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The Fenelon Falls Legion Celebrates the 80th Anniversary of D-Day

June 5, 2024

Canadian Soldiers Landing at Juno Beach and Marching Towards Bernieres-Sur-Mer (Library and Archives Canada)

D-Day—June 6, 1944—began the largest amphibious invasion in human history and is one of the most celebrated military victories in the English-speaking western world. Memorialized through hit movies like The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, to this day many military enthusiasts imagine what it would have been like to have waded ashore in Normandy. It is still an important part of national pysches. Historian Tim Cook recently wrote, “D-Day was the moment that Canada became a country that mattered.” It is the most memorable victory in the Western Allies’ campaign to defeat Nazi Germany—perhaps the last war that where practically everyone could agree that it needed to be won.

At the time of the landings, D-Day simply meant the first day of a major military operation, in this case, Operation Overlord—D+15 would be 15 days later. For its time, it was an incredibly complicated operation, and one that went about as well as anyone realistically could have hoped. D-Day had been planned for June 5, but had to be postponed because a storm made the landing impractical. In fact, there was a serious debate about whether to go ahead on June 6 and particularly whether to proceed with the paratroop landings behind enemy lines.

Watching the storm blowing in from the Atlantic, who would have thought that the Allies would actually land that morning? Military necessities often lead to far-reaching innovations and the Normandy landings were no exception. To keep the troops safe, the Allies invested in developing more accurate long-term weather forecasts. It also helped that every German spy in Britain at the time was actually a double agent. The Twenty Committee (in Roman Numerals XX or Double-Cross—at times code names were a little bit too clever and actually revealed the secret that they should have been concealing) coordinated the double agents, who sought to convince Germany that the invasion was actually a feint—that the main operation would be a second, larger landing at Pas de Calais.

Shortly after midnight on June 6, aerial and naval bombardment began, accompanied by the landing of 24,000 airborne soldiers. At 6:30 am, soldiers landed across a 50-mile sector on the Normandy coast on five beaches, code named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Sword and Juno, where Canadians landed. Carried by landing craft from larger vessels, the soldiers then waded ashore, braving heavy gunfire, mines, barbed wire and beach obstacles. The toughest resistance was encountered by the Americans at Omaha Beach, while the Canadians at Juno Beach fought their way inland and cleared a coastal town in house-to-house fighting.

The Allies did not achieve any of their main objectives on D-Day (these were typically a best-case scenario). The beachheads at Juno and Gold beaches joined, but all five did not come together until June 12. The city of Caen was not liberated until July 21. But more than 132,000 soldiers waded ashore that day—an unprecedented accomplishment. In the weeks that followed the beachhead slowly expanded, coincident with a massive and successful Russian offensive in Belarus—which was the largest theatre of the war. Less than a year after D-Day, the Soviet Union captured Berlin, while its allies liberated Western Europe.

While historians explain how D-Day transformed Canada into an important country and the interest in this great Allied victory lives on, there is a more complicated story to tell. In 2013, Fenelon Falls’ Belinda Wilson was chosen as the Ontario Delegate of the Royal Canadian Legion’s biennial Pilgrimage of Remembrance. When she arrived in France, one of the first places she visited was the cemetery near Beny-sur-Mer, not far from Juno Beach. For every major battle, there is a major military cemetery:

“I was faced with the enormities of what it all meant. Most of those interred there were casualties of the Normandy campaign. I had thought that I was pretty well versed before going on the pilgrimage, but all of a sudden, when you see all those graves, it put everything into perspective. You can quote the numbers, but to see all those graves—and that’s just one cemetery—it puts the human side into the equation. When you look at a gravestone of someone who was 17 or 18 or someone who had a family back home. It still is hard to put into words because it was so overwhelming.”

The Fenelon Falls Legion still has two members who served in the Second World War. Eighteen-year-old Private Ernie Wiles enlisted and became a paratrooper with the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. Having grown up in Toronto, he did basic training at Brantford. “A couple of the other chaps I was with thought jumping out of an airplane sounds like a lot of fun,” Wiles explains. “So did I.” After training to become a paratrooper at Camp Shiloh, he was dropped over Holland, assigned to capture bridges. About 25 years ago, he moved to Lindsay, and became a member of the Fenelon Falls Legion. Brad Secker, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force will be celebrating his 100th birthday on June 7th.

A few years ago, the Fenelon Falls Legion had several members who had served in the Second World War, and the European Theatre specifically. Today, it is special that the two veterans remain. “This is likely the last milestone of D-Day where there will still be Second World War veterans around,” Belinda observes. “Anyone who can make the time should come, to give them the recognition for what they did.”

“The further removed we are from war, the less people understand it, unless they make the effort. It almost becomes like a movie, or a book you read. For many people the experiences are not really that real. This anniversary of D-Day is important. It’s an opportunity to educate as many people as possible, about what D-Day meant to the people who were there, putting their lives on the line for the greater good.”

One of the stops that Belinda made was at Juno beach. For the soldiers who served there, as they arrived “there was that youthful twaddle about how it was all going to be over soon. They had no idea what they were getting into. But standing in the sand where they sloshed their way ashore, it almost felt like they were still there. With all that emotion and all that uncertainty as they were stepping into the water, to go God knows where to do God knows what. Even for those who were there, I don’t know if there was a way that they could put it into perspective.”

Fenelon Falls’ Ceremony to commemorate the 80th Anniversary of D-Day will take place at the Cenotaph at 11 am on June 6 (if it is raining, the venue will change to the Legion.) After the ceremony, everyone is invited back to the Legion for a barbeque at noon, followed by Belinda Wilson’s Presentation at 1 pm. We hope to see you there.

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