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