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What A Day
What a Day
The assault craft churned in the mighty waves of the English Channel, and the pale gray sky was blanketed by hundreds of Allied bombers, troop transports and fighters alike, going to and from Axis held territory. My Lee Enfield bolt action rifle was nestled into my chest, and I sheepishly remembered how just over a year ago, I was a simple 19 year old boy, tirelessly working on my parents’ farm back home in Canada. “Back then, this rifle would have probably been a shovel.” The thought seemed to comfort me somehow, but this feeling was short lived, as the landing craft to our right exploded as it made contact with an enemy sea mine. “Poor souls…didn’t even make it to the beach…”
“Thirty seconds men! Check your weapons! Get ready for the fight of your lives!” The voice of Company Sergeant McGuire was strained as he desperately tried to send his message to the men over the roar of the coming battle. Shells were landing in every which direction, and the constant spraying of water from The Channel dampened our clothing and gear relentlessly.
German MG-42 machine gun bullets ricocheted off of the ramp of the landing craft, and I knew that my brothers and I of A Company, Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, would be in for a hell of a fight. “Oh help me Lord…”
“Go! Go! Go!” The voice of the coxswain pierced the air as the ramp dropped onto the head of Juno beach, the Canadian target area of assault on D-Day. Almost immediately, German MG fire ripped through the inside of our vessel, and the men in the front of the craft slumped to the ground. I was located in the center of the ship, so as the others cleared out, I could see undoubtedly that they were being cut down by enemy fire. Finally, when all I could see were the few surviving men of my company between me and the enemy, I knew that it was my turn to hit the beach, either on my feet or stomach.
“Swoosh, swoosh, thump.” The sound of enemy bullets flying around me and landing at my feet, which to say the least, wasn’t comforting at all. The cries of men previously and newly wounded filled the air, but the constant call for medics went unheard. “The medics are all dead…” I knew that if I continued to stand tall on my feet, trying to charge my way into the enemy, I’d end up face first in the dirt courtesy of an enemy bullet or shell, so I quickly dived into a shell hole maybe ten metres or so from the assault craft. Sweat poured down my face, as the weight of my gear took its toll on my body. The sprint from the landing craft to the shell crater happened in seconds, and my adrenaline was pumping harder than ever. Then as my assault vessel turned to head back to sea, a shell, most likely from an enemy 88 Flak Gun, smacked down into the center of it, spewing a large fireball into the air. “The coxswain and his two men were onboard…what a shame.”
Sand was being kicked up all along the beach as the enemy continued to pound us from their fortified positions which they had set up at regular intervals along the coast. Concrete bunkers and sandbag fortifications were all connected by an intricate system of trenches, which allowed the Germans to move from position to position unseen. Lying prone in the shell crater, I aimed my rifle at the nearest enemy position and fired off a round, before shifting the bolt back then forth, to make way for a new bullet. “Click clack, click clack.” I repeated this process several times, hurriedly firing at the enemy positions, before being forced to swap clips of ammo. “This doesn’t seem the slightest bit effective at all…” I gloomily thought to myself.
The noise of battle was intense, and nothing done in training could prepare one for an experience like this. A friendly tank blew up just as it hit the beach, and it became apparent that our limited armour support in this first wave of the assault was quickly being diminished. Just then, the voice of Company Sergeant McGuire became noticeable, and his orders were crystal clear. “Move forward men! Get off the beach! Move!” As he straightened up to sound his order, an enemy bullet quickly smashed into the side of his helmet, draining the life out of his pale grey eyes instantly.
“Oh my God…. What am I supposed to do now?” Fear overcame my body, and I tried to block out the sounds of battle long enough to get my thoughts straight. “The Sarge is dead…little armour support….the men are dying….doesn’t look too good.” I dared not move out of the crater, for fears that I would suffer the same fate as my comrades.
Suddenly, a friendly face jumped into my position, and the company of a fellow brother was welcomed.
“Well, fancy seeing you here Corporal Smith.” The unmistakable voice of Jimmy Baron, my long time childhood friend, was a pleasant change in sound indeed as I looked to see the grin on his face.
“This doesn’t look good at all Jimmy… Someone in Intel really screwed up this time.” I meant every word I said, as I didn’t feel that this was our battle to win.
“Nonsense William! With excellent soldiers like me and you, the Queen’s Own of Canada will surely save the day!” Private Baron sure knew how to raise the morale of the troops, and I wondered why he hadn’t been a propaganda officer instead. “At least he wouldn’t have been in this Godforsaken hole with me…”
Sand continued to be kicked up into the crater, and the mist from The Channel was turning it into mud. “We can’t stay here much longer.” I said with great reluctance. “The tides coming in Jimmy, so we have to advance up the beach now!”
“The second wave of troops won’t be coming in soon, so we have to get some work done in the mean time.” Private Baron’s thoughts were all too real.
“Alright, on the count of three we’ll go over. One, -“As I began to count, Jimmy, being the same joker as always, added his charm to the situation.
“- Three, go!” He hopped up just before me, but quickly crumpled back to the ground, a deep red stain on his left breast pocket.
“Jimmy!” My mind raced as I quickly crouched in the shell crater to check his pulse. “No...No…No!” His body laid still, a pulse nonexistent. My thoughts became filled with anger, and I leapt up to my feet and charged to the nearest area of cover, which happened to be a knocked out Firefly tank. I fired off two rounds from my rifle while I ran, but was suddenly stunned to see the name of the destroyed tank. “Canuck Pride.” Just days before, I remembered having a few drinks with the men of this crew, who were very friendly chaps indeed. That was the final straw for me on that dreadful Tuesday afternoon. I had completely lost all sense of fear. Now, I was enraged. Now, I was a real soldier.
I immediately hopped onto the top of the tank, and jumped into the open turret, which allowed me access to the mounted .30 caliber machine gun that stood unused. Enemy MG and rifle fire, along with the continual bombardment of enemy shells raked my position, and it was a struggle to keep from being hit. However, when I finally loaded and cocked the .30 cal, there was no stopping me.
I quickly aimed the gun at the nearest enemy bunker and blanketed it with bullets until its MG ceased to fire. The .30 cal steadily spat out a string of hot lead at the enemy, its deafening sounds filling my ears. “Clack clack, clack clack, clack clack…” I then turned my attention to a group of German sand bag fortifications, and soon disposed of those defenders as well. This cover fire which I provided allowed the surviving troops of my company to catch their breath, and they soon began to form up in a thin attack line down the length of the area of beach head, which had previously been assigned to us. After continuing to silence enemy positions, the .30 cal finally depleted its ammunition cache, and the overheated weapon was left to cool. I then dismounted from the tank, and acquired yet another automatic weapon to use. A fallen Bren light machine gun lay beside its former wielder, who had been decapitated most likely from enemy fragmentation shell. I motioned to the others to begin to move forward, and led the charge into the heart of the enemy fortifications.
Bren gun blazing, most of the men and I made it to the enemy positions, and we took to cleaning out bunkers before continuing forward. I readied myself in front of a sealed bunker door with the Bren, while another trooper unpinned and tossed a grenade into the shooting slot of the fortification. The door immediately swung open, and I unloaded the light machine gun into the doorway, mercilessly slaughtering the unsuspecting enemy.
The Bren light machine gun came with a tripod attachment, so I set it up in a sandbag fortification, and began to fire into the vicinity of the enemy non-stop. I went through three magazines of ammo before deciding that the enemy’s heads were down, and once the men had determined that the bunkers were clear, I signaled to the trenches. I dropped the Bren and re-slung my Lee Enfield, and we all attached our trusty bayonets to our weapons, expecting bloody hand-to-hand combat. With that, approximately 40 of the surviving 250 men of A Company that landed with me that day began to move into the enemy trench system.
As we hopped into the trenches, the surprised look of unsuspecting German soldiers captured the moment as bayonets were thrusted into their bodies. One enemy soldier put up a good fight in particular though, as he grabbed hold of my rifle and desperately pushed it away from himself. Not wanting to waste time, I turned the rifle and slammed the butt of it into his head, causing him to loosen his grip on my weapon, before sealing his fate with a final drive of my bayonet into his chest. Blood dripped down his uniform as he stared with blue eyes from the weapon to me, before crumpling to the floor of the trench. The screams of the falling enemy now plagued the air that used to be full of their own MG fire, and before long, they began to hop out of their trenches and ran to the nearest Axis-held village of Bernières, where their stay would be short lived.
While they retreated, running wildly into the direction of their fellow soldiers, we took to honing our shooting skills by picking them off at long ranges with the iron sights of our rifles. We knew that we’d have to fight them later anyway, so eliminating them here would save us the punishment then.
“We did it! We won!” The cheers came up and down the lines, and the feeling of victory percolated in my body. “We actually won…”
Almost immediately, the ground began to rumble, and the walls of the German trenches began to spill dirt into the system. “What the…”
“Enemy tanks!” The words quickly cut our celebrations short, and I soon called for our anti-armour weapons and men to meet at my position. Soon, three Bazookas were assembled before me with their operators, and I instructed them to each fire on selected tanks. As the enemy armour neared, I desperately wished that we had tanks of our own to match them, but the fact of the matter was that all seven of the tanks deployed in our first wave had either been destroyed or claimed by the sea.
Finally, just as the enemy Panther and Tiger tanks were in shooting range, I gave the command to fire, and the three Bazookas fired their warheads. “Whoosh, thump.” The projectiles made contact with the enemy tanks, but simply bounced off the thick armour and exploded harmlessly on the ground.
“Take cover!” Enemy main gun and mounted machine gun fire rained down on our position, and if not for the protection provided by the enemy fortification, we surely would have perished. The German tanks were furiously firing everything they had at us, and the situation was becoming increasingly desperate.
“Oh no… what do we do now?” The thought lingered in my head, until I had a last ditch idea. “Get me the Company Radio Operator now!” My request passed through our lines until the trooper charged to operate her Royal Majesty’s kit received the message and ran over to my side.
“Private Ryan, Radio Operator!” The private’s voice was shaky, and I knew that he was terrified of the advancing enemy tanks.
“Private, I need you to radio in for some air support. If we don’t get some Typhoons to strafe those tanks, then we may not have dinner tonight, understand?”
“Yes Corporal Smith!” With that, he hunkered down in the trench, and began to radio in the request for air-to-ground support. While he did his job, I instructed the other men to do theirs, and they opened up cover fire on the tanks, in hopes that we could by some more time. Grenades, mortars and such were launched at the enemy, and although we didn’t knock out any tanks, we sure did slow their advance. Finally, Private Ryan nudged me, and I hoped it was with good news.
“A flight of Hawker Typhoons who were on their way to blow a secondary bridge got our call, and are on their way. ETA two and a half minutes.” I was enlightened that the private had gotten through, and gave him the thumbs up, before remembering that we still had to stall for two and a half minutes.
“Give ‘em hell men!” My order was blunt and true, which was what we had to do in order to survive. Every man, healthy or wounded, rifle or light MG, poured everything that they had at the enemy, and the sound of the firing weapons was deafening. I then noticed a German Panzerfaust Anti-Tank rocket lying in a nook in the wall of the trench, and wondered if their own creation would help us against them.
I ordered a fellow comrade to load the weapon while I mounted it on my shoulder, and once ready, it took aim at the lead enemy tank. The Germans were advancing in a spearhead formation, which resembled the one chevron which the private rank held. The field which they advanced upon was relatively flat, but the constant bombing and shelling by Allied forces had left the ground pot marked with craters. This particularly slowed the tanks advance, and made them an easier target for me.
I took aim at the right track of the lead enemy Tiger tank in the formation, in hopes of derailing the metallic monster. “I don’t have to destroy it, just slow it down…” I steadied the weapon, and unloaded it’s warhead at the rumbling track of the tank. “Swoosh, bang!” Sure enough, the track flew off of the tank, leaving it immobilized. I then took to firing blankly with my Lee Enfield at the enemy, who was greatly closing the distance, although they seemed to advance with caution as I had just disabled their commander.
A steady drone came from the sky above, and once a break in the cloud- filled sky appeared, a formation of five Hawker Typhoons emerged, the sun gleaming off their industrialized bodies, like God sent gifts. One by one, they swooped in to strafe the enemy tanks, whom were completely surprised by the air support. Rockets and machine gun fire alike ripped through the enemy armour formation, and before we knew it, six Panthers and three Tigers laid burning in the field. Unknown to us at the time, was that the tanks concealed a counter-attack force of enemy troops in their rear, so their destruction was key for us indeed. Charred and abandoned enemy half-tracks also lay mangled on the field, and the bodies of their unlucky German occupants littered the ground. The enemy tanks had all been destroyed, and I, Corporal Smith, an unlikely source to say the least, was credited with disabling one enemy Tiger tank, which was said to be Hitler’s prized war machine.
Finally, the surviving men of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, A Company, celebrated a victory with a hearty meal of bully beef and rock hard biscuits. “What I’d do for a plate of mashed potatoes and turkey slivers drenched in gravy.” The imaginary aroma of my favourite dish intoxicated my mind, as I longed for some good old fashion home cooking. A number of bottles of French wine were found in the bunker of the German Commander of the area, Lieutenant General William Richter, which were passed along the line for a few swigs to each man. The Canadian Red Ensign was hoisted in place of the German Swastika overlooking the beach, and the day was ours.
Sadly, out of the 250 men of A Company that landed on ‘Mike Section’ of Juno Beach, on Tuesday June 6th, 1944, only 32 men lived on. Amongst the dead in the victory were Company Sergeant McGuire, Private Baron, and the other 218 men who paid the ultimate sacrifice in battle.
A few days after my company had taken the beach head, and allowed our fellow brothers in the follow up waves to reach safely, word came to me that I had been promoted to Company Sergeant in the place of the deceased Sgt. McGuire, and that I had also been put up for the Victoria Cross.
“Wait till the folks hear about this back home… Their only son, just 20 years of age, a sergeant and VC hopeful…. What a day that had been….What a day indeed.”