GRAYE-SUR-MER, FRANCE — When members of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles landed on the beaches of Normandy in 1944, they fought their way ashore and liberated the nearby village of Graye-sur-Mer.
Officers then set up headquarters in a 200-year-old farmhouse that had been used by German officers during the occupation.
Seventy years later, a group affiliated with the regiment journeyed to the area to trace the steps of those brave soldiers.
Instead of bullets, they were met by Marie Noel Boccon-Gisod, a charming French lady whose family has owned the stone farmhouse for generations.
Instead of rations, the 12 Canadian visitors ate a six-course meal, complete with salads, local cheeses, Normandy chicken, flambé apple and pear tortes and a flow of wines throughout the meal.
"It took us four hours to eat," said Capt. Debbie Middleton, who is on her first trip to Europe.
The tour was organized last October by Bob Geddes and Gerry Woodman, both retired members of the Rifles.
"I got a call from Gerry sometime last fall," said Geddes, "and I immediately signed on. We invited some friends, and serving members of the regiment also joined us."
Geddes, who served with the Rifles for 16 years and has spent 48 years with the association, said the tour offered an opportunity visit Normandy and, "pay my respects to our riflemen who didn’t make it back home.
"Each year we repeat the oath, ‘We will remember them’ so this was the chance to fulfil that commitment," he said.
Although the focus of the tour were events surrounding the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, the group travelled almost 2,000 kilometres around northern France and Belgium, visiting battlefields and cemeteries that hold meaning for the regiment, in particular, and for many Canadians.
At the Leopold Canal in Belgium, tour guide Bart Posman escorted them to the Adegem Cemetery where many of the graves mark the resting place of soldiers killed during the crossing of the Leopold Canal.
"There was a contrast," said Posman, "between the children playing on one side of the canal and the German occupation on the other."
In Ypres, the group attended the ceremony at the Menin Gate where more than 11,000 names of Commonwealth soldiers from the First World War with no known graves are inscribed on the walls.
Buglers from the local fire department play the Last Post every evening. On this occasion, Rod McLeod, a piper from Comox, B.C., played the lament.
Down the coast of France, the group stopped to tour the massive Batterie Todt, which housed a long-range artillery piece that could reach England, and the beaches at Dieppe where Canadian soldiers suffered heavy losses during a raid.
For Warrant Officer Shawn Spence, who has served for 27 years, the stops at Vimy Ridge and Beaumont Hamel on the same day were particularly moving.
"The Somme offensive was a failure," he said. "There was no proper reconnaissance, the troops were overloaded with equipment, and it was assumed the initial artillery barrage would cut the wire. As a result, 90 per cent of the Newfoundland Regiment became casualties."
Spence compared this failure with the later success at Vimy Ridge.
"Meticulous planing was carried out, orders and maps were passed down to the lowest levels and rehearsals were repeated until everyone knew his role in the battle. To this day in the Canadian Army, we used these procedures to prepare for operations that we developed after the disaster at the Somme," he said.
Middleton said rain falling at Vimy and Beaumont Hamel was appropriate and added to the solemnity of the occasion. "It wouldn’t seem right to be here in bright sunshine," she said.
Sisters Pat Hunt and Carol Scott have made many tours to Normandy. One of Hunt’s relatives, H.A. Bolton, was killed near Vimy Ridge and buried in Ecoivres Cemetery. Her father, a member of the Signals Corps, had landed at Bernieressur- Mer, and she and her sister came to see his plaque, which is mounted on the wall at the Juno Beach Centre.
Hunt said she was impressed by the fortifications the Germans had built along the Atlantic Wall.
Scott commented on the strategizing that took place over a short time during the war, noting the famous memo Churchill wrote demanding the design and construction of the floating Mulberry Harbour that would be towed to Normandy and assembled off the shore.
"I was also moved by the silence of the cemeteries and the youth of the occupants," Scott said.
For Sgt. Peter Montgomery, a serving member of the Rifles for 11 years, the trip offered an opportunity to learn more on the history of his regiment.
He also searched out the grave of Pte. Phillipe Alfred Bieler, a relative who was killed in 1917 at the age of 19, and placed a pin and a Canadian flag on it.
"It has been incredibly humbling, experiencing the outpouring of thanks from the locals. It’s been almost surreal, particularly since I don’t really feel I deserve it," Montgomery said.
The Carmichael family, Russ, his wife Christine, son Rys and niece Anya Karpinski had been introduced to the Rifles through a relative, Kel Smith, in Virden.
Their family member, Gunner Smith, survived the Juno Beach landings and the rest of the war, "thanks to his rugged upbringing in the Manitoba wilderness," said Carmichael.
Smith commanded a Sherman tank as part of the 19th Field Regiment, surviving machine guns, grenades and Molotov cocktails.
Timeline for Normandy invasion
Chronology of Canada’s participation in the 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy:
May 1943: Allies make final decision to invade. Initial invasion date May 1, 1944, then June 4, 1944.
Summer of 1943: Canadians train for assault in Scotland and England.
June 1, 1944: Invasion ships begin loading along England’s south coast.
June 3: Soldiers aboard the ships. Some ships sail.
Dawn, June 4: Weather forecast of continuing low cloud, coastal fog and rain forces 24-hour delay in invasion. Vessels recalled.
Dawn, June 5: Decision to go ahead with invasion. Convoys sail for Normandy.
Evening, June 5: Invasion fleet approaches Normandy beaches.
11:30 p.m., June 5: Aerial attacks begin.
Midnight: Three airborne divisions drop on east and west flanks of invasion beaches. Includes 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion.
June 6 about 5 a.m.: Naval bombardment of beach defences begins.
5:30 a.m.: First Canadian assault vessels leave ships for shore.
6:30 a.m.: First Americans land at beaches.
7:25 a.m.: First British land.
About 7:45 a.m.: First Canadians land.
10:30 a.m.: First assault waves ashore.
Noon: Juno Beach secure.
12:45 p.m.: Maj. Rod Keller (Canadian commanding officer) goes ashore.
Advance continues until nightfall.
— The Canadian Press