On Friday, July 7, 2017, the Gregg Centre Command Team and Advance Party landed at Charles De Gaulle Airport Paris in the morning after overnight flights from Fredricton, Toronto and Montreal. It was clear who can and who cannot sleep on a plane. After securing the 4 Patrol Cars (aka negotiating the tricky business of the peculiar system of van rentals at Charles DeGaulle), the team climbed into the 9 Passenger and pushed north towards Calais. Thus began 2 days of Bunker Bashing but no real spelunking as “privé” signs impeded the advance routes in some cases, where we wanted to penetrate hidden positions. Aggressive patrolling in true Canadian fashion prevailed however and several less well protected positions were seen.
One of the primary general observations was that the Germans spared no amount of concrete in building the Atlantic wall. Fortress positions, even years later, show solid all-round defensive positions with interlocking arcs of fire and heavy guns covering key ports and landing positions. Concrete walls are 3 meters thick with steel reinforcing. 34 mm Machine Guns, a dreaded killing machine, covered approaches with 88s and 75s keenly located. Both were placed deep in bunkers, high on hills, and cozy behind wire. Clearly, the Germans had learned from the consequences of Dieppe, realizing that their coastal defences were too easily seen by aerial reconnassance and thus if they were going to have defences that could been seen, they had to be resistant to shelling and bombing. Thicker, deeper and more interlocked by underground tunnels became the plan. In other locations, camouflage was the key. To this they also added immense rail guns that were capable of shifting positions by rail. It is clear that the Germans believed that if there was to be an invasion, it would come here, on the Pas-de-Calais coast, and that they would be ready for it. The Germans were not with simple defensive action, so their huge guns blasted Dover 30 kilometres across the English Channel. To those who would argue that the Canadians underperformed, come look at what they overcame and then decide.
At Mont Lambert, to the east or behind Boulogne-sur-Mer, all of this German preparation came to naught as the Canadian 3rd Division pulled off one of the most ingenious deception and flanking moves of the campaign. There, Brigadier Rockingham pulled every cook, driver, and bottle washer together south of Boulogne, and well ahead of Monty Python dreaming it up in a skit, “Rocky" instructed them to make “battle noises” to deceive the German Defenders into believing the Canadians were coming straight at them up the coast. Meanwhile, in the low ground to the east, the real attack was sneaking around to take the position from behind. Even more cunningly, the assault went in first on to the Headquarters, which sat like a castle-keep in the midst of the defensive cordon on the heights overlooking the town. The bastion was well defended with concrete, guns, machine guns in pill boxes and wire but it fell to a lighting strike. In short, the Canadians snuck up behind and cut the head off the enemy throwing their gun positions into disarray. Whilst the Germans floundered through lack of communication, the Canadians ignored the rest of the defences and raced through the town, down one road, flail tanks in the lead to seize the Port intact and to open a critical resupply route.
At the Castle-Keep, the Kangaroos and Crocodiles had rode up onto the objective crushing wire behind a bomber attack imitating a rolling barrage. The infantry had scrambled out on top of the objective to stun the defenders while the flame from the Crocodiles chased the Germans from their concrete lairs. Although, the German Commander had fled to the south, he only eluded capture for hours as the pursuit soon found him. While it is true that it took 4 days to finally clear the town, the critics overlook that the it was won in house to house fighting which takes place in advances of feet not miles. More importantly, in the early going, the key strategic guns has been silenced and the strategic port seized in a coup de main. Deception and dash had won the day and resulted in the Canadians receiving a special thanks from the Mayor of Dover, who had been long harassed by the guns. This is a story that armed with an undergraduate degree and interest in history and a brief time as an army officer that I did not know. This is a story that Canadians should rightly know. It is a story that the Americans would have long ago made a movie about, with the cooks taking a comic turn and a Hollywood Icon playing Rocky.
For follow on forces, the Musee Du Mir de L’Atlantique is a must, with its Batterie Todt that once housed a 380mm coastal gun and the K5 Railway gun with a just slightly less impressive 280mm gun. See www.batterietodt.com
Not all the first day and a half were spent in Bunkers. Saturday morning, after having been awakened by the Roosters in the farm we were staying it, and feasted on the eggs from the hens that roamed beneath our windows, we started the day with a sombre moment at the Canadian Cemetery at Calais. We were struck, as always, by the sadness of the sacrifice made for our freedoms. A sacrifice made more painful by the discovery of brothers laid side by side, having died within days of each other. (JOEL – DO WE REMEMBER THEIR NAMES?) We imagined their poor parents as they were visited either once or in short succession to hear of their sons deaths. There would be no Saving Private Ryan for the Kennedy brothers from Galt, Ontario. In addition, there are numerous Polish and Czech graves, identifying the sacrifice that these homeless people made in the attempt to liberate their homelands far behind the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately, for them and their fellows, their homelands would be liberated from the Germans only to fall under the sway of the Soviet Union. Fortunately for Canada, many of their countryman chose to make Canada their home after the war and continue to contribute to the rich fabric of our nation.
Later, after we had explored bunkers and the Museum, and as we broiled under the Calais sun, we came to the Commonwealth Cemetery at ___________. This cemetery is most famous for the grave of Doctor, soldier, and poet, John McCrae, who gave us In Flanders Fields. There he lay amongst some of the patients he had struggled to save in the hospital set up nearby. As was the practice then, the dead were buried in a extension to an already existing civilian cemetery, which presents a interesting contrast between family tombs and the sombre soldiers headstones, which here unusually, lay flat. McCrae is but one of the many commonwealth and German Graves, because the hospitals treated prisoners as well, and it struck us how these hospital cemeteries reveal a wide reflection of the units engaged in a particular area.
Night came as it always does, but fortified by the find of a brewery making fine local ales in honour of D-Day, we counted our blessings and thought of those who sacrificed without such a pleasant end to the day. The recognition of Canada’s contribution in the Museum and on the labels of the Ale, made it all the sweeter.