Seventy-five years ago this week, Canadians were on the verge of helping win the Battle of Normandy.
It was a costly campaign.
Canadian forces sustained nearly 20,000 casualties (dead and wounded), including 5,021 killed, during the fight to end the Nazi occupation of northwest France. The death rate was 65 men per day over 77 days.
These and other battles that brought an end to the Second World War in Europe are largely forgotten, if even known.
Canadian remembrance is largely restricted to the start of the Normandy campaign — the June 6, 1944, Allied landing more popularly known as D-Day — and rightly honouring the men who died on Juno beach or trying to get ashore that day.
But the breaching of German defences along the coast had to be matched by victories inland if D-Day was going to be a turning point in the war.
My father Ted took part in one of those battles in August 1944. Like many Canadian soldiers, he was lucky to have survived.
Trooper Thaddeus (Ted) Louis Waiser, a member of the 28th Canadian Armoured Regiment (British Columbia Regiment [BCR]), landed near Courseulles-sur-Mer (Juno Beach), Normandy, on July 26, 1944.
He had just turned 31 and was single.
Born in 1913 to immigrant parents in Glennella, Man., he grew up in the southwest corner of the province, in Lyleton, where his father ran a harness shop.
Ted left school after Grade 8 and worked as a hired hand in the district. When depression and drought crippled the farm economy in the early 1930s, he took to the rails and joined hundreds of other single men criss-crossing Western Canada in search of work.
He spent the winter of 1933-34 in the Hope relief camp in British Columbia. My dad liked to joke that he was a guest of Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett.
Ted was working on a Canadian Pacific Railway section crew when war broke out in September 1939. He enlisted three years later, in October 1942, in Winnipeg and trained as a gunner-operator and crew commander with the Canadian Armoured Corps.
According to his attestation form, he wanted to see action.
Sent overseas in June 1943, my dad practised and drilled for the next year in Great Britain in anticipation of the Allied invasion of western Europe.
This preparation included becoming familiar with the new Sherman tank, which replaced the Ram tank as standard Canadian equipment.
The Sherman might have not had the firepower or protective armour of the German Tiger and Panther tanks, but it was more manoeuvrable and dependable on the battlefield.
By the time my father’s BCR regiment [B Squadron], under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Donald Worthington, landed in Normandy the last week of July 1944, Allied forces had consolidated their position along the coast and were taking the war to the Nazis.
The Luftwaffe, Germany’s air force, was a shell of its former self. Allied fighters and bombers were able to carry out concentrated attacks against the enemy ahead of ground troops.
By June 10, just four days after D-Day, it was safe enough for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to travel across the English channel and meet with British General Bernard Montgomery at his temporary headquarters in a French chateau.
But moving inland through the French countryside still meant heavy combat.
Allied air strikes may have weakened Nazi fighting effectiveness, but the bombing was erratic and left military targets intact in places. The enemy defences were formidable — in heavily armed layers, occupying strategic positions that gave them a tactical edge.
German Führer Adolph Hitler had also ordered that there be no retreat or surrender — a command that only stiffened Nazi resolve.
It consequently took Anglo-Canadian forces several weeks and repeated attacks to capture the medieval French city of Caen, only fifteen kilometres from the coast.
Dislodging the enemy from the Verrières Ridge south of Caen also met with fierce resistance, including German counter attacks.
If there was one consolation, it was that the Nazis were fighting a losing battle.
There was only so much repeated pounding they could take.
And in trying to blunt the Anglo-Canadian advance around Caen, the German defenders left other areas vulnerable to attack.
That’s why the long-delayed American breakout from the Normandy coast in late July 1944 enjoyed spectacular success. The American 1st and 3rd Armies smashed through German positions to south and west and left the battleground littered with the dead and destroyed equipment.
This breakthrough raised the prospect of encircling the German Fifth and Seventh Panzer armies, who were hemmed in from the south, west, and north — effectively in a kind of collapsing “pocket.”
If Anglo-Canadian forces could close the “gap” by driving south past Falaise to meet up with their American counterparts, then the battle of Normandy would be over.
“Operation Totalize” was devised to inflict a crippling blow on the Nazis forces south of Caen and open the way to Falaise.
The two-stage battle plan called for a concentrated frontal assault, spearheaded by the Canadian Armoured Corps, deep into the heart of Nazi-held territory. It was an audacious undertaking by any measure, but even more so because tanks would see action during the night.
The first phase of Totalize was a success.
By the early morning of Aug. 8, the Canadians had punched through the German anti-tank screen and advanced several kilometres in closing the gap. Verrières Ridge was finally taken, as were several villages south of Caen that had been stubbornly held by the Germans.
One combatant later recalled that the enemy was both to the front and behind.
But the surprise attack stalled at Cintheaux while Allied bombers pummeled the next series of enemy targets. This delay—until the afternoon of Aug. 8—allowed the fanatical German 12th SS Panzer division, with its formidable Tiger tanks and dreaded 88 mm guns, to block the Caen-Falaise road and blunt phase two of Totalize.
Undeterred and anxious to maintain the day’s momentum, the Canadian command hurriedly launched a countermove during the night of Aug. 9.
Under the cover of darkness, Halpenny Force (consisting of Canadian Grenadier Guards and the Lake Superior Regiment) would move forward to capture Bretteville-le-Rabet. At the same time, Worthington Force (the pairing of the British Columbia Regiment with the infantry of the Algonquin Regiment) was ordered to take up a position on the strategically important Hill 195 in the Quesnay Wood.
My father had yet to have his baptism of fire. The BCRs and their Sherman tanks had seen limited combat since their arrival in France–even during the big armoured push on Aug. 8 – and were still relatively green.
But that changed when Worthington Force was instructed to take the hill that been one of Totalize’s first-day objectives.
Around 2:30 a.m. on Aug. 9, the BCR tanks left their “harbour” north of Cintheaux and proceeded south towards Bretteville-le-Rabet.
Because the village had yet to be cleared of the enemy, the Canadians came under intense fire.
Knowing that his force had to be entrenched on Point 195 at first light, Lieutenant-Colonel Worthington ordered the column to swing east around the village to avoid the German guns.
It was a fateful decision.
A fog hung over the ground in the early morning hours. The dust raised by the tanks only made visibility worse.
But instead of stopping and ascertaining their position, Worthington Force kept moving as rapidly as it could, trying to avoid detection by German defenders in the area.
They were lost. But they didn’t know it.
They mistook the road they were following for the Caen-Falaise highway.
And when a hill came into view just before sunrise, they assumed it to be Point 195.
It was actually Point 140–about six kilometres northeast of their objective.
Upon reaching what was believed to be Hill 195, Lieutenant-Colonel Worthington informed Brigade headquarters of his position.
He also deployed the tanks and infantry in a defensive position, atop a nearby height of land (Hill 111), in a rectangular field surrounded by trees on three sides.
The BCRs and Algonquins expected a fight.
The rear of the column had been badly mauled—at the cost of several casualties and knocked-out tanks—as it passed near Estrées-la-Campagne.
Little did they realize, though, that they had squatted along the new German defensive line north of the Laison River.
The leader of the 12th SS Panzer division, SS-Uberführer Kurt Meyer, immediately ordered nearby Tiger and Panther tanks to converge on the Canadians once he learned of their presence. Meyer would later gain notoriety for the cold-blooded execution of Canadian soldiers captured during the Normandy campaign.
The first German attack, in the form of mortar fire, came around 8 a.m. Worthington asked for artillery support, but the coordinates were wrong for their location.
Brigade headquarters soon realized that the battle group was not at Hill 195. But where? How could the force go missing?
The confusion over the column’s location left it vulnerable to friendly fire.
Two Typhoon fighter planes strafed the encampment — believing that it was a German formation — before the Canadians were able to identify themselves.
Why the Allied pilots failed to report the incident is a mystery. Relief support could have been sent.
A Polish tank group, moving into the area from the north, also mistook the Canadians for the enemy and fired on their position before coming under attack itself and being forced to withdraw.
The entrenched Canadians successfully fought back several German attempts to overrun their position through the day.
The constant bombardment by mortar and armour-piercing shells created a horrific scene atop Point 111. Dozens of men, indiscriminately killed or wounded, lay about the cratered battlefield, while exploding tanks “brewed up” in flames, shrouding the hill in acrid smoke.
The hopelessness of the situation was driven home when Worthington was felled by a mortar shell in the late afternoon.
As darkness descended, enemy soldiers, using tanks as shields, attacked the camp from two sides. Several Canadians were taken prisoner, while others made a mad dash for freedom.
Somehow my father survived. Somehow he got away. Even though he had shrapnel in both thighs, he eluded capture and found his way back to Allied lines.
Worthington Force, though, had been gutted. In their first day of combat, the BCRs lost 40 men killed and 47 tanks. The casualty rate for the Algonquin infantry was equally grim.
The irony was that Hill 195 was captured the next day, largely because the Germans had focused their firepower on Worthington Force on Point 111.
It took another 12 days, until Aug. 21, 1944, for the Falaise gap to be closed and the Battle of Normandy brought to a decisive end.
I secured a copy of my dad’s personnel record from Library and Archives Canada only weeks before his death in 1995 at age 82. The file was mostly medical material.
By then, it was too late to ask him questions. I’ve had to search for answers elsewhere.
This past April, 75 years after our father landed at Normandy, I travelled to Juno Beach with my wife Marley, my sister Gail, my brother Tom and his wife Irene.
We also made a special trip to Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery, just north of the village of Cintheaux. It was late morning and two French groundskeepers had just finished tending the flower beds lining the rows of headstones.
The cemetery contains nearly 3,000 Canadian soldiers who died during the latter stages of the Battle of Normandy. We solemnly walked along row after row of Maple Leaf headstones and found several of the BCRs and Algonquins who died on Hill 111 on Aug. 9, 1944.
The grave of Lieutenant-Colonel Worthington lies in the first row, near the cemetery entrance. I took a stone out of my coat pocket that I had picked up on the Normandy beach and put it on top of his headstone.
We then quietly slipped away, deep in thought, knowing that dad was fortunate to have lived…fortunate to have served with such brave men.
This column originally appeared as a CBC Point of View piece.
Was it deliberate? That certainly seemed a possibility in wartime Saskatoon.
At 5:40 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 16, 1943, a Canadian National freight train ploughed into a Canadian Pacific passenger train at the diamond crossing northeast of the Union stockyards. It was the kind of incident that screamed sabotage.
During the dark days of the Second World War, when the Nazis occupied western Europe, Saskatoon readied itself for an enemy invasion.
In September 1941, and then again in October 1942, mock attacks were carried out on the city’s government and communication services. The exercises were intended to prepare citizens for the day when the war reached Saskatoon.
There were also regular fire, police, and first aid drills — involving more than 1,000 men and women — in anticipation of an air attack on Saskatoon. Many citizens genuinely believed that the Luftwaffe might bomb the city. Some might even have lost sleep over the prospect of U-boats prowling the South Saskatchewan.
Salvage drives, meanwhile, encouraged the collection of rags, metal, and rubber for the war effort. The campaigns featured such slogans as “Get in the scrap with your scrap” and “Heap it on Hitler.”
The greatest worry, though, were enemy agents — known as “fifth columnists” — embedded in the city and bent on sabotage. This fear was fed by military officials with overactive imaginations.
The local Canadian Corps claimed the city was home to thousands of pro-Nazi sympathizers disguised as ordinary citizens. And a visiting member of the British Admiralty warned that Nazi spies could relay compromising information to Germany in only minutes.
The January 1943 train collision occurred against this backdrop. Star-Phoenix coverage of the crash was found among war stories about the Allied bombing of Berlin and the North Africa campaign. Those who were already paranoid might have easily concluded that the collision was an act of subversion.
After all, both the CPR passenger train and CN freight train had received all-clear signals on their respective tracks. There was no reason for either train to slow down or even wait. How was that possible?
The initial response from the two railway companies was that it appeared to be a terrible accident — a finding that did not change.
Indeed, it was incredible that this kind of collision had not happened earlier.
Saskatoon prided itself from the early 20th century as the “hub city.” Three railway companies — the Canadian Pacific, Grand Trunk Pacific, and Canadian Northern — had lines to and from the city. (The Grand Trunk Pacific and Canadian Northern were folded into Canadian National Railways after the Great War.)
By 1912, a remarkable 27 passengers trains passed through Saskatoon daily. Freight trains added to the railway traffic.
Because of the number of lines, tracks of competing companies sometimes had to cross one another; these level crossings were known as diamond junctions.
One was located on the city’s west side, northeast of the Union stockyards (east of Dundonald Avenue), where the north-east Canadian National line crossed the east-west Canadian Pacific line. Traffic over these diamond crossings was regulated by lights on the tracks.
CPR passenger train #51 left Saskatoon an hour late on Jan. 16, 1943. It’s not known why the signals were green — probably human error — but the westbound train reached the diamond at the same moment as CN freight #782.
The two locomotives collided and spilled down an embankment, one engine rolling on top of the other. It could have been much worse. If the CP train had reached the diamond only seconds earlier, the CN engine would have ploughed into one of the passenger cars. As it was, only the CP engine and tender went off the track.
Surprisingly, there was only one fatality. Fifty-five-year-old Colin Sands, the engineer of the CN freight, was badly scalded by steam escaping from the locomotive. He died the next day in St. Paul’s hospital.
The other crew members from both trains, including CN fireman H.W. Hall (father of future NHL goalie Glenn Hall), sustained only minor injuries.
Railway crews working with a crane quickly cleared away the wreckage and opened up both lines. Traffic resumed shortly after midnight.
There was a war to be won. And nothing was going to stand in the way of an Allied victory.
A special thanks to Harvey McKee, who told me about the collision.
This article originally appeared in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.
Photo:Wrecking crews clear away two locomotives from collision.
Photo Source:B-1864 courtesy of Saskatoon Public Library
Bill Waiser is the winner of the 2016 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and the 2017 Saskatchewan Book Award for Non-Fiction for his most recent book, A World We Have Lost: Saskatchewan Before 1905. The book is available for purchase via McNally Robinson Booksellers. Bill was recently appointed to the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honour.