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Journey back to Juno Beach: Regina Rifles statue unveiled to commemerate 80th anniversary of D-Day

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June 5th, 2024 was another historic day for the Regina Rifles, as a statue dedicated to the regiment that stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day 80 years ago was officially unveiled at Place des Canadiens in Bretteville-l'Orgueilleuse, France.

The Riflemans were chosen to be part of the first wave of soldiers that landed on Juno Beach on D-Day, which marked the beginning of the end of World War II. The regiment lost 108 men that day.

Family members of former Regina Rifles travelled from Saskatchewan to France for the occasion, including David Brundige.

He said his father, James Brundige, was a lieutenant and eventually a captain for the Rifles. Brundige said his dad landed on June 7th and served on the front for about a month before being wounded in Caen, France.

“It’s actually really emotional,” he said. “It’s kind of strange. Makes you realize how much they did for us. ‘Cause the last time a Brundige was here in Normandy, someone was shooting at them and nobody’s shooting at me today.”

“So that’s kind of nice.”

Several dignitaries were also in attendance, including Her Royal Highness Princess Anne, as Colonel-in-Chief of the regiment.

“How fitting it is on the 80th anniversary of the landing and commencement of the Battle of Normandy this statue is being unveiled in honour of the Regina Rifles who sacrificed so much for the cause of liberty and freedom,” she said in her address to the crowd.

“One can only imagine the trepidation, anticipation, and probably fear of the young men.”

Up the Johns!

The Princess Royal concluded her speech with the phrase, “Up the Johns,” which was a nickname given to the regiment at the time.

“People don’t quite understand or realize that so many of our young Saskatchewan soldiers in the Second World War were named John,” explained Minister of Parks, Culture, and sport, Laura Ross, who was also in attendance. “So in fact that’s where the title of ‘Up the Johns’ or ‘The Johns’ comes from. It’s in celebration of, and I think it’s quite meaningful.”

The Farmer Johns were made up of a group of farmers and other young men from across the province, including several from Peepeekisis Cree Nation. Representatives from the reserve also travelled to France to witness the ceremony, including Allan Bird. His father, Charles Bird, was one of the Riflemen from Peepeekisis who stormed Juno Beach.

“Our ancestors, our fathers, our mushums making us proud to come and help liberate France during World War II. They came to a place, to a beach that was very traumatic for many of them. It was very scary to land into a battle that was beyond their comprehension of that day. And only a handful were fortunate to make it to that wall,” Bird said.

“And I thank the Creator above for the blessing of my dad being one of them to make it to carry on and bring home the stories we share and talk of the liberation and the fight that they had to do for the world.”

Arlene Johnson also travelled to France to honour her father, Edward Bellegarde, and his brother, Vincent, both of whom served with the Rifles.

“Our dad and grandfather, Edward, was a Rifleman and was wounded within a short time of landing. He was wounded and came home with not only the physical scars but also the emotional ones,” said Johnson. “Even though through treaty they were not required to enlist. They chose to because it was the right thing to do.”

Operation Calvados

The official unveiling of the eight foot tall bronze statue was more than two years in the making. The project was spearheaded by the Royal Regina Rifles Trust Fund. Don and Shirley Begg created the monument in Cochrane, Alta.

It was completed in February of this year. A viewing was held in Regina on April 6th before being shipped to France on May 1st for the official unveiling.

“It’s a huge honour for us to commemorate in bronze, which will last a thousand years, to commemorate what those Canadian soldiers did 100 years ago to liberate France,” said Shirley.

“It’s just overwhelming to be a part of this story and what has really happened to honour the Canadian soldiers and especially the Regina Rifles to do what they did here for their 80th anniversary,” Don said.

The statue was mounted onto a base put in place by the people of Bretteville-l'Orgueilleuse. Those in attendance had nothing but good things to say about the permanent reminder of the sacrifices the Regina Rifles made on D-Day.

“I had the privilege of travelling with the sculptors,” Regina Mayor Sandra Masters told CTV News. “It is, I think the language we used, is intense, but so accurate, so articulate, and really represents the determination and grit and sense of duty that this regiment felt when they came over 80 years ago.”

“Don and Shirley Begg have done an absolutely incredible job,” Ross added. “They are so talented, but they’re also so very humble too. They’re very proud of the work they have done, and I think we should all be proud. It’s remarkable.”

“The statue is outstanding,” Brundige remarked. “What Don accomplished in the facial features in particular, the statue really is interesting and I highly commend him for the work he did and I’m very proud of the fact that my family and I supported the building of the statue.”

“This statue holds that Peepeekisis is the home of warriors,” said Johnson. “It has only recently become common knowledge that First Nations people contributed in significant numbers to the conflicts of war without much recognition. I am overcome with emotion to see this statue and know that there is a permanent marker to show that we were there and that we mattered. Recognition of all that were there and we were there. If it were not for their efforts, our world today could look a whole lot different.”

Two words: Thank you

Not only were people from Saskatchewan and Canada in attendance for the official unveiling, but residents from Normandy and other parts of France were there as well, including Louis Parey and his family.

“It’s important for us to celebrate in this moment and see all the people who fought for us because we live here,” he said.

When asked what he would say to the Regina Riflemen, Parey said: “Two words: thank you. That’s all I can do. I can’t imagine what they lived and all the courage they needed to fight against the [Nazis].”

The appreciation the French people have for Canadians was evident in the area. Canadian flags lined the streets leading to the statue’s permanent home in Place des Canadiens.

“There’s so many Canadian flags, even down at Juno and today in Bretteville. The Saskatchewan flags are flying, which we’re thrilled with,” said Masters. “But there is no mistake that they have never forgotten the Canadian and the allied contributions to liberating France.”

“The people of France remember this contribution by the Royal Regina Rifles,” said Shirley. “A group of farmer boys from Saskatchewan came across Canada, across the ocean, to France, to liberate France from the Germans … Just look at the flags all over France. Canadian flags on people’s lawns, balconies, window sills. Someone here said to me, ‘In France, we remember what the Canadians did for us.’”

The sentiment was shared by Bird, who said

“To sit here today in the crowd here in this town here where all the people come and they are so thankful to our First Nations veterans that stood up and fought for their freedom at the time of a world impacted war, World War II,” he said.

“Seeing all the people here today, seeing all the uniforms … and all the people here today that come and honour this monument here today, this is a good feeling in my heart.”

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