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 1940 National Registration File

Are you looking for a Canadian ancestor or someone who was living in Canada during the Second World War?  The National Registration was a result of the National Resources Mobilization Act, 1940, which enabled the government to identify military and labour resources that could be mobilized for the war effort.

Since most sources for that time period are still subject to access or privacy restrictions under Canadian legislation, Statistics Canada’s National Registration File of 1940 is an alternative to census records that can provide you with some answers. This very valuable source for genealogists and family historians is the result of the compulsory registration of all persons, 16 years of age or older, between 1940 and 1946.

If the person has been dead for more than 20 years, and you can provide proof of death, you can order a search of these Statistics Canada records. Please note that research fees apply.

If you cannot provide a copy of a death certificate, other types of documents indicating the date of death are accepted, such as obituary notices published in newspapers.

The registration included all persons who were 16 years of age or older, except for members of the armed forces and religious orders, or those confined to an institution. If a person died between 1940 and 1946, their questionnaire might have been destroyed. A different form was used for men than was used for women.

The questionnaires provide particulars such as address, age, date and place of birth, general health, and occupation. For immigrants, key details such as the year of arrival in Canada and their parents’ country of birth are given.

The questionnaires include the following details:

  • name;
  • address;
  • age;
  • date of birth;
  • marital status;
  • number of dependents;
  • place and country of birth of individual and his or her parents;
  • nationality;
  • year of entry into Canada (if an immigrant);
  • racial origin;
  • languages;
  • education;
  • general health;
  • occupation, employment status, farming or mechanical skills; and
  • previous military service.

There was a different form for males and females regarding questions about occupation, work history and military service. The records are arranged by electoral district; however, a soundex-format index exists.

Image of a blank form

Sample of questionnaire for men. Courtesy of Statistics Canada.

Image of a blank form

Sample of questionnaire for woman. Courtesy of Statistics Canada.

A similar national registration was undertaken during the First World War, in June 1918; however, those records have not survived.

What if the person is not listed in the 1940 registration?

As mentioned above, perhaps he or she served in the Royal Canadian Navy, the Royal Canadian Air Force or the Canadian Army. Our previous article, From Enlistment to Burial Records Part II: the Canadian Forces in the Second World War, describes how to search for individuals who served in the Canadian Forces.

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

Anniversary of the participation of military tanks in combat

Tanks first appeared for military use in September 1916 at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette in France. The First World War was at a pivotal point, since the Battle of the Somme had begun a few months earlier.

Developed in great secrecy over a number of years, the tanks did not, in general, inspire confidence from military authorities of the time. However, their trial in combat conditions in 1916 revealed their true potential. Well-known officers, such as American George S. Patton, were firm believers in the role of the tank; Patton was one of the first officers to command an armoured unit.

Tanks were heavy, slow, loud and could be easily located by the cloud of black smoke they spewed behind them. The first models were made of wood with metal frames; a full metal structure was quickly adopted, since it was fire resistant and shellproof.

The period between the two World Wars saw some major improvements to the tanks. When the Second World War began in 1939, the usefulness of tanks was no longer in doubt. Tanks became a common feature of any army. In 1941, Canada produced its first tank, the Cruiser, and its production continued during the entire conflict.

Canadian armoured units used numerous tank models during the Second World War, such as the Sherman, an American model.

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

Summary of comments received in French up to September 30th, 2013

  • A user asked when and where the Canadian tanks were used. LAC answered that the Canadian tank « Cruise » also called « Ram » was used for the training of Allied Forces in England from 1941 until mid-1944. This tank was not used for combat during the Second World War.

Understand the Abbreviations Commonly Found in Military Service Files

In previous posts, we’ve explained how to order Military Service files and we’ve even outlined what type of documents you are likely to find in them; but what happens once you begin reading a Military Service file and see abbreviations? You may recognize some abbreviations, such as “YMCA” (Young Men’s Christian Association), but others, such as “11thIFofC” or “YISMHRCAMC”, may prove to be somewhat puzzling.

Help Is at Hand

Understanding these abbreviations can be difficult, especially if you are unfamiliar with Canadian military history. For this reason, the Genealogy Services have transcribed over 6,000 abbreviations commonly found in these records and have added them to a list of abbreviations used in military service files. Using this list, you can search for the abbreviations in alphabetical order.

Understanding that “11thIFofC” stands for “11th Regiment (Irish Fusiliers of Canada)” or that “YISMHRCAMC” means “York Island Station Military Hospital Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps” will help you decipher the soldier’s life and provide you with a much better understanding of ranks, jobs, regiments and much more.

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

What’s New? New Functionality for the Second World War Service Files: Canadian Armed Forces War Dead Database

A new functionality was recently added to the Second World War Service Files: Canadian Armed Forces War Dead database. It is now possible to add a keyword to narrow down a search, and specifically, to identify soldiers who died in the Battle of Hong Kong.

In November of 1941, almost 2,000 members of the Royal Rifles of Canada and the Winnipeg Grenadiers were sent to bolster the British colony’s defences. Soon afterwards, the colony was attacked by the Japanese Empire. Combat losses were heavy: over 290 soldiers died during the battle and 493 were wounded. All the survivors were taken as prisoners of war and during the next four years an additional 300 soldiers would die in captivity. The Battle of Hong Kong began on December 8, 1941 and lasted 17 days. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the battle.

For more information on recent announcements at LAC, visit “News”.