Two brothers, Charles and Elliot Dalton, fought side-by-side on the morning of June 6, 1944, leading the Juno Beach landings.
Who were Charles and Elliot Dalton?
Welcome to Season 3 of Unknown History: D-Day Stories. I'm your host, Giles Milton, and today we're talking about an extraordinary true story that took place on Juno Beach.
For those Unknown History listeners who’ve seen Steven Spielberg’s film, Saving Private Ryan, you’ll know that the plot turns on the story of three brothers killed in action while serving in the US army, with a fourth about to head to Normandy for the D-Day landings.
Spielberg’s story is fiction, but it could have been fact. There were many brothers serving on D-Day, creating huge anxiety for the worried families at home.
Among the more remarkable stories is that of Charles and Elliot Dalton, two Canadian brothers, who shared the misfortune of having to land in the first wave on Juno Beach. They were due to land together, shortly before 8 a.m. on the morning of D-Day. And as with everything on D-Day, their landings would not go as planned.
"You’re a phoney if you’re not afraid. The only thing that’s going to keep you going is that you’re afraid of being afraid."
Charles and Elliot were extremely close. Charles was 33-years-old and more than half a decade older than his sibling, but the age gap had done nothing to dampen the deep affection they had for one another—two grinning brothers with rugged faces and swept-back hair. Charles had flashing teeth and a winning smile. "The archetypal dashing young officer," said one under his command. "He really had a lot of style."
Elliot was more earnest and more youthful. He had followed in his brother’s footsteps by joining the same regiment in 1931. They were known by their men as Mark I and Mark II: each was held in equal regard.
The brothers were so close to each other, as they were to their mother, that Charles had begged his commanding officer to spare Elliot the initial assault. "Don’t send Elliot on the first wave," he said. "You know what it will do to our mother if we both die." But there was nothing the commanding officer could do. It had already been decided that both brothers would be among the first to storm the beach.
All brothers have a built-in spirit of rivalry and Charles and Elliot were no different: they had competed all their lives. Now, they were facing the greatest competition of all—to survive the run-in to the sea wall and then fight their way into Bernières-sur-Mer.
Elliot was the first to admit he was driven by fear. "You’re a phoney if you’re not afraid," he said to his men. "The only thing that’s going to keep you going is that you’re afraid of being afraid."
His older brother Charles also confessed to being scared—it was only natural. "Of course, you’re always frightened."
But he also knew not to reveal that fear to his men. He felt an acute sense of responsibility, perhaps because he had played the role of responsible elder brother for much of his life.
When the two men parted company in order to prepare for the 3:15 a.m. reveille, they knew in their hearts that they might never see each other again. Charles shook his brother’s hand warmly, if a little stiffly. "See you on the beach!" He said it with forced jollity, but the lump was firmly in his throat. It was hard to be light-hearted at such a moment.