D-DAY: ‘We knew some of us were going to die’

Infantrymen in a landing craft head to shore from the HMCS Prince Henry off the Normandy beachhead, France, on June 6, 1944. Photographer: Dennis Sullivan. DND/Library and Archives Canada

Tom Slater and Tom St. Amand

The beach from Canatara Park to Blackwell Side Road stretches approximately eight kilometres, the width of Juno Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, when 15,000 Canadian soldiers were tasked with seizing it from the Germans.

Seventy-five years ago, a number of Sarnians, many getting their first taste of action, fought bravely, but some lost their lives in the largest seaborne invasion in history.

The Germans had spent four years fortifying the French coast in anticipation of an invasion. Their “Atlantic Wall” featured a series of formidable obstacles: machine gun nests; snipers; pillboxes, razor wire; concrete bunkers; over four million underwater and land mines; anti-tank walls; hundreds of tanks; and multiple battalions of seasoned infantry troops.

Sarnia’s Corporal George Cavan consoled his wife in a letter he had written on June 6: “All our boys [are] confident that they would succeed in the job each had been given.”

Every soldier knew the risks.

During the turbulent Channel crossing, one recalled thinking, “We knew some of us were going to die; we just didn’t know who.”

Canadians soldiers began arriving at Juno Beach at 7:50 a.m.

In Sarnia, residents awoke to Prime Minister MacKenzie King’s radio address, informing them the long awaited invasion was occurring.

Local church bells rang between 7:30 and 8:00, a pre-arranged signal that the invasion had begun. Schools were closed for the day and hundreds gathered for solemn services at several churches.

Troops of the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade
hit the shore at Bernières-sur-mer, Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. Photographer: Gilbert Alexander Milne. DND/Library and Archives Canada

The Canadian (Sarnia) Observer provided updates to anxious residents.

Only later did Sarnians learn the details of the brutal fighting at Juno Beach.

The Allied bombardment from the air and the sea, though effective, could not dismantle all the German guns.

Soldiers were ordered to leave the landing crafts quickly, but several did not even get ashore. German machine guns firing 500 bullets a minute killed some as the doors to their landing craft opened or as they waded in the water.

Those who landed faced an onslaught of German mortars, shells and machine gun fire. They had to cross hundreds of meters of open ground, stitched with barbed wire, landmines and walls. The action was chaotic; the noise, thunderous.

The Canadians advanced relentlessly, though, and by day’s end had not only taken Juno Beach but had advanced inland 11 kilometres, more than any other Allied formation.

In that first week of fighting, four Sarnians were among the 1,017 Canadians killed: Russell Jolly, 19, and John Lychowich, 26, of the Winnipeg Rifles; and William Barr, 20, and Ross Pole, 23, of RCAF Bomber Command.

The Battle of Normandy, which lasted until August 21, claimed twelve more Sarnia soldiers.

Those who returned to Sarnia had stories to tell.

How Lieutenant James Doohan was shot six times by an overzealous Canadian sentry. If not for his metal cigarette case deflecting a bullet, another actor would have played Scotty in Star Trek.

How Private Keith Withers suffered severe burns when he leapt aboard a burning carrier laden with munitions and helped drag a barely conscious comrade to safety seconds before the carrier exploded.

How Captain Brandon “Brandy” Conron of the First Hussars, under torrid enemy fire, risked his life as his tank slashed inland. A mortar shell damaged both his legs and later, in his honour, the tank outside the Sarnia Legion was named “Calamity” after his tank.

How the R.C.A.F. 414 City of Sarnia Squadron, led by Commander Charles “Smokey” Stover of Sarnia, risked their lives daily to be reconnaissance spotters for the navy on D-Day and beyond.

The tragedy of D-Day is the number of fallen soldiers and seventy-five years later their sacrifice still resonates. Upon viewing the carnage that was Juno Beach on D-Day, a Canadian journalist said it best:

“They had lived but a few minutes of the victory they had made.”

 


 

Headstone of Russell Jolly at the Bretteville-Sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery in Calvados, France. Jolly, 19, was killed in action on June 8, 1944.

‘Postcard from Juno’ headed to Sarnia home

Tom Slater and Tom St. Amand     

Aaron Davis has never heard of Russell Jolly, but they share something in common.

Davis currently resides in the house at 436 Russell Street South. Decades earlier, Jolly lived there with his parents and three siblings before he enlisted with the Canadian Infantry in July 1943.

For this reason, Davis is part of the “Postcards from Juno” program.

To mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Juno Beach Centre in France is mailing postcards this week to select Canadians who are residing in homes where soldiers who died at D-Day once lived.

Russell Jolly died on June 8, 1944 and Davis’ postcard will provide data on the Sarnian’s rank, age, and date of death.

Jolly’s story is far more than statistics, however.

He grew up in a simpler time in a smaller city, attending nearby Confederation Street School and later walking two kilometres to SCITS. He left after one year to become a baker with the Canada Bread Company on Mitton Street, a kilometre from his home.

At 18, he enlisted and planned to return to Canada Bread after the war.

In March 1944, Russell arrived in the U.K. He received further training and became a member of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Royal Canadian Infantry Corps (RCIC), with the rank of Private-Rifleman. Then came his first action at Juno Beach.

Unfortunately, Russell died on the third day of fighting, his death recorded as “killed in action in the field.” His parents received no specific details about Russell’s death, but the government expressed its sympathy and issued them a War Service Gratuity of $112.64 as compensation.

Russell, 19, is buried in Bretteville-Sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery, Calvados, France. His epitaph reads IN THE GARDEN OF MEMORY WE MEET EVERY DAY. SLEEP ON, DEAR SON, TILL WE MEET AGAIN.

Many local landmarks of Russell Jolly’s youth are gone. Confederation School became an armoury, SCITS is called Great Lakes, and the Canada Bread Company is now an empty lot.

Only the house at 436 Russell Street South remains.

The same house where Aaron Davis will receive a postcard to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Russell Jolly’s death.