Sapper Gallantry on the Normandy Beaches

Jun 06
Erwin Rommel and staff inspecting beach defences - 1944
Anti-landing obstacles - Teller mine strapped to a single stake.
Churchill AVRE SGB bridge layer on Juno Beach, afternoon 6 June 1944
The publishers of Commando Comics, in their special D-Day edition, 'The First Men Ashore', commemorated the exceptional heroism the of Sappers who were, indeed, the first men to wade ashore on those Normandy beaches.

The stories of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division's assault on Juno Beach on 6 June 1944 have been told many times and in many ways. This page will not attempt to re-tell those stories.  It will simply set the scene and list members of the Royal Canadian Engineers who were decorated for gallantry that day.

Role of the RCE

The RCE component was assigned many tasks that day and landed according to the demands of those tasks.  First on the beach was the 5th Field Company with a platoon of the 18th under command.  Their task was to clear the beach of underwater and other anti-landing obstacles. AVREs of the 5th Assault Regiment, RE and tanks of the Royal Marines were in support of the 5th Field Company along with other supporting RE heavy equipment specialists. The goal was to clear four landing zones on the beach in less than an hour.  

Forty-seven AVREs were landed on Juno Beach supporting the RCE. Although operated by Royal Engineers, it was a Canadian sapper officer, Lieutenant J.J. Denovan, RCE, who conceived the design for the AVRE (Armoured Vehicle, Royal Engineers), essentially a modified Churchill tank outfitted with a 105-mm mortar called a Petard. The AVRE could also mount a dozer blade, assault bridge, crane, or fascines and rolled track for crossing broken ground. The Petard proved especially useful in opening exits through the sea wall bounding Juno Beach on 6 June 1944.

Reality set in very early and some things did not go as planned. In some cases, the Sappers landed after the infantry. Nonetheless, they moved to the front as quickly as they could.  In other cases, the Sappers landed first and got to work immediately.  Lanes were breached, often by Sappers working in up to four feet of water on the rising tide removing mines and shells from obstacles and sometimes towing them out of the way.  All this was done under fire and many were killed or wounded. Ironically, some sections of the 5th Field Company arrived late on the rising tide and one of their landing craft was struck by no fewer than three mines.  Rough weather in the Channel kept two sections at sea for two days!

For the most part, the 6th and 16th Field Companies and the rest of the 18th Field Company landed on their assigned task sites between H+5 and H+90 minutes according to the plan. Some landing craft were stuck in up to 10 feet of water and men used lifelines to pull themselves to the shore. With their D-4 and D-7 armoured dozers and dump trucks filled with supplies, they set out to do their jobs under continuing machine gun, mortar, and sniper fire. With the support of RE AVREs, the first beach exit was ready by 0930 and others open by noon. A section from the 6th Field Company destroyed a bunker by digging a sap under its foundation while under fire and covered by the infantry.

Once the infantry and armour were off the beaches, and the tide began to recede, major efforts turned to removing the rest of the obstacles and improving the exits and marshalling areas. Sappers also accompanied the infantry and armour off the beach. A platoon from the 6th Field Company was redeployed to clear a minefield gap by hand as the 'Crabs', Sherman tanks with flails, had yet to arrive. Engineer reconnaissance parties accompanied troops moving inland and dealt with booby traps and mines as expected. Snipers were a constant danger.  The CO of the 16th was wounded three times before being evacuated.

The Cost

The day was costly. Eighteen sappers were killed and more than 40 wounded.  Their stories can be viewed in the article Juno Beach Tributes: D-Day Fallen Sappers.