D-Day in Canada: 'Anxious times' on the home front

Canadians huddled around radios or gathered at spontaneous prayer meetings as word spread that Allied forces had stormed the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944.

War worries on Canadians' minds on June 6, 1944, as news spread of Allied invasion in Normandy

People flocked to a prayer meeting outside Toronto City Hall on June 6, 1944, after word spread of the Allied invasion on the beaches of Normandy. ( John H. Boyd/City of Toronto Archives)

After Vic Miller was let out of school on June 6, 1944, the 14-year-old Saskatchewan boy hurried home to huddle around the radio with his family to hear the latest war news from Europe.

In Miller's house, on a grain farm near Estevan, the main link to the outside world was a tiny battery-operated radio you sometimes had to shake to get working properly.

"I recall that there was word coming that something was happening that day and we were all glued to the radio at various times," says Miller, now 84 and living in Surrey, B.C.

That "something" was D-Day, the Allied invasion that launched 150,000 Canadian, British and American troops onto the beaches of Normandy in what was the beginning of the end of the Second World War.

Back home, Miller recalls June 6 was a nice day, "a warm day and so forth."

But even for a young teen toiling away at Grade 9 by correspondence in a local school five kilometres from his house, it was clear something big was going on. "It was anxious times to hear what was happening," he says.

Spontaneous reactions

Across the country on that June day, Canadians, whose lives had been touched in virtually every way by the almost five-year-old conflict, learned of the invasion via newspaper headlines and radio reports.

In some instances, the news prompted spontaneous reactions, such as the prayer meeting held outside Toronto City Hall that disrupted traffic because of the crowd that gathered. Sirens were sounded in factories. Prime Minister Mackenzie King made a special radio address and a speech in Parliament.

It was huge news, but it wasn't unanticipated news.- Jeff Keshen

"In Parliament, they said a prayer and sang God Save the King and La Marseillaise, the French national anthem," says Stacey Barker, an assistant historian at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

"There were special church services that took place. People knew that something significant had happened."

While the exact date of the D-Day invasion was likely a surprise to most Canadians, the notion that a significant military action would be launched to reclaim Europe from the Nazis was not unexpected.

"It was huge news, but it wasn't unanticipated news," says Jeff Keshen, a historian and dean of the faculty of arts at Mount Royal University in Calgary. "It was just when it was going to happen."

Canadians watching the war headlines would have seen how the Italian campaign had been unfolding, and that German forces had perhaps extended their reach as far as they could in Europe. Polls from 1943 onward taken by the Canadian Institute of Public Opinion and the Wartime Information Board were showing that Canadians were expecting the war would be over in a year or two, says Keshen.

'Rising morale'

Those polls "spoke to rising morale on the one hand," Keshen says. But that home-front optimism was also a concern, he says, because the government "knew that a lot of the tough fighting lay ahead in Europe, and recruitment still had to happen."

The Second World War brought many changes to life in Canada, including women entering the work force in unprecedented numbers, many as part of the war effort. This woman was working in the cabin of bomber being manufactured at the Fairchild plant in Montreal on May 19, 1941. (Associated Press)

In fact, enlistment became a hugely divisive issue as King, who had initially promised there would be no conscription, ended up ordering conscripts overseas five months after D-Day, which saw heavy casualties for the Canadian infantry.

For some Canadians who did want a life in uniform, D-Day meant the chance to pursue their bigger military dreams.

"Everything was so quiet, and all of a sudden, you hear this news," says Hugh Murray, who was an 18-year-old Navy seaman on overnight guard duty in Halifax in the early hours of June 6, 1944.

"Actually I was excited about it, seeing that we were actually going to do something."

Around 2 a.m. on June 6, Murray, who now lives in London, Ont., heard over the radio that the invasion had begun.

"So I immediately went down to wake the other fellows up and tell them that the invasion had started, and you know what, they told me where to go," says Murray, who would later spend about 90 per cent of his time at sea in the South Pacific.

Rations and propaganda

Across Canada, the war had come to dominate day-to-day life. Food and gas were rationed, sometimes to great annoyance. And propaganda posters were everywhere.

In movie theatres, news reels spun out war reports before films like Passage to Marseille with Humphrey Bogart hit the big screen.

Government recruitment posters like this one that hangs at Juno Beach Centre museum urged Canadians to join the Second World War military effort. (Public Archives of Canada/Reuters)

"The government really controlled the economy and directed it towards war purposes," says Barker. "Newspapers were censored. It really touched every aspect of life that you can think of." 

Volunteer activities focused on the war effort, and while daily life went on the war also "gave a lot of people an awful lot of sense of purpose," that what they were doing was of real importance, Keshen says.

"That's why despite its real tragedy … many people look upon the war as the most exciting, and in some sense also the most fulfilling, time of their lives."

On the home front, salvage drives scooped up everything from glass to old magazines that could be turned into containers carrying supplies to Canada's fighting men and women.

"Get salvage minded. Start saving waste paper now," declared an ad in the June 6, 1944 Globe and Mail newspaper, which had as its front page headline "ALLIES LAND IN FRANCE."

The daily practicalities of life went on, but at a deeper level, Keshen says, the war permeated the collective Canadian psyche.

"We also have to remember that this is a [Canadian] population of 13 million in World War Two. We do raise a million men and women, 95 per cent of them being men, who were in uniform."

'Always a worry'

For many of those at home, of course, D-Day and its aftermath was not all just patriotism and valour. 

"War is not nice," says Mildred Maclean, now 103 and living in London, Ont., but who was in Montreal in the early 1940s.

"We weren't in the war, but we heard about it all, and the men were away of course. So that was always a worry. It was not a good time."

Such worry was also not lost on Miller, even as a young farm boy.

"We were always concerned about the war …. We didn't have any members of our family in the war picture itself, but I did have some cousins out of Estevan that were overseas, and in fact one did lose his life over there."

Miller's parents had come to Saskatchewan from Russia, via England, in 1922 and his father had fought in Turkey during the First World War.

"He was always more mindful than we were of what wars were, what they meant and how they were going to affect everyone."

For Miller in 1944, D-Day was a distant occurrence in a place he did not know. There were no recent pictures or TV footage that revealed the action there, as might occur today. But today, D-Day has come to take on much more significance for him.

"It means a lot when I see people going over, our veterans that are still with us," he says.

"I think it's very important that we honour that and what happened that day and the lives that were lost."


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