Exploring the Indelible Marks Canada Left on France on D-Day and Beyond

There’s a feeling of familiarity as we load our bags into our temporary family truckster – like a little taste of home while travelling abroad.


After all, the Toyota RAV4 is about as common as a seasonal cold where we come from, making this cocoon of Canadiana an especially nice touch in this faraway land. What we’re doing here could certainly use a dose of comfort, although the unexpected sunshine is helping matters, too.


While a trip to France for its wines, cheeses, and river tours is fine, paying respect to the sacrifices of those who fought here eight decades ago is the kind of pilgrimage that any Canadian with the means should make – although it’s far from the only one to be sure.


Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom as we make our way northwest from the suburbs of Paris towards Normandy, nor should it be. Instead, it’s respectfully sombre, with the next day’s destination looming large in our hearts and minds, and on the shores that lie ahead.


First Stop, Juno

While the RAV4 looks and feels a little larger than it actually is on these narrow roads, it’s not what many would consider a big crossover – not even in this part of the world. Even so, there’s plenty of room inside for four adults and two weeks’ worth of luggage.


The first stop on our journey is Courseulles-sur-Mer, a small coastal retreat north of Caen. It’s the kind of place Parisians might come to spend summer weekends, with a quaintness that’s especially appreciable during this low-season visit.


Significant to our trip is the eight-kilometre stretch of sand directly west of the river Seulles that divides the town in two. This otherwise anonymous strip of coastline will forever be remembered by its Allied code name: Juno Beach.



Our evening arrival leaves little time to take in these hallowed grounds, but an early morning jog lays bare the magnitude of this place. The serenity of running behind the sand dunes is overshadowed by the barren space just beyond them. Even without the obstacles and obstructions that once littered the beach, I’m distracted by the sheer vulnerability that would have faced the thousands of Canadians who landed here on June 6, 1944.


The literal and figurative sands of time have changed this place forever, and yet it doesn’t take much imagination to visualize just how defenceless those troops were in the early morning hours of D-Day. There’s a magnetism about this place that’s simultaneously pushing and pulling as I make my way along what was once a significant beachhead in the Allied bid to take back Europe.


It’s also one that saw heavy losses during the Canadian advance, which is tough to ignore. I so desperately want to be here, and yet I can’t wait to escape this moment – a luxury that wasn’t afforded to my forebears who landed all those years ago. And so I push on to the neighbouring town of Bernières-sur-Mer, home to the so-called Canada House that acts as a relic of what happened here 80 years ago.


As the story goes, the Norman-style house was occupied by the Germans in 1943 before being liberated the following year. According to the owners, it was the first building in town to be freed on D-Day by The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, with the privately owned house itself standing in recognition of the country’s longest-serving infantry regiment – a living tribute to what was accomplished here.


I head back along the main road connecting the two towns, returning to Courseulles-sur-Mer, where the street signs tell of the significance of D-Day all these years later. Names like Avenue de la Libération and Place du Six Juin are permanent markers memorializing the Allied triumph.


Where the latter of those streets intersects Quai des Alliés stands a tank with an interesting story of its own. The duplex drive variant of the M4 Sherman was one of 18 the First Hussars armoured division attempted to bring ashore that morning. This very unit, standing barely 30 metres from one of the German anti-tank guns it would have been up against that morning, was recovered from the English Channel in 1970 and placed as a permanent monument to D-Day’s Canadian heroes.


On To Dieppe

Before making our way along the coast and through the countryside towards the next destination we stop at the Juno Beach Centre, where that sense of defencelessness rears its head once again. This time it’s during tours of the remains of two German bunkers that once made up the fearsome Atlantic Wall where the feeling returns – like a haunting sense of doom and despair that lingers in these musty concrete passageways.


The museum itself paints an honest, heart-wrenching picture, starting with a video recreation of the type of landing craft that carried roughly 14,000 Canadians – and another 7,000 British troops – to shore here that morning. It’s a stark reminder of their bravery as they stepped out into the sheer hell that greeted them.


We load back into the RAV4, with our destination a couple hours away in Dieppe. The Canadian connections there are just as deep as those in Courseulles-sur-Mer, although the first brush with this city during the war was widely considered a disaster.


The drive spans more than 200 km, first tracing alongside Sword Beach – one of two British landing zones on D-Day that flanked Juno Beach – before cutting across the Canal de Caen à la Mer (literally the canal from Caen to the sea) and through the countryside. It’s sobering just to be here – driving on these narrow roads boxed in by tall stone walls and tightly packed buildings. They’re barely wider than the RAV4, often leaving little room on either side to get through. It’s hard not to think of the fear that must have gripped those Canadian soldiers as they made their advances, wondering where the enemy might be.


It was some two years before D-Day, on Aug. 19, 1942, that some 6,000 Allied troops – of which nearly 5,000 were Canadian – arrived in the French port city of Dieppe to heavy German fire. Operation Jubilee, as it was known, was doomed from the start. Without adequate air and naval support, and well positioned German troops awaiting them, the landing forces were up against an insurmountable task.


Walking along the rocky shores here, it’s hard to imagine attempting to mount an attack from a beach made of rocks, some the size of baseballs, on a heavily fortified city surrounded by cliffs. Less than half of the Canadians who landed here that August day made it back across the channel, with the rest captured or killed.



Near a small museum in an old theatre dedicated to the Dieppe raid is Square du Canada, a tranquil park that lies in the shadows of a hilltop medieval castle. With a view of the park from the window of our hotel room, I watch a steady stream of visitors – some on foot, others arriving by bus – come to pay their respects. It’s a heartwarming farewell to this town that perhaps isn’t talked about with the same regard as the D-Day landing zones further down the coast, but what happened here undoubtedly impacted what happened on Juno Beach and beyond.

Final Thoughts

There’s something almost poetic about driving through a country once occupied by Germany that was liberated in part by Canadians in the Japanese-made version of the best-selling vehicle in Canada that isn’t a pickup truck. It’s the sort of experience even the most imaginative mind would struggle to conjure up.

It tells of how much has changed in the 80 years since D-Day – of the decisions that have been forgiven, but should never be forgotten.