Students from Calgary's Juno Beach Academy school visit the Canadian Juno Beach Museum at Courseulles-sur-mer, France, June 5, 2007.
School trip to Juno Beach: a diary
Calgary students visit Canadian war memorials in Europe
Last Updated June 6, 2007
CBC video journalist Mike Vernon travels from Calgary to Normandy in northern France with 26 members of the first graduating class of Juno Beach Academy, a Calgary public school specializing in Canadian studies.
Tourists stand at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in Vimy, France, on June 3. (Mike Vernon/CBC)
The academy also has a slightly paramilitary flair: imagine public school students wearing uniforms, playing the bagpipes and performing rudimentary foot drills. The principal, Lee Villiger, is a lieutenant-colonel in the Army Reserve and a former commanding officer of the Calgary Highlanders, a reserve infantry regiment. Gavin Mills, who teaches social studies and English at the school, is also a Highlander.
They are taking students to several Canadian battlefields and cemeteries. The trip will culminate with their participation in the commemorative ceremonies June 6th at Juno Beach, where Canadian troops stormed ashore as their part in the massive Allied forces' invasion to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany. This year marks the 63rd anniversary of the D-Day landings.
Day 1: May 30, 2007 (London)
I knew I was on a school trip when Lee Villiger took advantage of a slight delay at London's Heathrow airport to conduct a pop quiz on the plane. He wanted to make sure the students stayed sharp for their upcoming diploma exams: "Kim, what were the Brownshirts?" he called out from his seat. Students replied over the heads of the other passengers. "What is the Domino Theory?" Etc. Any concerns about the other passengers resenting this soon diminished. In fact, judging by the laughter and the way some people strained to hear better, several at least were keen to match wits with the kids.
Day 2: May 31, 2007 (London)
In the afternoon, we visit the Imperial War Museum, marvelling at the giant 15-inch naval guns that greet us. (One student, chasing a pigeon, nearly knocks himself unconscious when he slams into part of the installation. Pretty hard not to notice.)
We have just one hour to explore the museum's multiple levels. Villiger tells the JBA students they must view the Holocaust gallery in order to fulfill a portion of their curriculum. It is a sobering exhibit. Near the entrance, there's film of Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, warning Jews in a prewar speech that Germany might one day lose its patience with them. Elsewhere, there are stacks of worn and rusted items recovered from concentration camps: desiccated leather shoes … twisted spectacles … combs missing their teeth … toothbrushes and hairbrushes.
Much of the museum passes in a blur, but several other items catch my attention. I'm pleased to find the 1000cc Brough Superior motorcycle that T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was driving when he was killed in 1935.
In the Falklands exhibit, there is the last letter, an aerogramme that Lt.-Col. H. Jones wrote to his wife, Sara, before the battle for Goose Green. Jones was killed during the battle and posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his efforts to rally his soldiers in Second Battalion, Parachute Regiment, during their night attack against Argentine positions.
Buckingham Palace swarms with people peeking through the gates at the guardsmen on ceremonial duty in their scarlet tunics and bearskin hats. I guess that they are in the Grenadier Guards — judging by the spacing of the buttons on their tunics — but I'm not confident enough in my Guard-spotting skills to say this out loud to anyone.
Day 3: June 1, 2007 (London-Paris)
Once our luggage is stowed in Paris, we catch the Metro to the Arc de Triomphe. Exiting the Metro, the monument rears up in front of us, startling several people with its grandeur. We make our way to the top for a panoramic view of the city, then watch soldiers of the Armée de Terre conduct a brief ceremony honouring the Unknown Soldier. They are dressed in snug-fitting camouflage, with grey-blue kepis on their heads and FAMAS assault rifles slung across their chests. Veterans adorned with medals stop to chat with schoolchildren waving French flags.
Day 5: June 3, 2007 (Paris-Vimy-Deauville)
This morning we board a coach and head to Vimy. Prior to leaving the hotel, the students are formed up like a platoon in three ranks and one of them, Graham Oswald, gives them a series of drill commands. "Juno Beach, atten-SHUN!" Although they lack the alacrity of Grenadier Guardsmen, they're impressive enough to stop one passing French lady in her tracks. She watches everything, fascinated. Her judgment: "très impressionant!"
Students from Calgary's Juno Beach Academy strike a pose at Canada Gate in London on June 2. (Mike Vernon/CBC)
As we drive up to the Vimy Memorial, several people on the bus gasp out loud. The sun is out and against the backdrop of a prairie blue sky, the white limestone pillars are blindingly radiant.
Those students who aren't already wearing their school uniforms get changed while others polish their shoes and adjust their ties. Two musicians warm up their bagpipes by playing snatches of Highland Cathedral and Amazing Grace.
The students march a hundred metres to the monument and conduct a 20-minute ceremony. It includes a reading of Lt.-Col. John McCrae's poem The Pilgrims, as well as a passage from Jane Urquhart's novel The Stone Carvers, which the class studied with Gavin Mills. Once the piper has played a lament and reveille, the students and parent chaperones move forward to deposit small Canadian flag pins on the limestone steps. Several weep openly.
Afterwards, they have an hour to roam the site. Most are silent and reflective, much like the statues carved there. They tell me they're surprised at how emotional they've become.
The bus is quiet as we pull away and head for our next destination, the nearby La Chaudière Military Cemetery.
At this stop, students pick red poppies along the roadside and carry them inside. They search for the grave of a Victoria Cross winner, Pte. John George Pattison of the 50th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force. His great-grandson Mitch Raines is a member of the Juno Beach class.
When someone finds Pattison's grave, Mitch's classmates hold a brief ceremony around it. The school secretary, Terry Armstrong, reads McCrae's poem In Flanders Fields, then everyone leaves Mitch on his own for a few minutes.
We end the day by checking into our hotel on the outskirts of Deauville in Normandy.
Day 6: June 4, 2007 (Deauville)
Queen's Own Rifles house at Bernieres sur Mer, the landmark used by Canadian troops as they came ashore in Normandy June 6, 1944. (Mike Vernon/CBC)
When we walk through the doors of the Memorial Museum at Caen, we're immediately in the sights of a Hawker Typhoon plane suspended from the ceiling, its eight tank-busting rockets aimed at the entrance. After this sight, the highlight of this excellent museum is a film on the D-Day landings done as a split screen, with black and white images of the Allied invaders on the left and the German defenders on the right. The director cut in some footage from the 1962 film about the invasions, The Longest Day, for good measure.
With a few exceptions, the buildings in Caen are newer than most in Calgary. That's because the Allies virtually destroyed the city when they bombed it after D-Day. The exceptions we saw included William the Conqueror's castle (circa 1050) and the medieval Église Saint-Pierre across the street.
On the way to where American Rangers scaled the cliffs at Pointe du Hoc, we pass dozens of Willys Jeeps with French history buffs dressed as U.S. soldiers, most with the Screaming Eagle shoulder patch of the 101st Airborne Division. The cliff-top position looks very much the way it did after D-Day with enormous hellholes, shattered concrete bunkers, rusting rebar and barbed wire. When I told one student it looked somehow familiar, he said that's probably because the site has been meticulously recreated for the computer game Call of Duty (one of my son's favourites).
Small monument to murdered Canadian POWs in the Jardin des Canadiens at the Abbaye d'Ardenne near Caen, France. (Mike Vernon/CBC)
The American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach is also familiar because it was featured in the opening scenes of the movie Saving Private Ryan. More than 9,000 U.S. soldiers are buried there and the symmetry of their white crosses is staggering to behold. One student said to me, "I see more white here than green [grass]." Students wove through the rows, but without the overt emotion I saw at Vimy Ridge.
Day 7: June 5, 2007 (Deauville)
We get an early start this morning (0745 in military time) in order to visit Arromanches. Our bus driver is a 48-year-old former Belgian paratrooper named Guy who likes to sing loudly to the pop songs he plays on the vehicle's stereo. Songs like Sometimes When We Touch, Crazy and Total Eclipse of the Heart. Enough said about that.
Off-shore at Arromanches, you can still see hulking segments of the artificial harbour (codename: "Mulberry") the Allies relied on to re-supply the Normandy bridgehead. They look like a fleet of ships that has run aground along the coastline. Because that's basically what they are.
At Courseulles-sur-Mer, the students get their first glimpse of the Canadian landing beaches and the fairly new Juno Beach Centre. This is where they will participate in the anniversary ceremonies tomorrow. There's a semi-destroyed Spitfire on display, and Mills noticed from its markings that it flew from the same aerodrome that was home to his great-uncle Sid. His Spitfire was shot down near Dieppe and he became a prisoner of war in May 1944.
The beach here is flat, unlike the cliffs encountered by Americans at Omaha Beach. There are busloads of veterans beginning to arrive in the area, but so far our group has been very insular. Hopefully the students will make the effort to talk with these old soldiers when they come to tomorrow's ceremony.
We drive further along to Bernieres-sur-Mer where the famous Tudor-style house you see in the newsreels is still standing. The Queen's Own Rifles used it as a guide for their landing craft. The weather today, gusty and overcast, seemed similar to what Canadians endured here 63 years earlier.
In the afternoon we pay our respects at the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery. Like the American cemetery, it is meticulously groomed, with many beautiful trees and flowers among the stones. The students are told to pick out one soldier each and note all the details about him (age, unit, etc.) in the journals they carry.
After this we negotiate numerous narrow roads in order to reach the Abbaye d'Ardenne on the outskirts of Caen. This is where soldiers of the 12th SS Hitlerjugend Division killed more than 20 Canadian prisoners of war. There's a small memorial here, tucked in a shady garden. It seems a very intimate place to sit and contemplate the chaos that must have swirled around the abbey in June 1944. If only we had more time.
Day 8: June 6, 2007 (Deauville)
The students watch 63rd anniversary ceremony at Juno Beach Centre on June 6, 2007. (Mike Vernon/CBC)
As we approached the Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-Mer this afternoon, we were disappointed to see the weather hadn't improved since yesterday. Flags outside the centre strained in the wind and it blew a sticky salt-sand adhesive that fouled camera lenses and eyewear.
Several hundred people attended the 3 p.m. ceremony marking the 63rd anniversary of D-Day. But the crowd includes only a handful of Canadian veterans — among them, 82-year-old Rifleman Bill Ross, who landed with the Queen's Own Rifles at Bernieres-sur-Mer on June 6, 1944. He told me he's just doing his duty as a lucky survivor, that if he doesn't make the effort to remember his comrades, he can't expect anyone else to.
In addition to the Juno Beach students, there was a choir from Quebec, the Choeur du Suroit de Rigaud, who performed several songs. Unfortunately the wind whipping off the beach made it nearly impossible for people on the fringes to hear their singing.
Wind-blown students participate in their own memorial ceremony on Juno Beach on June 6, 2007. (Mike Vernon/CBC)
I watched the students carefully, curious to see how they would react to the ceremony given the time they've spent exploring the Normandy area. I thought perhaps some would become emotional as they had at Vimy, but it was just the opposite.
Perhaps it's because this is their unofficial high school graduation, and because the Juno Beach Centre is a museum and not a monument like Vimy, but they were exuberant when they marched to the beach following the ceremony.
As their skirts and trousers flapped in the wind, their principal, Villiger, presented each student with a commemorative coin. Then many rolled up their pant legs and waded into the surf while others filled glass jars with sand from this former battefield.
Tomorrow we leave for Paris and home.
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|D-Day 60th Anniversary Special Commemorative DVD|
- 42,042 killed
- 54,414 wounded
- 340 killed
- 574 wounded
- 47 taken prisoner
Approx. 90 minutes
English / colour