Veteran Profile: Vernon Beverley Barr, D-Day Veteran

Al Cameron and Veteran Voices of Canada interview Canadian veterans about their time serving Canada

Vernon Beverley Barr, Royal Canadian Army Signal Corps, 13th Field Regiment -D Day Veteran

We grew up in the shadow of the Great War. I was born in 1921 and there were many returned men from the Great War around.

Well, I had no intention of joining up but everyone was aware that if we’re going to win this war everybody would have to pitch in. That’s when I joined the Army. 20 th of June, 1940. I had no interest in the army so far as rank goes, I just wanted to get in the Army, that’s all. Signal Corps, 3 d Canadian Infantry division was forming so I joined in St. Johns, New Brunswick. A week later found myself where it was nice and hot up in Kingston, at Vimy Barracks in Barrie,ON. That was, at that time, the largest Signal Corps training unit in the British Empire. The training was, of course, infantry training.

For the Invasion we were issued self propelled 105mm Howitzers. Each fired a 35-pound shell. The 3rd Division had self-propelled guns, and during the run in each gun was being trained to fire 105 rounds.

That mass of bombardment was not meant to break concrete it was meant to kill or stun the defenders and it sure as hell did that. That was followed by the Royal Marine rocket barrage, these were like mattresses they called them, rockets on landing barges and that went in just before the infantry would be due to land. I was always glad not to be on the receiving end of those massive explosions from that rocket barrage.

It was really about just paying attention to the bombardment. It started at 7 o’clock that morning, for the run in and they were firing, lowering the range about 200 yards and they fired those 10,000 shells. What sticks in my mind was the noise of the bombardment and the noise of the shells being thrown overboard after each shell was fired, they threw the casing overboard with a splash!

They ask about trepidation about what was going to happen but all sense of tenseness was pretty well trained out of you. We’d been in the army 4 years then and you leave all that behind. You knew that landing would probably be just about the same as practice was except you the landing on shore was going to be a hell of a lot more vicious. So, we were prepared for that.

We were on a landing ship tank because that’s what our barges were firing from but then for the actual landing we transferred to a landing ship boat, infantry. I got in about 8:30 but the bombardment started about 7 o’clock. The British landing had been on for about half an hour before ours because of the tide.

They had to do this on the incoming tide because of beach obstacles and the tide had to cover them. So the British had been landing for about half an hour before ours.

On our front the Regina Rifles had lost heavily all the way in, they only landed 59 men out of 150 but those who got ashore boy were well worth landing. That went right to the railway embankment in front of Caen, seven miles and right up to the Caen-Bayeux Highway which they cut and held the next morning. Because they cut and held that Bayeux Highway the Germans couldn’t reinforce

Bayeux so the 50th British Division on her right took Bayeux without a fight, and that made that the only town in Normandy to be captured without a major battle. They were told, “Don’t fight on the beach, get inland!” That’s what they did.

When we got ashore so much of our stuff was still on a ship…we used to criticize the Navy for not putting the ships up far enough but they went far enough that day…they put them right along the shore.

The first night ashore we were nervous because between us and the British 3rd Division there was a rocky area, about a mile of rocks and we though sure any counter attack was going to come down there and if they had their wits about them they would have but they didn’t.

I remember everybody was out with these Piat, Sten and anti-tank guns and the rest of it for an expected counter attack but we didn’t get that in until two days late.

The 12th SS, those guys, we hated their guts because of what they did to our guys at the Abbey d’Ardenne.

We had a muster parade after about a month in France. It was announced that they had murdered those guys up at the Abbey, which we knew was the case, and they said: “Under no circumstances will revenge in kind be taken. There will be no shooting of prisoners in this army. You must kill the Germans in battle but not afterwards.” This topic of shooting prisoners we didn’t take part on our side. We didn’t kill any prisoners. We got a lot of prisoners from the 12 th SS and I got mine! I go my four strokes in. We had about 6 of them sitting there one day at the gun position and we had a British ration that, god it was horrible, it was a canned ration, some kind of stew made in Ireland and it was green, I remember that. You could eat it if it as heated well, you could eat it but cold… no. I said give each one of those fellas a can of that and make them eat it. I can see them now, they didn’t dare not but the more they chewed it the bigger their distaste. These were young kids and they were really disappointed because they had let their Fuehrer down.

The first interaction I had with the 12 th SS, they put in a counter attack against the North Novas on the 8th of June and I sort of always remember, it was tradition of the German Army, a sudden volcano of gunfire and then tanks right in among you. I guess they were used to people falling back because they ran into…they cut off a lot of the North Novas but the Regina Rifles stood and fought and the Canadian

Scottish I remember, a counter attack took off a lot of their guys. They always said afterwards that. Kurt Meyer said that a shortage of petrol was all that kept me from making a complete breakthrough.

The commander of the 21 st Panzer Division said it was the excellence of the Canadian anti-tank defence that stopped me. All our guns were self-propelled so we just simply turned them into anti-tank guns. We had with us now, 17-pound anti-tank guns that had been invented by the British the shot had a muzzle velocity of 4,000 feet per second. No piece of German armour could stand a shot from that gun.

It would go through 150cm of steel it would penetrate. When we were with the forward observers, we were right with the infantry. I’ll never forget a night at Bretteville, there was a stone fence there and the Colonel was with me. He was acting as the artillery observer that night. We had a hard night. The Chaudière’s had pulled back, except didn’t tell us they were going and left us sort of out in the open!

I did get a chance to see some of the damage the artillery caused along the way. Probably the most

sickening was when we put them in the bottle up at the Falaise gap. They used a lot of horses in the German army. A lot of them had to be put down. Thousands of pieces of equipment, just as bad, when we made a leap from there up to cross the Siene they had just as much of it abandoned it all there, because they couldn’t get it across. That was the break up of an army.

The 12th SS were 21,000 strong when they came into Normandy. They were the fire department of the German Army West, they were going to put the fire out. At the Falaise gap after they had transferred a few hundred out to rebuild the division they counted 66 of the 12th SS as prisoners left of the 21,000 men.

The best description of the Hitler youth, the 12th SS? Fanatical, because they believed this doctrine that the Fuehrer had entrusted them with that they were the saviours of Germany. They were all bitterly disappointed that they had let him down.

We went through Tilley, all those little towns. There was Authie, Grouchy, Tilley, Brettville all little towns scattered through there. The hardest time we had…I can’t think of the name of the place now but it’s where the Regina Rifles knocked out a German Tiger Tank right at the gate of their headquarters and that tank stood there, the French said they were going to leave it as a memorial.

Our first objective was to try to get right into Caen but I remember on the wireless, a conversation between the brigadier of the 7th brigade saying he could probably go into Caen but Montgomery’s orders came up and he said: “I don’t dare let you try for it because the US is still on the beach and I don’t want any salient.” Montgomery had fought in the first war; he had fought in the Ypres Salient and he always said: “I don’t like salients, where you have a finger pointed up in the enemy’s territory.” So, I don’t think we could have taken Caen even if we’d gone in. I don’t think we could have gotten there the first day.

My experience with Carpiquet was, the entire bombardment, and listening to them passing fire orders back and forth and wondering why we couldn’t unstick those, that tank had such long range, the ones they got on the actual tarmac that they could hold us back because they could knock our tanks out from such a great distance with that 88mm. When we got there and took that and I looked at where our artillery had hit that airfield the shell holes were one right on top of the other, I don’t know how the Germans stayed in their trenches. I don’t know how that German Division stayed as long as they did in those trenches. That Carpiquet Airport fight was vicious, but we got it.

My first gunshot wound was not too far from Dieppe actually. It’s surprising when you think of all the work the Germans put in to making those fortified cities so they couldn’t be taken and we didn’t take any of them from the sea, we took them all from the land. Dieppe was taken from the land, Le Havre, Boulogne, Calais, we took them all from inland.

So, the first time I was hit was outside Dieppe and it hit me hard, knocked me right flat. I remember, that was life threatening, the doctor asked me: “Do you feel like coughing Barr? I said I had been coughing for a while but it seemed to be stopped now. He got poking around there and he said: “If that was an inch the other way you wouldn’t be coughing, you’d be dead.” So I figure I’ve been on borrowed time now. We were crossing a field and this damn mortar shell hit us. Wounded 5 guys that day. I think it was the 4 of September.

The second time we were up in the Sheldt Estuary and I was minding my own business sitting in the wireless truck and a German machine gun bullet penetrated the skin of the truck, hit a bag of ear phones and stuck in my leg. That was minor though, the guy pulled that out with a pair of forceps.

It was about the 11th of November, Armistices Day, I’ve often wondered what it must have been like after four years of fighting. Well, I can tell you what it was like for us after 6 years in the Second World War.

We had crossed the Rhine and had taken Weimer and Bund and we were near Orrick and were about to invest the city of Emden, which was a big city, and boy I’ll tell you that was a hairy place. They had turned all their anti-aircraft guns to air burst artillery and were firing vertically.

We were some glad there was talk of peace because on the 4th of May a civilian asked to come through the outpost of the Chaudière Regiment, I’ll always remember that, he said he had been send from Orrick to talk surrender. These talks expanded all the way down until they involved all the German headquarters right up to Wilhelmshaven and it ended with the surrender of all the Germans in North

West Europe. Over two million men surrendered to Montgomery.

I received a message and I wish I had kept that, it said: “Hold your present positions but take no offensive action.” And then came the unbelievable order to the artillery that said: “Cease fire, empty guns and stand down.” That was just unbelievable. Obviously, the guns were no longer needed and we were going to survive the outcome.

I can tell you it came home to me, and this is a true story, I was taking the wireless truck down to Div. headquarters from the unit and there was a lot of displaced persons on the road, trying to get home but there was no traffic and suddenly I met an entire German infantry division. Eight thousand men, fully armed, coming into the central area to dispose their weapons. They had to come in to surrender their weapons at a central point.

This outfit boy, I can see them now swinging down the road and I though boy, here’s there chance to take one with them but military discipline, yesterday we were being paid to kill each other on site, and today I drove past 8,000 armed Germans and nobody shot me. I had more hair then that I have now but every one of them was standing straight up that day. That really brought home the fact the war was ended.

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