Thursday, 19 January 2012
Breakout From Juno - Interview with Canadian writer and historian Mark Zuehlke
In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944 – D-Day, and with the sun barely visible, Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy across a perimeter of 80 kilometres of mostly flat, sandy beach. The greatest seaborne invasion in history was underway, with the primary mission of beginning the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany. The Americans had Utah and Omaha beaches to the west, the British forces had Gold in the middle, the Canadians had Juno Beach, and the British to the east advanced to Sword Beach. Within two hours of storming Juno, the German defences had been shattered and Canadian troops had established a stronghold of the beachhead.
There has been a lot written of D-Day, many movies have been made, but that initial 24-hour period would prove to only be the beginning of a blood-filled campaign of battles that encompassed the summer months of 1944, whereby the Canadian troops showed unrelenting courage and superior fighting skills, which carried the day and ultimately brought victory.
On July 4, 1944, the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division took hold of the village of Carpiquet, France, after an extended bloody fight. Breakout From Juno (Douglas & McIntyre, 2010) is the third book of the Juno series written by one of the premier Canadian historical writers, Mark Zuehlke, and documents the untold story between July 4 – August 21, 1944. Zuehlke eloquently narrates the intensity of each battle from a Canadian perspective, highlighting the 3rd Division battles against Hitler’s finest forces, and the 2nd Infantry and 4th Armoured Divisions banding together to fight relentlessly, surprising the heavily entrenched German troops.
We had the great pleasure of interviewing Mark Zuehlke about the latest book in his Canadian Battle Series, Breakout From Juno.
TTQ – Breakout From Juno is the ninth and newest book in your Canadian Battle Series and encapsulates the two months (July 4 - August 21, 1944) following the D-Day Invasion. Where did your fascination for writing about Canada's role in World War II come from and why did you feel it important to document and highlight the period two months after D-Day?
Mark Zuehlke – I grew up with a fascination for military history, particularly that of the two world wars. My great uncle, Fred Zuehlke, had quite an influence on me. He was a World War I veteran who lost an arm at Vimy Ridge. During World War II he worked at the veteran’s hospital in Vancouver helping returning amputee veterans adapt to their handicaps. An uncle of mine was also a tanker with the Lord Strathcona Horse Regiment in Italy during World War II. When I became a journalist, my fascination remained, but there was little opportunity to explore it professionally. Eventually, I was in a Legion in Kelowna one Remembrance Day and several veterans were talking about their experiences in the Battle of Ortona. I realized with some embarrassment that I had no real knowledge of this battle. When I went looking for a book on it, I discovered one had yet to be written. So, I set about changing that. Although I didn’t know it at the time that was the birth of what is now The Canadian Battle Series.
Regarding the two months after D-Day, I had noticed that, because of the intensity of the fighting on June 6, there was a marked tendency in histories of the Normandy Campaign to cast the last two months into a shadow of brevity. Yet the fighting during this period was incredibly violent and costly for Canada’s troops. I also saw that, as is true for much of World War II history, that the Canadian role in this campaign had been largely ignored or reduced to a virtual footnote by American and British historians. At the same time, most Canadian histories dealing with this period were overly brief and reduced it largely to a summary. So, I wanted to give the period, which included the full debut of First Canadian Army on the battlefield, its proper due.
TTQ – How difficult was the process of researching the book, as it's said that little documentation exists for the two month period following D-Day? What resources did you primarily rely on to write Breakout From Juno?
Mark Zuehlke – One of the things that’s fascinating about writing this kind of history is the research. I had heard this myth of their being little documentation as well and was worried about that. Until I actually got into the archives at Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence and the Library and Archives Canada – both in Ottawa – that is and discovered the opposite. Not that you could just look up Normandy in the catalogues and there it all was. Instead it required some deep sleuthing, searching records of one regiment after another to find the material. What I ended up with was a vast collection – thousands of pages – of interviews conducted by army historians with participants in the various battles of the period, written reports by participants, and a lot of analyses of the battles that were written in the weeks immediately after they ended. This was valuable stuff because it was generated when memories were fresh. I also found a lot of veteran interviews that delved into their Normandy campaign experiences. Unfortunately, there are ever fewer veterans to interview these days who are not only alive, but have a good memory of events. But thankfully I did quite extensive interviews with many veterans years ago, as did many other people whose material I am able to access. So, that richness of the personal story is there in spades. Then the trick is to analyze all the stories, there are often contradictions, and rationalize everything to create a readable and accurate narrative of events. That’s the wordsmith part of the task and where I have an advantage over most historians. Although I have a history degree, my livelihood was always earned from being a journalist and professional writer. So, I know how to take factual material and shape it as a story, particularly so because I have also written novels and this means understanding how dialogue, character, scene setting and all such stuff builds a rich narrative that will engage readers.
TTQ – Did you manage to visit Normandy and Juno Beach while doing your research, and if so, what was that experience like for you and to what extent did it help you in writing the book?
Mark Zuehlke – I had made a point of visiting the battlefields that I am writing about. I visited Normandy on three separate occasions. The last time was 2010 and specifically for this book. My partner and I spent two weeks driving and walking in the footsteps that the Canadians took in those two months of war. In doing so, one comes to appreciate the terrain and other physical challenges, and realities that the troops had to cope with and also understand. Take Verrières Ridge, for example, to the Canadian sensibility this is not a ridge at all. No steep incline and no great height. Yet five battalions, most famously the Black Watch of Montreal, were butchered advancing up it. Many accounts, such as the CBC documentary on the battle that was part of the infamous Valour and the Horror series, have the Black Watch scaling the face of the ridge under heavy fire from German SS troops and hence the slaughter. Never mind that there were no SS troops there that day, but the ridge rises only 121 feet over a distance of 3,280 feet. Not something easily scaled! Instead, it was a slow, hard slog up that gradual rise without a stitch of cover available. You stand on the summit of the ridge today and it’s no mystery why the Black Watch were cut to pieces on July 15, 1944. The ground is still virtually as it was then. And that’s why it’s so important to walk the battlefields you are going to write about.
TTQ – You describe in the book that the period between July 4 - August 21, 1944 as "the greatest cataclysm of combat on the western European front during all of World War II." How brutal and bloody was the battle field between those two months as compared to D-Day itself?
Mark Zuehlke – The battlefield during those two months was a nightmare of violence. Thousands of troops, tanks, and artillery were crammed into a quite narrow landscape. And the Germans always had the advantage of being on slightly higher ground than the Canadians coming towards them. There was an absence of cover because it was mostly wide open wheat fields in this sector of Normandy. Little of the bocage hedgerows that were both a curse and a blessing for the British and American troops fighting more to the west, so our troops advanced generally straight in to the open. Most of the time they were fighting the SS divisions and other armoured divisions constituting the elite German troops in Normandy, so the fighting was especially fierce. Virtually every regiment that came ashore on June 6 in the leading assault wave had a single day during the July-August campaign where they suffered their heaviest casualty rate of the entire war – including D-Day. And when that day was over they had to keep going no matter how battered their regiment was. There was always another fight ahead. It is this continuity of battle that makes these two months unique in the Canadian army experience of World War II.
TTQ – Would you agree that the Canadians coming off Juno Beach faced some of the most fearsome of Germany's troops? What were those German troops like and how highly trained were they?
Mark Zuehlke – The initial forces defending Juno Beach weren’t fearsome. They were a coastal defence division, which means they were not especially well trained or highly motivated to die for their Fuhrer. But they enjoyed great advantage in defensive positions. Covering the beach was a well-constructed system of concrete pillboxes and other works. They fought very well from these and inflicted heavy casualties. As the Canadians advanced inland on June 6 they were still fighting this division until close to the day’s end. But these Germans had developed a layered defensive system and so were always fighting from strong defensive positions. That’s what made D-Day costly for Canada, which faced the second most heavily defended beach and the second hardest fight on June 6 of the Allies landed that day. The Americans at Omaha had a harder fight, but the Canadians were second in line. The story of June 6 is, of course, told in my Juno Beach. It was the next day that the fierce and highly trained German troops arrived in the form of three Panzer divisions. These were directed against the Canadians with the express purpose of driving them back into the sea in order to shatter the Normandy beachhead. On either side of Juno Beach were the two British beaches. The strategy was to eliminate the Canadians and then hook out either side to vanquish the British. After that, they could advance at a more leisurely pace to pinch out the American beaches and voila win the campaign. The Canadians were most heavily struck by the entirety of the 12th SS Hitler Youth Division in the centre, with elements of the two Panzer divisions in the flanks. For six days the fate of the invasion, told in Holding Juno, was in balance. But the Canadians prevailed. That in turn led to the two months of Breakout From Juno, where they again often faced the 12th SS. The Hitler Youth had been raised entirely under the Nazi system and inculcated in the belief of the Aryan people, and Germans in particular being supermen – a twisting of Nietzschean philosophy – were undefeatable. So, it was a rude awakening to see their comrades being killed by Canadians and to discover that they could be beaten. This contributed to the murders of Canadian prisoners over the six day period of June 7 to 12. The Hitler Youth and other Panzer division troops were a very tough bunch. They were well trained and highly motivated.
TTQ – How many Canadians fought during D-Day and the two months thereafter and how significant was the casualty rate?
Mark Zuehlke – There were approximately 125,000 Canadians in First Canadian Army at any given time with more waiting at reinforcement depots to fill spots left by casualties. But this figure is somewhat misleading because a disproportionate number of troops were engaged in support roles to the actual fighting troops. Each division fielded about 16,000 fighting troops and had 25,000 supporting these men. The actual number of Canadians on the sharp end of the three divisions and single armoured brigade numbered about 52,500 during the Normandy campaign. From June 6 to the closing of the Falaise Gap on August 21, total casualties were 18,444 of which 5,021 were fatal. That’s about a 28% casualty rate, which is disproportionately high and attests to the ferocity of the fighting that Canadian troops faced.
TTQ - How significantly do you think the German forces underestimated the capabilities of Canada's forces and do you think that the major turning point to the war?
Mark Zuehlke – By the time of D-Day, the Germans were not likely to underestimate the Canadians. Canada had already developed a reputation in the Sicily and Italian campaigns for being a very tough and skilled adversary. It was the Germans, who during Operation Husky in Sicily, gave 1st Canadian Infantry Division’s its nickname The Red Patch devils, because their divisional shoulder flash was a red patch. They were soon monitoring the movement of the Canadians in Italy because they knew that where the Canadians showed up in the line the next offensive was likely to fall. The problem the Germans faced initially in Normandy was differentiating the Canadians from the British troops around them. When they launched their offensive against Juno Beach on June 7 their intelligence was unclear on whether it was defended by Canadian or British troops. The victory’s achieved by the British and Canadian troops in front of Caen during July and August, I think, constituted the beginning of the end for Germany. What the Germans had hoped to achieve was a containment of the Allies on the Normandy beaches and that strategy began unraveling the moment the Canadian and British troops started breaking out on July 4. When Caen fell the writing was on the wall. And when Canadians launched Operation Totalize on August 7 and punched through German defensive lines in a night assault all hopes of maintaining the ring of steel around the Allies were shattered.
TTQ – Talk a bit more about the significance of Canada’s role in Operation Totalize and why the Canadian forces were able to have more success than the British troops, and what do you think might have happened had the Germans been able to have defeated the Canadians and maintained control of the beach?
Mark Zuehlke – Ah, here we are at Totalize (see above). Totalize succeeded because Lt. Gen. Guy Simonds noted the reasons for the British failure just the week before. At the time he said, “When it’s our turn, we’ll go in at night.” So, the night attack idea was set. Then he came up with the idea – now commonplace – of advancing the infantry forward in concert with the tanks inside armoured personnel carriers. The Allies didn’t have APC’s then, so these had to be invented and produced right there on the battlefield. Canadian engineers and mechanics did that by reconfiguring Priest self-propelled artillery guns into what they dubbed Kangaroos. Always before, the Allied infantry had to advance on foot behind the tanks and they would either be outrun and left behind or the tanks would be slowed down to a crawl to keep pace with the infantry. You can’t have rapid outbreaks that way. So, Totalize was an innovative tactical feat. I’m not a huge Guy Simonds fan, but Totalize was his moment in the sun and deservedly so.
Had Totalize failed I think the German grip on the beachhead would have possibly tightened again. It could have been months before the breakout developed and the war would have been prolonged as a consequence. The Germans hoped the Allies would lose heart and sue for a conditional German surrender which would not include the Soviet Union. They would then be free to fight the Russians to a standstill and salvage their fortunes on that front. This was a fallow hope, but one that guided their strategic decisions through to virtually the end.
TTQ – What kind of feedback have you received from veteran Canadian soldiers concerning Breakout From Juno and your other books in the Canadian Battle Series?
Mark Zuehlke – One veteran I’ve enjoyed following in Juno Beach, Holding Juno and Breakout From Juno is Major Lochart “Lochie” Fulton of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles. He was in the assault wave on June 6 and earned a DSO for courage there. On July 4 the Winnipeg’s attacked Carpiquet Airfield in a disastrous attack to seize the hangars on its western edge. The 12th SS had turned the hangars into fortresses and actually had tanks firing from inside them. Fulton and his men advanced through waist-high wheat across dead flat ground. Despite losing most of his company, he was able to gain control of one of the hangars. But his men could not be reinforced. He personally went back across that open and fire swept ground to try and organize the reinforcement, but it was hopeless. So, he went back again to his men and then led them back under fire. July 4 was when the regiment lost more men than on any other day and many more than on June 6. “What had we accomplished?” he asked later. “Possibly the Germans recognized our intention to take Carpiquet and that we would be back. But at what cost!” Lochie was a very brave soldier who went through to the end of the war. But he was not unique. There were thousands like him.
The feedback from veterans is one of the most gratifying parts of writing this series. I get a lot of positive response. Often veterans say that reading my books help them to understand and put in context their personal experiences. Many say that I get to the truth of what it was like to go through those battles.
TTQ – How many more books do you have left to write in your Canadian Battle Series and have you decided what battles you will write about?
Mark Zuehlke – There will be at least two more books in the series. I am currently working on one about the Dieppe Raid of 1942 and am committed to doing one on the Rhineland Campaign. There might be at least two more after that. Those are still in the discussion stages, so I shouldn’t expand on them at this point.
Bio – Mark Zuehlke is the author of the critically acclaimed Canadian Battle Series published by Douglas & McIntyre On to Victory: The Canadian Liberation of the Netherlands (March 23 – May, 5, 1945), Operation Husky: The Canadian Invasion of Sicily (July 10 – August 7, 1943), Terrible Victory: First Canadian Army and the Scheldt Estuary Campaign (September 13 – November 6, 1944), Holding Juno: Canada’s Heroic Defence of the D-Day Beaches (June 7 – 12, 1944), Juno Beach: Canada’s D-DAY Victory: June 6, 1944, The Gothic Line: Canada’s Month of Hell in World War II Italy, The Liri Valley: Canada’s World War II Breakthrough to Rome, Ortona: Canada’s Epic World War II Battle and many other books. Having worked as a journalist, been educated as a historian, and written award-winning fiction, he draws on these varied experiences and skills to bring history to life for a general audience. He resides in Victoria, British Columbia and can be found at http://www.zuehlke.ca/.
*Note - All Photos used with the permission of Douglas & McIntyre Publishers Inc and Library and Archives Canada.