WATCH: Just days before the anniversary of the D-Day landings, a documentary team from the History program War Junk discovered a German machine gun bunker that had been buried for decades. Mike Armstrong reports.
When a Canadian documentary crew went in search of relics from the day Canadian troops stormed Juno Beach, 71 years ago, they never expected how simple it might be to uncover such an important piece of history.
Digging into the ground with a shovel just a couple of times, Wayne Abbott, Craig Mitchell and Dave O’Keefe found exactly what they were looking for — a long-lost German bunker swallowed up by the sand in the decades since the end of the Second World War.
“The first try, we hit Ground Zero,” O’Keefe, who is a military historian at Marianopolis College in Montreal, said in footage provided to Global News.
The pair had scouted the area for three days that week using ground penetrating radar and aerial photos from shortly after the Second World War, which narrowed down the locations where the concrete shelters might lie beneath the sand.
But it was a muffled “clunk” of a shovel that alerted them their mission was a success.
They came prepared with the much more than shovels, but it only took a couple of passes with an excavator to reveal the spot where German soldiers would have fired on the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division on June 6, 1944.
The Germans had established what became known as Fortress Europe — a network of 15,000 concrete bunkers that stretched from France to Denmark.
“The Germans had turned the coastline into a continuous fortress of guns, pillboxes, razor wire, mines and beach obstacles,” a history of D-Day on the Veterans Affairs Canada website reads. “Against difficult odds, the Canadians advanced against the best troops the enemy had.”
More than 350 Canadian soldiers who lost their lives that day and more than 5,000 died during the Battle of Normandy. Canada sustained the highest number of casualties “of any division in the British Army Group.”
Digging down further, the team found the Tobruk to be mostly intact. Once the sand was cleared deep enough, Abbott and Mitchell were able to actually get inside.
O’Keefe, sitting in the turret atop the bunker, later explained how a defending German soldier on D-Day would have been under heavy Canadian fire but able to protect himself by ducking below the circular concrete barrier.
“But then when you found out the Canadians were making the run in, you would have popped up here, you would have set up your machine gun, which can fire 360 degrees, and then you would have looked out at one of the biggest invasion fleets in history coming in.”
The 14,000 Canadian soldiers who stormed Juno Beach that day were among the 155,000 Allied troops who came ashore that day.
The bunker Abbott, Mitchell and O’Keefe uncovered rests just 300 metres from the Juno Beach Centre.
The museum’s director, Nathalie Worthington, was elated by the find and just as surprised as the War Junk team.
“We would never have thought of digging here,” she told O’Keefe
She explained how they museum “made an inventory of the site,” based on aerial photography and information and maps of the site, cataloging what they knew existed on Juno Beach.
Worthington hopes the discovery will add to the history of the infamous day the museum is trying to preserve, adding she looks forward to the day the public can see it up close.
“I think there are more to be discovered in the area,” she told O’Keefe.
The museum will move forward with excavating the remainder of the Tobruk, aiming to possibly have it uncovered and preserved for public viewing by this time next year, for the 72nd anniversary of D-Day.
Meantime, O’Keefe, Mitchell and Abbott will move forward with producing the story of their find for a four-part documentary series to air during Remembrance Week on History in November.
History is a property of Shaw Media, the parent company of Global News.
With files from History and Global News reporter Mike Armstrong