32 calibre German pistol.Vernon Barr
German Helmet (left), and Canadian Helmet (right) worn by Mr. Barr during the war, 1944.V. Barr
"And that was the first indication that France was the actual target. He said, don’t tell this to the infantry but artillery win my battles and this is going to be a big gunfight. And he was right."
I was in the [Royal] Canadian Corps of Signals, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division Corps of Signals. But the training we had for these amphibious landings was, well, I would say units of the 3rd Division must have made 100 together, collectively, must have made a 100 or so landings. I wrote my memoirs and I will remember the last one was sometime in March, I think, in 1944, could be March or April. And I was on the command destroyer and she was long and narrow. And oh, she was hoved to for the bombardment and how she rolled. I remember sitting there and thinking there was no way that I would be able to go up and operate that set. But once I got up there, the open air sort of brought me to, and I looked around and nobody else on that bridge seemed to feel any better than I did.
But I remember after the bombardment, we went ashore and I was recovering somewhat from this and I was watching our, I think it was, the [Royal New Brunswick] North Shore Regiment going past, and I remember saying to the operator with me, boy, am I glad we don’t have to fight those guys. Did they look some tough with all their landing gear and, and we were in great shape.
Montgomery was in command of all the landing, Field Marshal [Bernard] Montgomery. He had come back from Italy and North Africa. It was just before, he asked to see all the artillery and attached signals of the 3rd Division. And that meeting took place at [RAF] Beaulieu Airport, I can well remember going there. There must have been 4,000 men there. And I remember Monty get up on that vehicle and that was the first time we were told that the actual landing was going to be made in France. And I wonder how many guys can remember his exact words. I, I can see him now, he said, I, he said, I’m as sick of this war as you are, but he said, we’re going to see this thing through together, we’re going over there and knock the Germans for six right out of France. [laughs] And that was the first indication that France was the actual target. He said, don’t tell this to the infantry but artillery win my battles and this is going to be a big gunfight. And he was right.
You see, we had three landings. There was a, the British 3rd Division landed on our left at Sword [Beach]; the 3rd Canadian Division landed in the centre at Courseulles, Bernières and Saint-Aubin, they called this collectively Juno Beach but there were three beaches; and the British 50th Division landed on our right, that was Gold [Beach].
Funny, the thing I remember more than anything was the bombardment, that was, that the crashing in, that the shell being thrown overboard or that splash, for some reason, I remember that. Yeah, every time I see a poppy. I, when I got ashore, the Canadian Scottish [Regiment] had just gone through a wheat field, just to the left of Courseulles and red poppies, first time I’d seen poppies growing, were growing all through that wheat. And the Canadian Scottish, it was a reserve battalion, they went in after the main attack. They had red shoulder flashes and I could see those red flashes for the guys who had been hit and then the poppies; and it looked at first as if the whole battalion was down. Fortunately later, I found that the, it wasn’t as bad as it looked. But I’ll always remember that, the shock of that at first, I thought, my God, they’ve killed the whole regiment. But they hadn’t.
I remember my first night ashore, there was, between the 3rd British Division and us, there were several miles of broken rocks and beaches, and I couldn’t see why the Germans wouldn’t put in their counterattack, right into that gap between the two of us. And we were all out, anticipating this. Fortunately, it didn’t happen. The Germans had a big strong armoured division called the 21st Panzer Division. It was a political formation, formed of the SS [Schutzstaffel], criminal organization really, as far as we were concerned. But that was their fire department in the west. They were 21,000 strong and they were the fire department too. They were stationed near Rouen, I found out afterward and they marched all night to smash the landing.
And the counterattack that the units of that put in were in the best traditions of the German army. Boy, sudden volcano of gunfire and then tanks right in among you. But they lost so many people coming down that their attacks came in piecemeal. They weren’t able to wait until they concentrated as well. Our guys held them. High and away in the morning, the next morning a regiment of tanks came up to take out the German tanks that hadn’t been destroyed and the artillery was still firing and the infantry was still in the line. So, you can live through anything.
After the Falaise Gap was fought, when the Germans at Normandy were rounded up, shall we say, at Falaise, some of their army got out and retreated and the Scheldt was fought after that. The British army cleared all of Belgium in 48 hours, the second army. That was amazing. The whole, the whole of Belgium was cleared of Germans except for the Scheldt Estuary in 48 hours. And they bypassed the Scheldt. They took Antwerp. It was a calculated risk and that was a mistake, we should have taken the Scheldt then, because there’s a 60 mile isthmus there that the Germans controlled and ships simply couldn’t sail up to Antwerp, up that river because the Germans held it. And they knew they had to hold it. And they did.
We went up the channel coast, taking the ports of Bologne, Calais, you know, up to, that’s where those flying bombs were coming from and they wanted those stopped. They were bombarding Britain with so-called flying bombs, V1s. Rockets in other words. So by wrapping up that coast, we got that. And also, we were trying to get an intact port. When we finally got to Dieppe, they thought that would perhaps suffice, but it would only handle so many tonnes. It wasn’t a major operating port. That’s what the Scheldt Estuary was fought for, so that the supplies could reach the port of Antwerp for unloading, the Belgian port of Antwerp.
That was the last place that we took in the Scheldt, that’s where the German headquarters was. It was a golf course there actually where their headquarters was, K-N-O-C-K-E, Knocke. I guess that’s how you pronounce it. It was quite a famous summer resort I understand. I always remember, there was a huge depot there, German army depot. They had all kinds of supplies. My God, I had a whole case of morphine I found intact. I thought, what am I going to do with this. I gave it to the MO, medical officer, I don’t know what finally happened to it. But the Belgians were there, wondering if they could come in. We used to say, go ahead, it’s your country. It was, oh, the supplies there, unbelievable.
Our fighting actually ended on the 5 May, before the rest of the armies got through. The war officially ended on the eighth. But on our front, it ended on the fifth because all the Germans in northwest Europe surrendered to us on the fifth. And I remember we got the message, we got a message that day that said, hold all your present positions but take no offensive action. And everyone thought, God, what’s going on. And then came the unbelievable order to ceasefire, empty guns and stand down. In other words, the guns would no longer be needed and we had apparently survived until the outcome. And then of course, we got word that the war had officially ended. Unbelievable.