It may have been 70 years ago, but Griff Jackson remembers landing at a corner of Juno Beach on D-Day plus one like it was yesterday.
“Some of those memories are like it just happened,” said Jackson, now 89 and living at the Highland Manor in Fergus.
Landing in Normandy in the afternoon on June 7, 1944, Jackson was not part of the initial D-Day attack, but he certainly witnessed the carnage left behind by the largest amphibious invasion of all time.
“The place was all shot up to hell,” he said. “There were people lying all around dead – mostly Germans … the whole place was kind of in shambles.”
Born and raised in the Fergus area, Jackson completed basic training in Listowel, before joining a tank corps for more training in Borden and then in Windsor, Nova Scotia.
He was one of about 25 Canadian soldiers who arrived in France on June 7 as part of a British regiment aboard a ship carrying nine tanks.
“They told us we had two jobs,” he said, explaining his group was tasked primarily with delivering tanks to wherever they were needed for battle on the frontline. The second task, of course, was to engage any enemy forces standing in the way of job number one.
Jackson said he saw minimal “action” during his estimated two-week stint delivering tanks with the British unit.
“It was a job, somebody had to do it,” he said matter-of-factly.
Fellow veteran Mervin Fisher of Belwood said Jackson “sells himself short” by downplaying the importance of the task.
“You could be killed just as easily (while delivering) supplies,” Fisher points out.
A few weeks later Jackson witnessed firsthand the dangers of war, as he was reassigned to the Canadian Grenadier Guards’ 4th Armoured Brigade, where he stayed for the remainder of the war.
“My unit lost 135 Sherman tanks,” Jackson said, noting he estimates that an average of 2.5 men were killed in each tank casualty.
He recalled with remarkable detail one tank his crew lost on Aug. 14, 1944 during the Battle of the Falaise Pocket, often regarded as a decisive engagement of the Battle of Normandy because it destroyed the bulk of Germany’s forces west of the Seine River and opened the way to Paris and eventually Germany.
“It was tough slugging,” Jackson said, explaining his tank was hit three times. Luckily, all five of his tank’s crew members got out alive.
His crew advanced over several months, fighting in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, where fighting was fierce, notably in the Hochwald forest in February and March of 1945.
“There were some mean fire fights in there … It was kind of touchy sometimes,” Jackson recalled, noting his crew also lost a tank during battles in the Hochwald area.
In another close call during the war, Jackson was reading a book in a trench during a break in fighting, when all of a sudden a bullet whizzed by, just missing his shoulder.
“I slid down that trench pretty fast,” he recalled with a laugh.
Jackson’s crew was in the village of Varel, Germany on May 5, 1945 the day German forces in northwest Europe surrendered. Victory in Europe (VE) Day was celebrated three days later, and after several months Jackson finally returned home.
Despite everything he saw and experienced, he says he doesn’t spend too much time thinking about the tough times or heartbreaking aspects of the war.
“I don’t dwell on it at all,” he said, though he acknowledged, “If you came home, you were lucky.”
Yet like countless other WWII veterans, Jackson doesn’t regret for a moment his decision to join the army.
“As soon as I turned 18 I volunteered. I told my mother I wouldn’t consider it until I was 18,” he said, of signing up in January, 1943.
“It was something I wanted to do … You saw your friends were joining up and you wanted to get in there.”
Jackson, who retired in 1990, seems to enjoy telling stories with fellow veterans like Fisher, but sadly, the opportunities for those exchanges are getting more and more sporadic.
For years Jackson met regularly for coffee with several veterans from the area.
“They’re all gone now but me,” he said. “There’s so very few guys left.”