War movies don’t reflect reality

The wide, sandy beaches of Normandy, France are a long way from Sutherland Avenue, a quiet little street near the Danforth. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe began. Among the Allied forces landing on the French coast were brothers Fred and Donald Barnard, their school friend Gordon Arthur and neighbour Jan de Vries. The beach where brave Canadians fought and died in the liberation of Europe was code-named Juno.

Ted Barris teaches journalism at Centennial College’s East York campus. His excellent book, Juno (2004), tells the stories of “those ordinary Canadians who did an extraordinary thing on D-Day,” including the boys of Sutherland Avenue.

Fred Barnard enlisted in 1941 and later requested that his brother Don be transferred into his company, the Queen’s Own Rifles. Within moments of storming Juno Beach, Fred saw his brother, only 20, dead beside him, a single bullet hole in his chest.

Back home, their mother Janet received the dreaded telegram on June 17, 1944. When Fred was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur at Moss Park Armoury in 2007, he said, “I was wounded twice and sent home before it was over. But a lot of my friends were killed and never came home.”

In the 1930s, Jan de Vries (1924-2012) lived a few doors down on Sutherland before moving to Scarborough Road. His family ran the gas station at Danforth and Victoria Park. Jan and his brother Harry both volunteered for service. Just 20 years old, de Vries was one of the first Allied soldiers to land in Normandy, parachuting into total darkness behind German lines after midnight.

He also helped Canadians liberate the Netherlands, the country of his birth, and was instrumental in the creation of the Juno Beach Centre, which opened June 6, 2003 and pays tribute to Canadian efforts in the Second World War.

Around Remembrance Day many of us watched movies like The Longest Day (1962) and Saving Private Ryan (1998). These are excellent depictions of D-Day, but they don’t tell the full story.

We may look at our war veterans today as elderly citizens, but in 1944 they were very young, with their lives and dreams ahead of them. The movie stars who played Allied soldiers in war epics were much older than our inexperienced troops, many of whom were teenagers when they joined. Their first experience of combat was a baptism by fire, wading through water into mortar and machine-gun bursts and running across 200 yards of sand with screaming shells exploding around them.

Hollywood films also ignore the vital role that 15,000 Canadians played in the fierce fighting on D-Day. In spite of heavy casualties, the Canadians advanced farther inland than any other Allied troops.

The fictional Saving Private Ryan does give an accurate description of the chaotic horrors of Omaha Beach, but the actual combat took most of the day, not 20 minutes. The film’s premise of rescuing one surviving brother is very loosely based on the real-life case of the Niland brothers, two of whom are buried side by side in the American cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. In the opening scene, a saddened veteran visits the actual cemetery with white crosses row by row, and remembers his fallen friends.

Canada didn’t have any policy on family members serving together, and actually encouraged brothers to join the same regiment. Three Westlake brothers from Toronto were all killed within four days in Normandy. There are nine other pairs of brothers buried in the Canadian war cemetery near Juno Beach. Victory came at a terrible cost.

The brothers who never came home are forever young in memories. Christopher Chapman, Oscar-winning director of A Place To Stand (1967), saw his older brother off to war at Union Station. When the telegram telling of Bob’s death arrived at their home in Rosedale, “there was a numbing emptiness, then hugs and tears, but tears suppressed by the adults. I do not remember Daddy coming to us. A man did not share his tears: it was a sign of weakness and fathers don’t cry, or so we were told. Looking back, I hope he allowed himself to cry” (Too Young To Fight, 1999).

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