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The face of sacrifice – A D-Day reflection from Neil Orford

June 13, 2019   ·   0 Comments

Written By MARNI WALSH

Last week, on June 6, we remembered the extraordinary sacrifices of the soldiers who stormed the dreaded beaches of Normandy in a 1944 campaign to liberate France, and begin what would be the end of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime and World War II. 

Those heavily entrenched beaches became fast graves for thousand of soldiers barely out of boyhood. Their sacrifice rippled across nations and hit friends and families with the force of the rough waves they had battled through as they landed on the shores of France. 

75 years later to the day, historian and former Shelburne High School teacher, Neil Orford, who is known for his research on the battlefields of Europe, paid his respects to the ghosts of the fallen at Juno Beach. Here, he came face to face with sacrifice, loss and the price of freedom when he met the son of Corporal Wilfred John Birch of Franklin, Manitoba. The following is Neil Orford’s reflection on the 75th Commemoration of the D-Day Landings in Normandy:

“They were both standing solitary, backs against the cordon, quietly observing the thousands of Canadians waiting for the D-Day 75 Commemoration ceremonies at Juno Beach last week to begin. It was a brilliantly beautiful day; temperature moderate and a glorious breeze off the English Channel to cool the effects of a hot sun – yet (like me) both David and Ann Birch chose not to be seated among the crowds astride the ‘Canadian’ beach in Normandy, France.

I had my reasons – none of which are relevant – for not wanting to sit still for the ceremonies, but I was curious why these two more ‘seasoned’ folks had rejected the seats  – so I struck up a conversation with them.

The planning for ‘Juno75’ had begun over 18 months ago, with collaborated teams of French and Canadian governments, military and private agencies all committed to putting on ‘one-last-great’ Canadian commemoration of D-Day while Veterans from that day could still attend. Though in their 90’s now, the hope was for many to participate with the help of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) – and over 40 did so – for some it was a repeat of many visits back to Normandy; for others, their first time since 1944. Memories of that day 75 years ago were sure to be as poignant in 2019 as they had been each year since, but to recall them back in situ would always be different.

Despite poor weather conditions and a litany of adversity, 14 000 Canadian volunteers representing all branches of military service participated in the Allied invasion of Europe on June 6 1944, in what was known as Operation Neptune – part of the broader Allied Operation Overlord. Though 359 Canadian men were killed on the beaches of Juno on D-Day itself, more than 5,000 would die in the next 100 days before Normandy would be liberated. Battles that evoke powerful memories – at Caen, Abbayé d’Ardennes, Falaise, Carpiquet and Verrières Ridge – would all be acknowledged for this last Canadian commemoration of D-Day in 2019.

David and Ann Birch are British – not Canadian – yet they had to be on Juno Beach on June 6, 2019. 

David told me: “I just knew I had to be here on June 6 because today is my 75th birthday, and also the day 75 years ago my father was killed running off a landing craft onto Juno Beach with the Royal Winnipeg Rifles – he died for Canada the day I was born.” Wilfred was just 25 when he was killed that day, not far from the iconic ‘Canada House’ at Bernières-sur-Mer – one of the beaches assigned for the Canadian assault on June 6, 1944.

With an English mother, David was raised in and around London, but has always maintained a deep pride for his father’s sacrifice and his Manitoban (and Canadian) heritage. Wilfred is buried at Bény sur Mer Canadian Cemetery with 2,000 of his comrades, only a few kilometers from where he fell. David and Ann go there often, but their visit today would have deep meaning. “As I grow older now, I am drawn closer to my father, and visiting his grave seems to get more important for me,” explained David.

While it would have been easy for me to be swept along in the majesty and spectacle of the official ceremonies at Juno Beach for ‘Juno75’- to be immersed in the speeches and pageantry – it was the experiences I shared with the Birches that left me truly moved.

In my ‘official capacity’ with Defining Moments Canada Ltd., I had been awarded a commemorative ‘Juno75’ pin to wear for the three days of events from the Juno Beach Centre – it’s a lovely memento – but on that day, on that beach and with those two British visitors to Juno, I gave the pin to David. We shared a happy, teary embrace and I thanked him for choosing to come to Juno to remember his Dad on his birthday.

I asked David to contribute his father’s story to Defining Moments Canada ‘Juno75 Story Portal’, as we are doing with all Canadians who have a ‘D-Day’ story to tell. Yet my personal memories of Juno75, will always now be inextricably entwined with Wilfred Birch….as much as any man who was there.

More about Wilfred Birch can be seen at:

https://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/2058661

The Shelburne Free Press extends thanks to Neil Orford for sharing his poignant D-Day 75 experience with our readers.



         

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