When the German officer ordered Len Fitzgerald to sit down at the side of the road, the young soldier thought his war had come to an end.
With the officer standing behind him, Fitzgerald waited for the click of his pistol.
There was precedent. Just days earlier, an SS general had ordered the killing of Canadian troops captured in the days following the D-Day invasion of Normandy – Canadians from Fitzgerald’s own North Nova Scotia Highlanders.
Fitzgerald was with the “North Novas” as they waded ashore under fire on June 6, 1944 near the picturesque town of Courseulles. They were the second wave in. The first had been badly mauled as landing craft threaded their way through mine-topped obstacles, and men dodged withering machine gun and shell fire. Their job was to continue the push and secure the airfield at Carpiquet, critical to the capture of Caen.
Fitzgerald was one of the “originals” – soldiers who had joined the North Novas in Canada and sailed to England aboard the RMS Orion.
That was July 18, 1941. Fitzgerald was a 17-year-old private (he had lied about his age), earning $1.50 a day.
His next three years would be focused on one thing: Preparing for the eventual invasion of France. Fitzgerald was young, but he knew he didn’t want to finish the war a private. He set out to learn whatever he could and was soon part of the signal corps, responsible for ensuring communication links were kept open even in the thick of battle.
His training took him first to northern Scotland, where he and his troop-mates assumed they’d soon be landing in Norway.
Later he was off the Isle of Wight, practising assault landings on beaches similar to what he’d find at Normandy.
The Normandy invasion was unprecedented in scale, and years in the making. More than 156,000 Canadian, British and American troops would be ashore by nightfall, supported by 4,000 aircraft and 7,000 naval vessels.
Fitzgerald was among those men. He landed on Juno Beach, the 10-kilometre stretch assigned to the Canadian Third Infantry Division and the Second Canadian Armoured Brigade. On their left and their right were the British at beaches Sword and Gold, respectively. The Americans were landing at beaches Utah and Omaha.
Shells were still falling and enemy aircraft strafing overhead as Fitzgerald, now a lance-corporal, plunged chest-high into the icy Atlantic waters. Despite growing up on Prince Edward Island, he had never learned to swim. “I was too busy working in the boats,” he says with a chuckle, his PEI accent still evident.
The Canadians had been hit hard. Treacherous shoals and choppy water delayed their armoured support, leaving infantry vulnerable to machine gun fire that was sighted to crisscross the beach.
By day’s end, 359 Canadians lay dead, another 600 were wounded.
Despite the losses, Canadian troops had pushed farther inland than any other army. And with Carpiquet in sight, but still beyond reach, Fitzgerald and his fellow North Novas dug in for the night.
The invasion of Normandy had caught German defenders by surprise. (Many had expected the attack to come farther north up the coast at Calais.) But it didn’t take long for them to regroup and counter attack. In front of the Canadians was the 12th S.S. Panzer Division led by Eastern Front veteran Gen. Kurt Meyer. As the North Nova Scotia Highlanders tried to push past Villons-les-Buissons, they were counterattacked and driven back at Authie and Buron. The fighting was desperate and it is here that Meyer was later convicted of ordering his men to not take prisoners; he was also found directly responsible for the shooting of another 18 prisoners.
With their numbers decimated, the Canadians had little choice put to take cover and wait for reinforcements.
The shelling never stopped, Fitzgerald says. Artillery and rockets – “Moaning Minnies” – terrorized the troops. “You could hear them coming, but you never knew where they were going.”
The men had little more than a shallow slit trench for cover. Here they would wait, “say a prayer if you knew one,” and hope the shells didn’t strike home.
Fitzgerald still can’t hear out of his right ear after a shell exploded only six feet away. “That was close,” he says.
Fear was always present. But there was nothing to do but rely on training. “You knew you couldn’t turn around and go backwards.”
By the fifth day the Allies had 326,000 men landed at Normandy, as well as 54,000 vehicles and 104,000 tons of supplies. Nonetheless, getting those supplies off the beach was a challenge. The only food Fitzgerald had was what he landed with on June 6, or what he and his troop-mates were able to forage. “We were pulling out carrots and anything else we could find from the gardens,” he says. “I had a hen for a couple of days, until someone cooked it.”
But reinforcements did arrive, and with them the drive to secure the original objectives continued. By June 12 all five beachheads were linked. But it would take until July 11 for the British and the Canadians to finally take Caen. By then the city was little more than rubble and came at a cost of more than 50,000 Allied casualties.
That victory, bitter though it was, wasn’t one to savour. With the Americans finally free of the hedgerows that had slowed their advance from the beaches, the Allies threatened to now encircle the retreating Germans north of Falaise.
As the Allies pressed on to seal the gap, the Germans fought back with desperate resistance. They attempted to smash through Canadian and British lines, and take with them what men and materiel they could.
In their way at one tiny farm was Fitzgerald and a few of his signal men. They had set up communications in a barn when they heard the rumble of tanks and the clatter of infantry coming up the road.
The Germans had already smashed through 17 Platoon, he says, virtually wiping them out.
Now they were outside. Fitzgerald sent his men atop the hay pile stacked in the barn and went to the door. He managed to fire a couple of rounds from his pistol before the Germans lobbed in two grenades. The explosions torn into both his legs, but with the help of his men, he scrambled to the top of the hay pile.
Just in time.
As the search light from the tank bleached the interior, the accompanying troops sprayed the barn with machine gun fire. Fitzgerald could hear the bullets slicing through the hay beneath them.
That was enough for one of the signalmen; he took off his helmet and held up his arms. Fitzgerald thought about remaining hidden, but worried the Germans would torch the barn with him inside.
Wounded and unable to walk, he was strapped to a Tiger tank and taken prisoner.
He was now part of the frantic effort to escape the Falaise Gap. It was a murderous place to be. Eventually 10,000 German troops would be dead, another 150,000 captured.
Fitzgerald thought he would be among the dead. It was here that the German officer ordered him to the side of the road.
“He stood behind me and I figured, well, he’s going to put a bullet in my head to get me out of the way.”
But he didn’t. Instead, the officer, who had studied four years in Oxford, put him in an ambulance.
With shells falling all around, and burnt and blasted vehicles blocking the road ahead, the ambulance eventually stopped. Fitzgerald poked his head out the door to see the Germans seeking cover at the side of the road.
They ignored him. So he scrambled to the other side of the road and crawled for three hours through the brush before regaining is lines.
That was not the end of the war for Fitzgerald, but it was the end of his time on the front lines. After recovery and rehabilitation, he became an instructor, training other signalmen as they arrived in England from Canada.
It’s only been recently that Fitzgerald, now 91 and living with his wife Hilda near the banks of the Vedder River, has talked about his wartime experience. He tried hard to forget the carnage he saw as a young man so many years ago.
But some memories that are difficult to forget. With time and, indeed, with age, they bubble to the surface, like when Fitzgerald had to retrieve the prism compass still hanging from the neck of his captain, decapitated by shellfire.
Asked how often he thinks about his involvement in one of the most historic battles in our time, his eyes narrow.
“Once a year,” he says. “I can’t sleep for a week.”