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Dickens, Kipling... and Canada

Portsmouth

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This resort city of 200,000 is famous for many things -- the birthplace of Dickens, home to H.G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and others, as well as the home port for historic ships such HMS Terror and HMS Victory -- but Canadians also left their mark here during the Second World War.

The story of D-Day begins not on the beaches of Normandy, but here in southern England where thousands of troops assembled for battle.

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It was from here and nearby Southampton that more than 15,000 Canadian soldiers boarded ships on June 4, where they held up until Gen. Dwight Eisenhower set the invasion date for June 6.

They started to leave late on June 5 on infantry-carrying ships before being transported to assault crafts closer to Normandy, where they were to land at around 7 a.m., although precise times varied across the landing zone.

In comparison, it took our tour group seven hours to cross from Portsmouth to Normandy on board a ferry.

Portsmouth has not forgotten the Canadians. The city's famous D-Day museum gives Canada its full due, although it attributes the liberation of the French city of Caen to British forces, ignoring Canada's critical role in the operation.

There are also plaques and memorials in the city that honour Canadians who served and helped relieve the pressure on this naval port, one of the most important in England. Canadian firefighters served here, too.

It was a major target for the Luftwaffe, which caused considerable damage and casualties. The Germany navy ventured to within eyesight of Portsmouth's rocky beaches. In the week prior to the invasion, Allied troops were practising landing skills on the nearby Isle of Wight when German motor torpedo boats sank several landing craft, killing hundreds of soldiers.

Fortunately, they did not suspect they had stumbled on preparations for the largest seaborne invasion in history.

The German attack may even have been visible from the Royal Beach Hotel, where our group of Canadian tourists stayed while preparing for our own invasion of northwest Europe.

The hotel was built in 1866, the largest and most fashionable in the seaside region at that time. The hotel served its country in both world wars, as a hospital for officers in the First World War and then as a casualty station during the second war.

The D-Day museum here is a popular destination for tourists and school children, who were still visiting in early July because school in England and many European countries operates until the end of July. Kids still get the same amount of time off as Canadians, but it's spread out over the year.

The museum's centrepiece is the Overlord Embroidery, which at 83 metres in length, is the world's longest embroidery of its kind. It traces in visual form the progress of Overlord, from its origins in the dark days of 1940 to victory in Normandy in 1944.

The museum includes original documents, veterans' memoirs and sound recordings of the reminiscences of veterans and other witnesses to D-Day and Operation Overlord. There is also a dawn to dusk reconstruction of the Allied landings by sea and air on D-Day itself.

dave.obrien@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 J12

History

Updated on Saturday, November 10, 2012 at 1:37 PM CST: Adds photo

1:40 PM: removes photo -- wrong story

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