So where to start a blog related to an annual (even if a global pandemic cancelled the ride for 2 consecutive years) bike ride? By reviewing the previous ride of course! BBR19 – Operation Overlord Revisited. A 650 km ride over 6 days cannot be fully covered here, so I offer a few of the highlights as I saw them.
Operation Overlord, better known as D-Day, marked the beginning of the end of the Nazi tyranny of Europe. It was the largest seaborne invasion ever attempted. More than 14,000 Canadian soldiers landed on Juno Beach or parachuted behind the Nazi lines on 6 June 1944. Our ride would end at Juno Beach, adjacent to Courseulles-sur-Mer, on 6 June 2019, 75 years after the invasion began.
BBR19 began at Dieppe, France. On 19 August 1942 as part of Operation Jubilee, 6,086 Allied troops attacked at five different points along a front roughly 16 kilometres long. Canadians formed the main assault on the town of Dieppe. Within ten hours, of the nearly 5,000 Canadian soldiers, more than 900 were killed (about 18 per cent) and 1,874 taken prisoner (37%). You can read more about what was arguably the bloodiest day in Canadian military history at Dieppe.
A trip to honour those who fought for our freedoms would not be complete without visiting some of the Canadian War Cemeteries. First of these was the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery. This is the resting place for 957 soldiers. airmen and sailors, 580 of them are Canadians, with the remainder primarily British.
Throughout my travels and my many visits to Canadian battlefield throughout Europe I have been amazed at how well these cemeteries are maintained and visited by the local population.
At the Dieppe Cemetery, there were three Frenchmen who had taken it upon themselves to maintain the graves. But, going a step further, they had found that many of the fallen were from Canadian Scottish regiments and so they learned to play the bagpipes. At the end of every day that they get together to work in the cemetery, they would play the pipes. Most Canadians have forgotten what happened here, but … the French have not forgotten!
As part of Operation Overlord, parachute and glider assaults were made in several inland areas in Normandy. During the fighting that followed, many Allied soldiers were captured. A number of the Canadians were held at the Abbeye d’Ardenne, near Caen, by a unit of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend. When ordered to withdraw, 20 Canadian soldiers were massacred in a garden of the abbey by members of the 12th Panzer Division. In the days and weeks following the D-Day landings, during the Normandy Campaign, an estimated 156 Canadian prisoners of war are believed to have been executed by the 12th SS Panzer Division. The commanding officer of the Nazi unit was eventually captured and tried for war crimes.
You can read more about the massacre of these Canadian soldiers at Abbeye d’Ardenne.
As the end of the ride approached, we arrived at the Normandy beaches where the Allied troops landed. On the 5th, we started off with a visit to the US military cemeteries at Omaha and Utah Beaches. These cemeteries are huge, considering the massive losses that the Americans sustained on Omaha Beach alone. American losses on these beaches are estimated at up to 5,000 killed, wounded or missing. While German losses were not as high, they would not see reinforcement.
Juno Beach would be saved for the 6th of June. Riding towards Gold Beach, one of the British beaches, I met up with several British soldiers and got into conversation with them. I didn’t notice that my ride group had taken off without me. Trying to catch up, I took a wrong turn and ended up on a hill at an open-air museum overlooking the town of Arromanches and Gold Beach. Misadventures like that often tend to reap great rewards. Such was the case here.
While wandering through the museum, I came upon the statue of an elderly British veteran, Bill Pendrell, MM, sitting in quiet contemplation, overlooking the beach at Arromanches where he had landed 75 years earlier. I could see in Bill’s eyes the struggle that he was facing as he tried to remember the events of that day. Looking around, I saw several other statues in the garden, created by the artist, John Everiss, that seemed to reconstruct Bill’s fading memories.
This garden was very emotional. Without a doubt, this was one of the high points of the trip for me.
The 6th of June, 2019, 75 years after the Operation Overlord landings dawned cool and damp. Notwithstanding the weather, there was an eagerness among all of the riders to get to the beach was why we had all made the journey. However, it seemed that every politician representing countries that had even contemplated any action on these beaches 75 years previously wanted their photo op on one of the beaches. As a result, road closures and detours kept us away from our objective and truly tested the patience and resourcefulness of our organizers. Eventually we made it to Courseulles-sur-Mer and got to Juno Beach just as the the sun broke out for us.
Travelling with us (but not by bike) was Russell Kaye. An artillery gunner, Kaye had landed on Juno Beach on 6 June 1944, had fought his way through Europe and was eventually repatriated at the end of the war. He had received invitations from the Governor-General, the Prime Minister and the Chief of the Defence Staff to join them for the official ceremony. His response in declining the invitation was simple: “I travelled with these guys, I will hit the beach with these guys.”
At the age of 95, this was his first trip back to Europe since the war. I can only imagine the memories and images that stormed through his head as he walked onto the beach with us.
After several hours of taking in the significance of the place and the moment, it was time to head out. Last stop would be the Canadian War Cemetery at Bény-sur-Mer. Here 2,044 Canadians killed during the landings at Juno Beach and the Battle of Normandy are buried.
This is also the place where a friend of mine, Bob Harding, was able to pay his last respects to his uncle, Sgt. D. Mills of the Royal Canadian Artillery, who was killed in action on 13 July 1944 just outside of Caen.
I would like to leave this post, much as I started it, with a group picture of the 100 riders and support crew that rode from Dieppe to Juno Beach. As this photo was taken, an impromptu singing of our National Anthem, Oh Canada broke out. Most of us were either serving military or veterans. It was clear that the significance of this place, this date and what had been accomplished here 75 years previously was having an impact on all of us. As we sang, I could hear voices cracking with emotion to my right, then to my left then as people began to regain their composure the singing became stronger. Never again will I hear Oh Canada sung without remembering that moment on that beach where so much Canadian blood had been spilled.
Honour the Fallen; Help the Living.