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D-DAY MARKED A COMING-OF-AGE FOR CANADA

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On the morning of June 6, 1944, Colin Nelson, a 26-year-old soldier with the North Nova Scotia Highlanders splashed ashore in Nazi-occupied France as one of about 15,000 Canadians taking part in the D-Day invasion.

The assault marked a turning point not just for Nelson and the other elite of young Canadian men who fought and died on the beaches of Normandy, but for the nation as well - Canada finally emerged from the shadow of its British patron."There are those moments when we realize that we have changed status from being a little kid to being a big kid, a teenager. For Canada, collectively, that was one of those moments," said University of Toronto historian Desmond Morton, co-author of "Bloody Victory: Canadians in the D-Day Campaign."

Canada plans extensive celebrations to mark its participation in D-Day, but typical of a national reticence about making too much of a fuss, Canadians will mark the occasion with less fanfare than the Americans, British and French.

"Will Canada be noticed?" the Globe and Mail newspaper asked in a front page article Wednesday.

"Many veterans in this country believe that a certain shyness has marked the effort to tell the story of Canada's involvement in the assault," the newspaper said.

The story is that Canada played a crucial role in D-Day success.

From a population of only 11 million people, it provided between 13,000 and 15,000 men for the D-Day invasion, the third largest force after the Americans and British.

Canadian troops were assigned a beach code-named Juno north of the French city of Caen, where the Germans were dug in. Canadian ships and aircraft provided support.

After years of training and practice landings, Nelson said the Canadian boys were ready.

"We were all very anxious to go. We felt pretty good," says Nelson, one of the many veterans making the pilgrimage back to France for the fiftieth anniversary ceremonies.

In the bitter fighting, casualties were high. On the first day alone, 359 Canadian soldiers were killed, 375 if air force casualties are counted, and 541 wounded.

The troops had learned some hard lessons from the landing at the French coastal town of Dieppe in 1942 when Canadian, British and American troops fled into the sea and withdrew on ships across the English Channel in disgrace.

This time the troops moved quickly inland, but dug in when they ran into heavy opposition.

The German army, determined to prevent the British and Canadians from breaking out, threw their best armoured and SS units against them.

"It was pretty rough there for a couple of days," said Nelson. He was wounded, sent back to England until October, then rejoined his outfit near the border with Belgium.

It would take close to three months of fighting before the battle for Normandy was won. By then Canada had sent close to 100,000 troops into the campaign.

By the end of that battle, Canadian infantry divisions had lost more men than any other in the British-Canadian group: there were 18,444 casualties in the Normandy campaign, and of these 5,021 died.

By 1945 Canada had about 400 naval vessels and over a million people in uniform, transforming Canada into a major world military power.