Sgt John Percival Downing, 5th Fd Coy

Sergeant John Percival Downing
"Thou hath lifted me above my foes: and from the man of violence set me free" Sergeant Downing's headstone in Beny-Sur-Mer Cemetery.
Telegram to kin advising of the death of Sgt Downing. Collection War Museum Canada online

John "Jack" Percival Downing was born in Humboldt, SK on 28 October 1912. He had two brothers and two sisters. He left school at age 16 after two years of high school and worked for six years as a surveyor with the Department of Highways of Ontario before the war.

John was married to Mina Isabell Downing and they had one son, John Garry, who was eight months old when John enlisted. When John enlisted on 20 January 1940 in Ottawa, Ontario, he was assigned to the 1st Corps Field Survey Company. Quickly promoted to Acting Sergeant, he joined the 5thField Company, Royal Canadian Engineers, in June 1941 in Kingston ON. The unit then moved to Camp Borden and, while there, John qualified as a Concreter.

The Company was mobilized on 18 August 1941 and moved to Terrace, BC in May 1942. By July 1943, they embarked for the United Kingdom having been under training in Canada for almost two years. In England, their training continued at both the individual level in preparation for an eventual invasion of the Continent. On 2 June 1944, the 5th Field Company personnel loaded the Landing Craft Tanks for the crossing to Normandy. Departure was delayed by 24 hours, however, due to bad weather and they pulled out of Southampton docks at 0730 hours on 6 June and crossed the English Channel to the Normandy beaches.

On 2 June 1944, the company loaded onto the Landing Craft Tanks at Southampton for the crossing to Normandy but were informed on 4 June that D-Day was to be postponed for 24 hours. They pulled out of Southampton docks at 0730 hours on 5 June and proceeded to cross the English Channel to the Normandy beaches. They were in support of the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigades landing on Nan Green (between Courselles-sur-Mer and Bernieres-sur-Mer), Nan White (Bernieres-sur-Mer) and Nan Red (the western edge of Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer).  

Two sections of the 5th Field Company went ashore on Nan Green. Three mines had exploded under one of their craft. There were no casualties but the ramp of the vessel jammed and had to be burst open by a tank. The D-7 dozers, with ropes trailing behind them, quickly towed men to the beach through the rough water but it was too late to do much. Two more sections came in on Nan White. The tanks and the dozers of one section got clear of their craft with seven men. Six of these men became casualties from machine-gun and shellfire as they removed mines from the obstacles. The other section’s craft had eight feet of water at the ramp when it stopped. Both these crafts shortly worked in closer to land and discharged the remaining dozers and men. Two other craft due to land on this beach did not arrive (from these, the sappers landed only after 48 long hours on the Channel).

At Nan Red, three craft carrying 5th Field Company men and dozers, touched down at about 0800 hours, coming under immediate small-arms fire as the ramps dropped and the dozers and Marine tanks went off. But with some of the AVREs and all the DD tanks still at sea, no work in the water was possible. They had to take cover behind the sea-wall where, for the next two hours, they were held by intense fire. 

The fighting was fierce.  The preliminary bombardment seemed to have not been as effective as at other landing sites.  Sgt. Downing commanded Number 4 Section who touched down at approximately 0815 hours in the village of Bernieres-sur-Mer with elements of the Fort Gary Horse (tanks) and the North Shore Regiment (infantry).  The Royal Marine Assault Regiment tanks and the two D7 bulldozers went off immediately. A group of sappers went ashore but the Captain of the craft ordered Sgt Downing and the remaining six men to remain on board because of the unexpected depth of the water. 

Sgt. Downing’s party attempted a second landing after a second "run in" at 08:30 but they were unable to do any work on the obstacles due to the depth of the water with the inner row of obstacles completely submerged. Jack Downing was at the door as it opened and as he turned to the troops and said 'follow me men', he was killed almost immediately by small arms fire. Except for those wounded aboard, the men soon scrambled ashore but machine-gun fire and shrapnel killed or wounded six members almost immediately leaving only one man unwounded in the section.

The Beach Parties were able to get their bulldozers and eventually the rest of the soldiers out of the landing craft. Most enemy obstacles were still submerged, however, and it was not possible to clear them as planned. As the tide receded, the remaining personnel were organized into three main obstacle clearing parties and they immediately started removing mines and shells from the obstacles and clearing them.

In all, heavy fire cost the 5th Field Company an officer, one a sergeant, a corporal and two sappers, as well as 17 wounded during their first two hours on the beach.

Sergeant John Percival Downing was 31 years old when he died and is buried at the Beny-sur-Mer Canadian Cemetery in France.

..... Based on research conducted by the Canadian Military Engineers Association and the 5th Field Company Veterans Association.

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