My father, Gunner Robert Vincent Waddy, died three years ago–on July 1, 2004. He was 83, and had survived the horrific Dieppe raid of Aug. 19, 1942. I remember hearing him talk about the failed raid and his incarceration at various prison camps. His stories always piqued my curiosity and sometimes brought tears to my eyes, but it was not until after he died that I made the decision to see Dieppe for myself.
On June 13, 2005, after spending some time with my mother’s family in Copthorne, West Sussex, England, I caught the ferry from Dover to Calais, France, and then boarded a train. The trip took several hours, and involved making a connection through Paris, and so it was after midnight on the 14th when I arrived at the picturesque port city. I was tired, and it was raining, but I decided to walk from the station to the beach where I sat down on the wet rocks in front of the crashing waves.
Dad had told me he had been captured not far from Dieppe, at a tiny place called Puys. For me, it felt strange, sitting there on the beach and looking out at the water rushing in. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for the soldiers coming ashore amid the deadly machine-gun fire.
It was close to 2 a.m. when I decided to find a hotel. I hadn’t bothered to book ahead, and so the task of finding a room was next to impossible.
The front desk clerk at one of the hotels near the beach shrugged her shoulders, and then asked why I was in Dieppe. She looked to be about the same age as my daughter of 33. I explained to the young lady why I was there and was suddenly amazed to see the expression on her face change. She told me she had a friend who might be able to put me up.
Within an hour a young man arrived and invited me to stay at his small, but comfortable apartment. The suite overlooked the back alleys of the inner harbour, and I noticed that the walls were covered in brochures and literature–all about the raid.
The next day I learned that the young man’s name was Alain, the French version of my name. He explained that his father had been in the resistance after France fell to German troops. He said his father lived in Dieppe, and lived in the town during the raid. He then asked if I’d like to meet him.
I met Jean Caillet at a restaurant that same day and right away was impressed by his joie de vivre. He was immensely charming, wore English tweeds, a coloured vest and a beige beret. He was gracefully animated, spoke with his hands and kissed me on both cheeks. Everyone around him greeted him with profound dignity and respect.
Following the raid, Jean escaped to England and joined the Royal Air Force. During lunch he spoke fondly of the RAF and also shared his memories of the raid and some of his clandestine experiences with the resistance. After we had finished eating, he treated me to a tour of the beaches. At Puys Beach–to the east of Dieppe–my spirit soared with mixed emotion. I looked up at the 200-foot cliffs, not more than 150 feet from the beachhead, which was at high tide. On both sides of the sheer cliffs, German bunkers were still visible.
I sank to my knees and–with the wind and rain on my face–looked up and down the beach and then out to sea. The beach was covered with large, egg-sized rocks. Jean explained that at high tide, the landing craft had not been able to obtain a purchase on the beach. I felt desolate and full of anguish as I tried to envision the beach as it was back then–and my father. The connection I felt at that precise moment with Dad was beyond words. I have never in my life felt such an overwhelming sense of gratitude, recognition and loss. I only wished I could have experienced it with him.
For the first time in my life, I totally understood my father.
He was only 21 when he jumped off the landing craft into the water. Loaded with gear, he swam to the beach in the midst of murderous machine-gun fire. He watched many of his buddies die. How he survived is beyond my imagination, but he did make it in, and then–along with some others–managed to scale to the top of the cliff.
His experience as a PoW began later that day.
After gathering some sand from between the rocks, I took one last look at my surroundings. From there, Jean and I travelled to the Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery, and then on to a museum where I was able to convey that I wanted my father’s unit–the 16th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery–inscribed on the wall with other regiments.
I was so overwhelmed by my experience at Dieppe that I decided to visit other Canadian war cemeteries in France, Belgium and the Netherlands before heading back to England.
A few weeks after my return, I went back to Dieppe–this time with my mother. At Puys, we paid our respects to Gunner Robert Vincent Waddy. For Mom, the journey brought a semblance of closure to a 60-year marriage.