the JBC opened in 2003, there was no site presenting the history of Canada’s participation in the Second World War. This intrepid group of veterans had the vision and perseverance to create the memorial they longed for and to proudly pass the torch to younger generations through education. Led by the indomitable spirit of Garth Webb, they left their mark on the identity of the Juno Beach Centre.
Born in Midland, Ontario, Garth spent his youth in Calgary, Alberta. In 1942, he joined the Royal Canadian Artillery, serving in “C” Troop of the 14th Field Regiment.
After the war, Garth Webb returned to Canada and resumed his studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Upon graduation, he embarked on a successful career as a real estate broker and appraiser.
In June 1994, for the 50th anniversary of D-Day, he returned to the beaches of Normandy with many of the veterans from his unit. They made the trip with their children and grandchildren, sharing their own stories and the stories of their fallen comrades who rest in cemeteries in Normandy. At Juno Beach, they found little that acknowledged that one of the most important days in modern world history had unfolded on that 8-kilometre stretch of coastline. They asked themselves what would happen when they were no longer around to tell the stories themselves. Who would remember the 359 men who lost their lives on this beach in the name of freedom? Who would remember the youth of a generation of Canadians who fought for a better world?
From these enduring questions, the vision for the Juno Beach Centre was born.
Garth and his partner, Lise Cooper, spearheaded the campaign to raise $10 million Canadian dollars (approximately 6,250,000 euros at the time) to build the Juno Beach Centre. The Juno Beach Centre Association (JBCA), a registered charity headquartered in Burlington, ON (where Garth and Lise made their home) was established to support the initiative. The founding veterans, their loved ones, and the members of the JBCA dedicated themselves to bringing their shared dream to life.
The governments of both Canada and France contributed funds, and the Town of Courseulles-sur-Mer made 1.5 hectares of land available to build on in the very spot the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Canadian Scottish and 1st Hussars (along with many British units) came ashore on June 6, 1944.
59 years to the day Garth and his comrades stormed the beaches of Normandy, the Juno Beach Centre opened its doors to the public: a site of memory, education, and culture; a bridge between generations and nations.
Surrounded by hundreds of Canadian veterans and dignitaries, they celebrated the official unveiling of this sacred piece of Canada in France – a lasting tribute to the efforts and sacrifices of all Canadians during the Second World War.
After the opening of the Centre, Garth continued to serve on the Board of Directors as President of the JBCA in Canada. Until his passing on May 8, 2012 (remarkably, the 68th anniversary of V-E Day) Garth worked tirelessly for the Juno Beach Centre.
In addition to his many commendations and military medals from the Second World War, Garth was also the recipient of the Meritorious Service Cross, presented to him in 2003 by the Governor General of Canada for his role in founding the JBC. This prestigious award recognizes a deed or an activity that has been performed in an outstandingly professional manner, or with uncommonly high standards. The activity recognized is often innovative, sets an example for others to follow, improves the quality of life of a community, and brings considerable benefit or honour to Canada.
He was also honoured by the French government in 2005 with the National Order of the Legion of Honour, the highest decoration in France. Membership in the Legion of Honour is usually restricted to French nationals. Foreign nationals who have served France or the ideals it upholds, are occasionally awarded the Legion of Honour, as in the case of Garth.
Today, under the vivid red and white Maple Leaf flag flapping above the sands of Juno Beach, the JBC is what Garth Webb and the founding veterans dreamed it to be: a place of discovery, reflection, and emotion. A place of education, providing a better understanding of the major contribution Canada made during the Second World War. A place where visitors from around the world learn more about Canadian values and culture. A memorial, museum and cultural centre Canadians can be fiercely proud of.
These founding veterans were men of action. At the time, they likely did not know the extent to which the JBC would be meaningful and necessary for younger generations, and to forge an even deeper friendship between nations.
Garth Webb’s vision is even more relevant today and the JBC must continue to walk in the footsteps of the soldiers of the Second World War in order to continue forging the roads of peace. The JBC has a place and a role along this road and we are honoured to preserve the legacy of our founding veterans, ensuring the 1.1 million ordinary Canadians who served during the Second World – and the 45,000 who never returned – live on through their stories for generations to come.
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.