Ted Barris, |
Juno: Canadians at D-Day
(Thomas Allen & Sons, 2004)
It's fitting that I write this review on June 6, 60 years to the day after one of the greatest invasions of our, or any other, time. June 6 is, of course, D-Day, the day when the Allies put 130,000 troops onto the shores of Normandy against the withering fire of a firmly entrenched German army. No one who wasn't there can truly imagine the horrors of that day, the courage involved or the determination that resulted in the final Allied victory, the first of many to come before Hitler's war machine was finally destroyed for good. Five beaches were stormed that day: Omaha and Utah by the Americans, Sword and Gold by the British, and Juno by the Canadians. Often, the Canadians are bunched together with the British and thus do not get the recognition that they so deserved. Roughly 15,000 Canadians put ashore that day. Almost 1,000 were casualties by the end of the day. Juno: Canadians at D-Day, by Ted Barris, is their story, finally out in the open.
We were not there, so we cannot imagine the terror or the will to get past that terror as bullets ricochet around us. Barris does the next best thing, however, and talks to the people who were there. Juno is nothing but remembrances either given to the author by those who were there or culled from their diaries. Each chapter is divided into sections where the events are told by one man or another, time-stamped to give the reader an idea of when these events took place. This technique does give the book a scattershot feel that isn't always the easiest to follow, as Barris jumps around both in time and space, from 6 o'clock that morning to midnight the night before, from the beach to the villages where the paratroopers dropped, and even back to England where we get the air crews' stories.
Barris covers everything, from some French villagers to the crew of minesweepers responsible for clearing a path through the minefields and onto the beach. Yes, it is disjointed, but it also adds to the personal feel of reminiscence that the book gives. Normally, I don't like disjointed narratives, but this was an exception. It kept me captivated, and each section was brief enough that it didn't wear out its welcome before moving on to something else. Barris returns periodically to some of the men, so the book does not gloss over their stories. It just tells them in its own way, like veterans passing war stories around the table.
Given the way the Canadian story is often glossed over, the book shares many facts that aren't necessarily common knowledge. The Canadian troops were responsible for the deepest penetration by the end of the first day ashore. A company of Canadian paratroopers dropped with the British and were responsible for destroying every bridge that they had set out to destroy in order to slow down any German counterattack. And one of the most famous pieces of newsreel footage from the invasion was shot by a Canadian, Sgt. Bill Grant. He had his camera rolling as the landing ramp crashed down and the troops jumped into the water. It was shown in movie houses in Britain, Canada and the United States, though sadly in the U.S. it was never stated that these were Canadian troops being shown. Barris has provided quite a service by highlighting a part of this day that never makes it into the spotlight.
This is not to say that the book doesn't have its faults, however. Barris spends a bit too much time talking about the journalists involved, bringing the story back home. While their role was important, I think Barris gives them more time to the detriment of other stories that could have been told. He even quotes one journalist complaining about how other journalists make too much of the story about themselves, how much hardship they had to go through to get the story, instead of giving the story of the troops on the line. I wish Barris had taken that a little more to heart.
There are two things included in the book that really make me sing its praises. The first is a section from the point of view of the "service guys." These are the men who were responsible for logistics, for keeping the army moving as efficiently as possible. While they were never on the front lines (they did occasionally get shelled, however), they did their job with aplomb. It's nice to see some recognition for the little guys.
Secondly, the final chapter tells the story of the Juno memorial, dedicated on June 6, 2003. A lot of time and effort was made by both veterans and their families to get this memorial built on land donated by the village of Courseulles-sur-Mer, which is right behind Juno. Commemorative bricks were sold to raise money as the cost swiftly rose from several hundred thousand dollars to $11 million. They succeeded, and Barris details not only their efforts, but the results of those efforts. The commemoration ceremony on that day was very touching, and I have to admit that I had tears in my eyes as I finally laid the book down.
Barris has succeeded in his aim to personalize the Canadian story of D-Day. Even if you think you're familiar with what happened on that fateful day, you owe it to yourself to pick this book up.