How young we were: 75 years after Juno Beach, Canadian D-Day veterans remember the battle

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WATCH: Many Canadian soldiers were teens when they stormed the beaches of Normandy. But Juno Beach made them men – Jun 4, 2019

Maybe something was lost in the translation, but when unilingual Norm Kirby joined the predominantly French-speaking North Shore Regiment out of New Brunswick in the Second World War, he was assigned to the biggest gun. It didn’t take any language skills to see he was by far the smallest man in his platoon.

If it was a joke, he wasn’t in on it.

How he handled himself and that giant Bren gun over the remainder of the war, however, earned him the respect of his peers, even if he himself was terrified.

READ MORE: On 75th anniversary of D-Day, Canadians know little about key Second World War battle: Ipsos poll

“Yeah, I was scared,” the now 94-year-old told Global News from his home in Lions Bay, B.C.

“I’m not a brave person. I was scared.

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Yet somehow, when the bullets started flying, Kirby was the man you wanted on your side.  He soon learned he was good at it and for the first time in his life, it didn’t matter how small he was so long as he did his job.

As his platoon made its way through the French seaside town of Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer on June 5, 1944, they got word the Germans were mustering a counterattack with its fearsome Tiger tanks. The biggest gun they had was Kirby’s Bren, which wouldn’t dent a Tiger. But his sergeant found a portable anti-tank weapon called a Piat and asked Kirby if he’d used one before.

Kirby said no.

But [his sergeant] says: ‘Well, you’re going to use one now,'” Kirby said. “So, he gave me a Piat all primed and loaded and he says, ‘You’re going to go up that ditch.’ And he says ‘I’m going to stay here.’ But he says ‘You’re going up that ditch and you keep looking back and when I give you the signal, when you see that tank you fire. Don’t fire until I tell you to.'”

Kirby did as he was told and got into position, but when the Tiger came into view, the sergeant must have had second thoughts because he waved Kirby off.

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“The tank hit a small bump. And the nose of it went up and I looked,” Kirby said. “I didn’t even look at the sergeant; I said, ‘To hell with him, I’ve shot it.’ And I got it underneath where the armour was much lighter in the tank and the ammo and fuel and everything went up. One big ball of flame.

WATCH: Veterans share their stories with Global News

The moment was surreal: Kirby, the smallest guy in the platoon, had destroyed Germany’s massive Tiger tank.

When he turned to get a high-five from his sergeant, he was instead told to “get back on your Bren gun.”

All told, there were 1,074 Canadian casualties on D-Day, including 359 dead. Over the past few months, Global News has interviewed many who are alive today. Their stories are filled with emotion and honesty about the horrors of war, yet few have any regrets about enlisting.

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“These men went overseas and they were often gone for three, four, or five, sometimes six years before they ever saw their families again,” said historian Mike Bechthold.

“Many of them never had a chance to have leave to come home during the course of the war. They signed up, they went, they did their job. And the quickest way for them to get home was to end the war and to make sure that Hitler was defeated.”

Like Kirby, Jim Parks of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles scrambled ashore, that day, along a stretch of Juno Beach near Courseuilles-sur-Mer without his gear. His landing craft hit a mine and they were forced to disembark in water that was 12 feet deep. So he dropped his gun and jumped in the water, only to have another landing craft hit him.

READ MORE: Combat boots marking D-Day anniversary end cross-country journey in Halifax

“And I could see stars because I swallowed a lot of water,” the now 95-year-old told Global News from his home in Mt. Albert, Ontario. “You know, you sort of get panicky and I swallowed a lot of water. And I made my way to shore somehow. And I got onto the beach and scrambled in. One of the people ahead of me had been shot.”

He sat with the man until he died and took his gun to rejoin the fight. It was chaos. His world, he says, was a 10-yard circle around him.

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Learn more about Parks, Kirby and other veterans interviewed as part of our D-Day anniversary coverage. 

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