Juno Beach: Canada's D-Day Victory: June 6, 1944
Reviewed: September 3, 2004
By: Mark Zuehlke
Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre
414 pages, $35.00
Not being a big fan of military history books I approached this 400 page volume with a fair amount of trepidation. What prompted me to it was less the fact that it was written to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the event than it was that I knew the author, had interviewed him, and had enjoyed one of his detective novels, the writing that he does with his other hand.
Then there was the fact that I had seen the banker's boxes full of research materials neatly assembled in the writing room at Berton House while Zuehlke was here a year ago. The acknowledgments contain a prominent mention of both Berton House and the writer-in-residence program which gave him the time to work on both a novel and this book while he was here.
Zuehlke says his work as a popular historian was partly inspired by Pierre Berton, whose two volumes on the War of 1812 showed that it was possible to do something aside from regimental history and official reports, something living as opposed to a post mortem examination.
Zuehlke went looking for holes in history, stuff that mattered but didn't seem to have much written about it. His first big discovery was the Italian Campaign, which gave him a trilogy. The vagaries of the publishing industry almost did him in when Stoddart collapsed a few years ago, but his present publisher not only allowed him to get his trilogy back into print, but also bought the notion that too little is known about Canada's role in the D-Day invasion.
Zuehlke found that the actual day itself tends to be passed over on the way to discussing the entire invasion, so he decided to concentrate his efforts. Initially, he was going to cover a few days right at the beginning, but I see that the wealth of material caused him to narrow his focus to just that first day. When he left here he was beginning to speculate that this story would take more than one book. The press release that came with Juno Beach indicates that this will be the case. Another trilogy perhaps?
Of course, it's not really possible to discuss D-Day without covering what went into planning it, and so the first 116 pages, "The Road to Overlord", fills in that background, briefly outlining some of the lessons learned from the evacuation of Dunkirk and the disaster at Dieppe. The remainder of the book is divided between the actual assault on the beaches of Normandy and the crucial breakout from that potential cul de sac.
One thing that stands out very clearly is that all that meticulous planning still resulted in a military effort plagued with upsets, missed timetables and aborted ambitions. If the troops had not been able to think on their feet, roll with the punches, and find new ways to achieve their objectives, the day might still have been a failure.
It is Zuehlke's contention that the Canadians actually had one of the toughest stretches of the beachhead to capture and that they actually did a better job of it than the other troops in the assault that day. By the end of June 6 ours were the only forces that had taken all their objectives and had met their timetable.
Zuehlke follows the fortunes of several different groups of men, switching between them at moments which were certainly selected for the value of their dramatic tension. While it is a factual narrative, he does make use of the novelist's techniques for keeping the readers' interest. Where he veers into detailed accounts of individual effort and reaction, these passages are based on diaries and interviews, so they are still factual.
To my surprise and delight, Juno Beach was not slow reading, not was it boring or too difficult. While military history may still not be my favorite thing, it's digestible if it's written as well as this.