7:53, on the bus and ready to roll.
I didn’t think I could any more tired, but I am! I had some girls from another school in the room beside me playing music past 12:30 this morning. I was up at 6:00, so my eyes are rather heavy. I’m sure I’ll perk up at Juno Beach and the cemeteries we visit; should be another amazing and emotional day.
The graves of the Branton brothers.
Our first stop today was the Canadian War Cemetery at Beny sur Mer. There are over 2000 Canadians buried there and it was a very emotional experience again. I find it interesting that Beny, like Dieppe, is tucked away in a very quiet location. It is probably better that way. Unlike Dieppe, I did have a mission today, which was to find the graves of Gordon and Ronald Branton. Brothers from Lethbridge, Alberta, they are just one of several sets of brothers buried in Beny. Their inscription reads, “We left with a jest our home in the west. Now here with the best we lie at rest.”
A very short drive later we arrived at the Juno Beach Centre, which was built almost 10 years ago as a museum not only for D-Day, but for all of Canada’s WWII involvement. The Centre was interesting to see, but I really wanted to get to the beaches. The part of Juno Beach in front of the Centre was known as Mike Red sector, and it was where the Winnipeg Rifles came ashore. There was an observation post located just behind the beach, but our Tour Director Hugo was going to take us farther east where there was more to see.
It was very fitting that today was cold, misty and windy, much like it was on June 6, 1944.
German bunker, Nan White Sector, Juno Beach.
Our next destination was Bernieres-sur-Mer, where the Queen’s Own Rifles came ashore at sector Nan White. The first house they captured is called Canada House and just down the beach is a preserved bunker adorned with the QOR logo. The Queen’s Own suffered the highest casualties of all the assault units, and looking from the bunker tells you why. Designed to enfilade the beach, it and others killed and wounded half of the QOR in minutes. I made a point of picking up some sand and rocks…almost like I’m taking pieces of Canadian history.
We spent our lunch in the town of Arromaches, which is in the Gold Beach area. After eating a baguette with jambon and frites, I wandered the immediate area for a while. There is a museum there, along with several vehicle and artillery displays. In the sea off Arromaches you can see the remains of the Mulberry artifical harbour system. I think the kids were more excited about the gift shops that sold WWII relics, like shrapnel and shell casings.
On our way back to Rouen, we made a detour to the Canadian cemetery at Bretteville sur Laize. It was quite the adventure getting there, driving all the back roads from Arromaches to Cintheaux. At one point we had to cross a two bridges right by each other with a wicked curve in the middle. Our driver had to get out and size things up; he figured we could make it. After a few tense moments, some skillful driving and a little scrape, we made it through. It earned him a well-deserved round of applause.
The cemetery at Bretteville has almost 2800 burials and is absolutely huge. It was too bad we were pressed for time as the 30 minutes we had was way to short, but I really wanted to visit this cemetery and was glad that we made it. Our first order of business was to hold a short service in honour of those who gave their lives for Canada. Kudos goes out to our friends at St. Ignatius for organizing these little ceremonies…I think it makes it that much more significant for the students.
Grave of Major Griffin, Black Watch.
For many years I have taught my Gr. 10 students about the fighting in Normandy, and in particular the Battle of Verrières Ridge . This battle was part of a larger, unsuccessful series of attacks called Operation Spring. More than 800 Canadians were killed in Spring, and they are all buried at Bretteville. In particular, I teach them about what happened to the Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment of Canada) at Verrieres and how the entire regiment was wiped out. The commander of the Black Watch (who was an acting commander after everyone above him became casualties), Major Phil Griffin, was blamed for the failure of the attack; I wanted to pay my respects to him.I think that it will mean more to me now that I’ve visited his grave and saw the area that was fought over.
There was one more thing I had to do before we left. Prior to becoming a teacher, my career goal was to attend military college and enter the army. When I was 17 I
Grave of Major Styffe, Lake Superior Regiment.
joined the local infantry reserve unit, the Lake Superior Scottish Regiment. The LSSR perpetuates the Lake Superior Regiment, which fought in Normandy as part of the 4th Armoured Division. Forty-two members of the LSR are buried at Bretteville and I thought it was my duty to try and honour them. However due to our time constraints, I was only able to visit the grave of Major Edward Styffe, who was killed in action August 14, 1944. I did pledge to myself that I would return some day and do the fallen members of the Regiment proud.
On our return to Rouen we went to dinner, which was an okay meal of pasta with chicken in a sort of Alfredo sauce. We did take some time to celebrate the birthdays of Matt J. and Cassie who were both turning 16 during the trip. After dinner we had a bit of free time, so the kids could relax, look around the square a bit and unwind. Tomorrow is Easter, so we are heading off to mass at 9:30; I’ve never been to church in another country so I am looking forward to the experience. I’ll finish this off after we return.
The church was locked, so I guess there wasn’t mass. Can you cancel church?
Tonight I had the chance to speak to my wife Jo-Anne and the boys for a bit. Although I am enjoying myself immensely, I do miss them very much. I really want to take my boys here one day to see this for themselves…I think it is something that all Canadians should do. It really makes you thankful for the life we enjoy. After to speaking to my boys tonight and experiencing all the history over the last few days I wanted to leave you with this. I thought it would be a fitting way to end given the purpose of this trip. It was pointed out to me by my colleague Sara at Bretteville. Please click on the photo and read the inscription at the bottom; I became so choked up I had trouble taking the picture. Until then…
Grave of Rifleman Janson, Regina Rifles.