Millions of Canadians have seen Canada House, but few have been invited inside for a glass of champagne.
Robert Walsh first saw Canada House when the front ramp of his landing craft splashed down into the surf on Juno Beach. He was driving a Bren Gun Carrier on D-Day and heading up the beach towards Canada House, a two-storey semi-detached house with a timber trim seen by millions on historic newsreels, photos and documentaries about World War Two.
It wasn’t called Canada House then. It was the summer beach house of George Hoffer, a Paris optometrist. But on June 6, 1944 it was full of heavily armed German soldiers who had evicted the Hoffer family in 1940 when France fell to the invading Nazis.
The Germans knew the Canadians were coming because the Normandy invasion was launched six hours earlier, but the 14,000 Canadians assigned to take Juno Beach and the harbour town of Bernières-sur-Mer had to wait for high tide to get across some off-shore reefs.
Within 30 minutes of hitting the beach the Hoffer beach house became the first home in Nazi-held Europe to be liberated.
More than 100 members of Toronto’s Queen’s Own Regiment lay dead or wounded in the front yard of the house by the time it was free. More than 1,000 Canadian troops are buried in a Canadian military cemetery not far from the house. There were 14 Bren Gun Carriers on Walsh’s big landing barge, but only two made it off the beach that morning.
Years later back home in Kapuskasing Walsh told his five children he would like to go back to Juno Beach and look in the windows of that iconic beach house.
On the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Landing Walsh’s youngest son Steve was handed a glass of champagne in the front room of the beach house by its owner and they toasted his late father and the other young Canadians who stormed across Juno Beach that day.
Hoffer’s father preferred to forget the horror of the war. His son Herve inherited the beach house in the 1970s. On the 40th anniversary of D-Day Hoffer noticed a lot of tourists pointing at his house from the beach. He learned then that its image was renowned in Canada as a symbol of the bravery of Canada’s young soldiers spilling out of landing crafts and running though chest-high water towards the house.
That was the start of converting his beach house into a warm and welcoming museum that salutes the sacrifices of Canadian troops to liberate France.
Hoffer and his wife Nicole lived in the house until his sudden death from a stroke in 2017. She still lives there. Together they turned it into a museum of Canada’s D-Day success.
For years it was called the Queen’s Own Rifles House because that regiment donated thousands of dollars from its retired members to restore the house to its pre-war condition.
“Mrs. Hoffer told me Canadians are always welcome there,” said Walsh, who now lives in Toccoa, Georgia.
Among the various memorial artifacts on the interior walls is a blood spattered French 100-Mark note. After liberating the Hoffer home Canadian troops came under fire from a sniper in a nearby church tower. We soon put a stop to that nastiness and the wounded sniper – knowing that snipers were the most despised of Germany’s combat troops – begged for his life. He offered a Canadian soldier a 100-mark note not to shoot him. The Canadian took the money and took the German as a prisoner.
About 60 years later that soldier returned to Juno Beach and gave the bloodied French mark to Herve Hoffer as an apology for damaging his father’s house by dropping hand grenades into his basement when clearing out the German occupiers.