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Juno Beach: Canada’s D-Day Victory: June 6, 1944

by Mark Zuehlke

D-Day: Juno Beach, Canada’s 24 Hours of Destiny

by Lance Goddard

Beginning with the First World War, the recollections of the common soldier have been given increasing credence as primary source material for Western military history. The obvious benefit of this inclusion is additional material to help the historian complete the physical story of a battle – who was doing what, where, and when. Of a more profound impact is the use of veterans’ recollections to explore the emotional dimension of a battle narrative, thereby avoiding the uncomfortable irony of often bloodless descriptions of what is elaborately bloody.

The dozens of titles released this year to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day demonstrate the state-of-the-art use of veterans’ accounts in military history. Of particular interest is the welcome plethora of titles concerning Canada’s part in D-Day. These works are long overdue. With the exception of the 1966 edition of C.P. Stacey’s venerable, ponderous, and desiccated official history, there has been a noticeable lack of detailed Canadian histories.

The two most recent books to focus on Canada’s part in D-Day are writer Mark Zuehlke’s Juno Beach and writer/producer Lance Goddard’s D-Day: Juno Beach, Canada’s 24 Hours of Destiny. These are two very different books that provide a study in contrast in the use of veterans’ accounts.

Zuehlke’s book is a detailed company- and individual-level narrative that follows the Canadian soldiers as they secured (or failed to secure) intermediate objectives throughout the day. A third of the book is dedicated to the extensive preparations prior to the battle – as much a part of D-Day as the actual landing.

As with his unparalleled histories of Second World War Canadian battles in Italy, Zuehlke relies more heavily on veterans’ accounts than academic histories, which tend to rely more on official records. The accounts, though, are referenced against official material and are expertly blended into the larger battle narrative. The veterans’ stories are also used to further the physical and emotional description of the day.

Zuehlke’s Juno Beach is destined to become the defining popular history of Canada’s D-Day battle. No other battle narrative on the subject comes close to the breadth and depth of detail, nor the clarity of presentation. Indeed, the detail is such that the avid reader intent on getting the most out of the work had best approach the book with a clear mind, a scratch pad, and better maps than those included.

A completely different beast is Goddard’s D-Day, a companion piece to a documentary of the same name. The book is a compilation of transcribed interviews with Canadian D-Day veterans whose accounts are divided into 24 chapters corresponding to each of the 24 hours of June 6 and what the interviewees were doing in that hour.

The book, by its nature, lacks the depth of detail or analysis of Juno Beach. As a result, we learn how the participants were alternately frightened, confused, and determined, though the accounts are not sufficiently contextualized to be appreciated on a tactical level. As a history oriented on personal anecdote, Ted Barris’ recent Juno does a more thorough job of putting veterans’ oral history in the context of the battle. Perhaps we should approach Goddard’s book not as a history per se, but rather as a compilation of primary source material within easy reach for future work.

Both Zuehlke and Goddard extensively praise the Canadians who fought on D-Day, and point out the truly remarkable achievements and unquestionable courage exhibited that day. They have each chosen different avenues to approach that praise – Zuehlke has used the battle-piece format to remember the participants through the event, while Goddard has used oral history to remember the event through its participants. In either case, the inclusion of veteran memory is an important part of the homage due to those carrying those memories, and is vital to remind us of the individual sacrifices made in an increasingly dim past.