It was 75 years ago today, on June 5 1944, that one of the most remarkable endeavours ever attempted by humanity began as hundreds of planes and gliders set off in the gathering gloom towards France bearing the airborne cadres that were the vanguard of the largest amphibian invasion in history—known forever after as D-Day. Some two hours later thousands of British and American soldiers descended from the skies onto select targets across the Normandy region.
As the sun began to rise that following morning, on June 6, tens of thousands of British, Canadian, American, French and Polish soldiers, most desperately seasick from the wallowing LSTs that had brought them to the beaches, debarked into the waters off Normandy to wade through a maelstrom of unbelievable ferocity where thousands of young men fell like sheaves of wheat scythed in the farm fields where most of those brave young men had grown up.
By the end of first day of what would become known to history as the Battle of Normandy, the butcher’s bill would tally to more than 10,000 casualties, some 4,414 killed. The losses of 3rd Canadian Division at our sector in the landings, Juno Beach, are officially listed as being 340 killed, 574 wounded and 47 taken prisoner. By the end of the Battle of Normandy on August 29 an incredible 425,000 Allied and German soldiers would be listed as killed, wounded or missing.
It was a remarkable and terrible achievement that left very few communities, including those of Manitoulin, without deep mourning—but thanks to the countless stories of pain, suffering and unthinkable loss of those young men, the Western world was freed from the yoke of Nazi tyranny.
Evacuating a relatively small number of people from communities threatened by flood or fire, even with all of our modern resources and technology, remains a challenge. How incredible the achievements of those of those we now call the Greatest Generation. The accomplishments and perseverance of those men and women who had suffered through the ravages of the Great Depression, and the enormous setbacks and losses of the earlier four years of WWII, leave those of us who grew up in their shadows in awe.
Most of that generation have left us now, with barely a few lingering survivors remaining as first hand witnesses.
Today, as we see the seeds of fascism and tyranny begin once more to sprout across the globe, with unfettered racism and intolerance again raising their hoary heads, we should all reflect upon the vast human cost that eventually comes due.
We may fool ourselves into believing that the D-Day landings and the march across occupied Europe has paid the bill of freedom in full, but the bill of freedom is never ending. There is more meaning to the phrase “Lest We Forget” than old men in faded uniforms standing unsteadily to salute their lost comrades. Their sacrifices, paid in the blood of a generation, were not spent for glory or honour, they were spent for freedom.
The victims of the Holocaust are listed as six million souls, but more than double that number were lost in the Nazi death camps. Those who were judged infirm, who believed in different religions or ideologies, whose sexual orientation was not considered the norm, along with those who dared defend them, also died in those camps.
The next time you find yourself tempted to forward an intolerant meme or other social media post targeting some demonized group of people, think upon the sacrifice that was paid for our rights and freedoms by those thousands of young soldiers and civilians caught in the crossfire of history. It is the tragedy of WWII that it all could have been avoided if decent common people had stepped away from fear, hatred and prejudice. Let us not comfort ourselves in the belief that it could not happen here. The Nazis were never a majority in Germany, but they were aided and abetted by too many of those who remained silent until it was too late.
On this 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings let us put effort into the words “never again.”
Lest We Forget.