Second World War veteran Bill McRae, 95, remembers when the gates of his landing vessel dropped into five feet of water along the eight-kilometre stretch of a French beach codenamed “Juno” on June 6, 1944.
“You had to get out of there and get to shore. Lots of guys didn’t make it. They had some big battleships out there and they shelled the hell out of us,” McRae says.
McRae was one of 14,000 Canadian soldiers to land on Juno Beach in Normandy as part of one of the largest military operations in history.
As the world marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings on June 6, McRae recalls some of his story from the front lines of the historic landing operation that would begin the liberation of German-occupied France from Nazi control.
‘We were going to save the world’
When William H. McRae was 17 years old, he left his home in Smithers, B.C. to travel to Vancouver with a friend. He was inspired to go overseas and fight. McRae marched up to the army headquarters inside an old hotel and asked to be enlisted.
“They told me to go home and grow up,” he says with a smile. McRae returned when the army called him back before his 18th birthday, after the age requirement dropped from 19.
McRae trained in Vancouver and various camps in Alberta. When he turned 19, he was shipped to Delbert, Nova Scotia by train before he travelled to England on the Louis Pasteur, a French liner, with several thousand other men on board.
“The ship went unescorted on a zigzag course and travelled very fast — the Atlantic was rough. A lot of seasickness,” McRae wrote in a written account of his story.
The soldiers arrived in Liverpool, England on Christmas Day in 1943 and were sent to a variety of training camps, where McRae learned how to co-operate a tank, flame gun and other equipment. He says the grass where they practised using the flame guns was so burnt, it crunched under his feet like snow.
After several months, McRae was assigned as reinforcement to the Canadian Scottish Battalion, “C” Company, 13th Platoon. He was stationed at Mulberry Harbour, England six or seven days before the invasion of France.
“We felt like we were going to save the world,” McRae says.
Landing on Juno beach
McRae came under the same platoon as Lieut. Roger Schjelderup, who was to be one of the most highly decorated Canadians of the Second World War and one of the first to leave footprints on Juno Beach.
The platoon realized there would be a number of casualties in the first days of the invasion. The operation was actually supposed to happen a day or two earlier, but bad weather conditions stalled their launch, McRae says.
It was postponed until June 6, when landing vessels carried 14,000 Canadian soldiers to the shore’s western flank. The vessels were driven as far up onto the beach as possible before the gates dropped. The soldiers plunged into five or six feet of water as they followed Schjelderup to shore.
McRae felt himself get swept away by the current after climbing down the side of the vessel.
“I got slopped ashore because I wasn’t a swimmer,” he says.
He hit the beach and began advancing inland with his company on a fold-up bicycle, which was given to each soldier. Bicycles were used as a military tactic in both the First and Second World Wars to transport troops effectively in battle zones so they could cover as much ground as possible.
When picturing the D-Day battle, it’s common to think of large explosions, shelled-out pits in the ground and gunfire. But when McRae was moving inland, all he was focussed on was survival.
“You don’t know what’s going on around you, and you don’t question why, you just do or die.”
The 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, the primary reserve of the Canadian Scottish Regiment, had succeeded in pushing farther inland than any other landing force on D-Day.
His platoon would arrive with 45 men, and by the end of the day, only 19 remained.
The battalion then travelled all the way up through France, Belgium and Holland. In the new year, they crossed the Zigfried Line and on into Germany to Oldenburg, where there was a large airbase mainly used for the bombing of England.
There they found a field of shot up planes, and amongst them were dummy planes, “maybe to fool the Allied forces,” McRae guesses, and several small German jets without fuel capacity.
“The Germans ran out of food — in Napoleon’s time, he said ‘an army marches on its stomach.’”
They also found mass grave sites where many malnourished forced labourers were believed to be buried.
“They had 10,000 slave people [Poles, Dutch among others] around there,” McRae says. “They were told they were going to a rehabilitation farm but they just dug a big pit and threw the bodies in.”
The British army then occupied the airbase, crated the small jets and sent them back to England.
“We took a lot of prisoners,” McRae says. “One of the worst things I saw was when the Germans were retreating, the British spitfires came and straffed them on a bridge there. There were all these guys… the carnage.”
On the last days of action on May 3-4, 1945, the Canadian Scottish, Regina Rifles and Winnipeg Rifles and other support groups joined together. “We had our last casualties on the fourth of May,” McRae says.
He remembers being the bartender that evening as the surviving soldiers celebrated together.
For his service, McRae was awarded a France-Germany Star War Medal 1939-45, a Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and joined the rank of Knight Of The French National Order Of The Legion Of Honour.
In the years after the war’s end, McRae connected with Schjelderup’s son, whose father Roger died from a war-related illness, and still keeps in touch with him.
“We were all just damn kids, you know. They took all of the young guys.”
To this day, McRae remembers his assigned military number — K-1248.