Unearthing World War Two: The Battlefields

Our new and exclusive series, Unearthing WWII, follows military historian David O’Keefe and filmmaker Wayne Abbott as they investigate lingering mysteries from three of the war’s great battlefields. Here’s a quick guide to the confrontations in question…

Fortifications on Juno Beach, Normandy

Fortifications on Juno Beach, Normandy

JUNO BEACH

Juno Beach was the Allied codename of one of the five brutal battlegrounds of the D-Day landings of June 1944. While Omaha and Utah Beaches are more widely known today, thanks to being mythologised in American films and TV shows, Juno looms large for Canadians, because it was "their" D-Day - a bullet-riddled death zone where so many Canadian troops lost their lives.

The memorial at Juno Beach in Normandy, France.

The memorial at Juno Beach in Normandy, France.

Unearthing WWII

Why "Juno" Beach? Well, the original codename was actually Jelly Beach, because the three D-Day beaches to be tackled by British and Commonwealth forces were all named after fish. Hence Gold Beach (goldfish), Sword Beach (swordfish) and Jelly Beach (jellyfish). It's said that Winston Churchill became annoyed at the unintentionally comic ring to Jelly Beach, and demanded a more dignified name for the battlefield were men would fight and die. So "Juno" Beach it became.

Things didn't get off to the best start for the Canadians. Initial aerial bombardments didn't make much of a dent in German defences, and the first wave of Canadian troops to wade onto the sands were cut down by the remorseless Nazi snipers. While the Canadians had to charge into the dense, blinding smoke of combat, the Germans could make use of fortified bunkers and a network of tunnels. Fortunately, sheer numbers of prevailed, and the Canadians managed to make more headway inland than any of the other landing forces on that day.

MONTE CASSINO

In January 1944, one of the most savage and hellish chapters in World War Two commenced. The setting was Italy, where Allies were desperate to break through the Winter Line - a series of fortifications erected by the Germans to prevent progress into Rome. Bogged down in hilly countryside, soldiers on both sides were trapped in muddy, freezing, rat-infested conditions that recalled the horrors of trench warfare from decades before.

The rebuilt Abbey of Monte Cassino (also written as Montecassino).

The rebuilt Abbey of Monte Cassino (also written as Montecassino).

As one report put it, this was "some of the most difficult and forbidding ground ever to confront an army", with Allies and Germans hunting each other from house to house in the bomb-blasted Italian landscape, often engaging in desperate hand-to-hand combat. To make matters worse, food supplies were often cut off. One veteran recalls how they were once sent a consignment of tinned beef which were literally left over from World War One.

The most controversial aspect of the battle involved the abbey of Monte Cassino, a glorious religious jewel of a building which dated back to the 6th Century AD. Some of the Allied bigwigs believed it was being used as a sanctuary by German troops, while others vehemently disagreed. They eventually decided to destroy the abbey anyway, dropping almost 1,500 tons of explosives on the structure.

It was a catastrophe, as the only people hiding in the abbey were innocent Italian civilians seeking refuge from the battles. Around 250 people are thought to have perished. What followed was the grimly surreal sight of elderly abbots emerging from the smoking rubble, with orphaned children in tow. A spokesman for the Vatican described the bombing as "a piece of gross stupidity". The worst part? The fact that Germans then used the rubble as ideal cover for attacking Allied soldiers in the bombing's aftermath.

GRONINGEN

Chances are you've never heard of the Battle of Groningen. It's been oddly neglected by historians over the decades, despite having the distinction of being one of the final major military confrontations of World War Two in Europe. It unfolded in April 1945, in the historic medieval city of Groningen in the Netherlands. On one side there was the desperate defending force made up of German soldiers and Dutch SS officers. Against them came the Canadian infantry, who were to plunge into an epic urban battleground.

Old houses along a canal, Groningen.

Old houses along a canal, Groningen.

The presence of the city's great canals worked in the Nazis' favour, slowing the approach of the Canadians, but soon enough there were pitch battles in the streets of Groningen. Bullets met flesh against the formerly serene surroundings of the city park, and on the large central market square, where Canadians risked being mown down by German machine guns pointing out from surrounding buildings.

Ultimately, though, the battle was a success, with the Germans surrendering a few days after battle commenced. The victory was all the greater for being made under extreme conditions, with the Canadians forced to limit their use of artillery thanks to the sizeable number of civilians in the city. Their bravery and cunning out-foxed the Germans and won the day.

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