WIT­NESS TO D-DAY

As a Royal Cana­dian Navy com­bat cam­era­man, Ot­tawa-born Charles Bed­doe, 97, filmed the June 6, 1944, D-Day as­sault by Cana­dian troops on Juno Beach.

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - ANDREW DUFFY aduffy@postmedia.com

Armed with a movie cam­era, Royal Cana­dian Navy Petty Officer Char­lie Bed­doe joined the largest seaborne in­va­sion force ever as­sem­bled on June 5, 1944.

Bed­doe, then 24 years old, was as­signed to LCG 939, a land­ingcraft gun boat tasked with en­gag­ing Ger­man de­fences at Juno Beach while Cana­dian sol­diers stormed ashore.

Bed­doe’s job was to film his­tory as it un­folded it his viewfinder.

“It was a won­der­ful sight to see the long string of ships head­ing out,” re­mem­bers Bed­doe, now 97, dur­ing a two-hour in­ter­view in his room at the Per­ley and Rideau Vet­er­ans’ Health Cen­tre.

The Ot­tawa-born Bed­doe is one of pre­cious few Cana­dian vet­er­ans still capable of of­fer­ing an eye­wit­ness ac­count of D -Day — an op­er­a­tion in which 150,000 Al­lied troops in­vaded Ger­man-oc­cu­pied France on an 80-kilo­me­tre front.

Bed­doe re­mem­bers, af­ter sail­ing all night, D -Day dawn­ing with air­craft stacked over­head and bombs ex­plod­ing in the dis­tance on the Nor­mandy coast. His LCG took up po­si­tion about 500 me­tres from Juno Beach, where he filmed bombers at­tack­ing their tar­gets, and Cana­dian sol­diers stream­ing past in land­ing craft.

“You could see the anx­ious, in­tense look on all their faces. They were very soon be­fore their land­ing,” he says.

Bed­doe’s work as com­bat cam­era­man — it would lead to a life­time in film — was born from frus­tra­tion.

Hav­ing en­listed in the Cana­dian navy at the war’s out­break in Septem­ber 1939, Bed­doe was ac­ti­vated nine months later and as­signed to naval head­quar­ters. “I was very dis­ap­pointed when I was sent to head­quar­ters,” he says. “I wanted to go off to Hal­i­fax and go to war.”

In­stead, Bed­doe was handed an ad­min­is­tra­tive job: car­ry­ing de­coded mes­sages to se­nior naval of­fi­cers. Bored stiff as he waited for new mes­sages to ar­rive, he stud­ied pho­tog­ra­phy.

Bed­doe had grown up in an artis­tic house­hold in Ot­tawa. His fa­ther, Alan, a First World War vet­eran and POW, was an ac­com­plished por­trait and land­scape pain­ter who owned the city’s largest com­mer­cial art stu­dio. (He would play an im­por­tant role in de­sign­ing the Books of Re­mem­brance.)

Bed­doe had al­ways been in­tim­i­dated by his fa­ther’s skill, but in pho­tog­ra­phy he found an artistry all his own.

When his se­nior of­fi­cers heard about his in­ter­est, Bed­doe was given an op­por­tu­nity as a ship’s pho­tog­ra­pher and sent to photo school. He sailed over­seas in De­cem­ber 1943, and joined the navy’s photo unit.

In April 1944, he was dis­patched with three other mem­bers of a film crew to HMCS Athabaskan, a new Cana­dian de­stroyer. Just be­fore the ship de­parted, how­ever, Bed­doe re­al­ized it made more sense to sep­a­rate the four-man crew. Along with a col­league, he vol­un­teered to travel with a sis­ter ship, HMCS Haida.

That night, on April 29, 1944, while pa­trolling the English Chan­nel near the French coast, the Athabaskan and Haida en­gaged two Ger­man de­stroy­ers try­ing to break through the Al­lied block­ade.

“Once the Ger­mans fired starshells — you could hear them whistling over­head — and lit us up, we knew we were now tar­gets. It was nerve-rack­ing,” he says. Dur­ing the en­su­ing naval bat­tle, the Athabaskan was struck with a tor­pedo, which ex­ploded its for­ward am­mu­ni­tion mag­a­zine. “It was a hor­ri­ble, sickly, ghastly sound,” re­mem­bers Bed­doe.

The ship sank quickly, tak­ing with it 128 sailors, in­clud­ing Bed­doe’s two col­leagues. Af­ter pick­ing up sur­vivors, HMCS Haida es­caped while it was still dark.

In Lon­don, Bed­doe lived in a board­ing house on Hay­mar­ket Street and would some­times see his film work fea­tured in news­reels that played in a nearby Pic­cadilly Cir­cus. (Sadly, much of his film work would be lost af­ter the war in a fire at a stor­age fa­cil­ity in Hawkes­bury.)

He was in Lon­don when V1 rock­ets be­gan ter­ror­iz­ing the city dur­ing the lat­ter half of 1944, and he helped to pull peo­ple — dead and alive — from build­ings de­stroyed in the West End.

His fi­nal as­sign­ment of the war was aboard HMCS Huron, which sailed as part of a con­voy in April 1945 for Mur­mansk, Rus­sia. The Arc­tic Ocean con­voys were of­ten the tar­get of Ger­man at­tacks.

Near the Rus­sian coast­line, Bed­doe was stand­ing at the ship’s stern — he loved to watch the ship’s wake — when he saw a tor­pedo flash through the water. “It was quite star­tling. It just missed us,” he says.

The Huron re­sponded with a se­ries of high-speed, eva­sive ma­noeu­vres. “I never knew a Trib­al­class de­stroyer could make so many twists and turns,” says Bed­doe. “But we got away. I was lucky again.”

Af­ter the war, Bed­doe went to work for the Na­tional Film Board, then did film and pho­to­graphic work for a news ser­vice and sev­eral government de­part­ments.

In the sum­mer of 1954, he met Louise Fitzger­ald at a friend’s cot­tage on the Gatineau River, and re­turned to the same cot­tage for three con­sec­u­tive days. On the fourth day, he pro­posed to her on the Wake­field covered bridge.

They mar­ried the fol­low­ing year, bought a house on Brown­ing Av­enue in Ot­tawa and raised three chil­dren.

Sev­eral years ago, when Louise de­vel­oped de­men­tia, Bed­doe cared for her at home. But ear­lier this year, he fell ill and spent three weeks in hos­pi­tal. To­day, they both live at the Per­ley Rideau in rooms just down the hall from one an­other.

It wasn’t un­til he moved into the Per­ley Rideau that Bed­doe came to un­der­stand how much re­spon­si­bil­ity had been weigh­ing upon him. “This is a place I had dreaded, but I’m so happy here. I sud­denly feel free­dom again.”

Bed­doe has been de­scribed as a “su­per-ager” be­cause he’s able to re­call names, dates and de­tails with so much pre­ci­sion. He at­tributes it to his per­sis­tent good luck.

“When I look back through my life, I have been very lucky, ” he says. “A lot of times that could have turned out badly for me, didn’t.”

On Nov. 11, Bed­doe will lay a wreath at Per­ley Rideau’s Re­mem­brance Day cer­e­mony on be­half of navy vet­er­ans.

You could see the anx­ious, in­tense look on all their faces. They were very soon be­fore their land­ing.

TONY CALDWELL

TONY CALDWELL

Charles Bed­doe, 97, was a Royal Cana­dian Navy Petty Of­fi­cer and com­bat cam­era­man who filmed the as­sault by Cana­dian troops on Juno Beach.

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