Bruce Tascona and Eric Wells, Little Black Devils: A History of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles (Frye Publishing for the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Manitoba, Canada 1983)
Go to Canadians in Normandy picture file / Canadian 3rd Division: Order of Battle / “Victory Campaign”: Normandy landings / Winnipeg Rifles D-Day War Diary.
Photographs of Corporal Klos and Captain Gower are courtesy of The Royal Winnipeg Rifles Regimental Museum, Minto Armoury, 969 St. Matthews Ave., Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, R3G OJ7.
Thanks to Alan Fairbairn for his considerable time and trouble.
D – Day June 6, 1944
In this account, the authors leave the story of D – Day with its immense scope to be found elsewhere. This deals with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles who took part in the initial landings when, after four years of training, the Regiment finally met the enemy and helped to launch the restoration of freedom in Europe.
The Regiment’s response to this opportunity was described by Ross Munro, frontline reporter of The Canadian Press, in his despatch of that day, June 6, 1944:
“Bloody fighting raged all along the beaches. On the right, the Winnipegs had to battle their way past five major concrete casements and 15 machine gun positions set in the dunes commanding a long sweep of beach. From dune to dune, along the German trench systems, and through the tunnels, these Manitoba troops fought every yard of the way. They broke into the casements, ferretted out the gun crews with machine guns, grenades, bayonets and knives. The Canadians ran into cross-fire. They were shelled and mortared even in the German positions, but they kept slugging away at the enemy. After a struggle that was . . . bitter and savage … the Winnipeg’s broke through into the open country behind the beach.”
That was the news which Canadians at home received even before the battle was over, perhaps to be read by Riflemen at some later time when clippings arrived in the mail, but at the time of action, just as the intrepid reporter implied, the Rifles considered it all in the day’s work. This was the day they had been waiting for, and they were well trained to “keep slugging away.” Nobody expected it to be a push-over.
As the day itself neared, the Rifles knew the showdown was not far off, for almost three years they had been engaged in countless exercises all over the British Isles — some of them more uncomfortable than active campaigning itself — as June 1944 arrived, they felt this was IT.
This was, indeed, the “Great Adventure” — the first permanent return to France since the tragic Battle of Dunkirk four years earlier. The plan called for the fleet to bombard the Normandy beaches about six a.m. on D-Day; destroyers would hit beach targets; artillery regiments on landing craft would lay down barrages while rocket craft would blast the beach strip with their high explosives. Numerous types of gunboats and support craft were to sweep the sand dunes; lighter and rocket-firing Typhoons had close-support tasks, while masses of heavy and medium bombers were to attack a series of points from Le Havre to Cherbourg, the two flanking points on the Baie de la Seine.
For the assaulting infantry, with their tank support and demolition experts from the engineers, there were a series of obstacles, beginning with 12-foot high iron gates — called “Element C” — set in the sea, 400 yards out from high-water. Between here and shore were hundreds of hedge-hogs— four-foot-high triangles of steel or wood, each tipped with a primed German mine or old French shell, that could easily destroy assault landing craft.
And on shore itself, ahead of the sand dunes, were masses of barbed wire. In the dunes were coastal fortifications, lines of concrete and steel pillboxes, big-gun emplacements, elaborate trench systems, underground chambers, hidden machine gun posts and gun batteries in the earth. Houses near the beach were fortified; guns on slopes beyond the beaches were sighted in on every approach to the beach and dunes, and stretching inland were numerous other positions and defence lines, hinged on fortified towns, villages and cities. Elaborate minefields had been laid, and exits from the beaches covered by artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire.
This was the stage for the largest assault landing in history. The days leading up to this event were active ones.
This date marked the last day for the Regiment as a spectator of the great contests on distant fronts, in Africa, the Far East, and Italy. The Rifles were split into two camps, according to the boat loads and timing of their rendezvous with destiny on the far side of the Channel. The assault companies were put in one camp, and the reserves were put into another, and both were agog with prospects of what would happen next.
Although many were the sons of men who had fought in the First War with the 8th, the Rifles of the Second War presented a more polygonal expression of Winnipeg than before. They were now a mixture of the city’s varied ethnic components. They were bound together by a common identity which the war itself had helped to create — they were Canadians with a dedicated task to perform.
That evening, after the camps were clamped in quarantine, the company commanders and senior officers were briefed on the next moves. The precise details of the operation were revealed, and the code names which had been used during the final exercises were replaced with the real names—the Regiment’s objective was to land on the French mainland at Courseulles!
The assault and reserve companies were issued with the special materials allotted to invasion troops to assure their self-sufficiency, in event of their being cut off from their units. The British boffins had dreamed up a number of handy items for such occasions—compasses could pass unnoticed as buttons on a soldier’s fly, maps of northern France printed on silk which didn’t even make a bulge inside a pocket, hack saws that could be skillfully concealed, concentrated food packs, water sterilization tablets, and of course vomit bags for the rough sea journey ahead, expected to climax the assault.
In the afternoon, A and C Companies broke camp and boarded the LSI (Landing Ship Infantry) Llangby Castle at Southampton. The ship was welcomed as a lucky omen, the Rifles had been aboard before in assault exercises, and the Llangby Castle’s cooks had served the best meals the Regiment had seen since leaving Canada. In the evening, the ship sailed and anchored in the Solent, awaiting its turn to join J Force, the invasion fleet.
With the assault companies and vehicles aboard ship in the Solent, the balance of the Battalion embarked on transports the Laird Isle and the Canterbury and waited for J Force to sail. The weather was changing, a strong northwest wind was whipping up white caps.
Bad news. With the weather deteriorating hourly, the departure of J Force was postponed, and it seemed likely that the invasion of France would have to await another day with fair winds. “Operation Overload” hung in the balance, perhaps to join the long catalogue of other code names used for invasion exercises on the shores of Scotland. There was tension aboard ship all through the massed transports—the Rifles let out steam with vigorous PT.
Good news. Although the operation was running 24 hours behind time, General Eisenhower, informed that better weather might be expected on June 6, ordered the fleet to sail and by midnight the ships were well into the Channel. The invasion was on and action began at six o’clock in the morning. Before the day was over the bridgehead of freedom would be established in Europe.
“We were so sea-sick, that we had preferred to be shot on the beaches rather than go back on those Landing Craft.”—Rfn. Ernie Tayler D Company
0400: Cloudy and cool with strong NW winds and a heavy sea describes the day’s beginning. Tea and a cold snack was served as breakfast to all in the Battalion. Few were able to keep their meals down due to the rough sea. Patiently, each LBD waited for his serial section to be called to board his respective landing craft. As each group was called the tension mounted. Somehow the minutes passed and all was ready.
0515: All LCAs were now manned and lowered into the turbulent English Channel. Still 10 miles from shore, the tiny crafts bobbed up and down as they piled their way forward in the rough sea. Only the hardiest rifleman was able to keep his stomach in check and not reach for his vomit bag.
0655: The Invasion Fleet opposite Juno Beach had been in sight of the beach for nearly three hours and the enemy had still to fire a shot. Precisely at 0655, the Royal Navy and the landing craft carrying the self-propelled guns of the 3rd Canadian Division opened fire on the the enemy’s shore defences. Everything from cruisers to landing craft carrying rockets fired salvo after salvo into the enemy targets. This support fire in Courseulles’ sector began to fall short or long of the Germans positions.
Under the cover of this mighty bombardment, the tiny assault ships made their way forward. The run-in had been effected nearly an hour late on the Canadian Sector. On the British Sectors of Sword and Gold Beaches, the Tommies had already begun their landings. The Germans, forwarned by these landings on the Normandy coast, awaited the Canadians.
As the landing craft approached the beach, it was increasingly clear that the bombardment had failed to destroy any of the enemy strongpoints. From a distance less than 800 yards the enemy opened up with everything they had. The 1st Hussars DD Tanks had failed to keep ahead of the landing crafts, resulting in the Regiment’s going in “cold” against “Jerry” . . . Gripping their weapons tighter all knew what had to be expected and done once the order “open doors” was given.
0749 Touchdown: Despite the air support which failed to materialize and the spotty Royal Navy bombardment, the rockets falling short and the DDs and AVREs’ being late the Regiment hit the beach. C Company of the 1st Canadian Scottish (under the Regiment’s command) landed at the junction of “Mike and Love.” They quickly headed towards the beach defences and the Chateau Vaux.
D Company (Maj. L. Fulton) with a pioneer section landed to the left of “Mike Green.” B Company (Capt. P. Gower) with No. 15 platoon and 2 sections of the 6 Field Company RCE landed at “Mike Red” — all within seven minutes of one another — records the War Diary.
As the doors were lowered, these companies advanced through a hail of bullets. Spandaus and Nazi rifle spat furiously at the invaders. During the run-in some assault crafts were swamped on the reefs which abounded in front of Courseulles. Thoroughly submerged and weighed down by extra ammunition, Capt. Gower virtually walked under the water until he reached the beach. Many others were in the same situation. The landing had taken place at high tide.
Rushing the enemy, B Company encountered heavy enemy fire. Cpl. J. Klos, badly shot in the stomach and legs while leaving the assault boat, made his way forward to an enemy machine-gun nest. He managed to kill two Nazis before he was mortally felled. His hands still gripped about the throat of his victim produced a chilling sight!
Rfn. Kimmel, a signaller, showed outstanding courage in disposing of a beach pillbox with the rifle and bayonet.
Over 15 machine guns and five concrete emplacements were encountered by the Battalion on the Courseulles beach. Some of the enemy positions were quickly taken, while others had to be fought over in hand-to-hand struggle. Working their way down the trenches, sections of Little Black Devils ferreted out Nazi defenders.
0900: Bray-sur-Mer Maj. Fulton’s company had quickly poured through the minefield at La Vallette and headed straight for Graye-sur-Mer. It made good progress and some sections even approached Banville. While D Company was making this sprint, A and C Companies had landed, along with half of the Battalion Headquarters. The Beaches were still under fire when they landed. For nearly two hours the Battalion Headquarters No. 22 wireless set was the target of much of this fire. It was a rough welcome for Headquarters.
A Company (Maj. F. Hodge) moved inland towards St. Croix-sur-Mer when it came under fire by a battery of eight machine guns. C Company (Maj. J. Jones) made its way towards Banville, where it was met by several pockets of enemy resistance which had been bypassed. Both quickly overcame these obstacles and pushed southwards to Banville. They were confronted by three enemy machine guns which were situated on the high ground near the village. Hard fighting developed but C and D Companies managed to take the village of Banville. The first phase of the operation had been completed.
1400 Banville: The Regiment’s slow pace at this time was hampered by troop congestion on the beach rather than by the enemy. Troops from A and C Squadrons of the 1st Hussars were able to make their way forward and support A Company’s advance southward. Ignoring the mines and anti-tank guns of the enemy the Shermans overpowered these machine-gun screens, enabling A Company to move forward unhindered. By now prisoners were evacuated to the rear in small groups; many as the War Diary records, “were a sorry lot.”
The remnants of B Company had reported — only Capt. Gower and 26 other ranks remained unscathed. They had taken and destroyed three casements and 12 machine-gun nests. About this time No. 15 platoon and No. 17 platoon which had supported the Canadian Scots and gapped the minefield rejoined their respective companies. After consolidating its positions at Banville, the Regiment (now supported by tanks) was ready to renew the advance.
1800 Creully: The Battalion reached Creully about this time. Snipers and small groups had maintained the sole resistance during the advance on this village. Lt. Mitchell of D Company with a section of riflemen silenced an enemy machine-gun nest along the bridge near Creully. Throughout the day the No. 22 W/T Set with its unwieldy carriage bogged down continuously. The Headquarters signal section was under constant mortar fire. Lt. Robson, a liason officer with the Brigade, was wounded; but he had the honour of being luxuriously evacuated — driven by Sgt. Jorgenson in a German staff car which took him safely to the rear.
With evening fast approaching, the Battalion set about digging in just south of Creully. Five officers and 78 ORs arrived from the reinforcement unit that evening — all were posted to B Company.
It is appropriate to make special mention of the services rendered to the Regiment by Capt. R.M. Caldwell (Medical Officer) and the RAP staff.
Constantly under fire, they managed to care for the wounded not only with skill and despatch but also with confidence; accordingly, morale increased proportionately.
Apart from the Regiment hacking its way across Courseulles, it should be noted that the Allies were equally successful along the whole of Normandy. Only at Omaha Beach did the Americans encounter stiff resistance. The danger of being thrown back into the sea was a possible reality. The Canadians who landed nearly an hour late met a prepared enemy that stubbornly resisted — but to no avail. The units of the 3rd Canadian Division were able to crack through Hitler’s West Wall.
On the Beach that evening, lifeless bodies wearing the white and black shoulder flashes of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles lay in the dunes and in amongst the pillboxes. Many more wore the dreaded swastikas. The War Diary’s final entry on that day emphasizes: “NOT ONE MAN flinched from his task, no matter how tough it was — not one officer failed to display courage and energy and a degree of gallantry. It is thought that the Little Black Devils, by this day’s success, managed to maintain the tradition set by former members. Casualties for the day exceeded 130.”
On to the Final Objective
The Germans launched a counter-attack on C Company’s front during the early hours of June 7. The enemy were repulsed and 19 prisoners taken. When dawn came the Regiment had spent its first 24 hours in France. It had taken four years to train for this liberating; now the opportunity had been grasped. In the morning the Regiment prepared to move out and take its final D-Day objective — the Caen-Bayeux highway and railway near Putot-en-Bessin.
The advance began in the early hours, with C Company in the lead. It was flanked by No. 7 Platoon of A Company and sections from the Carrier Platoon. The six-pounder (Anti-tank) Section under Capt. D.B. Robertson provided immediate support for the Battalion’s advance. They encountered sniper fire only and the occasional burst from the deadly 88-millimetre guns. Soon the Regiment, along with the Regina Rifles, made quick headway to the final D-Day objective. So quick was the advance that both the Reginas and Rifles share the honour of being the first Allied units to reach their goals. (Col. Stacey, in The Victory Campaign, writes: “Brigadier Foster credited the Winnipegs with being first, but the Reginas also claim to have been the first…. The Battalions seem to have been neck-and-neck. The most important point is that a few days later General Dempsey wrote to General Keller, ‘A battalion of 3 Canadian Division was the first unit in the Second Army to reach the final objective. That is something which you will always remember with pride’.”)
Once in Putot (south of the Caen-Bayeux Highway) the unit began consolidating its position at this point of its advance. Disposition of the unit saw A Company dug in near the bridge at the railway crossing in Putot, C Company positioned north of the railroad in the centre, D Company on the left flank with B Company held in reserve.
Meanwhile along the Normandy beaches, the British, Canadians and Americans were beginning to link up their respective fronts. On the immediate right of the Regiment were the Green Howards in Bronay. The results of D-Day had conclusivley left the German High Command in a confused state. According to their anti-invasion plans, they believed that the Allies would first launch a feint attack and then make their intentions known in the follow-up attack. They mistakenly concluded that this second assault would occur near Calais. Confident their theory paralleled the true intentions of the Allies, Hitler and his generals held most of their Panzer divisions back. Only during the latter part of June 6 did Rommel deploy the 21st Panzer and 12th SS Hitler Youth Divisions. Too late, to make a difference, their advance units did not arrive near the beaches until late in the evening.
Harassed by Typhoons and bombers these two Panzer divisions wasted precious time and fuel as they crawled from hedgerow to hedgerow. Frustrated by this harrassment the 21st arrived just in time to stymie the advance of the British at Caen. The 12th SS, out of fuel on the night of June 6/7, wasted most of June 7 before it could muster enough petrol to feed its dry Tiger and Panther tanks.
The 12th SS “Hitler Jugend” was a division comprised of teenagers who knew nothing but Nazi doctrine. Schooled in the theories of the “Master Race” and led by officers and NCOs who had seen service in Poland, Norway, Low Countries, France, Russia, Greece and North Africa, these fanatics were determined to push the Canadians back into the sea. In their path lay the Reginas at Bretteville and the Royal Winnipeg Rifles at Putot. The Regiment was unaware that the next day would drive home the reality of what the expression “baptism of fire” really meant.