Canadian Lt.-Gen. Richard Rohmer talks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as they take part in the reception for veterans as part of the D-Day 75th Anniversary British International Commemorative Event at Southsea Common in Portsmouth, England, on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Three-quarters of a century ago today, Fred Turnbull was sitting in a landing craft plowing through the grey, choppy surf towards the shell-raked Normandy coast.
At almost the same moment, Richard Rohmer — in the cockpit of a sleek, powerful Mustang fighter — swooped low over the beach where Canadian troops were about to spill their blood and the blood of terrified German defenders.
It was a seminal moment for both men, and for the Western democracies fighting to free Europe from the grip of fascism.
World leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, gathered on France’s Normandy coast today to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the remarkable military and political achievement known as D-Day.
It undoubtedly will be the last major remembrance event to hear both Turnbull and Rohmer tell the story of the Normandy invasion as they experienced it personally.
Watch Trudeau address the D-Day ceremony:
There have been two commemoration events along the 10-kilometre stretch of coastline that Canadians fought to liberate — one Canadian, one international.
As many as 5,000 people, including French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, attended the Canadian event. Thursday’s commemoration in France follows another memorial, on Wednesday in the U.K., that was attended by leaders including U.S. President Donald Trump, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and Justin Trudeau.
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In the bilingual ceremony, young Canadians recited readings from D-Day fighters, saying “we are eternally grateful.”
Naturally, the beach today looks entirely different from the one that greeted the invading allies on June 6, 1944. The three major communities along the coastline have regained in many respects the sleepy resort quality they enjoyed before the Germans came.
Watch the Ennis sisters sing at Thursday’s D-Day memorial in France:
“The first reconnaissance I did was over the beach just before the first landing craft came in,” said Rohmer, who was also present on stage for Wednesday’s first commemoration ceremony in Portsmouth, U.K.
“I watched them approaching and I was there with my number one to give them protection in the event the Luftwaffe showed up with aircraft to strafe them.”
The German air force largely stayed home that day, as the panorama of steel, smoke and fire that unfolded before Rohmer was seared into the memories of those who fought there.
“The weather, there was a cloud bank right over the beach that we were coming into and we had to fly under 500 feet in order to do the reconnaissance,” he said.
“It was fantastic to see the incoming ships, the incoming landing craft, and the explosions of the battleships that were firing right where we were flying.”
Canadians guard German prisoners taken at Juno Beach during the invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944. (National Archives of Canada, Frank L. Dubervill/The Canadian Press)
The reality for Turnbull was starkly different, but no less exhilarating.
His landing craft took ashore a section of troops from the Régiment de la Chaudière, a reserve brigade.
His first hint of the invasion’s cost in blood was the sight of the bodies of military divers floating in the surf — killed as they tried to disarm metal obstacles booby-trapped by the Germans.
The rising tide carried the landing craft over the deadly traps, but all six boats — including Turnbull’s barge — were blown up after they had delivered their troops and turned back to sea to get more.
Turnbull and his men had to swim from the barge to the beach. There they waited as the battle raged around them for three hours before a larger landing ship came in and took them off.
“That was the worst part of it, waiting to be rescued,” said Turnbull.
The soldiers cracked jokes about their plight and tried to remain calm while waiting for retrieval. One enterprising sailor liberated a bottle of rum from the wreckage — which no doubt made the time pass more comfortably.
Canadian military planners had expected 1,800 casualties on D-Day — killed, wounded and captured. According to federal government records, the day saw 1,074 Canadian casualties during the taking of the beachhead.
D-Day was just the beginning, though. By the end of the Normandy campaign, more than 5,000 troops had been killed out of roughly 18,000 Canadian casualties.