A selection of records about D-Day and the Normandy Campaign, June 6 to August 30, 1944

By Alex Comber

With part 1 of this post, we marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day and commemorated Canada’s participation in the June 6, 1944, invasion of northwestern Europe, and the Normandy Campaign, which ended on August 30, 1944. In part 2, we explore some of the unique collections that Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds about these events, and highlight some records that are the most accessible to our clients online. Through outreach activities, targeted and large-scale digitization, DigiLab and our new and Co-Lab initiatives, LAC is striving to make records more easily available.

A black-and-white image taken from moving film, showing soldiers exiting a landing craft.

A frame of Canadian Army Newsreel No. 33, which includes a sequence of film from the Canadian D-Day landings on June 6, 1944

LAC staff receive many reference requests about our collections of photos. Canadian Film and Photo Unit (CFPU) personnel went ashore 75 years ago, on D-Day, filming and photographing as they landed. During the Normandy Campaign, they continued to produce a visual record that showed more front-line operations than official photographers had been able to capture in previous conflicts. Film clips were incorporated into “Canadian Army Newsreels” for the audiences back home, with some clips, such as the D-Day sequence above, being used internationally.

Photographers attached to the army and navy used both black-and-white and colour cameras, and the ZK Army and CT Navy series group the magnificent colour images together.

A colour photograph showing an armoured vehicle with a large main gun.

A British Centaur close-support howitzer tank assisting Canadians during the Normandy Campaign (e010750628)

Some of the most iconic imagery of the Canadian military effort in Normandy was incorporated into the Army Numerical series; by the end of hostilities, this had grown to include more than 60,000 photographs. The print albums that were originally produced during the Second World War to handle reproduction requests can help in navigating this overwhelming amount of material. Researchers at our Ottawa location refer to these volumes as the “Red Albums,” because of their red covers. These albums allow visitors to flip through a day-by-day visual record of Canadian army activities from the Second World War. LAC has recently digitized print albums 74, 75, 76 and 77, which show events in France from June 6 until mid-August 1944.

A page of black-and-white photographs showing photos of landing craft, destroyed enemy beach defences, and villages and landing beaches.

A page from Army Numerical print album Volume 74 of 110, showing the immediate aftermath of the landings (e011217614)

LAC also holds an extensive collection of textual records related to the events of June–August 1944. One of the most important collections is the War Diaries of Canadian army units that participated in the campaign. Units overseas were required to keep a daily record, or “War Diary,” of their activities, for historical purposes. These usually summarized important events, training, preparations and operations. In the Second World War, unit war diaries also often included the names of soldiers who were killed or seriously injured. Officers added additional information, reports, campaign maps, unit newsletters and other important sources in appendices. Selected diaries are being digitized and made accessible through our online catalogue. One remarkable diary, loaded in two separate PDF scans under MIKAN 928089, is for the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, the first Canadian soldiers in action on D-Day, as part of “Operation Tonga,” the British 6th Airborne Division landings.

A colour digitized image of a typescript account of D-Day operations.

Daily entry for June 6, 1944, from the War Diary of the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, detailing unit objectives for Operation Overlord (D-Day) (e011268052)

War diaries of command and headquarters units are also important sources because they provide a wider perspective on the successes or failures of military operations. These war diaries included documents sourced from the units under their command. Examples that are currently digitized include the Headquarters of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, from June and July 1944.

: A colour digitized image of a typescript account of D-Day operations.

War Diary daily entries for early June 1944, including the first section of a lengthy passage about operations on June 6, 1944 (e999919600)

LAC is also the repository for all Second World War personnel files of the Canadian Active Service Force (Overseas Canadian Army), Royal Canadian Navy and Royal Canadian Air Force. The service files of approximately 44,000 men and women who died while serving in these forces from 1939 to 1947 are open to the public. These records include the more than 5,000 files of those who died in operations during the Normandy Campaign. As the result of a partnership with Ancestry.ca, a portion of every open service file was digitized. This selection of documents was then loaded on Ancestry.ca, fully accessible to Canadians who register for a free account. To set up a free account and access these files on Ancestry.ca, see this information and instruction page on our website.

These records have great genealogical and historical value. As the following documents show, they continue to be relevant, and they can powerfully connect us to the men and women who served in the Second World War, and their families.

Medical document that shows a schematic view of upper and lower teeth, with annotations indicating missing teeth and dental work.

Private Ralph T. Ferns of Toronto went missing on August 14, 1944, during a friendly-fire incident. His unit, the Royal Regiment of Canada, was bombed by Allied aircraft as soldiers were moving up to take part in Operation Tractable, south of Caen. Sixty years later, near Haut Mesnil, France, skeletal remains were discovered. The Department of National Defence’s Casualty Identification Program staff were able to positively identify Private Ferns. The medical documents in his service file, including this dental history sheet, were important sources of information. Ferns was buried with full military honours at Bretteville-sur-Laize Canadian War Cemetery in 2008, with his family in attendance

An official document written in French, dated July 1948, that responds to a family request to communicate with those caring for the grave of Private Alexis Albert, North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment.

Private Alexis Albert, serving with the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment, was killed in action in France on June 11, 1944. Four years later, his father, Bruno Albert, living in Caraquet, New Brunswick, requested the address of the family that was tending his son’s grave at Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery in France, to thank them. The Director of War Service Records, Department of Veterans Affairs, provided this response, which helped to connect the grieving family in Canada with French citizens carefully maintaining the burial plot in Normandy.

These are only a few examples of LAC records related to the Canadian military effort in France from June 6 until the end of August 1944. Our Collection Search tool can locate many other invaluable sources to help our clients explore the planning and logistical efforts to sustain Canadian military operations in France, delve deeper into the events themselves, and discover personal stories of hardships, accomplishments, suffering and loss.

A black-and-white photograph showing many rows of Imperial War Graves Commission headstones, and a large Cross of Sacrifice.

Bény-sur-Mer Canadian War Cemetery, which includes the graves of 2,000 Canadian soldiers who died during the early phases of the Normandy Campaign (e011176110)


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

The Battle of Flers-Courcelette

By Alex Comber

Far from achieving their objectives, the Battles of the Somme, continuing into August 1916, had accomplished little, at enormous expenditure of lives and resources. The Battle of Flers-Courcelette, which took place September 15 to 22, 1916, was another attempt to achieve a decisive result on the Somme Front. Fighting as part of the British Reserve Army, the Canadian Corps, commanded by Sir Julian Byng, would contribute two of its infantry divisions to the left wing of a wider attack.

This was the first major offensive operation for the Canadians, and their first experience of the devastating human toll of combat in 1916. The battle began by a massive artillery bombardment of enemy positions, similar to the earlier Somme battles. This “creeping barrage” was better timed with the pace of advancing soldiers, and kept just ahead of them. Most enemy units did not have time to recover and prepare their defences before the Canadian infantry battalions were upon them.

An image of a trench map, dated September 1916, showing the planned line of advance for the 27th Battalion near Courcelette, France.

This trench map, part of the War Diary of the 27th Battalion (City of Winnipeg), shows the planned lines of advance of this Battalion’s leading companies, from jumping-off trenches near Pozières (bottom left) toward the “final objective” just to the north of the sugar factory. Trench maps offer a wealth of detail, and this one shows the village of Courcelette at the top, and information about the other units that would advance on either flank of the 27th Battalion. (MIKAN 1883247)

Highlights of the successful advance of Canadian units included the capture of the village of Courcelette by Lt. Col. T.L. Tremblay’s 22nd Battalion (French Canadians) and the 25th Battalion (Nova Scotia Rifles) as well as the capture of the heavily fortified sugar factory east of the village by the 21st Battalion (Eastern Ontario). Elsewhere, the attack stalled, and hopes for a decisive success faded, as the Germans launched strong counterattacks or withdrew to fortified positions. Canadian units suffered approximately 24,000 wounded and killed soldiers during the operation.

A black-and-white photograph of a ruined industrial building in a destroyed landscape.

This Canadian War Records Office official photograph of October 1916 shows the remnants of what was originally a sugar factory before the War following the bombardment and Canadian advance on the fortified German position. (MIKAN 3403776)

The first tanks, called “Land ships” appeared on the battlefields of Flers-Courcelette. They were slow, cumbersome, and mechanically unreliable, and most were put out of action or broke down before they could help the advancing soldiers. However, the few that remained operational destroyed fortified pillboxes and caused chaos in enemy lines. Lt. William Ivor-Castle, an official photographer working for the Canadian War Records Office, filmed tanks advancing to their starting positions, and these caused a sensation when published in England as the first photos of tanks “in combat.”

A black-and-white photograph of a British heavy tank advancing through a shell-cratered landscape.

This Mark 1 tank, named “Crème de Menthe,” was one of the most successful of those supporting the Canadian attack at Courcelette on September 15, 1916. Early tanks were painted with colourful “Solomon-style” camouflage. (MIKAN 3397296)


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

War Diaries of the First World War and Image Search

War diaries—records held at Library and Archives (LAC)—are daily accounts of First World War units’ “actions in the field.” They provide the most complete, first-hand record of how and where individual units were deployed and the wartime experiences of their members.

A page from the war diaries of the 22nd Canadian Infantry Battalion

A page from the war diaries of the 22nd Canadian Infantry Battalion (MIKAN 2004664)

Searching War Diaries

To search the war diaries, use Image Search, a great, fast and easy way to view and consult these digitized records. Tips for searching specific diaries are available on our How to Search for War Diaries section; using keywords will also help you narrow down your search. For example, here are the search results for the diaries of the famous “Van Doos,” better known as the 22nd Battalion. We used the search terms war diaries 22nd battalion and selected “Textual material” in the “Type of material” drop-down menu.

Finding Related Materials

After consulting a unit’s diaries, redo the search you just performed, but this time leave out war diaries, and in the “Type of material” drop-down menu, select the default “All.” Here are the search results for the 22nd Battalion. Your results will still include the war diaries, but you will also see photographs, works of art and other documents related to your search term, provided that it appears in the title of these documents.

Enjoy searching and exploring the digitized materials that we have to offer!

War Diaries: Discover what individuals or military units did during the war

Are you curious to discover what battles an individual fought in? Or what a unit did during the First or Second World War? Or maybe what regions a person travelled through with their unit?

In the first post, we suggested Published Histories. If there is no published history, or it is not detailed enough, then War Diaries may help.

War Diaries are the day-to-day log of a unit’s activities. For the Army, the official term is “War Diary.” For the Navy, the official term is “Ship Log” and for the Air Force it is “Operation Record Book.”

The Advantages of War Diaries

  • They provide the most complete first-hand record of how and where the unit was deployed;
  • They provide information that may not have been included in a published history.

To search for War Diaries, please use our Archives Search database.

For more details on War Diaries, visit our Military Heritage website.

Remember

  • War Diaries are not personal diaries. They rarely record information about individual soldiers.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!

Published Histories: Discover what individuals or military units did during the war

Are you curious to discover what battles an individual fought in? Or what a unit did during the First or Second World War? Or maybe what regions a person travelled through with their unit?

If so, you have two main options, Published Histories and War Diaries. This post will focus on Published Histories.

For an easy-to-read overview of the unit’s activities, we recommend starting with Published Histories. These books are often called “regimental histories.” They cover the history and activities of the unit. The level of detail varies for each history. Some books include a variety of information such as pictures, maps, lists of unit members, and quotes from unit members.

The Advantages of Published Histories:

  • easier to read than War Diaries
  • contain a variety of information
  • can usually be sent to your local library via interlibrary loan*

You can search for these on our Library Search database by using the unit’s name.

For other suggestions of books on military units, we recommend our online exhibition, entitled From Colony to Country: A Reader’s Guide to Canadian Military History.

Our next post will discuss your second option: War Diaries.

(*) Update: End of Interlibrary Loan (ILL) Services

ILL services at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) will end in December 2012. Users of LAC‘s current services should note the following dates:

  • November 13, 2012: End of loan requests from international libraries.
  • November 16, 2012: End of renewals. All items loaned after this date will be non-renewable.
  • December 11, 2012: End of loan requests, location searches, and ILL-related photocopying services.

LAC‘s ILL listserv (CANRES-L) and Canadian Library Gateway will also be archived in December 2012.

LAC will continue to facilitate interlibrary loan activities among other institutions through the ILL form in AMICUS, and through ongoing administration of Canadian Library Symbols.

Through our modernized service channels, LAC will emphasize increased digital access to high-demand content. LAC is working with Canada’s ILL user community in order to inform this approach to accessing the institution’s unique holdings.

For more information, please visit “Interlibrary Loan at Library and Archives Canada“.

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!