BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS

PANDEMIC D-DAY

June 05, 2020 Dana Lewis Season 1 Episode 8
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
PANDEMIC D-DAY
Chapters
BACK STORY with DANA LEWIS
PANDEMIC D-DAY
Jun 05, 2020 Season 1 Episode 8
Dana Lewis

2020, in the middle of lockdowns from a pandemic, how do we remember one of the greatest battles of WW2?   The D-Day Normandy Invasion led by soldiers which included Canadian Troops storming Juno Beach.   Heroic, sacrifice, and victory on the long road to Berlin.  

We speak to Author/Historian David O'Keefe and 95 yr old veteran of the Winnipeg Rifles, Jim Parks. 


Show Notes Transcript

2020, in the middle of lockdowns from a pandemic, how do we remember one of the greatest battles of WW2?   The D-Day Normandy Invasion led by soldiers which included Canadian Troops storming Juno Beach.   Heroic, sacrifice, and victory on the long road to Berlin.  

We speak to Author/Historian David O'Keefe and 95 yr old veteran of the Winnipeg Rifles, Jim Parks. 


Speaker 1:

A fleet of more than 4,000 ships put out from England. This was D day.

Speaker 2:

Hi everyone. I'm Dana Lewis and this is backstory 76 years ago, June 6th, 1944. The allies began to take back Europe from Nazi Germany, by risking everything, crossing the English channel to take the bus

Speaker 3:

beaches of Normandy from a Duggin and well-prepared enemy

Speaker 1:

barges approached Shar ready for instant action, some bearing artillery and rocket guns already opening fire.

Speaker 4:

[inaudible]

Speaker 1:

the armies of the United nations have made their first land things on the soil of Western Europe. Another of the great decisive battles of world history has been joint . This is D day

Speaker 4:

[inaudible]

Speaker 3:

the target, a 50 mile stretch of the Normandy coastline divided into five sectors, Utah, Omaha, gold, Juno and sword, 156,000 American and British and Canadian soldiers fought through a hail of bullets to begin the March to Berlin. I've been to Normandy for D day celebrations and commemorations. There are grim reminders. Those sprawling well kept grave sites of soldiers who died fighting German forces, but to be there on D day is also a remarkable party because every year the French dress up in allied uniforms, like the a hundred and first airborne, 82nd airborne, and raise a toast or 10 to liberation to say, thank you this year in the middle of a pandemic, those veterans still alive. Can't go back and pay their respects. A very different D-Day. So we talked to one Canadian veteran of that brutal fight on Juno beach 76 years ago. All right, joining me now is Jim parks, who was a 95 year old. And he was a member of the Canadian Royal Winnipeg rifles who landed on D day. And he joins me now from very close to Toronto Canada, and in Montreal meet David O'Keefe , who is a Canadian war historian, the author of one day in August and his latest book, seven days in hell, very detailed, extremely well reviewed. You've got to read it, Jim, if I can start with you, how are you? First of all, it's been a very tough few months for everybody because of COVID-19 not doing her any good. It's a way from Toronto area. So, you know, some people Jim have compared this pandemic to war, it surely doesn't compare to what you've been through 76 years ago. When you ended up back at it, it's a really unique time in it . You don't re you don't forget. A lot of the incidents have happened. You've been , you've been to Normandy. You've been to Normandy. I've been about four or five times last year. Yeah . This may be more of the most quiet D-Day anniversaries ever, because most people can not travel and they can't get there. I guess that's kind of a sad thing when you're trying to keep this in everybody's memory, isn't it?

Speaker 5:

Yeah. It's very easy for me to find a place for relented because the river is right there, the sills river and we a B company landed just a station to it and I was attached to be company going in. So when I go down to the beach nights , I said , well, there's a, there's a Juno beach center and it's right , right in front of the Winnipeg rifles, B company beach,

Speaker 3:

will you lead me through that day? And what you, what you heard, what you saw that morning?

Speaker 5:

Well, actually I was with the , we were on a landing craft tank. We had to , we had a mortar, we had our three inch mortars and we were supposed to go in, but because they had armored bulldozers on the LCT and they had big grappling hooks and two sappers with each, we teach it these bulldozers and everyone to drop off first. And they were to drag these obstacles out of the water to allow the landing craft itself , to come in. But however, the boat itself, if we're on the left front, it hits something pretty badly explosion. And the , uh , there was a sailor there. He was supposed to wind down the ramp and he had a difficult time because he was a pretty well shot up, like, you know , um , so somebody had to help him. And , uh , we got down and the first bulldozer they off . Okay . And our first martyr carrier got off, but the water is too deep and it's sunk . And our Sergeant said, we can't go in there because you have to get in closer to shore. But they said, no, you have to get off now. So they dropped us off. And of course we sank too . And so we had to just swimmer away in knowing ahead of time that we were going to go under the water. I made sure it didn't have any equipment on the rest of it . We should dump your equipment off the driver. He just, as soon as he got off the ramp, he jumped up onto the top of the carrier. And then he went down with us and we all had to swim into shore. So

Speaker 3:

David will you, will you set the scene a little bit that day? I mean, there's 14,000 Canadians landing. I've talked to American soldiers who landed that day. And a lot of them tell similar stories to Jim that they were off these carriers way before the beach. Some of them carrying a hundred pound packs, a lot of them, I mean, many of them drowned. And the idea that you just got off that with all your gear and mortars and swam to shore, Jim makes it sound easy. It wasn't easy. And I think that's probably Jim's modesty all these years later, still coming through. And that's very typical of a lot of the veterans from that time. They'll tell you about that. And they'll talk , they'll, they'll tend to downplay what it was that they went through. But without a doubt, I mean, what the Canadians experienced at Juno beach in many ways is quite similar to what the Americans experienced in Omaha. Even though didn't have to go up the Bluffs, the fire was incredibly intense and of course, you know, amphibious operations, and this was the largest one ever attempted are fraught with, you know , the possibility of disaster and glitches. And of course, what Jim is experiencing is exactly, or what he experienced was exactly what a lot of people experience that once you know, that the plan is made, as soon as first contact is made, everything goes out the window and you're living by your wits and you're living by your training. And so as a result, there was a lot of rough weather that day by me , didn't go according to plan. So really it all came down to men like Jim , um, you know, who had to basically think their way and fight their way on shore, particularly in horrific situations like this horrific, horrific, indeed, Jim, you know, some other veterans, and maybe you can reinforce this for me, told me that when they were briefed on what they would expect when they got to the beach, they were told that, you know , the allies had carried out their bombing and they had softened up the German positions. And when they got there, it was anything but that

Speaker 5:

it's true because the , uh, we were told about the American bombers us air force farmers would be blowing up on me to get a strip of beach where all the , uh , Holly casements were and peel boxes and the shelling would , uh, that would, that would blast it pretty badly. But the far as I know, that they were still pretty, pretty solid when we went in and there was still a lot of mortar fired and just a lot of , uh , being on a sand. I know we had , we had a few , uh , we had a few bombs, land mortar , ground land arrows , but because of the, of the sand that helped , uh , what you call a smothered explosions chap , cause it was mostly mortar bombs . We didn't get the ADH because he'd be there, the air Burj today. Can you describe the, smell, the sound, what you saw? I mean, the mayhem on that beach Khomeini, I swallowed a lot of water and I , my main thing, I was worried about drowning, flailing away, and I got my way to shore and we're mixed up with B company. Somebody hit , one else has to be by on my left shoulder and the wake. And it forced me under the water on the way in and finally got in. And I plopped down beside this one , one of the rifleman was layered and it turned out to be the guy. I know, I know his name was corporal scape. So somebody from Saskatchewan and I'll getting rid of this Tuesday, I always think about corporal scape , whatever. Talk about the landing . I always talk about when I get the beach plopped down for protection and I think it will , he's plopping down. I better plop down too , but he was actually mortally wounded. So while I was there, I took us up. He a Sten gun, I took a Sten gun and I rolled him over and under the small pack because I lost all my stuff. Why our carrier order carry, it, went down to the water. So we lost everything. So I had a small pack and I had a stand gun. So that's what I had a lot of commotion going on. And we knew that our tune commander be shortened folks and land about two minutes behind us. Sure enough, he landed where he supposed to land. Right. But we were so , uh , I ended up going in inland with him, fast to beat it. Wasn't set for a snack sniper fire. There wasn't much happening, sort of quiet. You know what I mean? There wasn't any, we weren't getting shelled or nothing. And we ended up going to a small village about seven , eight miles inland, please call it dope. And it was quiet the first night , then the Germans put their counter attack in the , the next day. But just prior to the attack, I was sent along with a corporal Charlie company and the , uh, the RSM Austin, Mickey Austin, Chicano to the battalion headquarters because I wasn't with a mortar crew and we had no mortars and he sent us out. He says, he told us to quiet down that Bush, in other words, go over there and spray it. So we went over and sprayed it with , uh, with our , uh , our Sten guns, just to quiet down. And when you ended up back in the meanwhile where we were getting, this was on June the eighth, that's the day where you're overrun buddy SS. So 12 to assess

Speaker 3:

what Jim is referring to is perhaps one of the greatest feats of bravery and courage by any Canadians at any time in the history of warfare. Again, his modesty is showing. Um, and one of the things we tend to look at Normandy, and we think about June six , we get on shore June 6th and somehow the war is over well, that's not necessarily how it went. As a matter of fact, the allies knew quite well that the Germans would attempt to throw them back into the seat . So what Jim is referencing now was a whole, Noray a defensive perimeter that the Canadians threw up very quickly , uh, along , uh, an area they just called the Oak line. And basically they hung on against Savage counter attacks by the 12th SS, the Hitler youth Panzer division, who were well and sure as Jim can tell you , um, they were ruthless and they were fanatical, but at the end of the day, his unit and the rest of seventh brigade were able to hold on and provided one of the greatest victories and most pivotal victories in all of the Normandy landings. It's an incredible story. And I think David, you know, so many people don't realize that. I mean, Normandy and D day was D day was the tip of the spear. It was the first few steps, but just that battle through Normandy, what went on almost three months. Yeah, it did. It stretched on for another 90 days and the fighting and Normandy. And I'm sure Jim can attest to, this was something that would have rivaled that you would have seen on the Western front, in world war one. Um, you have attritional battles. Um, you know, success was measured for a time and feet and yards, not miles. Um, it was a bloody bloody campaign that took a massive toll, particularly on Canadian infantry. And, you know, Jim , uh , as far as I know , um, was able to make it through Normandy, relatively unscathed. If I'm not mistaken, Jim ,

Speaker 5:

I got to enormity. We had , I got buried in a slip trench and curb . Like I got blown, so Dora , but running for cover also. And I got my foot. So a window in a shell landed red behind me and blew through the window, which touch and go there all the time. And our first , uh , our first look at the German soldier, we ran a 12 SS. They were, they were well equipped and they were the , if you think about they're fully camouflage, they had the steel helmet on and they had the binder Cline and squares hanging down in front of the phrase to break the outline of their face. And her face was camouflage . And I had a very close look up because when I told to go Sue this Bush and we are with the torque C company, we've heard this talking and we thought it was some, our own troops. And we started realized it wasn't the, our own troops with five of the , uh, the 12th SS . So we just kept quiet until they went by because , uh , you know , five against two. And , uh, they had better weapons. [inaudible] after about two minutes, we went out and followed along where they were a lot of people

Speaker 3:

that Utah and Omaha they've heard those stories. What did the Canadians face on Juno was? The German defenses were complete all along the Normandy beach. They faced as, as bad as any of the troops did on lending thing. Yeah, generally speaking, I mean, most of the way that the Atlantic wall was constructed was a series of strong points and the strong points were erected at areas that were obvious for landing. And of course there's only certain types of terrain that you can actually land in. So this was one of the things that the Canadians had to face. And as I mentioned before, with the exception of the escarpment, it was essentially the same type of defense that the Canadian DNS meant that the Americans did at Omaha beach. So you're talking about, you know , pillboxes and concentric fields all with forward observation officers upfront to call in heavy artillery to call in mortars, as I was mentioning. And , and of course, you know, way in the background, getting ready to launch their counter attacks or the mobile pens or divisions that are going to allow the allies a little bit of, you know, a little bit of a , of a footing. And then they're going to slam right into them. That was their idea to push them back into the seat. So, you know, you are experiencing, or Jim experienced some of the toughest fighting that you would have in the second world war on any battlefield, just in those opening, 48 hours of Normandy . Jim, how do you reflect back today with all of the, it's a crazy world right now? And there's a lot of division. How do you reflect back? I mean, lessons learned all these years later, should we be a little more United right now? Oh yeah. That's what you call it stormy. She's going now. And we're just hoping that the old saying the Shafter stormy, she used come calm water. So I'm trying to look ahead. And one of my old television colleagues told me that, you know, describe you guys as the greatest generation. And there's a series of books now that have been written along that line. None of them are as good as David's, but there's a number of books that have written on the greatest generation. Do you think this generation has got to wake up and learn something from maybe the true grid of yours?

Speaker 5:

Would I be doing? I go on and I talk to groups in schools. It helps put my point across. And when it's all over with hanging around for, we have to get chased out of the school because we're hanging around there . They're wanting their questions so much. They're so very much interested in what's going on. And I, and I , I do the best I can and I try to rank it. I try to include names of people that are no longer with us. Like I talk about corporal scape on the beach that was killed on the beach for Martin. He got dragged him out of the water and he , he was mortally wounded and he died in my brother's arms right next to me. And I try to keep mentioning these names, you know, to people who were longer with us. And another chapter went to school with me. And June the eighth ago, the guy called Billy Hood. He was captured, he was one of the groups. So 56 who were murdered by the USS on June the eighth, which was a real tough call because we not only lost quite a few people on the beach . Our unit lost about 160 on of each, roughly the night of the seventh. And on the eighth, we all had reinforcements come in and they, they spread them around the trench and we had only two and a trench and it popped another guy in a trench with us and made it too crowded. So we had , we hastily got out of the trench and help them dig another, dig , more trenches. You try to get straight men in a trench that's six feet wide and there's not, you know , try to make it deep enough to keep it with a pair of foot to keep you safe from any shrapnel or any machine gun fire.

Speaker 3:

I think some of, some of David O'Keeffe's writing , uh , but by the reviews is , is so incredibly detailed. Some of the veterans have talked about having trouble getting through those pages, because it really does take you back to some of the trenches and the artillery fire, which was so intense as you made your way through France, hold air carry. If I were bad enough, I could say I got blown into the window.

Speaker 5:

We had our trencher, the shell landed right on the , uh , the pear pit and it blew all the earth. And on top of you lost

Speaker 3:

your hearing a bit. I had mine, I got back to the rap about two days later. Cause I still couldn't hear that. Well, they said, well , it'll keep coming back. So mostly it did come back, David, if I can just put it over to you to kind of wrap this up. I mean, it's, I've been to Normandy and I know , uh , but both of you have any , it is not a sad celebration in total because it was also D day was about liberation and the French celebrate that there's a very big party that goes on behind some of these very dignified , uh , ceremonies. And it's, it makes me sad that this year, most people will not be able to go to Normandy and observe at any of these re remembrance days because of COVID-19. I mean, it's a tough one. Yeah, it is. And I think, you know, thank God we have the kind of technology that we do today. I mean, look what we're doing. And , um , I've been contacted by a lot of people who are in the area , uh , local tour guides and they're planning to do a lot of virtual , um, virtual tours. So literally instead of having a few hundred people tune in, you can have the entire world tune in now. So at first, although you would think it would be very Solomon lonely, you can realize that there'd be potentially millions of people tuning in on June 6th, then for the other anniversary is coming up, which I think is absolutely remarkable that we're able to do something like this, given everything that's unfolding in the world right now. Alright . Jim parks, a member of the Canadian Royal Winnipeg rifles who landed on D day. It's an honor to talk to you, sir. Thank you very much. And David O'Keeffe , you're a great historian and the two books again, one day in August and his latest book, seven days in hell. Sounds like a great read. Thank you so much. Both of you. That's seven days in hell book. If you want to find out what it was, like, just read that book and you must have , I almost tell he must've been an entrenched with me some times , so thank you both again. Well, thank you. Thank you very much. And that's backstory for D day 2020. I'm Dana Lewis. We honor the brave who fought

Speaker 2:

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Speaker 4:

[inaudible] .