I wanted to talk all about the war, and educate you on the significance of every little thing we saw. My brain is still struggling to process, and there were so many stories, battles, artifacts, places and names - too many for me to recount. So if you need more information on D-Day and the battle that took place at Juno Beach, I know a great History teacher I can refer you to. But for the purpose of this post I am going to simplify it - what we did, what we saw, why it mattered. Our story.
August 31 was our WWII battlefield tour day - focusing on Juno Beach. We had seen quite a bit from WWI, so this was a shift in the types of stories we were telling. WWI was more about trenches and WWII was more about tanks. It was interesting to see the shift in how wars were fought, as evident in the fields (and beaches) we visited. War had changed drastically. Looking back on both it could be too easy to see them as the same - just a first and second war. But the 20+ years in between saw a lot of things change. And these wars were definitly not the same.
We started our morning on the farm - loading the bus with our faithful driver Adri, as we journeyed 45 minutes to the town of Caen. When we arrived it was raining heavily. A few brave souls jumped out of the bus to take a photo of the Caen Memorial (Memorial de Caen). This is a museum, but currently has a large statue out front of a sailor kissing a woman after the war. The statue, 25 feet tall and officially dubbed "Unconditional Surrender" is rather controversial. It was given to Caen as a 70th anniversary gift since the end of the war. It is based on a picture from Life magazine from 1945 off a sailor who kissed a random women as a celebration of the end of the war. This stature was created, because as the American who designed it said "A symbol of peace should include both men and women." However, French feminists want it removed, and have argued that the symbol is actual assault (as coming up and kissing a random woman on the street in France would leave one charged with assault). I didn't realize until reading more about it how controversial this image really is.
It was here in Caen that we picked up our tour guide for the day - Christophe. He was our source of education to all things Juno Beach on this dark, somber, rainy day. The rain did stop shortly after arriving at the beach, but the gray skies never lifted. This didn't bother me though. Somehow a sunny day with locals on the beach would have felt out of place for the war stories we were hearing. The ominous skies were more appropriate, at least in my mind.
We drove from Caen to Courseulles-sur-Mer - one of the towns along the Atlantic Ocean that contains Juno Beach. Juno is 7 km long - much bigger than I had ever imagined, and stretches through many seaside villages. Courseulles-sur-Mer is the village that is home to the Canadian Juno Beach Centre. It was hear that we had our first sight of Juno Beach. We were able to get out of the bus, walk down into the sand, and watch the waves lap against the shore. The sand is silky smooth, and unlike the farm fields full of shrapnel we met in the WWI regions, it looks more like a beach for sand castles than war. Except the the shore line is littered with bunkers all the way down the 7 km beach. Every once and a while you see a large block of cement in the same - evidence of something buried below.
We have an appointment at the Juno Beach Centre. It began with an introductory film, followed by moving through a museum about the Canadian contribution to the war, here on Juno Beach. There were so many video clips, sound clips, articles, posters and artifacts to see - more than we had time for in our 45 minutes. This was one of the things we lamented at the end of the day - feeling rushed through the museum. It was hard to rush, but also hard not to - we only had one day here and there was so much to see!
Our museum visit was followed by a guided tour of the bunkers on the beach. A representative from the Juno Beach Centre took us down below ground to understand how the beach and bunkers were set up in order to both protect themselves, and aid their offensive strategies. The springs from the beds are still attached to the walls, and the floors are as cold and damp as they would have been in 1944. As with our previous battlefield experiences, it is surreal to stand were they have stood. To try and understand what it was like to have been there. Not that much older than the students. Maybe the same age as me. Maybe younger.
After we left the bunkers we headed down to the beach with our Juno Beach Guide, while she told us all about what had happened here. Maybe not ALL. Between her and Christophe my mind is still swimming with information I am trying to piece together. I had always imagined Juno Beach much smaller. Like being able to see from one end to the other. But it wasn't. It went as far as the eye could see in both directions. And then after Juno there was Sword Beach (to the east) and Gold Beach (to the west), with the British Forces. And further west Utah and Omaha beaches, with the Americans. This was not something you could observe in whole from a single watch tower. It was a massive co-ordinated effort. On the 6th of June, 1944, approximately 150,000 troops landed on the beaches in Normandy. By July 4, it was over one million. This is the largest seaborne invasion in history, and the beginning of the Allies reclaiming western Europe from the Nazi's. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it.
(Part 2 of the trip to Juno can be seen here)