Estevan residents travel to attend D-Day ceremony in France

Estevan was well represented during the ceremonies to mark the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landing on June 6.

Jim Spenst was among the Canadian Second World War veterans to be selected for a delegation with Veterans’ Affairs. Local military historian Craig Bird – who founded the South East Military Museum – and his wife Tina were among the many who attended the ceremony, held at Juno Beach in Normandy, France.

The Veterans’ Affairs delegation left Canada in early June and returned on June 9. It included Second World War veterans and their families, including those who fought on D-Day and during the Battle of Normandy, along with representatives of Veterans’ organizations and Indigenous groups. Members of the Canadian Armed Forces also participated in events and ceremonies in France.

As part of the delegation selection process, Veterans Affairs Canada worked with veterans’ organizations to identify Canadians to serve as delegates.

Spenst has been recognized in the past for his service. Last December, French Ambassador to Canada Michel Miraillet travelled to Estevan to officially present Spenst with a Rank of Knight with the National Order of the Legion of Honour in France – the highest French order of merit, both military and civil – for Spenst’s efforts to help liberate France from German forces. The recognition was announced and presented to the veteran on Remembrance Day in 2022, but the ambassador couldn’t be there at the time.

Spenst also helped Canadian soldiers liberate the Netherlands.

Being only 17 years old when he decided to enlist in November 1943, Spenst was sent to France in July 1944, a few weeks after the Normandy invasion began.

On June 6, 1944, more than 14,000 Canadians landed at Juno Beach, among the roughly 150,000 Allied forces who came ashore at Normandy. By the end of D-Day, 359 Canadian soldiers had been killed but an Allied foothold in France was established.

More than 90,000 Canadian soldiers who volunteered to serve Canada during the Second World War saw action in the Normandy Campaign, which lasted for 11 weeks and resulted in over 5,000 Canadian soldiers dying and another 13,000 being wounded. The campaign officially ended in late August 1944.

In an email to the Mercury and SaskToday, the Birds said they arrived in France on June 4, and are scheduled to remain until June 14.

“As the 80th [anniversary] was coming up, I made the decision last fall to go as it was a big anniversary,” said Craig Bird.

There were dignitaries and Second World War veterans present, and people from throughout Canada, the U.S. and Europe. He said it was great to see Spenst with the other veterans, but Bird was not able to speak with Spenst due to the security measures in place.

This is the first time the Birds have been to Europe. During their first day, they attended a ceremony for a Regina Rifles’ statue dedication at Bretteville-sur-Mer in France, and then they were at the D-Day ceremony.

They also went to the Beny-sur-mer Canadian War Cemetery, and then they went to Dieppe and saw where the South Saskatchewan Regiment fought. They also plan to visit the Vimy Ridge Memorial and view some other Canadian battle sites from the First and Second World Wars.

“We are following the South Saskatchewan Regiment up the coast into Belgium and then into Holland,” Bird said.

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