'Storming Juno' docu-drama revisits D-Day

A scene from History Television’s Storming Juno is pictured in this undated handout photo. The film was shot on the shores of shores of Lake Huron. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO

TORONTO - On the shores of Lake Huron, film cameras rolled as dozens of young men in military garb converged on a stretch of golden sand that's usually known as a beach retreat, and it stopped two passersby cold.

The sight of Canadian and German military uniforms, an authentic Sherman tank, and Second World War weaponry including Sten guns, mortars and MG42s was beyond belief to these two men, both veterans.

The film crew was recreating the chaotic landing at Normandy on June 6, 1944 for the 90-minute docu-drama, "Storming Juno," and director and executive producer Tim Wolochatiuk says one of the men approached the crew in tears.

He had been among the estimated 16,000 Canadian soldiers who landed at Juno Beach on D-Day, and the scene brought forth a flood of memories.

"He said it was exactly like this and he said it just threw him right back to 1944," recalls Wolochatiuk.

"He was thrown back and got quite emotional at times — there's guys running around in German uniforms and that kind of was a trigger for him as well."

"On the one hand it was amazing to hear him say it and on the other, it was a bit of a relief to hear him say that ... perhaps we were doing something more right than wrong."

The painstaking recreation, airing Remembrance Day on History Television, focuses on the real-life experiences of three Canadian soldiers who helped lead the Allied invasion that day — paratrooper Cpl. Dan Hartigan, who dropped behind enemy lines the night before the invasion, Lt. Bill Grayson who fought his way through the beach, and tank Sgt. Leo Gariepy, who commanded the first floating Canadian tank to complete its mission ashore.

Dramatizations of their stories are woven in with archival footage of actual Canadian soldiers scrambling into the heart of battle.

The docu-drama is followed by a half-hour of interviews with Second World War veterans who recount their experiences on the war's longest day.

"The project was very ambitious to start with," says Wolochatiuk, noting it began with a request from History Television executive Michael Kot to tell a uniquely Canadian story.

"He was very passionate about telling the story of Canadians and their involvement in D-Day. The Americans are great at celebrating their heroes and war stories and he felt it was high time that we did likewise."

Interviews include emotional memories from Regina's Roy Armstrong, a dispatch rider for the Royal Regina Rifles and the 12th Field Ambulance.

Now 91, the veteran says he followed about half a mile behind Canadian infantry who were bombarded at Normandy, adding that day is a "pretty touchy, pretty touchy subject."

"I saw too darn much," Armstrong says by phone from Regina, adding that he nevertheless escaped serious injury.

"When my wife was here she'd say: 'Roy, we should really sleep in single beds. You were fighting the war again last night."

He caught a few minutes of the documentary and says it is "an awful lot like" that day on the beach.

It's hard not to bring up comparisons to the big-budget giant that set the standard for modern-day war renderings, "Band of Brothers," and even Wolochatiuk brings it up from time to time as he discusses his attempt to capture the horrors and triumphs of D-Day.

But despite a healthy budget to mount this tale, he says there were significant constraints that forced them to lean heavily on CGI, archival footage and even tweak the real-life stories in small ways.

"We tried to be as faithful and accurate to the story," said Wolochatiuk, admitting that wasn't always possible.

"In some cases we had to fudge things albeit in a very minor way. For example, how Hartigan took out the (German) gun, he crawled through an irrigation ditch and we couldn't fabricate and dig up an irrigation ditch and grow weeds that are a foot and a half high.... So we had this beautiful stone wall on the property that (stood in for the ditch) and basically tried to match the story points of what happened."

The three soldiers featured in the docudrama have died but Wolochatiuk says writers pieced together their stories through memoirs, regimental diaries and interviews with people who knew them. Both Gariepy and Hartigan wrote books about their experiences.

The crew spent two weeks filming the dramatizations in locations including Sauble Beach, near Owen Sound, Ont.; inside and on the deck of the HMCS Haida, docked in Hamilton; at a farm near Guelph, Ont.; and an old mansion used as a gatehouse near Cambridge, Ont.

In addition to the film, biographies, photos and interviews will be posted online, along with panoramic views of Juno Beach, CG animation, and behind-the-scenes footage of the shoot.

"There's a whole generation of Canadians that are unaware of Juno Beach and the level of sacrifice that the soldiers demonstrated that day and the sheer courage and determination that they exhibited," says Wolochatiuk, whose other History Television projects include the series "Nazi Hunters."

"At the end of the day, Canadians had advanced further than any other allied unit that day. This is something that I'm not sure Canadians are entirely aware about and they really should be. We should all be very thankful of what Canadians achieved that day it was really a seminal turning point in World War II."

"Storming Juno" airs on History Television on Thursday.

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On the Net: stormingjuno.com