As the 76th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy is observed, the black and white newsreel images of that historic landing are once again on TV everywhere. No matter whether you were watching Canadian, American or British coverage; one of the most iconic film clips that was frequently seen shows soldiers huddled behind the gate of a landing craft as it approaches the French shore. The gate lowers and the soldiers jump into the water and wade ashore. In the background we see a row of houses. One of them still stands today—it is the former Hoffer family home, and is also known as Canada House.
First a bit about the film. It was shot shot by Sergeant Bill Grant of the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit (CAFPU). Lasting only two minutes and 10 seconds, the clip shows Canadian infantry disembarking from an assault craft at Bernières-sur-Mer on June 6, 1944. This footage was the first seen by Eisenhower and Montgomery, Roosevelt and Churchill, and it remains the only actual film of the assault from the perspective of the landing craft to survive. Much of the film showing the landing from shore was shot by German photographers.
The landing craft was piloted by Ted Emmings who attended the 70th anniversary commemoration in 2014 and was treated like a hero at the Hoffer home. At that time Ted told a reporter how he piloted the landing craft carrying the first wave of Canadians onto Juno Beach just in front of the Hoffer house. They were soldiers from the Toronto regiment, The Queens Own Rifles, which suffered 100 casualties in the first few minutes of the invasion. “Two yards up the beach and they were shot. And you think, that guy is never going to go home,” he said quietly. Over the years,the house’s owner Herve Hoffer, now deceased, and his wife made it a point to welcome all Canadian veterans into the house for lunch or dinner whenever they returned to Juno beach. The Queen’s Own rifles of Toronto, Canada used the house as a visual marker for their landing target. CSM Charlie Martin and his “A” company expected the house to have been obliterated by the Navy’s guns and were surprised to see it still serving as a beacon as they approached shore.
For decades the Hoffers kept a shrine to the Canadian soldiers who liberated their family home on D-Day.“If Canadians hadn’t landed in June 1944,” says Herve, “I might not be here to say thank you to the Canadian people.”Herve’s grandfather bought the home before the war but the family was evicted in 1942, two years after the Nazi’s conquered France. The large timber and stucco home miraculously survived the Allied bombardment. In the days immediately after D Day the building became a landmark for wave after wave of Canadian troops flooding into France and was a hub for operations immediately following the invasion.“
The house was built in 1928 as a summer vacation home for Leon Enault, a Parisian department store director. Enault had the house constructed as a duplex so that it could be split equally with his grandchildren, Denise and Roger Videcop. And for years, before the start of the war, the house was named after them, Villa Denise et Roger. Attractive summer houses like this were once common along the Normandy coastline, until the Germans, after occupying France in the Second World War, levelled hundreds of them to construct the concrete defences of the “Atlantic Wall,” designed to resist an Allied invasion. No one knows exactly why the Hoffer house was not torn down during those years. Some say it’s because it wasn’t within the firing lines of the German anti-aircraft guns. Others say it’s because a German officer took a liking to the stately structure and wanted to make it his base.
On D Day there was fighting inside the Hoffer house, as Canadians cleared the building of enemy troops. A veteran, who returned to visit in 2009, left this message in Hoffer’s guest book: “Ernie Kells, Queen’s Own Rifles — one of five soldiers who arrived at this house on D-Day, now 84 years old. Sorry about throwing grenades into your cellar.” It took several years for the home to be rebuilt after the war, and Herve Hoffer took it over after his grandfather died. In 1984, as the fortieth anniversary of D-Day grew closer, the family noticed that more Canadian veterans were coming to revisit the place that had been such a pivotal part of their lives. The Hoffers welcomed them, every time.
Hoffer died in January 2017, leaving the house and its artifacts to his wife and children, and in the care of L’Association la Maison des Canadiens, a private organization dedicated to the maintenance of the house and its role in Canadian remembrance.