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Book Reviews

Lest We Forget: A Review of Books Marking the 60th Anniversary of D-DAY

Juno Beach: Canada’s D-DAY Victory, June 6, 1944

by Mark Zuehlke
Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.
415 pages, $35.00

Juno: Canadians at D-DAY June 6, 1944

by Ted Barris, with a foreword by John Keegan
Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers.
310 pages, $34.95

D-DAY Juno Beach: Canada’s 24 Hours of Destiny

by Lance Goddard, with a foreword by Major-General Richard Rohmer
Toronto: Dundurn Press.
256 pages, $29.95

D-DAY: Canadian Heroes of the Famous World War II Invasion

by Tom Douglas
Canmore, AB: Altitude Publishing Canada, Ltd.
144 pages, $9.95

Reviewed by Major Michael Boire

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Book coverJudging from the quality of these four books, this has been a good year for Canadian military history. These new works tell us not only what happened on Juno Beach but also what it was like for a young Canadian to be a part of the D-Day adventure. In this respect, they break new ground. All four books are accessible, straightforward, and instructive popular histories that are sure to appeal to a growing readership eager to explore the Canadian war experience. As works of remembrance they commemorate the extraordinary accomplishments of young Canadian soldiers, sailors, and aviators fighting on distant battlefields, sixty long years ago.

To varying degrees, the authors have taken pains to strike a balance between historical context and detail. Each establishes sufficient strategic and political background to make clear why victory depended on a successful invasion of the European mainland and why Canadians insisted on playing an important role in that operation. Once the scene is set, the authors focus their efforts on the dangers Canada’s warriors faced at sea, in the air and on the ground; in all four books Canada’s three fighting services receive the attention they have earned.

Book coverPerhaps the best single contribution these authors have made to Canadian D-Day literature has been to emphasize the critical role the Royal Canadian Navy played on D-Day – a reality often underplayed in Canadian military historiography. Canadian minesweepers risked everything as they swept the sea-lanes in front of the invasion force; the crews of the landing ships showed grim determination to get the troops ashore on time and in the right place; and the escort groups stood ready to destroy any German attempt to interfere with the invasion fleet. Nor do these authors gloss over the contribution of our air force. Canadian bomber crews and fighter pilots were heavily engaged on 5 and 6 June suppressing coastal batteries and flying air cover over the invasion beaches. Their adventures are well portrayed.

Book coverLeading the pack is Mark Zuehlke’s Juno Beach, a stirring account of the key role Canadians in all three services played on D-Day. The story’s centre of gravity is the performance of the volunteer citizen-soldiers of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, who did the lion’s share of fighting and dying that day. Zuehlke concludes that inspired tactical leadership as well as the thorough year-long preparation in England gave the Division the edge it needed to break beach defences and fight through thickening German defences inland. The author also makes the point that “(a)n essential characteristic of the Canadian soldier was his ability to stay in the fight no matter how casualties reduced the command structure of the battalion in which he served. ... The combination of independent spirit strengthened by a sense of community is uniquely Canadian and contributed enormously to the extent of the victory gained at Juno Beach.” His conclusions are sound and truly reflect the enormity of the Division’s achievements that day. Zuehlke is Canada’s most prolific writer of popular military history. Once again, he has demonstrated to his readers why he has become one of the most popular.

Book coverAn accomplished author and broadcaster, Ted Barris has written Juno: Canadians at D-Day as a personal act of commemoration. His book is sincere and straightforward. A reader expects a great deal from an author with a dozen titles to his name, and Barris does not disappoint. His account of the fighting is tightly-woven and well-balanced. We hear the voices of all three services, though the accounts from Army vets remain dominant. Like Zuehlke, Barris claims to give primacy to veterans’ memories in his research, to the detriment of traditional academic sources. Interestingly, when you read the text and bibliographies in these and other examples of both authors’ works, it is striking to see just how deftly both have integrated the full range of historical sources available to any researcher. Both authors effectively combine primary sources such as combatants’ personal recollections, unit war diaries, eyewitness accounts as well as contemporary newspaper articles with top-notch secondary sources written by leading war historians. Perhaps both are better researchers than they may be willing to admit. More Canadian modesty?

Lance Goddard’s illustrated history, D-Day Juno Beach, complements his documentary film on D-Day. Both are based on extensive interviews with veterans of the assault on Juno Beach. Though the subject has already been well explored, the author’s approach is highly innovative. He gets the veterans who lived the moment to tell their story, hour by hour. We hear the voices of the soldiers of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion as they touch down just after midnight on the Varaville Drop Zone, and end with the battalions of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division digging in on their objectives at the end of the ‘longest day’. Goddard has chosen his interview excerpts with obvious care, weaving them into a narrative that maintains interest to the end. The snippets of information he does include in the narrative are deftly inserted, and just enough to keep the action going. The book is above all an illustrated history, supported by a truly impressive selection of photos of that day. Many of the photos offer a ‘then-and-now’ of Juno Beach, which would make this book an excellent companion on a battlefield tour.

Douglas’s book, D-Day Canadian Heroes is ideal for the beginner who wants to get an overview before wading into a longer more detailed account of the action. In just over a hundred pages he gives us a condensed version of D-Day, as well as the significance of Dieppe to the preparations for “Overlord”. There are fewer quotations from participants in this book, but what has been included is indeed poignant. An excerpt from the diary of a member of the Regina Rifles, a regiment which paid a heavy price during the assault, summed up his experience of D-Day thus: “1100 hours. Civilians of Courseulles welcomed our troops with flowers. Old men and women, young girls and children, stood in the littered streets, clapped their hands, waved at the troops, and tossed roses in their path. A girl handed me a crimson rose and there were tears of despair and joy in her eyes: ‘There’s my home over there; ruined. But the Allies are here.’”

These books will help Canadians better understand how war has influenced their nation and especially their own families. Zuehlke feels that Canadians are turning more and more to Canada’s military history “from a desire on the part of younger generations to understand how World War II affected their forebears – whether great-grandparents, grandparents, or parents. Raised in times when the quest for self-understanding and comprehension of personal motivations is germane to life, we cannot believe that a cataclysm as profound as war did not indelibly influence the lives of those who endured it. And we are right to believe that it did, even when so many of the old warriors try to downplay its effect on their lives after the peace came. Theirs was a generation not given to displays of emotion or the exposing of inner feeling. There was also a natural modesty that is Canadian to the bone.”

Lest We Forget.

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Major Michael Boire teaches Canada’s military history at Royal Military College. He is completing a doctoral thesis on the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade.