On June 6, Roderick Deon of St. John’s will stand at Juno Beach in France. It will be the first time the Royal Canadian Navy veteran of the Second World War has been in France since D-Day 75 years ago.
Veteran Affairs Canada is sending Deon, 97, along with other military veterans to Normandy to attend special ceremonies to mark the anniversary.
Going back won’t be the same, Deon said, while sitting in a common room at Tiffany Village Retirement Residence in St. John’s, his medals attached to the jacket of his suit.
“Things have changed a lot after 75 years, I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing other veterans there, looking forward to shaking their hands.”
France was a whole different place on his last visit.
D-Day, June 6, 1944 was filled with drizzle, fog and a big sea.
As a hull technician onboard HMCS Ottawa ll, he went to his post as the Canadian destroyer was ordered “straight east” in the early morning to join in the armada of Allied vessels headed toward the coast of France, to the beaches of Normandy. The job of the Ottawa and other destroyers and frigates was to search for German U-boats to protect the fleet and help ensure a successful landing on the beaches.
A number of Canadian navy vessels were among the Allied Forces.
Barges loaded down with Allied soldiers headed for the 80-kilometre stretch of Normandy coastline and the five beaches codenamed Juno, Sword, Gold, Omaha and Utah.
British troops were the predominant force at Sword and Gold, while Canadians led at Juno. The Americans led at Omaha and Utah — an overall vital push called Operation Overlord that was meant to drive the German army back and liberate Europe.
“We knew it was going to be something big, but didn’t know when or where. It had to be kept secret,” Deon said. “It was dark when we left. I think we were about halfway there when we saw the other ships. It was windy, a drizzly wet day and rough. We had a tough time.
“It’s probably the reason why the U-boats didn’t get us that day because it was too rough for them, too. U-boats like the calm.”
Operating in the English Channel was not new to Deon’s ship nor the vessels in his battle group. They’d been trying to keep the channel clear for months.
“I didn’t realize it was D-Day until I saw all these other ships and the airplanes, then I knew it was D-Day,” he said, and then he looked and pointed to the ceiling in the common room, swiping his finger in the air. “The planes were like this huge flock of birds in the sky. There were so many spitfires ... we were letting the spitfires do their job to the Germans.
“We were at action station. As a hull technician my workshop was on the top deck, the poop deck, so that’s where I was, waiting for something to happen. If a bomb hit the ship I would have to plug the hole to keep the ship afloat, but luckily nothing happened.”
Deon says they were at action station all day long and there was a lot of activity to look at. With so many ships in the channel, they had to be careful not to collide with one of their own.
At times his ship picked up bodies from the water. He remembers some of them being German airmen shot down by Allied planes or anti-aircraft fire.
“The bodies were buried at sea,” he said. “We couldn’t keep them on board.”
The Ottawa patrolled its area, the crew fiercely alert to ensure the fleet was protected from any German U-boat activity. Deon said the crew prayed there would be success on the beaches and that casualties would be light.
For a 20-year-old from Canada, he said, D-Day and the days following it were quite an experience.
“Most of us were around 20 to 30 years old. We were sort of thinking ‘are we going to get hit or not?’” he said. “We saw some fires, that ships were hit. We were just keeping our fingers crossed that we wouldn’t get hit.
“There were so many planes and they were so fast, and thousands of ships around us.
“In some way it was a bit exciting. You are looking at everything, and you are young and not afraid.”
Long before D-Day, Deon’s vessel had been employed escorting convoys from St. John’s harbour to England as German U-boats hunted the convoys down.
After D-Day, he said, that’s when the battle for them ramped up.
“There was more battling after D-Day than on D-Day,” he said. “We were protecting the ships going across that were bringing food and water, equipment, medical supplies, ammunition, tanks and trucks and all that was needed.”
The destroyers and other vessels hunting U-boats were combined into groups. The Ottawa became part of EG-11 and assigned to protect various sections of the channel.
The EG-11 group sank three U-boats over the next couple of months.
“We finally got three U-boats,” he said. “Our group had the best record in the Second World War for sinking U-boats.”
Deon is proud of the work of the EG-11 group and proud now, 75 years later, to wear his medals. He points to one in particular.
“That’s the D-Day medal,” he said.
As he thinks back to those years, one thing comes to mind above the rest.
“War is a terrible thing,” he said.
D-DAY AT 75: Remembering the heroes and sacrifices of Atlantic Canada:
- VIDEO: The road to D-Day
- Why a school in France is named for a Pictou soldier
- U-boat hunter Roderick Deon returns to Juno Beach for D-Day
- Sound of gunfire rang in P.E.I. soldier’s ears
- North Nova Scotia Highlanders at the sharp end of D-Day invasion
- STORY MAP: Follow the D-Day experience of the North Nova Scotia Highlanders
- 12 North Nova Scotia Highlanders murdered at Abbaye d’Ardenne
- ‘It was noisy as the devil,’ says St. John’s torpedo man
- 59th Newfoundland Heavy Regiment was eager to do its part
- A P.E.I. dispatcher’s long, uncertain journey to Normandy
- LAURENT LE PIERRÈS: D-Day invasion was best birthday present for my Dad
- ‘Sight of our boys being blown up ... wouldn’t leave my mind:’ Bedford veteran, author
- Dartmouth veteran's first combat mission was D-Day invasion
- Halifax air gunner had bird’s-eye view of D-Day
- ‘We had everything fired at us but the galley sink’: Yarmouth County veterans share war and D-Day memories
- New Waterford veteran has lived good life after surviving D-Day invasion
- JOHN DeMONT: An old film clip of D-Day shows the nature of courage
- D-Day landing map’s origins a mystery to army museum historians