Canadian Juno Beach Centre
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- Last updated: 18/12/2022
The contribution made to the Allied war effort by Canada is sometimes overlooked or included with that of Britain. As a dominion state, Canada was self-governing with its own Parliament and Prime Minister, William McKenzie King. In 1939, the country had a population of some 11.5 million, with a strong industry exporting foodstuffs and manufactured goods. At the time, the strength of the Canadian army was about 8,000 but as the war continued, the country’s armed forces would expand to almost 800,000 men and women and would suffer nearly 100,000 casualties, including killed, wounded and missing. The amount of war material produced has led to the country being termed the ‘other arsenal of Democracy’, after America. Canadian factories produced 900,000 vehicles of all types, more than one million light weapons and thousands of tons of ammunition, plus ships, aircraft and all manner of other essentials, such as wood, paper and foodstuffs.
Canadian troops fought in most theatres of war, including Italy and North Africa, but it was in northwest Europe where they had the most impact. One of the earliest experiences for Canadian troops was the Dieppe raid, Operation Jubilee, on the 19th of August 1942, which was a disaster. From this operation, with its heavy losses, Canadian troops learned valuable lessons which helped better prepare them for D-Day on the 6th of June 1944. On that fateful day, 21,500 men of the Canadian 3rd Division landed on Juno Beach, a stretch of the Normandy coastline, extending eastwards for more than five miles from La Riviére to St Aubin sur Mer. The first landings came ashore at 07.40hrs and fought hard, which would leave them with 925 casualties by the end of the day’s fighting.
For many years, local memorials to unit actions were the only tributes to commemorate the bravery of the men who served in regiments such as the Fort Garry Horse, North Nova Scotias Highlanders and Le Regiment de la Chaudière. These plaques and plinths reminded people of some of the things that happened, but they did not tell the whole story. Unlike other landing beaches, Juno did not have a museum dedicated to the events of that day in June 1944. However, all that was redressed in 2003, when the Juno Beach Centre was built.
It is a unique exhibition because it is the only one of its kind telling the history of the Canadian forces which fought in Normandy and helped in breaking the back of the German resistance.
Built in the shape of a stylised maple leaf, the museum lies in Courseulles-sur-Mer, in the centre of the landing beach, where King George VI and Winston Churchill would later land, as would General de Gaulle. Today, the harbour is a marina for pleasure boats, but in 1944 the area was strongly defended and the scene of fierce fighting.
The museum is a bright and well-lit modern building incorporating the latest interactive technology, plus the more traditional method of relating history using display cabinets. Visits begin with a film presentation that shows visitors the landings from the soldier’s point of view as they approached the beaches. The area where visitors stand to watch the film has been designed to represent a landing craft, which adds to the experience.
There is plenty of space to allow room for a series of permanent displays telling the involvement of Canada in the war. These include posters, maps and personal items, through to the more generic items such as weapons and kit. The life-sized uniformed manikins are exhibited against backdrop displays to create dioramas to show roles such as ships, aircrew of the Royal Canadian Air Force and beach landing parties clearing obstacles. For those visitors who wish for a more in-depth explanation, there are guides who can act as escorts and answer any questions.
On D-Day, the area around Courseulles was defended by three concrete-emplaced strongpoints, known as ‘Widerstandsnest’, numbered WN29, to the east of the site, on the other side of the estuary, WN 30 in the village itself, and WN 31, which stands outside the museum. This site was armed with one 75mm gun, two more of 50mm calibre, along with machine guns and at least one mortar. They were used to confront men of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles who landed in this area. Entry to the bunker is included in the museum visit. The way in which the waters of the river Seulles flows creates an island, which helped the Germans defend the area and made it so difficult for the Canadians.
After the museum, visitors can wander around the site to see other features. These include examples of the beach obstacles which hampered the landings. A couple of hundred yards walk away is the site where Charles de Gaulle landed and it is marked by the Cross of Lorraine. Close by are some destroyed bunkers, showing the strength of the defences. Continue following the path and visitors arrive to see a Churchill ‘Petard’ AVRE tank standing as a memorial to the men who landed here.
Retracing the route from the museum, visitors can walk across bridges to reach the eastern side of the town, where a duplex-drive Sherman tank is another memorial to the men who fought here. The tank, unfortunately, sank while trying to land and an information board explains everything about it. This side of the waterway was defended by one 88mm gun, two 75mm and two 50mm guns, all in casemates, along with machine guns and mortars.
This stretch of the landing beaches is less visited than many other sites and using a map from the museum shop, it is possible to walk through the sand dunes to get an image of the German defences along the coast. There are plenty of facilities in the town and ample car parking, either in the immediate area of the museum or off-site.
This is a fascinating location to visit and being so much less commercialised than other locations, visitors with an interest in events on D-Day can take time to absorb the drama that unfolded here.
The Juno Beach Centre has educational facilities for students and there is good access for wheelchair users. An on-site shop stocks DVDs and books relating to events on Juno landing beach, along with maps and other items. For full details of opening times, news of events and exhibitions, visit www.junobeach.org