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'We had to race like crazy': Remembering Islanders' D-Day role 80 years on

Vancouver Island sacrificed disproportionately on June 6, 1944 — soldiers of the Victoria-based Canadian Scottish Regiment were among the first ashore in Normandy on D-Day

Even at age 97, Earl Clark would still find himself flashing back to D-Day.

“Every once in a while you wake up in the night and, boom, you’re right there,” he said, gripping the arms of his wheelchair.

He could hear the mortar rounds raining down, see the machine-gun rounds slapping the water as the Canadian Scottish Regiment — all those Victoria boys, Nanaimo boys, Comox Valley boys — poured onto Juno Beach.

“As soon as the landing barges hit the beach, we had to race like crazy, because if you stayed on the beach for one second, you were going to get mowed down.”

Up the slope they scrambled, weighed down with gear — rifle, pack, a short-handled shovel.

It wasn’t any safer when they reached the top. “That’s where Jerry had his fortifications. He poured the lead at us.”

The Canadians had to keep their legs moving if they wanted to stay alive. “You’d go a few feet, hit the ground, roll over, and do that again.” Stay in one spot, the machine guns would zero in. “You just kept going.”

It was awful. Fallen Canadians. Fallen Germans. “It was just a sea of dead and dying. You never forget it.”

Clark reddened at the memory, trembled a bit. Behind him in their room at Saanich’s Veterans Memorial Lodge at Broadmead, his wife Margaret, her posture perfect, listened in silence.

That was in 2014, exactly 70 years after D-Day. There was no chest-thumping to his story, no flag-waving.

Clark wasn’t John Wayne in The Longest Day or Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan. He was an ordinary guy from Vancouver Island, not an actor, and what is Hollywood — or history — to the rest of us was real life to him.

Real life to a lot of other Islanders, too. Vancouver Island sacrificed disproportionately on June 6, 1944.

The soldiers of the first battalion of the Victoria-based Canadian Scottish Regiment were among the first ashore when 14,000 Canadians landed in Normandy. Other Islanders piloted landing craft through the mine-strewn surf or parachuted into the blackness of the pre-invasion night.

It has been a source of national pride ever since, Canada being assigned one of the five invasion beaches (Juno to the Canadians, Sword and Gold to the British, Omaha and Utah to the U.S.) on a landmark day in history.

The Royal Canadian Navy was there, too, 10,000 sailors in 109 ships bombarding the French coastline and ferrying troops and supplies through the heavily mined waters. The Royal Canadian Air Force also had a hand in Operation Overlord, the official name of the invasion of western Europe.

As time marched on, the Times Colonist told the stories of many D-Day veterans.

Chester Stefanek drove a transport vehicle while under fire. Bill Fisher’s role involved jumping out of a plane. Peter Ramsay led a company of the Canadian Scottish in the first wave to hit his section of French soil.

Bob Parlow was offshore aboard HMCS St. Laurent, which was firing at German positions. Frank Poole’s D-Day mission was to lead enemy fighters away from the Allied bombers. He was eventually shot down over Germany and ended up a prisoner of war.

The thing is, as we mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day this week, those stories have faded away like the old soldiers themselves — black and white images forgotten in a long-unopened drawer. That’s a shame, because what those Islanders did was worth remembering.

Take Clark. A logger before the war, he came from a hard-working family in Shirley, past Sooke, where he grew up with eight brothers and a sister.

He was a logger during the war, too, serving in the Canadian Forestry Corps in northern Scotland. That’s where he met Margaret at a dance. “At least I didn’t step on her toes,” he said. They married in 1942.

Clark was transferred to the Canadian Scottish just before D-Day. A Polish ship ferried his company across the English Channel. They scrambled down netting hanging from its hull to get to the landing craft that ran them to Juno Beach.

He remembered that a Major English was in charge. He remembered another officer, too. “His tank got hit and he lost both his legs.”

By the end of the day, the regiment was 10 kilometres inland, farther than anyone else.

The Canadian Scottish experience that day was well-documented in Ready for the Fray, the regimental history written by Reg Roy in 1957.

The infantry unit lost 87 soldiers on D-Day. More than 200 men, almost a third of the battalion’s pre-invasion strength, had become casualties by the fourth day of fighting.

The battle for the town of Putot-en-Bessin alone saw 45 Canadian Scottish killed and another 80 wounded. (The Royal Winnipeg Rifles suffered there, too, including a couple of dozen men who were flat-out murdered by SS troops after being taken prisoner.)

Some of the Canadian Scottish had been ferried across the English Channel aboard HMCS Prince Henry, which in peacetime served the B.C. coast as a Canadian National steamship.

That resulted in some Islanders stumbling into halfway-around-the-world reunions: As Canadian Scottish Lt. Stewart Ross marched up the gangplank in England, he dropped the 80 pounds of gear on his back and embraced 23-year-old Lt. Jack Davie, the leader of the ship’s flotilla of assault craft.

“Then Ross took Davie to a shipboard reunion with Maj. Dick Lendrum, who used to teach them both in the high school at Duncan, B.C.,” reported a newspaper journalist aboard Prince Henry.

Ross did not survive the war, but Davie and Lendrum remained friends. (“After the war I used to say to Dick that putting him on the beach in Normandy was my revenge for him trying to teach me Latin,” Davie recalled in 2001.)

When the Canadian Scottish were lowered from the Prince Henry for their 10-kilometre run into the beach, they did so with bagpipes echoing in their ears and, according to Roy, a much-appreciated lunch of two boiled eggs and a cheese sandwich provided by the ship’s crew to add to their rations.

Heavy seas swamped tank landing craft several kilometres from land. Soldiers became seasick. Concentrated mortar fire from the shore knocked out many tanks before the landing craft even reached the beach. While only one of the Prince Henry’s eight landing craft was lost, all eight belonging to another ship, the Prince David, were destroyed.

A reporter interviewed Davie after he returned to the Prince Henry: “Davie said the flotilla sailed through many beach obstacles to reach shore. In addition to rusty-looking mines and concrete pickets, there were trip wires stretched along the water’s edge.

“Davie’s holed craft was taken in tow by two other craft and brought back to the ship. The crew bailed furiously because they didn’t think they could make it.”

On shore, the fighting was relatively light in places, furious in others. An Indigenous soldier, Pte. B.M. Francis, killed two or three snipers, including one he shot from the hip without aiming from a distance of 50 metres, before himself being killed, Roy wrote.

Ordered to take out a dangerous German gun emplacement, Lt. Bernie Clarke replied with the now-legendary “Who? ME?” before doing the job.

A platoon led by Lt. Roger Schjelderup, a Canadian Scottish officer from Courtenay, ended the day with only 19 of 45 soldiers unscathed.

Schjelderup, among the wounded, was later photographed in a British hospital playing cards with another D-Day casualty, Salt Spring Island’s Ken Byron. Schjelderup, who had proven remarkable even before joining the army — in 1937, at age 15, he became among the first to climb Vancouver Island’s highest mountain, the 2,200-metre Golden Hinde — went on to become one of the most highly decorated Canadians of the Second World War.

In October, after leading a company that stubbornly held off a massive counterattack long enough for other troops to get in position to prevent the Germans from re-crossing the Leopold Canal, he was wounded by a grenade and captured.

Two weeks later, he and other Canadian prisoners used a hidden penknife to cut their way out of the boxcar in which they were held. They then hooked up with the Dutch Resistance, raiding German targets before, in January 1945, reaching a British unit, who fed them tea laced with rum.

That’s a very stripped-down version of a harrowing story that would been made into a Hollywood movie were Schjelderup from another country.

Instead, few of us even know his name. After Schjelderup’s death in 1974, it was left to his childhood friend and fellow outdoor enthusiast Ruth Masters, a much-respected Vancouver Island environmentalist, to drive the campaign to have a Strathcona Park lake named in his memory.

As for Byron — the wounded Salt Spring soldier photographed playing cards with Schjelderup — he had his own D-Day drama to relate: A bomb hit his landing craft the moment it dropped its ramp, badly wounding Lt. Hector Russell and leaving Byron, a sergeant, in charge.

“I was platoon commander as soon as I hit the beach,” Byron would later recall.

The 23-year-old didn’t have to wait long for his own wound. “Mortar bombs started to drop. I dove into a tank trap. My mortar man dropped right in front of me, dead. He got a piece of shrapnel in his temple. I got a piece in my cheek, cut the artery.”

A doctor patched up Byron to the point that, while coated in a mixture of sand and blood, he was able to lead the platoon inland. “I stayed in the battle for the rest of the day.”

He would survive until 2014, when he went out the way he wanted: in his own bed on the Salt Spring farm where he stubbornly lived alone. Tough old guy, just like his little brother Terry, another Canadian Scottish sergeant who would heal from his own wounds and return to Salt Spring where, like Ken, he farmed alone into his nineties.

Back in Victoria, the time difference with France allowed the D-Day story to be reported on the date it happened. “INVASION BEGINS/CANADIANS IN ACTION” blared the all-caps double-deck headline on the front of the June 6 Daily Colonist.

A day later, an article described the capital’s reaction: “News of the invasion of Europe by Allied forces did not burst like a bombshell on Victoria yesterday. It was received with sober calm. Many persons had expected it any day for a long time.”

Principals led school children in prayer. Hundreds of Victorians flooded into churches that opened their doors.

As the years went by, the D-Day story became exactly that — a story, a black-and-white photo in a history text, not quite real to most of us.

Those who were there were often reluctant to talk about it, deflecting to lighter subjects instead. When Jack Davie was joined in his Maple Bay home in 2001 for a reunion of half a dozen of those who had driven landing craft onto Juno Beach, getting them to talk about D-Day was like trying to teach a cat to fetch.

They talked about Greenberg, the Jewish crewmate who arrived at the Prince Henry wearing a German uniform.

They talked about liberating a Jeep from a drunken U.S. army officer and hoisting it aboard their ship, where it proved useful as a port runabout until the crew discovered the American military police were still looking for it, at which point they traded it to some British 8th Army soldiers in Egypt for a new vehicle, which itself had to be given a buoyancy test in the Thames after being involved in a police chase in London.

The Prince Henry vets at Davie’s house were happy to rattle on about that stuff — but not about D-Day.

Earl Clark was similarly reticent. In 2014, his daughter Christine said she grew up knowing about his physical scars — in February 1945 a German potato-masher grenade put him in a Belgian hospital for 17 days, blinded him for six weeks and left him with shrapnel in one lung and behind one eye for the rest of his life — but that she hadn’t known how much he carried D-Day inside him for all those years.

Like so many of the veterans, he kept it to himself.

After the war, Clark returned to Vancouver Island and, eventually, a life in forestry.

He died on Remembrance Day 2016 at 100 years old.

Clark and the other Islanders at D-Day were part of what has often been called Canada’s Greatest Generation — raised in the Depression, robbed of their youth by war, then grateful for the chance to build a better life.

Meeting them, it was hard not to feel a little smaller, a little softer, a little less adequate in their presence.

This story was adapted from the book On The Rocks With Jack Knox: Islanders I Will Never Forget.

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