National News

Canadian vets recall D-Day valour and horror

By Murray Brewster, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - When the green light came on, Lance Cpl. John Ross tumbled through the hatch in the belly of a lumbering Albemarle, the Royal Air Force's transport workhorse, and disappeared into the muggy, cloud-ripped darkness.

Landing safely was the only thing on his mind as descended into the black, pastoral stillness of Normandy.

His parachute opened and the closer he got to the ground the only sound was the mooing of a spooked cow somewhere in the distance. He wrestled his kit bag into place below him just before spilling on to a bed of thick, cool grass.

"At that time, you're not worried about the fact you're in a war, or anything at all," Ross said of his "lucky" 13th parachute jump.

"I was a little nervous when my feet touched the ground, thinking somebody was going to shoot at me, but there was nobody there."

The date was June 6, 1944 — D-Day.

Ross, a 23-year-old army signaller, was among the first Canadians to touch the ground in one of the most storied battles of the Second World War.

He landed perilously close to the flooded marshes near the Dives River — at the eastern edge of the D-Day beaches — where a number of men ended up drowning before seeing battle. Ross was part of the vanguard of the British 6th Airborne Division's spectacular assault on Pegasus Bridge, a hulking, iron lift-bridge across the Caen Canal.

Charlie Company of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was assigned the task of clearing the drop zone ahead of the main force, assaulting a nearby fortified German position and eventually blowing up five bridges across the Dives in order to prevent a counterattack.

After an all-night battle for one position, 42 Germans surrendered.

Now living in Lethbridge, Alta., Ross, 93, is one of only two surviving members of the regiment and will be in Normandy on Friday to remember the historic battle that was a turning point of the war and led to the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany.

"Everybody got hit in some sort of way," he said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "Everybody was wounded in one way or another, whether physically or mentally. There were no escapees."

The memories remain raw, despite seven decades.

Post-traumatic stress, so much a part of the post-Afghan war discussion, is not how Ross chooses to describe the waves of emotion that occasionally grip him, especially when he talks to school groups.

"Every once in a while, I'll start to cry, and I have absolutely no control," said Ross, who had a long career in the military, and continued to skydive until he was 80.

The airborne assault paved the way for the landings of a much larger force of U.S., British and Canadian troops, including the 3rd Canadian Division at Juno Beach in the vicinity of Courseulles, France.

As dawn approached, Allied air forces pounded the coastline in a display Ross would never forget because "every time one of those bombs landed you could feel the ground jump under your feet. So, they must have been pretty damn, big bombs."

Former leading aircraftsman Larry Wulff, originally from Sudbury, Ont., said he and everyone else at RCAF No. 6 Group — Bomber — knew something was up the day before the landings when they were confined to station at Allerton Park, Yorshire.

It was his job to load those bombs on Halifax and Wellington bombers. Without even being told, they knew the invasion was underway because the big planes, which usually flew deep into Germany at night, were given less fuel and lighter loads — meaning they weren't going very far.

There was only one thing on his mind as he secured the 226-kilogram bombs into their bays.

"I thought about how many widows and orphans I helped to create underneath all those bombs that landed on villages, roads and railways in Normandy," Wulff said in an interview.

"At the same time, I had a great sympathy for all those poor buggers, who were struggling through the water to get up on to the beaches and the safety of the shore."

That sort of grim meditation best captured Cyril Roach's mood as his tank landing ship — LST 304 — approached the churning surf of Juno Beach, where the Canadians were to come ashore and where 359 troops died on D-Day.

As the Royal Navy ship's engineer, Roach spent the stormy night leading up to the assault making sure elevators that moved men and armoured vehicles between decks operated seamlessly.

He chatted with troops, but the conversation faded with the thunder of battleship and cruiser guns. The first sight of the beach took his breath away as they followed the initial assault wave.

"The first thought that went through my mind was: Whose mother's sons died today? And for what?" Roach said, choking up at the memory.

"It was bedlam. It was hell. And the youth — I was only 20 — were being slaughtered."

The Germans would train their big guns — 88 millimetres — on the landing ship. One shell landed so close that it blew Roach against a bulkhead, leaving him dazed and wounded.

The landing ship was eventually loaded with wounded for evacuation to England. Roach watched four soldiers pass away on the return trip.

With sun up and the battle fully underway, Canadian paratroopers dug in at the strategically important Bavent ridge, which had a commanding view of the countryside.

They were supposed to be there for three days. But Ross said "the Germans changed the plan" and his unit was pinned down until almost the end August when the Wehrmacht finally retreated en masse following the Allied breakout from Normandy.

The Canadians stood their ground in the face of repeated German armoured counterattacks, which attempted to bulldoze into the beach head.

The most furious battle took place a few days after D-Day when there were only 45 men left in Ross's company to stand in the way.

He said it seemed like every Allied gun in Normandy — including the cruiser HMS Arethusa — opened fire to help drive back the assault.

Ross suffered a concussion from a shell burst, but never left his position. There were times in the days afterward when he was so sick and dizzy he couldn't get his own meals, or even light a cigarette.

His buddies did it for him; a warm, grateful memory that even the passage of 70 years has failed to dull.

"We looked after each other as well; really looked after each other," he said. "We were a gentlemanly array of toughs — or a bunch of tough gentlemen."

Throughout the long Normandy campaign, "an awful lot of good fellas were killed," including 24 officers and 343 men in the parachute regiment.

Troops tried not to dwell on the death and danger, but would often swap stories about their close calls, like the time Ross was sheltered behind an exposed tree root that a German machine gun was methodically turning to pulp before one of his fellow paratroopers "took care" of the problem.

It's a miracle he survived, and when he looks back over his long life, Ross simply shrugs and smiles.

"For the most part, I'm just a happy-go-lucky old fella who is still here."

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