Operation Overlord, as it was called, was the most successful invasion in modern military history – and Canada played a key role.
We asked CBC readers to share their photos and stories from the historic event. We received dozens of submissions from readers, and we’ve compiled their photos in a gallery you can see above. You can also read their stories in the photo captions.
We also received several letters, excerpts and first-hand accounts of family members who were involved in the invasion, and we’ve included some excerpts of their stories here.
Ivan Hughes shared an account written by his father, David R. Hughes, a sub-lieutenant and chief radio officer of the Royal Merchant Marines. David died in 2008. In this excerpt, he gives an account of the sounds and sights of the invasion.
We began our first voyage in a tremendous barrage of fire from naval guns around and behind us, and the constant roar of action from fighters and bombers above. Especially loud and deafening was the rushing sound overhead of the 16-inch shells of the big battleships behind us. Soon there was added the roar of German artillery, including massive coastal guns, as we approached the coast and a continuous hail of red-hot shrapnel from anti-aircraft guns from the warships as the Luftwaffe attacked the fleet. These peppered our decks with deadly hot metal fragments. Even our own puny guns added considerably to the din, being right by our heads.
Behind us, as far as the eye could see, were hundreds of ships of the invasion armada keeping up a barrage of tracer and other shells, sometimes themselves partially obscured by garish coloured smoke screens. The pandemonium and noise was simply incessant and indescribable. We were ordered to drop anchor close to shore and, like ants, a succession of landing craft came alongside us as the troops we had been carrying swarmed down rope netting into them and pulled away towards the shore ...
All this activity took about 10 days, with fierce fighting, under the Allied Forces were able to build up enough strength to break out of the beachhead and move inwards to the liberation of the rest of France.
In the meantime, the "Viking" crossed and re-crossed the Channel many times bringing back wounded soldiers and reinforcements and supplies. We were subjected to constant air attack as the Luftwaffe tried in vain to stop the steady flow.
As the battles moved inland I was finally able to ride ashore in one of the landing craft and spend my 'occupation francs' in a battered cafe in the little town of Bayeux buying my first 'biere' and some French souvenirs.
Karen Golden’s father, Robert Wallace Greig, was born in LaFleche, Sask., in 1922 and died in 2007. “A couple of years before that I asked him to record some of his experiences and my mom typed them up,” she says. This excerpt is from his account of the invasion on D-Day.
Eventually, they sent us out to near the mouth of the Bristol Channel and we anchored off Lundy Island. We were told that June 5th was to be “D-Day” and that we would leave about 24 hours ahead to escort the whole show for 24 hours. We were not allowed ashore or to communicate with anyone – so we just lay at anchor in the stream. Finally we left on June 5th late at night, and we picked up the ships we were to escort to the beachheads.
There were cruisers, battleships, troopships, etc., accumulating en route and when we came around to Land’s End the whole channel – as far as we could see in all directions – was filled with ships. The sky was full of bombers, fighters, gliders filled with commandos, etc.
The noise from aircraft engines was constant and at night there were lights visible in the sky everywhere and the English Channel was like one huge parking lot. Columns of ships were moving toward the beachhead to unload and the unloaded ships were following one another outbound. We were escorting troop ships in and then others back again.
The first morning when the LSTs (landing ships-tank) were unloading armoured equipment and troops they lost both some men and some equipment in water too deep for safe landing and also because the waves were much bigger than some of the equipment – amphibious and otherwise – could cope with. Behind us the big ships – one British one American battleship plus others (monitors and so on) were firing their heavy armament – 15-inch and 16-inch guns – over us to lay down a bombardment on the beachhead ahead of the landing troops. This was Omaha beachhead on the Cherbourg peninsula – and American landing point.
The first few hours of our involvement were exciting and frightening – but fear and tension are exhausting. After the first few hours at the beachhead we were allowed to go below decks for short periods. There were, as it turned out, not very many enemy aircraft or vessels for us to deal with.
Sean Sullivan’s grandfather William Lannon served with the Royal Air Force with the 125 (Newfoundland) Squadron. He recounts a story of his grandfather and grandmother, who both lived in Christchurch, Dorset, England, at the time of the Normandy landings.
That night she remembers that Bournemouth Bay was full of ships and balloons as far as the eye could see: freighters, men of war, corvettes, destroyers, troop ships, landing craft, and tugs with balloons tethered to them.
At 11 p.m. she went to bed, with still no sign of my grandfather. At 3:30 a.m., June 6, 1944, she awoke to a "queer sound and rather loud noise.” Opening the blackout curtain she could see the sky was "literally filled with aircraft towing something behind which I found out later were gliders.” She alerted the people she was boarding with in Christchurch and they all rushed to the window, wondering if the long-awaited invasion had begun. Listening to German radio was strictly forbidden in wartime England, however my grandmother’s curiosity overcame her and she was able to tune into the German stations on her wireless. She listened as the Germans said that an enemy landing had been attempted on the coast of France, but that all attempts had been repulsed. Feeling devastated, she turned off her wireless.
At 8:30 a.m., June 6, 1944, my grandfather finally came home for breakfast, being gone 24½ hours. He looked completely exhausted and asked for breakfast. My grandmother made him breakfast and went to get him a pipe that she had bought him for Father’s Day, to give to him early. When she came back, my grandfather’s head was down in his bacon and eggs and he was sound asleep. My grandmother asked him if the invasion had begun, but he said he knew nothing about it, having to keep secret about any military operations. After breakfast he went back to work.
Later that day, June 6, 1944, while giving her seven-month-old daughter a bath, the radio began to give out certain numbers and stations to stand by for an important message. Just as she was taking her out of the bath, she started to cry. Being so excited for the message, one of the people my grandparents boarded with began adding hot water to the bath while another one tried to drain it, in an attempt to keep the child quiet. Finally a message came across the wireless by an announcer saying “Please standby.” General Eisenhower then came on the radio, announcing that the Allies have landed in Normandy and that a foothold had been secured. Everyone was ecstatic: finally the long-awaited invasion had begun, and the Allies were doing well.
Patrick Moran of Hubley, N.S., sent in a detailed account of his father, Lt. Gerald Vincent Moran’s involvement in the landings. He was wounded early into the invasion of Juno Beach, but survived. Here is a letter Gerald, then 24, sent to his mother in Chatham, N.B., from a hospital in England.
June 13, 1944
Dear Mother, I hope that by the time the cable I gave to a girl to send for me has reached you OK. I can’t write very much since it is hard laying on your back with only one hand to move at the present. The other is somewhat stiff and nerveless.
Mother – I’ll just give you a brief summary of what happened so’s to counteract rumours. By the way, I was one of the first officers hit and don’t know much about what went on among the fellows, although the odd fellow dropped by and gave me a scrap of news here and there. There’s no need in writing it down anyway, I’d never forget the first few hours if I lived three centuries. I didn’t get off the beach at all. Got as far as the wall when a sniper got me sort of from the left front through the left upper arm, in my chest and out the back not quite half way over to the middle. The Doc (Capt. John Aubrey Patterson M.D.) was only a few feet away (on Juno Beach) and gave me a shot in the buttocks, dressed me up and I was on a stretcher in an hour. I spent that night (June 6, 1944) on our little strip of France. The next day also. The next night (June 8, 1944) in a craft off the crowded beach (still on a stretcher). Finally a few days later (June 10, 1944) I landed in a hospital in England and they are doing a very good job too. I had a fortune in penicillin put in my side this morning.
This won’t be my permanent hospital, it’s English, so I’ll probably go to a Canadian one in a week or so.
Kind of hard on the eyes Mother, guess I’d better stop. Just have what I had in my pockets but plenty in the kit storage and money in the bank. Feeling OK. Don’t worry!
Love to all,
Just put: In hospital, Canadian Army, England, till I find out where I will be.
Patrick adds: My Aunt Leah, dad’s sister, once said, “My brother told me that one of the men in his regiment came over to him after he was wounded and told him that they got the sniper who shot him and handed him the weapon the German used.”
Gordon Sutherland of Grand Pre, N.S., shared the story of his cousin, Cpt. Lewis Lovett Johnstone Sutherland – and how the war connected his cousin with his wife’s uncle.
Lew was enlisted in the North Nova Scotia Highlanders and came ashore in France with his regiment on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was killed in action at the second battle of Authie, in Normandy, on July 8, 1944 just four days after being promoted to the rank of captain. Lew had only reached his 23rd birthday on June 30, 1944.
The North Novies had earlier liberated Authie and pushed on. But the Germans regained control of the town necessitating the Canadians to return and renew their fight to again liberate the area.
It was during this second battle that Lew along with 55 other soldiers of his regiment were killed in action.
During my research into my cousin's war service, I came upon an interesting item involving both the Sutherland family and the Shaw family of my wife. I discovered from records I looked into that my wife's uncle, Private Ross Shaw, was killed on the same day and in the same battle as my cousin Lew. In fact, I learned that Private Ross Shaw was assigned to the same company that came under the command of Captain Lew Sutherland. The families had never known one another as they came from different areas of Nova Scotia. But to think that nearly 40 years later I would meet and marry Private Ross Shaw's niece, is compelling to say the least.
Another strange development into the story of my cousin Lew was finding out that his service medals, which had somehow disappeared from the family's summer home many years ago, suddenly turned up at a sort of pawn shop in Bridgewater in the fall of 2011. I was made aware of the medals being at this shop through a contact by a local legion member with my son who lives in the Bridgewater area. Fortunately, after several attempts at trying to recover these medals and have them brought back to the Sutherland family, they were reacquired. As Lew's mother and dad and only brother are deceased, the medals are now with another cousin.