Jack Commerford. (The Canadian Press)

Jack Commerford. (The Canadian Press)

75 years later, legacy of Canada’s role in D-Day landing still lingers

D-Day gave the country the chance to find its feet

When he jumped out of his landing craft into knee-deep water off the coast of Normandy on June 6, 1944, Jack Commerford wasn’t contemplating the role he was about to play in what would become one of the most pivotal events in history.

The 20-year-old from Newfoundland and Labrador, who had joined the army three years earlier to shoot down German bombers, was too busy doing his job — and trying to stay alive — during the long-awaited Allied assault to free Europe from the Nazis.

“I was just thinking of my duties at the moment,” recalls Commerford, now 95. “Go where I was sent and do what I was told, that was primarily what I was interested in. I’m not sure how much I thought of the overall war.”

The invasion of Normandy is widely considered one of the turning points in the Second World War, as the allies smashed through Hitler’s supposedly impregnable Atlantic Wall and began the westward march to Berlin to meet the Soviets coming from the east.

But in Canada, which had come into its own in the wake of Vimy Ridge and the First World War, D-Day and the conflagration that spawned it gave the country the chance to find its feet and establish its standing in the world.

“D-Day makes us winners,” says retired major Michael Boire, an expert on Canadian military history at the Royal Military College of Canada. “It makes us winners in our own eyes. And that’s tremendously important.”

That wasn’t always the plan.

At the start of the war in 1939, then-prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, fearing another conscription crisis, wanted to keep his country from becoming too deeply involved. Conscription, introduced in 1917, nearly tore Canada apart during the First World War as many Canadians, particularly in Quebec, railed against being forced to fight in Europe.

Mackenzie King adopted a policy of “limited liability,” in which Canada’s main contributions were small contingents of troops to help defend England and the provision of food, equipment and training to assist the allies.

“But the war doesn’t go the way anybody expects,” says author and historian Jack Granatstein, former head of the Canadian War Museum.

“The Germans in 1940 sweep everything away and all of a sudden Canada is Britain’s major ally. From being a limited liability participant, suddenly we are the major ally of Great Britain. And so all the stops are pulled on the war effort in Canada.”

That included retooling Canada’s fledgling industrial base to start mass producing weapons, aircraft, warships and tanks, which in turn laid the groundwork for the future innovation and economic prosperity that Canadians know today.

“We go from being a poor country in a very real sense to being a rich country at the same time as we’re fighting the war,” says Granatstein, who notes Canada’s gross domestic product doubled between 1939 and 1945.

PHOTOS: D-Day Normandy sites today captured by drone

In 1931, Canadians became masters of their own affairs with the Statute of Westminster, a British law that effectively made Canada a sovereign nation. With D-Day and the war, the country was soon basking in a newfound self-confidence matched only by its desire for peace.

That manifested itself in Canada’s role as a founder of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, established primarily to check Soviet aggression in Russia, and its strong support for international institutions such as the United Nations to push for a rules-based international order.

“It was clear Canada had entered the international scene, it was a player at the table,” said Boire. “And Canadian public opinion is all about getting involved in every single international organization that’s around and … participating in the avoidance of war.”

Sitting at the Perley and Rideau Veterans’ Health Centre in Ottawa, with his military medals pinned proudly to his chest, Commerford echoes that assessment.

“It shaped Canada into being a wonderful, peace-loving country,” he says.

“I see Canada and its leaders as continually doing things that will encourage or help maintain peace, not only in Canada but also elsewhere. And I think D-Day and the Second World War contributed to that strong desire for peace.”

Canada started the war with a regular army of 4,200. Eventually, around 1.1 million Canadians would serve in uniform. They were everywhere, be it bombing German cities, escorting naval convoys across the Atlantic or fighting house to house in Italy.

But D-Day was the big one, the attack everyone had been waiting for. And while two of the Normandy landing beaches were assigned to the Americans and two to the British, the fifth — an eight-kilometre stretch code-named Juno — was all Canadian.

“One of the five beaches is ours,” says Canadian War Museum historian Tim Cook. “We must take it. And one of the challenges for D-Day is if one beach fails, they’re likely all to fail.”

Years of preparation and training following the hard lessons of Dieppe — the disastrous raid two years earlier in which 900 Canadians were killed and nearly 2,000 captured — were put to the test when the first landing craft hit the beach at 7:45 a.m.

The casualties in that initial wave were heavy as the Canadians advanced into a maelstrom of German fire; by the end of the day, 340 would be killed — more than twice the number who died during Canada’s entire 13-year war in Afghanistan. Another 574 were wounded.

Yet the assault was a success. The Canadians advanced farther than anyone else on that first day while Canadian pilots guarded the skies and more than 100 Royal Canadian Navy ships manned by 10,000 Canadian sailors guarded the English Channel or ferried troops and equipment to shore.

One of those was Alex Polowin, who served aboard HMCS Huron and compares the feeling of battle to how a boxer feels as he prepares to fight an opponent.

“Most of our battles were at night and we’d come out there and all of a sudden starshells fly over your ship. Starshells light up the sky to bring out your silhouette,” says Polowin, now 94.

“You’ve got fear in you, you’ve got to hate that person. You get that adrenaline rush forced on you in boxing. But this was natural.”

The war would grind on for nearly another year. Some of the hardest fighting would happen after D-Day, as the allies pushed out of the beaches and into the rest of western Europe. By the end, 45,000 Canadians in uniform had lost their lives in the war.

But D-Day has tended to overshadow those Canadian efforts, which includes the Battle of the Scheldt, the Battle of the Atlantic and the liberation of Italy. In 1999, D-Day was selected the Canadian news event of the century in a survey by The Canadian Press.

“Canada is fundamentally changed by the Second World War,” says Cook. “To pick an isolated event is too simplistic, but D-Day becomes a symbol.”

ALSO READ: Candlelight ceremony pays tribute to 75th anniversary of D-Day

Lee Berthiaume, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Surrey council chambers. (File photo)
Surrey council endorses ‘public engagement’ strategy

Council approves ‘Public Engagement Strategy and Toolkit,’ and a ‘Big Vision, Bold Moves’ transportation public engagement plan

Surrey City Hall. (File photo)
Surrey council approves $7.3 million contract for street paving projects

City council awarded Lafarge Canada Inc. $7,326,667.95 for 15 road projects in North Surrey and one in South Surrey

Surrey city Councillor Brenda Locke. (File photo)
Locke seeks breakdown on what Surreyites get for taxes paid to Metro Vancouver

Surrey councillor presented motion to council Monday asking city staff to do a cost/benefit analysis

TEASER PHOTO ONLY
SURREY NOW & THEN: Little Theatre’s 59-year history ends with big plans for move to Langley

A former church, the theatre building/property has sold for close to $900,000

Old trucks are seen in the yard at the B.C. Vintage Truck Museum in Cloverdale June 14, 2021. The Museum is reopening June 19 after a seven-month COVID closure. (Photo: Malin Jordan)
Cloverdale’s truck museum to reopen

B.C. Vintage Truck Museum set to open its doors June 19

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (31) is scored on by Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alec Martinez, not pictured, during the second period in Game 1 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup semifinal playoff series Monday, June 14, 2021, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Habs fall 4-1 to Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of NHL semifinal series

Match was Montreal’s first game outside of Canada in 2021

Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick, assistant deputy speaker at the B.C. legislature, presides over committee discussions. The legislature is completing its delayed spring session this week, with most MLAs participating by video conference. (Hansard TV)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 infections dip below 100 over weekend

Only 68 new cases recorded Monday, four additional deaths

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Robert Nelson, 35, died after being stabbed at a homeless camp in Abbotsford on April 7 of this year.
Mom pleads for information about son’s killing at Abbotsford homeless camp

Robert Nelson, 35, described as ‘man who stood for justice, honour, respect’

The BC Ferries website went down for a short while Monday morning following a provincial announcement that recreational travel between health authorities can resume Tuesday. (Black Press Media file photo)
BC Ferries’ website crashes in wake of provincial reopening announcement

Website back up now, recreational travel between health regions to resume as of Tuesday

The Kamloops Indian Residential School is photographed using a drone in Kamloops, B.C., Monday, June, 14, 2021. The remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the former school earlier this month. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Communities grapple with what to do with former residential and day schools

Some tear them down as a tool to help healing, others repurpose them as tools for moving forward

Police arrest the suspect in an attempted armed bank robbery on June 2 at the Scotiabank at Gladwin Road and South Fraser Way in Abbotsford. (Photo by Garry Amyot)
Abbotsford bank robbery suspect who was stopped by customers faces more charges

Neil Simpson now faces total of eight charges, up from the initial two

FILE – Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. watching U.K.’s COVID struggles but don’t think province will see similar pitfalls

Studies show that one dose of vaccine is only 33 per cent effective in preventing B.1.617.2 spread

Most Read