How Canada’s role on D-Day helped shape its identity as a world leader today

·National Affairs Contributor
Family members of Canadian D-Day veterans, serving soldiers and local citizens attend a ceremony outside Queens Own Rifles of Canada House in Bernieres sur Mer June 6, 2014. World leaders and veterans gathered by the beaches of Normandy on Friday to mark the 70th anniversary of World War Two's D-Day landings. REUTERS/Chris Helgren (FRANCE - Tags: POLITICS ANNIVERSARY CONFLICT) (REUTERS)

To all those Canadians for whom this Friday, the sixth of June, is just another TGIF, here's a reason to pay attention to the 70th anniversary commemoration of D-Day.

There's a direct line from that long-ago battle on the shores of France to the Canada you live in today.

Much of the news coverage of the anniversary this week justifiably has focused on the valour of the 14,000 Canadian soldiers who waded ashore on Juno Beach that morning or the 450 Canadian paratroopers who were part of the airborne landing hours before. More than 350 died in the initial landing, and some 5,000 were killed in the subsequent Normandy battle, some of the hardest fighting of the Second World War outside of the Russian front.

The event is being marked Friday with ceremonies in Normandy attended by leaders from the Second World War allied nations, including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Russian President Vladimir Putin, currently not on speaking terms.

We've been hearing this week from the dwindling number of veterans of the battle and from experts telling us there's a need to educate young people to remember their sacrifice.

But for most, this will be just another day and D-Day just another battle on a Canadian honour roll that includes Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele, Dieppe, and Hong Kong.

But it is more than that, much more. To explain why, Yahoo Canada News spoke with two experts on Canadian history, who helped shed some light on why Normandy is such a critical part of Canada's story.

[ Related: Chronology of 1944 D-Day landings in Normandy by Cdn. forces ]

First, a D-Day primer. Younger Canadians raised on reports about the nasty but relatively small-unit skirmishes of Afghanistan and the Iraq insurgency may have trouble getting their minds around the sheer scale of Overlord, the plan to throw a huge army across the English Channel onto the Normandy coast of northern France.

The disastrous 1942 raid on the French coastal town of Dieppe, which cost more than 900 Canadian lives, had taught the Allies a couple of things: Trying to attack a heavily defended port – even a small one – directly would be difficult and costly compared to a beach landing, and co-ordination between the land, sea and air arms would have to be much better in a real invasion.

And it was. Through a combination of deception and tight security, the invasion force achieved complete surprise. An immense fleet of 5,000 ships, plus hundreds of smaller boats and landing craft, appeared off the Normandy beaches the morning of June 6, 1944.

Preceded by 24,000 airborne troops, about 150,000 soldiers came ashore on five beaches that day. The Canadian 3rd Infantry Division landed on a beach code-named Juno, between the British landing beaches of Gold and Sword. U.S. forces assaulted Utah and Omaha beaches.

The Royal Canadian Navy contributed more than a hundred ships, manned by 10,000 sailors, while several Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons were part of the effort to maintain air superiority over the beachheads and knock out coastal defences.

The Germans were hunkered down behind Hitler's unfinished but still formidable Atlantic Wall, a line of concrete defences studded with artillery emplacements and bunkers bristling with machine guns. The beaches themselves were strewn with booby-trapped steel obstacles designed to disable landing craft and tanks.

Some of the defenders were low-quality divisions from Germany's "allies" and many German units were undermanned or used older troops because of the massive casualty rate on the Eastern Front.

Still, many put up a strong defence before being overwhelmed, especially at Omaha Beach, where the Americans suffered the most casualties on D-Day. The Allies' pre-invasion disinformation campaign kept Gen. Erwin Rommel's powerful Panzer reserves from intervening. Commanders believed the Normandy landings were a diversion, not the main invasion.

The Canadians on the eight-kilometre stretch of Juno Beach encountered fierce resistance but made some of the deepest advances of the day. Weeks of bitter fighting lay ahead in the Normandy battle but an oft-quoted line from British historian John Keegan's Six Armies in Normandy summed up their achievement that day:

“At the end of the day, its forward elements stood deeper into France than those of any other division," Keegan wrote.

"The opposition the Canadians faced was stronger than that of any other beach save Omaha. That was an accomplishment in which the whole nation could take considerable pride.”

That effort and Canada's role in clearing Normandy of Nazi forces, then liberating the Netherlands, embodies the country's outsized role in the Second World War, according to David Bercuson, director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

Although the First World War battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917 is widely seen as a watershed in Canada's development as an independent nation, D-Day signalled its arrival as a major player on the world stage. If anything, Bercuson told Yahoo Canada News, it was more significant than Vimy Ridge, which was fought at a time when Canada was divided by the conscription crisis that alienated much of Quebec.

"We had both francophone and anglophone soldiers in the the 3rd Division on the sixth of June and subsequent to that," said Bercuson.

“I would say that in 1944 the nation was pretty united in the war effort. There were people, primarily I suppose in Quebec, that were opposed to conscription and maybe to a certain extent hung back from the war. But it wasn’t anything like it was in 1917."

Historian Jack Granatstein agrees that D-Day probably eclipses Vimy Ridge as a nation-building exercise, though he argues the Netherlands campaign was probably more important.

"But it just doesn't have the same resonance with the public," said Granatstein, one-time director of the Canadian War Museum. "It's because there's films about [D-Day]. It’s a recognizable point in a six-year-long war because it’s a success, so all those things come together.”

The divisions Canada contributed to the Normandy campaign were just one manifestation of its commitment to the Allied cause. Canada's role in the Battle of the Atlantic left it with the third-largest navy in the world by the end of the war. RCAF pilots fought in every major combat theatre, especially the bomber offensive against Germany, sustaining 10,000 dead. Before Normandy, the army endured tough fighting in the Italian campaign.

“We actually were pretty big players, more than a million men and women in uniform, a huge contributor of industrial and agricultural supplies, and money," said Granatstein.

"We mattered. We were a country of only 11 million people but we played well above our weight. It seems to me that had a good deal to do with the way Canadians thought of themselves. It was the greatest generation in the sense. People looked at the war as a time when the country found itself.”

The three Canadian divisions that followed the first wave ashore at Juno after D-Day were crucial to bulk up Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's 21st Army Group in the Normandy campaign, said Bercuson.

The dues Canada paid in blood and treasure in Normandy and elsewhere bought it entry into the top levels of the post-war world order, said Bercuson, helping create the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the UN refugee agency and many other institutions.

“People don’t understand – because history is so poorly taught in this country – the extent to which there was a connection between our military effort and our diplomatic involvement in forging the post-war world," he said. "Most of those institutions are still functioning today and playing an extremely important role.”

Dozens of nations fought with the Allies but none among western countries came out of the war with Canada's clout.

[ Related: 'Everybody got hit in some sort of way:' Cdn. D-Day paratrooper ]

“I think the most dramatic proof you can show of that is when the British and the Americans began to discuss the possibility of what would become NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization], and they began to talk about it in 1947, we were asked into that secret circle almost immediately," said Bercuson.

"There are just so many things that rooted back to our involvement in the Second World War.”

Canada still to some extent feels the effects of its war effort in terms of the expectations placed on it by other countries and Canadians themselves, said Granatstein. Although it tries to project economic and military power, Canada has not had to extend itself in anything like the same way.

The decade-long Afghanistan mission produced 158 military fatalities, less than half as many deaths as on Juno Beach just that one day. In all, 42,000 Canadians were killed in the Second World War. But the steady stream of bodies returning home from Kandahar along the Highway of Heroes produced sustained questioning of Canada's role there.

“The differences are probably that we didn’t have the continuous television coverage that made the [Afghan] war so omnipresent for the last 10 years," said Granatstein.

"We didn’t have the bodies coming home, which also had a huge effect. You were killed overseas and you were buried overseas, and your family never saw you again. This time the bodies were brought home. That had a huge impact. Imagine if you’d brought 42,000 bodies home from World War Two. We wouldn’t have stayed in the war very long.”

We may hope never to be tested that way again but we owe it to those who were there to remember their effort and what it's meant to modern Canada.

“We were sought to be there, they wanted us to be there, we wanted to be there," said Bercuson, who was born the year the war ended.

"People who go to Normandy today and some of the other places the Canadian Army fought in northwest Europe, you seen plenty of signs of the passing of the Canadian Army. For me it’s very emotional to know that my nation was there when it was most needed.”

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