D-Day and the Normandy Campaign, June 6 to August 30, 1944

By Alex Comber

A colour photograph showing a landing craft approaching the beach, with smoke coming from a village and barrage balloons overhead.

Infantry landing craft at D-Day, June 6, 1944. (e010777287)

On this day 75 years ago, Canadian soldiers, sailors, pilots and aircrew were fighting in France in one of the largest military operations in history. Operation Neptune, or “D-Day,” was the first phase in the overall ground operations in Normandy, code-named “Operation Overlord.” Soldiers of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division conducted an assault landing on a stretch of French coast, in the massive Allied effort to establish a new theatre of operations in Western Europe. Canadian units were tasked with creating a beachhead on a section of coast code-named Juno Beach. The assignment for Canadian forces was considered an honour, as the other four beaches, code-named “Utah,” “Omaha,” “Gold,” and “Sword,” were earmarked for landings by units of the powerful Allied members of the United States and Great Britain.

A black-and-white photograph of an officer briefing a small group of non-commissioned officers with a map of a village.

Lieutenant R.R. Smith briefing the non-commissioned officers of the Regina Rifles with a sketch of their objective, Courseulles-sur-Mer, France. (e011084119)

Senior Allied commanders and military planners at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force had learned from previous operations, such as the failure at Dieppe two years before, and the successful landings in Sicily in July 1943. This effort to open a new front in the war would benefit from a coordinated approach between land, sea, and air forces, along with comprehensive planning, attention to logistics, a massive build-up of equipment and personnel, feints and decoys to keep the enemy guessing, and a steady flow of accurate intelligence about enemy strengths and dispositions.

An armada of naval vessels escorted the invasion forces across the English Channel, while the airspace was controlled by squadrons of Allied aircraft. A vast array of specialized landing craft transported personnel, tanks, and artillery. In the Canadian sector, craft deposited men and equipment near the villages of Courseulles-sur-Mer, Bernières-sur-Mer, and Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer.

A colour photograph showing soldiers, laden with arms and equipment, walking in shallow water towards a French village.

Canadian infantry going ashore at Bernières-sur-Mer in Normandy, France. (e010750646)

Tanks of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade struggled ashore and began supporting the advancing infantry soldiers by firing on reinforced enemy positions, while some units of the Royal Canadian Artillery had already been bombarding enemy positions from their landing craft on the final approach. Hours earlier, paratroopers of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion had been dropped deep behind enemy lines as part of Operation Tonga, the airborne landings by the British 6th Airborne Division. Their mission was to destroy bridges, secure strongpoints, support a nearby attack by British paratroopers, and generally create chaos and hamper enemy efforts to counter-attack.

A black-and-white photograph showing a soldier in a paratrooper jump smock, holding a Sten sub-machine gun, sitting on a bicycle in a field.

Private Tom J. Phelan, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, who was wounded at Le Mesnil on June 16, 1944, rides his airborne folding bicycle at the battalion’s reinforcement camp, England, 1944. (a204971)

A black-and-white photograph showing a column of soldiers marching up a street in a damaged village.

Infantrymen of Le Régiment de la Chaudière moving through Bernières-sur-Mer, France, June 6, 1944. (a131436)

The fighting on the ground was accompanied by more involvement from Canadians serving in other forces. Pilots and aircrew flying with many Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force squadrons provided air cover for the naval operation and ground fighting, patrolled the coasts, attacked enemy troops and armour, provided photo-reconnaissance, and served on bombing missions to support the landings.

A black-and-white photograph showing a group of RCAF personnel posing beside and on top of a fighter-bomber aircraft, fitted with a large bomb.

RCAF 440 Squadron members pose with a Hawker Typhoon in Normandy, France. (e010775786)

On D-Day, Royal Canadian Navy personnel served in more than 70 naval vessels (landing craft, destroyers bombarding the coast, and minesweepers clearing the way for the invasion forces). In early July, a naval Beach Commando unit went ashore to direct forces and maintain order on the invasion beaches.

A black-and-white photograph showing two rows of sailors in battle dress, front row crouching, with a damaged fortified concrete structure behind them.

Personnel of W-2 Party, Royal Canadian Navy Beach Commando “W” outside a German fortification in the Juno sector of the Normandy beachhead, France, July 20, 1944. (a180831)

The first Canadian boots on the ground in France would be joined by an entire army in mid-July. The First Canadian Army would become the largest formation of men and women in uniform in Canadian history. Bitter fighting continued as the Allied ground forces resisted counter-attacks and pushed inland. Canadian army units would gain objectives in operations at Carpiquet, around Caen, and advancing towards Falaise, but at great human cost.

Approximately 350 Canadian military personnel were killed during the D-Day landings. By the end of August, Canadian land, sea, and air forces had suffered about 5,000 fatalities as a result of operations in France, while many more were wounded. Operation Overlord closed in late August, as opposition crumbled in Normandy and surviving German units withdrew to regroup.

A black-and-white photograph showing a long column of German soldiers being directed by Allied soldiers along a beach, with vehicles, a sea wall, and a prominent house in the background.

German personnel captured on D-Day embarking for England. (a132474)

Check back on July 4th to read Part two of LAC’s 75th Anniversary of D-day series, which will explore some of the unique collections LAC holds about these events.


Alex Comber is a Military Archivist in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

The Children of Topley – Pint-sized portraits from the William Topley collection

The William Topley collection at Library and Archives Canada is an invaluable resource for those interested in nineteenth-century Canadian photographic portraiture. Comprised of over 150,000 glass plate negatives as well as studio proofs and counter books, the Topley collection dates from 1868 to 1923, and illustrates the prolific career of Topley, a Montreal-area native, who began his solo career by opening a branch of the William Notman studio on Ottawa’s Wellington Street. While Topley did photograph subject matter other than people, portraits were his chosen specialty and the collection is a wonderful example of early Canadian studio work.

By the early 1870s Topley had purchased the studio he had been managing for William Notman, and was attracting upwards of 2,300 sitters per year. Topley’s prestigious downtown Ottawa location—he moved multiple times over the years, but always within walking distance to parliament—meant he attracted much of the city’s elite, including politicians and other important figures, who made their way to the photographer’s studio to have their portraits taken.

Children were often the subject of these portraits, posing alone or with siblings. In looking through these images we notice not only recognizable names, identifying some of these children as the offspring of the capital city’s movers and shakers, but something unchanged despite the time period. We see beyond the formality, the constricting clothing and stiff poses, and recognize that these portraits are not too different from those we might take today. We recognize children dressed up for a photo, attempting to sit still, looking either overly eager or slightly bored.

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl in a white dress.

Missie McLaren, 1873 (MIKAN 3461050)

Studio photographers of this era often had clients pose with props, and Topley was no different. In his portraits of children we notice items like books, skipping ropes, dolls or pets clutched in the hands of the small sitters. Some children stand or sit up very straight with serious, concentrated expressions on their faces, while others lounge tiredly in chairs. In these ones especially, we can imagine how tedious the long exposures must have felt to a child, how many plates the photographer might have had to take to get a proper, non-blurry image.

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl with her chin resting on her hands, a book beside her.

Missie Cambie, 1877 (MIKAN 3435180)

Also interesting are the portraits of babies with hidden, or barely-in-the-frame mothers. It was quite common at the time for babies to sit on their mothers’ laps for a portrait, while a blanket or other fabric was thrown over the mother so that only the baby would be the focus. In several of Topley’s portraits of babies, we see a more subtle approach, with the mother encouraging the child from the edge of the frame. The photographer would later crop the mother out for the final print.

Black-and-white photograph of a young child with the mother to the right, partially blacked out.

Missie Ruttan, 1876 (MIKAN 3434482)

These wonderful portraits provide an alternative perspective on the face of Canada’s capital in the nineteenth century, and seem to offer a bridge from past to present, where some things never change.

Black-and-white photograph of two young boys in black jackets, one seated and one standing on a chair.

Two boys posing—Master Borthwick, 1882 (MIKAN 3418410)

Black-and-white photograph of a young girl dressed in winter clothing.

Missie Helena Topley, 1882 (MIKAN 3418246)

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