Invasion! Canadians and the battle of Normandy, 1944

The Beginning of the End

The D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy opened another front in the war against Germany — an important step towards the Allies’ May 1945 victory in Europe.

On 6 June 1944, Canadian, British, American, and Free French forces landed in Normandy. Canadians, serving in army, navy, air force, and medical units, played key roles throughout the campaign that followed, from 6 June to 21 August 1944.

The Germans had spent years preparing to counter this invasion. The battles for the beaches and beyond were hard-won. Allied victory came through skill and tenacity.

The Canadian War Museum marks the service and sacrifice of these Canadians 80 years later.

Simplified burgundy map of United Kingdom and France, with key locations for Canada during the Normandy campaign. Beige arrow marks route across English Channel from Portsmouth, England, to Juno Beach and other Allied landings in France.

June 1944

Preparation for Battle

June 1944

The Allied invasion of Europe was the most complex amphibious military operation in human history. Some 150,000 soldiers — including almost 15,000 Canadians — would disembark on the beaches of Normandy or land by parachute or glider in nearby areas on 6 June 1944.

Reconnaissance group on a ship before landing

Naval Support

5–6 June 1944

An armada of 6,900 warships, operated by nearly 200,000 sailors, guarded and supported the Allied infantry and armoured forces, and transported them to the landing beaches in Normandy. The naval vessels were protected by thousands of aircraft and barrage balloons.

The Allied armada


6 June 1944

Six Allied divisions landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day. The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, with support from armoured regiments, went ashore under fire and fought its way forward off Juno Beach, advancing more than 11 kilometres inland by the end of the day.

Canadians on Juno Beach

Leading Telegrapher James Grant

James Grant was part of the crew of landing craft LCI(L) 249, which carried British troops to Juno Beach on D-Day. During the action, he used his personal camera to take the photographs seen here.

Grant and other Canadians helped transport Allied reinforcements to France after 6 June. He survived the war and continued to serve in the navy, rising to the rank of captain.

Leading Telegrapher James Grant aboard a ship at Ouistreham, France
Photo Album of Leading Telegrapher James Grant, Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve

Sergeant John P. Downing

Sergeant John Percival Downing, of the 5th Field Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, was killed in combat on D-Day. He died on the beach as he exited his landing craft.

In the aftermath, this telegram was sent to his widow, Mina. Such messages informed hundreds of families across Canada of the death of a son, husband, or father on D-Day.

Portrait of Sergeant John P. Downing
Telegram Sent to Mina I. Downing

Defending the Bridgehead

7–10 June 1944

In the days following 6 June, the Allied forces were vulnerable to a German counterattack that sought to drive them back into the English Channel. The Canadians faced sustained attacks. Despite heavy losses, they held the bridgehead.

Canadian infantry

The Enemy

June 1944

The Canadians fought a series of battles against the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth). The German soldiers were young and heavily indoctrinated, and gained a reputation for killing prisoners after battle. By the end of the Normandy campaign, the 12th SS was annihilated as a fighting unit.

A Canadian soldier (left) and a German prisoner (right)

July 1944

Capturing Caen

8–10 July 1944

The Allies had planned to reach and possibly take Caen on D-Day, but the Germans held it fiercely. After a month-long battle, much of the French city was destroyed. It was finally cleared of Germans in a Canadian and British operation starting on 8 July 1944.

Caen in ruins

Private Arthur Wilkinson and Alta Wilkinson

On 14 June 1944, Arthur Wilkinson wrote his last letter to his mother, Alta. In it, he was aware of the coming danger, which “made [him] realize just what a wonderful family [he had] and what a swell place home was.” He died in Caen just over four weeks later. The letter was found on his body and sent to his grieving mother.

Private Arthur Wilkinson and his mother, Alta Wilkinson, 7 December 1939
Letter from Arthur Wilkinson to Alta Wilkinson, 14 June 1944
Letter from Arthur Wilkinson to Alta Wilkinson and envelope, 14 June 1944

Praying for Survival

July 1944

For soldiers in Normandy, conditions were often uncomfortable, unsanitary, and unnerving. Narrow slit trenches provided some protection against shells and snipers, but casualty rates remained high. Almost everyone turned to a higher power for solace.

Religious service

Air Power

July 1944

By D-Day, much of the German air force had been destroyed. This gave the Allies command of the air throughout the Battle of Normandy. Royal Canadian Air Force fighters roamed the skies, attacking German forces from above, while bombers struck strategic and tactical targets.

Canadian Spitfires take off from a Normandy airfield, around June 1944.

Flight Lieutenant Douglas Sam

Flight Lieutenant Kam Len Douglas Sam served as a rear gunner with the 426th Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force. On 29 June 1944, while on a sortie over France, his Halifax bomber was shot down. For more than two months he avoided capture, working with the French Resistance until Allied troops arrived.

Sam remained in the military postwar. Retiring as a lieutenant-colonel in 1967, he was the most decorated and highest-ranking Chinese Canadian officer in history.

Flight Lieutenant Douglas Sam
Douglas Sam (second from right) and two other RCAF evaders with a French family and Resistance members, summer 1944.

Bloody Battle at Verrières Ridge

25 July 1944

Following their liberation of Caen, Canadian and Allied forces continued to push south. A Canadian operation at Verrières Ridge on 25 July 1944 against well-fortified German units suffered heavy losses and ended in defeat. The Canadians regrouped and continued to drive ahead.

Canadian infantry at Verrières Ridge

August 1944

Saving the Wounded

August 1944

By late August, thousands of Canadian soldiers fighting in Normandy had been wounded or killed. The injured and sick were transported from the front to medical units for surgery and care. This rapid medical intervention saved lives.

British nurses and wounded Canadian soldiers

Nursing Sister Winnie Burwash

Casualties from the Battle of Normandy were treated in France, with more serious cases sent to Britain. Nursing Sister Winnie Burwash wrote that her hospital in England was filled with Normandy soldiers. Though she was working long hours, she knew it was even more intense at the front: “We don’t really mind [the hours] when I think of how hard the [nursing sisters] are working in France.”

Nursing Sister Winnie Burwash
Letter from Winnie Burwash to Della Allen, Marion MacArthur and Bea Trout, 25 July 1944
Letter from Winnie Burwash to Della Allen, Marion MacArthur and Bea Trout; with envelope, 25 July 1944

Lieutenant Barney Danson

In late August 1944, a German rocket launcher warhead fragment severely wounded Barney Danson, a lieutenant in the Queen’s Own Rifles. He sent this telegram to his wife, Isobel, from hospital, downplaying the injuries as a “slight head wound.”

Danson, later Minister of National Defence, was an influential supporter of the Canadian War Museum. His medals are displayed near the entrance of the Museum’s theatre that bears his name.

Lieutenant Barney Danson after being wounded
Telegram from Barney Danson to Isobel Danson, 31 August 1944

Breakout to Victory

8–14 August 1944

In August 1944, Canadian, Polish, and British tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and troops smashed through weakened German formations in two major battles known as Operation Totalize and Operation Tractable. The Germans fought tenaciously, and the Allies progressed slowly.

Armoured operations

Defeating the Germans

21 August 1944

By the second week of August, the German army in Normandy was on the verge of defeat. American, British, Canadian, and Polish forces surrounded tens of thousands of Germans in the Falaise Pocket. An estimated 60,000 Germans were killed or captured by the end of the battle, on 21 August 1944.

Two Canadians with a Nazi flag souvenir, 10 August 1944

Major David V. Currie, VC

Major David Currie led from the front in the bitter and costly battle at Saint-Lambert-sur-Dives, from 18 to 21 August 1944. Holding a key position, Currie’s outnumbered battle group defeated multiple enemy attacks.

Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, commander of the 2nd Canadian Corps, sent this letter of congratulations to Currie after he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his “courageous and effective” leadership during the battle. Currie’s medal set can be seen in Gallery 3 – The Second World War at the Canadian War Museum.

Major David Currie (left, with pistol in hand) accepting the surrender of German troops, 19 August 1944
Letter to Major David Currie from Lieutenant-General Guy Simonds, 23 November 1944

A Long Road Ahead

The defeat of the Germans in Normandy led some Allied leaders to hope Germany might soon surrender. Instead, they faced nine more months of fighting before victory in Europe on 8 May 1945.

The Battle of Normandy was the beginning of the end for the German occupation of western Europe. Some 200,000 Germans were killed or wounded and another 200,000 captured. There were 206,000 Allied casualties, including almost 20,000 Canadians killed or wounded. The fighting devastated large areas of Normandy and killed nearly 20,000 French civilians. The cost of liberation was appallingly high.

Ruins of Caen